After nearly three years, the release of new Sarcoptes music is imminent. Early reviews of the band’s second LP, Prayers to Oblivion, have been extraordinarily positive, and rightfully so. The album is enormous in both concept and sound. With lyrics covering subjects as solemn as epidemic, genocide, and global hostility – surrounded by the heaviest of metals black, death, and thrash – Prayers to Oblivion calls for the liberation of reason and an expanded appreciation for human suffering.
The first thing I noticed about the album was its cover. A painting by the one and only Adam Burke (Hath, Sallow Moth, A Flock Named Murder). It spoke loudly to me, the way all memorable artwork should, and I could imagine sitting down in front of my stereo reading the lyrics and liner notes.
“To me, the juxtaposition of the skull overlying the cosmos in the artwork suggested the universality or the omnipotence of death,” said guitarist and lyricist Sean Zimmerman, “which is sort of what the album is about: mortality – and man’s struggle against meaninglessness against the background of a seemingly indifferent universe.”
Pictures of warships, planes, mud, blood, and cannon fire. Masked officials, doctors, and factory workers. Rooms full of the sick, the dying, and the dead. From the Spanish Flu to Vietnam, these images are seared into our brains – whether we realize it or not. There is no stopping death, and facing this inevitability naturally prompts objective, subjective, and universal assessments all swirled together. Soul-level contemplation and these themes are evident on the album almost immediately.
“Dig the trenches –
Dig your graves.”
Both Sean Zimmerman and vocalist/drummer Garrett Garvey were kind enough to chat with me on and off for several days. Going through the record (basically) track by track, I asked for an expanded explanation of the narrative on “The Tranches.”
Sean Zimmerman: The basic underlying themes of the song are that war is a tool used by the wealthy and powerful to become more wealthy and powerful, always at the expense of the poor and powerless; that soldiers were used as expendable tools and the innocents who die in the crosshairs are simply collateral damage. One of the bridge verses I think most succinctly points this out:
“Scheming behind their closed doors, preparing to unleash hell, plotting the course of the war and win greater glories for themselves”.
This of course is not the first metal song to ever make this stance. Black Sabbath was doing it as early as 1970 with “War Pigs.”
Most of the song is told from a narrator’s point of view but just before the song ends there are two verses told from the viewpoint of the soldiers. They question the futility of the entire enterprise. Why did they fight? For whom? Were their lives spent in vain? Will anyone remember them – really remember them – as flesh and blood human beings and not as some statistic or footnote in a history book that nobody cares about?
With World War l as a backdrop, the music needs to be gigantic. The bookends of rain and thunder sounds are a great touch. This makes the song almost subliminally muddy.
The guitar work goes through thrash, death, and black metal sounds – a little bit of Metallica, a little bit of Septicflesh – the church bells and organ sounds add an otherworldly element, and there are moments when all these things are happening at the same time. A spectacular technical and melodic solo around the 8-minute mark by Bobby Koelble (guitar-Death “Symbolic”), who played the leads on the whole record. Sean explained how Koelble got involved.
Sean: When we were on our prior label (Cimmerian Shade Recordings) someone from one of the other bands on the label (Jordi from Panico Al Miedo) reached out to me. We talked about our respective albums, and he was the one who recommended Bobby to me (Bobby had recorded some guest solos for their album too). So, when it came time, I messaged Bobby and that’s how those solos came about. He sent his initial drafts. We ended up making a few changes to them and it was done. Pretty smooth process really. I think those solos add so much to those songs… those epic soaring leads really elevate the songs.
I wondered how “The Trenches” was structured, and what specific elements of war they were trying to capture sonically.
Sean: In order to tackle a subject as massive and grave as the first World War, I really felt the song needed to likewise be massive in length and scope.
For me, the best part of the song (and perhaps the album) is the chorus with that huge buildup. The chorus begins with “Screams of horses, screams of men…” I wanted that build-up to mimic the adrenaline and terror someone would feel rushing out of a trench into artillery shelling and machine gun fire in No Man’s Land – running headlong into death. Bullets whizzing by explosions all around, people dying left and right, cacophonous screams, etc.
And the final musical eruption when the guitar overdub and the organ triplets kick in and Gar screams “Buried in the trenches!” was absolutely necessary to depict that scene musically. Likewise, the slow, doomy parts at the end of the song match perfectly the ghostly musings of the soldiers who have died in the war.
Garrett Garvey: When “The Trenches” was presented to me, I could immediately feel the despair and fear of war. It’s not hard to conceptualize the utter panic and imminent doom one would feel standing in the trenches – waiting to be shot, blown to bits, or perhaps even worse, survive and bear witness to all the horror.
The trench whistle at the beginning of the song is what cracks it off for me. Just picture your life ending when another soldier blows a whistle, and now you charge a fleet of mounted guns to your certain death.
I tried my best to encapsulate this build-up through the aforementioned lyrics.
“The war was a prelude
For the nightmare to come
Sparing the eldest
And consuming the young.”
Sean: The Spanish Flu is generally believed by researchers to have started in Kansas in 1918. From there it quickly got into army bases here in the states and then the soldiers brought it with them to Europe when they went overseas. From the battlefields, it then spread to the entire world. So, there was actually some overlap between the two events (the flu pandemic and WWl). It was only given the name “Spanish Flu” because it was the Spanish press that first reported on it.
I first learned about this subject in high school, but it’s always stuck with me in the back of my mind. In fact, several of the songs on this album are about subjects I first learned about in high school and have remained with me ever since.
We wrote and recorded the song before the Covid pandemic happened so it’s purely a coincidence that we have a song on a similar subject matter on the album. I read a book on the subject beforehand to prep me for the subject matter called “The Great Influenza” by John Barry. It basically covers every aspect of the history of the disease that you could want and then some.
Garrett: I had never heard of the Spanish Flu. I asked Sean if he would tell me the book he used as a source for this song. It was very interesting to read and learn of the political and societal mechanisms that I did not think were intertwined with something as absolute and biological as disease. As I live today, they are only more easily understood.
Sean: If you look at the estimates of the death tolls of civilians and combatants for World War I, it’s about 20 million people. The Spanish Flu, on the other hand, is estimated to have claimed about 50-100 million lives in 3 years.
So yeah, referring to the war as a mere prelude to something worse that was on the horizon, I think was pretty accurate. The speed, aggression, and brevity of the track I think really work well with the subject matter. The disease spread rapidly and killed an immense amount of people in a short time. Often people infected with the virus would feel fine one day and literally drop dead the next day, so I think the urgency in the music reflects that quite well.
He’s not wrong. “Spanish Flu” is straight-up whip-lashing violence. Non-stop riffs! And those vocals are notably more ferocious. Rage. Chronologically the Spanish Flu would have been after the war. So, the war did its damage for several years, everybody who survived got home, and then there was an epidemic for two years and MORE death. Goddamned devastating!
Garrett: Vocally, I really tried to bring the fury to this song. I actually tried to stay pretty pissed off for the whole cd, ha-ha. But oftentimes, when I’ve got something good to sing about, I can feel that adrenaline kick and I go.
“Our names and deeds erased
From the memory of this world
From graves long forgotten
Our voices scream in silence.”
It makes sense to reflect on the names we’ll never know; the pieces of our history that have made the world what it has become. It makes you wonder much we can learn from what many have forgotten. The world could use a little more time to dig deeper – to discover what makes the clock work instead of obsessing over what time it is. It seems very much like this is a goal for Sarcoptes, both lyrically and sonically, especially with Prayers to Oblivion. With this in mind, I asked if they’d consider themselves historians.
Sean: I’m not sure there is a goal for the band other than making the best music we can… and that in turn requires writing the most interesting lyrics we can. It just happens, due to my interests in history and literature, that I dwell on these types of topics. If you ever visit an old city like Munich, or Paris, or visit an old cemetery, then thoughts like “think of all the people who lived and died here and are now totally unknown to us” come to mind. For me, it’s a sobering thought. I wouldn’t consider us historians. For me, historians are trained professionals who conduct research and write books, etc. I’m merely a student of history.
Garrett: At one point we were talking about “Dead Silence,” and Sean said something to the effect of “Imagine if you could hear all the dead, screaming out…” I was like, “Damn! That’s metal as hell!”
But yeah, I’m far from a historian. I do love reading and learning about a topic. My mind loves to expand and learn new things. As far as the band, I am happy that we take the time to go a bit further. Find a topic with depth and give it the time it needs to percolate into something of real merit. It gives me great confidence when I walk into the vocal booth, knowing I’ve got some strong content to sing about.
Attempting to Capture a feeling of terror and madness – there are a lot of individual things happening and different moods, expressing a multitude of angles. Garrett’s drumming plays a large role in presenting various stages of alarm and wrath.
Garrett: Before we began prepping for Prayers to Oblivion, I had a moment of truth for myself and drumming. I had come to a point where I felt dissatisfied with my abilities as a drummer. I gave myself an ultimatum with this cd: if I can’t go in there with my tones, my playing, my performance, and lay down something high-quality and original that the engineer will keep, then it’s time to hang it up. I couldn’t carry on with belief in my playing if I still wasn’t good enough to avoid being sample replaced and quantized to high hell.
That coupled with one practice a week for over a year got us sharp and keen to hit the mark when the recording date rolled around.
The organ sound adds a gothic horror element to things, like something otherworldly is helping to keep things more mysterious. I loved that sound on the Plague Hymns EP, so I was keeping an ear out this time around.
Sean: So long as we’re recording music there will always be spots for organ on our albums. The organ is my favorite instrument. What really got me passionate about music beyond the popular music that my parents and friends were listening to when I was a kid was when I discovered Bach via his Toccata and Fugue in D minor. That opened the door to classical music for me and more broadly I think it opened my mind to the idea of music beyond what happened to popular at the time, or what everyone else was listening to.
The imagery Toccata and Fugue conjures is inescapable – Madness and fear mixed with small moments of clarity and beauty – when the veil between what is thought and felt is, perhaps, lifted a bit. With that another dimension to enjoy the album from.
Sean: I would say that section owes less to Bach and more to minimalist composers like Glass et al. It’s a technique I’ve used on other songs too like “Within the Labyrinth Mind.” Take a riff or musical phrase or idea and then just slowly layer more complimentary ideas on top of it until the music becomes very dense. There are bits and pieces of direct classical influence for sure though. The bass line for the opening of “Dead Silence” was inspired by a similar line in a Mozart work.
“When victory is at hand
Will they truly be free
Have they traded masters here
To suffer by their decree
Only those who have never fought
Speak of winning or loss
Destruction is their only friend
Death wins all wars.”
Going back to this overarching theme of war as a “tool used by the wealthy at the expense of the poor,” and soldiers being used as expendable tools, the album’s second half really drives that idea home.
Both “Tet” and “Massacre at My Lai” (seem to) analyze a time that’s a bigger part of modern collective consciousness. Together, perhaps for the first time, soldiers and non-soldiers alike lament the fact that “death wins all wars.” Not that the poor are any more or less oppressed, but do you think pre-20th Century warfare somehow made more sense to the average citizen as a means of conflict resolution? Or is there something about modern warfare that speaks more loudly to our inclination to protest as loudly as possible?
Sean: I think larger segments of society were probably more on board with going to war pre-WWI than after it. I think the general consensus is there was more of a uniformity of cultural, nationalistic, and religious ideas in a given country back then. So, it was easier to drum up more enthusiastic support for wars back then and thus easier to demonize dissidents as anti-patriotic or in support of the “enemy”.
I may be wrong, but I think that began to change when all the fallout from WWI was considered. i.e.: it was so disastrous, and so pointless, that perhaps more and more people began to think beyond nationalistic propaganda. That’s my take on it anyway.
In the USA the Vietnam War was, of course, a huge cultural turning point with large segments of society speaking out against it and protesting it. I think more and more people became aware of the realities of war and not the false romanticization of it or the pseudo-patriotism attached to being in full support of any conflict your country happens to be engaged in.
“Tet,” for those who don’t know, is the Vietnamese New Year. The My Lai Massacre took place shortly after Tet in 1968. I read about a photographer who documented My Lai, which he kept from the Army and had published in Life magazine. These pictures helped spark the anti-war movement in the States.
These two events, and the songs you’ve written about them, go hand-in-hand. A big deal both historically and for the record. It’s overwhelming to think about – all of this death. Absolutely devastating all around. Can you tell us about some of the choices you had to make to write about this effectively and perform it with such a high level of emotional truthfulness?
Massacre at My Lai
In a hail of gunfire
Bodies trampled in the mud
Beneath the weight of the dying
Suffocating on blood
With sordid pleasure
They struck down all in their path
The newborn and the elders
None exempt from their wrath
The soldiers took turns.
Sean: I actually first learned about the My Lai Massacre in high school. We watched the documentary Four Hours in My Lai in one of my classes during which they not only chronicle the event, but they interviewed several of the American soldiers who took part in the massacre. The whole thing made a deep impression on me and has stuck with me ever since.
The song itself is partly a description of the events but also about the aftermath of one of the perpetrators of the event, Varnardo Simpson. They interviewed him at length during the film and much of the content of the lyrics are about his PTSD and his guilt and how his actions ended up not only destroying the innocent Vietnamese involved but himself as well.
To prep for the lyrics, I read the book Four Hours in My Lai by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim as well. I also read a book simply called Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow which was about 750 pages long and delved into 1,000 years of Vietnamese history including the war itself. I also watched the Ken Burns documentary on the subject.
I’m thinking “Tet” was probably just inspired by being so engrossed in the subject matter. I don’t recall planning on writing a song specifically about the Tet offensive as I began writing the music for this album.
Soldiers or civilians – all innocent, to a degree. Did war drive these men to acts of such horror, or is it inherent?
Questions with no answers.
Sean: Well, that’s sort of the central question I ask in “Massacre at My Lai.” What devilry works in the hearts of men to twist their minds towards evil since the world began?
You take a cross-section of ordinary civilians, put them through boot camp, and a few months after being in combat you have some of them at least engaging in atrocities against innocent civilians. You can’t just say they all just happened to be born psychopaths. You also can’t just say it was purely due to the circumstances they were in and the intense pressure and the horror of seeing their own friends gunned down or killed by traps, etc. (although I think that’s obviously a part of it) since not everyone there that day participated in the slaughter. In fact, some actively tried to stop their fellow soldiers and helped save people’s lives.
So, I used the song to really ask questions about human nature: what causes some people to commit such deeds when others in the same circumstances won’t? And if seemingly ordinary people are capable of such actions does that mean you or I or people we know are just as liable under the right pressures?
“Only those who have never fought
Speak of winning or loss”
Sarcoptes creates music that makes people think. Yes, it’s black metal. It’s thrashy and death-like, as well. There’s an endearing quality to the madness on display, for which an evolving self-discipline is responsible. They’ve used much of the same equipment from the start, down to their amps and guitars, not trying to fix things that aren’t broken. They push themselves creatively and intellectually so as to lessen the likelihood of saying the same thing twice.
They’re not handing out answers to anyone with ears, and haven’t set up their creativity for failure by expecting magic tricks and miracles. You’re encouraged, as a listener, to be a part of the process; to dive a little deeper, and appreciate the pictures being painted for what they are. These snapshots of time might hit you right away – all at once as if they exploded ten feet from your house. Maybe they’ll come into view after another listen or three – once you’ve had some time to notice them falling on someone else’s small patch of land. It’s time well spent either way.
Prayers to Oblivion releases February 24th on Transcending Obscurity Records.
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Re “What devilry works in the hearts of men to twist their minds towards evil since the world began?”
Here’s the answer…
“Superior” humans’ natural state of deadness — “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” … https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html
“Never hide the truth to spare the feelings of the ignorant.” — Mikhail Bulgakov