Metal sometimes gets badly stereotyped as a lesser form of music in the lyrics department. Sure, there are plenty of bands within the genre that write, shall we say, less than stellar words to go along with their music but that holds true for every style. To me, it feels pretty unfair that metal gets saddled as exclusively a meatheaded genre when some of the deepest, most introspective lyrics I’ve ever heard have come from the genre. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about death, doom, or black metal, I’ve found lyrics that I come back to and connect with in each of them. When done right and with actual thought put into them, metal lyrics can take personal and analytical musings and marry them to both dissonant and beautiful music that highlights the full range of emotions within the human condition.
Vancouver’s Tribunal has only been on the scene since 2019 but have already made a name for themselves as a band with serious musical and lyrical chops. The band’s debut, The Weight of Remembrance, released in January, is a stellar doom record with some of the most poetic and deeply thought out lyrics of the last few years. From pretty much whatever angle you want to dig into that album from, you’ll find a piece of music that has been painstakingly labored over and lovingly crafted. Needless to say, it’s the kind of debut that is both exciting in and of itself as well as for what it promises for the future. I recently caught up with vocalist/guitarist Etienne Flinn and cellist/bassist/vocalist Soren Mourne to get the story behind one of the year’s most promising debuts.
First off, how did Tribunal get started? How did you two meet and what made you want to form this type of band together?
Etienne Flinn: We met shortly after we both moved to Vancouver, and we bonded over our mutual love of metal. We both had previous defunct projects and Soren [Mourne] pushed me to try jamming together to see what we could create. She brought the riffs that would form “Initiation” to our first session and the band grew from there.
The style of the project is the result of our individual tastes and skills; Soren loves tradition, epic, and occult doom, while I am more drawn to Peaceville-styled death-doom, and so we naturally merged the styles when we began writing doom together.
What got you into heavy metal in general and who were some of the important bands for you getting into the genre?
Etienne: I was first introduced to metal through symphonic and power metal bands my sister showed me in grade school. Nightwish’s Dark Passion Play was the first metal album I really fell in love with, and bands like Within Temptation, Kamelot, and Sonata Arctica were all key parts of that early journey.
Soren Mourne: I grew up in a household full of both classical music and the heavier end of rock, so the ground was laid early for me to get into metal–the voices of Geddy Lee and Ronnie James Dio have been omnipresent in my life. I started getting independently into metal around age 13. I was in the midst of a foray into goth and industrial music at the time, but once I started hearing the levels of intensity that metal could reach, I quickly became a fanatic. My first band and I got together shortly thereafter and did our best to emulate the largely Finnish melodic death metal we worshipped at the time, like Children of Bodom, Kalmah, and Ensiferum. I also fell in love with Blind Guardian early on in my metal journey. Learning that there were bands who wrote entire albums about The Silmarillion really cemented that I had found my place in the music world.
Being that the band is just the two of you, what unique challenges and benefits does that create? Was the intention always been to be the two of you and do you see yourselves expanding out to other permanent members in the future?
Etienne: The band was initially formed by the two of us and we have been the creative core since the beginning, but we have had other members in the past who left during the pandemic. Working as a duo has been great in helping us maintain a clear creative vision and simplify the process of collaboration, but it can be challenging handling the volume of work required to run a band between just two people. Tracking all guitars for the album was also quite a lot of effort.
The intention has always been to keep Soren and I as the heart of Tribunal, but we are not committed to remaining a two-piece. There may be further updates on this in the near future.
How do you write the music side of the songs? Do you have a set process that you like to use or does it vary song to song?
Etienne: Our songwriting process is quite varied, with us both composing songs for the project in different fashions. “Initiation” and “Without Answer” were composed together, with us bringing in riffs and playing around with them together to assemble the songs, while I wrote “Of Creeping Moss…” and “The Path” on my own and presented them to Soren as relatively finished products that we then polished together. Similarly, “Apathy’s Keep” and “A World Beyond Shadow” were essentially in their finished form when Soren showed them to me.
When I’m writing music, I’ll often start with a few riffs or a basic concept. I’ll sit down with a guitar and track the skeleton of the song into a DAW with programmed drums, producing a very rudimentary demo at the same time as I’m writing the song. For our next record, we are looking to experiment with writing our songs in different ways, and to collaborate more deeply on the songs.
Soren: In my own writing, some songs have begun with the riffs first, such as “Initiation,” but since settling into my role as a vocalist, most have begun with a lyrical hook I can’t get out of my head. The lyrics expand from the hook as I try to create a chorus around it, then the rest of the song follows suit. I have been refining my songwriting process since the beginning of the band, as Tribunal has been my first serious foray into composing. I use a mix of DAWs and digital composition software, but the songs only settle into their final form after playing them through for some time with Etienne and workshopping as needed.
How do you come up with the lyrics to the songs? What do you try to do with the words to a Tribunal song?
Etienne: For Tribunal, I usually start with a specific lyrical concept in mind for a song. I’ll sometimes start by sketching some lyrics into a notebook before connecting them with the song, other times I’ll write the lyrics along with the music. We then review lyrics together and work different phrases and ideas to polish the final product.
Soren: I want our lyrics to be memorable, evocative, and at least relatively unpretentious. Ideally, our lyrics will serve as a means of inviting listeners into the inner world of songs with all of the visions and feelings they evoke for us.
What was the process of recording the debut like? Being your first LP, was it a challenge to get your sound down on that first recording? What did you learn from the process that you’ll utilize in future recordings?
Etienne: Recording the debut was a real challenge as there was a lot to learn to record an album. We tracked everything but the drums and the guest piano at home, and there were many long hours spent layering guitars and vocals and editing takes.
I wanted to ask about the inspiration behind the music/lyrics to the two singles. What’s the origin of “Apathy’s Keep?”
Soren: “Apathy’s Keep” originated with a struggle I was feeling particularly acutely at the time of its writing: the guilt of failing to engage with the struggles of the world to the extent I felt I could or should and instead hiding away. I depicted this through the image of a walled fortress –the “keep”– that the protagonist has taken refuge in while the world outside burns. The chorus expresses what is renounced when you surrender to fear and apathy and the fact that your moral obligations are not lost even if you have hardened yourself to the world outside of yourself.
How about the story behind “Without Answer?”
Etienne: “Without Answer” is about my relationship with the Catholic church and the way it has evolved over time. Unlike many, I had a generally positive experience with the church as a child and appreciated both a sense of belonging in the community and of spiritual certainty in the faith. Ultimately, while I still feel a cultural connection to my roots, I’ve been fundamentally separated from the church by a philosophical atheism. This song is about missing that sense of community and cosmic purpose.
The music on those songs is a really awesome mix of heavy doom riffs, extreme vocals, and also very beautiful cello playing. It’s a mixture that really highlights the contrasts between different elements, which is something that I think you two do a killer job of from the songs I’ve heard. How hard of a balancing act is it to fit elements together that, at least initially, seem like they wouldn’t work together easily?
Soren: Thank you. The cello fits very naturally into doom and I am honestly surprised to not see more of it across the genre. It is a very expressive instrument widely known for its more melancholic side, so it doesn’t have to work hard to fit into the doom palette. The most challenging part of working with the cello is avoiding oversaturation of certain frequencies, namely those shared with guitar. We have to be very intentional about ensuring that the cello isn’t battling for space with the guitars. This often leads to using the higher end of its range when playing over the full band when we need a melody to cut through and restricting using the cello’s deeper range to more open sections of a song.
With many different elements at play, it is easy for sound to become muddy, so we have to apply this approach across all of our work. This means being selective about which element or melody is going to be the standout from phrase to phrase. Resisting the urge for every instrument to be doing something interesting at all times is the most important measure we take to ensure that each part has its time to shine without compromising the others.
I really dig that album cover too with the framed central image. Who did that and how much direction did you give them?
Soren: Thank you very much; I actually did the album cover. I painted the central image in oils, Karmazid contributed the border and lettering, then I put everything together digitally. Etienne and I talked through several visual concepts and after a few mock-ups, we eventually settled on what you see on the cover.
What’s your local scene like? Do you get the chance to play live there frequently and has it shaped the band?
Etienne: The Vancouver scene is quite solid, with a great community of local bands and a few great local venues that are still holding on despite the challenging economic conditions. We’ve been able to play a few great local shows, starting from opening shows at unlicensed venues and building towards getting to open for Swallow the Sun last year and playing a sold-out album release show a few weeks ago. Our early live performances shaped the band as it was inspiring to see our music connect with initial audiences. While we work to craft an atmosphere on record, I love to perform live and seek to write songs that will connect with an audience in that space.
Lastly, what’s next for Tribunal? What are your goals for the future of the band?
Etienne: We’re currently working on promoting The Weight of Remembrance and preparing for our next record. We are planning more shows in western Canada this year, starting with an appearance at Covenant Festival in Vancouver, and we are hoping to book more shows to follow.
For our future goals, we would love to get the opportunity to play live more, and to perform outside of Canada and North America one day. Tribunal has already been far more fulfilling and successful than we initially dreamed of, and we are keen to take the project as far as it will naturally go.
Photo at top: The Weight of Remembrance album cover.