Struggling with the Current

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I owe Shroud of Despondency’s Rory Heikkila an apology. Not only was I extremely tardy in my reviews of the band’s albums—Pine and Tied to an Dying Animal—this interview was supposed to occur months ago. Quite frankly the band slipped through the cracks of my massive backlog of metal to review, emails to answer and interview requests. I guess my situation sort of mirrors the band’s trials and tribulations as they have slipped through the cracks of even metal’s most independent labels during the band’s 15 years of existence (and 18 or so releases)…

And so as a result, Shroud of Despondency is no more. Disbanded by Heikkila in 2015, but not before the band (a duo with Roy Blemburg on vocals) released a swan song, independently of course, titled Family Tomb. And what a swansong it is! The band, never one to lock into a style from the bands early folk black metal musings to the death metal carnage of the nastier double album, Tied to a Dying Animal, Heikkila has once again shifted sounds, this time reaching back into the glory days of intelligent, majestic and complex black metal akin to Emperor, early Arcturus, Scholomance and others complete with synths and rangy epic songs. I caught up with the forgiving Heikkila, to do a belated interview and find out more about the past and the future of his musical endeavors…

Instead of the usual introductory, where you tell us about you and the band’s past, let’s get to the present. You recently announced the band is no more.­ What was the driving force to stop Shroud of Despondency after over a decade?

Thank you for skipping the past.  A combination of things made me decide to stop working under the Shroud of Despondency name.  One contributing factor was that I have a love/hate relationship with the name itself.  I don’t think it is really appropriate for what I like to convey lyrically and I still feel it is attached to my youth. The decision in 2009 to begin working under the name again was basically a decision based on wanting to play black metal live. I grew insanely tired of playing live and that is sort of the push of modern musicians.  Play live, play live, you gotta play live. I also can be an asshole when it comes to being in a creative relationship together and was definitely tired of losing members and such. So, I just figured it seemed natural to end the project.

I get the senses you are a little bitter at the music industry, not the bands or the music, but the business side, especially with labels and such?

I’m not sure if bitter is the right word, in spite of a patch in time or two where I was most definitely bitter. I pretty much understand it. I think I’m musically all over the place and if you hear the wrong thing you won’t like the band. This is where I live creatively. It all has purpose to me and I’m not certain I’m the best at conveying that purpose, I just like to write for the moment. Now I’m making a very strong attempt to just be grateful for the many positive words said about my music. The only validation I achieve as an artist is from myself and my reason, not from whether or not people want to release my music, listen to my music, or judge me as a human.

Your debut album was released on Bindrune Recordings­, then a perfect match for your style­ and a label that has since grown­, Any regrets that you could not have stayed with them or was your style changes not quite in line with them?

There was initially talk about Bindrune putting out what was the follow up to “For Eternity…” called “Forced to Wander into Nothing” but they fell through for reasons I don’t really remember, probably my inability to finish the album. The album is kind of terrible but holds a place in my heart. It is the only other Shroud album recorded in Upper Michigan and the only one connected to the intentions of the debut album, but I have to say I’m glad it didn’t get released. The mix is fucking shit. Bindrune has released some of my favorite music ever (Misery’s Omen, Nechochwen, etc) and I’m not about to reconsider that opinion and I still try and catch up with Marty when I can. I would say the Shroud albums wouldn’t be the best fit but I’m not quite sure if that is why Marty passed. No hard feelings or anything, was quite a long time ago. Just saw him at Gilead and Winterblot fests.

It seems like around the time of the second album Dark Meditations in Monastic Seclusion, you guys were mentioned in the same breath as Agalloch etc… and then the US black metal scene took off­ and you came out with Objective:Isolation — a sort of compilation of early tracks that threw fans off a bit. Any regrets on the timing of that release?

I have absolutely no regrets. In fact, my friends and more long term fans, had copies of “Objective:Isolation” long before “Dark Meditations…” had even been conceived. “Dark Meditations…” is an album I’m proud of conceptually but I take issues with some of the singing.   Definitely needed Blemberg on that album.   Still, it marks a period of time and Jeremiah and I spent a good amount of time working on it conceptually.   I was immediately uncomfortable with the connections people made to the “Cascadian” black metal sound though.

What was going on in the 8 years between the debut and the second album? Did the sort of semi-quiet period contribute to the band dropping of the radar a bit?

There wasn’t 8 years, although a lot of people think that. I wrote and recorded “Forced to Wander into Nothing” and “Fairytales from the Tunnel of Puke” and some other crap and then decided it was getting ridiculous. I only circulated the albums on cdr copies through trading. I put Shroud away for 5 years or so and revisited it with “Objective:Isolation” sometime in 2008/09. Those albums sound awful and are full of good ideas that are executed poorly. However, I was only 19-24 during the period after “For Eternity….”  I had less discipline creatively then but was just as productive. It’s easier to forgive if you remember that I guess [laughs]

Then there is 2012’s Pine which saw another style shift into much more seething aggressive approach. What prompted that style shift?

I don’t want to ever release the same album twice. Ever. Even if it means making something completely different. “Pine” is a direct result of both my disdain for the “Cascadian” black metal tag, which has some fine bands in the genre but was nothing I felt Shroud represented musically (minus the acoustic tracks) and the beginning of a period where Nietzsche had started to influence me as a writer and thinker. So we scrapped the acoustic tracks and replaced them with eerie and depressing synth tracks and we upped the ante with the metal tracks. The idea was to make the metal moments as metal as fucking possible. I am most proud of that album. I don’t even own a copy of it, sadly. I have some issues with the production but conceptually and musically it is very strong.

There is also last year’s Tied to a Dying Animal a double CD of different styles­… I have to ask if you have any tendencies of schizophrenia? [laughs] Or are you simply not content with a single style for SOD?

This idea extends far beyond Shroud of Despondency. I am not content with a single style. I am not content with a single mindset as a writer. Human beings are complex and deserve to be captured as such. I find limits in artistic expression to be neutering. Fuck that. I’m a human, I’m a man, and I’m complex. Music, when done properly, catches man in his most primal and sincere states. These moments can be both savage and tender and both occur naturally. It has never mattered to me if that music is coming from a grown man growling into a mic with distorted guitars and blast beats or if it’s just one person playing an acoustic guitar while singing. Or if it’s just a man playing a guitar, etc etc. I look for sincerity and I want to be sincere. “Tied to a Dying Animal” is perfect proof that I feel this way. I’m not schizophrenic. At the time that album was written and recorded I was working with children in a domestic violence shelter, so the lyrics and music were naturally full of anger and frustration. Even the folk side is full of anger in my opinion. There are some tracks I wish we would’ve cut but it captures a large portion of what I want in my future musically. No restrictions, even if at the expense of a fan base or label attention.

Now we are onto your recent and the band’s last album Family Tomb, a pure black metal record even with some synths and a gloriously old school ’90s black metal cover. Is this the album you wanted to make as a swansong for SOD?

I knew whatever album I would create I wanted it to be the last. So when I started thinking about how the album should manifest the immediate thought, one that I did not argue with myself over as I normally do while creating, is that it had to be unarguably a black metal album. I wanted it to sound like the black metal that I first started listening to, heavy on the Emperor influence, but the whole album was written and recorded before there were ever keyboards on the album. The keys became a reality because I initially thought that one specific minute long section could use some keys. I borrowed a keyboard from a friend and within a month the whole fucking album had keys. I also knew that I didn’t want to find new members after the inevitable collapse of the “Tied to a Dying Animal” lineup. I wanted it to be the two Upper Michigan associated members, just Ron and myself. We argue in real life but while working on music we are really in sync.  He did all of his vocals for the “Tied to a Dying Animal” album in one 2 hour stretch, one take per song. It was very awesome and intense. I did want to get our old bassist Tyler on some tracks, doing some vocals, but I just reached a point where I said “no more, this album is done.” I’m sure we’ll work on something in the future.

There seems to be a bit of a central theme to the album about birth and anti religion is there?

Most definitely. The original idea was that the album should be centered around suffering as a human instinct, religion being some low hanging fruit for such an attack, and the whole album grew out of that. The idea was already in place when I took to writing riffs. It is impossible to touch upon the idea of suffering without thinking of rebirth, new growth, but I wanted it to be associated with atheism as opposed to thinking of being ‘born again’ by religious standards. Being consistently reborn through experiencing anger and hatred is just as important as dwelling upon the ‘whys’ of existence in a peaceful and contemplative state. The two concepts are intertwined. That being said, I work alongside religious people and would never want to take the rights to their beliefs away and I often value them as human beings.  Philosophically, historically, and psychologically religion drives me mad. I don’t understand it and it doesn’t have claim on my mind.  It is foreign thought to me and that plays into the lyrics of the album.

There is some fantastic grim, frosty melodies on the album. “In View of Birth” in particular has to be one of the more melodic tracks you’ve ever written. Where is this coming from?

The melody you speak of is probably the best melody I’ve ever written. I don’t want to sound self-obsessed but every time I hear that section I get lost in my own mind [laughs] I like melody. I like music to be catchy. Fuck, I love a lot of pop music. However, at the time of that song I was listening to a lot of Wagner operas and Tchaikovsky. I think that came out in that riff. It’s very violent and sweeping but uplifting, yet full of melancholy/longing.

There’s also a great sample in that song and a couple of others in other tracks, like the rant at the end of “The Reward of Worship”– where are those from?

“In View of Birth” has samples from “The Exorcist III”. I tried to not go crazy with the samples, but I initially did. The three that were kept were kept because they fit the theme. “Birth Rights of the Sick” just samples one of those mega church loons. “The Rewards of Worship” samples a preacher at the beginning. The sample at the end of “The Reward of Worship” is from a Phillip Seymour Hoffman movie called “The Savages.” It wasn’t a particularly great movie but the sample is great.

Is the digital only release of family in part due to frustration with labels and such?

The fact that it is a digital release has nothing to do with frustration over labels.  It has to do with the fact that I am a full time student, working only part time, and do not have the funds to release it. I gave up a pretty good full time job so I could go back to school and finish my teaching degree. Sacrifices were necessary and music will always be the first to take that hit. Also, the album did not cost me anything to record. It’s a DIY album. Oddly enough, people have been really kind with paying for the album. It means a lot.

And you’re 100% sure this is the last Shroud of Despondency album?

I think so. I’ve stated in previous interviews that I’ll never stop creating. This is true. I feel best when I’m alone working on music. It’s always been that way, even when I was learning to play guitar as a child, I wouldn’t let people in the room. I just don’t feel too connected to the name anymore. The last 5 or 6 years have sort of diminished any honest connection I have to it. However, it has always been a project of necessity. Life has many awful moments and it’s not hard to imagine that one of those moments could create a connection the name again. Last time I stopped it I put it away for 5 or 6 years and then I worked nonstop for another 5 or 6 years. I think so though, despite all the friends saying otherwise.

So what’s next for you? I get the impression you might be a bit burnt out or do you have other projects lined up? I know about Promethean Parallax, a death metal band that recently released a demo…

I never truly burn out. Even if I’ve slowed down writing lyrics. I still have a wealth of old lyrics. I enjoy writing, period. Music, words, whatever. Putting a pencil on a piece of paper is my therapy.  Creating music around that gives the words life. Yeah, right now Promethean Parallax is the only metal band I have going. It’s death metal in the style of Deicide, Immolation, Morbid Angel, Dead Congregation, etc with a little black metal thrown in. It’s definitely not like Shroud where it’s my vision. I don’t write the lyrics, we kind of create the songs together, and we are taking our time. However, if you enjoy death metal in that style please feel free to visit our bandcamp page. Our demo is a free download. It is most definitely a demo recording, raw as fuck, but I feel it’s worth hearing. I’m also hard at work on some character driven folk music about death and dying. It’s kind of like Neil Young or Springsteen meets Death in June or something. I don’t have a name for the project yet, may end up being just my name, but the album will be called “Goodnight, My Kitten”, a referencing the last thing Hemingway said to his wife before committing suicide. It may appeal to the fans of some of the Shroud folk tunes from the last few years. It’s all pretty dark and depressing but none of it is electric or distorted. I slowed down for a while last year. Got married and honeymooned in Iceland but the honeymoon period has ended! Thanks for the support and interview. Bandcamp pages are out there should one choose to do the research. Cheers!


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