Dublin, Ireland’s Mael Mórdha gave the world four albums of high concept folk/doom metal but, according to drummer Shane Cahill, the band has essentially been kaput since 2018 with members branching out to work on other projects. One of those is Death The Leveller, featuring Cahill alongside fellow ex-Mael Mórdha members, Dave Murphy and Gerry Clince, and fronted by vocalist Denis Dowling. DtL plays doom metal that straddles the emotional continuum anchored by triumph and ascendance on one end with sorrow and lament holding down the other. Their take on playing slow ‘n’ low may be mournful and elegiac, but is tempered with a sonic brightness and positive sense of hope.
Deep feelings penetrate and drive the dapper doom of their debut full-length II, heralding a fresh take on a metallic sub-genre that’s as old as metal itself. Appropriately, if not ironically, we caught up with Cahill as the band was celebrating the release of their first album, but just days after learning their first tour had been cancelled when the headliners were forced to pull out.
Seeing as this is your first time in our spotlight, can you give a brief history of the band? Is Mael Mórdha still on hiatus?
Shane Cahill: “Hiatus isn’t the right term for Mael Mórdha at this point in time. As far as we are concerned, that musical project has run its course and Death the Leveller is one hundred percent our focus. The band played its last show at Hammerfest in 2018, and while we never say never, we don’t think it likely that there’ll be another. DtL came about because while Mael Mórdha may have come to an end, Ger, Dave and myself felt we had more to do as musical collaborators. We didn’t consciously decide to go in a particular direction, but we knew that we wanted something different to what we had produced with Mael Mórdha.
The genesis of DtL was just in the three of us getting together to jam and see where the music would take us, without the pressure to produce an album or to write to a particular concept. As the music took shape we realized that what we still want to do is to write songs and for that we would need a singer. By good fortune, we came across Denis around this time and he was interested in working on original material with a new band. Denis has a strong pedigree in the Irish metal scene; he was in Cursed Earth in the 1990s.
Once we asked Denis to come on board, everything clicked very quickly. His vocal approach to the music was exactly what was needed and we developed a clear and shared vision of what this band would look like. I think it runs deeper than that though. The time we’ve spent together, working on DtL, brings us closer together and I don’t think you could reach the depths of emotional honesty that we feel this band takes us to without that. In terms of Mael Mórdha, it’s important to mention that band’s founder and conceptual progenitor, Roibeard Ó Bogail. He’s still active musically as well with Uaigneas and a folk project, Tuatha Cinn Mhara, which any fans of Mael Mórdha should check out.”
Is the band’s name designed to make a specific statement about how death is the one thing that everything has in common regardless of race, politics, prejudices, class, religion?
“The band’s name is taken from a poem by the English poet and dramatist James Shirley. Essentially yes, this poem is about how death makes all men equal and looks at the hubris of seeking worldly glory. It also recognizes that there is continuance of memory and that the deeds of the just live on. I think it speaks to us at this stage of our lives and our musical endeavours as we’re not young men and we’ve been around the block in life and in music. We’ve experienced the loss of friends and loved ones, and in particular, on this album, music is one of the ways we engage with that in a cathartic manner.
So, Death the Leveller is also an encouragement to honesty, to accept our inevitable death and to embrace life while it lasts. James Shirley himself spent some time in Dublin, where we are based, during the 1630s and he produced some of his works in the Werburgh Street Theatre, which is now long gone and faded in almost all memory. He himself met his tragic demise in the Great Fire of London in 1666, having fallen from grace after choosing the losing side in the English Civil War. Quite poignant for the man who gave us this concept.”
Given that three-quarters of you make up both bands, what are the biggest similarities and differences between the two? Have you had to get into a certain or specific mindset to write material that wasn’t Mael Mórdha after so many years of playing in that band? Or had the DtL stuff been sitting around as material that didn’t have a place in MM?
“I think it’s worth bearing in mind that MM was quite a concept-driven band and that the main instigator behind that concept is not a member of DtL. I think when we decided that MM was not continuing the only conscious decision was not to try to write within that conceptual setting. In some ways, I think it became part of a genre and scene that doesn’t really speak to us or excite us anymore, by which I mean the folk metal world that’s developed over the last number of years, drinking horns and furry underpants can fuck off!
While talking about musical genres is only useful to a degree, I think it’s fair to say that MM always had a foot in two camps: doom and folk metal. DtL, I suppose, fits more solidly in the doom scene and, in a way, that’s where we’ve always been musically. In terms of the material, it’s not been a question of rehabilitating discarded MM riffs or anything. The music is what sparked when the three of us returned to jamming together. And with Denis established as part of our quartet, it’s just the music and the songs that the four of us want to write without any preconceived concepts.”
How long did it take to write II and what would you say were the major motivations that spurred you towards writing this new album?
“All in all, around two years… and a lot has happened in the last number of years, good and bad. Musically, we’re in a really good place as a band and it was a natural progression to carry on and write more music. The big motivating factor was that we were keen, happy with the progress and of course there is the natural curiosity of… ‘where are we going to end up with this?’ Having such great support from fans and peers also provided a little energy into the mix.”
What do you felt you learned in the process of doing the I EP that you applied, consciously or otherwise, to the creation of II?
“Writing and recording is always a learning process in some way and every time we enter the studio we see something new that we try to incorporate for the future. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time or the resources to approach production in the way that we ideally might like to; our daily lives have to go on as well. We would always like to have more time in pre-production of songs, for example, but that’s just not the reality. With I, the music was largely written before Denis had joined the band. Once he contributed his lyrics, it was a matter of arrangement. This time though the four members were involved in the whole writing process, which was a learning process in itself, literally figuring out how to work best in this unit. Fortunately, that seems to have worked out quite well, so we’re looking forward to starting on the next one, which we don’t think will take quite so long.”
Listening to DtL, it’s obvious that your brand of doom is “cleaner” than what is normally associated with the genre. Was this stylistic direction something that was decided on or planned from the start or something you fell into as you started writing for this particular project?
“As I’ve mentioned, we didn’t really have a plan or a concept from the start and it’s been very organic. With MM, we were quite influenced by the ‘90s death/doom scene and maybe that’s less overtly prevalent in DtL? I think the music combined with the vocal qualities that Denis brings to the band would be at what you term the ‘cleaner’ end of the spectrum. At the end of the day, we would see ourselves first and foremost as songwriters, and that’s what always motivates us.”
Was there anything that was done differently in terms of the way the album was written when you compare to how you had done things in the past?
“As usual for DtL, most of our songs start out as a jam and we develop them from there. This time around, Denis was involved in the process from the beginning. So, while the rest of us were jamming out ideas, Den was putting some lyrical concepts together. This time, however, Den was with the songs from their inception and watched them grow. As the songs grew, we all grew organically with them and it was all fairly natural. Lyrically, we put our heads together for one particular song when Denis asked for our thoughts on particular experiences. In return, Den took that and did an amazing job of forming a coherent and powerful lyric. That is something that none of us has ever experienced and was certainly different from I.”
How and where was the album recorded and did the way you captured it differ wildly from any of your previous studio experiences?
“We returned to Trackmix in Dublin, working with Michael Richards once again. We know Michael very well; he was involved in some of the earlier MM recordings and we have a very easy working relationship. I think if we had the time and resources we would like to be able to lock ourselves away for a time a focus solely on recording, as we were able to do with the final MM album, Damned When Dead, with Chris Fielding at Foel Studios in the Welsh mountains. The ability to embed yourself completely in the music and close off any distractions is fantastic. So, when it comes to the next DtL release, I think we’ll keep our options open and see what we can achieve.”
Is there a deeper significance or story behind the album’s title, beyond the obvious?
“It’s like, the second release from Death the Leveller. Nice one, Dave (laughs). No, there’s no particular meaning, deep or otherwise. We didn’t feel we wanted to give it any other title, the songs just speak for themselves. Maybe it’s deep, maybe we’re unimaginative, lazy bastards.”
At what point did Cruz del Sur come into the picture?
“We had been in contact with Enrico (Leccese) on and off over the years and always liked what he was doing with the label. At the Doom Over Vienna festival in 2018 we finally got down to discussing matters over a few beers and the plan to collaborate was born. Tom Phillips of While Heaven Wept is also involved in the label now and both Ger and Dave know Tom from touring with Primordial over the years. With these two gents keen to bring the band to Cruz del Sur it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. The quality of the label, its bands and releases, speaks for itself and we’re in very good company!”
How would you characterize II against not only I, but also your previous work with MM?
“We don’t like to pin down too clearly what our music is trying to say, but in general terms, I think you could characterize II as more introspective and melancholy. The first release perhaps deals with the concepts in a more ‘epic’ and strident manner (‘A Call to Men of Noble Blood,’ for example), whereas II takes a more personally reflective approach. For the three of us who were members of MM, this band is much more personal in that respect, as that band was much more conceptually driven in terms of dealing with themes from Gaelic history and culture.”
What does DtL give to you or do for you that MM or previous bands you’ve been in doesn’t or hasn’t?
“I suppose this question follows on directly from the last one. What we do as a collective in DtL is a hugely personal expression, more so than in previous bands. We’ve gone through some hard times and losses in our lives in recent years and being in this band is an important release for all of those things. There’s an honesty and integrity that you get in a lot of doom metal, that really speaks from the heart and I think DtL fits in that spectrum without any element of design or artifice. One of the good things about ageing is you stop giving a fuck what people think or trying to please anybody, so we’ve freed ourselves to just do what we want with music and if that clicks with some people all the better.”
Even before all this Coronavirus stuff, I noticed the bottom just fell out of a planned tour for you. Is it as difficult and expensive for bands to get out of Ireland to tour as it’s made out to be and does that put a damper on plans and getting to other parts of the world?
“Yeah, we had some dates lined up in Europe with our label mates, Argus that fell through at the eleventh hour. It’s a kick in the balls, but these things happen and we move on. Drawing on the resources and good friends that we have at home, we managed to put together two album launch shows in Dublin and Limerick with Dread Sovereign (featuring Nemtheanga of Primordial and members of Conan and Malthusian) coming on board as very special guests. Following that, we are, hopefully, playing Primordial’s Redemption Festival in Dublin in April and the Little Devil Doom Day in Tilburg Netherlands in May.
We have some other irons in the fire for this year as well and our intention is to get out and play as much as we can. Being Ireland-based can absolutely present problems. The days of super-cheap flights are gone so it’s becoming more and more expensive to get ourselves to Europe, never mind further afield. The UK may become more difficult for bands to play following Brexit, going the way of the U.S. with work permits, etc… which would be a real shame. But there’s no point complaining about this, it’s just reality. We’re not a demanding band, we just need a roof over our heads, a bite to eat and a few beers and we’ll try to play anywhere. There’s no room in underground metal for prima donna rock star bullshit.”