We all know the fate of most CD’s made by local bands. But think of the fans.
All too often, the people who went to shows by such bands settle down in a dead end job, with a dead end relationship in which the most exciting moment is getting out of work early on Friday so they can watch Graham Norton, drink Prosecco and have five minutes of missionary position sex later on.
Every once in a while, they’ll play their mate’s band’s CD, remembering the nights of heavy drinking, loud music and the student lifestyle.
And then they’ll go back to listening to stuff they loved as a teenager, as that’s where their interest in music stopped.
Thankfully, there are bands who rise above this and produce works which still take you to the cleaners no matter how many times you listen to them.
And Comply or Die are one such band.
‘Depths’ was released in September 2011. By this point, the band had already put out a s/t LP, as well as one EP and split. So they should have known what they were doing and what to deliver.
Thankfully, they did.
Beginning with ‘Official Secrets’, the listener is hit with a barrage of noise rock riffage, bass thuds and pounding drums. It’s exhilarating and joyous.
Guitarist/vocalist Michael’s voice was often criticised for having little in the way of aggression and even His Editorialness said that “The vocals seem a bit of a bolt-on.” However, on ‘Official Secrets’ the voice works well here as it means lines like “I left you lying on the floor” are delivered with a nonchalance, that is much more sinister than a growling voice.
‘Shanghaied’ was the first song released from the album, and it’s easy to see why. It has a catchy riff, a rather tasty solo and ends in feedback.
It’s the sound of a band working at the peak of their (initial) power scale and it sounds immense. The processed vocals give the impression of imprisonment, adding a more downbeat element to the song, compared to the up-tempo rhythm and soaring riff.
‘Tetsuo’ sounds like it could have come from the ‘Dope, Guns n Fucking in the Street’ comp that Amphetamine Reptile put out in the late 80’s. Scuzzy bassline, tribal thumping and some edge of the fretboard guitar lines. Just over two minutes, it’s the perfect instrumental.
It then segueways into ‘Vermin’, which initially saw the light of day as a cassette split with Slomatics. An eleven minute slice of superbly sludgy, doomy hardcore, it’s an attack on organised religion.
I love how it starts off as one minute of noise, then goes into the basic riff, repeating it continually until the fifth minute when the vocals finally begin. Around the eight minute mark, a sample of (presumably) a preacher can be heard in the background while the band gently build up to the speedy finale. Brilliant.
‘I’m Sick (Of This)’, ‘Motives’ and ‘Viscera’ all carry side two in similar fashion to the likes of ‘Tetsuo’ and ‘Shanghaied.’ Closer ‘D.M.T’ is another epic, a twelve minute one.
This time, post rock is the beginning point for the tune, before going in a more apocalyptic, end of days feel that they would later take as the basis for their next album. As a closer, it’s exhausting, spine tingling, and enthralling.
When the album emerged, it got good reviews from a wide variety of music websites/publications.
Unfortunately, it seemed that the momentum died out fairly quickly, with a string of poorly attended Belfast shows (one show in Auntie Annies during Belfast Music Week garnered 5 people, despite it being free entry) and a seeming reluctance to tour (despite a small Irish tour the next year).
However, over five years later, the album stands as an testament to everything the band were trying to achieve at that point. It flows succinctly from beginning to end, with a combination of hardcore, post punk and doom.
Nonetheless, ‘Depths’ is the album which defines the early Comply or Die sound.
Now, let’s talk to the band and get their take on this period.
What was the band’s mindset when putting the songs together that made up the album?
Ian (bass/vocals) – I remember we were excited to get new tracks done, and we were starting to experiment with longer songs and structures. A lot of what ended up on ‘Depths’ was being practised and gigged for over a year beforehand, so once the time the actual album came out we had moved onto what would essentially become the next two releases.
Michael (guitar/vocals) – Really it was just to make sure that this was a step forward from the first self titled album. The first album was the first bunch of songs I’d ever written and id only been playing guitar for a short space of time so for the next record I wanted to try and push myself more.
I was all about the pedals, making weird sounds, trying to get different tones and layering parts to make these kind of noisescape sections. So between the first record and by the time we went to record ‘Depths’ my collection had expanded significantly, every pay day brought a new pedal or two! Some of those lead directly to how songs were written or certain riffs.
I’m trying to cast my mind back but I think the songs were written over a period of time rather than all at once, ‘Official Secrets’ wed been playing for awhile as well as ‘I’m Sick (of this)’, ‘Tetsuo’ I’m pretty sure came from a jam in the practice room and we kinda built it up a little from there.
The longer songs like ‘Vermin’ and ‘DMT’ I brought in and then they evolved, especially the noisy sections. You play off each other a lot during those and then they even change over time after you’ve been playing them for months even after they’re recorded they take on a life of their own.
In terms of actual sound, from the outset I always thought we should cover a certain territory and that was established on the first record that then expanded on the second, slower songs, longer songs, more noise sections.
When you start out there’s almost a fearlessness in the approach to song writing, everything feels new, there are no rules and you’re charging head first through the process. After the first album I tried to retain and expand on that while still trying to maintain the sound of the band I think that was achieved and from this album it allowed us to move into further territory.
Sonically, the album is a big step up from the s/t album and a natural progression from Invocation. What was different in the studio from the previous occasions?
Ian – I had a listen to the album for the first time in ages when you sent us these questions and was pleasantly surprised at the energy of the recording.
I think it just came down to a mixture of us being more confident in our playing as the band progressed, and also with it being our second time up with Frankie in Einstein he knew what we were like as a band at that stage so that helped us. He is a hell of an engineer and put a whole lot of work in even after we had left the sessions.
I remember emailing him asking him what he thought of us coming up and doing an album in a weekend and he though we were mad. We did it though, and part of this was down to the fact that we were confident with the songs because we had been practising and gigging them for a year or more.
That was always our way, play and refine the songs live and then record, we were all working jobs and using a mixture of our own money and whatever cash had come from gigs to pay for all our recording and pressing our own stuff, so you had to be economical with studio time.
I think the longer you can spend in a studio the more detrimental it can be to your output as you mess with unnecessary sounds and start to try and fix riffs that aren’t broken, it’s all about capturing the energy with as little overdubs as possible (except the 13 guitar tracks on ‘DMT’!).
Saying that though if the band ever recorded again we’d do a Kickstarter to give us a week in a studio with a pool so I can float around like Chris Holmes and live it up.
Michael – As previously mentioned for me playing guitar was relatively still quite new. By the time we went into record ‘Depths’ Id a better idea of what I wanted it to sound like and was willing to push things further in the studio and I had some ideas about how particular things should sound.
As a band I think we actually talked a lot about how we wanted it to sound and had a lot of different points of reference which allowed us to push things further. I think there’s a confidence in the sound, the playing and with the band as well and I think that comes across.
Plus we had played a lot of shows by then and had become much more comfortable playing with each other and with what we all brought to and wanted to sound like as a band.
All these things really make a difference to how a record sounds. We just knew everything had to be bigger, better, bolder and louder. Essentially we were making Terminator 2… with less liquid nitrogen and Guns N’ Roses but with all the attitude of John Connor and his ginger delinquent friend.
Lyrically, there are attacks on religion with ‘Vermin’ and some bravado with ‘Official Secrets’. But they’re nowhere near as bleak as ‘Northless’. Were lyrics, at this point, still considered secondary to the music?
Ian – I wouldn’t say the were being considered secondary, there are simply some tracks that do not need much in the way of lyrics, if at all. Sometimes one line can get the point across just as much as 3 verses. Half the album has little or nothing in the way of words, and those songs don’t sound lacking to me. Sometimes there’s an amount of pressure to come with things when ultimately you don’t need them.
Michael – I mean vocals and lyrics were up to this point always considered some what secondary to this music, it wasn’t until ‘Sixes/Three Suns’ that vocals became more of a focus and then certainly on ‘Northless’ they were a focus and really vital to the album, the sound of it and the narrative.
‘Depths’ pushed the vocals and lyrics further but still not into the fore. I still wasn’t really comfortable with doing vocals and that is obviously reflected in how sparse they are and also the kinda of lyrics I was writing. I was always ok with writing lyrics but because of the delivery I limited them somewhat.
If anything it gave a certain style but looking back vocals would be the one thing I would redo on the various releases… I tried to make the vocals at least interesting and concise, I always thought of them as exclamation points rather than a focus.
‘Vermin’ is a very obvious statement on organised religion with some help from Crowley to really drive the point home, ‘Official Secrets’ is about selling your soul to the working week and the monotony of that coupled with ridiculous workplace politics.
‘Shanghaied’ is about being deceived and really buying into an empty lie before realising what it really means its specific to a few points but that’s the wider context.
‘I’m Sick’ is about the dissolution of a relationship, the bitterness, isolation, rejection and anger that accompanies that. The album covers a wide range of topics, some of its personal and from personal experience other songs are a narrative or veiled in a narrative.
But ‘Depths’ was certainly another step towards making the lyrics and vocals more of an equal component of the songs. It also features Matt’s dulcet tones which is a high point!
There seems to be an overriding theme throughout the album of realisation (from ‘Official Secrets’ through to ‘Vermin’) and transcendence (‘I’m Sick of This’ to ‘DMT’). Was this deliberate on the part of the band?
Michael – No not at all, I never really thought of it like that, it’s an interesting interpretation. I really like albums that have like a red thread that runs through them. Not necessarily a concept or an over arching narrative, although both those things do appeal to me but some common thing that runs through the album. When the songs and lyrics were in place I was looking for one, something to tie it all together.
Initially I felt the album was really about control in one form or another be it religion, work, drugs, dominance in a relationship not in like a whips and chains type way or even in an abusive way.
But then the more I looked at it, and I mentioned this before, I think its about the human condition, the struggle, its about questioning things, negativity, its angry and its resentful. So you’re possibly right but it wasn’t a conscious decision, its an interesting observation.
‘DMT’ got a lot of praise for being (almost) post rock. And that scene was very popular around 2011. Was ‘DMT’ an ever so slight attempt to tap into that market?
Ian – Not remotely. I hate pigeon-holing music and ‘DMT’ was just a track that came out the way it did from adding parts on until it felt right to wrap it up. It was about having fun playing until the time came to stop, no attempt to tap into a market, especially from seeing a glut of bad post-rock bands in the early 2000s when it was all the rage in the underground.
Michael – Did it? I really wasn’t aware of it! It was a very popular scene and it certainly seemed like things were blowing up for bands of that ilk around then. If anyone knows anything about our band it was that we were very much outsiders.
We didn’t want to be part of whatever movement was popular, we didn’t want to be on trend, we didn’t cater to anyone. We always played for ourselves, we made music we wanted to hear, we weren’t concerned with being lumped in along with anything.
Personally I always felt it was better to try and be original than jump on any bandwagon or pander to any perceived scene. We were always a difficult band to pigeon hole and I liked that, it was a blessing and a curse because no one knew what to do with us bill wise but it also meant we could play with whoever.
I would far rather carve out my own niche than be lost in a sea of copy cats. I’m not saying we ever reinvented the wheel but we had our own thing going on and we stuck with that right until the end.
We had so many different kinds of songs, instrumentals, noise songs, punk rock songs, post hardcore type songs sometimes and a lot of the time all within one song so a song like ‘DMT’ wasn’t completely out of the blue for us.
I didn’t sit down and think “Hey! I’m gonna write a post rock song. That’ll get them in!” What I did want to do was try to write a song that went from part to part to part and never went back and played each part twice and while that didn’t actually happen that’s why it grew and grew and grew and then Matt and Ian brought in their ideas and it grew more.
I think if you listen to everything up to that point there had already been elements of that song in the song writing this was just another manifestation of that.
Art For Noises Sake
The artwork is very striking. It makes me think of Raymond Pettibon drawing an alternate cover for ‘Master of Puppets’. Was this something you let Glyn come up with, or did you have an idea of how it should look?
Ian – I’ve been friends with Glyn for years and he knew exactly what to do. We didn’t have a conscious effort to sound like any other band but he felt the music was reminiscent of some of the older SST bands and we just gave him free reign to come up with whatever he thought would fit, so the end result was the layered drawing/cut and paste style artwork.
I love his artwork, and was really pleased to have him work on it, so thanks Glyn! Michael – Up until ‘Depths’ we had been self contained in terms or artwork, everyone would contribute in some way.
I had a lot of visual ideas, Matt was really good at actually pulling together everything and we all discussed layout and how the final product should look. The image for ‘Invocation’ was actually taken on the drive home from a show. I always really liked that cover, it was a bit Lynchian.
For ‘Depths’ we just wanted something more professional looking for lack of a better term, really keeping in the whole Terminator 2 type take on the album. We got in touch with Glynn and we met and discussed the feel it would maybe have and the look but not actual specific images.
We pretty much gave him the album, the lyrics and gave him free reign. Which to be honest is something I have difficulty with, I like to have some element of control over what is happening and the output but Glynn’s work is fantastic, I’ve never seen him produce anything substandard so I knew it’d be good.
What he produced for the album is stunning, I love everything about it. The colour scheme the images used. I really like the different behavioural images used on the inside. He done an excellent job, for an album that doesn’t really have one particular explicit theme, although I always felt it was about what Hunter Thompson termed ‘the human condition’, it actually pulled everything together.
It allowed us to have a very strong visual representation of the album across different media; the bandcamp, t-shirts, badges everything had that one uniform image and feel to it. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. I still see people wearing the t-shirts and they still look great.
The album got very good reviews when it emerged, but I recall a string of Belfast shows around that time that were poorly attended. And then it seemed the momentum of the album kinda petered out. Is this a fair assessment?
Michael – The album was really well received and we made a really big push on its release to try and ensure that it had maximum exposure. Especially for the kind of music it is, two very long noisy songs, not a lot of vocals, it got great reviews a lot of radio play, sold well and people were into it, it was a good time! We did play a lot of shows around then and we done a small tour in support of it as well.
We were very much of the approach at the time that we should play as much as possible wherever possible and sometimes those were well attended shows and sometimes they weren’t. We played Laverys and Auntie Annie’s countless times, to the point I think we played Annie’s three times in one week and we just left our gear there!
While this was good in terms of getting to play and sell merch I think it started to hurt us as people could see us any day of the week almost. There were a few shows in the lead up to Xmas one year that were pretty dire in terms of attendance and it really started to have an impact on us. So we made a conscious decision to pull back a bit.
That was good and bad in itself. I don’t think it necessarily stopped momentum of the album you can push it so far and after awhile it just becomes an album in your back catalogue. I think the album done what it was going to do and it certainly afforded us a lot of opportunities around the time.
The landscape of ‘the scene’ had already started to change and during the time we spent away. We couldn’t continue to relentless flog the album otherwise that would have had the same effect as playing 8 times a week.
Ian – We were the kind of band that was a bit of an ugly duckling in the fact that we were too punk or weird for the metal crowd, and too heavy for the punk crowd.
I have to give a shout out to James at Distortion Project and the guys at Warzone for putting us on bills as often as they did, but I found over the years that as open-minded as the punk scene is there can be a bit of a cookie cutter mindset at times with some gig-goers, and likewise the metal crowd could seem quite hard to win over.
When you are playing outside of a niche genre and don’t fit into the boxes people put on things you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle at gigs, especially in a small city such as Belfast.
It wasn’t long after starting to promote ‘Depths’ that we were starting to get disheartened playing the same venues with the same bands, and I know I get fed up of seeing the same bands in the same venues. At that time though there were only so many places you could afford to hire to put gigs on so that was also a factor.
Saying this though we had some great gigs in Belfast with some great bands, and met a lot of friends. I’ve developed the attitude over the years of playing for myself as much as for whoever is watching, that way you always come away with a positive, and an empty gig is always an opportunity to mess around with song structures or just jam stuff out.
It’s all about having fun at the end of the day, and when you get stuck between having to play gigs to push a release but the gigs becoming a drain then it’s time to step back and rethink how you do things.
As Ian has pointed out, C.O.D were a hard band to pin down live and you see this in this review for the album show (here – was this specifically a Belfast reaction? Did crowds outside the capital react more favourably?
Ian – We got a lot of mixed reviews, I remember someone said our set was ‘challenging’ it was meant as a negative but I took it as a positive. I wanted to be challenging, if I didn’t want to be then id be playing run of the mill pop punk or something.
I actually remember that show and it was a great show, we sold a lot of merch, we played a great set. Obviously everyone has their own opinion and perception but that’s all it is opinion. Brian who wrote that review wasn’t our biggest fan but we played a show in Stiff Kitten, I m pretty sure it was the Thurston Moore show and he came up to me after and said that he finally got it, he really liked what we were doing and was totally into it.
Its interesting the review seems to focus on the crowd and their reaction though rather than how we played. I think audiences aren’t as participatory in shows as what I was lead to believe they were by reading various things about the Seattle scene in the early 90’s, there’s no crowd surfing, no one dances, you get the occasional head banger but mostly across the board its people standing and watching, arms crossed beard being stroked.
Until you reach a certain level as a band I think people are afraid to dance or just kinda let go. The very few all ages shows I’ve ever played are much better, there’s much better energy from the crowd and they’re less self conscious.
I remember in Giros every band that played had people up, people from like 13/14 up to people in their 20’s and beyond. That spirit seems to be lost now. I think everyone’s too afraid of being made fun of.
What is it they say, ‘Opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got ’em’ ? The night of that gig we had a great crowd, we were playing with good friends, and we moved a lot of merch so that makes it a success in my eyes. We couldn’t keep people from leaving the gig whenever they wanted so it was no fault of ours that they left, I always joked that I’d like to make a free gig and then charge people to leave!
Just one person’s perspective of the gig, everyone has a different view of events, and I know I’ve been to some gigs where after I read the gushing reviews wondered if I was in the same place. Belfast is a tricky place for gigs.
There is a great fan base here for bigger bands but a lot of people are like sheep and only go to see what’s flavour of the month, not a lot want to venture out and see what’s under the skin.
Maybe we provided a novelty at times, and if we sent some folk home early with ringing in their ears then that’s a success in my book. Every city has different people, every venue and gig space has a different way in which people respond to what’s on stage (or off in some cases).
Michael – Regardless, that’s not to say people didn’t enjoy the sets we would regularly have people talk to us after the show and tell us they were into it, people don’t come up to you out of nowhere and tell you that unless they mean it.
We certainly weren’t for everyone but then again we weren’t ever meant for everyone, if you liked us then cool if you didn’t well then there’s the door brah, but thanks for £5.
Christopher Owens ::: 16/01/17