Abysmal Dawn’s Charles Elliott Says Social Commentary Is Personal In ‘Phylogenesis’ (INTERVIEW)

Death Metal band Abysmal Dawn’s newest album, Phylogenesis, arrived six years after Obsolescence and saw a change in lineup and a renewed focus on personal elements in the songs as well as a push for more creative approaches to songwriting. The result is a unified and, at times, frightening vision of the current and near-future state of humanity. 

The album’s title refers to an evolutionary stage where there’s diversification within a species, separating elements further, and songs like “Coerced Evolution” and “Soul Sick Nation” raise questions about the role that technology and social media play in severing our connections with other humans and our own humanity. Abysmal Dawn founding member, singer, guitarist, and songwriter Charles Elliott weighs in below on the unusual aspects of approaching this “rebirth” album for the band, how social commentary comes into Phylogenesis, why you should listen to Metal on vinyl, and much more. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I know the latest album, Phylogenesis, has a particularly long history for you. What helped you keep the faith along the way that it would be finished someday?

Charles Elliot: I think there was just a desire to get it done and having faith in what we were doing. It was knowing that the album was probably the best that we’d ever done, at least in my opinion. We had excitement about the material and that helped us persevere.

HMS: Did you work on it song-by-song so that some songs were at the demo stage earlier, or did you gather things together towards the end of the process?

CE: The music had been done for a while and the lyrics were later. The lyrics, bass-lines, and leads were the last to be finished, but the structures with the guitars and drums were in place for quite some time. 

HMS: Was there more of that material than you would need for an album?

CE: We actually ended up having two songs that we didn’t complete as far as lyrics go, but we recorded everything else. We still haven’t finished those. That’s been on my to-do list for a while. But to be honest, I fucking hate writing lyrics. It’s the bane of my existence. It puts me in a shitty mood because I focus on the more negative aspects of existence and it takes a while. The longer I do this, the longer it takes to find things that inspire me or are things that are different from what we’ve sung about in the past. So that holds things up, as one of many things that can hold things up. Lyrics are my bane, but we hope to do an EP soon, and sooner rather than later.

HMS: That’s great to hear! I have heard from a number of musicians who work with music first, and the lyrics come after, but often those tasks fall to more than one person, so they don’t have as much pressure on them as you must feel to do both. Each of the songs on the album has a kind of separate concept to it. Is coming up with that concept hard for you, or just the writing out of the actual lyrics?

CE: With this record, I started off trying to make a concept record, with a storyline and everything. But at the end of the day, I felt that I didn’t really connect to it. It felt too nerdy. It was a sci-fi concept in the beginning, probably with some social commentary, but when I didn’t connect with it, I ended up scrapping it. Then I started writing about some of my feelings about life and society at the time, and it came out way more personal, and I think, better in the end.

What I usually do, though, is I start with vocal patterns in mind. I’ll make notes about ideas that I have, and then try to build upon those concepts or ideas. The words don’t come as hard once I have a concept in mind. The story-based stuff comes a little easier to me, though, then the personal stuff, when trying to put things into words. 

HMS: When I listened to this album, I did think it seemed very personal, but also had some big ideas. Just based on the ideas in the songs, I was wondering if you are someone who is generally quite concerned about the future of humanity and the human condition. Or is that something the whole band is interested by also?

CE: I feel like I am sensitive to feelings of injustice in the world and am critical of the way things are run. I take things too personally, probably to the detriment of my mental health sometimes. Am I concerned about humanity? Yeah, I’m concerned about the path that we’re headed on and the way that people don’t really talk to each other anymore. I’m concerned by the breakdown of discussions between people who come from opposite places in their ideals. I’m concerned by social media feeding us what we want to hear. I’m just not happy about the path that humanity is on, and I feel like it’s been that way for a while. Technology is used to confuse, distract, and divide people, and that’s been a problem for me for a while. So I think the answer is, “Yes”. 

There are varying thoughts within the band, but for the most part we all agree on this. Some of the guys have more conspiracy theory-like ideas than I do, but that’s fine. I love all these knuckleheads and we all have to get along. For the most part we are all concerned about humanity, though we may have different viewpoints in the band about how we got here.

HMS: Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a musician to talk about these things, or is it more about conveying your truth as a songwriter and with the band?

CE: I don’t think that we have any sort of political agenda. I don’t think we’re really even a political band, though some people might say we are. It’s more like a social commentary. I’m a musician. I’m not the gatekeeper for humanity. I talk about these things because I feel compelled to. This album is more about the individual and how the world makes the individual feel. I had to do that in order to connect with the material, and I have to connect with the material if I’m going to sing it every night.

For Death Metal, this is kind of a rare thing, I think, but I also think it’s something that has set us apart that we have more to say than the average Death Metal band. I take things on a more personal level. Whether people care or not is another thing. Do people care about Death Metal lyrics? Maybe not. Maybe they want to hear those riffs. But I’m happy with it. As a musician, I just say what I want to say. I don’t feel an obligation to society. But I do feel, as an artist, feel that art should awaken people to the problems around them.

HMS: I think that making the album more personal is really interesting and combining that with bigger implications is something that got my attention. But musically, what were some of your goals for crafting these songs compared to past songs?

CE: We’ve always tried our best, but having a different lineup here meant that we were able to take the music in different directions in certain aspects. I like the record Obsolescence a lot, and I stand by that record, but it was more straightforward to me. With this album, we wanted more technical flair and I think that’s what we achieved. Our former drummer did a great job on the two records that he was on, but I wanted to do things a little differently after that. On Obsolescence, we weren’t able to write together or jam together, rather than bouncing ideas off each other. I think by having a drummer in the same room, we were able to feed off each other and take things down a different path.

HMS: Did that help you create a unique sound for this album?

CE: I think so. Having some fresh enthusiasm in the band created the energy and vibe of it, too.

HMS: How did setting up your own studio space facilitate the album?

CE: It had its plusses and minuses. When you have your own studio, you seem to have endless time and people are like, “I’ll show up whenever.” It’s a seemingly endless time and budget. But it did definitely help in the writing and demoing process since we could try different things on the fly and have a finished idea on what we wanted. That was a benefit. I wonder if in the future I would do the same thing again. We may or may not go somewhere else to have a third party to crack the whip. Or maybe we’d do a group effort. Doing this now, I have a better picture of what I want, though, and it’s hard to let go of the reigns a little. 

HMS: This album has had the works in terms of formats for release, with CD, several colors of vinyl, cassettes. How long has the band been releasing on vinyl?

CE: We have three albums out of five on vinyl. I know a lot of people ask for the others on vinyl, and hopefully that’ll come out someday. 

HMS: You seem like early adopters of the return of vinyl.

CE: Yes, I think around 2009, we noticed that vinyl had started coming back. I’m happy with that. I do like vinyl a lot and collect vinyl. I was a slow adopter and still have a ton of CDs. It’s a picky format and it depends on how it’s mastered but there is something about it. I think if you really love a band, you should probably pick it up on vinyl. CDs still sound great, I think, from a technical standpoint, though audiophiles might hate me for saying that.

HMS: There’s a little bit of counter-current about whether Metal sounds good on vinyl. It does take care and attention to get it right.

CE: Yes, we took a lot of time to master properly with these last two albums, and I think that they sound great on vinyl. Having said that, I always enjoy fucking dirty old-school Death Metal on vinyl. I think we sound good on vinyl. People like to call us a Tech-Death band and we have technical aspects, but we’re a Death Metal band to me. Some of the super-loud, super-clear stuff is stuff I’m not concerned to have on vinyl but fucking dirty old Death Metal is something I love on vinyl.

HMS: There are some ways that vinyl can reproduce the sound of playing live more accurately, too. I love it. What about cassettes?

CE: That’s just a cool collector thing. I wouldn’t listen to anything on cassette, really. I’d have to dig out my boombox or something. It’s tiny-ass art on cassettes! That’s what I like about vinyl, no matter what. If you love the band and the artwork, you want that physical product, and that looks cool on vinyl. If you’re not going to listen to CDs anymore, then vinyl is what you want. 

HMS: I think it’s really great that you’ve worked with the same artist, Par Olofsson, for all of the Abysmal Dawn album covers. This one’s gorgeous, and it even fits with the idea of going into the individual more, because the viewer is going inside the tower, like an interior movement.

CE: Right, like it’s your inner self. I’ve always loved working with Par. Whenever it comes time to make a new cover, it’s exciting and we can geek out. I can tell him nerdy sci-fi references and he loves it and gets it. He’s big in the Metal world and has done some sci-fi and fantasy work. We’re one of the earlier bands to work with him, though, as far as I know. We’re possibly the one band who hires him consistently. I love him.

HMS: I meant to ask, when you’re writing new songs, are you thinking, “How do we do this live?” Is that part of your thinking or do you adapt later?

CE: I’m thinking about how it will go over live, perhaps, but not about how we will perform it live. There are times, where, from a technical aspect, I think, “Fuck! Can we perform this live?” Then we work our asses off, and it comes out in the studio, then after the fact I think, “Yes, we can do it.” We like to push ourselves in the studio and then make sure we can do it later. That’s how we grow as musicians. There are things that might be pushing our boundaries, but we get it done, and then we can do it live.

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