As I type this, my ears are still ringing from last night’s Lita Ford show here in Portland. Ford came out—leather-clad, pink Warlock in tow—and shredded through her catalog, including the killer “Out For Blood” from her 1983 debut of the same name, as well as the necessary hits “Cherry Bomb” from her Runaways days, and “Kiss Me Deadly.” The live setting gave those slicked-up songs a little bit of a welcome spit-bath. And I’d forgotten how great “Close My Eyes Forever”—even sans Ozzy—really is. The queen rocks on.
Many of my favorite releases of late are coming out of Sweden (including the new, very non-metal, Dungen record). Go figure. Last month I talked about the excellent new Horisont album, which is spotless. This month I’ve been digging into—and digging—the latest from Graveyard (sounds like Graveyard!), as well as new releases from Shining and RAM. RAM’s latest Svbversvm (Metal Blade) is quickly crawling up my spine, a perfect mix of evil and classic heavy metal that the Gothenburg five-piece have been perfecting over 16 years. Holy shit…just listen to “Holy Death.”
I’m disappointed that I missed Girlschool when they played in Portland back in May, but I’m excited about their new album Guilty As Sin (Nov. 13 via UDR Music). It’s got plenty of classic four-on-the-floor hard rock and NWOBHM (that’s New Wave of British Heavy Metal for you n00bs) touches throughout, as well as a cover of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” Believe me, it works. Look for my interview with Girschool later this month right here at Paste.
Without further ado, let’s get right to my interview with Vastum vocalist-guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf. The San Francisco band’s third LP Hole Below is out Nov. 6 via 20 Buck Spin, and it’s been giving me nightmares, just as I hoped it would. Lots more psychological warfare, dark eroticism, and heavy riffs and production that—when I listen in my car on these chilly Pacific Northwest nights—makes it feel like I’m in a rolling torture chamber. It’s really, really, really good—like, one of the best of 2015. I chatted with Abdul-Rauf about dealing with dark subject matter, keeping things simple, and real-life death metal.
HEAVIÖSITY: I don’t have the vinyl yet, so the lyrics on the new one are still a bit of a mystery. Patricidal Lust was filled with dread and eroticism. What separates Hole Below from the last record?
Leila Abdul-Rauf: Dan [Butler] and I really split the lyrics down the middle, so depending on which song you’re thinking about you’re probably going to get a different answer. On Carnal Law, the first album, we used to collaborate a little more on a given song, but it’s really gotten more a division of labor. As far as a cohesive seam, that’s kinda tricky, too, but a lot of it is psychoanalytic and philosophy influenced. Dan’s usually come from a more intellectual approach, but getting less of that and more experiential. Mine are definitely coming from a more personal, experience-level type perspective. Non-sexual things are eroticized and vice versa [laughs]. When there is sexual content, it’s discussed in a way that’s just really ugly and horrific, and introspective. Not in an objectifying way, but more objectifying of the self.
HEAVIÖSITY: I was going to say, what makes the lyrics more unsettling is that they’re rooted in real life.
Abdul-Rauf: To me, death metal is all about being real. And when it’s being graphic, it’s being graphic about real things. Real horror. It’s just interesting how much of it focuses on fantasy—ad nauseam, actually [laughs]. It’s refreshing when I read something that’s realistic in all of its warts and, you know, juices [laughs].
HEAVIÖSITY: To me there’s just as much dread in the music as there is in the lyrics. Did you have a singular vision of what you wanted Vastum to be, or did the lyrics and music sort of come together naturally?
Abdul-Rauf: We definitely set out to be a death metal band; there was no question about that, and to be a rotten-sounding death metal band. And without blast-beats, more mid-paced and plodding—what I like to say, it’s like a Slayer 45 played at 33 RPM [laughs]. There definitely was that unified vision from the beginning, but it did evolve over six years.
HEAVIÖSITY: There is definitely a simplicity to the music.
Abdul-Rauf: I think so. I feel like we got a little more complicated as time went on. There is a primalism that’s stayed over the years.
HEAVIÖSITY: Definitely. And I didn’t mean that as a slight—I like the fact that it’s sort of this plodding beast, and then you thrown in these more complicated bits in the mix.
Abdul-Rauf: We’re definitely all about the tempo—the tempo is a huge part of the writing. And the tempo-changes carry the emotion of the song. Even when they’re slight tempo-changes, we’re definitely very aware of them. And they’re intentional.
HEAVIÖSITY: And on this record you have the perfect amount of reverb on the vocals. It sounds like you’re in a goddamn torture chamber. I think it’s really effective.
Abdul-Rauf: Oh good [laughs]. Yeah, we went for it; we doused it more this time, I think, than on the last two. It’s funny, depending on who you talk to—some people are really into it, and some people think it takes away. But it’s all intentional. The goal is to feel encased in the whole thing. There’s sort of this oceanic vibe happening.
HEAVIÖSITY: I almost picture what you guys do as the same thing maybe a horror novelist does. How do you separate your day-to-day from sort of diving into these dark places? Is it like flipping a switch?
Abdul-Rauf: I think my lyrics are very much about day-to-day horror and reality. Yeah, they’re very much apart of my life, and I don’t separate them. In fact, writing for Vastum is the catharsis; it’s way to actually express the things that are going on inside. It’s like there’s all this internal stuff that never really gets out because it’s hard to put into words, so when I write lyrics I’m almost just writing snapshots of images of those feelings and piecing them together. I don’t know what I’m going to end up with in the end, but as things are pouring out, they’re definitely what’s going on inside. It’s a way to articulate things that I can’t articulate, if that makes sense.
HEAVIÖSITY: That makes total sense. Is there a particular song on Hole Below that is a good example of that?
Abdul-Rauf: Yeah, I’d definitely say “In Sickness and in Death” and “Intrusions”—those two are very much my personal experiences with people [laughs]. Narcissism, narcissistic abuse, both on a one-to-one relationship level and a relational aggression in a collective sense, where you’re dealing with a collective group of people who can’t tolerate criticism, or honesty in any way whatsoever. So there’s this injury you exacerbate when by confronting them, and as the person who’s inflicting this injury, you in turn have the abuse put on you. So it’s very much about that, and it’s very real, and it’s day-to-day.
HEAVIÖSITY: I ask you this sort of half-jokingly. Your lyrics and Vastum’s music are pretty morose. Overall, do you have a pretty dark personality, or are you normally pretty lighthearted?
Abdul-Rauf: [Laughs] I think there are so many aspects to a person, and they are light and dark, and you might catch a glimpse of it more on one day than another. I think it depends on how well you know me [laughs]. I’m a very introverted person. Like, doing phone interviews is challenging for me, so I sometimes might pick up the perk a little bit just to deal with nervousness. Maybe what’s coming out sounds cheerful, but it’s more anxiety [laughs]. But yeah, I have the light and the dark together with me at all times.
Five albums that are getting me through the month.
1. Manilla Road – The Deluge
2. Cheap Trick – In Color
3. Vastum – Hole Below
4. RAM – Svbversvm
5. Stevie Nicks – Bella Donna
Mark Lore is a Portland-based freelance writer, and regular contributor to Paste. He lives for death… metal on Twitter @thedaysoflore.