The big review: Conjurer – Páthos
British metal heavyweights Conjurer expand their horizons brilliantly on long-awaited second album, Páthos.
Even as Britain blisters under a heatwave, Conjurer have found themselves drawn to a cold, dark place. There are long shadows and deep red lights down every back alley in Hobart, Tasmania this evening, with punters hustling from venue to venue under the eerie glow of flickering candles and humming neon crosses. Dark Mofo, the island capital’s legendary midwinter music-and-arts festival feels like a vampiric alternative to Europe’s summer celebrations and, though they’ve had to travel halfway round the world to be here, it’s hard to imagine that the murky young metallers aren’t exactly where they belong.
“It feels like home,” grins frontman Brady Deeprose, embracing the neo-gothic atmosphere with cod-ghoulish glee. “When we got the offer through, with the advance documents printed all in red and black, and covered in those upside-down crosses, we were like, ‘Is this gonna be a bit… much?’ But to come out here and see how it takes over the whole city has been incredible.”
More than that, it’s been a reminder. Following the late, COVID-enforced cancellation of both Deafheaven and Lingua Ignota, our lads have stepped into the sub-headline slot at tomorrow’s metal-oriented Sancte Noctis showcase, taking the stage between industrial-inflected U.S. rapper King Yosef and Swedish legends Katatonia. After the cruel reality check of the last two-and-a-bit-years, they’re once again living the dream as one of the UK’s most in-demand metal exports.
“It’s surreal,” Brady begins. “I’m doing press in a hotel room in Australia, about to play a festival on the far side of the world, telling journalists how we used to sit in my basement, eating take-out and writing songs. Already, this band has come farther than any of us thought was possible.”
Therein lies Conjurer’s inherently unassuming appeal. These aren’t insufferable wannabe rock stars, or calculated social media personalities looking to ‘build their brand’. They’re dyed-in-the-wool metalheads, just like the rest of us. When 5/5-rated debut LP Mire arrived in March 2018 – four years after their formation – it struck a chord not through any headline-grabbing high-concept or gimmicky stylistic flourishes, but because its suffocatingly sludgy songs had been concocted over hundreds of performances in basements and back-rooms up and down the country. Even as the venues have grown bigger and the bookings vastly further-flung, Brady admits, “We’ll still come offstage sometimes and be like, ‘Are we a band?! Oh, we’re definitely a band…’”
“I’m still pinching myself,” laughs fellow guitarist/vocalist Dan Nightingale. “We have no image, we have no backstory, we have no sort of cult following or anything like that. We’re just four random, incredibly boring people who like to play metal and, somehow, that’s gotten us here. Sure, if the music didn’t resonate, that wouldn’t have happened, and I am very appreciative of our fans, but I still find it insane that people like what we do enough to [achieve what we’ve been able to achieve]. So cheers everyone, you weirdos!”
The time has come, however, to get serious. Scheduled for release on July 1, Conjurer’s second album Páthos will be their first since signing with metal mega-label Nuclear Blast in February 2021. It is also their first set of songs written with bassist Conor Marshall (joining his bandmates by video-link from his house in Leicester today, having been unable to get time off work for the 21,000-mile round-trip). Not to mention it is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated metal releases of 2022.
“I remember submitting the masters for Mire, and the label coming back to ask for an album title, music videos and artwork,” Brady says. “We were just like ‘What?!’ We didn’t know what we were doing at all! Four years later, we’re showcasing a greater experience, maturity and awareness of what it is to take that step up from being a local band – some guys who’ve gotten together – to a legitimate headline act, which is what we are becoming.”
Having completed recording between The Priory in Birmingham with Greg Chandler from Esoteric, and the Northampton lock-up they lovingly dubbed Excalibur Cottage (a trademark Alan Partridge reference) with engineer Daithí Farah in late 2020, Kerrang! has already heard in-depth about a studio process littered with challenges.
Three days of drum recordings had to be scrapped due to a faulty mic, with Brady undertaking an emergency return trip to London for the replacement. Crack sticksman Jan Krause was hobbled with shin-splints in the immediate aftermath, further delaying recording. An impromptu about-turn on the inclusion of two-and-a-half-minute scorcher Suffer Alone saw Conor having to memorise the album’s hardest song for tracking overnight. Then there was the added pressure of it all happening during lockdown. “I didn’t think the police were going to kick the door in because we were technically at work,” the bassist winces, “but it did add a little extra stress on top of what was already the recording of our most complex material to date.”
At least mixing and mastering weren’t their responsibility. Having been impressed by hardcore super-producer Will Putney’s handling of audio from April 6, 2019’s New York St. Vitus show for K!, they sent the album stateside to be completed at his Graphic Nature home base, with the aim of bringing out as much of their grisly, grimy live texture as possible.
So, with release day finally looming, are Conjurer feeling pressure to meet the massive weight of expectation?
“It’s less a pressure than an obligation to the people who’ve supported us from day one – whether that be turning up to a show or buying a T-shirt, our record label who’ve invested so much time and money, or our booking agent and PR who’ve worked with us for years, to make good art,” explains Brady. “Ultimately, though, the only people we are trying to please are ourselves. If we stick to that tenet, we’re fulfilling our obligation to those who’ve invested in us. And, if anyone doesn’t like the record? We use the phrase, ‘It’s okay to be wrong.’ We’ve written this. We’ve put in the effort. We’ve sat with it for a year and a half. If you don’t like it, maybe you should put in a little more work to get onside.”
If the sound of Mire was defined by the countless shows Conjurer played during its construction, Páthos is the result of Conjurer’s inability to play any at all. Yet, despite a title that translates from the native Greek, literally, as ‘suffering’, listeners shouldn’t expect any kind of pointed reflection on the pandemic experience. “It was more that we couldn’t try to play those songs in any kind of live capacity – be that in a room together or at a gig,” Conor explains. “There was no tweaking or road testing. If you could play it sat down in your house, it went on the album. It’s only now that the world is opening back up and gigs are happening again that we’re trying to play songs live and it’s like, ‘Jesus Christ!’”
When Brady described the band’s new material as making their old sound like “big, dumb idiot riffs” during our studio visit in 2020, it might have raised a few eyebrows, but it’s safe to say that the titanic, shapeshifting riffage of It Dwells, the jarring passages of jangly folk and angular math-rock in Those Years, Condemned, and the stomach-lurching death-doom of In Your Wake more than fit the bill. The old influences – Gojira and YOB, Converge and Electric Wizard – are still at play, but they’re deployed with far more calculation and nuance. On top of that, the frontman name-checks American/Canadian post-metal supremos SUMAC, but prefers to summarise the wave of “in-depth, advanced, muso, extreme metal” he’s trying to tap into as the “Roadburn scene”, referring to The Netherlands’ avant-garde metal gathering.
“I want to take that Roadburn sound and make it approachable to a Download Festival audience,” he expands. “I’m filtering stuff like Imperial Triumphant through the mind of someone who came up listening to Trivium, Bullet For My Valentine and The Black Dahlia Murder. You know when you listen to one of those [artier] bands and say, ‘This song would be 10-out-of-10 if you just turned off that big old brain of yours at the end, and give us the riff’? We’re the band that does that.”
Dan shrugs his agreement: “There are lots of great bands from that Roadburn scene, but, well, it isn’t very fun, is it?”
Not that ‘fun’ is Páthos’ obvious selling point. Comparing it to 2019’s Curse These Metal Hands collaboration with Manchester post-rockers Pijn, Brady reckons that “where CTMH is 50 per cent alcohol, Conjurer is a very sober experience.” We’d contend that this particular set of songs’ soul-shrinking blend of depression and existential dread has more in common with an especially brutal hangover.
The aching All You Will Remember, for example, with its powerful spoken-word contribution from London-based vocalist and composer Alice Zawadzki (‘Thoughts come to me like whispers and vanish just the same / Faces I have known and loved, replaced by masks of shame’) is Dan’s reflection on having watched his late grandmother’s decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s and dementia. “In many ways, it’s the death before death,” he sighs. “That song is an emotional gut-punch. And it’s definitely taken on a different light following my grandmother’s passing earlier this year. There’s stuff that’s in there that I’ve had to ask myself whether I want it out there now that she’s gone. But those things are the reality of the disease. It’s heart-breaking wrestling with the idea that that’s not [the person you love] and that, deep down inside, they know what’s happening to them.”
Inspired by the thought experiment of the same name by online philosopher Roko, Basilisk was initially fixated on the ‘decision theory’ about a hypothetical artificial intelligence with an incentive to torture anyone who imagined it but didn't work to bring it into existence, and that scenario’s implications on human free will. While that abstract concept hauntingly calls to mind the recent news of a Google engineer suspended for suggesting that one of the tech giant’s chatbots had developed consciousness, the finished composition is almost too dense for lyrics, with the central question ‘Is thought akin to ruin?’ hanging tantalisingly at its heart.
Colossal closer Cracks In The Pyre had its beginnings in Jan’s soul-searching following the death of Cardiff City footballer Emiliano Sala in a plane crash over the English channel, and the initial inability to locate his body, but quickly grew into a more complex metaphor for grief and the great hereafter: ‘Seamless tides, once benign, do nought but torment and remind / And, although I may try to picture you on ‘the other side’, your grace remains just out of sight; I’m denied.’ Brady elucidates: “None of us are religious people, but we talked about envying the closure that religious people can get from their belief that the departed has gone to ‘a better place’. When you don’t believe that – when someone goes, they’re just gone – it became this interesting, emotional, incredibly depressing thing to ponder.”
Elsewhere, the songwriters are happy to let sadness speak for itself. The aforementioned It Dwells and Rot explore the contrasting impacts of mental illness. Suffer Alone is a powerful rumination on pained solitude. In Your Wake deals with the effects of rejection and loss. While Brady and Dan have openly addressed their experiences with anxiety and depression in the past, it feels like there's an intimacy, and a hope for compassion, that’s beyond anything Conjurer have shown before.
“I’ve always had this nagging when it comes to writing personal lyrics, that I don’t really want to immortalise something that’s been really quite traumatic for me,” Dan nods. “But so much stuff happens in life that you can’t just not talk about it. You need to get it off your chest. It would be ignorant to say that lockdown didn’t affect us because it affected everyone. This is an album about connection and empathy from a time when we were the least connected that we had ever been. Maybe it would have been a much happier album if it had come from a different [period in our lives], but I like to think it would’ve sounded the same, because we’re miserable buggers anyway!”
Páthos’ story doesn’t end with the music, mind. Although, tellingly, the delay between receipt of the final masters in March 2021 and the eventual release 15 months down the line was primarily down to Conjurer’s desire to deliver physical vinyl copies on the release date (or as close as possible with the current unsteady supply) so that hardcore fans could revel in its analogue glory, it also allowed for the painstaking perfection the overarching package – and processing some upheaval within.
The idea for actual painted artwork had been around since Mire, but the additional time and resource this time out allowed the band to connect with French-British artist Jean-Luc Almond, whose specific style of muted portraits overlaid with abstract oil paintings chimed with the record’s shapeshifting sorrow. His specially commissioned and framed piece was photographed on both sides for physical copies’ wraparound packaging, Brady enthuses: “It’s about the music and [the visuals] being one and the same!”
For Dan, the striking visual perfectly echoed a personal awakening he’d seen represented in the songs. Having discovered he had autism over lockdown, being able to understand and address the disconnection from which he’d been suffering was a liberation. “[It’s] a representation of everything that I’ve been feeling but haven’t been able to express. The image of someone with their head in their hands but this great mass of colour coming out of their face from deep within is representative of all the stuff that I’ve held inside and felt like I’ve not been able to talk about – but which has ended up on the album dressed in metaphors.”
For Jan, meanwhile, last summer marked a breaking point. Following their main stage performance at Download Pilot on June 19, the founding drummer – also a key songwriter, and de facto artistic director in the studio – informed his bandmates that he would be hanging up his sticks.
“It’s really quite sad,” sighs Brady. “I was at dinner with my mum, my wife, and my parents-in-law a couple of days after getting married when I got the message. I just looked down at my phone and looked back up, going, ‘Jan’s quit the band!’ It was like a record scratch. I didn’t really know how to process it!”
It took time for shock to subside into understanding,
“I was really angry for a little while,” he continues. “Mostly, that was about trying to reconcile it with [the timing]. Like, ‘You were fine to travel to Barrow-In-Furness to play a death metal all-dayer to like four people. But the Download main stage? That’s a bridge too far?!’ But Jan has been in at least two bands at a time since he was 10 years old, and was in like six at one point. He’s gigged more than anyone else. Since day one he was open about how much he hates touring, but it used to be that the 30 minutes onstage made it worthwhile. It was two weeks into our first U.S. tour that he told us that he wasn’t even enjoying performing anymore. Then at Download Pilot he snapped at our PR guy, and realised that his bad mood was making him a bad person. For him, that was the moment where he realised that this wasn’t for him. He didn’t just quit this band, it was all the bands he was in. And, horrible as it’s been, it’s been so good for his mental health to step away. I saw him recently and thought, ‘You seem disturbingly close to happy for my liking!’”
The empty stool offered fresh opportunity, too. Cue the introduction of the elephant in the hotel room, Noah See (of Guildford hardcore crew Polar) who, as of this Cover Story, is officially the new drummer in Conjurer. Having been filling in since last November he can’t help but crack a smile as he steps into the interview: “Jan had such an important role in this band, but we’ve just gotten on so well, musically and personally. I’m looking forward to having some new experiences with the guys, getting out there and making my own impression on people.”
It’s the kind of fresh energy that’s pivotal in launching an album this heavy out into the world.
“Noah coming in re-solidified us growing into who we are as a band, and what we want to be,” agrees Conor. “After we asked him to join, he asked us what our goals for the band really are: ‘Is this just four mates who play some gigs where it’s gotten a little bit out of hand, or is this something that we really want to do?’ That’s very much it. In the same way that the pandemic reinvigorated us, now we’ve got a fourth member who actually wants to be here. He’s made us realise how much we want to do this!”
And, if Páthos can elicit the same enthusiasm from fans? That would be the ultimate cherry on top.
“I just hope that people connect,” stresses Dan. “The whole album is a plea for connection. It’s about understanding what we’re all going through, what we’re all feeling. If people just dig the riffs, that’s cool. But if they connect with us more than they did on Mire, it’ll be amazing.”
“It’s about growing this organically,” Brady concludes. “I don’t want any crazy marketing or money push. I just want to have the opportunity to continue connecting with people who feel passionate about our music – and having a few more people turn up in each city every time we go back. Yes, this cake is already covered in cherries. But I’d like the ratio to be about 80 per cent cherry to 20 per cent cake by the time this album cycle is done...”
Páthos is due out on July 1 via Nuclear Blast.
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