Sometimes a record comes along that is both firmly rooted in a genre and that transcends that genre. It’s a tough task to make something that is readily identifiable as death metal, for instance, but that also includes elements and ideas that are pretty far afield from what you’d normally get with a typical release in that style. While records that are planted in one style are anything but a bad idea, you have to take some chances to push boundaries and make something that feels like a new way to musically express what others have been perfecting for decades. These are the types of albums that get remembered for years to come and that get namechecked by other musicians as fuel for their creative fire. Give it some time to settle into the extreme metal consciousness and the second long-player from Minneapolis-based death metal outfit Nothingness very well might be that type of record.
Since forming in 2018, Nothingness has forced the death metal world to take notice through two killer records, 2019’s The Hollow Gaze of Death and this year’s Supraliminal, which currently sits as the best record this publication has heard yet in 2023. Meat-and-potatoes death metal riffs married to seriously exciting sonic experimentation and laid down alongside some of the most introspective lyrics going in the genre today have made the band one that fans of extreme metal need to have on their radar going forward. If you’re looking for the future of the death metal genre, it’s here. I recently caught up over video chat with vocalist Barclay Olson and, later on in the conversation, guitarist Alex Walstad to talk about one of the most exciting death metal releases of the past few years.
First off, how did Nothingness get started?
Barclay: Al and I are cousins, so we’ve known each other for a really long time and we kind of went our separate ways in life. We were friends when we were kids and whatnot and later we reconnected and both realized that we had gotten into underground death metal separately. I was like, “Hey, here are some of the bands I’m into” and he was like “Here are some of the bands I’m into” and we both went, “Holy shit, you listen to the same underground black metal, doom metal, and stuff like that?” We started chatting about that and said “Do you want to start a band and make our own music in this sort of style.” That’s pretty much the origin story. Nothing that special, just two guys reconnecting over music and looking to make some.
Who were some of the bands you guys reconnected over?
Barclay: We connected on things like…the Maggot Stomp bands were big early on so it was things like Scorched. I remember we were listening to Scorched and they had a big stomper riff and that’s what we were all about. [We liked] Winterfylleth and some of that black metal stuff.
Death metal vocals are such a unique beast. How did you end up being the vocalist for the band?
Barclay: I was a guitar player previously throughout my whole life. Al and I started the band with the intention of us both playing guitar and then I thought, well, I could do some backup vocals so we don’t have to find another vocalist and maybe we will trade off. I showed him some of my vocals that I had just in that moment started trying to do and he said, “I don’t know, I’d use those as main vocals.” I practiced vocals for maybe eight months before we went in to record our first record. I was never a vocalist and then for eight months I practiced and then it was alright, time to go make a record.
How did you meet the rest of the guys then?
Barclay: Jon [Grandel], our guitar player, was a guy that was in the local scene and was just sort of a friend of a friend. When we were looking for guitar players, we put some feelers out and went and saw The Body with him. It was me and Al and we invited Jon along and hung out with him and were like “Oh yeah, this is a cool guy. He gets to join the band.” [Ben Hartzell], our bass player, was a co-worker of my wife’s. My wife was like, “Yeah, I’ve got a co-worker who’s into weird underground music and stuff.” So I was hanging out with [him] and like, come on, come play bass. Our new drummer, Eric, similarly was just a guy that’s been in the scene for a long time. He played in a band called Tvær and then joined a band with Al called Aberration. When the drummer that performed on our second record left, we were just like, “Hey Eric, wanna come play drums for us?” and he said yep. That’s how we filled out our lineup.
You guys have a pretty strong scene up there in Minneapolis?
Barclay: Yeah. There’s a number of really good bands from Sunless to Suffering Hour. Tvær, may they rest in peace, were very good and then you’ve got our homies in Void Rot. There are a lot of good and great bands. They all kind of get around and get out. We’ve got a few local venues that are typical stomping grounds and when there’s a good show that comes through, you always see the same couple hundred people that come out.
What was writing and recording that first album, The Hollow Gaze of Death, like?
Barclay: We just wrote it in Al’s basement, which is lovingly called The Crypt. Then we contacted Adam Tucker, the engineer and studio wizard, who’s just based locally. He’s done work for Thou and Vile Creature and a bunch of other bands. He also worked with our local friends Void Rot so we just shot him an email saying that we’d like to record a record with [him] and he was like “Here are my rates, here are my times” and we just went in and recorded it. It was self-funded so we could self-release it.
What did you learn from the process that you took to the second record? Was that an easier one?
Barclay: Yeah it was easier because we were more well-meshed as a band at that point. Jason [Hirt] was the drummer on the two records and Jason and I had played in bands before, but Al had never played in a band with Jason. On the first record they got together quickly a few times, practiced it and went in, and recorded it live. For the second record, they had already played live before, played shows and whatnot, so it was a much more effortless thing for the two of them to hop in there. Adam hit record, and the two of them slammed out their tracks.
Do you feel like you guys had pretty good growth between the two records?
Barclay: Yeah, I think everybody just got better at their trades as well over time. I feel like I’m a stronger vocalist on the second record because I had time and years to practice vocals, rather than just eight months. We’re a little bit stronger songwriters and had a little clearer vision for what we wanted to do. Time gave us time to level up our crafts respectively. The second record, although the writing process was longer and harder thanks to COVID and other factors and whatnot, the recording process was a smoother and more natural thing.
What was the goal going into the creation process for Supraliminal?
Barclay: We operate on this ethos of we do what we want. As we were going through and writing it, we [had] this big master dropbox folder of all the songs that Al writes, because he’s sort of the main songwriter that comes up with everything and then we imprint on top of that. As he was going through and writing all this stuff, there were tracks that didn’t make the final cut of the record, tracks that weren’t fully realized that we’re going to try and flesh out for N3 and then tracks like “Beacon of Loss” that kind of got lost in the dropbox. At some point, we listened to it again and realized it was going to fit the record really well. It was kind of a longer process because there was a lot that we wanted to say, a lot that we wanted to do, and a lot of sounds that we wanted to fit in on the record. It took us some time to really realize what we wanted to do and just let that want naturally come out.
What’s your lyric writing process like?
Barclay: I have a couple different kinds. One of them I do what I like to call method writing. I pick a theme, pick a subject, pick a song, and get an idea for what’s happening in it. On the first record, we had a song called “Iced Over Ash” that’s largely about freezing to death so I took my notebook, and we live in Minnesota and it gets cold, so I marched myself down to a park and I laid down in a snowbank and tried to freeze myself to death as much as possible and write down kind of what I was experiencing in that moment, at that time. I was laying there looking up and it was actively snowing and I was thinking “Alright, this is gonna make for some good content.” It’s not always that dramatic but I do try and get as lost in the song that Al’s presented to me as possible. There are a lot of emotions and stuff that gets wrapped up into death metal. On the surface level, it’s like here’s some good riffs and death metal but he packs a lot of emotions into it so when it comes to writing the lyrics, I have to get into those same emotions that he was having and then feel that anger, feel that frustration, feel that loss, and then pen personal lyrics to me but also stuff that can be interpreted in a number of different ways as people enjoy the music.
Do you ever struggle to find that emotional space to connect lyrics to the music?
Barclay: Honestly, it doesn’t take me long to hear a thing, hear a vibe, and get going. I tend to word vomit out tons of lyrics and then trim down to fit the song. I’ll hear a thing, get going, and start penning lyrics and then realize that this song is only three minutes long. I’ve got too many words!
What kinds of themes did you want to explore on the new record in your lyrics?
Barclay: This one was a lot of a look inside. The whole thing is secretly about doing drugs and experiencing trauma. That’s what all of the songs can kind of vaguely be traced back to, whether they have a more kind of cosmic perspective on something like “Catapulted into Hyperspace” or “Inviolate Viscera,” which take a really long view on the prospect or “Temple of Broken Swords” or “Beacon of Loss,” which are right in the mud and whatnot. “Temple of Broken Swords” is a hangover metaphor that can be stretched out to life and whatnot. It’s a lot of trauma and how we deal with it, how we experience it, what bogs us down, and what we can learn and become stronger from. Toward the back half of the record, “The Anvil” is about forging a better self through trials and hardships. It’s trauma, it’s doing drugs, it’s figuring out where there’s a happy medium between those two things.
What does the title mean and why that one for this record?
Barclay: Since we wanted to kind of have this vague and vast thing, Supraliminal has a couple definitions. The first is above a conscious threshold or above the threshold of consciousness. When you catapult yourself into hyperspace, when you do enough drugs that you’re just gone and your ego loss goes, you are experiencing things from beyond a conscious threshold. It also just means the opposite of subliminal where it’s hidden messaging…it’s in your face messaging. We wanted to have a thing that was sort of dramatic and in your face. All of our riffing and blasting and screaming is all really loud and really forward so we wanted it to be this really loud, really forward concept that also hid things behind the conscious threshold above.
I love talking with death metal musicians about lyrics and themes and whatnot for records because death metal always gets pegged as just buckets of blood lyrics with nothing deeper. Obviously that’s there, and a ton of bands do that style well, but I really feel like the genre gets a bad rap because a lot of the lyricists that I talk to dig exploring those more heady and deep concepts.
Barclay: I appreciate you asking me those questions because it gives me an opportunity to actually talk about some of the ideas that I wanted to get across. A big part of our ethos is to just make sure the lyrics sound hard if people pick out a line. It’s very surface level and then if you wanna dig deeper, it’s there for you. Not everyone wants to dig deeper though so it’s fine.
I love the cover to the album too. You first look at it and have no idea what’s going on but you know that you want to figure it out. Who did it and did you give the artist any direction beforehand?
Barclay: The cover was done by a guy named Mark Voortallen who goes by Vulture and he’s got a little vulture symbol at the bottom in the corner. We actually didn’t give him direction, we bought that piece from him pre-made but what ended up happening is the record didn’t take as long to record as it did for us to find a piece of art to match it. It was a pretty long journey. We did commission a few pieces that didn’t end up quite matching what we were thinking so we were just deeply scouring the internet and we found Mark’s work and we were like, “Holy shit, this is it!” It clicked for us. We had this design document that we had written out that was like, we need a really abstract painting with lots of colors swirling. We had written out all these things and then we had found that piece of art that checks all the boxes. It’s supposed to represent the tumultuous emotions on the inside, it’s a little bit of a dual meaning. It kinda looks like a cover of shredded faces and shredded blood and stuff but then when you look into it, there’s little faces and little guys and stuff that are inside of there. It’s sort of a representation of what anxiety and stuff feels like swirling around inside of you. It’s that then vomited out bloodily.
You got really great production on that one. Everything sounds really crisp without sounding overproduced. How did you guys get such a good sound here?
Barclay: All of that praise goes to Adam Tucker of Signaturetone Recording because we come in and we have our live rig and we bring the orange cab 6505 with a pedalboard and we were like, “Ok, this is what we are going to use live.” He’s like, ok, cool but also I’m gonna add on top of it. He spliced a Peavey Bandit in there as a backing, undertone track. Then we brought in our bass rig and he’s like, this is good but you should have some distortion on the bass and so he slapped a $35 bass distortion pedal on there. It’s not even a bass distortion pedal, it’s a guitar distortion pedal. He’s a bit of a madman and we love that about him because it sort of matches our energy. We come in like, here’s a collection of riffs and a whole bunch of crazy ideas and he’s like, “Dope, I’ve got my own crazy ideas. We’re gonna go throw plastic pedals on your bass rig and do all this stuff.” He just sort of matched our energy and he’s just a wizard behind the board and also brought in a whole bunch of nifty ideas during the recording process like, “Let’s use a solid state amp, let’s throw some plastic pedals on here and really dial in that grossness.” He’s just got enough knowhow to capture it and then make that grossness sort of sound crisp.
Did you guys hesitate with any of the changes he suggested?
Barclay: Well, we’re open to every suggestion and we hear it but we have the veto power.
Alex: Adam rules. We basically get to do whatever we want or whatever we think is cool and he usually thinks it’s cool as well or he comes up with some wild crap that we end up thinking rules and we keep it on the record. That’s happened both times we’ve recorded with him so far.
Alex, what was the writing process like for the new album for you?
Alex: It was pretty laid back. I try not to rush stuff and just kind of let things finish themselves as they do. For this record, I was still drinking a lot so I would basically get really hammered and really high and press record and play my guitar and then use that and turn it into a song.
Now that I’ve got both of you, I wanted to ask about the story behind some of the songs on there. What’s the origin of the opener “Curse of Creation?”
Alex: Musically, that one I just kind of did the same thing. I was playing my guitar and recording. I was playing that intro groove riff and thought it was pretty cool. I wrote the drum parts for that and pressed record again and just free-balled after that. That’s kind of how that song came to fruition and then I sent it over to Clay and the rest of the dudes and they were like, “Yeah, this rules.”
Barclay: Al made his song and I think the intro is pretty sassy and then it gets dour and then it gets frantic so those are sort of the three emotions that I pulled from the music and had to write around. We decided early on that it would be the first track on the record and so I wanted to throw a few allusions and callbacks to our first track from our first record, which was called “A Cycle Unending.” That one kind of talks about how we are cursed in this unending cycle of life so I was just like, shit, let’s call it “Curse of Creation.” The need to create art is a little bit of a curse. The guys have all talked about it. We have to make music otherwise we’d just spontaneously combust but then, on the flip side, it’s sometimes hard to need to create and then not get the opportunity to release it or any sort of struggles in there. It’s both the need to create is a curse but also life is a curse of pain and suffering along the way. It’s a bit of a nihilistic opener. The album gets a little more personal toward the end but I wanted to kick the album off with an homage to our first record.
I wanted to ask about that variety that you have on the record and even in individual songs. Is that something that you guys try to do or just how it comes out in the writing process?
Alex: I think it is a goal of ours to have every song be its own unique creature, I guess. During the writing process, it’s not a conscious decision. It’s kind of hard to explain. The way I write, being mostly a stream-of-consciousness type, recording improv basically, I think it’s pretty heavily dependent on my mood at the time so just writing that way, it’s almost impossible for me to do the same song more than once because every day is different. I feel different all the time.
How about the story behind “Temple of Broken Swords?”
Alex: On a musical level, I was upset [laughs]. I don’t remember what about but I just remember being in a pretty rutty time and feeling not so awesome about stuff. I was getting fucked up and playing guitar a lot and that song basically came out. I happened to record it, organize it, and send it over to the dudes.
Barclay: Like I had touched on earlier, Al has a lot of personality in his music and a lot of emotion. When it comes to writing lyrics, I just have to get into that same headspace and get pretty upset myself in order to write lyrics that do his music justice.
Alex: You put in the effort and time into the lyrics to make them fit the emotional tone.
What about the origin of that closer, “Decimation Mechanism?”
Alex: That was the last song I wrote for the record. We were working on getting the record all done and tidied up, getting our plan for recording and stuff and we already had the recording time booked. I just kept writing and wrote that song and was like, shit, this has got to be on the record. The original, how I had the song written, it didn’t end with that big chunky part that comes in at the end. I think it had something else and Clay and Jonny were like, “Dude, you gotta end this thing on a hammer.” I wrote that chunky part then and sent it back to the dudes and they were like, “Yep, done!” That’s how that one came together. That might be my favorite song on the record cause it is a pretty good indicator of the direction that N3 is going.
Barclay: To Al’s point, it’s not a conscious decision what ends up happening but we have these principles that sort of subconsciously exist. We want to do something that fuses genres effortlessly and we kind of know what sounds right when it sounds right so it’s sort of a natural progression to get to that sort of end goal where Al came up with some chunks and stuff and then we’re like, “That’s pretty good but let’s get it chunkier.” Then he was like, “How about this” and we said “Shit, there it is. We’ve got it!” Hit save, teach it to Jason, and let’s go record this thing.
How happy were you with the final recording when you finally got to listen to it?
Alex: Very, very stoked. Adam, the way Tucker records and tracks bands, basically when you’re done recording he’ll spit it out and send you a copy of it all to listen to and it’s pretty much already mixed. The way he tracks, he mixes while he’s doing it so it sounds really, really sweet right out of the gate. I don’t know if every band does this but we spend the next few months basically emailing back and forth with Tucker and giving him timestamps like this could use this or we should change this part or hey, we want to do this with the kick drum. For a few months we kind of tweaked things but yeah, I’d say right away we were super stoked with how it turned out. Adam does a great job.
Barclay: The biggest change was throwing that distortion on the bass and when we heard the initial mix of big guitars, big bass, big drums, we were like, we’re on the right track here and it was all just a bit of nitpicking from there. That first initial recording session was like, yep, this is how we want to sound.
How much has that strong fan response meant to you guys?
Alex: It’s been awesome. I have been very, very surprised with the response. It seems like people do dig it. Obviously there’s some people out there that, like, don’t get what we’re going for or try to attribute some sort of pseudo-intellectual forethought type stuff to our music and that’s just not what this is, at all. We’re trying to keep things pretty honest and humble and it’s just funny sometimes to see people have that go over their heads but for the most part, it’s been pretty rad. People have liked it and it’s been cool to do interviews like this and talk about the bullshit we spent a couple years doing [laughs]. So I appreciate you having us on!
You’ve mentioned record number three a few times. How much do you guys have in the can for that one already?
Alex: I would say, riff-wise, we’ve got almost everything we need to work with. We’ve got a few songs fully done. I think we are aiming to be ready to record by late spring or something like that.
Barclay: Yeah, we’re looking at early 2024, somewhere in that window. As far as N3 goes, we’ve got a number of holdovers from N2’s writing process where we had eight solid minutes of tune but it’s not quite a song or doesn’t quite fit the vibe, doesn’t quite fit the record. There’s lots of riffs from N2’s writing session but also Al sent us newer stuff that he’s written post-“Decimation Mechanism” that still vibes with that vibe that we’re very hyped on. There’s a lot of that and lyrically I never really stopped writing down my ideas and stuff so there’s plenty of stuff still in the tank that, as I’m getting these tunes from Al and some of the holdovers from N2…if N2 was a look inward, the idea going forward is a glare outward. It’s a little more of a grumpy record but grumpy with our surroundings and how society is moving forward as opposed to a more introspective record where we’re grumpy with ourselves and how we’re dealing with trauma.
There’s definitely no shortage of shit to get angry about for inspiration!
Barclay: [Laughs] Right, that’s why as Al sends me big, angry chunk riffs I’m like, oh boy, this reminds me of a certain church that I’m gonna talk about for a while.
Alex: The highlights so far for N3…we’ve got an 11-ish minute song that we’ve had since the end of the first record and just been holding and waiting for when it’s at its peak and when we think it’d be a good record to have it used and then a damn AC/DC riff that I’m stoked on.
Barclay: We’re reaching far outside of traditional death metal influences on this one. We’re like, what if AC/DC but bomb blasted?
Photo at top: Supraliminal album cover.