Black metal has been a genre rooted in controversy almost from its inception. The history of the genre has been well covered through books like Lords of Chaos and it can seem a little intimidating for an outsider knowing only the history and what those bands represent.
However, there has been a movement of bands recently that have expanded their sound beyond the realms of lo-fi production and have pushed back against the racist roots of the original black metal bands. Some of these bands even cross over into audiences beyond metalheads and have got acclaim from more mainstream publications such as Deafheaven who have combined elements of black metal with a more lush shoegaze inspired sound.
People may be surprised to find that amongst these bands is one who has gained some buzz as of late with roots right in the heart of the Midwest, Lawrence, Kansas. Marsh of Swans are an Atmospheric Black Metal duo who released their debut EP, From Ashes Beneath, in August of 2017 and I recently had a chance to ask the duo about their history with the genre and their experiences coming out of the Midwest.
What was the genesis of your interest in the metal genre? What were some of the first bands that you drew you in?
BC: For me, it started at the very beginning – Black Sabbath. I was really into various alternative and indie bands growing up, but when I first encountered Sabbath, I listened to nothing else for a solid month. From there I got into the other big bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica, and from there I began exploring the various subgenres. I believe my first foray into black metal was with Emperor, who I would say are still my favorite band in the genre.
CJ: It’s been a long-running thing for me. I liked some good, and not so good, 90s and early 00s metal from a young age and eventually grew fascinated with the more underground/extreme side of the genre after catching Headbanger’s Ball a few times late at night on MTV. Going into middle school I was listening to a lot of melodic death metal like In Flames and Dark Tranquility, coupled with some obligatory metalcore and deathcore. Towards the end of high school I started getting into the genres I primarily listen to today in black and death metal. My introduction to black metal came from a fascination with its early history, followed by hearing ColdWorld’s Melancholie² and becoming subsequently hooked.
How did this project come together?
BC: My other band, Existem, was going through a period of relative inactivity, and I wanted to find a new creative outlet. I knew CJ from the local metal scene, and when he shared a demo that would eventually become the song “Dreams of Light” from our EP, I thought it had a lot of potential. I approached him about starting a project, and after some discussion, we decided to go for it. It’s been an enjoyable process, CJ has been very easy to work with and we operate on a similar wavelength musically.
CJ: BC pretty much nailed it, but I’ll expand by saying I never really knew what would come from writing the “Dreams of Light” demo. I was reluctant to share it for some time, but I’m glad that I did and that he reached out with this project idea. After we started shooting ideas at each other, I think the synergy we found allowed things to unfold naturally.
People might be initially surprised at you guys originating from Kansas, do you guys feel that the Midwest is often overlooked when it comes to music scenes compared to the coastal cities in the United States?
BC: In my opinion, one of the positives of the internet is that a band can be from anywhere and get their music out to the world. No longer do labels act as a gatekeeper between artist and listener. As a result, I think bands from more overlooked areas like the Midwest have a wider audience than ever. I do still see some surprised reactions from people online when they learn an artist is from the Midwest, or from some tiny country around the world, so I think the perception of the old way is still there to an extent.
CJ: I also think it has to do with metal’s place in the Midwest as it relates to the vast majority of the population. Being largely rural, I think you have to actively seek metal out to some extent or get lucky by having a friend who has done the legwork there. In another interview we did, I know there was mention of how sparse the Midwestern scene feels, but places like Lawrence and Kansas City are really filling in the gap with more talent and creativity coming out of the woodwork all the time. Maybe there’s still some unexpectedness to it all, but I think that could be less common over time.
The themes surrounding your debut EP From Ashes Beneath revolve around the Marais des Cygnes Massacre that took place in Kansas in the lead up to the American Civil War. What drew you initially to this subject from history?
BC: When we formed the band I thought of the classic Norwegian forefathers of black metal and how they drew inspiration from local mythology and lore to fuel their music. I wondered if we could do something similar with our music and home in eastern Kansas, which led CJ and me to research some of the history of the Bleeding Kansas period that was a precursor to the Civil War. When we learned about the Massacre as well as the battle that took place in the area in 1864, we knew we could apply these themes to our music.
CJ: We also wanted the theme to offer some artistic guidance. It’d be one thing to just come onto the scene as a black metal-styled group with the popular themes. We’d still be contributing to the scene, but having something that relates to the region and the potential to explore some of the themes it provides felt more productive and meaningful for our process. I think there’s a lot of untapped American history available for music to explore, so it’s kind of nice to find a niche and see where it goes.
What kind of research did you do for the EP in the writing process, did you visit the site where the massacre took place?
BC: The site is a historic national landmark about a half hour from our home, but due to the currently fragmented nature of this band, we have not been able to visit [the landmark] together. However, us both having grown up in the area for most of our lives, we consider our music inspired in part by the nature and scenery around us, in addition to our historic roots. In that sense, we drew from our own experiences and emotions regarding the world around us.
CJ: I’ve driven to the area a few times on numerous treks between my hometown and Lawrence. It has a somber, yet peaceful nature. That feeling encompasses a large portion of the region we’re from, in my opinion. Plenty of hills, trees, and grassland to provide inspiration and introspection.
In a more literal sense, we also searched the internet for various accounts and notes regarding the Massacre. There are quite a few different components from it that surround the themes of the EP, including a poem called “Le Marais du Cygne” by John Greenleaf Whittier. I would say that we turned these ideas over in our heads for a month or two before landing where we did.
This album draws heavily from the Atmospheric Black Metal genre, how would you describe that sound for those who may be unfamiliar?
BC: I can only describe how it sounds to me, someone else’s opinion may be completely different. It’s black metal with a melancholic overtone in some way, whether that be melodically or in the vocals or instrumentation or production aspects. When well-executed, it places the emphasis on the atmosphere (obviously) of the piece, drawing the listener into the song’s own world and the feeling it’s trying to impart. Because it is also black metal, it often plays into more negative aspects and emotions, but can be used to impart hope too, I believe.
CJ: Atmospheric black metal is different from traditional black metal in the way that its meant to sound impenetrable and dramatic while carrying some of the same aggressive themes and styles of writing you hear across the genre. It’s the most likely genre to be about nature, the cosmos, philosophy, etc. It’s also often blended with folk and other melodic instrumentation. The complicated thing with metal is understanding how the subgenres break down, so even within the atmospheric subgenre, there are so many variations and styles. I would say it’s our most primarily influential genre, while we also explore melodic, doomy, and progressive influences, as well.
Black Metal as a genre has been rooted in controversy with the founding Norwegian bands, many of whom adopted racist ideologies within their music. However, it seems that the newest generation of bands is trying to fight and defy that stereotype. Is that part of the reason why you chose to take on a topic such as Bleeding Kansas?
BC: This was one reason. Our subject matter presented an opportunity for us to make a statement against racist ideologies with our music. This is a subject we feel passionately about and we were excited that telling the history of our own home would allow us to separate ourselves from the spectre of National Socialism that sadly plagues many artists in our genre.
CJ: Our music isn’t really about ideology so much as interpreting the history of Bleeding Kansas and the themes that come with it. This is a question we’ve gotten in a variety of forms since the project began, and while it’s nice to be a part of defying stereotypes or problematic belief systems, we wanted to create a musical platform that attempts to stand on its own. BC and I have a similar appreciation for using the music strategically so as not to become political with our message, while still sharing the importance of the story and its meaning as it applies today.
What sorts of bands did you find yourself turning to for inspiration, either within the genre or not, during the writing process?
BC: We drew inspiration from a variety of bands. Some of the Norwegian classics such as Emperor and Enslaved were certainly in the mix, as well as more contemporary American bands, such as Wolves in the Throne Room. I also had a lot of post-rock and metal going through my head, but that’s pretty typical. Even if not consciously, it might have rubbed off on the EP in some ways.
CJ: I’m into all of the bands BC mentioned, but also really dig black metal coming from artists like Akhlys, Deathspell Omega, and Mgla. Post-metal influenced artists like Lantlos, Alcest and Unrequited are also important for me, though I might draw more closely from Wolves in the Throne Room and Woods of Desolation when I write. I think, in many ways, everything you hear can be siphoned into a writing style. I listen to a lot of different genres outside of metal, too, and I think maintaining that variety outside of the project keeps fresh ideas in my head.
For now, Marsh of Swans is a studio-only project, do you have plans to tour at some point in the future?
BC: Playing this project live and even touring it would be something I’d love to pursue, but it presents logistical challenges. CJ now lives in Colorado and while we definitely have plans to produce more material together, forming a live band would be difficult. It would be truly special to make that happen one day but we have no plans in the short term.
CJ: Yeah, I’ve been in a big transition phase in my life, which has included trying to make life work in a new state. All of that has been a challenge to our ability to play live, but our studio outputs have not slowed at all in my estimation. We’re still producing ideas, uploading them and trying to create our next output. That’s the beauty of writing music in this time – we have the flexibility to explore and keep things going without being physically together. There may come a day where things go in a direction that allows touring and live performances in general to take place, so we’re going to stay open to that possibility.
Any upcoming projects for Marsh of Swans that you would like to talk about or parting thoughts you would like to share?
BC: We are currently working on a couple of tracks with the intent to release them as a split with another band in our area in the next year. We intend to try to push our capabilities forward and learn to work over a distance before we attempt writing a full-length. Merch and a physical release of From Ashes Beneath may be in the cards as well.
CJ: We’ve had requests for merch, so that’ll be something we want to figure out in the near-ish future. Otherwise, as BC states we are pursuing a split release with another group from our area and will be testing the waters for our first full-length as well. From Ashes Beneath is available for a name-your-price download on our Bandcamp page, and you can find us on Facebook and other social sites, as well.
*Editor’s Note: Marsh of Swans will no longer be pursuing a split release in the near future. Instead, the group is currently working towards another EP.