Urne: “Somebody said this is the most ‘human sounding’ metal record they’ve heard in years. That meant a lot”

Reckoning on death, degenerative illness, and the darkening of the mind, Urne’s incredible second album A Feast On Sorrow is one of the most wholly heavy records in recent memory. Frontman Joe Nally explains how the London trio teamed up with Gojira frontman Joe Duplantier to work through one of the darkest periods in his life…

Urne: “Somebody said this is the most ‘human sounding’ metal record they’ve heard in years. That meant a lot”
Sam Law
Andy Ford

It was a perfect summer’s day when Joe Nally’s world was ripped apart. Having recently relocated, along with the rest of his immediate family, from the bustling metropolis of London to the relative tranquility of England’s south coast, the Urne frontman had begun to allow himself to look forward to the years ahead. But a single afternoon around the kitchen table knocked his focus onto suffering, death, and the infinite emptiness that follows.

“I remember the moment so clearly,” Joe rubs his brow. “The whole family had come round to the house and we were just sitting there, having a nice cup of tea, when it was like, ‘Look, we’ve got something to tell you…’ When you’re talking to people who’re 60-odd, that’s never good. You get the horrible feeling – if you know it, you’ll know – when someone you care about tells you there’s bad news, like everything’s flowing out of your body.”

Having always been close with his family, Joe had fallen into that false sense of security which can be so easy and inviting: the faint belief that Mum and Dad would be around forever. He’d noticed behaviours that weren’t right – small muddles, forgetfulness – but had shrugged them off as natural consequences of old age. The news that one of his parents – he prefers not to say which – had developed progressive dementia rocked him hard.

Of course, the outcomes of such a diagnosis can vary. Joe himself has a relative who’s lived with the condition for close to two decades. But optimism has been hard to find. His grandmother was diagnosed with the same illness shortly after, and snatched away with startling rapidity, passing three months ago. Watching the situation with his parent deteriorate in realtime has left Joe bracing for a long, hard two or three years.

“I still feel the pressure piling down on me,” Joe flashes back to the Day One. “It was like I couldn’t even lift my head. I was focused on a spot in front of my sister, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget her big tears falling one on top of another, leaving this puddle on the table.”

That pool of sadness became the inspiration for The Flood Came Rushing In: the first track on Urne’s stunning second album A Feast On Sorrow. Although Joe hadn’t musically tapped into this kind of raw-nerve emotion before, the inability to process the private situation through conversation with friends saw him pour those feelings into his lyrics.

“Writing was a release,” he says. “It had been like, ‘What do I do with this news? Do I tell everyone? Is it everyone’s news to know?’ I realised that I could turn those feelings – confusion, anger, sadness – into something to help me along the way. And it really did.”

Joe found himself going back to an old Dave Mustaine interview, too, finding a sort-of strange solace in the Megadeth frontman’s uncharacteristically nuanced account of the trauma suffered when his mother-in-law, a victim of Alzheimer's, went missing and was never seen alive again. Dave’s description of someone being cursed ‘to die twice’ struck a chord, and confirmed to Joe that this album was a chance to share what he needed.

“Over this whole process, I think I’ve only lost it twice,” the singer smiles. “Instead, I put everything into the songs. Month by month, week by week, I wrote in the moment, which became the first five tracks. Then the last three deal with the pain that is yet to come.”

This outpouring of emotion coincided with a period of change for Urne. Skilled drummer James Cook had been recruited. They’d signed to storied metal label Candlelight Records. Where Joe sees their outstanding, albeit largely overlooked, debut Serpent & Spirit as the throwaway work of friends – himself and guitarist Angus Neyra – messing around, rehashing old ideas that dated back a decade to their previous band Chapters, and paying homage to heroes like Thin Lizzy and Mastodon, album two was time to get serious.

“We had new riffs, a new drummer, and everything seemed to be going wrong in our lives,” Joe smiles, wryly. “We drew from that. Previously, we’ve been very clearly influenced by bands like Metallica. This time, it was about finding out what works best for Urne!”

As much as Serpent & Spirit flew under the radar of the broader metal community, it did pique the interest of the right people. International heavyweights such as Trivium, Killswitch Engage and Whitechapel as well as UK contemporaries Conjurer, Mountain Caller and Tuskar reached out to express their admiration. More significantly, Gojira bassist Jean-Michel Labadie would trumpet its excellence to his frontman Joe Duplantier.

“Joe messaged us on Instagram to tell us he’d heard [Serpent & Spirit] and that we should keep it up and stay in touch,” Urne's Joe remembers with a grin. Before long, he and Angus had headed to Copenhagen for an in-the-flesh meet-up with the French icons. In a moment of electric serendipity, the Joes found themselves connecting more deeply over parents’ passion for art and illustration. “Although there were other people in the room during that conversation, it was one of those moments where it felt like it was just me and him, and he understood that what we were attempting needed to be done in a certain way.”

When a query was sent out as to whether Urne might utilise brother Mario’s setup at Duplantier’s Silver Cord studio in Brooklyn, New York, to beef up their drum sound, the French metal legend countered with an offer to produce their whole album himself – an honour reserved for close friends and personal favourites like Car Bomb, Mastodon and Highly Suspect. Underlining his investment, he’d arrange for “godlike” live engineer Johann Meyer to be involved, too, and for the legendary Ted Jensen (who’s overseen everything from The Eagles’ Hotel California and Bob Marley’s Exodus to Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven) to oversee the final mix.

The more ragged elements of Duplantier’s approach, Joe stresses, were geared to match and emphasise the difficult feeling in the songs. Moments of fret buzz or flickers of background noise were embraced rather than excised. Outside-the-box thinking led to kick-drums full of Swiss Francs. Son Orest’s beginner guitar amp was even borrowed for its killer mid-range.

“A lot of metal today feel too polished,” Joe nods. “It’s too clinical. You don’t feel it. One of the things that puts Gojira on another level is you always feel their message, their meaning. The music that we recorded at Silver Cord sounds polished, but never lifeless. There are so many organic vibes. [Duplantier] got it in a way that I don’t know will happen ever again.”

From the tempestuous artwork by esteemed coastline photographer Rachael Talibart (her first album cover) to every anguished vocal and pummelling riff within, the finished article feels like a complete realisation of the pain from which it was plumbed. From the autobiographical onslaught of the aforementioned opener (‘You detailed the demise / Of your past and future mind’) to the brutalist introspection of To Die Twice (‘Which will die first? / The Heart? / The Mind? / The Soul?’), themes are fearlessly confronted, not hidden behind theatrical fantasy or flowery metaphor. Its crashing sonic palette draws from black and death metal while invoking Machine Head and Mastodon at their breathtaking best.

Towering above all else, however, are the record’s epic, 11-minute pillars: A Stumble Of Words and The Longer Goodbye/Where Do The Memories Go. The former’s inside view of a failing mind is counterbalanced by the latter’s bittersweet resignation and faint flickers of hope. Fascinatingly, both showcase a love of Celtic music, from the weeping guitar of Irish blues great Gary Moore to the mystery and melancholy of old folk favourites The Night Visiting Song and The Parting Glass, to showcase Urne at their most versatile and visionary.

At the beginning of this press cycle, Joe struggled with the deeper meaning of A Feast Of Sorrow. The song after which the album was named adopted the perspective of some demon – perhaps Death himself – who gorged on the misery wrought by the grim inevitabilities of disease, dementia and deterioration in old age. With the benefit of a few more months distance from writing and recording, and countless hours of conversation, he is ready to acknowledge that the album itself is the feast of misery: his and his family’s.

“There were a lot of fun elements to Serpent & Spirit,” he shrugs. “There aren’t many of those here. This is not a joyful record – at all. It is heavy in its sound, yes, but also the lyrical themes, the atmosphere, even my voice. The sorrow is my sorrow. It’s my sorrow at the beginning, my sorrow in the current moment, and my sorrow for what’s yet to come. Maybe there’s some alternative reality version of the record where it’s a sad emo boy putting out an album of eight really heartbreaking acoustic ballads. But this is mine.”

Now the album is out in the world, Joe is coming to terms with the fact that these songs are no longer just his. The personal story he set out to tell may still be ongoing, but the catharsis he craved has been achieved. Now it’s time to the release the art his anguish brought forth to allow others to view it in the context of theirs.

“I remember hearing Alive Or Just Breathing by Killswitch Engage when I was a kid going through some family illnesses and deaths, and how that album made me feel safe,” he concludes. “I related so strongly to it at the time. To have people who’re dealing with similar things and who’ve heard A Feast On Sorrow tell me it’s done the same for them are some of the most important words I’ve ever heard. Somebody said this is the most ‘human’ metal record they’ve heard in years. That meant a lot. It feels weird to say I hope people will ‘enjoy’ an album about grief, but it’s so important to me that they take something away.”

A Feast On Sorrow is out now via Candlelight

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