Underdark – Managed Decline


Nottingham’s Underdark might be the bleakest band in Britain. They use the searing hostility of black metal and the white-hot aggression of post-metal and look for melody in places where they should not exist. It’s an intriguing approach to heavy music, and one that landed them high praise for their 2021 debut, Our Bodies Burned Bright on Re​-​Entry. Now, they return with album number two and a multi-generational story of poverty and hardship in the post-industrial era of Thatcher’s Britain. There’s much to enjoy if you like your gritty Mike Leigh films and a night at the local working men’s club watching a brass band play while you devour your pie and peas. It’s easy to be bitter at the end of it all when you realise what you lost over the years.

In case you didn’t know, Underdark remind you that they come from the East Midlands, which was once a thriving region with pockets of profitable coal mines. Opener, ‘The Past We Inherit, the Future We Build’, is as heart-breaking as its title suggests. Here, the brass colliery band play one last song before the gates of the pit close forever. It’s a defiant and stoic sadness that sets the scene for the doleful strumming of guitar in the intro to ‘Managed Decline I’. These vibrate like a remembrance for somebody who left nothing behind and achieved nothing yet represented a community by virtue of their loneliness. What starts as a blackened death-doom tale of woe redirects its dynamics towards extreme turbulence. Vocalist, Abi Vazquez, sounds like she wants to vomit the phlegm out of her chest. Imagine a black metal fury that resembles a malnourished party of captives trying to escape but falling at the electric barbed-wire perimeter. No matter how miserable life was in the 1980s of Britain’s post-industrial transition, it cannot have been as bad as this (not even in Hull or Barnsley).

‘Employment’ is much more cynical. Plain and pretty guitar melodies test the waters in the intro and then transform into distorted riffs as if trapped in an endless sorrow. The drummer shows reluctance to form a regular beat in his contemplation of the emotional effect of the guitars. Is he scared to spoil the mood? He settles on blunt blast beats that imitate an industrial washing machine. The bass is loud enough to cause a sewer pipe to burst. It’s almost offensive that they can find melody in this septic tank.

There’s a delightful head-banging current to this album in between the blast beats and epic Ennio Morricone tremolos. Violent guitars convince you that they might break out of your speakers. Abi’s tongue movements are ugly and anguished by a morbid fascination with pain and suffering. You can feel the spittle of her words on your chin in ‘Matrimony’ as the guitars soar in the background like meat grinders. The snare hits are weak in the sedate use of blast beats, but they become a menace to your health at 02:10 when Abi grunts her way through a more aggressive uplift. Here, the guitar duo shows an impressive knack for knowing when to fatten the mix with filthier riffs in contrast to the atonal noise moments. What you hear on record is what Underdark will sound like on a live stage. The have a talent for reversing the flow of their songs like demolishers mothballing a derelict building. Can you feel the blackened sludge at the finale as it passes through your fingers like the sodden turf of a battlefield?

‘Raised for a World that No Longer Exists’ is the one piece of sentimentality on the album, and it’s an instrumental of melancholy guitars in clean mode. ‘Enterprise’ is the complete opposite. You’ll feel like somebody has their hand on your neck with your head plunged in a tank of water. Has a brave entrepreneurial life outside the confines of the working-class community ever produced a traumatic experience like this one? Abi approaches her vocals like a gluttonous savage from the vivid imagination of the occidental mind. You can understand why her parents and close family might worry for her sanity. The reprieve of melodious guitar pickings at 04:20 offers some respite from the gut-throbbing pain.

It’s commonplace now to imagine Lush or Slowdive as a barbaric black metal band. ‘Managed Decline II’ is yet another one of these oxymoronic proposals, and it triumphs where many others fail. Again, the drummer dictates the direction of this song like an untested commander who can join in with the bayonet action if needed. Svalbard and Rolo Tomassi fans will recognise a kinship here with the Nottingham quintet. Listen to the change of mood to cascading guitar arpeggios and ascending bass notes at the mid-point – how blissful before they step on the distortion pedal to unleash their pain for one last show of fearless suffering.

In Underdark’s mind, the biggest evil of the late twentieth century was neo-liberal capitalism. It has not been the success the yuppies and entrepreneurs assumed it would be in the prosperous 1990s and early 2000s. On the other hand, autarky and state socialism might have been Britain’s fate if we’d continued to prop up industries that cost more to produce our fossil fuels than to import them from the other end of the planet. Globalisation has left many behind and enriched many others. Underdark want you to remember those that saw their communities fall into decay.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 24/11/2023

Record Label: Church Road Records

Standout tracks: Managed Decline I; Matrimony; Managed Decline II

Suggested Further Listening: Ghost Bath – Self Loather (2021), Mannveira – Vítahringur (2021), Dryad – The Abyssal Plain (2023)