The Past Is Frozen
While Texas is more know for its brutal death metal and pure black metal, lying amid the reeds is Vex. Vex are neither. Instead, the band plays a form of hybrid between atmospheric black metal and melodic death metal. They have been around since 1999 but only have three albums under their belt — including the just released ‘Sky Exile’ on Eiwaz/Bindrune Recordings (a perfect fit) and those with a taste for more progressive, organic metal, will find a lot to like about them.
Prior album Memorious was more of a melodic death metal affair, but with Sky Exile, we get a lot more naturalistic and atmospheric elements at play that expand the band’s sound (check my review for further details.) Intrigued by the band and their hard to pin down sound, I visited with drummer Owen McCloskey to get a little more information on this very cool band.
Vex has been around for a while now, since 1999 or so, yet the band seemed to only really get going with Memorious in 2013, which is a brilliant but under the radar release. Why the slow burn?
It’s a good question, and thank you for the compliment on ‘Memorious.’ The short version is that, when the band began to be mainly based in the Austin and surrounding area, around 2003, we dealt with a few lineup changes, were negotiating with several different labels, and Ciaran was in grad school. We also had recorded a version of Thanatopsis, our first full-length, but were unhappy with our performances and the results, so we basically started over from scratch and recorded everything over again, which obviously dragged out the timeline for getting it released. We also sort of partied a lot back then, which never really helps, haha.
Luckily since then our lineup and label situations have been more stable, so we have been able to put out records more consistently. So, from 2000 to 2010, we only put out a handful of demos and EPs, but since then we have put out three full-lengths.
Horror Pain Gore Death seemed like an odd fit for your style even back on Memorious, but now you are on Bindrune/Eiwaz… is that the most perfect for your sound or what?
Our relationship with HPGD and our relationship with Bindrune/Eihwaz have both been hugely beneficial to us. In both cases, the people who ran the labels came onto our radar and believed in what we are doing enough to invest in getting the word out on our music. Both labels really stepped up our visibility in the extreme metal community and allowed us to do things like tour nationally with Agalloch, which likely would never have been possible without the gain in visibility we got from signing with a label.
We are perfectly content with what have at the moment. We have approached a few of the big underground metal labels; I won’t name any names. The answer we consistently get is that the music is great but it is not the kind of metal sound that is selling right now. You can’t blame them—they are businesses and they are accountable to much bigger businesses who own them. Being on a smaller, independent label obviously presents constraints in terms of distribution and promotion, but a big advantage is that we don’t have to worry about being pressured to sound like metal bands that are selling right now. That’s a great fit for a band like us that’s never really been interested in sounding like other bands.
Your debut album came out in 2010, Memorious in 2013, and your latest, Sky Exile in 2016. Is the three year gap between albums intentional or something that just happened?
Well it’s weird, we never really noticed that three-year pattern until this record was released and some reviews and interviewers pointed it out to us. It’s just a strange coincidence.
In the case of ‘Sky Exile,’ a big part of the reason it took so long is that we knew this album would represent a pretty dramatic shift in our sound. There are stylistic elements that we only began to slightly hint at on ‘Memorious’ that we are really fully embracing on this record, and there are completely new stylistic elements as well. So we obsessed over every little detail of these songs from the first demo sessions to the final masters. It was really important to us that, if we are going to make such a bold, specific musical statement, we weren’t going to just coast on the weirdness of the songs and not worry about if they were actually written well or not. Experimentation in music is great, but experimentation just for experimentation’s sake often results in very boring music. The songs still have to be good, however weird they might get.
The other reason is more practical. We are not full-time musicians; we have jobs and relationships and many other musical projects, so we had to just fit in the studio time whenever we could—on weekends and after work and in between other gigs. That draws out the production process in a way that I think a lot of people don’t realize.
I have been reviewing albums for 16 years, and Sky Exile is one of the rare albums I had a hard time categorizing into a style or sound, care to describe your sound and influences for us?
Well, I certainly take that as a compliment. I think that need not to sound like any other band is something that has always been a part of the DNA of the band. I mean I think of some of my personal all-time favorite albums, something like Porcupine Tree’s ‘Fear of a Blank Planet,’ and stylistically it’s got a little bit of everything—it’s prog metal fused with electronic music fused with pop ballads fused with psychedelic space rock, but all somehow cohesive. I think that’s a great place to be as an artist. There’s of course nothing wrong with loving one specific genre and writing a bunch of music to celebrate that specific genre. Lots of musicians do that and produce great music out of it. But we’ve always been the kind of musicians who bristle at anything that seems even a little bit derivative. I mean, why write a bunch of Opeth riffs when the world already has an Opeth?
So to answer your question—and I have to say this feels like something that has become rather cliché for musicians to say—our influences are really all over the map as a result of that. The extreme metal center of what we do is heavily influenced by bands such as Edge of Sanity, Dissection, October Tide, and a lot of the great death metal bands of the late 90s and early 2000s. But as is probably clear from listening to the record, we draw in influences from a lot of things outside of the metal idiom as well—60s jazz, 70s jazz fusion, 60s and 70s prog rock, grunge bands, etc.
I don’t suppose you have ever heard of an obscure little band called Cales? A Root side project. When I heard the opening riff to “To Anacreon (Strangling the Muse)”, it totally reminded me of them.
I haven’t! I’ll have to check them out. It’s always fascinating to me hearing what music people compare our stuff to. Interestingly, the opening riff of ‘To Anacreon’ was originally inspired by the Yes song ‘Close to the Edge.’
Is there any significance to the song August 11th? I read the lyrics but cant really discern anything, beyond something bad happening?
Well, the lyrical narrative of the album as a whole was inspired by the drought of 2011 here in Texas. People in Texas are no strangers to hot weather, but there was something especially torturous about that summer. It wasn’t just that it was hot as balls; people we know got sick, died, lost their jobs, relationships fell apart. The world just piled it on to everyone that summer. It really felt like the end times, in a lot of ways that go way beyond how hot it was.
So Ciaran wrote the lyrics based on this idea of a yearning for escape from that drought and all the hell that it brought on. That’s the narrative that frames the lyrics on the entire album. As far as ‘August 11th‘specifically, I couldn’t really say as I didn’t write the lyrics and I wouldn’t want to misrepresent the intention. Sorry I can’t answer the question more directly. I stick to drum parts so lyrics are a little out of my scope!
Are there central themes throughout all of Vex’s albums are do they very between albums?
There are, but they are very general. The lyrics on all of our songs tend to explore themes of memory and history, the passage of time, mythology, civilization, metaphysics, loss. The concept of death, the Thanatos, is at the core of the extreme metal gestalt and iconography, so that naturally plays a major role in our lyrical themes as well.
These themes are explored through more concrete narratives on each of the albums. The narratives are diverse, but the themes that run inside of them tend to be rather consistent from album to album.
How much have you and the band changed since 2010s Thanatopsis?
I perceive that we have changed a great deal, but I suppose it’s ultimately for other people to decide whether we really have or not. When I listen to Thanatopsis, and even Memorious to a lesser degree, I hear a very ambitious band that has not yet learned to be comfortable expressing those ambitions.
I think the trajectory that a lot of bands track, at least ones that have been around as long as we have, is that you start out by simply mimicking all of your biggest influences in rather obvious ways. We were really bad about that in our pre-Thanatopsis days—“here’s our In Flames song,” “now here’s our Morbid Angel song,” etc. But over time, you learn to fuse those influences with things that genuinely come from your own personality and your own headspace. And that becomes the work of creating a distinct sound—figuring out ways to still celebrate your influences but to ultimately make your music an expression of those unique concepts that flow spontaneously from within.
Musicians talk about this a lot, because I think individual musicians develop along the same trajectory. Part of it is you have to have chops, part of it is that you have to listen to a lot of heavy players and absorb what you can from them. But you don’t really get to the next level until you learn to emote on your instrument. And that part of it has to come from you and you alone. That’s how you begin to play things that will give people an emotional reaction rather than just playing a bunch of flashy shit.
The really interesting thing is that that work never really stops. There is no end goal, no point where you get to just sit back and say, “we did it—no more tinkering cause that’s our sound now forever.” Usually with us, barely a week after we put out a record we are already thinking of things we want to do differently on the next record. We still have a lot to learn.
You guys seem a bit out of place in the Texas metal scene. Any thoughts of relocating?
We’ve never really thought about it. Texas has been great to us so I guess we’ve never really had a reason to consider leaving. The metal scene in particular in Texas right now is really exciting with so many bands doing really interesting things—Oceans of Slumber, Id, Divine Eve, Solitude Aeternus, Absu. It’s very inspiring being around all these bands that are doing such innovative things, and for the most part the Austin metal scene is a great community of musicians that support each other in lots of ways.
What’s next for Vex? Hopefully not another 3 year wait?
Well, we’re focusing on promoting Sky Exile in the near term. We’re doing a short run of regional Texas shows to promote the new record and they have been great so far. We also have a management deal in Europe and are shopping for a deal to sell and promote the album over there. We hope to tour, either here or in Europe, but nothing has yet come along that would really make sense for us at this point.
We’ve started rough demos for the next album as well, so hopefully this time we will break the ‘three-years-between-albums’ cycle!