It is frightening to think that ‘Turn Loose the Swans’ turned twenty this year. Where on Earth did the years go?
writes Andy Cunningham
Hailing from a dim, unimaginable pre-internet age, the music on that monument of mesmerising Doom harkened back to an even darker age; an age of creaking carts laden with stinking corpses, the fear of God, filth, plague and starvation.
If ever an album has managed to invoke the ugly, unwelcome spirit of the Dark Ages then this is it. There is an image that haunts my mind’s eye whenever I press play on my well-worn tape and that is the opening scene of Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth, depicting a dull and shivering wintry landscape bathed in blue smoke.
A battlefield strewn with corpses? A plague-infected village burning away the sickness? Both scenarios seem appropriate in this context.
‘Turn Loose the Swans’ somehow transmits all that through its forbidding atmosphere.
Doom Death often gets stick for its frilliness and its abuse of amateur dramatics. The finger of blame could arguably be swung toward this album if, in fact, that sense of romance, loss and tragedy weren’t so fully imbued with that gloomy, grotty bubonic dread.
It is a despairingly bleak listen and the marvel is that, for all of its gloom, it remains hugely accessible.
The songwriting is second to none. The medieval folk and classical influences are as integral as the more furious metal elements yet the album never veers into self-indulgence or over the top ostentation. There is a restraint applied so that even when the metal elements are stripped away for minutes at a time, the resulting effect is that of stunning, ever deepening gloom.
The early nineties was the last hugely inspirational, experimental and truly classic era of Metal, that much we can probably all agree on and this album is one of the last true classics of that bygone time.
I contacted Aaron Stainthorpe to find out what inspired a bunch of Northern English youngsters to create such ingenious music and to give us a bit of history on what is one of Doom Metal, and Metal in general’s most enduring, and iconic works.
Welcome Aaron, first off could you tell us how you feel looking back at a work you made twenty years ago. To think that you created such an incredible and sophisticated album at such a young age must make you proud.
We have always been very proud of that recording – in fact every recording, but back then it just seems like we had all the right idea’s all at the right time for the scene, which is partly luck as well as skill.
The album covers many bases without ever sounding disjointed or quirky for the sake of it. Each disparate element has its rightful place and adds vitality to the overall piece. How hard was it for you to combine parts that on the surface shouldn’t work together?
Was the album meticulously planned or was it a case of having fun in the rehearsal space, letting go and allowing the songs to develop of their own accord?
We were naturally well aware of the scene at that time and knew that death metal was huge while doom was still in its infancy so we decided to combine the two and add elements of gothic too just to spice things up a bit, and it worked.
Normally, mixing those elements shouldn’t work but we just about got the right mix to make it acceptable.
The LP was partly planned but mostly just the result of us jamming in the rehearsal room and coming up with interesting ideas that had not been done before but not just for the sake of being quirky, as you mentioned, but to make songs that would stand out from the crowd.
I think the lyrics are magnificent throughout the album, adding to the gritty, bubonic atmosphere conjured by the music. They are lyrical and poetic but also unclean sounding; they capture an unromantic vision of medieval times, probably one that is more accurate than a lot of Pagan inspired bands present.
What were the inspirations behind them? What books, films and musicians were occupying your time?
I did spend rather a lot of time reading poetry and quaffing enormous flaggons of red wine during the writing process for Turn Loose the Swans but actually remembering the exact books and authors is now beyond me as that is how I write for every LP so my history of lyrics is somewhat of a blur – but a very nice blur.
Naturally, I avoided the very famous poets because they were being plagiarised by other metal bands so I went for obscure, low volume editions by unknown writers who in themselves, were young when they wrote and mostly off their heads on opium and although I don’t do drugs I do quite like to be a little bleary-minded when I put pen to paper.
The early nineties could be considered to be the last golden age of Metal. While there are lots of bands currently making really great music in the underground only time will tell if this era will come close to the level of importance and the excitement you must have felt to have been active in those years.
Death Metal had happened and was arguably on its last legs and being violently replaced with Black Metal around then. You guys took an even more obscure route than that by drawing equal inspiration from old Doom Metal and Goth.
How aware or influenced were you by these other scenes that were exploding and imploding around you? Was your music a reaction in any way to these other movements?
We all loved death and black metal. Hell, I was the biggest Bathory fan on Earth! But I was intrigued by goth and admired doom bands so convinced everyone else in the band that mixing all three genres might be a winning combination.
It may also have been the death of us because we could have been rejected by fans from all those styles but it seems the combination and variety of both music and lyrics, as well as artwork and photography, was a big hit across the board which naturally allowed us to perform at many types of festivals such was our broad appeal.
It is hard to mention My Dying Bride without referring to Paradise Lost and Anathema. Did you feel a kinship with those bands, or any others, or did it feel like more of a rivalry?
The exciting thing for me is that the three bands all more or less started out with a similar modus operandi but each developed their own unique characters. Did you find their works influential at all?
There was naturally a little rivalry which was great for all three bands because it encouraged them to write better and more original music which obviously pleased Peaceville Records too as they had all of us under their belt.
There was kinship when we played abroad but when we all performed in the UK then the rivalry went up a couple of notches. We did go through a patch where us and Paradise Lost didn’t get along at all but that was due to personal matters which cleared up eventually. These days we’re all very friendly.
As far as those other bands being influential goes, that’s a certain ‘no’. What would be the point? If we did what they did everyone would spot it and just laugh. All three bands ignored each-others’ music and ran their own course which benefited all of us.
You were also responsible for the band’s artwork in those days. It had a unique and obscure quality to it that bled religion, death and a sense of hallucinatory oddness to it. How did those images come about and what artists were you influenced by at the time? Do you still practice art?
I still enjoy creating images, which are in essence, lyrics made visual. When I get an idea I either write it down which may later become a lyric, or I create it visually using photography and whatever I can get my hands on.
Some of the images I’ve made could have been lyrics and vice versa. Have a look at my site www.azzron.com for some madness made real.
Opening the album with ‘Sear Me MCMXCIII’ was a bold move. The song is completely bare, stripped of all Metal elements, with deeply mournful clean sung vocals. It seems an odd choice where ‘Your River’ would have been a much more immediate opener.
I think the choice was inspired, but was it a natural decision to open the album painfully slowly or was it something you had to think a lot about?
It was a planned choice of track to open with, not just some random act. We often like to go against the grain so that track was the obvious opener. Sure we could have used ‘Your River’ but we leave simple traps like that to lesser bands.
The production is the best you have ever had on that album, at least in my opinion. Tell us about your studio experience. Was there a lot of experimentation done while you were recording or was it all meticulously planned out beforehand?
I think it was probably 80/20 rehearsed/studio. We rehearsed a lot back then as writing in a recording studio is a massive waste of money so we did it in our room in Bradford. When we were happy we had enough material we went to Academy Studio to record it and added a couple of flourishes on the end to make it sound fancy.
Our budget was double what it was for the first LP so we naturally made good use of that to get a better production.
–Andrew Cunningham ::: 20/11/13