Ashenspire are definitely in the spotlight these days, as Hostile Architecture, their sophomore album, is one of 2022 biggest surprises. An avantgarde metal concept album aiming to deal with capitalist architecture and everything that revolves around it: the issues of a utilitarian conception of life, the eternal search for productive efficiency, the impossibility of neverending growth. Topics the band faces with seriousness and clarity, yet never in a didactic way, which brought the Glasgow based group to be noted by many. After an in-depth review of Hostile Architecture (in Italian only), we thought it wise to discuss several subjects with the band themselves, specifically with drummer, singer and main composer Alasdair Dunn.
Where did you get the idea of an album dealing with the bond between architecture and capitalism?
Originally, the inspiration came from just living in a city, being inspired by the structures around me, thinking on how they made me and others feel. From there, it was a case of asking «well, why are these buildings built the way they are?» and delving deeper into their history, the history of architecture in the UK and abroad generally. Finally, when I was delving into critical theory, sociopolitical and philosophical writing, Mark Fisher’s writing on Lost Futures and Hauntology really struck me, as did his work on Capitalist Realism. I started seeing the link between the now-decaying architecture of a bygone optimism and the underpinning capitalist structure. The overwhelming feeling of it all, the bleakness… it felt like a perfect place to draw inspiration from for an album!
Your debut album title, Speak Not Of The Laudanum Quandary, refers to the moral ambiguity of governments and politics (Britain cultivating opium in India, selling it in China, where it was illegal, and waging a war to keep the trade going when China made opium illegal because people were becoming addicted). Hostile Architecture, on the other hand, is less historical, more “contemporary” and universal, in a way. Thematically, did your approach to writing lyrics vary from your previous effort? What are the greatest differences between the two records?
The approach to writing the lyrics was largely the same, but I felt inclined to shroud the music less in poeticism and metaphor, to be more direct and communicate the essence of the music more effectively. I also feel I’ve put more of myself into this record, more of my own personality and voice comes through. Speak Not… feels quite arcane and foggy to me, looking back at it, textually; Hostile Architecture is far more relatable, and thus effective. Generally, Hostile Architecture has a lot more energy and feels more like a cohesive whole than Speak Not… does.
Sounds like, with your art, you aim to offer something relatable and extremely direct. Do you see art as a means for a message, in your case? And opposite to that, what’s your opinion about art as pure escapism?
Art is a compulsion to express things that cannot be fully articulated otherwise, in my opinion. Whether that is something political or something like fun, art comes closer to conveying the experience of the emotion than attempting to describe it. My art is political because the political component of my life is irrevocably intertwined with my everyday experience, the things that I’m feeling, and that comes across, I think! Art as pure escapism is a totally valid form of art to make, and I don’t see it as the total opposite — if it’s genuinely created, it expresses a general feeling of longing for simplicity, control, fun, joy, often things absent from one’s life. Part of art’s magic is this. I would argue the opposite of art with a message is art for consumption — art devoid of meaning, a simulacrum of art. Art can be entertaining and fun without being dishonest, cold and inhuman, which is how much of the entertainment industry seems to operate, to me.
In another interview you stated that «all choices made in the architectural field will have some effect on the humans that interact with it. Once I started engaging more with political and philosophical theory, I started to see how ubiquitous the effect of neoliberal capitalism is — symptoms of it are everywhere you look». Would you care to give a few examples?
Let’s start with some institutional examples. The lack of meaningful options in electoral politics (“this flavour of capitalism, or this much worse flavour of capitalism?”), presenting a privatised health service as “choice”, the prison-industrial complex marketed as “generating opportunities”, or putting the incarcerated “to good use”, the obsession with the health of the economy over people, the application of market dynamics to all aspects of life. A lot of these things are presented to us from infancy as “common sense”. On a more personal level, we tie our sense of self-worth to productivity, to an impossible ideal of infinite growth, to quantifiable but meaningless metrics of success. We are encouraged to, and rewarded for, self-commodifying, creating and maintaining a personal “brand”, with which we are sent out into the marketplace of humankind, instantly and inherently placed in competition with our fellow folk, where the most profitable, least disruptive ideas, trends and movements can be funneled to the top. Consumption replaces activism; the need to fight injustice sated by a niche in the market.
In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher suggested that one of the biggest victories of capitalism is the fact that people stopped conceiving alternatives to it, hence taking the current western model for granted and unavoidable. Along with several other great minds of the last three decades (David Foster Wallace being another easy example), when facing the insurmountable truth he took his own life. What’s your take? Do Ashenspire think there is hope?
I think it is completely understandable for people to look at the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness, the cards so profoundly stacked against the cause of liberation, and feel like there is no hope. However, that is not my position; from what I have seen in the past few years, there is some renewed vigor for a better world, and many are prepared to fight for it. You can see it, feel it in the social unrest regarding injustice that we’ve seen these past few years. It’s in one another. In our real-world communities, meeting each other’s real-world needs. The solidarity I feel with other oppressed folk fills me with hope. I believe capitalist realism to be incredibly powerful, but not unbeatable, not eternal. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I’m not prepared to stop working for and with other folk in pursuit of liberation. It saddens me to think that these great minds felt helpless and alone — I feel buoyed on by the folk around me.
What are your suggestions? Do you have any practical ideas, are you an activist of some sort? Or, even more broadly, how would you suggest people to find hope?
Join a union. If you’re in rented accommodation, join a renter’s union. Talk to your neighbours, see what they need and if you can help them with it. Actually engage with your community in a kind and open way, listen and have solidarity with them. Make food for your friends. Turn up to protests, object when immigration police or landlords come to remove people from their homes. Essentially this — find your fellow humans and stand beside them.
You named “three albums that influenced you a lot” on Echoes And Dust, and those were Altar of Plagues’ Teethed Glory And Injury, CIVIL ELEGIES’ Combat and Ed Scissor and Lamplighter’s Tell Them It’s Winter. I couldn’t help but notice that all three are from the same geographical area, and two of those are outright Scottish. How “connected” are you to the music of your area, and what do you think is the connection between music and geography, in a “worldwide” genre such as metal?
It’s consistent, I think, that art is the product of the experiences of the artist; the environment, as much as anything else, shapes the art into something unique. UK art is a response to the UK, in whatever manner that takes, Scottish art is the same. If you are earnestly and honestly expressing something through art generally and music specifically, something of that locale will seep into it. To me, metal is only “global” insofar as it is consumed globally; every different place has its scene, its sounds. Certainly I don’t think Ashenspire would sound anything like it does now if I’d grown up in America, Brazil, Taiwan, or anywhere else; I just hope that that particular flavouring is still something folk everywhere can relate to.
Let’s move to the music itself: I love the use you make of the saxophone — which is an instrument I find extremely underrated in the metal scene. What led you to include sax into your music?
It’s definitely under-utilised! Lots of bands have done great things with it, but my particular love of sax in an extreme context comes from jazz and experimental music (Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Colin Stetson). Obviously sax is ubiquitous in jazz but it’s the stuff on the fringes that really pushes the extended techniques of sax that appeals to me. It’s a profoundly human instrument, matching the human voice well in its frequency range, being able to scream and distort, able to be percussive and smooth in equal measure. I want my music to be evocative and emotional; sax conveys a broad range of emotions beautifully.
“Avantgarde metal” is probably the label that suits you best, but Ashenspire doesn’t end there. I personally hear a lot of Current 93, particularly in the way you modulate your voice on Hostile Architecture, and in general a lot of “out-” and no-wave music. Do you see yourselves sitting in a specific niche?
I wouldn’t say I see us sitting in a particular niche. Sonically there are lots of comparisons you can draw of course — each piece of art is a product of all that came before it — but the music I want to make will continue to shift and evolve, and not necessarily pursue any particular established sound. I suppose it’ll be up to history and the audience what particular labels we’re assigned!
Extreme metal and far right: it’s been a given for decades, but eventually more and more bands are stepping up against certain ideologies, even quite vocally. Have you ever had any clashes with other bands or with the audience because of your clear political message?
We’ve not had much issue with it, with the occasional exception; some issues with the odd right-wing ghoul on the internet, a promoter here-and-there, and one or two bands in the UK, but honestly the majority of punters and artists we interact with have been really wonderful. In the circles that we move in, everyone seems really on board with our message; people who aren’t on board don’t seem to be making music that I particularly enjoy.
And yet, I’ve come across fantastic people as well as individuals with whom I did not want anything to do, and they played the same genre of music. In the old and neverending controversy about art and artist, where do you stand? Can you enjoy music made by despicable people? Can you admire the artistical heritage of a person with views strongly different from yours? There is no right answer to this question, but everyone draws their personal line somewhere.
Art and artist are not separate (the artist is a vital piece of the context of art, to deny art its context is to deny it its soul), but there is a difference between engaging with a piece of art and endorsing the actions of the person who made it. Artists are often broken or hurting people, as are we all, and are responding to that feeling with expression. I think we can gain insight into such difficult artists and the people who engage with them through analysing their work, and then with that insight perhaps find ways to understand our fellow person and how to address the behaviours and views that we disagree with. Said context might make you enjoy that piece of art less, but art is not all about what we enjoy, and it’s interesting to explore what it does then make you feel. It’s very much another matter to “support” or endorse it — I think this is particularly prevalent in metal where there is a culture to display the art you enjoy as part of your personhood — patches, shirts, etc. To make that art, and the expression contained therein part of yourself, to uncritically display that you connect with it to the wider world, is not at all the same thing as engaging with the art itself.
The context of a piece of art is just as important as the content of it. I have had albums both improved and ruined by new information and context, but they are still part of it, part of your experience of it. Many people I disagree with can be, through practice, undeniably very skilled at creating the art they create and all the threads woven together to make any piece of art, but for me, the context cannot be ignored without devaluing the piece to the level of pure “content” for consumption. If we want the art we have in our lives to have any deeper meaning at all, you have to take those things into consideration.
You and many of your bandmates have different artistical projects, I recently tried to put some of them on the map with an article about the Glasgow scene, but would you care to introduce some of them in your own words?
Absolutely — Scott and Ben have been doing the excellent Falloch for over ten years now, who need little introduction; Scott has just completed the debut healthyliving album with Amaya (which is sounding incredible), while Ben makes evil sounding black metal riffs in Barshasketh. Rylan is a professional composer and is working on the heavier, experimental side of things in All Men Unto Me. As for me, I’m very busy — active now, I’m working on the aforementioned All Men Unto Me material, some sludgy doom with Forever Machine, an epic/atmospheric black/heavy metal project that I can’t talk about yet, and some thrashy black/death metal with Tyrannus.
Last but not least: what’s next in Ashenspire‘s agenda?
Just gearing up for our upcoming shows with Abest in Germany, and we have some as-yet-unannounced tour dates for the EU next year too. Hopefully some festivals next year too, and we’ll fit some new writing in there at some point, I’m sure!