(review can be found here)
Is it delusional to believe in a revitalization of our much beloved music? Judging by the everflowing stream of nonsense bombarding our ears for the last 20 years or so, it is all too easy to answer the question affirmatively. What ultimately makes it worth hanging around just a little longer are the precious few and often unexpected discoveries that somehow manage to make it to your stereo. Like Zarathustrian Impressions by the debuting epic death/black metal ensemble Polemicist. With a combined assault of evocative melodies, erudite songwriting and conceptual rigeur, these Philadelphians have not only helped restore faith in underground music, but also cleared the path for further exploration in the crossection between black, death and heavy metal.
In the brief promotional sheet accompanying Zarathustrian Impressions, the album is described as: “a work of Metal Impressionism based on Books II & III of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. This statement gives rise to a plethora of questions. In the hope of gaining insight into the creative process of a band with obvious potential, Death Metal Underground reached out to founding member Josiah Domico (vocals/rhythm guitar), who answered the call with considerable enthusiasm and eloquence.
1. What was it that inspired you to base an album on Nietzsche’s arguably most perplexing work and how did this in turn affect the compositional process?
Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a perplexing work. Nietzsche’s aphoristic writing style makes all of his works appear less unified than they really are. When one dwells with Nietzsche’s texts long enough, certain patterns begin to emerge. Laurence Lampert is a pioneering scholar in this view, championing the works Nietzsche’s Teacher and What a Philosopher Is: Becoming Nietzsche. Alexander Nehemas also has done great work out of similar traditions, with essays such as ‘Who Are ‘The Philosophers of the Future’? That essay, in part, deals with the unity of the book Beyond Good and Evil.
I picked up Also Sprach Zarathustra, the Barnes and Noble edition-Clancy Martin translation, when I was 17 or 18 years old. As someone who grew up having to go to church, I at once found it fascinating, and I found his scathing Anti-Christianity and exciting sophistic style of Philosophy to be enrapturing. I didn’t make it very far into the book at that time. It wasn’t until six or so years later when I picked it up again. I was in the band Shadows in the Crypt at that time, playing live guitar, listening to as much Black Metal as I possibly could, but after multiple line-up changes, I decided to finish school and study Philosophy. I wanted to engage with Western Philosophy, and it wasn’t until I read more and more Philosophy and Nietzsche, that his considerable depth truly emerged.
Thus, I wanted to give Nietzsche a proper treatment in Metal music. My “street cred” is surely affected by my having gone to school before I made a name for myself with my own band: Amor Fati. I needed to show in some way, that Nietzsche is far beyond the child-people who read and begin to interpret him because they are tickled pink by his edginess.
During the compositional process, Nietzsche was very much on my mind. I don’t have some story about the esoteric nature of his work affecting my guitar playing after each aphorism read, but I kind of stuck to the major themes in the book. I wanted to get away from the focus on the Ubermensch, since the word was hijacked by individuals who have no place in Philosophy, bastardizing Nietzsche’s name for their own vile gain. So, I kept to Books II & III, where the Will to Power is formulated, and through that immutable principle, the thought experiment of Eternal Return is sketched out. Only “Revenge of the Tarantulas” was written around a concept, but the music took shape far different than how that part reads.
2. Impressionism is not a term commonly associated with heavy metal music. How would you define it in the context of your own work?
While we are nothing like Debussy, our use of the word is similar to the Neo-Classical composers who first borrowed the term from Monet and company. The departing use of the word is to say that despite a long period of studying and understanding Nietzsche, this work is based on our impressions of the book. Thus, there is no ulterior goal of this musical work to be viewed as the Nietzschean musical work, as such. Everyone who has covered Zarathustra musically in the past has stated that those works were extremely loose concepts. From this angle, our concept is very strong and follows certain “plot points” (if you can agree to call them that) in the book, but since this is underground Metal music, it will never be recognized for what it is, outside of a small circle of Extreme Metal fans who want something different. Maybe the term is providing protection of some sort, as any student of Aesthetics could probably defend our use of the word in such a context.
3. Although grounded in 1990s death- and black metal, Zarathustrian Impressions displays a good deal of stylistic range, yet somehow coalesce into a uniform whole. Did you have a clear vision of the music in advance or was it more akin to a process of finding your unique mode of expression?
Perhaps a blend of both? We knew that we wanted to create narrative music, rooted in the traditions of Heavy, Black, and Death Metal, filtered through The Romantic Spirit. However, our subject matter is not very “Black”, so it’s difficult for me to seriously define our music as Black Metal. Since my reason for picking up guitar was Emperor, Burzum, other second wave, Swedish BM and Eastern European gems, and since I never left the Black Metal tradition, that sort of guitar-playing came very naturally to the fore.
Lydia has an Industrial/Goth/Dark Wave component in her writing, moreso than I do, and she is even more firmly rooted in Heavy Metal, beginning guitar in childhood playing Eddie Van Halen licks and Tony Iommi riffs. Lydia is also Classically Trained in Violin, Cello, and Oboe. She is used to thinking multi-modally, and also in multiple voicings. I am a big listener of Baroque and Romanticism (and some Classical), so we were able to understand each other when it came to such direction.
This project, and especially this album was an experiment of the two of us composing the best material we were capable of composing and we brought everything we had in, ‘with nothing left over’. We had no idea where the journey would take us and we are pleased with our results regarding this “demo” proposal.
4. If reflected on as a whole over repetitious listening, Zarathustrian Impressions appears to unfold in accordance with a subtle sense of pacing and/or narrative. Is there a “hidden” structure at play, or could it just be that this type of music is prone to stimulate human imagination?
Once again, I have to lean towards both. There are very subtle uses of theme throughout the work, tying various songs together, also foreshadowing certain movements, and developing others. For instance Riff/Theme 2 (my rhythm riff) on “Redemption” foreshadows the freedom found in Riff/Theme 2 of “Solitude”, when I turn those very basic power chords both into tri-tone variations. The aggressive opening theme of “Life Overcoming Itself” is later resolved in the superior variation found at the beginning of “Redemption” (that first section). The opening arpeggiated sequence of Tarantulas finds a mutated hearkening in Riff/Theme 6 of “Life Overcoming Itself”. There are even more moments I could point out.
That all being said, while I like to think the intentionality of the author matters more than anything else, Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” theory rings just as loudly. As much thought as we, as Polemicist, have put into this record, a listener capable of even further musical-theoretical thinking will make connections that we may have completely missed. Some people oppose this line of thought, but I can’t help but validate it. This is not because I want to validate everyone’s opinion, but more because it is hard to argue with something someone ‘sees’ that another has missed. Human imagination, then, can carry the listener far from the intentions and successes of the artist.
5. Your album has only been out for a couple of weeks yet, but the band has been performing the material in concert on several occasions. Does the music assume different dimensions when executed in a live setting?
We recorded the guitars on the album as direct-in, so we didn’t use the amps we use live (Engl, Soldano). However, despite this, we achieve similar tones. There is some improv, not in the sense of Grateful Dead, but slight variations can be heard. We use Polyphonic Octave pedals to achieve the octaves heard on the album. The bass is usually louder when our bassist is able to gig. Sometimes there are three or four guitar parts on some sections of the album, so in a live setting, Lydia or myself will have to start out that section playing one voice, then quickly shift to another voice. We are very aggressive live, and we usually play at 200bpm or more, in comparison to the mild 180 of the album. Our drummer is truly a sight to behold!
6. In chapter 29 (‘The Tarantulas’) of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, the main protagonist Zarathustra declares: “For man to be redeemed from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms. Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!”. How would you interpret Nietzsche’s concept of “overcoming revenge”?
Revenge is stemmed from ressentiment, jealousy, self-hatred, etc. When Nietzsche condemns revenge, he is not saying to become sage-like and take no actions, passively. Nietzsche didn’t believe in democracy or equality. Why? Because Nietzsche’s form of individualism is such that everyone is bound by their own unique perspective. There is no escaping that perspective. Before physical skill and talent even comes into play, we are tied to ways of being that we didn’t invent, and indeed that determined us. Communism/Socialism seeks to level the playing field so that no one stands out, and we are all identical pieces of rotting, soulless meat. Thus, we get no more Brahms or Winston Churchills or Michael Jordans or Miles Davis-types. Instead of hiding from natural truths, Nietzsche thinks that inequality as a necessary pre-condition for life. Not everyone gets to be a body builder, not everyone can write worthwhile tunes, not every actor is going to get an Academy Award.
Nietzsche’s prescription for overcoming revenge begins at that point of not wanting to change what experiences had led the individual up to a certain point-to embrace alienation, divorce, illness, poverty, famine as necessary experiences of one’s life. Those who have it easy and choose not to challenge themselves are hollow. Those with real substance and grit are the ones who can say “yes” to the venom of life, but don’t become consumed by it. Life in all its beauty and horror, life in all its ecstasy and anxiety. Only then, can one become what one is. The Ubermensch, then, is one who overcomes all of the above, not one who would want things to be otherwise.
Similarly, the tarantulas are those who hate any variation of people who are unlike them. To truly say “yea” to life is to accept that there are people that one may never get along with, and once again, for this fact not to change. If we are all truly bound by individual perspectives that make us unequal, then it follows that there is no changing this fact. The only option is to embrace it. Since we have inherited terrible values, it is up to the true creators to create new values that are beyond good and evil, beyond red and blue. Though Nietzsche doesn’t flesh out the revaluation of all values in Zarathustra, it is seemingly foreshadowed, and that was Nietzsche’s best contribution to Philosophy, in my view.
–And here I want to add a bit about the “preachers of death” since I’ve already received some criticism about this term. Anyone who has the ability to read could easily search for themselves. The preachers of death are Christians who preach lust is evil and their lust then becomes their struggle and strife. The liberties I took with that term are towards Metalheads who think that we should all sing about the same shit. I find the theme of Death extremely fascinating, but now that I am in my 30s, I am no longer obsessed with it. Death is a [very] young man’s preoccupation. It’s going to come! When you least expect it! No need to desire it or wish for it.
7. In a cultural climate such as ours, governed by instant gratification and clear-cut, preferably “safe” ideas, is there any point or reward in producing music that encourage reflection?
I view my participation in music creation as necessity. I have to create, to give back, because music has shaped my mind, my life and is shaping my destiny. For me, at least, the reward is found in knowing I’ve accomplished something. This is the first music I’ve ever created and released. I was very proud of the results.
I have been participating in Underground Metal for about 11 years now. I’ve been judged by some old guards as not being “black” enough and some nu guards as not being progressive enough. I’ve always lived as an outsider, and despite falling into the trap of sometimes caring what others think, I ultimately always follow my own inner voice and do my best to obey myself. What I mean to get at by sharing all this very personal information is to say that my desire, within that realm of obeying my inner self, is to create music that requires reflection, to string sentences together that require reflection. Ultimately, the reward is knowing that I’m doing the best thing I can do for myself.
8. The metal genre has succumbed to a slow but steady decline for well over 20 years in terms of quality output. As an active musician within the field, can you imagine a possible scenario of rejuvenation, or is it time to abandon ship?
I thought of abandoning ship, but then I decided that it would be better to be noble and to fight for Metal’s future. I’ve already dumped some of my best years into this, so I think it’s worth sticking around. Creatively, I’m already working on more musical projects, one of which will be the next Polemicist record. There’s a good amount of decent stuff out there, but obviously the hey-day is long gone. I hope to see more bands come out that create stuff with substance and depth, that tend toward the timeless. Metal needs to stop being over-concerned with drama, and needs to get back to a focus on the compositions. Not just “But That one riff, bro!” but how each riff and/or melody leads into the next.
9. Sincere thanks for taking the time and effort to answer our questions. Feel free to add concluding words, comments or shameless self-promoting here!
Thank you to DMU for taking the time out to ask me these questions. I’ve always loved that this site actually speaks about the music and shits all over cancel culture. As one of my biggest influences once said: “Support music, not rumors.”