Is it the words or the music? Chicken or the egg? It’s a superfluous and arbitrary argument that somehow still comes up in discussions/debates concerning music. That discussion becomes even more of a logical blur within heavy music fandom as so much of metal is hinged on the volume of the music and not necessarily the depth of the lyrical content. This is in no way implying that just because the listener can’t understand the words that it somehow invalidates them. Bands like Krallice and Wolves in the Throne Room are damn near impossible to understand without the help of a lyrics sheet, but their lyrics are profoundly well written and layered.
For Eagle Twin’s Gentry Densley the gamble here is to be able to effectively set the massive conceptualization of Old Testament and Native American mythologies against the backdrop of marrow-crushing heavy metal infused with the jazz and progressive nuances of which Eagle Twin has become so widely known. I recently chatted with Gentry about this very thing as well as his own personal thoughts on a new take on religion in heavy metal that focuses more on the mythos of the stories themselves rather than oversimplifying the gesture to all religion as useless.
Just coming at it from the perspective of the narrative, Gentry, there’s always that push from so many metal bands, or bands in any genre, to create or achieve telling a story. What was the process like for Eagle Twin to create this huge tale from one end to the next?
We were trying to find some thematic unity with some of the material we were already working with. I don’t know. I think we have a big cauldron of ideas. It was kind of a process of finding out what musical and lyrical ideas we had that would move this forward or fit into the overall arc of the story. Then it became like a process just as we were working on it. Things kind of presented themselves. You get different ideas when you’re trying to solidify how it’s all coming together. For example, in the first piece when those are kind of constantly mutating, that’s kind of the way I play in general. It leaves some room for mutation, but in this instance, I thought I would be transforming from one thing to another. So we embraced that and let that be reflected in the words as well. We did work on this for a couple of years after the first record, playing live. We started trying out some of these pieces live, like Snake Hymn and stuff. The Lorca tune was one that I’d taken around for many years, but finally had a home for it.
You guys are from Salt Lake City which obviously carries the religious notoriety. I’m not sure about your background as far as growing up and-and what you grew up with. I’m wondering specifically why you chose as a writer to focus and hone in on so many of those thematic elements that are coming from the Old Testament.
It’s interesting. I didn’t really have it very early, but then my parents, actually, we lived in Vegas and they ended up converting. They were Utahans but non-Mormon, and then they converted to Mormonism for some reason. We came from a kind of mountain mine town up in Utah that had quite a plentiful Mormon population. So I basically grew up doing those traditions through high school until they couldn’t explain certain things. One big thing was that they didn’t believe dinosaurs ever walked the earth. And [laughter] that was a huge thing for me. Like the giant thunder lizards, feathered serpents or whatever - a lot of the ideas kind came from that and from studying native myths where they have the snake horn. And, of course, the snake has a lot of the native myths, and they’re from the Cherokees as well as other tribes, because they found the pterodactyl skeletons and they thought it was this Thunderbird. I definitely had a lot of religious upbringing. It’s funny the way you come around to different things like that. One of my good buddies, this guy Curtis Jenson, is a writer, and now he’s a school teacher, actually, but we would continuously bounce ideas off each other, and a lot of my knowledge of some of those things heightened by my relationship with him and talking to him about pretty much everything there.
The mythos of the Old Testament is incredibly dense and complicated, as you know. For example, the serpent in the garden, giants walking the Earth, the sons of angels, etc. It’s fascinating to see a metal band not take the cliche route of using Christianity as this sort of platform for ill advised pseudo-dark theatrics.
It’s like any other mythology, in a way. It’s an ancient story that’s been passed down, and there’s plenty of parables as well as these fantastic things that happen. It’s the same with the book of Mormon. You have the lost 13th tribe of Israel, and they have wooden boats with these glowing rocks that were touched by God, and they use this golden compass to find their way in wooden submarines to South America from Israel. I mean, there’s lots of crazy stories in the book of Mormon that are pretty intense. Joseph Smith definitely had his lore down as well, so he basically mimicked that Biblical language.
For me, Gentry, so much of the attention the metal genre is garnering today has to do with more and more bands delving into the actual lyrical aspect of what they are writing in their music. Obviously the genre is more popular than it has been in the past, and I think much of that nods both to the higher level of thinking achieved by the artists as well as perhaps the socio-economic temperature in our modern day culture.
Yeah, I’ve really thought about that. I mean, I have been somewhat fascinated, just being into this music as a youngster to now. Some of it was available then like Judas Priest and AC/DC or whatever band, and I was also able to dig into the punk and hard core stuff, and it’s nice to see that gradually be embraced or become part of the mainstream like it is. I don’t know what to think of that. It’s definitely pretty interesting, because I thought these were things that were going to remain outside of the mainstream, but it’s totally cool to be able to go onto NPR and check out the new High Fire release. It’s just been intense that that’s the way of the world now, and maybe they’re recognizing that it’s more of an art form. There’s always going to be tons of bands in the world and you will have your good and bad, but a lot of quality things seem to be coming out as of late.
When you talk about the artform of the metal genre it’s interesting, because, from my perspective, so much of the metal community is or has been written off as a genre that’s not so concerned lyrically as it is compositionally. Obviously with The Feather Tipped the Serpent’s Scales that notion is buried due to the fact that you’ve got such an intriguing story arc backed up against this relentlessly heavy music. With that in mind, how do you approach each song from a compositional standpoint? Is it the words then the music or vice versa?
Well, typically the words will come first, and they’ll usually suggest a rhythm if they’re written properly. With most poetic forms you’ll have an idea of what the rhythm or the flow of it is, and then that’s when I just kind of roll them over in the head and the rest will start to come. I value my memory very much, and I store a lot of things up there, and just wait for the right moment for them to pop out. But, the words in the big arc of things with with the story were very important, because we definitely we’re having some hard times in life, and at one point I was kind of basing this snake material on things I was feeling. Some poisonous apples and jealously and other ugly things were in my head and in my personal life. Things just felt a little better when we were [laughter] working with the Crows material and other things like that. Maybe it felt more like us. It was like we needed to transform this back to the birds, so we thought of a few ways to do that and it ended up being back to the crow story and him realizing that maybe there’s more than one god that maybe that other god is a little more powerful. That’s where we ended up there. We were thinking of leaving it ambiguous, maybe evolving back to the egg where it could be either snake or bird coming out, but then some other ideas popped up. It’s the whole process. We eliminated some things and had some epiphanies on some other stuff.
So much of what you hear in the heavy music genres isn’t lyrically based - just from the perspective that the lyrics are largely inaudible, Gentry. Was there or is there a concerted effort on your part to make Eagle Twin go off the beaten path as it were and have the lyrics be front and center?
Yeah. I mean, we’ve played with plenty of bands where you can’t even hear a single word or just discern what they’re even talking about unless you have a lyrics sheet or something. It’s so obscured. We’ve just made an effort to make the lyrics audible and even within the heaviness of it that’s kind of a trick. It’s not always that easy to capture every annunciation, so everyone can discern what you’re saying. Sometimes people mishear things and that’s fine too. I have listened to Tom Waits, Nick Cave, countless blues dudes, Alan Wallace, Michael Gira from the Swans and artists like that for years and years who are all very lyrically minded. It’s very vocally based music, and there has been part of me that wanted to do that more, but we have so much planned, and so much fun playing the heavy stuff and the big risk playing loud. I think we’ve been able to strike a balance there so we can do some of both and be dynamic in that way. Part of it was just looking at different wordings translations. That’s a whole other thing that we try to tackle. The same words have so many different translations going down through the years, and as the story is passed down things get twisted and mutated, but hopefully the essential truth remains.
Bearing that in mind and seeing our experience as human beings as a sort of story being passed down, what do you see as the future for the metal genre or for heavy music, in general?
I don’t know. I think I take the most comfort in the doom perspective [laughter]. I don’t know if this relates to doom metal at all, but I’ve always thought of the idea of doom being that we’re all dust in this world and it’s doomed anyway. I’ve always taken a lot or taken a lot of solace from that idea. It’s kind of freeing and makes things a little more carefree. You don’t have to worry too much about the future and what’s going to happen, because eventually it’s going to be destroyed. Then again, you know, I ‘d really like to see this music elevate. It would be amazing if we could go in that direction. I think it’s good that it appeals maybe to people that wouldn’t necessarily be in to such high-minded stuff. It could be a gateway into thinking about some other things instead of just the more visceral kind of violent side that metal has. Over my lifetime it’s always been progressing in that kind of way. There’s times where things get stagnate or other things like that. You know that’s going to happen, and you’ll have shit to sift through to get to the good stuff, but I don’t know. I think we’re kind of in the renaissance period of sorts where when we started recording with Eagle Twin the whole industry was kind of going back to the better quality recordings and actually investing with packaging and recording like with Lord (Southern Lord). I think this happened, because the digital age kind of killed a lot of music that could have been really good just because it was cheaper and easier to record. I definitely think we’re in the resistance there with vinyl taking over CD’s and things like that. It’s always a crazy flux when that stuff happens. Things are more accessible. Are people going to actually buy it? I don’t know. There’s going to be a lot of issues, and [laughter] I think we’ll just try to surf through all of that and see how it comes out.
Many thanks to Gentry for his time and to Eagle Twin for releasing what I consider to be one of the most remarkable metal releases this year. Get out your bible and bourbon and enjoy the ride.
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