Death metal’s charm wore off pretty quickly. The decades of adultery that followed its initial explosion introduced a putrid sheen, as bands shook off the filthy sound in favour of produced wankery. But there was a small bastion of bands that held their own, particularly Gorguts, who proved there were far more things to explore in what was often a formulaic genre.
Cue Pyrrhon. While not strictly comparable to the godfathers of technical death metal, the band certainly shares this experimental spirit, so fans will feel at home as they delve into Pyrrhon’s self-released album, An Excellent Servant But A Terrible Master. Their fiercely modern slant infuses the record with whole new vistas of death metal. From blistering speed to sloth-like flailing, dissonance to melody, hectic shred to megalith riffs, the band never lets up in its unique vision. Chaos is conquered and released through disciplined musicianship into finely tuned epics. And they never shy away from intriguing songwriting either, crafting sprawling pieces that are ready to dive into dark atmospherics or freak jazz at a moment’s notice.
Eager to learn more about this very young band, the LURKER inquisition began…
Who are you?
My name is Doug. I perform vocals and write lyrics for Pyrrhon.
There’s a lot of talent packed into Pyrrhon. How did the band come together?
It was all quite serendipitous, actually. Our founding guitarist Dylan and I grew up in adjacent Philly suburbs, and we hung out a couple of times during high school. In late 2008, Dylan met our original bassist Mike by chance on a subway platform. Mike knew our drummer Alex through college. Those three wanted to play music together, and Dylan knew that I had experience doing vocals, so he asked me aboard. That was our original lineup.
Mike went abroad for school in 2009, and Alex knew our current bassist Erik through a session gig they’d both worked on. He ended up replacing Mike. In March we brought aboard a second guitarist named Kyle. I’ve known Kyle for a couple years and he’s an incredible musician. He recently moved into the New York area, so he was a natural fit for our long-vacant second guitar slot.
You sound like death metal from the future. Is there any discernable lineage to Pyrrhon?
I like that as a descriptor. In a way, we’re collage artists. We use death metal — especially Death, Gorguts, Morbid Angel, and Immolation — as our backdrop and build on that backdrop to create something new. We’re very interested in music that uses dissonance to build identifiable but unconventional melodies. Musicians from all over the genre spectrum have found ways to achieve this end, and we adopt tricks from quite a variety of them. Everyone from King Crimson to Black Flag to Ornette Coleman to Sonic Youth is fair game.
The album artwork has a DIY feel to it, yet seems to provoke some of our darkest fears. The modern world can be a terrifying enemy. Who handled the visuals?
A very talented young artist named Caroline Harrison created the album cover. We wanted the artwork to reflect the album’s lyrical themes and claustrophobic aesthetic, and she worked closely with us to develop the “technology mandala” image that ended up on the cover.
We also opted deliberately for a gritty-looking cover. So many modern tech-death albums feature über-slick cyborg space monster art that looks just as computer-generated and phony as the albums themselves sound. We’re human musicians who make mistakes, and we wanted art that spoke to that feature of our musical personality.
What is it that drives the apocalyptic lyrics?
That’s a hard question to answer succinctly. A lot of the imagery comes straight from dreams I’ve had, but there’s more to them than that. Basically, I think the world is a very scary place.
At this moment in history, humanity is facing a set of problems it has never faced before and isn’t terribly well equipped to face. The world is grossly overpopulated and becomes more so every day. In the past, mankind has compensated for its own increasing numbers with technological innovations of various sorts. I find it hard to imagine that we can continue to deal with the population problem this way indefinitely. At some point, our species will suffer a massive and violent population reduction. It’s simply a question of when and in what matter.
To make matters worse, we seem unable to reach popular consensus on even basic facts (witness the current state of American politics for countless examples). Modern communications technology, with its immense capacity for deception, bears a great deal of blame for this state of affairs. We’re bombarded with distractions and falsehoods every hour of every day. So much contradictory information is available that most people can’t parse out a worldview that even approaches “the truth,” if such a thing exists. It’s very easy to lapse into paranoia, solipsism and amorality under these circumstances. Ironically, most Americans—myself included—can’t imagine life without this technology. Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise portrays this dilemma beautifully, and it was a great source of inspiration for me when I was writing the lyrics for the album.
The city of New York was another major inspiration for me, however clichéd that may be. This place is a powder keg that’s ready to explode at any moment. The sense of tension is unbelievable. If you ever want to witness some honest human behavior, spend some time riding the subways at rush hour.
Colin Marston was enlisted for mastering duties. How did that come about, and are you happy with the results?
Colin is an enormous talent, and he’s played in a lot of bands that we listen to. His studio is in Queens and he’s heavily involved in the scene here, so he was a natural choice. Colin did a great job with the album and we’re really happy with his work.
Dan Pilla, who tracked and mixed the album, also deserves a shout-out. Dan is a young guy too, and he’s a truly gifted and dedicated engineer who I expect to get a lot of attention in the future. We recorded and mixed the entire album in a week, and the hours Dan put in were truly astounding. Guy has a great gear collection, too. I’m surprised he isn’t better-known already.
What does An Excellent Servant But A Terrible Master refer to?
It’s a shortened version of “The mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.” I first came across the phrase in a famous graduation address given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College. He calls it an “old cliché,” but it’s really his use of it in that speech that we’re referring to. It’s from a passage about the importance of choosing how we construct personal meaning from the information available to us in the world. You should really just go read the original. It’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever read and I can’t really do it justice in retelling.
With no members over 24, you must all be insanely talented. What are your musical backgrounds?
Well, I’m not really a trained musician. I come out of a punk/hardcore background and developed my vocals and my riff-writing ability in a death metal studio project called Seputus. I also spent a ton of time reading and writing while I was in college, and I wrote reviews for MetalReview.com for about five years. The other guys can speak for themselves:
Alex: I started listening to Meshuggah and Tool when I was in 8th grade. After that, the floodgates opened, and the wide world of death metal was opened to me. My first real tech-death album was Origin’s Informis Infinitas Inhumanitas and it absolutely blew me away. I’ve always been into fusion, jazz, and more eclectic types of music, and I find that these have a lot in common with great death metal. I went to school for jazz performance, and I’ve taken lessons for my entire time on the instrument, so it was great to have proper instruction and guidance in developing not only as a drummer, but as a real musician.”
Dylan: I took lessons throughout middle school, high school and college, dabbling in blues, jazz and classical mainly. As far as the metal playing goes, I basically taught myself everything I learned and have been doing it since middle school. The only bands I played in before Pyrrhon were a couple disorganized (cover) bands in middle and high school.
Erik: My musical background started with listening to classic progressive bands like Sabbath, Zeppelin, and ELP since I can remember, saxophone at an early age, and bass since I was 10 years old, learning quickly moving from playing rock and nu-metal to death metal, with a constant background of funk and latin music.
Kyle: Basically, when I was a kid, I wanted to play guitar like Yngwie Malmsteen and other guitar “virtuosos.” So, I spent years listening to guitar “gods” and melo-death bands with good guitar playing (Arch Enemy, Bodom, Wintersun, etc.) and growing my hair down to my ass. Then in my late teens I realized that a six-minute excuse to have a guitar solo was lame (excluding Wintersun; I still say Jari Maenpaa is a king among men) and that well written heavy/evil/musically challenging stuff was much cooler. I just happen to bring all the tools of guitar wankery along with me.
Pyrrhon has shared the stage with a wealth of great bands (Evoken, Liturgy and Cannabis Corpse to name but a few). Is the live setting important to you?
Yes! We play physical, visceral music that is really meant to be heard in person. There are a lot of great bands in the NYC underground these days—Castevet, Flourishing, Malignancy, Humanity Falls, Tombs, Painted Rust, Krallice, etc.—so local shows here are a joy to play and attend. If anything, we’d like to play out more.
Touring is a tough proposition because of our various school/work situations, but we’re trying to put together a couple of mini-tours this summer and fall. If anyone within a day’s drive of NYC is interested in setting up a show, by all means, get in touch.
How do you think the band has progressed since the Fever Kingdoms EP?
We went insane? When I listen to the EP now, it doesn’t even feel like the same band recorded it. We were still feeling out our abilities and learning how to write and play with each other. It’s a much more conservative recording—‘truer’ death metal in a sense. It’s good, but I feel like it pales in comparison to the LP.
What are you all spinning obsessively at the moment?
Here’s a few:
Ulcerate – Everything Is Fire
Blut Aus Nord – 777 (Sects)
Agoraphobic Nosebleed/Despise You – And On And On…
Young Widows – In And Out of Youth and Lightness
Angra – Temple of Shadows
Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
Drugs of Faith – Corroded
Hate Eternal – Phoenix Among the Ashes
KEN Mode – Venerable
What bodes for the future of Pyrrhon? Any plans to release the album in a physical format?
Well, yes, we want to press and release a physical version of the album—Caroline’s got a layout pretty much ready to go. We just can’t afford to do it ourselves, and it wouldn’t be worth it given that we have no way to distribute it. So basically, we need to hook up with a label to press it.
We do have a t-shirt design in the works, so there should be some actual merch soon. And we’ve got copies of our EP.
Other than that and gigging around mid-Atlantic (and hopefully the rest of the east coast), we’re working on material for another album. We’ve got skeletons of four or five songs already.
Anything you’d like to add?
Nope. Thanks for listening to our record and taking the time to talk to us.
Listen to and purchase An Excellent Servant But A Terrible Master on Pyrrhon’s bandcamp.