Equal parts science fiction, cosmic chaos and sheer horror, the concept behind Void Rot’s magnificent forthcoming debut full-length of utterly monolithic Death / Doom, ‘Descending Pillars’, is as terrifying as it is intriguing. Curiosity aroused, I had a chat with the Minneapolis quartet’s principal composer John Hancock (guitar, vocals) to discuss the likelihood of malignant extra-terrestrial intervention and the otherwise monotonous mundanity of everyday existence here on Earth.
‘Descending Pillars’ is a concept album dealing with a monolithic extra-terrestrial intervention which kills the earth and transports humans to an interdimensional limbo, where they are de-fleshed and stripped of their earthly essence before expiring helplessly, ignorantly. It sounds like a metaphor for life and death itself – a parable told through science fiction? Is it a symbolic story, a warning of impending doom?
“I think science fiction is the modern Bible – pulling allegories from the imagination and using the cosmos, alien dimensions and unknown horrors as the backdrop. Definitely agree the allegories and parables are there. The title and opening track, ‘Descending Pillars’, is very 2001 in that regard, and the influence is (hopefully) obvious. The concept of primitive man being ‘awoken’ to a greater existence by some unknown form or presence – how would modern man accept an awakening to the next level of prescience or intelligence? Would we reject it entirely? Would it reject us?
Can you run me through the story as it unfolds chronologically across the album? And where does the short instrumental, ‘The Weight Of A Thousand Suns’, fit into the concept?
The title track is actually in four parts – ‘I – Emergence’, ‘II – Firmament Excision’, ‘III – Visions of Terrestrial Decay’, and ‘IV – Descension’. In the overall story of the album, a great monolithic structure bursts through the fabric of the cosmos and appears before Earth (‘Descending Pillars’), slowly causing turmoil and chaos (‘Upheaval’) whilst humanity is transported to a sort of cosmic purgatory (‘Liminal Forms’) where the weight and heft of mortality and flesh is stripped away (‘Delusions Of Flesh’) until ultimately we become part of the great cosmic void, nothing but recycled matter (‘Inversion’). The monolith retreats to eternally serve its purpose as harbinger of the inevitable (‘Monolith’). ‘The Weight of A Thousand Suns’ really serves as the calm before the storm. Musically, it was an idea that I had for a while that I couldn’t really figure out how to incorporate into another song and couldn’t figure out a transition into / out of what it is on the record. The bulk of the song bounces up and down in an almost rote, reassuring way, but ends in a droning, ominous transition into the immediate heft of ‘Monolith’. It’s almost a description of the monolith – familiar at the surface but its real nature is just barely revealed before it is too late.”
The horror of humanity being plucked from its comfort zone and transmogrified into some alien world has never seemed more applicable than it does today. In a way it mirrors the events that have turned all of our lives upside down in recent months…
“It really does – the funny thing is that this was all written in the latter part of 2019 (sans a few tweaks here and there, as you do) and recorded in February. It could certainly come off as ‘prophetic’ in a sense.”
Things get particularly disorientating and visceral on successive songs ‘Liminal Forms’ and ‘Delusions Of Flesh’ as mankind is deconstructed and laid bare. When the flesh is gone, what remains? Are we merely streams of consciousness fleetingly conducted or reflected through matter? Is there an energy or essence that predates the body and persists after it breaks down?
“I think those songs reiterate the inevitable – we churn and grind through our lives yet at the end of the day we have nothing to look forward to but another iteration, another rehash of the same. It would of course make sense that if humanity were removed from our terrestrial abode, we would still find a way to exist solely within cycles of repetition – “…condemned to recurring existence… Salvation!”
Your outlook for the fate of Earth within the greater cosmos is pretty grim. From ‘Celestial Plague’ from the ‘Consumed By Oblivion’ EP to ‘Accursed Earth’ on the split with Atavisma and now the nightmarish War of the Worlds eradication that befalls us on ‘Descending Pillars’, the Void Rot theme to date is one of sheer cosmic horror and terror. Do you genuinely believe malign forces are going to annihilate us – either from outer space or through our own folly? It seems more likely we will instigate our own downfall. The recklessness and selfishness of man knows no limits…
“I would agree with that statement. I doubt any malignant forces need to be actively malignant for calamity to befall us. Instead I would wager any higher existences are apathetic towards humanity. What have we proven? That we are addicted to self-annihilation. We crave it and actively seek it. Bleak outlook? Possibly. But not untrue… Ultimately whether there is a higher power or not, I think too many people are focused on the next thing – tomorrow, next year, next relationship. Taking the time to be present could really serve to break the endless cycles that we tend to create and adhere to.”
Are we alone in the universe or is it likely that there is other intelligent life out there somewhere? While there are surely other planets with conditions that could sustain life, has the fluke of life initiated on any of them? Or is it a fluke? Is it inevitable that there are more civilisations scattered across the cosmos, in various stages of advancement? The distances are so vast we’ll probably never know for certain.
“I don’t concern myself with constantly wondering, but if we weren’t truly alone, whether due to other intelligent life or higher powers, I would think those beings would want to leave us alone. What do we have to offer to the unknown that would be worthwhile? War? Famine? Poverty? Obsession with self? I think humanity tends to believe it is greater than it really is. All the great science fiction authors touch on that to some degree, and I think it’s a lesson that bears repeating.”
You use lyrics rather sparingly – and powerfully. My favourite line on the album is ‘Cosmos reclaims what has been corrupted’. Are you referring here to the corruption of mankind? Corrupted by the monolith in the story or by human behaviour in real life? I see corruption everywhere I look … we’ve really lost our way. If some distant civilisation discovered us from afar, they would surely shake their heads (if they had any) in disbelief?
“I’m glad that sparse lyrics / vocals comes across as powerful. It was honestly something born out of ability and capacity – I try to write all our songs in a way that it’s easy for me to perform live, at least in the sense of vocals and guitar at the same time. So vocal patterns will mimic rhythm patterns, and overall lyrical content is low, especially compared to other genres like power metal or traditional metal where the vocals are front and centre. Cavernous death metal vocals, in my opinion, are more of a percussive instrument anyways. Either way, it’s purely by aiming for consistent live performances that I force myself to parse lyrics down to the core concepts they’re trying to communicate.”
Atmosphere is clearly very important to Void Rot, whose strain of Death Metal is decidedly doomy and mid-to-slow-paced. When you eschew the use of high tempos and aggression and instead focus on a more restrained, premeditated attack, it’s vitally important that you are skilled in the art of crafting the right mood and tone. Is this one of the biggest challenges you face – conjuring a menacing and harrowing atmosphere without resorting to all-out violence?
“I wish there was a bigger, grandiose answer, but simply – we can’t play fast! But I think metal at its core is atmosphere. Some choose to craft their atmosphere through riffs, others through pointed lyrics and emotions. We opt to use literal atmosphere – reverb, droning passages, alternating sections of harmony and dissonance. When we’re writing or rehearsing songs, especially ones from the new album, there are a lot more parts than just guitar, bass, drums, vocals. So some songs don’t really take their final form until in the studio. For some reason ‘atmosphere’ is sort of a dirty word in the metal world, which never made sense to me. Metal is a genre founded on theatrics and imagery, so why would the sonic equivalent of that be shunned?”
Inventive and ominous drumming is prominent throughout ‘Descending Pillars’. The drums are to the forefront of the mix and are an inherent part of each song as opposed to providing a pulse or accentuating the rhythm. It works really well, imbuing the record with zest and dynamism. This suggests that the songs are very carefully and meticulously crafted with nothing left to chance and a leading role for everybody – a real team effort. How vital is the chemistry between the four members?
“We all get along well – three of us actually work together and Craig, our bassist – his wife works with us as well. I do the majority of the song writing, and the concept and ideas behind Void Rot are all mine, but the finished product really does have an authenticity in that regards. When I write a riff, I usually will have a drum pattern in mind, but it’s not until we’re all together rehearsing that riff, new song / passage, etc. that we really finalize the ideas. Additionally, with how intensely we’ll focus on getting the atmosphere just right, it’s often not until we have everyone together, playing each’s part to speed that we can give a definitive yes / no to a riff or song idea. Jamming and grinding out song structures or outlines or riffs with just myself and Will (drums) happens a lot, but you really miss out on the wall of sound if it’s only us. If you listen to our catalogue, from ‘Consumed By Oblivion’, the split with Atavisma, and now ‘Descending Pillars’ – I really hope that you can see growth in the song writing and performances. We’re not virtuoso musicians by any means, but we all strive to incorporate new ideas and grow with each release.”
Speaking of which, I’m sure you are disappointed that Void Rot will not be able to promote the release of your LP with some gigs? Considering that performing live is such an essential part of the musical experience, it’s disastrous to have concerts suspended indefinitely – and difficult to see any way out of this mess without a vaccine for the plague. How frustrating is this? You have an online live stream coming up on August 15th, streaming live from Signaturetone Recording, where ‘Descending Pillars’ was recorded and mixed – the next best thing in a way but no substitute for the raw energy of a proper concert with a live audience?
Yes, the plan with this release was to time it with Killtown Deathfest and a European tour on the back end of that fest, but here we are now. It’s frustrating to not be able to do shows, but to be honest we all love to be at home and in bed by 9:00 pm so we’re not missing that aspect! We were excited when Cvlt Nation contacted us about doing a live stream concert, and the time frame they put out corresponded with when we’d have singles out from the new album, so it was really serendipitous and of course we agreed. Not seeing a real, live crowd is a bummer – and fan interactions after shows are really such an amazing experience – but Adam Tucker at Signaturetone (who recorded all three of our releases as well as mixing ‘Consumed By Oblivion’ and ‘Descending Pillars’) knows how to get the best performance out of a band. So having him there for a ‘studio’ experience I think will really help to translate the Void Rot sound through the ether to YouTube.”