Changeling’s “III” Explores The Aftermath of Autocracy (Album Premiere + Interview)
Scoring the dismantling of a hyper-capitalist, fascist dystopia -- this is what Minneapolis black metal quintet Changeling set out to accomplish with their third full-length record III. It’s a goal they’ve achieved with the creation of a soundtrack for this moment draped in equal parts achingly beautiful melancholy and smothering despair. Experience their artful interweaving of these two extremes with our exclusive full-stream premiere:
I’d ripped through this album multiple times and couldn’t shake the sensation that, even after all these journeys through Changeling’s work, I was only just beginning to uncover any conception of what was truly going on in this record. Despite the weighty themes and at-times lumbering progressions, and even when the band whip themselves up into the heights of their shared mania, there’s an undeniable gentleness that pervades III -- one reflected in the hand-carved cover art by artist Eli Mack, working in woodcuts for his collaborations with Changeling.
To better parse the band’s work and the ideas behind it, I conducted an extensive full-band interview with vocalist M.A.S., guitarist Jaxon, bassist and backup vocalist David, drummer Eric, and synth player Max.
You’ve previously told me that Changeling got started as a black metal band inspired by horror movie soundtracks. How did your focus shift as you began writing music together? Do you still feel any hints of this original goal, or has the band transformed into something else?
Eric: Horror was one initial influence we were pulling from, and some elements of it have remained in the songs. There’s an adapted Wendy Carlos riff from the score of The Shining on II, for instance.
David: I honestly can’t say what our influences or goals are — I think we all came together with a shared excitement to write black metal, and we are ultimately honing in on our shared interests and strengths. Our influences are myriad. Jaxon and Max both have a background in classical music, for guitar and piano, respectively, which has hugely impacted our sound. Many of us love hip-hop, which is a never-ending source of inspiration for minor key arpeggios.
Jaxon and I have been on a blackened hardcore kick as of late, which has been a fun influence on a few parts. M.A.S. and Eric grew up on At the Gates, and I am willfully ignorant of that influence so we can continue to be a band -- we’ve discussed M.A.S. screaming “GO!” on more occasions than I care to share..
M.A.S.: What David doesn’t know…
From I through II to III, how would you trace the evolution of the Changeling sound?
David: I would say that I and II helped us to figure out our musical palette --what forms and motifs we want to employ -- with II being a bit more long-form. In III, we’ve significantly sharpened our overall songwriting and figured out how to more effectively use that musical palette.
We focused a lot on the balance between brevity and returning to musical themes, as well as trying to make the songs sound more holistic, rather than a sequence of parts. I think we’re also learning that no amount of songwriting can cover up a weak idea -- in the past, we’ve “overwritten” a song by making the structure overly complex, when, in hindsight, what we really needed to do was keep the structure simple and write a stronger part.
Why don’t you title your albums beyond the Roman numeral signifiers?
Eric: We probably will begin doing so in the future, but these first three feel like an initial exploration of the musical concepts we’re interested in. It made sense to keep the naming convention the same while that developed.
M.A.S., you’ve covered a lot of thematic ground with your lyrics -- from the deeply personal introspection on I, to II’s concept story about your namesake changeling, to the antifacist themes of III. What has the lyrical process been like for each record?
M.A.S.: Interestingly, I feel as though the themes of the three releases are very tied together. In my mind, they are all within the thread of trauma, pain, and oppression. I have a personal history of struggles with mental health and currently work in the mental health field, so I naturally gravitate to exploring these themes.
In I, I explore my personal history and relationship with trauma, neglect, and mental health. I have struggled with severe mental health issues my entire life, related to childhood trauma. Growing up, lyrics that spoke to struggle, mental health, and trauma were very important to me and did a lot to make me feel less alone in what I was going through, giving me a sense of hope. Speaking about these things felt vulnerable but important, and it is something I want to explore more in the future, ideally with published lyrics.
II, as you mention, is a concept album about a child who is persecuted for their existence after they were discovered to be a changeling, and their journey to learn that what others see as flaws can actually be a source of strength used to grow and help others. Changelings exist in the folklore of many cultures -- they were said to be children who were replaced with monsters, trolls, demons, or fairies in infancy.
However, it is believed that these stories were created to explain children who were seen to not develop typically, often due to things like Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, Prader-Willi syndrome, and so on. The myths generally put forth that the solution to get the fairies or other beings to take back the changeling and return their child was to beat, abuse, and neglect the children. So you had all of these children who needed love and care, but who were being abused and neglected by their caregivers. Of course, what we now know about neglect and trauma, especially in developmental years, is that it severely affects individuals and their functioning throughout the rest of their lives.
III is a concept album that explores a fascist dystopian society. Fascism inflicts oppression, abuse, and trauma on entire communities of people. The album is an attempt to explore how something like fascism appeals to those people who benefit from the systems, and how depending on what lens you are looking at a situation through, the same events appear vastly different to different individuals. It looks at the motivator of fear, and how when we act through fear, it tends to lead to suffering. It attempts to examine how most individuals and groups believe that they are ethical and morally righteous, despite the damage they inflict against others, and the justifications used to dehumanize and harm entire groups of people.
I moved to concept albums for II and III largely because I am more comfortable with that format. I have always enjoyed writing short stories. When I was a little kid, I had a lot of trauma-related nightmares that I didn’t know how to deal with, and I kind of naturally began turning them into stories, using metaphor to express and explore my experiences. I tried working more poetically in I, but found that I wasn’t satisfied with the results -- it’s just not my medium.
Can you give me a brief track-by-track for the new record? What’s going on here -- thematically, compositionally, and stylistically?
Jaxon: The opening to “Ominous Disclosure” started as a piece that Max wrote on piano and which I adapted to guitar. The outro came about in a similar way. It was cool because it forced me to work with notes and intervals I may not have used on my own.
“No Gods Left to Kill” was initially based on the Travis Scott song “NC-17.” We adapted a loop and wrote a few riffs around it. In the intro I was trying to write something with counterpoint, like a Bach fugue, which has multiple melodies offset on top of each other.
David: For “Fascism Unveiled,” we based the main hook off of “Pop Style” by Drake. That riff basically served as a seed for the rest of the song, even though it only occurs a few times throughout. I think that’s one method of songwriting we used at the time: essentially sampling a song, as a hip-hop producer might, for one section or motif, and seeing what other ideas that might generate for the rest of the writing process.
Jaxon: “So It Has Always Been”: I don’t even know. Some of it’s kind of punk-adjacent, and some of it is very classical.
Travis Scott and Drake! That's definitely not where I thought this question would go. How are you adapting their music into your songs? Also, any thoughts on the recent Travis Scott SB Dunk Low?
Jaxon: As David said, hip-hop is a deep source for minor arpeggios. Trap music and trap-adjacent styles especially use a lot of the same patterns as black metal. I think it’s interesting to approach writing in the same way a producer would approach writing a beat. Sampling, reworking sounds, stretching things out…
David: I love Travis Scott, but that shoe is hideous. Can't do Paisley print.
Eric: I dig them, but I’m a fan of garish prints.
Jaxon: Yeah me too, I tend to go for Jordans over SBs, but I like the over-the-top print, and I can get down with the Paisley.
Max: I’m an Air Max guy, obviously.
M.A.S.: I have no idea what any of you are talking about.
With Max currently abroad, how has your songwriting and recording process changed for this new record?
Eric: It’s been really interesting and fun.You can hear parts on the first two records where the synth is being relied on too heavily to tie parts of songs together and smooth out transitions. By not having Max in town to practice regularly and having him contribute remotely, we’re forced to tighten up our writing and compose better pieces overall. Plus, it’s a pleasant surprise for the rest of us when we finally get to hear the songs with his parts added.
David: Yeah! Like the first time I heard Max’s synth on “Ominous Disclosure,” I was totally blown away. His part on the main hook is really weird and incredible.
Shifting gears -- why is it important for you to center your black metal around antifacist themes? What sort of changes, either large or small in scale, are you hoping to bring about with your music?
Eric: Given the fascist infiltration of metal scenes globally, I think it’s important to make clear what one’s political stance is, as an individual and a group, when choosing to participate in those scenes. Even the appearance of “neutrality” on this issue is equivalent to acceptance of intolerance and oppression, which I consider unwelcome in extreme metal (or anywhere else). Music can be a useful delivery tool for political thought, as we often literally have a platform, and hopefully we will encourage/enable some people to develop more anarchist, anti-capitalist, and anti-fascist leanings of their own. Or at least help to normalize the presence of those beliefs in the metal scene.
Max: Listening to and playing extreme, aggressive forms of music can be innately pleasing, but I believe the inspiration and catharsis associated with a certain level of sociopolitical engagement in black metal lends itself to a much deeper appreciation of the music and helps sustain my interest in the genre. It is more challenging to hone a very specific critique or worldview in a collective project, but we are all able to agree that the global fascist creep we’re witnessing today is a topic that is well worth addressing.
M.A.S.: For me, I’d say that I think, especially given the pervasiveness of fascist ideology and white supremacy, along with homophobia and transphobia, in metal and in our society, and also as a white person, it is absolutely the least I can do to publicly stand up and say that I oppose those things. It’s very important for me that everyone (except fascists!) feels welcome in metal, and I want to try to be a welcoming force in whatever way I can be. Personally, fighting against fascist ideology in any form -- oppression, white supremacy, injustice, discrimination, et al -- and fighting for the safety, respect, and well-being of all, is extremely important to me.
What are some of the biggest obstacles in the pathway between the current state of black metal and what you’d like to see it become?
Eric: Continued tolerance of and support for bands with fascist and rightwing politics is a huge issue, and they’ll continue to be part of the broader scene so long as people keep paying them, wearing their shirts and patches, and having them on shows and festivals. I’m not saying that I want everyone to align with my personal beliefs, because that would be both tyrannical and boring, but political and social ideologies based in oppression need to be made unwelcome in the metal scene and in our broader society.
Do you find that many of your peers in Minneapolis share your views? What’s the local scene like?
Eric: Minneapolis has a very supportive scene. There are a lot of like-minded people, with similar inclinations towards heavy music of various genres, who show up for one another’s events and support each other. There are always improvements to be made as individuals, as a band, and as a community, but it’s a scene we’re glad to be part of.
You’ve worked with artist Eli Mack for all three of your records. How did you begin working together, and what drew you to his work?
David: Eli Mack is one of Jaxon’s childhood friends, and a friend of ours from when he used to live in Minneapolis. Eli initially made the “Rats” print for a T-shirt design, which retroactively became the artwork for the digital release of >I. After that, when we began to think about artwork for II, his name was at the top of the list. His woodcuts are gorgeous, and the detail he uses is absolutely stunning. His work has a big focus on the horrors of capitalism, US imperialism, and fascism -- all of which are topics that we are concerned with as a band and as individuals.
What’s the process like in your ongoing collaboration with Eli? How do the album covers come to be?
Jaxon: The band will come up with a word or concept, like “rats” for I or more recently, “deer with dystopian city” for III, and Eli will just nail it. The album covers and T-shirt designs were both created through a woodcut, then printed. It’s awesome to see the preliminary sketches, then the cut, then the print, and then finally see it on a cassette with our name on it.
M.A.S.: Crows come into play in II, as a murder comes in to create a protective barrier between the changeling and the mob. The crows represent the idea that when we are able to face and move through aspects of ourselves that ignite shame and pain -- dark wings, dark words -- we can utilize that darkness as a source of power to heal and to help others.
In III, the theme is tied together with the art in a couple ways. For one, the album takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape with nature taking over the ruins of the city. The imagery of nature taking over the city represents the idea of taking over and healing an ugly, uniform system that suppresses life, with something beautiful that can flourish and grow. Eli’s work is breathtaking, and it’s amazing to see such skilled work.
You’ve got two upcoming splits with New Orleans' The World Is a Vampire and Quad Cities band Everlasting Light. When you write for a split, does it change your process at all, as opposed to writing for a Changeling record? Does your split partner influence your songwriting choices at all, or is that not relevant to how you write?
Eric: We’ve been experimenting with writing and including parts that might have been rejected as “not our sound” on previous records. We’ve nearly finished recording one of the splits and are partway through writing the other. Part of the process has been focused on trying to write faster and not overthink things, while still making sure we’re satisfied with the end result.
David: Writing for these splits has been really freeing. In part, this is because we don’t want to delay the process for the other bands involved, so we’ve been forced to work as quickly as we can to create something we’re happy with. But more importantly, it’s also freeing in the sort of material we’re writing: with Vampire, our approach was to write a side, rather than a series of songs. For the online listener, it might seem like we wrote two distinct songs, but, to us, it really feels more like a long-form piece.
Going off your band photo, you’re clearly tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) players. Do you have any currently ongoing campaigns? What do you love about TTRPGs as a hobby?
Eric: Yes, me and M.A.S. are both avid TTRPG players, we both play in multiple campaigns across a number of different systems, primarily D&D, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, and Eclipse Phase. And what’s not to love? Shared storytelling and world-building is a lot of fun, not totally dissimilar to the songwriting process in some ways. And occasional escapism is a useful tool for surviving in our capitalist dystopia, even when you’re also roleplaying in a capitalist dystopia.
M.A.S.: It’s really just me and Eric. I’ll second what Eric said: what’s not to love? I hate bringing everything back to mental health, but I do believe that TTRPGs can be incredibly therapeutic -- they’ve definitely made a huge difference in my life and helped me overcome a lot, especially related to social things. It is so fun to be able to explore different ideas and ways of being. I also really love puzzles, riddles, and storytelling -- TTRPGs are one of my favorite ways to spend time and connect with others and often end up being the highlight of my week.
Tell me about one of the most memorable characters from any of your campaigns.
Eric: Me and another friend have tattoos of one of his best characters, an underground industrial musician with an anti-corporate agenda (basically a cyberpunk bard) from a session I ran years ago.
M.A.S.: I want to take this moment to give Eric some credit as being one of the most amazing and dedicated GM’s I have ever played with, alongside the DM [Dungeon Master] for the D&D campaign I play in. I could probably write a few pages on my favorites, but I’ll say that the most memorable are often the most “flawed” for their own agenda -- it makes playing more interesting.
Kindly big-up some Minneapolis bands. What makes them so awesome?
Eric: False is the obvious one: lovely people, superb musicianship, great live shows, super supportive of new bands. Same goes for Sunless. Tvaer and Feral Light are both rad and have hooked us up with a lot of shows. There are so many killer metal bands to name!
Jaxon: Well, False is sick as fuck. Really love Condominium. Matt Castore, who recorded our first two albums, is in that band and he is really just the sweetest. His studio Harder Commune is great. Fucking also rules.
Changeling will release III on limited cassette via Quarter Records and digital on May 8th. Pre-order the album on Bandcamp.