VIALS OF WRATH – DARK WINTER MEMORIES: A Discussion with Songwriter Dempsey W. Mills
Some time back, a friend recommended that I listen to Vials of Wrath. I wasn’t given any specifics, other than I would probably enjoy it, based on some of the music I had mentioned in the past. There were six titles to choose from, but I settled on “Dark Winter Memories” for no other reason than the cover art spoke to me the loudest. It also happened to be the most recent work from the band, which I later found out was one man named Dempsey W. Mills.
After listening to “Dark Winter Memories” extremely early in the morning, after too few hours of fitful sleep, I was immediately both blown away and calmed by the experience. I listened to the album again later that day, and by sundown found myself reaching out to Dempsey in order tell him how inspiring I found his work.
To my delight, he not only kindly responded, but agreed to discuss the album with me. At length. Dempsey and I chatted about each and every track on “Dark Winter Memories” over the course of three evenings.
Some folks would call it “Atmospheric Black Metal”, but to me that’s far too simple an explanation. Let’s see what Dempsey W. Mills had to say, shall we?
VUK (TMW): “Into the Brumal Woe” certainly sets a chilly tone and serves as a nice backdrop for the “winter’s fire” that the narrator is brooding by in “A Black Bile Fog”. That’s both an angry and heartbreaking song. It sounds like he’s holding a grudge against his loneliness and feels abandoned not only by God but by his own memories. What I love about this is that you (as a listener) want to sit right down with this guy and listen to what he has to say.
Dempsey W. Mills (DM): Thanks for the insightfulness! Yeah, it was probably the most aggressive song on the album (at least the first half of the song) – followed by “Calling Upon The Ancient One”. Black Bile is a humor of medieval physiology believed to be secreted by the kidneys or spleen and to cause melancholy. So, a Black Bile Fog (in theory) would be one of a sadness that just surrounds you and hangs in the air. You can perceive nothing but misery until it lifts, revealing the truths of life and death that must be accepted. There is, indeed, a loneliness to that not even a divine father can take away – we have to work through it.
For me personally, there was a lot of reminiscing about people in my life during the course of recording this album. The entire concept of it is actually based on this. And I find it an honor and a blessing if someone does want to take the time to listen and “see what I’ve got to say.”
TMW: That’s awesome! The concept of the album is sort of a lifting of the fog, then being faced with what clarity presents? “Black bile fog”, as you describe it, is one of the most accurate descriptions of depression I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard a lot of them!
It’s not a stretch then to look at “The Cold and the Hope” as sort of a continuation of a theme?
DM: Yes, definitely. A broader concept of loss, and coping with it, is really what I was aiming for – from personal loss of a loved one (several in my case), to loss of sanity of sorts and needing some time to reflect, to loss of the natural world and those places that offer isolation for that very self-reflection.
There are tie-ins lyrically to this theme in every song. Even the title, “Dark Winter Memories”, is an acronym tribute to my late father who passed in the winter of 2016 – when I started writing this album. His full name was Dempsey Woodrow Mills (Sr.): DWM. Not to dwell on the morbid aspects of it, but I lost eight family members during the winter months in 2016 and 2017, which also inspired the title.
TMW: That is actually quite beautiful. Layers. You seem a fan of layers.
That song starts with an icy arpeggio, and just keeps building on those three chords… like a storm. As you (presumably) recall dark memories of a dark winter. There’s a section about 3 minutes in, sounds like it’s in two parts, it almost sounds like Pink Floyd. That acoustic is brilliant sounding!
DM: Thanks. That’s precisely what I was trying to do with that one. A spark of a memory sometimes opens the floodgates – layer after layer things come back to you. I don’t consider my music very technical in that there aren’t many temp changes, riff variations and such. But if I can build some dynamics through layering sounds and complimentary melodies, that’s how I like to create atmosphere.
Glad you like the guitar tones. I probably worked way harder on them than I should have. Tried different mics, placement, amps and settings, for nearly three months before settling on a sound. And, honestly, I don’t know if I’m 100% happy with it. I just really want to get an organic, natural sound that’s not overly processed – and that’s actually pretty hard to achieve. (At least if you’re not a trained sound engineer like me!)
TMW: Yeah, I wouldn’t even know where to start! I’m mostly a plug it in and go type of guy.
DM: I recorded a lot more acoustic on this album than anything I’ve done before too. That part you’re speaking of was another experiment in layering and trying to take the middle of the song into another direction, while building on the same overall vibe.
TMW: It almost serves as a side-thought, or a moment of clarity for the narrator. And musically, I can’t help but think about the melodies in “Master of Puppets”, or “Orion”. Honest to God. Partially because of the tone you achieved. Time well-spent, I say!
DM: I try to break up the monotony of constant, distorted metal guitars. The ebb and flow of sounds is what really builds dynamics and interest – at least I hope! But when those guitars are there, I want them to be clear and punchy. “Master of Puppets” was a huge influence for me early on. That album was one of only two full-tab music books that I bought many years ago and tried to learn a good deal of it – at least the main riffs. I’m not much at playing solos but playing some of those riffs really helped me get my chops up to speed. And the early Metallica albums are loaded with killer melodies!
TMW: No doubt! I tried learning it all as well. Same full tab book, probably.
DM: The riffs weren’t too hard to play with some practice. The solos I couldn’t even get close. I never developed the speed and dexterity in my left hand.
TMW: “Reflection of an Old Soul” seems to serve as a bit of a bridge. Sort of a quiet moment, sitting by that winter’s fire, reading poetry. How does the addition of the George MacDonald poem fit into the scheme of things? He seems to have been an introspective ponderer himself.
DM: It would appear that way from reading some of his work. I tried to pace this album with some quiet, reflective moments throughout. But this song in particular was meant to be an instrumental for such. The narration came as an afterthought of sorts as I was reading through a collection of MacDonald’s poems. It just seemed to fit the overall direction of where the album was going. With a few tweaks, it fit perfectly over the music and flowed rather well into “With Distance”.
TMW: That’s one I really wanted to chat with you about. Almost a Pink Floyd type intro, for one thing. More organic in the beginning, with the piano and cello sounds. The heaviness glides right in.
It is a little more complex lyrically. More abstract, at least to my ears. Can you tell me more about that? It almost seems like a Greek myth kind of thing.
DM: The writing of that entire song began with that simple strummed acoustic intro you’re referring to. I’ve honestly not listened to much Pink Floyd but have oddly had my music compared to them in previous times as well. I do take that as a high compliment considering their stature!
Lyrically it is a little less straight-forward than usual for me. I literally wrote the entire song while out hiking one Autumn afternoon. I was trying to get to a place where I could no longer hear the sounds of traffic or people in general. Total isolation in nature to be free of distraction. And it never happened.
After going a few miles, I could still hear the faint sound of traffic, an occasional siren or motorcycle, and planes overhead. It was then I realized what “distance” could do – geographically, with time, with relationships – on so many levels. And the importance it truly plays.
TMW: Distance, like silence, seems heavier with thought.
And now that you’ve put it that way, I’m wondering if that’s why “With Distance” fades out.
DM: It was not necessarily intentional, but yes, when you think about it, most everything fades “with distance.” That’s a good way to describe it: frustrating when trying to get that far, but indeed glorious when it happens. The feeling of being so very alone can be enlightening – and somewhat scary – at the same time. It makes you feel more alive than you can imagine.
Incidentally, the verse about a brother to dragons, etc. was taken from Job 30:29, which seemed appropriate in keeping with the melancholic theme of the album.
TMW: Oh, that’s what it is! Fantastic! And in Job’s lament he’s talking about people. Society, really. Yes?
“They block my road and do everything than can to destroy me. They know I have no one to help me.” Job 30:13.
And then eventually lumps God into the group, sort of passive aggressively daring God to show himself. Poor old Job went and got himself lost in the woods!
DM: That’s very much the way I interpret it. And as I was somewhat able to sympathize with his sentiments during my own time of loss, I thought it appropriate to “borrow” these verses.
TMW: That brings us to the massive “Calling Upon the Ancient One”. An absolute beast of a song! And, to my ears at least, the most clearly influenced by Black Metal. Given its percussion and guitar picking quickness, for one thing, but also your vocal is just explosive!
It seems to me this is the moment of the expression of clarity. Possibly expressing a bit of frustration that the world is not as simple as it used to be, which is a very powerful statement. Specifically, the fallen tranquility “at the hands of men”, the “blue skies laden with white scars” and “night defiled by a throng of false light”. This after the narrators call for baptism and a return to ancient ways.
DM: That was precisely my thought process when writing that one. The culmination of a journey with all the tracks previous leading up to that conclusion. I envisioned standing near a campfire as the semi-ritualistic intro begins, progressing to a summoning prayer to return to the natural order set in place by the Ancient of Days. This song does probably stay the closest in consistency to the black metal template – musically and with my vocal delivery. I knew from the initial writing of this song I wanted to end the album with it, as it seems to provide a sense of closure. However, I had a small instrumental piece that I cut from the original sequence of the album. It ended up being the actual closer – “A Hiemal Aura”.
TMW: That’s a nice piece. I had written in my notes that it sounds like night.
Like looking up at the stars. And until our conversation, I wasn’t able to tell if the person looking up was frustrated or content. Looking back on all of the things we’ve discussed, there seems to still be some room for interpretation, however I’m leaning more toward contentment. That some prayer was answered, and at the end of the day, it has just been a man telling the story of how he got where he currently is.
DM: Thanks. Yeah that one did seem to create a sense of both tension and serenity. I actually try to do that often in my music. People have described it as relaxing and aggressive at once. Lyrically I try not to be too contrived and straight forward, as most good music does leave room for interpretation in my opinion. That allows the listener to make more of a personal connection. However, there has to be an underlying message, or they just become overly vague, ambiguous words without any meaning.
TMW: Well, you’ve done a magnificent job on this album. What’s next for you? Anything on the horizon?
DM: I really appreciate that. This album sort of “drained the well” for Vials of Wrath for a while, so I’m going to shelve the project for a bit and redirect my attention to another endeavor I’ve been contemplating for some time. That’s not to say there aren’t some things related to it stirring in the background; but I probably won’t be releasing any new Vials material for a least a year or more. The new project is called The Dead Genre. It’s a mix of goth, black metal, and hard rock with an 80’s horror movie vibe (for a lack of a better way of describing it). If you’ve heard any of Satyricon’s later stuff, along with bands like Tribulation, Cloak, Poisonblack and Sentenced, it will be in that ballpark. Also doing some contributions to a couple of other friends’ bands if time permits and things pan out. Just really hoping to stay as busy musically and creatively as possible.
TMW: I will very much be looking forward to that! Thank you so much for your time. This has been wonderful!
DM: I’ve really appreciated your time and attention. Been a pleasure discussing it, and everything else, with you.
“Dark Winter Memories” was released on December 8, 2019 on Flowing Downward Records and can be found on the Vials of Wrath Bandcamp page, as well as most streaming services, along with the rest of the Vials of Wrath catalogue. Highly recommended listening.