By BRENDAN CRABB
IT requires a substantial event for a death metal act – an Australian one especially – to garner mainstream media column inches. Western Sydney-spawned, now international deathcore kingpins Thy Art Is Murder did following the stage invasion at the Brisbane leg of Soundwave last year, and are thus somewhat acclimatised to such notoriety. But the leaking of the uncensored artwork for third full-length Holy War – which depicts a prepubescent, ambiguously religious suicide soldier – understandably raised the stakes in this respect. The artwork, removed from the cover but still incorporated into the packaging, was condemned by some as highly and unnecessarily provocative.
Despite its title, according to the band Holy War isn’t tethered to a solitary theme, also featuring songs about relationship breakdowns, animal rights, the environment and child abuse (à la “Reign Of Darkness” from 2012’s Top 40-busting Hate). But the centrepiece remains that extreme music staple: anti-religion. Deicide’s Glen Benton has been paying his bills for 25 years while baiting conservatives via blasphemous artwork, lyrics and interviews. Slayer has belittled various denominations. But there is realistic disquiet Thy Art Is Murder’s new aesthetic may muddy or overshadow the message the band claims to be conveying – especially such a complex, multi-faceted topic – and risk being misconstrued, particularly by younger, more impressionable listeners.
“We kinda figured that might happen,” guitarist Andy Marsh says from Germany of the widespread coverage. “I guess it’s good to see the plan all fall into place, but it’s pretty crazy. You don’t know what race the kid is; you probably don’t know what gender the kid is, it’s not really wearing any particular religious piece of clothing or garb. It just has a bomb strapped to it. We definitely did target all religions on this record lyrically, so I guess we just have to make it pretty well-known, and share it around that, ‘Hey, we’re not picking on you, one particular guy, we’re picking on God as an idea in general’,” he laughs. “We don’t want to have any kid of any particular faith feel victimised or targeted. It’s not that we hate a small Muslim kid, or a Christian kid… It’s the idea of the God that we’re attacking.
“I guess it’s something that people have been doing for a while, but I don’t think it’s been done quite like this before. I think with the particular climate at the moment, everything has a time and a place in history. I’m not saying this is going to make history, I’m just saying that particular things happen at particular moments. Maybe if we made this record in two years, or two years ago… It wouldn’t stir the pot so much. I think in context, at this particular moment it’s going to have a lot more impact than it would have a few years ago, or in a few years’ time.”
Did oft-outspoken growler CJ McMahon fear their message may be misunderstood, or viewed as inflammatory?
“We definitely had concerns when we were writing, but when we actually recorded the song and we listened to it back then we realised what we had done,” the singer adds. “Now, people are going to have a stab at us and say that we’re racist, and it’s got nothing to do with race. Anyone can be any religion on the face of the Earth, as we’ve seen stuff like that young guy in Melbourne that went over to fight with ISIS and all these sorts of things. We’re not really doing anything different than what the news is showing the world, or what the news isn’t showing the world.”
A reader comment, posted online in response to a Sydney Morning Herald story, blasted Thy Art Is Murder, suggesting “a white metal band from the west is part of the comfortable class. They can afford to be provocative without any direct consequences on themselves.” They may not be the first to tackle such subject matter, but the band, perpetually on tour here and abroad, believe there could be repercussions.
“I think there might be some consequences,” Marsh chuckles of the above post. “There’s been a few hits carried out in the past 25 years in the name of Islam in particular, making a slight mockery of their religion. People drawing cartoons in Europe; Salman Rushdie, writing The Satanic Verses, had two of his translation team assassinated. It’s something that’s happened before; whether or not that’s a real threat to us I have no idea. I’m not a specialist on ISIS assassination plots, so there may very well be a risk associated with what we’ve done, but we just thought it was an important message to put out there at the moment.”
They’re also swift to reaffirm that they aren’t singling out any single faith. “They [Islam] just seem to be the radicals at the moment,” the guitarist says. “But we’ve specifically not targeted just one religion. It’s all religions. It’s the concept, the idea that is the real target here. Maybe some Christian will come and stab us in an alleyway, I don’t know.”
“The album hasn’t come out yet, nor have the video clips, so at the moment there will be no consequences, but where I live, the city I live in is the most multicultural city in the world,” McMahon maintains. “So I am a minority in my city. Consequences can happen, and we have joked that if there’s some extremists in certain religions they may come looking for us. That’s something that I do worry a little bit about, but more so worry about it for my family, more so than me, because they are innocent bystanders in something that can go completely fucking pear-shaped very quickly. (continued below)
“Bands like us around the world have always said lyrics like, ‘Fuck your God’… That’s really open-ended; that could mean anybody. But no one’s really having a proper attack at what is going on in the major religions that are affecting the world in a negative way. We just said, ‘Fuck everyone, fuck everything, let’s just do this’. That’s the mentality we’ve always had.
“A lot of people are thinking that we have 11 songs that are all about religion and the negative things that religion pushes into the world. But there’s so much other material that’s on this record that has nothing to do with religion or politics. It’s got to do with humanity, and the way man is destroying the world, in every shape and form that we’re destroying it. But the main subject for the main song I guess is about religion, and that’s what we’ve always been against.”
McMahon maintains the crushingly heavy LP, recorded last August/September with American producer and previous collaborator Will Putney is “far more intelligently written”. The quintet’s early lyrics, such as those contained on 2008’s Infinite Death EP were derided for misogynistic overtones. Similarly, musicians from power metal outfit DragonForce have been denounced for racist and homophobic material penned while part of a previous outfit many years ago. It’s one thing to be repentant about your past, but ponders whether such content can really simply be disregarded as the folly of youthful ignorance, as DragonForce seemingly shrugged off this questioning as youngsters “having a laugh”. Thy Art Is Murder has undergone several personnel shifts since that release, but they do still perform the title track and “Whore To A Chainsaw” live. McMahon counters that when the members wrote the latter they were 16-17 years old.
“It’s touching on subjects that they knew very little about at the time. Sean [Delander, bass/rhythm guitar] and Lee [Stanton, drums] were the only members of the band when that EP happened. They’re 24, 25, they’re getting on – they’ve seen the world. We travel for a living, we’ve been on tour around the world for the past four-and-a-half years and the boys have gotten a bit more mature. “I’ve probably matured a lot with travelling the world as well. We’re just pissed off with a lot of things. I fucking hate the industry. When we sat down to write this record, we just said this has to be the record that separates us from everyone else. We don’t want to be with the big dogs, we want to be bigger than the big dogs… We’re gonna push buttons for everybody, we want to change the game, we want to change metal, and I think we achieved it.”
Do they merely perform that track to sate long- time devotees? “That’s exactly the reason why, purely because the fans love it, and it’s our heritage, that song. Every time the riff starts we all kind of look at each other and roll our eyes, but we do it for the fans, they love that song.”
Enhancing their outsider status is that disdain for the music business. For example, speaking to this scribe last year, McMahon lauded, but also deprecated Soundwave head honcho AJ Maddah following the aforementioned incident. Their modus operandi is seemingly an affront to the typical industry outlook. “Marshy was stern with very powerful people in the industry, and we used the industry to benefit us,” the frontman boasts. “We pretty much have record deals that no other bands have.” He also states that “we had the head of [overseas label] Nuclear Blast leaving his house at 11pm in New York to listen to the album, ‘cause we would not give him a physical copy of the music”. They also inked a deal with prominent label UNFD for Down Under distribution – a company Thy Art Is Murder have publicly lambasted prior.
“I’ve never really liked UNFD. I’ve had a lot of friends on that label and they kind of run the monopoly in Australia, therefore being able to do whatever they want with their bands,” the singer says candidly. “But unfortunately due to past record deals in Australia, where we were screwed… For some reason, UNFD reached out to us, and when Marshy sat down with them and said, ‘This is what we want’, I think they didn’t think that we would really get that, that we would take whatever they were giving us.
“But the UNFD guys ended up turning around and giving us the deal that we wanted. Hats off to them I guess, because we weren’t moving. We would have released it independently, fuck the charts or whatever. But they’ve done really well, so as long as they stick to their contract I’ll be happy with them. I know that the guys that run UNFD, I’ve met them personally and they’re great guys, there’s nothing I could say negative about them as individuals. I just wasn’t a fan of the label. I’ll have to wait and see if they change my mind, but at the moment they’re doing pretty well by us.” On the new release, according to Marsh, chief riff- writer Delander “got into black metal pretty big” lately, which permeated into the songs. McMahon believes they have further common ground with the grim and frostbitten, as he elaborates when BLUNT inquires whether metal is truly dangerous anymore.
“I think on the whole metal’s not really that dangerous. But if you take Norwegian black metal, I would say that shit is pretty fucking dangerous. There’s probably no metal in the world that is more dangerous than black metal, to themselves and to others. They have valid points as to why they do what they do. I think that we will soon be in that tier, unfortunately… Similar aspects of black metal will be with us as we have extremely strong messages. But we’re not going to be burning churches or anything like that.
“Maybe the world can get the record, then realise what we’re doing and hear it in the way that we intended it to be listened to, rather than what people are looking at a front cover and thinking that we’re being racist and misogynistic. It’s a fucking image, so people are going to write us off based on that, then some really extreme metal fans are going to back us because it’s controversial. We live with the idea that if people are coming after us for this… Maybe we’ll go into hiding for a year or two. We have to make many plans before this record drops.”