"Sickness and perversion creep through the gates/In black gowns. And the beds bear/The tossing and the moans of much wasting/They run with the buckling of death." That eerie imagery highlights Harper's Magazine's English translation of "Umbra Vitae," the 1912 poem from German Expressionist Georg Heym. For Jacob Bannon — frontman of hardcore stalwarts Converge and founder of taste-making heavy-music label Deathwish Inc. — the mood of that piece lingered for years, helping inspire a new band with a similarly intoxicating darkness.
Shadow of Life, the debut LP from death-metal quintet Umbra Vitae, updates that poem's "semi-dystopian vision" for the Trump era, meditating on how backward-looking customs and a blanketing void of compassion restrict human beings from reaching a higher plane of potential. And its messages arrive at a chilling time. In March, before the album's release, Bannon reflects on these lyrical themes — and the poem that lit their fuse — as the world grapples with a coronavirus pandemic that's infected thousands, killed a small percentage of patients and altered the daily habits of almost everyone. He's concerned by the dangers of "serious mania" accompanying the spread, along with the apathetic response he sees from those unwilling to employ reasonable preventive measures.
"When there's a crisis, we just wish people the best of luck," he says. "Our hearts go out to them, and we go about our distractions. There's [always been] this strange detachment between action and empathy, but now, I feel, you can see it right in front of you."
The sickness has, indeed, crept though the gate. But Shadow of Life, which takes its title from an English interpretation of Heym's poem, isn't about a physical virus — the infection is psychological, and the album's bludgeoning bellows and riffs are an ideal antidote. "[Heym's poem] kind of stuck with me," Bannon says. "And it had the leanings of things that had always fascinated me as a listener of music and a creator of emotional art. It spoke to me, like, 'Wow, somebody was creating something in 1912 that had a lot of the voicing of what heavy music is now."
The band sprouted from two seeds: Bannon and guitarist Sean Martin (ex-Hatebreed) had been casually floating the idea of forming a death-metal group since the mid-2000s, but that vision crystalized through warm-up jams during sessions for 2019's Rust on the Gates of Heaven, the third LP from their experimental post-rock endeavor Wear Your Wounds. "We're all heavy-music people, so typically we'd riff on ideas and just mess around and loosen up by playing super heavy song ideas that are sonically different from Wear Your Wounds," the singer says. "That's the first language we all had. And we did it enough times that we were like, 'We need to do something with this. This isn't just material that we can kind of forget about it. Some of these ideas have their own unique character.' We said, 'Yeah, fuck it. There are no rules.'"
At that point, the songs felt like an "alternate identity of Wear Your Wounds," but the lineup — and sonic focus — pointed elsewhere. WYW drummer Chris Maggio (ex–Trap Them) wasn't able to participate due to scheduling conflicts, and Bannon notes that guitarist Adam McGrath (Cave In) wasn't aligned with their more "technical" approach. So the three remaining members — Bannon, Martin and guitarist Mike McKenzie — recruited drummer Jon Rice (currently of Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats) and bassist Greg Weeks (Rice and McKenzie's former bandmate in tech-death outfit the Red Chord), allowing the process to unravel organically.
Bannon wound up with the heaviest album in his catalog. "I absolutely adore being in Converge — it's been a part of the fabric of my being since I was a kid," he says. "I've spent more than half my life in it. But it's also not really a metal band, although it has metal leanings at times and it's hyper-aggressive. This is the closest thing I've done that's rooted in more traditional death metal, at least it's in terms of speed and ferocity and heaviness."
McKenzie is a metal fanatic with an ear for pulverizing riffs and dense atmospheres — he even helped shape the album's massive sound by recording basic guitar and bass tracks at his home studio. But heaviness is just one color in his musical palette: He grew up absorbing video game soundtracks and classical music, and "the first record [he recalls] caring about" is Michael Jackson's Thriller. ("I remember listening to my parents' vinyl," he says. "For some reason, that insert of the gatefold has Michael Jackson lying with tiger cubs or something. I remember being blown away by the spectacle of it all.") And his resumé is hilariously eclectic: When he isn't playing in metal bands, including his doom-metal solo project, Stomach Earth, he does freelance audio work at MIT and Harvard, recording wind ensembles, jazz ensembles and symphony orchestras; he's also racked up sync music credits for famous brands including Sesame Street. (That's his cheery tune driving the Sesame Studios "Potty Training Song in 6 Steps!" web video — a childhood dream realized, even if he's still pissed they cut out his custom "shit plop" sound.)
Working in these varied, non-metal fields helped McKenzie bring a renewed clarity to his writing — a change of pace from the Red Chord's breathless, riff-per-second approach. "It made me focus more on the parts that matter," he says. "[In Umbra Vitae], Greg and I would write riffs and say, 'We don't want to make this overly technical.' For years, we had this major ADHD thing going on where we'd write a two-minute song with 20 riffs in it. One of the things I learned from playing with Wear Your Wounds is the opposite end of the spectrum: 'We played this riff 16 times, and that's OK.' It's OK to let thing breathe a little."
Shadow of Life breathes, but it's also a satisfyingly compact listen: Tracks like the cinematic "Fear Is a Fossil" and "Ethereal Emptiness" pummel you in the skull and flee the scene quickly — in these two cases, in three minutes or less. And they pack some compelling ideas into those small spaces. "That song just embraces the potential that everything is empty, that we need to accept that fact to move on," Bannon says of the latter. "We spend a lot of time exploring ideas of the soul and afterlife, and we lose sight of some incredibly important things like present day."
"When I started sending the guys the lyrics, they were joking around and calling it 'righteous metal,'" he adds. "There isn't much of that sort of character in written lyrics in the metal world, where things tend to fall more into the fantasy realm or shocking realm — or cliché."
Shadow of Life is righteous, finding seeds of hope within its dystopian scenery. And for Bannon, these messages were urgent.
"Over the last 10 years or so, I've had the mentality of, 'If you think it, make it,'" he says, observing the road to Umbra Vitae. "We all have some sort of clock ticking in ourselves. This is it. If now's not the time to do it, when is the time?"