Succumb’s Vicious, Unearthly “XXI” Wastes No Time, Spares No One (Interview)
Considering that San Francisco’s Succumb’s previous album was already a sunless genre interbreed, their recent follow-up album XXI deserves praise for how much deeper they plunge into filth. Everything about XXI is an improvement on Succumb. It’s unrepentant, twice as volatile, and nearly too close for comfort. Succumb were gracious enough to speak with Invisible Oranges about their new album, their place on the Flenser roster, and Canadian death metal, among other topics.
Before that, it must be stated that XXI is one of the best death metal albums of the year. If Colin Williams’ excellent review didn’t already convince you of that fact then you’re in one of two camps; either you haven’t read his review, or you haven’t listened to XXI. Honestly, do both, then come back after Succumb have knocked the loose screws out of your brain.
There’s more crossover thrash in Succumb’s amalgamation of death, hardcore, crust, and sludge this time around. You can find some singular genres throughout XXI, like how “Graal” brandishes their ability to instill dread or their newfound patience on the prolonged introduction of “Maenad.” Yet, XXI is an intentional revolt against definitions or prescribed notions. Succumb’s bottomless barrel of momentum is a powder keg lit by smashing conventions.
Throughout XXI, Succumb masticate and mold styles like a Yohji Yamamoto fashion display; everything is tied together by black threading but the pieces all have gaudy fits and arrangements. As evidence, examine how “Okeanos” teases crossover thrash but dissents from expected breakdowns by ratcheting the intensity upwards.
But really, who needs genres or labels when you can employ pinch harmonics with the whimsy of machine gun fire? Succumb are such experts at deploying them that the high occurrence might read as tiresome, but the group unloads them to heighten the tension or to signal the next pending onslaught.
There are few records that are so sublime, taut, and utterly depraved as XXI. For as much as Succumb’s instrumentals push the envelope, Cheri Musrasrik delivers the lion’s share of the malice. On Succumb, her vocals were spacious yet distant, like a ghost howling from inside a cave. They were unearthly, but now they’re Herculean. Musrasrik adopts a disgruntled delivery that’s closer to a hardcore-death metal hybrid, elevated higher in the mix now as if the band is boasting her development. Her growls are full-bodied yet earthy, like she’s picking up stones from the ground with the molars. They’re not gurgly nor deranged, they’re targeted and precise.
Beyond the marquee vocals and impaling instrumentals, XXI’s pungency owes to Musrasrik’s poetry. Topics like Dionysian folk tales and the Boxer Rebellion are spliced by Jungian lenses, resulting in verses like:
Roar of a bolt drawn from its evening star
Watchful as the ground split open
Gives way to a flowery carpet imbued with blood and sap
Sacral passage from underworld to earthly
Musrasrik transcends basic storytelling by presenting the bluntest imagery possible. She captures the brutality of these myths by highlighting their bare essentials. Succumb don’t need allegories. They let the castrations, cults, and political violence speak for themselves.
Continuing onwards, read the band speak for themselves as they cut through my surmises about XXI, as well as how mythological frameworks and Succumb’s pining for immediacy shaped the record.
What prompted you to explore a dingier sound on XXI?
Derek Webster (guitars): As with anything, it's the desire to continue pushing yourself in terms of your artistic vision and your abilities as a musician. We never want to repeat ourselves, and with XXI, there was a conscious effort to create a more suffocating, chaotic sound by highlighting different facets of our style that we felt that we only began to explore on our debut. In terms of production, our only real goal was to place Cheri's vocals in the forefront and adopt a more "blown out" style as opposed to the reverb-heavy production technique that is present on Succumb. As for everything else, we had our full trust in Jack to capture the power of our performances.
Harry Cantwell (drums): I don’t recall any specific reason aside from us collectively wanting to make an album that was more immediate & in your face. From the get-go we really wanted to bring the vocals up to the forefront and accentuate the grit in Cheri’s voice, as opposed to how they’re sort of distant and echoey on the first record, so I think that adds a lot to how much dirtier and more intense this record sounds. I think Derek brought in a lot more of his grindcore influence this time around too and it seemed natural to compliment that with a production that’s a little more organic sounding.
Cheri Musrasrik (vocals): For myself, I am always interested in approaching or getting closer to the strength of a live performance while also maintaining the great level of detail made possible by working in the studio.
The Flenser’s typical output is more ambient and patient than the punchy XXI and Succumb, but I notice the same intangible dread in your music that’s on most of the label’s releases. Do you think that’s a product of working with so many other acts on the label, or is there something in the water in San Francisco?
Webster: Probably something in the water! We don't collaborate with any other Flenser artists, so perhaps these feelings of dread just come naturally to us. I wanted XXI to be a constantly flowing stream of violence and dread, so if that is properly conveyed to the listener, then I feel like we did our job.
Cantwell: There’s a ton of great artists on The Flenser, but I don’t think any of them really influenced us musically. It is great to be on a label that’s so diverse though, that’s really forward thinking. Being one of the only metal bands on a label is kind of cool. I do think the Bay Area’s metal scene has always had kind of a more urban real world feel than a lot of other metal scenes, with the extreme divide of wealth and poverty here, existing side by side. It’s hard to not have that seep into your subconscious. There’s a lot of real-time dread in everyone's day-to-day lives right now and I think that’s reflected in this album.
Musrasrik: I don’t think we have much at all in common with our labelmates and that is okay. It’s nice to be a wildcard and add some variety to the situation. The Flenser has been good to us. Feeling some sense of dread otherwise seems like a very natural response to the goings-on in our city, country, and elsewhere.
You specifically state that Canadian death metal played a hand in Succumb’s formation. As a Canadian, I’m flattered. I’m also prone to diving deeper; I hear bits of Gorguts and Cryptopsy, but are there any other Canadian bands that molded Succumb?
Webster: Oh man, Canada has such a rich, metal history and I am personally inspired by all of it: Voivod, Orchidectomy, Martyr, Adversarial, Antediluvian, Mitochondrion, Axis of Advance, Conqueror, Rites of Thy Degringolade, Archagathus, Vengeful...I could go on forever. Our band was literally formed because Kirk and our old drummer Nicole saw me leaving our old practice space in a Revenge shirt and asked the age-old question that has led to the creation of so many bands: "sick shirt, wanna jam?"
Musrasrik: Derek said it all, but yes, we are undeniably influenced by you Canadians.
The first two songs reference women in mythology. They present two different interpretations of femininity, one being as possessed followers of man (Maenad) and the other Mesopotamian misandrists who attacked men (Lilim). What was the intention behind this contrast?
Musrasrik: To be frank (a dude?) neither track has to do with chicks nor dudes. Maenad talks about the cult of Dionysus—it draws on the imagery of earthly intoxication or the worship of a substance that is of the earth. Lilim talks about the demon brood spawned from the unholy union of Samael the angel of death and Lilith a being made from the sediment of the earth as an equal to Adam who fled to the desert as a refusal to submit. It was said that Samael was castrated by God to end their creation of demons. Both tracks have rather to do with the earth element involved in each story.
You use the mythologies on XXI as allegories. Does it speak to you in any way that we can draw parallels to these notions from so far ago in human history?
Musrasrik: It makes perfect sense that ancient mythologies would and could continue to feel relevant especially when viewed through the lens of Jungian archetypes and the idea of a collective unconscious. In many ways with the writing for this album, I wanted to specifically tap into the primitive parts of the listener's brain to remind them of what it is that is important.
Is it a worrying sign that we haven’t progressed far enough as a society that we can hear a story about Maenad and find allusions to the roles women are relegated to today?
Musrasrik: Without being rude or laughing at you outright I will just say that Maenad has absolutely nothing to do with contemporary gender roles. Maenads can get back in the kitchen where they belong and make me a sandwich though.
The closing track on your new album “8 Trigrams” is about the Boxer Rebellion. What’s the connection between the mythological and philosophical subjects explored on the rest of XXI and a real-life uprising?
Musrasrik: The Boxer Rebellion was very much a violent reaction to the westernization not only of local culture and trade but also religious ways that included the respect and honoring of nature deities such as river gods and the like. The secret society theory on the Boxers holds that there was a linkage between the White Lotus, Eight Trigrams, and Great Sword Society. On a foundational level, the eight trigrams is a Taoist conception and approach to reality that is elemental. This connection and reverence for nature and the elements is what ties the album together.
Where does the interest in the Boxer Rebellion come from?
Musrasrik: As a person that was born to a land that had been heavily colonized and missionized in an effort to sanitize and repress indigenous customs and culture since the 19th century by Spaniards, Germans, and the Japanese as well as being used as a military outpost during WWII and not far from nuclear testing site Bikini Atoll I find myself contemplating the peoples that have been historically less welcoming, even murderous or cannibalizing toward missionaries such as the Sentinelese or Fijian people. In looking at the grand history of killing Christians I became interested in the Boxer Rebellion.
XXI is (amazingly) harsher than your debut. Is the heightened female prominence in XXI’s art and lyrics, combined with your more direct approach here, an underlying sentiment about redefining women’s reception in metal?
Musrasrik: To be completely honest with you nothing that I do in life let alone any choice that I make creatively has to do with being a woman though I am acutely aware of the power that it holds. The conversation surrounding "women in metal" is a little corny to me considering that women have been present on the extreme music scene since its inception.
Kirk, you've previously mentioned Sarah Davachi’s Let Night Come On Bells End The Day as blissful, but occasionally too heavy. I’m a huge fan of that album too. What do you think can make music both calming yet emotionally weighty? Similarly, do you think death metal can communicate a similar sentiment to this? Where music is both peaceful but emotionally hefty.
Webster: Well I’m not totally sure other than to say that’s probably what makes an artist good at what they do - to have maximal impact with minimal tools. Metal activates different parts of my brain and I don’t find myself overwhelmed by it in the same way as other music.
You have pristine artwork, playing to death metal’s iconography while capturing both the prestige and the dinginess of your music. Do you work alongside the artist to develop the album designs?
Musrasrik: The artist Stefan Thanneur lives in France so we don't work closely with him, but he instead has the freedom to interpret the symbolism and themes of the album for himself.