One year after their successful debut LP “Asabiyya“, Illinois dark neocrust hardcore …BUT THE SHADOWS HAVE FOES (aka BTSHF) have recently returned with a massive foollow-up record called “Infernal Kings! You Rule But Ruin!”, the epitome of gloomy, sludgy, d-beat, post metallic crust hardcore that channels the violence and atmospheric impurity, intensity and artistry of acts like FROM ASHES RISE, FALL OF EFRAFA, JUNGBLUTH, ANCST, WOLFBRIGADE, TRAGEDY, or THE SECRET. We have teamed up with the band’s songwriter Todd, who went through the whole record track-by-track to talk a little bit about what motivated the music and thought provoking lyrics for each song. He writes albums as a whole, instead of song by song, so he attempted to communicate a fairly strong musical and lyrical through-line to the album which he explicated below.
As I started this album, I had been reading a lot of articles and books on how alienated people in the U.S. increasingly feel. Low reported trust in institutions and the political system, low reported feelings of belonging, that sort of thing. I think, in very different ways, it was responsible for the success of both Bernie Sanders and Trump in 2016, which surprised many people who didn’t seem to know how many folks out there felt that way. My general take on hardcore as a genre is that it’s designed to take feelings like frustration, hopelessness, disconnection, alienation, and fear, all the things that people are reportedly feeling in my country, and capture them in bursts of energy. That’s what I tried to do with this record.
When we talk about the health or success of a society we tend to use abstract, macro-level descriptors: the GDP, the Dow Jones, the unemployment rate, etc. None of that, however, gets to the lived reality of how people actually experience the world in the institutions and structures which they have to spend their days navigating. Sure, a low unemployment rate is nice, but it doesn’t tell you how dehumanizing the jobs that people actually have are. The GDP doesn’t tell you if a specific working family can actually afford to pay their bills. The Dow Jones doesn’t track whether or not people actually find any joy or meaning in their existence. So even if unemployment goes down and the stock market goes up, most people don’t feel it- they still have homes and apartments they have to pay for, they live in cars and offices and stores and cubicles and schools, all of which weigh them down with pressures and debts and and responsibilities, pulling them in a hundred different directions.
This song is an attempt to get to the bottom of that feeling, capturing the confusing, frustrating, and labyrinthine conditions that many people actually live in. Most of us are completely disconnected from the greater workings of the economy and political system. We just feel the reverberations of the decisions made by those at the center of it as they shape our lives-as-lived. So many, as such, feel alienated from these institutions, these systems, and the decision makers in them. I wanted this to be the opening statement on the album because much of this album is an exploration of how the larger economic and political conditions of our societies shape the actual experiences people have.
The whole world is designed to shatter you, slowly, into a million little pieces and remake you in its image. I can feel it succeeding every day. Every institution and inequity, every constraint and brutality, calibrated to rob us of any sense of trust or refuge. The emptiness I feel when I look at other people, the mental arithmetic I’m forced to do just to navigate the endless maze that we run like rats. (The whole world is designed to shatter you, slowly, into a million little pieces and remake you in its image). Like a blighted devil whispering in your ear “break, break, it’s the only way. Break, break, it’s the only way.” You’ll be assimilated and disposed of. There’s no middle ground. No way out. We just break.
The “left” and the “counterculture,” for lack of better terms, have always encouraged people to question what they hear from the news or other authority figures, told them to think for themselves, that sort of thing. You’ve heard a hundred songs with that message, seen a hundred memes communicating that idea, etc. It’s baked into the culture of punk and hardcore. And, oddly enough, we got what we wanted: trust in the news, in the government, in institutions of all kinds, are at an astonishing low in our country. But, tragically, this laid bare the assumptions that we had about what it meant to mistrust authority. We assumed that people who questioned authority would become, effectively, like we imagined ourselves: savvy and critical consumers of information. Instead, a sizable chunk of the people who have lost their faith in authorities and institutions have filled that void with baseless conspiracy theorizing, bigoted scapegoating, and literal fiction disguised as information which exists to monetize their fear and confirmation bias. These people held a perverted mirror up to us. Turns out there’s more than one pathway to questioning authority, and we got the way that leads to racism, authoritarianism, ignorance, and superstition. This, of course, doesn’t mean I think we should blindly submit to authorities or institutions, however. What it means is that we overestimated how difficult it would be to breed cynicism and mistrust in people while simultaneously underestimating how hard the work of disseminating viable, progressive understandings of the world that resonated with people would be. This song is a reminder to myself to keep that in mind as we watch the norms and institutions that have traditionally held our society together slowly crack and crumble.
How many songs have told me to trust no one and nothing? Smash the system, question everything, bow to no god? Yet this can’t be what they envisioned: a formless indignation groping for any target, aimlessly and joylessly celebrating the the destruction of any shared reality. We foolishly assumed that rejecting authority led to unlearning the hegemonic ideologies that have kept us hooded and caged. Turns out it’s just as likely to lead to bigotry, cynicism, and nihilistic glee as you drag the world down with you. Until there’s nothing left but the lies we tell ourselves to feel righteous and safe.
One of the things that’s come up a number of times in news I’ve read recently is that, at least anecdotally, there has been a surge in demand for mental health services since the 2016 election. The story is, obvlously, that people who feel scared, disappointed, hopeless, etc. since the election are seeking therapy and medication. But, I think, submerged in this is the notion that the people who are happy with the election aren’t doing much better. Survey data tends to show high levels of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness in “red states” as well as blue. This lyrics to this song get at this idea: that strangely, what joins the disparate political factions in the U.S. is a shared sense of anxiety, unifying all of us in mistrust and misery. We express these things differently, of course, but at our core, we’re all swimming against the dehumanizing current of late capitalism and trying to find socio-political solutions to our deteriorating mental health.
Musically, I like to switch up between fast and slow songs on albums, and I had written the middle part of the song, with the long, heavy tom bridge a while back, and really liked it, so I built a whole nice, sludgy song around it. There’s almost nothing in the world I like more than a good, heavy, simple sludge riff, so I tend to go to that sort of thing a lot in songwriting.
A whole species, united only in perpetual alienation. Anhedonic disaffection, all we share. A wretched race, arrogantly erecting glorious spires that become our prisons, leaving us grabbing on to any shred of dignity, meaning, identity, or security. Anything to deaden the anomic entropy. The endless spiral of contempt and precarity breeds a rage that beheads kings cause those with nothing have nothing left to lose. Nothing left to lose at all.
I’ve been completely disgusted with how a sizable chunk of people in my country have embraced outright bigotry, both because it’s morally wrong and because, as in the subject of this song, it’s a pathetic repetition of well-trod history. Anti-Catholic hysteria was spread a hundred years ago by people trying to make a buck off of gullibility, fear, and hatred and it resulted in completely innocent people being hurt. It’s the same song and dance, over and over and over again. Evil people want money and power. Scared, ignorant people want someone to hate. When you bring these two agendas together, people get hurt. Repeat forever.
As for the music in this song, I try very hard to think about an album as a whole, instead of as individual songs, as I mentioned above. This means I try to vary the song lengths, the tempos, etc., so the album has some dynamics to it. This was one of the last songs I wrote for the album because I was looking at it holistically and thinking it needed one more short, fast song to give it a shot in the arm, particularly after XII was all slow and plodding. I figured a nice minute long rager would wake folks back up.
It’s always someone. A hundred years ago it was Catholic immigrants. Lurid pamphlets spread rumors about imagined evils they hid from view. Because there’s always someone willing to make a dollar off hatred and ignorance. Because there’s always someone else willing to buy a lie if it makes them feel powerful. Willing to buy a lie if it’s what they want to hear.
I used to play in a sludge band called Angel Eyes. Our last album, “Things Have Learnt to Walk That Ought To Crawl,” had lyrics written by our drummer, Ryan, that I really thought captured a certain kind of ambivalence extremely well. It was essentially about waiting for the passage of time to, hopefully, change the world as younger generations are less terrible than older ones. My frustration with the endlessly shortsighted greed of the boomers led me to want to explore this same topic, and I drew on some of the imagery Ryan used in the original lyrics of our previous band for these lyrics. I wrote the song backwards, effectively. I had the line “we will bury and burn your legacy” in my head for weeks weeks, along with a riff I was humming underneath it. I wrote that slow, sludgy riff I had in my head to accompany the line, then sort of worked my way musically and lyrically back from that until I had a song.
I’m part of a generation that can only find solace in the creaking passage of time. Waiting, inert in slumber, for the infernal kings who have taken everything from us to perish, one by one, so we can emerge from their long shadows to survey the ruins they have left behind. Then, when we see these blood soaked edifices, obelisks dedicated to their endless, grasping folly, we will raze them, brick by brick, smashing windows and destroying foundations. So as you cower in the dark, waiting patiently for your time, take every chance to look up at them and, through gritted teeth, spit:
“we will bury and burn your legacy.”
Going back to this idea of thinking of the whole album as opposed to individual songs, I knew I wanted a song right in the middle of the album that (a) served as something like an intermission, giving a lot of breathing room in the middle of this super dense, oppressive slab of sound, and (b) acted as a mission statement for the album. I had been humming the main heavy riff in the middle for weeks, and knew I wanted something basic and plodding, so after I wrote that, I worked backward to the long, spacious intro. I’m a big fan of dusty, atmospheric stuff, from Ennio Morricone to Earth to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and I wanted to give the song an intro that was somewhat reminiscent of that sound to give folks a break from the noise.
I knew, lyrically, exactly what I wanted to say as a mission statement: this is an album about being fed up with the indignities of life, work, and politics. The lyrics, as such, came pretty easily. The samples at the beginning are from news reports and footage of the ’68 riots at the Chicago Democratic National Convention. I wanted to use those samples to convey the idea that, while a lot of people here were shocked by the 2016 election, even a cursory reading of our history demonstrates that this is fairly par for the course. The powers that be are amoral. People rise up against them to hold them accountable. Those people get beat down by state violence. Repeat. I thought those samples were appropriate to accompany the above mission statement.
We won’t pledge allegiance to those who cannot be bothered to let us have a shred of dignity. So know this: we refuse to pray to gods and bow to kings and labor for bosses who have not earned our loyalty.
This song is my answer to a youth crew song about losing a friend. That’s pretty much the standard topic for youth crew, so we’ve all heard hundreds of songs about losing friends, getting stabbed in the back, etc. I wanted to come at it from a slightly different angle, however. As I wrote this, I was watching a friendship that was incredibly important and foundational to my life slowly fade away and the experience reminded me of how it felt to fall away from the religion of my youth. I was raised very religious. God was always there, and it was comforting. Then, as I got older, the voice of God that I could always hear in my head got quieter and quieter until I realized I had just been talking to myself all along. It was a feeling of profound emptiness and loneliness. So I wrote a song that split the difference between the emptiness you feel when you lose a close friend to the emptiness you feel when you lose faith.
Musically, I was listening to a lot of Planes Mistaken for Stars’ “Knife in the Marathon” EP when I wrote this, and I think that comes through. On their first couple albums, they just caught lightning in a bottle. They had an amazing knack for balancing power, noise, melody, and intensity while still being, at heart, a straight ahead rock n’ roll band. This song is a fairly strong musical homage to that EP.
The most profound isolation overtook me when I realized how easy it was to let inertia force you to go through the motions of something that no longer holds any meaning. So now I spend my life forever committing ritual acts of penance to a god that abandoned me long enough ago that I struggle to remember the prayers that once burned my tongue. I have long forgotten the theologies we devised, the myths that were spun between us have slipped from memory. Now, devoid of faith and bereft of hope, any light inside of me has been choked for air. Ever dimming, now merely a smoking ember. I have learned that I don’t know what I look like when I’m not reflected in your eyes.
This was the first set of lyrics I wrote for the album. I had been reading the book Strangers in Their Own Land, which is a fascinating examination of white conservatives in Louisiana. The book does a great job of getting inside their world and their ideology, which is what it’s supposed to do, but from my vantage point, it kept striking me, over and over, how the people studied in the book were so convinced that nonwhite people, immigrants, queer people, etc., were getting things that they weren’t that were, by their own admission, happy to slit their own throats if it meant hurting those imagined others. This has been noted in a number of recent examinations of white conservatives in the U.S., notably the book The Politics of Resentment, which basically sums up that viewpoint in the title. And so, horrified by the resentment for others that so many people feel, this resentment that crowds out any actual concerns about their own well-being, I wrote these lyrics. I knew I wanted the song that accompanied them to be a barnburner, so I figured I’d just head right into the fast beat and ride that for most of the song. The song is basically just an attempt at an angry, frustrated, political, hardcore rager, which seemed appropriate after a slow song, then a mid-tempo song.
If you have suffered in this nation, if you’ve been locked out or pushed down, don’t forget what your compatriots think of you- that half of everyone you see would rather cover the country in a sea of ash than see you ascendent. They’d rather starve themselves then see you satiated. Don’t forget how little it all means to them: your security, your safety, happiness and liberty. Empty words in the face of their resentment. Ideas as hollow as their craven, Janus hearts. They will clutch their privilege from you with cadaverous fingers, and they’ll make you claw and fight and scrape for every scrap of power you wrest from them, for every shred of dignity you pry from their dead hands. So never forget that this means you have nothing to apologize for.
While working on the music for this album, I was reading Guy Standing’s book The Precariat. This book dramatically informed all the lyrics on the album, but particularly the lyrics for XVIII. Standing argues that one of the key experiences of people in the 21st century is precariousness. So many people, even the educated and seemingly well-off, are in various states of uncertainty- employment that can end at any time, mortgages that they are one missed paycheck away from being unable to pay, health insurance that is either absent or so limited that one trip to the hospital could saddle them with debt for the rest of their lives. This is the condition of people all over the world in contemporary capitalism. Standing sees the “precariat,” the people experiencing this uncertainty, as potentially mobilized into extremism because anxious people who feel unable to plan for anything in their future without it all melting away are easy to convince to scapegoat other people. The sample in the middle of the song is from a talk by Standing where he laments the extreme wealth inequality in so many nations. And it’s important to note that this is all by design, as the lyrics indicate. Our power structure is full of people who could change this. CEOs who could restructure their company to be more fair to employees. Politicians who could create policy that protect working people. But they won’t. Their concern is creating an endless growth machine for those in power, no matter the cost to human lives and the environment. Hence the final line of this song, that wound up being the title of the album. The wealthy and powerful are perfectly content to rule over decaying infrastructure, poverty stricken people, a trashed environment, as long as they get to rule.
Insecurity is being condemned to perpetually behold everything you hold dear, consumed with the knowledge that it could all crumble in an instant. We have been conditioned to understand that the walls around us have no permanence because there is nothing so sacred that they wouldn’t dare to destroy it. It’s what they do: see anything of value and set in motion the process to steal it all, sell it off, starve it out, tamp it down, bleed it dry, tear it up, bury it, and salt the earth.
Infernal kings! You rule but ruin!
After seeing the commercials the NRA made last year, where they tell their supporters that those scary, scary lefties are coming to rob them and take their guns so they need to stock up on weapons, I had the final line of the song, “fear is the gasoline that fuels their cursed machine” in my head for weeks. The best friend of both the tyrant and the media mogul is fear. Fear keeps us glued to screens, wanting more information, more affirmation. And authoritarians use that to convince us that their extreme policies are all for our benefit, not theirs. There’s a reason Donald Trump harps on the “threat” of MS-13, a group that’s of no real threat to most Americans, and the “threat” of immigrants, even as undocumented border crossings are at a low ebb, and the “threat” of crime, even as the crime rate is at levels lower than it has been at since the 1960s. These “threats” are not about the reality most people face. We face far bigger threats from ecological degradation and unregulated capitalism, but those in power don’t want to worry about environmental and economic regulations which might hamper their profit making. They want us to be looking fearfully at each other while they rob us blind.
I also knew that I wanted a big sludge riff for the end of the album that nicely balanced heaviness and melody, and the one there came to me pretty quickly. If you’re not going to end an album on a big sludge riff, why write the album at all?
Fear is the gasoline that fuels the dreadful engine they’ve built. And fear, like all gasoline, ignites when put to flame. We turn on each other with bullets and ballots, but nothing satiates the damned machine, seething and whirring in perpetuity. It will profit off your fear, your hate, and eventually your death. It will sell you lies to keep you scared, it will sell you weapons to give you the illusion of safety and power. They’ll tell you what you want to hear, as long as you stay afraid.
Fear is the gasoline that fuels their cursed machine.
This little coda is there because this album has been a dense, unrelenting bummer and I didn’t want to go out that bleak. The main guitar melody is something I found on an old four track while I was moving last year. I must have recorded it at some point, but I have no idea when or why. It was just a little minute long guitar thing, hanging out on an old tape, so after I found it, I transferred it to my computer and wrote a song around it. I liked the idea of using some old, found guitar noodling to build a short song around.
The sample is someone reading the final passage from the book Armed Joy. I don’t agree with everything in that work, and a lot of it is about Italy in the 1970s and doesn’t really apply to me or any situation I’ve been in, but I do find this last passage to be genuinely moving and beautiful, and I thought it was a glimmer of hope to cap off a downer of an album, though one that didn’t deny what came before it. I had already decided on the title- “Infernal Kings! You Rule But Ruin!”- and the concluding lines about letting the powerful have the world they’ve destroyed while the rest of us create something different and better seemed a fitting and honest way to imagine a possible future.