The double-edged sword of facing something so excitingly all-encompassing as Bandcamp, is in how easy it can be to let things go in the face of limited time, limited money, and-or limited endurance of attention.This reality is most unfortunate when considering that an excess of quantity doesn’t necessarily mean a correlating absence of quality and realizing that work deserving of a conversation might not meet the visibility its depth of effort inspires. What’s most amusing about this quandary, is that the same set of conflicting circumstances could be used to describe the subject matter sewn intoClathrate, the newest album by metal instrumentalist, Stelliferous.
A solo artist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Stelliferous, known outside his home recording studio as Jeph Jacques, creator behind popular web comic Questionable Content, has been sharing intricate instrumental metal since December 2016. However, unlike previous works that presented his compositional prowess through a lens of personal catharsis and free-floating musicianship, Clathrateis a work with a distinct topic in mind: The tenuousness of the environment and the contemplation of its future destruction.
How exactly does such a grim premise resonate with the goodness of Bandcamp? Well there’s no denying the myriad of natural wonders offered by the environment to which this planet plays host. Yet, in the face of increasing pollution, resource decimation, and species extinction, the day-to-day calls for grassroots change to preserve, repair, or restore that which is lost, can fall to the wayside in much the same unintended way, despite it being easy to agree that a climate apocalypse rendering life unsustainable would be bad for everyone.
The following has been edited for length and clarity
While metal might not be a genre with as much ease of approachability as stylistic peers like pop, its recognizable but often mainstream-dismissed status evokes a second line of resonance with conversations about the environment: both are often underappreciated, despite being so outwardly noticeable, chronologically enduring, and internationally effecting. What’s perhaps most interesting about this comparative undervaluing though, is that beside the more sonically delicate, environmentally conscious folk fare from decades past, Stelliferous’s genre of choice conveys an undeniably better-matching sense of urgency for the subject at hand.
“I set out to do something a little more abrasive than the last few musical projects I’ve been working on.” says Stelliferous. “It’s instrumental metal so there’s only ‘so overt’ you can make any messaging within that sub-genre. For me, it was more just kind of exploring and expressing some of the feelings I have about climate change and where the environment, and where the world, is going these days. It’s not looking great.” he says with a brief sarcastic chuckle. “[The messages] just sort of started coming through when I was working on these songs and working on riffs and making these dissonant chords.
I think [climate change] is something artists are engaging with in their work because it’s so big and so hard to encapsulate. I think there’s a lot of both conscious and unconscious avoidance of it in, well, all media really – music, art, comics, all sorts of stuff. It’s not something I really engage with in my day to day comics work, just because the world-building in [Questionable Content] is, ‘Oh hey, they figured that out!’ Also [the characters] have robots everywhere so it’s certainly not as grounded in reality.”
A dense, eight track LP written around this frustrating state of affairs might not be itself a magic fix for the big problem Stelliferous is highlighting. Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for trying to encapsulate the multi-faceted set of emotions that come with entertaining environmental doom.
“It’s a little bit of both. Writing music is a much weirder and less methodical process for me than say, drawing or writing comics or words or whatever.” he says. “A lot of it is just that I have to find my way into that kind of––I feel like the closest equivalent is when an athlete – professional or otherwise – gets ‘in the zone,’ as they say. Where the actual medical, biological response is that your upper spinal cord is actually doing all of the mechanical stuff that your body is doing. Whether you’re shooting baskets in a basketball game or driving a car or drawing or playing guitar, that sort of thing.”
Stelliferous continues, reflecting on the his perception of creative momentum.“When you can get into a space where you’re conscious mind is no longer thinking about that and it’s sort of free associating and paying attention to what your body is doing with your instrument or, whatever your body is doing, that’s when I think the really interesting [and] creative stuff happens, musically. It can be really hard to get myself into that space because it’s not really something you can do on purpose. But once I find myself there, that’s when you press on.”
Still, even acknowledging the seriousness of Clathrate’s thematic identity, the very acts of writing, playing, recording, and shaping its material have – like previous LPs Canine Familiar and North – the potential to be an outlet of recreational enjoyment and mental respite. In the time leading up to declaring Clathrate finished and launching it worldwide, Stelliferous navigated (and to some degree is still discerning) a gamut of his own feelings – the more optimistic of which will ideally also come through in conjunction with the album’s penchant for the ominous – now that Clathrate is done.
“I’m one of those people who can never look at or listen to their own work once it’s done because all I see or hear are the mistakes [and] the things I wanted to do differently.” he says. “[However,] it’s easier with music than it is with my comics and stuff like that. Because I can listen to a track and be like, ‘Oh yeah, all right, that’s cool. I have no idea how I wrote that thing but it was neat’.”
“I’m definitely still in the stage now,” he says, re-focusing on the present moment, “where I spent so much time writing and mixing [Clathrate] that my brain is still fatigued from these songs so I haven’t actually listened to it much. But that will change over time. It just takes a while for it all to decompress. I’m happy with [the album]. I think it turned out well; I’m happy with the mix. It’s one of the better sounding records I’ve put out.
As far as [reacting to] the topics, I switch off back and forth pretty often between feeling hopeful and feeling resigned and nihilistic and all of the different spectrum of emotions. I think writing the record definitely kind of helped at least express some of the feelings and emotions that I was having about this stuff, in a way that I thought was more healthy than just being anxious and depressed all the time.”
Certainly, a lesson that can be taken away from Stelliferous’s flurry of emotional shifts in making this project, is that it does no one any good to hyper-focus and fixate on any one aspect of Clathrate’s contemplations over the bigger picture of the future. There’s worth in taking a step back to live in the moment, recognizing the little things that drive us forward or stir us internally. And in this case, it would be a massive disservice to brush past the sheer instrumental and engineering work and dedication to precision that’s presented across this album, as a result of not doing so.
The mixing process for this one was very interesting because I had most of the record written. I think all but one or two tracks were basically written and roughly arranged. I sort of do the rough mixing as I’m writing at the same time. It all just sort of gets smushed together in Logic while I’m working,” he says. “And then in October, just as I was getting to the point where I was like, ‘Okay, I think these things are starting to get to the point where they’re getting good enough that I can start mixing for real,’ I got hearing aids because my hearing has been garbage for decades now.
Recalling the decision itself, Stelliferous elaborates on the moments immediately following his appointment. “It was unexpectedly profound. I got the hearing aids, walked out of the doctor’s office with them in for the first time and, it had a fairly busy parking lot. I just stood there for like, 20 minutes, hearing noises that I hadn’t heard in years and years.”
Stelliferous then pivots back to the album, explaining how much these devices inspired him to re-pursue his inner vision for the record. “So I get hearing aids and for the first time in 25 years, I can actually hear things, like what a normal person is capable of hearing. I immediately went and listened to the stuff I’d been working on and was like, ‘Oh wow, this all sounds like garbage. I have to start from scratch,’ he says. “I re-recorded everything, re-did all the guitars, went back to square one with the mixing and all that. It was cool because I could actually hear what was going on but there was so much stuff [to change]. I [realized] I didn’t even hear the top end of any of these tracks before I got these hearing aids so that was an interesting process. It made [the album] take two months longer than it would have otherwise but now it actually sounds the way it does in my head, as opposed to just what my ears are telling me.”
Whether or not Stelliferous’s metallic charge of environmental awareness inspires a massive wave of instrumental metal think pieces, Clathrate’s very existence manages to stoke the fires of free-thinking around both the macro state of the world’s health and society’s micro perceptions of metal music. Furthermore, knowing the way things can get lost in the shuffle of news cycles, social feeds, or global music archives, it might do everyone some good to take more time for themselves to search for the things others aren’t seeing, ask the questions no one wants to broach, and above all, find time to enjoy something, whether it’s listening to music, drawing comics, playing sports, reading a good story, or just preserving a moment to feel goodness about ourselves, regardless of what’s going on around us.
“I just hope [listeners] enjoy what they’re hearing. For me, unless something drastically changes, music is always just going to be my hobby. So I’m really doing it to feel some personal accomplishment myself, and also, hopefully have other people enjoy it. It’s nice when people listen to my stuff and I hope they get some entertainment out of [Clathrate].”
Clathrate is available now.
Find it on Bandcamp.
Stelliferous is Jeph Jacques.