Underdark: “It’s vital not to forget history. The poverty we’re seeing today hasn’t come about by chance”

For Underdark, reality can be just as horrific as anything the mind can cook up. As they tackle the history of British deprivation and the struggle of those living with it on their new album Managed Decline, singer Abi Vasquez explains the importance of never forgetting how easily it can set in, or its root causes…

Underdark: “It’s vital not to forget history. The poverty we’re seeing today hasn’t come about by chance”
Sam Law
Benji Wilson

The second album from Underdark is a ghost story, in many ways. Not as in a tale of bumps in the night, or pale figures waving eerily from the windows of faded country mansions. No, Managed Decline is an exploration of something much bigger and more horrifying than that: the spectre of what being working class in the UK once was, thrown into grim relief by what it has become.

“British industry is pretty much a ghost at this point, right?” sighs vocalist Abi Vasquez, boiling down the record’s knotty narrative to key themes of depravation and disenfranchisement. “If you go out of the cities into smaller towns like Coalville or Mansfield, you can see how they were once thriving, but they’re not anymore. The industry is gone. The fucking sense of community is gone. You've just got a bunch of people working in tertiary industries, on the dole, or waiting to get together enough money to fucking leave. It’s those [memories of days gone] haunting the British rust belt.”

It’s also an album about identity. Where Underdark’s stark, stunning debut Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry saw Abi bringing together the “loose change” in her head, pouring out disparate ideas she’d been saving up, album two needed to be more of a definitive statement, reflecting the people and the scarred socio-political landscape from which it was borne.

“I wanted to tell a story,” Abi nods, with steely purpose. “I wanted it to have a sense of place. I wanted to write the kind of album that only a band from the Midlands really could.”

Researching and writing for most of last year, Abi and her bandmates Ollie Jones, Adam Kinson and Stephen Waterfield – with new drummer Dan Blackmore entering the fold – went into No Studio in Manchester late last winter with the aim of creating a coherent, singular piece of work. Sonically, that’s resulted in a more natural flow between soul-rattling black metal and skeletal melody.

Thematically, though, it saw Abi building those sounds into a concept album of staggering scale. A family story told over three generations of life in a Midlands town suffering through the Managed Decline as decreed by ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it charts the slow-burning degradation and potentially nightmarish human impact of such neoliberal callousness.

The first two songs proper, Managed Decline (1st April, 1988) and Employment (16th June, 1993), chart the troubled 1980s, mine-closures and clashes between unions and the police, narrowing focus to one ex-miner who falls into directionlessness and destitution before drinking himself to death. Matrimony (27th December, 1997) charts the path of two lost youths, both heroin users, who hook up at a party, get pregnant, try to keep it together for the child, but are eventually broken when the mother dies from an overdose. After which, the deeply confronting Enterprise (1st November, 2004) finds the child being pimped out by her father to keep funding his self-destructive drug habit.

“It’s a particularly gruesome story, but I approached this album with the same rules that you would writing a novel: show, don’t tell,” Abi shrugs, “It hits harder when you talk about characters rather than just ideas, when you say, ‘Look, this is the end result of what’s going on.’ Charting that story through this family, too, rather than just one set of characters in the present or the past gives crucial context about cause and effect. A sense of history forces people to see the through-lines.”

Exaggerated for dramatic effect as the narrative may be, it is grounded in reality. Abi’s dad was born in Sutton-In-Ashfield and his first-hand experiences of life since the 1980s are ingrained in her understanding of the situation: seeing his own dad and many others losing their jobs in the pits, then, year-on-year fewer jobs, fewer opportunities, fewer young people willing to stick around.

“It becomes this slow, steady grind where prosperity and a decent standard of living are constantly eroded away,” Abi continues. “Eventually, people aren’t even really trying to escape anymore. When I sat down to talk to those who’d lived through these events, one of the recurring themes was how it became taboo to even acknowledge how bad the situation was getting. People stop talking about how the jobs are gone and start acting like they were never there in the first place.”

But acknowledgement is crucial. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. A lot of traditionally ‘political’ bands steer away from the gradual erosion of the towns and industries once at the heart of this country, because the subject matter isn’t sexy enough. The timescales are too distended for many people to really comprehend. Margaret Thatcher is long dead, and as such the institutionalised rot lacks a figurehead to really play the villain. All of which makes it even more vital that artists and thinkers like Underdark keep these home truths alive in conversation.

“It is vital that people don’t forget their history,” Abi nods. “There’s a lot of rhetoric being kicked around about ‘British identity’ and ‘what it means to be British’. If you really want to engage with that, you need to recognise that the poverty that we’re seeing today hasn’t happened by chance. It is entirely the fault of the neo-liberal elite: both Conservative and New Labour. It’s about those in power finding out that people’s jobs can be done cheaper elsewhere – and choosing that.”

Even more important is wrestling control of the narrative from conservative reactionaries whose agendas play into the hands of the governments responsible, perpetuating such systemic decline.

“The blame gets pushed to the wrong places, like, ‘Oh, it’s the immigrants or the refugees!’” Abi frowns. “It’s fucking not. And it can be unbelievably depressing to see people being manipulated into voting for those ultimately responsible for the pain they’re feeling. They’re not malicious or stupid. They’ve just been very effectively lied to. They’re up against a machine which is very invested in making them believe the opposite of the truth. Hopefully by telling the truth on an album like this – which, admittedly, isn’t exactly part of the mainstream – we can wake a few people up.”

Indeed, it’s that glimmer of hope that really sets the record off. The final track, Managed Decline II (2nd November, 2004), concludes the narrative with the abused daughter’s escape from the town in search of a better life elsewhere. There is bittersweetness in that, and no reprieve for the place that swallowed up her whole family, but also a rejection of some commentators’ nihilistic outlook. Faced with whether, on balance, she sees the record’s end as hopeful or tragic, Abi stumbles on her words slightly, unwilling to undercut its grave central message. In the end, she gestures, it’s a monument to the past, present and future, built from decades-thick layers of human experience.

“I think we wanted to make something beautiful, basically," she says. "The record ends with the image of the daughter leaving the town to continue its decay, but I guess some things have to die if we’re going to grow. If people can keep sight of what’s really going on, if they can work towards something, whether that’s re-tooling this country or violent revolution, I believe there is hope. Hope for growth. As it normally is, that growth is going to be painful. But it’s a pain we’re going to have to endure, because the alternative is to stand still, stagnate and fucking decompose.

"I know which of the two I’d rather choose.”

Managed Decline is released on November 24 via Church Road

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