Late last year, the Brooklyn band Hull released Beneath the Lightless Sky, a seething, lumbering monster of a metal record that contained within its elaborately-mapped sonic tunnels the story of Mayan brothers on two very different life paths. Their songs are epic in every sense: Most of them push well past the five-minute mark and contain deliberate leitmotifs, multiple movements and repeated melodic themes. As you might expect, they’re not ones to stick to a single sonic palette: The cataclysmic 11-minute opener “Earth From Water” is followed by with “Just a Trace of Early Dawn,” an ominous, mid-tempo acoustic guitar elegy that sounds like what might have happened if Metallica expanded the brief acoustic sketches that open Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning into proper, doom-bearing metal ballads. Elsewhere, songs like the lugubrious “Fire Vein” smother like hot tar, with pitch-black riffing creeping thick and slow across the length of the song. More than anything, though, you can hear the craftsmanship: Songs move gracefully from one intricately-orchestrated section to the next — a double-helix of electric guitars dissolving to make room for fluttering acoustics; riffs that stagger dead-eyed and zombie-slow suddenly breaking into a panicked sprint. That the subject matter — which found the band members repairing to such an un-metal locale as the library for research — is just as heady is little surprise.
On the eve of the album’s release, eMusic Editor-in-Chief J. Edward Keyes joined the band at their Brooklyn practice space to talk about aliens, the parallels between songwriting and novel writing, and whether or not it was the end of the world as we know it.
On how they decided to make a record about the Mayan apocalypse:
Drew Mack: I just had this fascination with 2012 and the Mayan calendar. To me, at a certain point, I was like “I’d like to dive into this.” Basically, a lot of the process in getting ready to make this record was just us going to the library or using Google to look up different stories that surrounded that civilization. A lot of the record makes reference to the Popul Vuh, which is like the Mayan bible. We were basically just reading through that and finding different characters who might seem interesting. And in doing that, we found the characters of Juanapa and Jambalanke, these twin brothers who basically go into Jababa, which is kind of like the Mayan hell, and defeat the demigods or demons. And so we kinda pulled from that, but then we added a twist with — we spun the story so that they split up, and one pursued darkness while the other pursued light.
Sean Dunn: We introduced this whole idea of fear versus truth, which is where the two brothers go. One is in search of truth while the other gets consumed by fear.
Mack: A lot of people are scared, because they see 2012 as the end of everything. In reality, a lot of what the Mayans actually taught is that it’s just the end of a calendar. It’s really just rethinking things — it’s not “The End is Near” — it’s actually a new beginning.
Dunn: Death is just another transition; it’s not something to be feared. A lot of people today are afraid of that idea, or of death in general. That’s why I really like the way choosing the Mayan saga worked out, because the themes really mirror a lot of issues in today’s society.
Nick Palmirotto: People are taught to be fearful in so many ways. Me, personally, I don’t think 2012 is going to be the end, but I do think it’s a good idea to riff off of. It’s a good story. I mean, there’s the truth plane and the fear plane — positivity and negativity. Those are the two choices, the two spectrums we have in life. You can go one way or the other. We’re touching on that with this story.
On the idea of being heavy metal novelists:
Palmirotto: When we write out songs, we approach it like writing a novel. You can have all these sentences that, as sentences, sound eloquent. But they don’t make a story. We try to write in a broad sense where the beginning of a song justifies the end.
Carmine Laietta: We like that, because it’s setting you up so that you have to listen to the entire record, rather than just putting stuff on random. It’s one story, as opposed to a bunch of little things that don’t coincide at all. It’s nice to be told a story.
Mack: I think the highest compliment for us is to hear someone say, “You have to hear this from start to finish.”
Palmirotto: With this band, we always do everything big. We kind of like to write screenplays and have imagery in our heads to go along with the music so it becomes a soundtrack for the mind. There’s just so many bands nowadays — the industry is flooded, so there is this formula that comes out of that. For us, we like to go a little deeper. The songs on Lightless touch on civilization, culture, hope, destruction, the cycles of man…There’s some truth and some historical references in our songs, but there’s a lot of fiction as well.
On the likely existence of aliens:
Laietta: Chariots of the Gods is definitely a book we turned to a lot while we were writing this.
Dunn: That, and Ancient Aliens, which is this documentary that suggests that aliens might have been involved with early cultures. In it, they go through and say, “OK, there were all these advanced early cultures, but how did they think of doing all the things they did?” Not saying that they weren’t smart enough — it’s more like, “See the way these stones are cut? There’s no way this culture could have done that without some sort of technology.”
Laietta: It just opens the mind. It’s a bunch of theories about, “Why is it that this civilization is across the world from this completely different civilization, but they both have really similar things going on? There’s no way they could communicated, or even found one another. Some sort of alien or extraterrestrial must have helped them.
Dunn: In ancient hieroglyphics, there’s all these images of angels. But how did they come up with this idea of figures flying through the air? Why would they even think of that? In another hieroglyphic, there’s a beam of light coming from this figure. What was the beam of light? That could have been a jet engine, or some form of propulsion. There’s this Mayan hieroglyphic of a person sitting inside something that is half organic and half machine, and it looks like he’s operating it. There’s just no explanation for it. We really like the idea of leaving interpretation open. If you spell everything out for somebody, you ruin it for them.
Dunn: Another huge influence on this record, obviously, was Apocalypto which, within the course of writing this, I probably saw like four or five times. I think that helped with a lot of setting scenes and whatnot. People get pissed at Mel Gibson, saying “Well, he didn’t know what he was talking about.” But, I mean, nobody knew what it was like. Even with the Passion of the Christ…
Palmirotto: [Interrupting] Not saying that we agree with his political or religious views! I want that on record! For me, also, a huge influence was Powaqaatsi and Koyanasqaatsi with Philip Glass doing the soundtrack. Those movies, just with the intense imagery and the orchestral music going along with them, it paints a picture. Whenever I see those films, it just opens my mind to thinking: “What can we do with this?” Rather than just writing a song, how can we expand that?
On the dreaded spectre of “hipster metal”:
Mack: Yeah, we get called hipster metal. But really, when someone says “hipster metal,” they basically look at the way you dress, or the fact that you’re from Brooklyn and you’re popular. As far as us using non-traditional instrumentation, even on Sole Lord we had acoustic guitars. I mean, on that record, we had a tuba. We just put in the elements that seem fitting for the song. I don’t think we’d limit ourselves to saying, “This song has to be all abrasive guitar.” If someone says, “We should have a cello in here,” and if it sounds good, we’ll do it.
Jeff Steiber: I’d rather sit outside the boundaries of purist metal and do something different, than to stick with the classic equation.
Laietta: There’s a lot of bands where people want to spit it out their way, and it just ends up sounding the same. I feel like unless you’re trying to add something to the equation or push boundaries — I mean, how many Gibson guitars and tube amps are you gonna use before everyone sounds exactly the same? You gotta do something else.
Palmirotto: Yeah, not to judge other bands, but I personally think it’s a bit closed-minded to be like, “We’re a metal band, so it’s gotta be pissed off! We’ve got to wear vests and patches and boots!” I mean, you know, if that’s what you do, cool. But we like to do what we do.
Laietta: I don’t think we’re the next Pink Floyd or anything, though that would be amazing if we could be. But as long as we’re pushing envelopes, I’m happy with what we’re doing.