How FUMING MOUTH channeled cancer-battle horrors into barbaric death metal | Revolver

How FUMING MOUTH channeled cancer-battle horrors into barbaric death metal

Mark Whelan's existential scare made his "lust for morbidity so heightened"
Fuming Mouth 2023 1600x900 lead, James Joseph O'Brien
Fuming Mouth
photograph by James Joseph O'Brien

Mark Whelan beat death, and now he's obsessed with it. After surviving an aggressive form of cancer, the Fuming Mouth frontman is channeling his corporeal sufferings into the nastiest, gnarliest, most viscerally disgusting death metal possible.

"I've seen people die next to me. I've seen my bed soaked in blood," Whelan tells Revolver of his brutal hospital stays. "It just made my lust for morbidity so heightened."

Last Day of Sun, Fuming Mouth's new and second album, is the product of Whelan's most barbaric imaginations. Songs like "Kill the Disease" and "R.I.P. (Rest in Piss)" are heinously heavy, fusing the Boss HM-2-drenched guitar savagery made famous by Entombed with skull-cracking metallic hardcore chugs.

The cover art is apocalyptic, and the album's dire, existential theme is Whelan's way of "striking the fear of death" into listeners. "It's your last day alive, what do you do?" he says of its premise.

For Whelan, the looming threat of annihilation wasn't just a musical thought exercise, it was his reality. In late 2021, a few weeks before Fuming Mouth were set to enter the studio with Converge's Kurt Ballou to record Last Day of Sun, Whelan was feeling flu-like symptoms and went to the doctor for a check-up.

The diagnosis he received was much more severe: Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

"The doctors came in and told me that I had cancer cells in my body," recalls Whelan. "The first words that came out of my mouth were, 'I just want to play one more show.'"

Whelan was consumed with a sense of impending doom — but once his family entered the room, his mindset immediately shifted to, How do we beat this thing? Since then, he's approached treatment with militant strength and determination.

He was able to secure a donor for a bone marrow transplant in 2021 and, thankfully, has been in remission since 2022. Getting there, though, involved transforming his band into a weapon he waged in the war against his disease — and then writing an album that uses the "disease" of societal meltdown as an allegory for his own health struggles.

"Fuming Mouth became, instead of a labor of love, this necessary distraction," Whelan says. During the height of his treatment, Whelan spent months-long stretches in the hospital and was often forced to completely isolate due to the COVID surges that coincided with his stay.

Luckily, he was able to bring a guitar — one that his friends custom-designed to be extra-lightweight so he could riff away while lying in his hospital bed. "I had never played more guitar in my life," he emphasizes — and that's saying something.

Whelan had been putting everything he had into Fuming Mouth for almost a decade up until his diagnosis. While the Massachusetts band's lineup has shifted over time, Whelan — who plays bass and handles all vocals — is the founder and primary songwriter.

He knew their monstrous debut full-length, The Grand Descent, was something special, but all 40 metal labels he submitted it to passed on it. The album eventually found a home on Triple B Records, and when it dropped in mid-2019, The Grand Descent earned Fuming Mouth considerable buzz within hardcore and death-metal circles alike.

Their momentum was abruptly halted by 2020's COVID lockdowns; then came his cancer diagnosis. And while Whelan's treatment and recovery ultimately delayed Last Day of Sun's recording (which eventually commenced with Ballou) and release (via new label Nuclear Blast Records) by nearly two years — the way the album was reshaped by his life-altering experience might be the one silver lining of his health battle.

For years, Whelan was, like all death-metal musicians, unafraid to broach the subject of death. The Grand Descent contained gruesome descriptions of freak accidents that Whelan had personally witnessed: a young woman jumping out of a car and being fatally run over ("Out of the Shadows") and a neighbor who was severely burned when his oven exploded ("Fatalism").

However, when Whelan faced his own mortality as a cancer patient, his outlook on life — and therefore music, which is his life — changed dramatically.

"There're certain moments where I now look at trees and nature and it's overwhelmingly beautiful," he says. "But then, I'll hear somebody complaining about a very small thing, and it makes me want to cry because it's so disgusting that somebody could take life for granted like that.

"Extremes have really taken hold of my life — and the extremes really took hold of the album."

As such, Last Day of Sun serves up a polarizing musical mix where ballistically heavy songs ("Disgusterlude," "Burial Practices") coexist with tuneful clean-sung rippers ("The Silence Beyond Life," "Leaving Euphoria").

Likewise, Whelan's lyrics jolt between terminal nihilism ("The bodies are piling pound by pound/This place of prayer has turned to panic") and steadfast resilience. "Plague, famine, cancer can't kill me," he croaks during "Kill the Disease."

In real life, Whelan's fight isn't over. Though he was healthy enough to get back to gigging with Fuming Mouth earlier this year and just wrapped up a Fall North American run with Devil Master and Final Gasp, his doctors can't technically deem him "cured" until he goes five full years without any returning cancer cells.

He's optimistic about his future and is humbly casual about the immense strength he's demonstrated so far. But for now, at least, death still looms, and Whelan already knows it'll have its place on the next Fuming Mouth album.

With an intense deadpan, he describes its sound in two words: "Murder music."