A Feast for the Earth

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Color me blown away, bowled over, and knocked flat on my back by Running out of Daylight, the sophomore album from international metal outfit The Living Fields! Chicago-based, but inclusive of a vocalist in Jonathan Higgs (Monsterworks) that lives in London (and who has never met the other members) and a Canadian drummer (Chad Walls) that’s done time in death dealers Lecherous Nocturne and Brodequin (among others), the story of this band of brilliants is as interesting as the music is ridiculously good. Guitarist/bassist/composer Jason Muxlow (Earthen Grave) is the ring leader and the newest TLF Syndicate member is guitarist Samu Rahn. Progressive doom is the workable description, provided you realize that it there is more at work here. Masterful incorporation of strings (violins, cello, etc), epic arrangements, memorable melodies, tons of riff crunch, and the impacting versatility of Higgs’ vocals begins to tell the full story. You just need to buy the damn thing; that is, if you’re at all interested in owning one of the best metal albums of 2011. Perhaps the view from native New Zealander and London resident Higgs will paint you a clearer picture.

How in the world did you get involved in a band an ocean away from you? 

Jason used to run a website in the US called Deadtide.com that did metal reviews/interviews etc.  Back in 2002 I had just moved from New Zealand to London, UK and I sent some CDs of my band Monsterworks for review and he liked it.  Jason had been toying around with a new doom-type band idea incorporating a string quartet and asked me to write and record some vocals.  We knew nothing about each other at all, but both seemed to like My Dying Bride and early Anathema.  That was good enough for me.

Are you a musical and lyrical contributor both then?

I generally write all the lyrics, often based on the song titles/themes that Jason has already given a name based on the “vibe” he had during composing the song.  I like that way of working because it sends me in new directions. To date I have not contributed music, as I have Monsterworks as my primary outlet for that. I had a stab at a few guitar leads on the self-titled album, but I don’t think they got used [laughs].   It might be cool at some stage in the future to write a complete TLF song, but with Samu on board I expect the dynamic duo will be pretty prolific.  There simply is no need to stick my nose in too.

How was the first album received in critical terms? Was Candlelight happy with it?

Pretty good to excellent from memory.  Although maybe Jason hid any bad reviews from me!  If there was a criticism it was with regard to the overall production, which was apparently a bit flat.  I am guessing someone at Candlelight must have liked it or we would not have been asked to sign with them.  Incidentally on that point, the self-titled album was from 2007 and we signed in 2008 so it all happened quite quickly at the time, but it has taken until 2011 to finish the new album!

Though I’ve not heard the first album it seems you took an even more expansive approach to composition on Running out of Daylight, not the least of which includes the work of violinist/violist Chuck Bontrager and cellist Petar Kecenovici.

I believe Running out of Daylight was simply the logical next step in production and composition.  To me the songs are not much more complex than the older material, but they are consistently better.  Much catchier hooks and meatier riffs.  The original band concept, as I mentioned before, was “doomy with a string quartet” and Jason always wanted to use real string musicians in the band. Who wouldn’t?!  But it was not until this time round that we were able to.  As I understand it, Chuck and Petar were introduced/recommended by violinist Rachel Barton Pine who Jason plays with in Earthen Grave, his other main, Chicago-based band. While the string parts themselves were originally composed and demoed with MIDI triggered samples, nothing beats the sound of a real acoustic player to replace it all in the final mix.  They can add some of their personality too.

Even better is that the inclusion of strings is not done for mere accent and certainly don’t sound forced. It is part and parcel to the success of every track.

Agreed.  If the strings took it over entirely I don’t think it would work, although it might in a totally epic cinematic sense, should that be appropriate.  I see the strings as adding an extra dimension, but we are still a heavy metal band and the guitar crunch and ace drumming is the core of that, plus whatever screaming, yelling or growling I do.

Another sign of The Living Fields’ compositional acumen is in the fact that eight or nine minute tracks (of which there are several) can be so musically compelling, so distinct from one another, and so memorable from a melodic standpoint. That is no easy feat, especially for an album 71 minutes in length.

Not to blow my own trumpet (we will leave the horn section for the next album), but I think the lyrical stories play a big part in the flow, coupled with the fact that each track has a lot of different parts and moods.  I am sometimes amazed at how long the songs are and still work because my personal approach to songwriting is to be quite ADD (attention deficit disorder) and un-repetitive.  However, if there is a story woven into the whole thing it becomes a saga and the length doesn’t matter.  Indeed you want it to go on a bit longer and find out where it will end up.

Of course, the relatively shorter “Glacial Movements” seems to be the one getting the most attention as the most accessible.  Accessible it is, but I find the main melody of “Perseverance” to be even catchier and its pagan/folk-ish cadence sublime. Where do you stand with regard to these statements?

Those are probably, lyrically, my favorite songs on the album.  “Glacial Movements” more or less wrote itself because it is about geological time: a vast and interesting subject.  “Perseverance” is about conquering Mount Everest.  We always knew “Glacial Movements” was the anthemic centerpiece on the album whereas “Perseverance” came to life when everything was together in the final mix.  The last vocal run (ending with “well George, we knocked the bastard off!”) over the increasingly grandiose music is one of my favorite moments in any song I have been a part of, ever.

At the end of the day though Running out of Daylight is an album best appreciated as a 71-minute listening experience; picking and choosing individual tracks just doesn’t have the same impact.

Agreed.  I am and always will be all about the album.  I actually find it more or less impossible to listen to an isolated song from any album because I somehow consider it an insult to the artist.  Albums should never have “filler” and it is important that you get a buzz from each and every track.  TLF specializes in compact epic-ness within individual songs, but the song next to it is usually a different kind of epic, so you need all of it to get the full picture. There were in fact at least two tracks that had to be cut from the album length; it was bang on 80 minutes.  But that was getting ridiculous.

Perhaps most demonstrative of the care and attention that went into writing these songs is the fact that one can spend just under an hour listening and then make it through a 16-minute closing track with no hesitation! 

I think that is down to the different parts and moods within any given track.  An hour long brutal death metal album would not work because not many people could withstand that kind of relentless attack, but with TLF there is plenty of breathing space. The title track nearly got edited down to remove the cinematic component in the middle, which would have been a travesty because even at 16 minutes it sails by and it is like a mini-movie in my opinion.  This track probably took the most research from my perspective to get the lyrics and story straight (all hail Wikipedia) and that narrative fits the music well.  Galileo and his crisis of faith is a fitting subject for an epic heavy metal song (and we subsequently found out has been done before in concept album form!) and especially our brand of metal because it has a lot of moods in it, both melancholy and triumphant.

Your vocals on the album are effective and powerfully versatile. It is hard to believe that the same person doing the growls and those patented screams (ala Monsteworks) is the same one doing the “lighter” or “sung” material. How challenging was this album for you vocally? I don’t just mean physically either; I’m also referring to the challenge of changing styles to fit the complexity of the arrangement and ensuring the patterning fits.

I have always been influenced by and “sung along to” a lot of different metal styles and I like them all to varying degrees.  In that sense it is not that much of a “challenge.”  I mean, it’s not easy, but I guess you can either do it or you can’t.  And I can.  Yay me.  It is probably giving a bit too much away, but my usual process for getting through the huge amount of TLF material in a reasonable timescale is as follows: Determine song concept, write a lot of notes on the subject, sit singing softly into a microphone to try to fit the embryonic lyrics to the demo music, adjust words as needed, wait a few months or years for the drums to be recorded, then record proper vocals using the original soft demo as a guide.  Add salt to taste.

The writing process can take days, but the recording process only takes about four hours per song.  I layer up ideas and try things out while the recording is “live.”  This is the beauty and tragedy of doing everything on your own with a laptop and an outboard soundcard.  I am my own master, but I get no feedback on whether it sounds any good.

There are a lot of vocal layers in TLF songs (slightly less so in Monsterworks), but that is because I try a different vocal style out for a particular section with the intention that in mixing they will strip a lot of it back.  What happens in reality (and I have no problem with it) is that most of it stays because no one can decide what to cut.  It just seems to work all together.

I recorded my parts on the album over a few weeks whenever I could grab a few hours spare.  It gets easier and vocals get stronger the more you do.  Because I am not a touring musician I do not have the luxury of regular vocal practice, so when I stand in front of a microphone with a new song I have no idea what will come out.

On top of it all this was an album recorded by members living in three different countries. Can you shed some light on the process of recording this album?

Jason recorded demos with all instrumentation in Chicago, including pretty complete drum programming and posted them on our FTP site.  In London I downloaded these and started the lyric writing process.  Chad [Walls] recorded drums in Ottawa.  At some point Samu joined the band and they decided to re-record all the guitars to lock in tighter with the drums.  I took the finished (but still with midi strings) tracks and recorded vocals.  Mixing had already begun when the string players were found, so that was recorded in lightning time and dropped into the mix.

What say you about the comparisons to My Dying Bride and Novembers Doom?

Great.  I like both those bands a lot, although I never heard Novembers Doom until a few years after TLF started.  In reality I don’t think we sound much like either of them at all.  They both have strong and unique vocalists for sure, so I would rather not be compared to them.  Ironic that Novembers Doom is from Chicago, where half our band lives and My Dying Bride is from Yorkshire where my family is from.

Does your work in Monsterworks impact your work in The Living Fields or vice versa, realizing of course that Monsteworks is “your” band? Please discuss your approach or the head space necessary for each band.

There is no compromise or conflict between the bands at all because I easily have the time to do both in the present context. Monsterworks has members that actually live in the same city, which is handy for playing gigs, although we don’t do that very often. Whereas I have never met the guys from TLF.  The last time I spoke on the phone to Jason was at least five years ago! As mentioned before, often the themes for TLF come from Jason which, even though we are philosophically pretty similar anyway, sends me in lyrical directions I might not otherwise have gone.  That is a positive thing.

A couple of years ago Monsterworks was writing and recording metal space adventure concept albums, although if you dig deep there were still universal anti-religious themes running through them.  Working on TLF material partly influenced me to base the recent Monsterworks albums on more “real-world” fare, such as the problems of religion run through The God Album (Casket Records, 2011) and this carries over to even more philosophical territory in Album of Man (as yet unreleased).  Writing the lyrics of “Glacial Movements” inspired an entire album that Monsterworks recently completed called Monsterworks: Earth, which is about the history of Earth from birth to death.  You see a pattern here; I can get carried away with things.

So, if you want to talk about “headspace” the respective bands really are not that different now.  However, I think that was an inevitable consequence of just getting older and reading more.  It’s funny: there is another band which is kind of on hiatus that I have with most of the guys in Monsterworks called Dog.  That is Marcus’ (Monsterworks lead guitar) baby and when I try to get him to describe what kind of lyrics he wants me to write for it he says “this one is about having a good time and partying!”  I cannot write lyrics like Motley Crue so I just steer it in a direction we can both be happy with – sharks or boobs or something.

Does putting “progressive” in front of “doom metal” even get close to accurately describing the style of The Living Fields? I don’t believe it to be inaccurate, but stopping there in describing the music of Running out of Daylight just doesn’t do it justice. Understanding only comes with listening.

I am happy with “progressive doom” just because it sounds quite good.  It is very accurate?  No, but you may as well call it something.  I think my entire musical legacy amounts to being in bands that don’t fit into any definition other than METAL!  That is all I care about. It takes a really discerning listener and metal fan to like us, so those people are very special.  Every bad review I ever read was from someone who just couldn’t work out what we were trying to achieve or why.  Actually, there is no “why,” but a lot of effort goes into the composition; it is not random.  This is not pop music so there is no formula to it.  Just enjoy it and don’t worry about categories.

What are the odds of The Living Fields taking the stage at some point in the future?

Slim.  It would be great fun to meet the guys, but why spoil the mystique?  Our best chance would be a festival or something to make it worthwhile.  I reckon give us a few albums to see how it goes and see what the appetite is then.

Are we now to the point where the poor huddled masses will stand up and take notice of the brilliance of The Living Fields or will we have to wait for another album before everyone else catches up with you?

That would be nice.  I think we put together something special with this album for a number of reasons and I can enjoy it as a fan because in some ways it seems distant.  The good news is that, from what I understand, there should not be too long of a wait for the next one.  I am all for churning out the metal and not resting on your laurels.

Final thoughts?

A great song by Obituary?

Parting shots? Hope for a better tomorrow?

Thanks very much for the interview.  I do hope for a better tomorrow and somehow I managed to miss that out in all of the foregoing answers; TLF is a rare doom beast in that there is a positive spin to most of what we do.   And we are evidence that people really do make music just for the sheer hell and passion of it without caring what anyone else thinks. Cheers Scott!





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