Interviews

Jacob Bannon on Umbra Vitae, Working During the COVID-19 Lockdown, Death Metal + More

Photo: Joe Calixto

Last week, I reviewed Shadow of Life, the new album from Ultra Vitae, a band comprised of Jacob Bannon (Converge, Deathwish Inc), bassist Greg Weeks (The Red Chord, Labor Hex), guitarists Sean Martin (Twitching Tongues, Wear Your Wounds, Hatebreed) and Mike McKenzie (The Red Chord, Wear Your Wounds), and drummer Jon Rice (Job for a Cowboy, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats)

In this new feature, I chat with Bannon about the new record, art, Deathwish Inc during the COVID-19 lockdown, and the death metal bands that had a huge impact on him growing up.

Though No Echo will clearly be familiar with your collective bonafides, Umbra Vitae is a wholly new entity that demands its own roll call. 

Sure thing. The band consists of Mike Mckenzie, Greg Weeks, Sean Martin, Jon Rice, and myself. We have been and continue to be active in multiple other bands as well.

Though I’m loath to use the term supergroup, the personnel here are all known quantities. Has this idea been percolating for a long time? What was the impetus for creating this particular strain of extremity?  As this album has a large part of Wear Your Wounds DNA, is this in any way a reaction to something inherently less intense, at least sonically? 

We certainly don't call ourselves that term, nor does the label. That is a strange thing that has been added to headlines by publications to make things “sensational” sounding. I get it, people want a click thru, but it also creates a narrative that is difficult to shake from the outset.

We are just a band, that’s it. Just because we individually have musical histories, that doesn’t make us any more valid than another artist. It should only be a reference point so people know who are behind it.

The idea of Umbra Vitae has been around in some way for a long time. Initially our friend Chris Maggio was to play drums, but his schedule with High on Fire conflicted with what we had going. Mike and Greg played with Jon in The Red Chord and really wanted to make music with him again, so that was a perfect fit. Sean and I have been talking about writing heavy music since he left Hatebreed in the early 2000s.

With 3 of us playing in Wear Your Wounds, the idea surfaced again in a different context. Often times we’d warm up at Wear Your Wounds rehearsals playing heavy riffs, and it was exciting. Soon after we finished the Rust on the Gates of Heaven album, we all began sharing ideas for Umbra Vitae and Shadow of Life is the amalgamation of that.

We worked on writing the album for about a year off and on, and we ended up recording in December of 2019 and finished it up in February of 2020.

Fittingly, the lead single, “Return to Zero,” seems to beckon the opportunity for a new beginning of sorts. It’s eerily prescient considering the current state of things. Is there a thematic through line to the LP? 

There is a thematic line in there for sure. Many of the songs explore the struggle against resistance in one’s life and the endless pursuit to be a better person. In general I try to explore the ideas of embracing what is meaningful in my own life, while discussing what I find troubling in the world. Heady for sure at times, but really not that complicated. 

The connection to German Expressionist Georg Heym's "Umbra Vitae" poem is a deeply rewarding dive for anyone inclined. I might be way off but, in my extremely limited scope, the parallels are seemingly endless.

On the surface, the fact that there are 10 songs and 10 stanzas seems intentional. Additionally, the poem is deceptively dense and weighty despite a traditional structure and rhyming scene.

Heym’s ‘Umbra Vitae’ (as translated by Scott Horton)

The people stand forward in the streets
They stare at the great signs in the heavens
Where comets with their fiery trails
Creep threateningly about the serrated towers.

And all the roofs are filled with stargazers
Sticking their great tubes into the skies
And magicians springing up from the earthworks
Tilting in the darkness, conjuring the one star.

Sickness and perversion creep through the gates
In black gowns. And the beds bear
The tossing and the moans of much wasting
They run with the buckling of death.

The suicides go in great nocturnal hordes
They search before themselves for their lost essence
Bent over in the South and West and the East and North
They dust using their arms as brooms.

They are like dust, holding out for a while
The hair falling out as they move on their way,
They leap, conscious of death, now in haste,
And are buried head-first in the field.

Yet occasionally they twitch still. The animals of the field
Blindly stand around them, poking with their horn
In the stomach. They lie on all fours
Buried under sage and thorn.

The year is dead and emptied of its winds
That hang like a coat covered with drops of water
And eternal weather, which bemoaning turns
From cloudy depth again to the depths.

But the seas stagnate. The ships hang
Rotting and querulous in the waves,
Scattered, no current draws them
And the courts of all heavens are sealed.

The trees fail in their seasonal change
Locked in their deadly finality
And over the decaying path they spread
Their wooden long-fingered hands.

He who dies undertakes to rise again,
Indeed he just spoke a word.
And suddenly he is gone. Where is his life?
And his eyes are like shattered glass.

Many are shadows. Grim and hidden.
And dreams which slip by mute doors,
And who awaken, depressed by other mornings,
Must wipe heavy sleep from grayed lids.

—Georg Heym, Umbra Vitae, first published in Umbra Vitae (1912)

On a cursory listen, Shadow of Life is firmly entrenched in the world of brutal death metal but, like the poem, is artfully rendered. Care to dish on the influence of such a tremendous piece of work? 

When I first stumbled upon the poem I found it fascinating on a variety of levels. Later as I looked more into Heym, I found him to be an intriguing personality, which drew me to his work even more. When this band started to materialize musically, I shared the poem and Heym’s story with the other people in the band, and that became a flashpoint for all of us in many ways. It gave us a sense of direction and character to expand upon, etc.

Song titles typically escape me but, again, you reeled me in with the alliteration! What's the background there? More so than most, there's a hyper-literate edge to the lyrics. "Fear Is a Fossil" is achingly beautiful. Following that logic, both "Return to Zero" and the title track are outliers. Am I just grasping at straws there or is the code partly cracked? [laughs]

I only write when I feel motivated to write and I don’t force the process. I’ve been doing it for a long time, so I hope I am improving/evolving in that art form. I appreciate that you took the time to read them, as that tends to be an afterthought when it comes to heavy music. As to your takeaway, I can see that for sure, but I purposely don’t try to dissect lyrics fully. For me it takes away the magic of listener interpretation. 

Though clearly death metal has informed the album but hardcore and DIY punk vibes all over this thing. The tempos vary wildly and violently. Is that an inescapable thing given the resumes of the members?

None of us would ever want to take ourselves out of our own music. Though this band is more “death” metal rooted, our roots and musical history will always be in there and will sound like the sum of its parts. That’s an important distinction.

Many artists will play dress up in sub-genres for better or worse. We are not interested in that. We just want to be, us.

Musically, it’s no frills by design and we consciously made sure there was no filler. Everything was precise without being overthought. It’s easy to get caught in that web if you don’t recognize it in front of you.

It's clearly not the easiest time to be releasing new music, but can we expect to experience this nightmarish vision in a live setting? 

The intention of Umbra Vitae is to be a fully functioning band that would play live consistently. The Pandemic dismantled those immediate plans. Once we are able we hope to be able to play live on a regular basis. As for now, we are individually demoing for album number two and just staying productive. 

As is always the case with Deathwish releases, there's great care and attention given to overall aesthetic. The cover for Shadow of Life is absolutely breathtaking. Tell me a bit about the artist Janusz Jurek, a name I was heretofore unfamiliar with. 

I stumbled on Janusz’ work online and it really connected with the character of this band. Soon I realized I was already familiar with some of his commercial work that he created for Adobe, etc. I touched base with him and that was that. He is an incredible talent for sure, and it’s an honor to have his work on the album.

I worked with a few designers on logos for the band, ultimately Nick Steinhardt assembled the final design for that. He really captured what I envisioned with that one.

What's been getting you through this lawless and odd time? 

Since December I’ve been working on recording music with nearly all of my bands/projects, so I haven’t been listening to much outside of that material. When I’m working on something creative I try to keep outside viewing/listening to a minimum as to not effect my own work, etc. When the Pandemic hit we had to trim Deathwish down to a skeleton crew for a few months.

So most of my “day” time has been focused there, just getting orders out the door, etc. When I’m doing that kind of work, I tend to listen to podcasts and audio books; a lot of true crime and current event stuff. As for audio books, I recommend Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill, if you want to get perspective on the madness of the '60s.

No one escapes the "lists." For the occasion of featuring Umbra Vitae, we'll keep it death metal... favorite albums of all time?

Bands of the genre that connect with me: Death, Atheist, Obituary, Bolt Thrower, Dismember, Entombed, Napalm Death, Deicide, Carcass, Terrorizer, etc. As a listener, I was fortunate to come up during the golden years of thrash, speed, grind, and death metal subgenres.

Early releases from labels Combat, Earache, Noise, Roadracer/Roadrunner, Metal Blade, Relapse, etc. The imprint of those labels and bands associated with them was massive for me. 

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Umbra Vitae's Shadow of Life is available now via Deathwish Inc.

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Tagged: converge, umbra vitae

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