by Niklas Göransson
As grizzled veterans of a young band prepare their debut album, we talk about hallucinatory melodies – muse on human annihilation of past and future, and discuss archaeology and history from a distinctly Malthusian perspective.
Ireland’s MALTHUSIAN present themselves as ‘hallucinogenic black death doom’, which is about as encompassing of a genre definition as one could hope to find in extreme metal.
– We’re essentially a death metal band, says guitarist and vocalist Andy Cunningham, though we incorporate quite a bit of doom and a decent amount of black metal. The latter element is perhaps less apparent, despite being a huge influence.
What’s hallucinatory about it?
– It refers to some of the ideas of liminality (a ritualistic threshold) and transition that we use in the lyrics, the idea of slipping between planes of existence; reality and unreality – life and death, all that sort of stuff.
The term also refers to a technique they use when structuring their music.
– We like to overlay guitar parts that shouldn’t really work together, but somehow generate a queasy, toxic sense and makes the music sound elastic, as though it’s being warped in various directions at the same time. When two riffs clash it somehow results in a third riff emerging on the interface. This is the hallucinogen that feeds the brain the images we hope to plant in the mind’s eye of the listener.
The band name stems from British Reverend Robert Malthus, born 1766 and buried 1834. A man of both cloth and science; Malthus’ legacy lies in his theories on earth sustainability, its symbiosis with human society and the depopulation thereof. The term ‘Malthusian catastrophe’ refers to what he regarded as the seemingly natural force that sooner or later imposes a population cap and halts residential growth; be it by famine, disease, warfare or catastrophe. One proven method of rapid hominid subtraction is floods; so befitting their moniker, MALTHUSIAN’s first studio recording was inaugurated by one.
– Yeah, Andy laughs, we’d set up the gear to begin recording the demo (“MMXIII”, 2013) – started our run-through of the first song and next thing this wave came splashing across the floor. It had been pissing down rain for a full day and so the old building we were recording in basically buckled under the strain.
They ended up having to load everything out and then leave the studio for two hours while the deluge aftermath was surveyed.
– It looked for a bit as if we were going to have to reschedule the recording, but luckily they fixed the leaky pipes and we ploughed onwards without further drama.
Despite having only a demo and an EP to their name, MALTHUSIAN have not only played overseas but headlined festivals and even toured America.
– In the beginning we were really lucky to have the ALTAR OF PLAGUES connection via our mutual drummer Johnny (King), as James (Kelly – guitar, vocals) pushed us a lot and even got us touring with them on the back of our demo. It was a massive boost for us. It’s also been great to have Invictus Productions behind us, spreading our name far and wide.
Another reason would be their reputation as a solid live act.
– Yep, when we aren’t completely fucking gimped on drink. Then add in some dumb luck, I suppose. Since we’re the ones writing it, it’s hard to really get a proper perspective on what people get from our music.
In December 2014 MALTHUSIAN got a shot at the big stage in their hometown of Dublin, when recruited as a last-second opening act for Polish BEHEMOTH.
– Fucking hell, he groans, what a nightmare. BEHEMOTH’s ferry from the UK was cancelled due to a storm, so they flew over with their backline. Their support couldn’t make it so we were asked to step in with a few hours’ notice.
Cue Andy driving all over Dublin to collect the others, rush-hour traffic turning what should be a thirty minute drive into a two-hour crawl.
– We eventually managed to collect Johnny from where he was working at the time – a fucking Brussels sprout factory. Tensions were running high and, as you can imagine, he wanted to go home and shower but I was having none of it.
At that point personal hygiene was a reduced priority to Andy, who had himself been cramped behind the wheel the past few hours, stressed out of his mind.
– The pair of us were fit to kill each other. Johnny then says, ‘I’m not going on fucking stage covered in sprout juice’, which sent the rest of us into convulsions of laughter. It was so ridiculous but it broke the tension and we managed to play a reasonable set to a bunch of disinterested BEHEMOTH fans.
Your 2015 EP is called “Below the Hengiform”, what’s the meaning of the title?
– Johnny was studying archaeology as part of his college course when we were recording it, and he came across the mention of these unusual enclosures that once littered our Neolithic landscape.
The hengiforms are thought to have held some sort of ritualistic significance, perhaps representing a gateway between worlds.
– They would have been littered with animal sacrifice, perhaps even human offerings. All songs on the EP carry a thread of thoughts based on the notion of the liminal, so it made sense to use this strong and obscure element in the title. It hinted at what we were on about lyrically without being in any way explicit, and that sense of obscurity is always attractive to me.
The title is also rather apt for Andy, who makes his living in the same field.
– I’ve been working in archaeology on and off for the past ten years, despite studying art in college. I fell into it after finishing my studies and haven’t fallen out of it yet. I work on-site, digging everything from pre-historic sites stretching back to the Neolithic right up to the late medieval period.
I once visited and was extremely impressed by Newgrange (pictured below), sometimes called the ‘Stone Henge of Ireland’.
– Located in the Boyne Valley of County Meath; it’s a passage tomb built in the Neolithic period, roughly 5 000 years ago. It has a long passageway leading into it, aligned perfectly with the rising sun of the winter solstice dawn – allowing the light to crawl up the length of the passage and illuminate the tomb itself. The site is also covered in carvings that strongly indicate ritual significance.
The world of archaeology has seen some exciting developments in the past decade, with the site known as Göbekli Tepe being a major discovery. Located in South-eastern Turkey, it comprises of circle upon circle of massive stone pillars buried under sand – the vast majority of which have yet to be excavated , and has been determined to be at least 12 000 years old.
– These sorts of structures are often considered religious, yet they also seem to show an early fascination with the stars, the sun and the moon, and some understanding of the solstices and equinoxes. To me, this implies that these people might be a lot less primitive than we give them credit for.
Andy points out that their lives would have been much harder and shorter than ours, so for them to dedicate their lives to the creation of these incredible structures says something about their character and purpose on the earth.
– They seemed to be dedicated to learning, problem-solving, and worshiping pagan deities as much as merely surviving. Then again, maybe it’s all linked closer together than we know.
In 1992, geology Professor Robert Shoch of Boston University presented evidence of rainwater erosion on the Great Sphinx of Egypt – which if true pushes its construction back at least 10 000 years. He was universally dismissed by archaeologists; not on a geological basis, but the absence of academically recognised traces of a civilisation old enough with the required engineering capabilities. ‘Show me a pot shard’, as Egyptology celebrity Dr. Mark Lehner mockingly demanded in a subsequent debate.
Do you think the discovery of Göbekli Tepe warrants any re-evaluation on contested sites such as the Egyptian ones?
– Can’t say really, he replies, we need some sort of physical evidence of human activity to know if there were people around at any given time. There’s constantly new evidence surfacing, showing that man was more advanced in ancient times than we had previously assumed, be that through evidence of early farming or the construction of these unusual structures.
Site analysis of Göbekli Tepe (pictured above) by the German Archaeological Institute has shown that it was deliberately buried at least 10 000 years ago, by who and why is anyone’s guess. Even if every single one of the more than two hundred pillars in the approximately twenty circles was built just before the site was decommissioned, the advanced engineering skills required to achieve this must have derived from a long line of architectural tradition.
– Who knows – was it a ‘Eureka moment’ for some local genius, or a case of traditional skills being handed down through time? I think it likely to be a combination of the two. I imagine that throughout history, construction traditions get passed down through generations, interspersed with spurts of ingenuity that propel technology into new advanced states.
Still – we’re talking about a previous unknown culture that pre-dates Sumer, the proverbial ‘cradle of civilisation’, by 6 000 years. I’d be tempted to think that a discovery of this magnitude should compel us to rethink much of what is accepted as history; Andy however, is a bit more reserved in his enthusiasm.
– Sites like this can tell us much about how advanced the human race was, and possibly always has been, but with no written record it’s immensely difficult to get a handle on how they came into being. Who knows, perhaps some older site will appear and we’ll have to reassess our ancestors all over again.
This has actually already happened; enter Gunung Padang in Indonesia. In 2010 it was discovered that what was assumed to be a natural hill was in fact a man-made structure now completely swallowed by the earth. Carbon dating suggests that the foundation was laid a staggering 26 000 years ago and seismographic surveys have shown the structure to contain large cavities. Sadly, further excavations have been halted due to the tiresome politics of academia.
– As long as man has been self-aware and standing upright, he’s undoubtedly been bending the world around him to his own ends. Whether that’s inventing gods to fill in the gaps of knowledge that science seeks to complete, or whether it’s simply making his existence more comfortable – we can assume that he’s always been a resourceful creature.
This is where the conversation takes a Malthusian turn.
– I suppose it’s likely that civilisations of the past have been almost wiped out; some may even have been completely erased from memory. Tsunamis, massive storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and so on have always been happening – only our technology has helped reduce their impact on us.
Andy points out that we now have the luxury of advanced warning systems for extreme weather conditions.
– Without cars, trains, buses or planes to get the fuck out of dodge, we would have simply been wiped off the face of the planet. Communities were a lot smaller in the past, also, so it wouldn’t necessarily take a huge disaster to wipe out a town or city.
New research and peer-reviewed science support the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis. This is in essence a massive end-all-life cataclysm in the shape of a comet that happened roughly 12 800 years ago. It’s believed to have wiped out untold megafauna and rose the sea levels over 60 meters, or 200 feet.
Do you think it’s possible that there might have been advanced civilisations, perhaps coastal communities, that were eradicated by this?
– As communities, towns and cities always spring up near sources of water – be that rivers, oases, lakes or on the coast; it makes sense that they’re going to be the first to go when any kind of cataclysmic event roars in from the oceans.
If water levels rose anywhere near as much today, most of civilisation would be engulfed. Nothing made of steel, concrete or asphalt would be left after 100 years, let alone 10 000. In this context, it’s interesting to keep in mind that several hundreds of different cultures across the globe have primordial flood myths.
– Flood myths seem like a logical way to explain how old civilisations may have been wiped out, but assembling the puzzle of the ancient past can be problematic in that respect. With the written word only having developed around 6 000 years ago, and much later for the general populace, we have to rely on malleable and fallible oral histories.
This comet impact has been nailed down to a 12 800-years-ago window – which has the eerie coincidence of backing up Greek philosopher Plato’s dating of the destruction of Atlantis. Plato lived around 400 BC; he noted that the mythical island civilisation had first been mentioned by Athenian statesman and poet Solon, who preceded him by 300 years. Solon allegedly learned from an Egyptian priest, who referred to ancient texts stating that Atlantis was submerged into the Atlantic Ocean 9000 years before. This would land it in the same period as the Younger Dryas event.
– I have no difficulty in believing that some sort of event may have brought on sudden and massive climate change. We appear to be on the cusp of something similar right now, only this time it seems to be by our own hand.
He says that ecosystems are fragile phenomena that depend on a number of conditions for them to remain intact.
– Interrupt any one of those conditions and you’ll see a knock-on effect occur across the food chain. A sudden rise in water levels or a dip in temperature by a couple of degrees, not to mention a worst-case scenario of ice ages clamping down on the earth, are all going to drastically affect the natural world around them.
Andy mentions having recently read the book Feral, by British writer and environmental activist George Monbiot. It argues for a rewilding of the planet – meaning large-scale environmental conservation, and strongly criticises animal husbandry.
– It actually fed into the lyrics for the album we’re working on in a big way. As far as the myths are concerned, this is lore that’s been passed on by word of mouth over thousands of years. While there might be kernels of truth in there, it’s impossible to say what can be gleaned from any of it.
Might we be approaching a similar cataclysm in the modern world? Global populace growth is astounding; some countries see their citizenry doubling in less than a generation. Malthus points to overpopulation as a certain precursor to imminent residential downscaling.
– There’s simply no denying that we’ve managed to boost Earth’s population, to a great extent thanks to better understanding of the importance of healthy living – at least in the West. Our life-expectancies have doubled and more in the last hundred years.
Today, many nations rely entirely on foreign aid for everything from finances to food and healthcare. If this funnelling was stifled in a speculative scenario where European economies collapse following market crashes or civil unrest, we could be looking at depopulation at rates unheard of since the Bubonic plague.
– I’m sure the population would vastly decrease, at least for a time. I think it’s basic human nature to feel empathy toward fellow humans who are in desperate conditions, whose fate has been taken out of their hands – and to want to offer them help in some way.
Andy adds that the downside of this is that the more we become, the faster we’ll burn fossil fuels and rip up the forests we depend on for oxygen.
– We tend to see more and more extreme weather systems rampaging over the globe – not to mention the melting polar icecaps, which can only result in catastrophe as time wears on. I suppose that was essentially what Malthus was on about.
MALTHUSIAN’s home soil is littered with the skeletal memories of nationwide malnourishment; in 1845 to 1852, Ireland suffered what later became known as the Great Famine. With one million dead and another million emigrated, I can’t help but wonder how much this might have influenced the Irish society of today.
– That’s a tough question, he replies, it’s hard to really relate – or equate, the Ireland of today with that of the time. The south is separated from the UK and has become a more or less sovereign nation, as much as is possible for a country that answers to the European Union.
Let’s take things like national mood, and the general outlook on life.
– I’m not sure, especially when you consider the Celtic Tiger years – a short era of prosperity around the turn of the millennium; there was money to burn all over the country and everyone seemed to turn into a property developer overnight.
That didn’t work out too well. After a series of banking scandals and a property bubble, the country fell into recession in 2008.
– I think we’ve become too far removed from the people that used to live here, in terms of our sense of who we are. We can’t speak our own language (Gaelic) for the most part and we’ve become as Americanised as the rest of the world, leaving most with nothing more than skin-deep nationalism. Now whether that’s good or bad is up for debate.
The country’s turbulent history has undoubtedly had a hand in shaping its people. One of the traits of the Irish metal scene is that there has traditionally been very little emphasis on image.
– I think that among the bands I like, there’s usually some nod in the direction of at least looking the part. Besides Alan (Averill, PRIMORDIAL), no other bands really go too over the top on that front. I think it can work really well if done properly but it’s so easy to cock up, and when corpse paint goes wrong it really is a fucking abomination. As for us, we’re all ugly enough without having to add spikes or fake blood.
Everyone in MALTHUSIAN is also a scene veteran, as would seem to be the case with most, if not all, Irish metal bands that currently enjoy some form of notoriety. There doesn’t seem to be very many up-and-comers even in their twenties.
– Very true, it’s something we discuss here from time to time; the younger metalheads seem to be more into metalcore or djent.
‘Djent is a style of heavy metal music that was developed as a spinoff of traditional progressive metal’. I hope I wasn’t the only one that had to look that up.
– Fair fucks to any youngsters who pick up their instruments and start writing songs, God knows I played some awful shite as a kid and had a lot of fun in the process. It would however be good to see a few of these guys and girls trickle down into the underground.
Instead, Andy says, there seems to be a complete vacuum in the scene where the teenagers should be.
– The thrash scene imploded a few years ago but most of the people involved appear to have vanished with the passing of the trend. It’s strange. Luckily there are still new and exciting bands emerging, even if the faces are a bit grizzled, so things should remain healthy for a while longer.
What’s up next for MALTHUSIAN?
– At the end of August we head to Bergen for Beyond the Gates. That will be an experience, I can’t wait to see Norway at last and hopefully play a relatively sober, relatively tight set…