Everything behind Rannoch's "Reflections Upon Darkness"

Everything behind Rannoch’s “Reflections Upon Darkness”

Despite quite a long career, Rannoch are still unknown to many. The English band is one of the most interesting names in the progressive, modern death metal area, and their sophomore album Reflections Upon Darkness, released in the middle of a continental lockdown, has been causing quite a stir among all those who had the chance to listen to it. We reached out to guitarist, singer and main composer Ian Gillings to discuss the band, the album and a lot more.

First of all, for all those who do not know you, would you introduce Rannoch?

Rannoch is a progressive death metal band from the UK. Our debut album, Between Two Worlds, was released at the end of 2013. Metal Archives has us down as having formed in 2004, which is partly true… Rannoch as it is known now was birthed from an old band three of us used to be in, and the first recording of Rannoch demo — which by the way, I think hardly anybody will have a copy of and is not the greatest recorded work in the world so will remain hidden — was actually a demo for that old band. The first real Rannoch demo was released in 2008, entitled Talamh Mathair. As you can perhaps tell, our release schedule has not been the fastest in the world!
We play a brand of progressive music which dips its toes into the death and black spheres of metal, but we are also big fans of technical music and virtuoso players. I love some electronic based music like Aphex Twin and Ulver, so sometimes those influences slip in too.

The album is extremely dense. Almost seventy minutes of music divided into two main moments, the second one, Darkness, starting off with a “Prelude” after roughly half an hour. How did such a massive amount of music come to birth? And why publishing it all together? Darkness is the full poem by Lord Byron put into music and might have been an album per se, what’s the connection with the first part of the opus?

It was always my intention to have the album as just that, Byron’s poem, start to finish. I had written a good deal of music which I spent a great deal of time with to piece together to match the flow and feel of the poem. By the time I felt the whole thing was working and felt complete the running time was about 38:52. So, yes, that could have been released as a complete album; however, outside of this I had also written more songs which were complete pieces in themselves and had some real impact… So the decision was to either hold on to those, or try to include everything in one album. I LOVE long albums… And with such a long time between releases we felt it best to just put as much into this one release as we could. So we did.
Thematically the first half of the albums deal with personal darkness. Emotional darkness. Byron’s poem is a more apocalyptic vision. With those two polar differences Reflections Upon… just became an idea for a title that stuck and seemed to fit the aesthetic.

This brings me to a wider question: as you said, you don’t have the fastest release schedule. Directly connected to your choice to publish both Darkness and the other songs together: have you considered the chance to “dilute” your releases along a more regular schedule? I never thought about this until I talked to Michiel from The Monolith Deathcult. He said, «… So why should we […] keep on recording music for fifty, sixty minutes when people do not listen to it anymore? […]». Have you ever considered these factors, when it comes to Rannoch?

There were various factors that contributed to the slow release of album two, but Michiel is possibly right. The songwriting process for this album began a few months after the release of Between Two Worlds in 2014. There was a brief pause in that when we put together the Age of the Locust EP in 2015 which had some “cutting room floor” selections from the first album! The whole recording process alone from drum tracking through to final mix and master took about a year and a half. After some line-up difficulties back in 2018 we eventually got in touch with Alex Micklewright (Viscera, Abhorrent Decimation) to look into tracking drums for us. He did an amazing job, worked extremely fast, and that helped kick-start getting the album finished, definitely. It can be really difficult when you don’t work on music full time, especially when you attempt projects of this size, but there certainly won’t be so long of a gap next time, I can assure you. Lesson learned!

Would you care to explain a bit of the concept behind the first part of the album? Is it a series of disconnected tales or are the different fragments connected one with the other? You recounted what’s behind “De Heptarchia Mystica”, but I’m quite in the dark about all the other episodes, as you chose not to disclose the lyrics in the EPK.

The first half of the album deals with a more introspective, emotional darkness. That is the only connection between them, so they do stand alone as individual pieces. After “De Heptarchia” we have “Despair”. This track is actually a re-recording of a song from our first demo. It always remained in our live set while others dropped away, and it felt like we needed to finally do the song justice. It is actually based partly on a very short piece by Neil Gaiman, which I think was called 15 Portraits Of Despair. I think number 14 delt with a suicide, and the final line really stuck with me, something along the lines of “She waited for the happiness to start”.
“The Hanged Man” is from the tarot, in this instance referring to sacrifice. It is based on a few reoccurring dreams. In one dream I would cast myself into some kind of swirling vortex in order to protect my son, another I would go to any lengths to defend him…usually pretty violent lengths. I’m not a violent person, and really try to avoid conflict of any kind, so I couldn’t shake the idea. The song seems to have purged those dreams, however!
“Fail” is about not being able to write any lyrics post Byron. I spent so long with the work that it just stripped me of any confidence. He was a genius, and in the shadow of that I really felt crushed. The “suicide” referenced during the spoken word is about an artistic suicide. Not only could I not write lyrics anymore, was also setting “Darkness” to music the right thing to do? Was it a completely pompous and ridiculous idea? I was torn in every direction!

Now going to Darkness: it’s considered «a warning against the growing inequality in Byron’s time and a prediction for what will happen to the planet if the human race does not change». In the No Clean Singing interview I linked above you said you’re not a political writer, but also stated «a political bias will always come across in whatever I write». May I dare to say this is the case?

I admit, I didn’t explore the subtext through the poem. I focused on it literally without seeing it as a metaphor. I had in mind The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, which I see as a modern retelling of that poem. There is no light. Utter misery and the end of all things.
I don’t think you can hide your biases when writing. I hope it’s apparent how I see the world from what I write. I’m liberal. Want to see equality for everyone. I think if you are a narrow-minded individual it will come out in your works.

Did you eventually find some peace, have you been able to write lyrics again? And why did you pick Darkness, specifically? Did the spark come from the original poem or from McCarthy’s The Road?

Yeah, after I wrote the lyrics for “Fail” both “De Heptarchia Mystica” and “The Hanged Man” came relatively quickly after that. I guess I needed to overcome the fear, jump in with both feet.
I had read The Road years earlier and only began to draw the comparison after sitting with the poem for some time. I’m not really a student of classical poetry, I just really liked it and felt it would be quite interesting to set the entire thing to music. Ambitious and pretentious in equal measure.

You named Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore among your main influences, then you named Aaron Stainthorpe and Dani Filth as pivotal figures in your growth as a musician, or better as a singer. Then there’s John Dee’s tale. All so very English. How important would you say your local environment and upbringing are, when it comes to Rannoch?

That’s not something I’ve actually thought about, but you do raise quite a good observation there. “Musically” I’m not Anglo-centric at all, but yes, I probably feel a stronger emotional connection to British writers. Perhaps that is inevitable? The flow of the vocabulary, the general “Feel” of the writing feels more relatable perhaps? Rannoch itself is a moor in Scotland. Very vast, very imposing and desolate; however, I live on the edge of a town right in the middle of England. The landscape is pretty flat. Lots of farmland. Nothing particularly grandiose. Usually raining. Maybe that influences the dour outlook in our music.

You chose to rely on your own forces only, and Reflections Upon Darkness is a self-produced, totally DIY record, you even recorded this in your own home studio (I guess?). What brought you on this path?

We were set to look for a bigger label to help release this album, however, we completed just as the coronavirus epidemic hit. Great timing on our part. We got some really good advice from an industry insider… Either hold on to the album for another year, as the industry itself was going into meltdown, or put it out ourselves. We didn’t want to wait another twelve months. We had spent so long on the album, had crossed so many hurdles to get to this point; we thought “To hell with it” and did it all ourselves. There is a certain amount of comfort knowing you are in complete control of everything. You have complete control of the aesthetic and all decisions being made. We’ve not regretted doing so, and the reaction so far has been completely amazing. Would we consider a label next time, though? Absolutely, if it felt right.

You are in complete control of everything, from production to distribution. Don’t you ever feel that you could use someone else’s input, with regards to certain details which may not be your cup of tea, or your main focus? It may be production, promotion, booking, any aspect of the band, but have you ever thought that with some help you might have solved a certain issue you faced along the years, or achieved a better result? The reason I’m asking this is that in this DIY era there’s a plethora of albums coming out every day (Metal Archives lists 542 full-lengths released in June 2020 alone), but most of them never really “make it”, and if on the one hand the metal scene is more lively than ever, on the other it is extremely fragmentary.

We would absolutely love to not have to think about promotion and booking. That kind of thing really draws the focus away from the creative aspect of things. I think with assistance in those areas, absolutely, we would have had the potential to be bigger than we are right now. The down side of promotion however is that it is really expensive. We had a budget for this recording which we went over, we could easily have spent double than that to also modestly promote with advertising in magazines, etc.
I am very happy to produce an album myself as that’s part of the creative process for us… To have time to build the layers and experiment. I will always, however, get a different and more skilled ear to mix and master. I’m never happy with my own mixing. For both of our full-length albums we have had the mix and master done by James Stephenson at Stymphalian Productions in York (UK). He really produces crisp, clean, massive mixes and that goes a huge way to create the “Rannoch sound”.

Moving on to a different subject: how did coronavirus impact on Rannoch? I guess you were forced to cancel a few gigs, or at least plans of playing live, and you already mention your choice not to look for a label partly due to the pandemic, but apart from that? Did it bring inspiration, frustration, what?

Thankfully none of us have been financially impacted during this period. That would have grounded everything to a halt for us, I think.
It would have been great to coincide a bunch of shows with the release, but we’ve just not been able to do that.
During the first couple of months that the pandemic first hit we were able to create the music video for “The Dream”; design the CD inlay, get that out to print and send promos out to as many zines and magazines as we could; we even had James do a completely new mix as he wasn’t totally satisfied the first time around. I was surprised we could get all that done under the circumstances! What I’ve not been able to do yet during all of this is start writing again. I keep seeing people churning out new music over the last few months, but I’ve just not been in the headspace to do that. I think it’s partly the lockdown situation, everybody in the same house all trying to work on top of each other… But also a post-album slump. You pour everything into getting the album finished, and then because we are DIY, work on music videos and artwork and promo and all these little things that perhaps a label with more hands could assist with; by the end of it you struggle to find that creative spark again. It will come back soon, I’m sure.

It’s been my second encounter with an artwork by Kishor Haulenbeek in a matter of weeks (the first one being US Vacant Eyes debut album). How did you guys meet and decide to cooperate? What’s the concept behind the artwork?

Many years ago I picked up a CD on sale from an online death and black metal mailorder catalogue. It was really cheap, so I took a punt and bought it blind. The album was called White Light Came Down by a band called Black Harvest, and it was one of the best things I had heard in ages. Played it loads. Followed Black Harvest on MySpace! Found the band was really spearheaded by a musician in the US called Kishor Haulebeek. Skip forward a few years, and I’m playing White Light Came Down again, and it just felt so nostalgic, really put me back to where I was emotionally at that time, so I decided to try and find out if Black Harvest had done anything else, as I thought this one release on an obscure label called Oak Knoll was it. To my joy I found he had just put out the album Abject, which was totally immense.
He also did the artwork, so after a little obsessing and digging I found he was also a totally amazing artist. From here I contacted him direct and requested a shirt design, which was later expanded into the Age Of T28he Locust EP. I promised he would be given the task of creating the album cover, too, and it’s amazing; everything painted to canvas. He’s got a very distinctive style, which stands out from a lot of similar artwork I see these days.

Last one, I promise: future plans and goals you’d like to reach?

Album number three. There’s no songs written already and on the back burner. Everything is going to be completely fresh, so there’s a challenge ahead! We would love to see some more big shows come up for us, hopefully when a coronavirus vaccine is in place and everything can return “back to normal”, whatever that will mean from now on. We are hoping that with Reflections Upon Darkness we can make a good case for some bigger labels to take us seriously and back us for future projects. Still, we remain modest and always self effacing. Let’s see what the future brings.

Pictures were provided through the courtesy of the band, all rights to their respective owners.