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5 reasons why you need to check out Underdark

Underdark are amongst the most ferocious faces of the new wave of British black metal. Here’s a roadmap into their shadowy realm…

5 reasons why you need to check out Underdark
Words:
Sam Law
Photo:
Morgan Tedd

Black metal is booming in Britain right now, with upcoming outfits as varied as Dawn Ray’d, The Infernal Sea and Howling Waste expanding the genre’s sonic palette – and subverting its more toxic ideals – as they drag grim and frostbitten motifs into the modern era. Few do so with as much audacity or conviction as Underdark, however. Originally formed back in 2015, the Nottingham collective struck upon a dark magic with the recruitment of vocalist Abi Vasquez in 2019, and have quickly risen through the ranks, bolstered by a reputation for uncompromising politics and outside-the-box songcraft.

As they prepare to hit the road with Bristol post-metallers Svalbard and London heavy-prog trio Mountain Caller next week, we sit down with Abi and guitarist Ollie Jones to unpack the dark delights of one of the most fascinating forces on the Brit-metal underground…

1They’re taking black metal to strange new places

There’s a lot going on in Underdark’s sound. Beyond its raw, blackened core, there are elements of the post-metal of bands like Ulver or Enslaved, and the blackgaze of contemporaries like Deafheaven and Alcest. Dig deeper still, and there is much of the wry miserabilism of post-punk and, most strikingly, the energy and open-wound emotion of 2000s screamo. Ollie and fellow guitarist Adam Kinson spent most of their time making indie-pop before they started this band, and flickers of the ingenious melody of that world still bleed through. Indeed, descriptions of Underdark’s sound over the years as ‘Envy-meets-Emperor’ or ‘What Joy Division would sound like if they made black metal’ aren’t far off the mark.

“We try to write what we want to hear,” explains Ollie. “Quite often, that’s what other bands aren’t doing.”

“Black metal is something that we’ll probably never stray too far away from, but I don’t think that any of us consider genre too much when we write,” Abi picks up. “It’s more a case that we do what we want to do. We’re all from a hardcore background, or hardcore-adjacent. We’re all pretty well-versed with the DIY scene. Pg. 99 is one of my favourite bands. Dystopia, too. And there’s an undeniable post-punk element there, with bands like Joy Division and Christian Death. I listen to a huge amount of hip-hop as well. Some of my favourite lyricists are rappers like Sage Francis or Dessa. One of the best things about this band is the journey we take people on with our music. We grab you by the throat and take you for a ride!”

2Forget Dungeons & Dragons; their music is serious stuff

If you stick ‘Underdark’ into any number of search engines online, you’re less likely to get results about the band and more to find a description of the ‘the vast network of underground caverns and tunnels underneath the surface of Abeir-Toril’ from Dungeons & Dragons. Search for Abi in isolation, too, and you’ll probably find her bio as budding sci-fi writer rather than the singer in a band. Despite those links to the world of high fantasy, however, what sets Underdark apart is their refusal to disguise raw ideas and feelings behind outlandish imagery and otherworldly metaphors…

“While I enjoy D&D as much as the next person, this band was named after 2005 Funeral Diner album The Underdark,” Abi explains. “While I am a science-fiction author in my [other life], in this band I keep everything as grounded in reality as I possibly can. I think that that complete unwillingness to hide behind metaphors and the insistence to say things how they are is something that sets us apart. But I’m fine with people Googling our band and getting pictures of elves and dwarves, too. That’s funny as shit!”

3They fight the good fight

When Underdark first emerged onto the scene – and still, in some circles – they found themselves classified among the surging anti-fascist and anarcho-black metal scene of the mid-2010s. Although, vehemently, the politics of those bands aligns with theirs, they’re keen not to be defined as a ‘political’ band. “It’s quite strange,” nods Ollie. “None of our music is really overtly political. Most of Abi’s lyrics are about personal things.”

When your writing is based in harsh reality, however, it’s almost impossible not to keep it apolitical. Songs like With Ashen Hands Around Our Throats (a furious response to the Grenfell fire of 2017) and Coyotes (a rebuke of the humanitarian disaster on the U.S./Mexico border) mightn’t deal in the kinds of drum-beating calls to arms you get from a band like Dawn Ray’d, but they often provoke and even more powerful emotional response.

“I very much write about real shit,” says Abi, “whether it’s personal or something that affects people on a wider scale. Given the current climate, it’s almost fucking insulting to write a fucking love song and bury your head in the sand. Even outside military action overseas, there’s so much shit closer to home that it’s hard to know where to start, from the government trying to erode our freedom to protest, to public services becoming privatised, to fucking corporations steadily buying up more and more of our lives. If you’re not at least a little bit political, there’s something fucking wrong with your head.”

4Their debut, Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry, was the culmination of a half-decade struggle

Underdark had released record before Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry. 2016’s Mourning Cloak EP and 2018’s split with Antre are both powerful pieces of work. The five tracks of their debut full-length, however, are proof of the game-changing shift that followed Abi’s arrival, while its years-long gestation is testament to the collective’s belief in the band.

“It felt like a real culmination,” smiles Ollie. “When we started out, we were riding that [overtly antifascist] ‘Red and black metal’ wave, but we needed to move on from that to be in a band in our own right. Finally getting the album out seems to have made us part of that [bigger metal scene] which is what we always wanted.”

“I came in a couple of years into that five-year cycle of making the album, after the music was written,” continues Abi. “Just about everything that could’ve happened to this band did, from the personnel change to the pandemic. It was shit on top of shit. It felt like we were in a war to be honest. But to be able to finally get the music out there was amazing. I’ve been in bands before, but nothing has felt half [as powerful] as this. The first show back we played was in London. I remember that feeling of looking out at this huge room of people, thinking ‘Okay, this is actually happening now.’ I shat myself, but it was amazing!”

5Those upcoming UK dates will be emotional rollercoaster rides

By their own admission, Underdark have all too often found themselves the odd ones out in the live arena. In Svalbard and Mountain Caller, though, they meet tourmates who more than match up in their commitment to shifting musical and socio-political norms within heavy music. Alongside the former’s scourging post-black metal and the latter’s more free-flowing instrumental heaviness, their shapeshifting ambience and angularity will be free to work its magic to audiences full of open minds. Ollie grins. “It’s about giving people something a bit different to what they’ve seen before.”

Abi, meanwhile, is keen to stress that they won’t just be tagging along for the ride. Instead, she tells us, they’ll be maximising their combination of heavy metal atmospherics and loose-limbed hardcore electricity for maximum impact.

“It all comes back to that thing where our songs take you on a journey. There are some parts where people will kiss and some parts where people will kick the shit out of each other. To me, that’s beautiful. I don’t mean to brag, but I sound fucking ferocious live, and the lads are absolutely immense. So, we’re looking forward to getting out there and blowing the roofs off some places…”

Underdark’s album Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry is out now via Surviving Sounds. They tour the UK alongside Svalbard and Mountain Caller March 9 – 20.

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