[Note: This story contains content dealing with sexual assault.]
Autophagia. Molestation. Perversion. These are just a few of the unnerving topics that Bay Area death-metal squad Vastum tackle on their fourth album, Orificial Purge. Dark and disturbing as those subjects might seem, they’re completely in line with a discography that includes titles such as Carnal Law, Patricidal Lust and—we have a winner—Hole Below. Despite the recurring theme you might sense here, Vastum vocalist Daniel Butler insists that the band is not, as they’ve been called, “sex-obsessed.”
“I think it’s pretty off,” he says of the descriptor. “Probably because someone ‘sex-obsessed’ wrote it.”
Fair enough. But it’s worth noting that the press release for Orificial Purge says that the album’s lyrics and visual imagery “trace connections between perversion, mortification, and ‘an abyssal mysticism of sin.’” When asked what draws Vastum to this uncomfortable conjunction, Butler gives us the brush-off: “This is the kind of stuff that I find interesting, but it’s also just our way of writing death metal lyrics. For a deeper answer, you’d have to ask my analyst, though he’d probably say he doesn’t have any answers either.” (Butler, it should be noted, works in the mental-health field himself: “What do I do? I listen deeply and try not to be too clever when I speak,” he says.)
Luckily, Vastum guitarist and co-lyricist Leila Abdul-Rauf is much more enthusiastic about unpacking some of the themes behind the band’s dank, oppressively heavy latest. The music on Purge is both sinister and suffocating, a dense and wholly appropriate foundation for its disturbing and intriguing lyrics. Abdul-Rauf wrote the words to Purge tracks “Reveries in Autophagia” and “His Sapphic Longing,” among others.
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“Autophagia—the act of eating oneself—is a common theme in horror, and death metal lyrics overall,” she points out. “But this story goes further in that it is not entirely literal, but the psychic act of making oneself disappear–how by eating yourself, you are also copulating with yourself and defecating yourself back out. The lyrical stance is not one of judgment but of fantasy, reverie and getting lost in this desire.”
If that’s not intense enough, “His Sapphic Longing” tells the harrowing story of a man trapped in a cycle of abuse. “He’s severed from his femininity by other men,” Abdul-Rauf explains. “He is forever trying to reconnect with it, but instead he is taught to rape from the time he is a young boy by his father. As he rapes, he grieves, and feels perpetually incomplete, stunted, a half person, just as his father did. Lines are blurred as he is molested by a father figure—or perhaps he is molesting the father figure.”
Butler’s lyrics are equally as morbid and psychologically oriented—he just prefers to talk about them in a more roundabout way. He wrote the words to the album’s opening tracks “Dispossessed In Rapture (First Wound)” and “I on the Knife (Second Wound).” “There’s something about this record and the way I’ve written the lyrics that’s very opaque to me,” he offers. “You could say the songs are both wounds, but that ‘I’ didn’t really make them that way. While there’s relatively clear symbolism in some of my lyrics, I often don’t write to communicate something particular or to reveal—by concealing—something through metaphor. I just write.”
He goes on to reference French intellectual Georges Bataille’s concept of life as a wound, Peter Tracey Connor’s Bataille and the Mysticism of Sin, and a bunch of other heady stuff about sexual abuse, self-mutilation and violent psychic states. Think of it as an extended bout of morbid meditation.
“Mystics and criminals or sinners are quite similar in a sense,” Butler says. “They’re both committed to some sort of beyond, albeit one that paradoxically springs from within. The mystic aspires to dissolution in the divine, the criminal to dissolution in pleasure and excess. Both are willing to transgress social law and risk themselves in the interest of dissolution.”