Zealotry – Dissecting the Nexus

Tuesday, 15th January 2019

For all of the tried and true death metal albums out there that simply follow the footsteps of those before them, there are still those who look to do something different, something more. Zealotry have been one of those acts, consistently altering the formula and trying out new things with each successive release. The band’s latest effort, At the Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds, brings together choirs, trippy psychedelia, and melodic touches into a thoroughly extreme metal release. It’s outside the box, yet still accessible for those who want some carnage to fuel their day. We grabbed vocalist/guitarist Roman Temin for a round of questions about said album, the importance of lyrical content, social media, and more.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel that Zealotry has changed and grown with each new release up to At the Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds?

Roman Temin: That’s a fun one to start with. I’m not sure you’re going to get an honest answer to such a question from a lot of people because you’d be hard-pressed to find artists who will ever cop to their latest work maybe not being their best. A lot of us will effectively convince ourselves that we’re always growing and getting better even when it’s not really the case, and it’ll be up to the audience to repudiate us on that, which is usually hard to swallow. So I can’t really answer the ‘growth’ question because I feel like that’s something for the listener to experience subjectively.

As for ‘change’, that’s easier to answer because, at least on the last two albums, I can pretty clearly define the goals we set for ourselves, and they’ve been different each time.

On The Last Witness the idea was to basically throw the kitchen sink at the listener. Hence the ceaseless counterpoint, lengthy clean/psych passages, songs averaging 7 minutes (or whatever it was), etc. Basically we wanted to overwhelm the listener in such a way that they’d keep coming back to pick up on details they might have missed on the previous listen.

On Nexus we wanted to make a much punchier, faster-paced album that maintained the aspects of the previous albums that had become the band’s signature style (i.e. use of counterpoint, song construction, melodicism) while keeping the songs more succinct and aggressive and also reining in what we felt were some excesses on TLW that didn’t quite work as well as we’d have liked.

The influences also shifted a bit – away from bands like Immolation and Demilich and more towards the Floridian scene of the early 90s (i.e. stuff like Deicide, Disincarnate, Eulogy, Brutality, Atheist, Monstrosity) as well as the first iterations of Gorguts, Obliveon and At the Gates. Some of our influences remained constant (The Chasm, Adramelech, Anata, Timeghoul, ‘North From Here’-era Sentenced, Univers Zero) but I think listeners should be able to hear the added influences pretty clearly on this record.

And we’re not interested in making Nexus part 2 in the future. The next record is going to as different from the current one as it is from anything we’ve done in the past.

Dead Rhetoric: Where’d the idea for the choir come from on the album?

Temin: We actually had a choir part on the last album as well, so this wasn’t a new element for us to incorporate. But the original idea, back on “Progeny Omega” came from wanting to emulate what Timeghoul did with clean vocals on their demos. The initial plan was to have Phil contribute those vocals, as he did on the Chthe’ilist album, but, true to form, I wrote parts that ended up a bit too extravagant for him to handle. Luckily I had a good friend in Tommy Parnelle who was capable of handling those vocal melodies like a pro.

We were pleased with what he gave us so we decided to have him handle even more demanding parts on this album. I’ve also been working with him on a doom metal project called Exalted Plague on which he’ll do lead vocals and play bass. I just began tracking guitars for that over the holiday break, in fact. Very excited to get that out there.

Dead Rhetoric: 13 years in, what do you feel is the definition of Zealotry as a band?

Temin: I’m not sure how to answer that, in light of the fact that our style has been somewhat fluid from album to album and from song to song. Generally we’re just looking to make music that we want to hear, which doesn’t exist yet. Maybe that lack of a definition is the definition. We make death metal that doesn’t exist yet (at least as far as we know).

Dead Rhetoric: Could you talk about the importance of the lyrical content in Zealotry’s music – what do you feel the impact is of having some depth to extreme metal from the lyrical perspective?

Temin: That’s the one place where I feel inclined to pat myself on the back, because I’ve made it a point of emphasis – especially on Nexus – to write lyrics that stand out from typical death metal fare and I think I succeeded.

I think, given what death metal is at its core – bleak, morbid, vicious music – the lyrics should be appropriately bleak, morbid and vicious but there’s definitely a sense of, um, let’s call it creative inertia that’s taken hold in the genre when it comes to lyrics because I think a lot of bands treat them as superfluous due to the way they’re presented. I think that’s a mistake because, when you think back to the genre’s earliest days, there was clearly a degree of appeal to the lyrics. Otherwise you sure as hell wouldn’t have people shouting the bridge from “Chapel of Ghouls” or “Override of the Overture” at the top of their lungs whenever they hear those songs. Now, that appeal was probably more visceral than intellectual, but it just shows that you can make extreme metal lyrics matter if you want them to matter.

I wanted my lyrics to matter so I tried to eschew the typical death metal themes of cartoonish violence, Lovecraftian horror and occultism. Nothing against any of those themes but there was pretty clearly more fertile soil elsewhere. I did my best to find inspiration from places that were a bit less obvious and tried to write songs that told more personal stories where I could. Perhaps not personal to me (though “Lethe’s Shroud” certainly is) but to the characters from whose perspectives I wrote.

More broadly, I think extreme metal bands shouldn’t be afraid to write about stuff that personally affects them. Even if fear and anger are the only emotions that make sense within the framework of death metal, there are a lot of ways to harness those emotions to write lyrics that stand out. We live in extremely frightening times, after all. Science tells us we have barely more than a decade to radically overhaul the way we get our energy or face climate disaster which will subject a lot of people to horror beyond what most of us can fathom. The world’s biggest nuclear arsenal is under the control of a senile sociopathic narcissist. Fascism is ascendant in many parts of the world. These are things that are absolutely should piss us off and keep us up at night. Use that fear and anger.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the deal with Unspeakable Axe Records come about?

Temin: Surprisingly easily. We were looking to release the album through a North American label to streamline the process of receiving our merch, and maybe get a bump in our distribution. We put out feelers to a few other labels but Phil had long been in touch with Eric from UA and our friends in Nucleus who had released their debut through them had nothing but good things to say. So we asked Eric if he’d be interested and he said yes, and that was that.

Dead Rhetoric: With an album that’s dense and complex, is there ever a time where you look at something and say, “Whoa, that’s too much?”

Temin: I think hindsight and honest appraisal of the previous album helped us develop a sense of restraint on Nexus. More often than not, the key to good songwriting is just trial and error. You commit your best effort to tape (or waveform, as the case may be) and then, with time and repeated listening, you’ll come to an understanding of what you did you in the past worked and what was maybe excessive or misguided or otherwise needed tweaking.

I don’t think you can call something ‘too much’ on principle because a lot the time you can have a section with 3 or 4 layers of counterpoint and it’ll work perfectly within the context of the song. But certainly on the new album we felt inclined to dial back the layering a bit precisely because we were trying to make the songs have a clearer sense of direction and momentum. That sometimes did require us to strip things down in places, and then gradually build them up to the sort of crescendos we’d have all over TLW. But the question isn’t of when something is ‘too much’ but rather of when to deploy the parts with the highest degrees of density and complexity so they feel appropriate and don’t inundate the audience in a way that might perhaps cause them to get lost and disengage from the song.

Dead Rhetoric: With members being involved in other bands as well, how is time craved out to ensure Zealotry continues to move forward?

Temin: We fit things into our schedules to the best of our abilities. I think that’s pretty typical for any band with members all involved in multiple projects. There’s no real comprehensive plan. We just find time whenever we can and in those rare instances where there is a deadline (as there was with this album), we just burn the midnight oil to meet it.

Truth be told, though, I think the development cycle for the next Zealotry record will be more protracted than on the last couple of albums, simply because we haven’t really had a chance to sit down and write much new material since the recording process for Nexus started, whereas on Nexus and Witness we already had one or two songs written as the previous album was still being worked on. That’s not to say there’s any feeling of creative burnout. We just haven’t yet got a clear vision of where to next take the band’s sound. So instead of roughly 2½ years between albums, the next one might take 3 or 4.

Dead Rhetoric: Having members that live in other locations, what is key when you are trying to develop new material and getting a grasp of how something should sound?

Temin: File sharing has been indispensable for us. We send ideas for riffs back and forth to get each other’s opinions on new material when we’re working on it. We then tab out whole songs in Guitar Pro before they’re ever recorded so everyone is on the same page. When it comes time to record, the guitar parts get punched up on the fly. Usually Phil will be the one to tell the other guitarist (be it me or Jake) if we need to re-do a section because he’s got the best ears of any of us. I’ve never found it necessary to ask Phil to make any adjustments on his end (barring the addition of a layer here and there) because he’s that damn good.

As for drums, Alex and I work on the arrangements extensively before he goes into the studio to make sure we’re on the same page. Again, this is facilitated by Guitar Pro, and we always make sure there are no cross-ups in terms of time signatures or tempo markers. It’s not the most organic system, I know, and I really do wish we could have more opportunities to sit in the same room and jam out ideas in real time. But it’s worked well for us so far, and as long as we’re still in different states that’s how we’re going to work.

Dead Rhetoric: There’s a fan group for the band on Facebook now due to the changing algorithms, is it frustrating to continue to have to keep continuing to find ways to reach fans in the social media format?

Temin: God, it just seems to get worse and worse with each passing year. If there were a social media platform available to us that allowed us to have the same sort of reach (even with the diminishing returns) that Facebook does, without subjecting us to all the other bullshit that goes along with it, we’d ditch Facebook in a heartbeat. But that’s the thing – unless and until Facebook is seized from its ownership and investors and becomes nationalized, the bullshit will continue to pile up.

Artists, businesses and casual users alike will continue to get squeezed harder and harder in the name of profit because all the money a social media platform makes comes from two sources: ad revenue and the mining and selling of personal data. And you’re not going to generate much of the former if you’re not always thinking of new and creative ways to limit the reach of postings in order to coerce your users into opening up their wallets. As for the latter, I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways Facebook actively and maliciously uses our personal data against us, to the detriment of all of society.

Personally, if I didn’t have to worry about reaching new audiences with my music or networking with people to facilitate its creation, I’d deactivate and delete my account right away. But unfortunately it’s still the best option we have for that.

Oh, and Dogspotting. Dogspotting is essential to life as well.

Dead Rhetoric: As a former metal writer, how do you feel that impacted your view of the heavy metal scene, and Zealotry itself?

Temin: Well, for starters, Zealotry would not exist if it hadn’t been for the frustration I had with the scene stemming from my time as a writer. I started making music precisely because I wasn’t hearing the kind of music I wanted to hear being made at the time. This was in the mid-’00s, mind you, and the landscape of the extreme metal scene was quite different than it is now. The death metal revival hadn’t taken hold yet, neither had the ‘orthodox’ black metal movement. Everything was either ‘tech’ or ‘core’ or some kind of avant garde genre-bending thing that usually didn’t work. It just generally seemed like extreme metal was moribund. Moreover, I was growing more and more self-conscious over the fact that all I seemed to be doing in those days was whining about the state of the scene without doing anything about it. It’s an odd thing to think about, but it’s entirely possible that if I were maybe 6 or 7 years younger, I’d never have felt compelled to start Zealotry. But I’d rather not dwell on such hypotheticals.

As for the current reality, there are a lot of things I wish I could change about the ecosystem which artists, fans and journalists inhabit, having been on all sides of it. The biggest thing – and this is something I was entirely guilty of in my time as a writer – is that there’s an excess of opinion and a dearth of understanding on the part of bloggers and reviewers. Far too often I’ll see stuff written about a record – not necessarily one of ours, but certainly ours as well – that completely misses the mark when it comes to accurately describing its contents.

I can’t possibly speak for all instances but when I started reviewing albums I was maybe 17 or 18 and my knowledge of music was lacking, to say the least. I hadn’t heard nearly enough metal – underground or otherwise – to be able to place most records I reviewed in adequate context. I also didn’t play any instruments and my knowledge of music theory was basically nonexistent. My only qualifications for writing about music were being opinionated and the ability to write decently enough. Reading a lot of blogs these days, I can’t help but get the impression that most of the people contributing to them are a lot like I was back then.

This isn’t to say that every music writer needs to have played in bands for however-long, or have an expert’s understanding of music theory. And frankly, I think most of the blame lies in the failure of public school systems throughout most of the world to educate kids in music in a way that keeps them engaged. But it really is frustrating to read so many reviews that betray a lack of understanding of their subject matter. And this is a frustration that just about all of my musician friends share.

It’s a lot of work to make a record and, when you consider the trust placed in them by readers, as well as labels and PR firms that send out promos, it shouldn’t be too much to ask of a blogger to make the effort to put forth an assessment of that record that accurately describes and contextualizes it. A review that just provides a few cursory lines of description and then expresses liking, disliking or indifference doesn’t serve anyone’s interests, least of all the readers. And I’m not saying there’s no room for negative reviews. I realize that there’s no way any given piece of music will please everyone who hears it. I’m saying please be as thorough as possible in assessing music before you assign a grade to it.

If you know theory to some degree and can write a review that gets into the nuts & bolts of the music and explains it in an accessible way, that’d be great. If you can’t do that, learn as much as you possibly can about an artist and their influences and write a review that draws upon that knowledge. If that information isn’t available, at least listen to the album enough times to paint a detailed picture of the images and emotions it evokes. Whatever it takes.

To put it bluntly, I think most of the people writing about music need to ask themselves the crucial question of why they’re doing it. Are they in it for access and to get free stuff? Or are they in it because they want the music scene to continue to thrive and reward the artists that are helping it to do that? If it’s the former, they should probably reconsider their priorities in life. If it’s the latter, they should do everything they can to make sure their writing informs more than it judges.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s next for Zealotry as we enter 2019?

Temin: I think 2019 will be the year that we either become a fully functional live band or settle for being a studio project that plays live once in a blue moon. We have a standing offer from a veteran band that we respect tremendously to play shows with them in the coming year and we’re doing all we can to make that a reality, but it’s very difficult, especially given that we have Jake in the band now, who lives on the opposite side of the country and not merely a 5-hour drive away.

As I said before, the creative process for Zealotry might take some time to get churning again, especially given that I plan to spend the next few months working primarily on Exalted Plague. But we do plan to at least do enough writing to establish a sense of direction for the next record.

The other thing we hope to do is release the 7” split with Punished that we’ve been planning for at least 2 years now. Both bands’ songs are recorded (minus vocals on our end) and ready to go, but we’d like to secure a deal to release it physically, rather than doing a digital release first. There’s a whole presentation we have ready for the 7” that’s really cool and we don’t want to forego that. So if any label people out there might be reading this, we’d really like to get this out. The song we recorded for it was written during the ‘Nexus’ sessions but is pretty radically different from anything on that album so we decided to put it out separately.

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