Anti-God Hand burst into the world fully formed in 2021. The Vancouver act is largely a solo project from multi-instrumentalist Will Ballantyne. That year brought tumult for him and Anti-God Hand—and that tumult has been given complex and emotional expression on the band’s new record Blight Year.
Ballantyne wrote and released Anti-God Hand’s first three releases, including full-length Wretch, in quick succession in 2021. However, that frenetic start soon gave way to both literal and metaphorical burnout. Ballantyne describes his life “melting down” that summer. A major factor was the 2021 Lytton wildfire that scorched central British Columbia, where Ballantyne had been working in the culinary mushroom trade among other odd jobs. “It was bad bears, bad money. We were in a terrible zone climbing 900 meters a day,” he says. The wildfire devastated Lytton, diverting him back to Vancouver and out of mushroom foraging.
“It was a train-crash combination of COVID lockdowns, a turning point with how I was wanting my life to go, people’s homes burning down—That’s kind of the setting,” he says. “I went home to kind of reset and started writing the record [Blight Year].”
A career shift helped Ballantyne find the stability needed to spend more time on Blight Year. “After that dark, bad summer, I got a ‘real’ job,” he says. While steadier work has meant earlier hours and fewer days for concentrated bursts of songwriting, Anti-God Hand’s songcraft benefited from the additional time for circumspection. Blight Year also saw the band evolve beyond a one-person act, with Greg Fox (ex-Liturgy, Colin Stetson) joining Ballantyne and bringing live drums to the project for the first time.
Fox’s drums are a major component of Anti-God Hand’s refreshed sound—Ballantyne says he had originally recorded Blight Year with digital percussion, as was the case for previous Anti-God Hand releases, but that felt “rigid, tyrannically rigid. I wanted a sense of breath.” As a Hail Mary, he reached out to Fox, whose work with Colin Stetson and Ben Frost had previously captivated Ballantyne. Fox, in essence, helped the band come up for air. “(Fox) absolutely destroyed it. He did a ton of stuff I didn’t ask for, let alone expect. It was a really special experience to have his voice reflected on the record,” Ballantyne says.
Born in the ashes, Blight Year is the sound of building back. From the band’s evolution to Ballantyne’s own personal growth and heightened stability, the record is the sound of evolution in real time. “Barge of Light” is one of the album’s most crystalline moments of beauty. Meanwhile, “Demon Sniper” is about as orthodox of a black metal track as Anti-God Hand has recorded. Still, whether in the mode of luminescence or fury, the album is laced through with riffs that verge on hopeful, even hysterical.
The effect is similar to rays of sunshine streaming through bullet holes. Meanwhile, touches of electronics add color. Though more sparing than on, for example, X, synth flourishes add depth and size to tracks such as opener “Out of the Tunnels, Into the Heavens.”
After struggling to mix Fox’s drums on his own, Ballantyne turned to Colin Marston, who put a final coat of varnish on the finished record. The result is Anti-God Hand’s most organic sound to date. That timbre fits the record’s content, which, inspired by the Lytton fires, carries with it reckonings both personal and global—Blight Year deals in part with the global climate meltdown, though not in an apocalyptic way as other metal acts have done.
“I don’t want to be flippant about the climate crisis, but in terms of the metaphor of a brutal summer, it does come to a close,” Ballantyne says. “And maybe you have a brutal winter thereafter, but things change; states change. The only constant is the strength and resolve that you have to meet those changes.”
Blight Year centers on that strength and resolve. “I’m a kind of a dementedly optimistic person,” Ballantyne says. “I’m not nihilistic; I’m not really ironic. I take no joy in things that make me or other people feel bad.” Still, he noticed that early Anti-God Hand lyrics (which are deliberately hard to decipher) often contained expressions of hurt and mistreatment. As he processed the chaos of 2021, Ballantyne realized much of what he’d written was “pervasive, low-level negative self-talk.”
“I was looking for an end to those patterns. (Blight Year‘s) optimism comes from not being there anymore,” he says.
Anti-God Hand wield this optimism defiantly. Amid the cinders of a regressive music industry, his old life and Lytton itself—which is still grappling with the 2021 inferno even as new wildfires encroach—Ballantyne sees fertile ground for redemption. He hopes others can draw on the record’s sense of hope.
“Obviously, the music is all riffs and screaming and stuff,” he says. “But… when I’m listening to it—I’m listening to victory, in a way. The ‘fight’ is never over, but you’re always going up; you’re always going forward. You always have a chance to try again.”
Blight Year releases August 25th via American Dreams.