[Cover photo credit to Jack Snell]
On March 31st, the UK-based Metal duo Sermon will release their second album on Prosthetic Records, titled Of Golden Verse. Whereas their first album, Birth of the Marvellous, had its somber aspects, this new collection has a different kind of spark, that of anger in the face of the abuse of power in its many varied forms. The album itself has been complete for some time, so its themes weren’t driven by recent global crises, but there have always been plenty to go around and critiquing power structures has been necessary for as long as history has been recorded.
Songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist HIM (who always appears masked) and drummer James Stewart (Decapitated, formerly Vader) created the album, and it was record and Produced by Scott Atkins at Grindstone Studio. The individual tracks have an interrelationship that relates to story but is more composite than a single story and more cohesive than a group of separate vignettes. Written in sequence, fairly organically, the songs introduce interesting emotional landscapes that are focused on key images. I spoke with HIM about the development of the new album, the ideas of anger and power that spurred it on, and how he approached vocals this time around.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Did you know right away that you would create this album following Birth of the Marvellous, or was that a decision you made more recently? I’m sure a massive global event might have affected things.
HIM: To be honest with you, I originally signed a deal with Prosthetic Records for three albums and I’m planning to fulfill that, but this album was actually written before that deal was signed. It was up in the air, unfortunately, because of Covid, and it’s had to sit for years, pretty much done. It’s a relief that it’s finally happening!
Hannah MS: It must be a huge deal to see it through and celebrate its release this month.
HIM: It’s agony, really, when something is outside of your control. It’s like a really light version of being in prison, almost! Your hands are tied until the situation allows you to do the thing. I’ve been otherwise fairly lucky, though, to have gotten through things easily.
Hannah MS: The ideas and topics on this album have been relevant for a long time, but I’m sure people will recognize how relevant they are right now, too.
HIM: The album may seem topical, but abuses of human power are a universal thing. I think that’s kind of always happened in history. The nearest thing to it right now is also the amount of information that we can publish so quickly these days, which causes its own issues. But the core idea of people dividing each other through opinion has always existed, it’s just every day now around the world. A lot of people have asked if this is a pandemic-themed release, and it’s not really, though it does speak to some people about experiences they’ve had over the last few years more than they ever have done.
Hannah MS: I feel like I became even more aware of some this stuff, as an American, after 2016, including some of the divisiveness and behavior that was brewing. So it’s definitely been in the forefront of my mind for a while. Generally, the more chaos there is in the world, the more that’s exploited by people in power, so we have more examples now, unfortunately.
HIM: You have to wonder when the dam is going to burst, or if it’s just going to get worse.
Hannah MS: I know that your first album had certain emotions and ideas tied to it. It was a little less combative, I think, and more reflective.
HIM: That whole album was written when my dad was terminally ill. We’re only here today because of that, really. It’s quite a grief-laden album. Now that I’m not as sad about my dad’s passing, this new album is more anger-orientated. The album’s a lot more aggressive. The songs that are out now are not as heavy as some of the songs on there. I’m not an angry person, but when you’re making albums, it is a projection of the thoughts that you don’t say.
Hannah MS: Sometimes the writing of the music brings out things that are there but you might be less aware of, too. I do feel like this album tells a kind of story in how the tracks are arranged. There’s something of a prologue and an epilogue to it. Did the arc take a lot of planning?
HIM: The songs are all wrapped under one theme, certainly. There’s not a continuous story with one character. It’s much more like little stories bound into one piece. Musically speaking, it is one song after the next. That’s just the way that I write music. Track 1 is the first track that I made, Track 2 is the second. It’s the only way that I can get things to make sense as a whole piece. So, I knew in my head that I wanted to have a song with blast beats, which is a very intense form of playing, but I knew that it had to wait until the end because it wouldn’t work as Track 3. That would be too soon. It exists at the end because I was waiting for that to happen.
The album starts off fairly intensely, then kind of drops in the middle, with a softer song, and then it rises back up into the last few songs which are much, much heavier. It’s a final peak at the curtain call. It’s sort of like a story in that way. I definitely don’t think “That song needs to go here. That one needs to go there.” Instead, I need to make sure that the song that I wrote, musically makes sense after the one that preceded it. For example, at the end of “Royal”, the end chord is the start chord of the next song. They are not the same song, but it will lead you into the next song more seamlessly.
Hannah MS: When I previewed the album, it actually continually played, so I was hearing the tracks with no air between them. I could hear those connections. It was like listening to a continuous play on a vinyl record. This could work that way.
HIM: Yes, it continuously flows. For vinyl, I made sure that the first side ended with the softer song, so when you turn it over, you don’t start with the soft song. You come back in strongly. It takes a lot of thought, though it didn’t happen all at once.
Hannah MS: It sounds like more of an evolution. How do you capture ideas when you’re writing? It doesn’t seem like a project that’s pieced together from riff ideas you’ve gathered.
HIM: That’s true. I don’t let a good riff spoil the song! Some people will have a library of riffs and they’ll force one into a place that it doesn’t belong. If I have a good riff, and it’s not working, then I have to take it out. It’s about the contrast of the sections and what the point of the song is. The goal is always to be able to present the point of the song where things come together. If you can establish what the peak is in your song, you can take away parts to give emphasis to that.
Hannah MS: You need contrast. So much about listening to music is emotional, anyway, and you have to find ways to vary that. I meant to mention that one of the reasons this album also feels like a story is that you use occasional visual images in the songs and that guides the audience through as well. It almost suggests exploring places. The intro piece, “The Great Marsh”, sets the scene as a prologue for a kind of world. A song like “Golden” is actually quite visual, too. Images are part of the through-line.
HIM: I don’t feel that I’m very good at this, actually, but I’m starting to learn how to do it. There should always be at least one line or motif that hooks the songs. It doesn’t have to be a catchy chorus, but it should allow people to visualize something quite quickly. It could be a simple word, or an action. A lot of Metal bands use the word “fire” a lot. You get that in Vader, for instance. It makes you think of aggressiveness. I try to do the same sort of thing in a non-obvious way. It’s a learning experience for me.
Hannah MS: Your images are not the most obvious things in the context of heavier music, or even of Metal. For instance, with the album’s title, Of Golden Verse, and the song “Golden”, there’s a darker aspect to something that people usually think of as wonderful, bright, and valuable.
When I listened to the song “Golden”, I was reminded of how heavy gold actually is. It’s one of the heaviest substances. I also thought of the story of King Midas, which is pretty dark, and the idea that this could actually be a deadly substance under certain circumstances. There’s a duality to the idea of something golden. That’s not something you see in Metal, for instance.
HIM: Not in Metal, no. The album title is actually kind of ripped off from The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which is just a collection of poems. The reason for titling it Of Golden Verse, was that I wanted it to be a new age collection of observations to do with what we experience every day or hear about. Your observation about gold being heavy and it being a bright thing that causes darkness is very astute. You’re right. That is kind of what it means.
Hannah MS: Tell me more about James and his input. I’m very much aware of the different musical voices in these songs and his is a very distinctive one. When does he usually come into the writing and recording process?
HIM: I try not to show James anything until I have a demo that feels almost like a finished album because I know that he won’t be able to picture what I’m thinking. It’s the same with Scott who I won’t send it to until it’s pretty much finished. That said, I’m not a drummer! When we start tracking the drums, James will come with his own ideas based on the demo. They are always different. Some things stay the same, like core rhythmic elements, but he puts his flair on it and makes it sound far better. He’s really important to the project because he believes in and likes what I’m doing. Without that, my music wouldn’t exist in this way.
I’m not really a musician. This is my only practical outlet for my music. I’ve been doing music my whole life, but I haven’t been doing it this way for very long. The same is true of Scott. I’ve written somewhere that he’s like the George Martin of this process. He interprets the information and binds it all together. He pushes the performance in terms of ideas and in terms of making it sound like a record. While this project is more or less a one-man thing, it also really isn’t. It is integral to have both of them. I trust Scott to push the sound. I think I’d always want him on-team.
I’ve known James for many years. I love the man. He is always on tour, though! That can be difficult. At the moment, he’s doing Decapitated. He can be a hard man to pin down.
Hannah MS: Because a lot of these songs are longer, and have different interludes of quieter moments, I feel like that exposes his work even more clearly. You really get a lot of respect for his work listening to this.
HIM: On this album, there’s so much drumming that I’m worried that maybe James is the only one who can perform it. Like particularly with “Departure”, the last song. James said it’s the longest he’s ever blast-beat continuously for. And he’s been in Vader for ten years! So we’ve trapped him into Sermon forever.
Hannah MS: Did the vocals on this album pose any challenges for you? They are pretty wide-ranging and nuanced. How did you make those choices?
HIM: Before that first album, when I turned up to start singing on it, I’d never really sung anything before. To the point where Scott was teaching me how to sing. But after that album, I thought, “I’m going to take some singing lessons. I need to learn how to control my body and breathe.” That helped a lot. In terms of making choices for phrasing the vocals, there’s a few people I really like, such as David Eugene Edwards from Wovenhand and I really like Layne Staley from Alice in Chains.
During the recording Of Golden Verse, I was also pretty much listening to just Judas Priest for months. I can’t even come close to Rob Halford, but there are a lot more higher vocals on that album and I think that’s because of him. I just love the man. I think he’s great. That pretty much impacted how the vocals turned out. I removed some of the screams that I had on the previous album, even though I’m quite a good Death Metal vocalist. I have a good roar on me. But I wanted to make the album aggressive, musically, and then vocally, maybe a little more restrained.
Hannah MS: The range, even within certain songs, creates a more epic or dramatic feel, I think. It’s a bit operatic even. I found that really impressive.
HIM: That means a lot to me. When an album sits with you for a long time and it’s not released or published, you almost need criticism or feedback to understand what you’ve done. I’m not sure what I’ve done yet. I think it sounds good and I’m very proud of it. But the vocals were really fucking hard.
HMS: Thankfully, it’s not much longer to wait to see what other people have to say. The album itself is very cohesive, I feel.
HIM: The cohesiveness is intentional. Maybe it’s like the way a Tarantino film works where there are lots of little different, separate stories that kind of meet. I think that’s what it’s like.