Death metal is probably not one of mankind's greatest achievements. In a universe of utter bullshit, the genre hits a grand 6.66 on the scale of human devolution, at best. Cat squeals and psycho-beats in spastic decompression, mating cries broadcast by willing neanderthals into seas of gyrating, drunken filth, death metal is a guilty pleasure somewhere between the lines of masturbation and abstract expressionism; at times, even an embarrassment to those of us who play it. Existential questions like, "Why am I doing this? Why am I even here?" would be the mantra—except they'd sound like vomit.
So yeah, death metal itself is no great cultural feat, but musically speaking, it's a realm of endless possibilities. Think of it as a place where worlds can be created and destroyed at will; a noisy frontier where the pioneers are bands called Morbid Angel, Immolation and Napalm Death. Almost 30 years on from these distant experiments, the music continues to evolve. Boundaries are shattered, new concepts are explored and the sound that began as speed x time x satan becomes infinitely more complex and diverse. The long-running, high-concept UK death metal project Mithras provides an excellent example of this exact phenomenon.
Currently signed to Willowtip Records—a label whose motto is "Forward. Thinking. Metal."—Mithras formed in 1998, then made waves with their earth-shattering debut Forever Advancing… Legions in 2002 (which was, in this writer's opinion, one of the greater death metal albums of the last 16 years). Following up with Worlds Beyond the Veil in 2003 and Behind the Shadows Lie Madness in 2007, they became successively weirder and more wonderful, hurtling down their own path with hyper-speed beats, cosmic soundscapes and warping, otherworldly guitars.
You might even reach for the "Morbid Angel on drugs" comparison, except that band founder Leon Macey doesn't do any—he's more into quantum physics. He's not just a phenomenal guitarist, drummer and sound-engineer in his own right, either; as Macey tells us, he's just finished a degree in astrophysics "for fun". What begins as a conversation about his new album, On Strange Loops, becomes a wormhole of philosophy, science-fiction and space entities like Donald Trump… all of which are strangely relative.
Noisey: So, Leon, why are we here?
Leon Macey: We're here so we can ask the question "Why are we here?" How did we spontaneously just arise from simple elements? It drives all art, all science… everything that's related to the human condition.
Friedrich Nietszche believed that creating art was one of the greatest human aspirations.
Yeah, but I think that a lot of human existence is wasted on mundane stuff, you know? Think about it, if you could go a thousand years into the past and show somebody [a smartphone] and say, 'All the knowledge of the world is viewable through this,' their minds would be blown! I wanted to start this album with 'Why do we live?' as the question, because it's the thing you can't get away from. It's the question that a lot of people burn with in their lives and lot of people ignore.
Your new album On Strange Loops has time as one of its central themes. With all the boundary-breaking speed and technicality on your past albums, do you ever feel like time is getting to you?
I think age is probably catching up with me in the sense that drumming at these extreme tempos isn't so easy for me anymore. I had a lot of problems with my knees after we did On Strange Loops because I recorded the Sarpanitum album, Blessed Be My Brothers, right before it. The amount of stuff I've done in Mithras, being the drummer, guitarist and the main guy in the band, does exact a heavy toll in the end.
Why are humans so obsessed with time?
It's because of mortality, isn't it? Why do we live? Where do we go when we die? Do we go anywhere? Scientifically we don't really understand time. We experience it as a process, as a passage from A to B. It can be considered a dimension, the fourth dimension that we inhabit.
You follow up this question with the track "When the Stars Align." It's about finding someone, isn't it?
The characters are these almost immortal spirits, who may have been people a long time ago—not exactly Gods, but they become like Gods through evolution. I had the idea of people who have transcended humanity in the physical sense, but not in the spiritual. They always had those kind of worries, like longing for each other. In that song somebody's looking for their partner who's disappeared and never came back.
A conjunction of the stars is usually associated with some kind of monumental event… why is that?
It's something that people normally talk about in astrology. In the past people used to look at celestial events and think they had grave meanings for humanity. Comets, even supernova have been documented in history. A bright star appears in the sky and they're like, 'It's an omen of doom!' I think that's culturally hung over humans for a long time, which is why it's got a resonance now.
So what do you see when you look up at the stars?
That the light we're seeing is old. That's the thing about space, time and relativity: the light from some of those stars has taken millions of years to get here. When you look up at Betelgeuse, which is a red giant, you can see that it's a 'thing'. It isn't just one pixel. You can see detail. Red giants don't live very long, so Betelgeuse may have already exploded and the light may already be on its way here.
If you had the chance to hang up your instruments to work on some monumental space project, would you be willing to give it all up?
Maybe! It would be something to do with exoplanets, though I'm not sure I'd ever hang the instruments completely. I'm considering doing a PHD in something related to that. I'd like to do some cutting edge research into some of these topics and have access to the space telescopes. It's quite incredible how it's done, you monitor the light from the stars and you're looking for a periodic dip… the dip occurs when a planet comes across it the face of a star and blocks out a tiny bit of the light. Because the light from the star is passing through the atmosphere of the planet, it's sometimes possible to discern what the atmosphere of the planet's made of by the spectral change in the light.
You've got some massive riffs on tracks like "The Howling of Distant Spaces" that I can parallel with bands like Portal, but there's also some of the vibe you might have heard on Morbid Angel's Covenant…
We've always had a light and dark side to the band—we wanted to write about chaos and darkness and forces that outside the knowledge of man, but we also wanted write about melancholy things. Loss, triumph, human experience. When I planned out the drums to that track I actually just thought it'd be cool to think, 'What would Pete Sandoval' do? I wanted to make it Sandoval +10. I really worked to capture that because I thought it would it be a cool kind of homage for that song with the rushing double kicks.
What about the beginning of the track?
It's got a strange beginning with Morse code—there's actually a pattern in that code relative to the song, which I'm not going to explain, but it's about discovering something that's not meant to be discovered. Do you remember the film Event Horizon? We always had that aesthetic in our minds - some fundamental shift in reality where we wanted the music to be twisted and horrible.
Let's talk about one of the stand-out songs on the album. 'Between Scylla and Charybdis' is pretty classic sci-fi as lyrics go…
It's about someone who's presented with a Hobson's Choice: between Scylla and Charybdis; the devil and the deep blue sea; the whirlpool and monster—whatever you want to call it. Like you said, it's a sci-fi story—here's a space-faring civilization, and they've gone through a wormhole which they use as a gateway. Something terrible happens on the other side of that gateway, (possibly related to "The Howling of Distant Spaces") and something comes into that system which should not exist. Somebody's charged with the defense of this gateway and they have to close it, permanently. They leave people on the other side who are dear to them but they have no choice.
As we talk about this all I can think of is the choice Americans have to make between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump…
I'm not gonna pick! The thing is, Hillary Clinton's a real warmonger—she's got blood on her hands already, whereas Donald Trump's a total loose cannon. There's lots of hysterical people who are very anti-Trump, but these are the kind of people who wouldn't bat an eyelid when Hillary Clinton is involved in the deaths of thousands of Syrians. I think a lot of people have a messed-up sense of priorities. They're happy if they've got a progressive female president, even if she's up for killing lots of foreigners. It's this sick sort of social-media malaise that's gripped the human race recently, where everybody's more interested in virtue signaling and talking about what they think's fundamentally right than the actual human cost. I've got that picture of Tony Blair taking a selfie with the explosion in the background up on the wall—it's by Kenneth Phillips. People say, 'Yes, well, Tony Blair did some great things—he invested in the health service and he did a lot for education. He was also involved in killing nearly a million Iraqis!
Who do you think would make a more terrifying space entity?
Oh my God… Donald Trump would probably be like this giant amorphous creature that went around sucking everything up with tentacles. Hillary Clinton wouldn't be too dissimilar. It would be horrific. It's a sad state of affairs when people are only able to choose between candidates like that!
Speaking of entities, "Inside the Godmind" is another track along those lines…
You like all the dark tracks, don't you? It's a dream of entering the mind of a huge, omnipotent being. At the heart of it you find something truly awful—the end of the universe, which is at the center of this being's thoughts…
So there is a God! But it's malevolent.
I'm relatively certain there are entities out there in the universe that we would call 'Gods'. They'll be creatures that have transcended science as we know it. I just don't believe in God floating around on a cloud as it were. We can't preclude the existence of some sort of creative force in the universe, but you can say most organized religions follow a faith that is highly illogical and unlikely given what we know about the nature of reality that we can prove with scientific means. Are millions of people all sharing the same delusion, or are they all dreaming of different Gods? There's no way to know. At the end of the song the protagonist has reached the center of this mind and realized that there's a horror at the middle of it, 'A palsy on the face of God'.
A cosmic disease… do you think that's even possible?
Yeah, I do actually! For example, lots of sci-fi authors have written about the threat of nanotechnology: tiny machines that can disassemble everything, that can take matter to bits, replicate and spread, so that'd fit nicely.
Kind of reminds me of the human race…
Of course it does. It's the mirror.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.'
'On Strange Loops' is out now via Willowtip.
Alex de Moller is not on Twitter, but his band Scythian is on Bandcamp.