You’re not going to get much more of an up-close and personal journey through the mind and the psyche of an artist than you will on Blue Stahli’s brand new album Obsidian. Behind the waves of noise and electronics is singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Bret Autrey who has just issued his musical jewel, the third and final edition of the Deadchannel Trilogy, following the release of Quartz and Copper this past year.
Initially, Obsidian was meant to be a standalone record, but then when Autrey began the songwriting process, it blew up into being one of his most vast and challenging projects yet. It’s also Autrey’s most personal set of songs to date, as he tries to process all of the changes in his life, defining who he is as an individual after a very difficult period that broke him down mentally and emotionally. A few years ago, Autrey was suddenly vaulted into being his mother’s caretaker after she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Obsidian is his way of processing all the pain, sorrow, and despair that came to a head after she passed away in 2018.
With such an expansive, wide-ranging musical endeavour, we spoke with Autrey for a track-by-track rundown as he takes us through all of the steps involved in crafting this impressive new record.
“Title track ‘Obsidian’ leads off with the calm pulse of Copper and then an unexpected, rapid smash of drums propels it beyond the peacefulness of the previous album and into a rage of cinematic anger and pain.
While there are a few songs on this record that began as demos or little riff ideas recorded years ago, ‘Obsidian’ is one of the brand new tracks for this record. The deadline to have this album finished was rapidly approaching and what would have been a lot easier is going back through more old demos to find a solid starting point to build from. This was coming off of writing Quartz and Copper just months before, each with its own very tight deadlines, and something that I wound up really liking during the process of creating those albums was starting from absolute scratch and letting new ideas come forth, instead of feeling bound to previous ideas. Since this album is the final piece of this trilogy, and already features a few tracks that already had some basic songwriting done, it felt freeing and necessary to very expressly make the title track something brand new after going through everything leading up to these three albums. It felt like more of an act of completion than just reviving old ideas.
After doing Copper, where it was such a time crunch with creating my own music videos, working on a livestream and trying to write the album all at the same time, it forced me to work fast and not second-guess everything (which was typically how I worked up until now). Some of my favourite songs on Copper were the ones that took the least amount of time, so I wanted to keep exploring that newfound approach. The goal was to make this feel like the opening to a movie. Flying over a barren and uninhabitable alien landscape with the refrain of some ancient chant filling the space in your head. All of this building and building until the drop hits with massive beats and electronic music mesh with heavy guitars and orchestral swells to form a gargantuan behemoth. Even though this features some heavy guitars, it’s electronic music through and through. This felt like the flag in the ground of what Blue Stahli is.”
“‘Prognosis’ continues the thrashing guitars but kicked up a level, accompanied by Bret’s voice wavering between breathy and resentful, and a beautiful melody with the lyric ‘how long is the body beholden/how long ‘til we’ve run out of road?’
I had the guitar line written as a demo from years before I started working on Obsidian or even thought about it as an album. It was just a cool riff that I saved for later, not knowing what it would eventually be used for. When the time came to even think about an album, in the middle of dealing with all this end-of-life stuff for my mom, my mindset was that, if it’s all from scratch, I don’t have the time to process how to even start. So I went back to the guitar line that I already had and just let it loop over and over again while I was pacing around a room writing what came to mind.
This was before I had a little working space at home, I was renting a rehearsal room, there was a drummer on one side and a rock band on the other side, and me just in the middle of this competing noise. I would turn my stuff up louder than what I was hearing from my neighbours and just sort of pace back and forth trying to come up with lyrics and vocal melodies not knowing what any of this would shape up to be. I just had a general notion that this was going to be the first song that I lyrically wrote after my mom’s passing.”
“‘Gravity’ has an element of despair, with manipulated vocals, hard rock mixed with electronic production with a lift of relief on the melodic chorus.
This is another one where the guitar lines were sitting in a demo folder that I didn’t quite know what to do with. Working on the lyrics was more of a contemplative thing where I didn’t have the music playing. I needed to just sit and think, building word clouds and writing out how all of this feels. I knew I had to get outside, walking among trees, hiking. This song and ‘Catastrophe’ were both lyrically written while surrounded by nature because I needed to be far away and isolated from everything, but also feeling the expanse.”
4. “The Mountain”
“‘The Mountain’ is the track on Obsidian that melds the trilogy with elements from the Quartz and Copper albums. Its percolating, pounding ‘80s production and shaking synth later influenced the sound of Quartz, the twinkling guitar and other musical experimentation led to the introspective Copper and finally the one-two gut punch that delivers more widespread guitar and rock-heavy electronic which can be found all over Obsidian. ‘The Mountain’ was written when I was caring for my mom (who was diagnosed with glioblastoma), and it is the shining beacon of the album and the beginning of the process for shaking out all of the emotion of the deadchannel Trilogy. ‘The Mountain’ combines both dread and hope, it is a slow and torturous climb, effortlessly told with an infectious melody.
You’re not only in the middle of taking care of the emotions of that experience but also dealing with the incredible weight of trying to get someone through what is likely to be their last few months, and hoping you can extend it. Trying to juggle all these things from doctors to specialists and facilities, that gives any possible quality of life especially when it’s a parent and you know it’s only going to get worse until it’s finally terminal. There was never a time to have any moment of reprieve. I’d be in the waiting room while my mom was in a physical therapy session so I would pull out my laptop and work on lyrics or music for ‘The Mountain.’ Most of the lyrics for these other songs were written after she had passed and we were in the middle of dealing with the incredible avalanche of things you have to deal with for end of life stuff. You’re right there at ground zero, I didn’t know when I would be able to put these out or what kind of timeline that would be but I knew I had to get this all out.
Like many tracks on the trilogy and Obsidian especially, ‘The Mountain’ is a trek through memories past and present, blended together in a horrific battle that could not be won. However the grandeur of ‘The Mountain’ is its delicate storytelling, personifying the mountain, taking listeners on the road as I had done so many times, admiring the snow-capped peaks.
I remember the very expansive desert drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix. And during that drive, there is this vast emptiness though you see these mountains off in the distance. It’s one of my favorite things that I saw on that drive and even as a kid, Phoenix is a valley and there are these mountains in the distance that are so far off they almost had this mirage effect. There was something about that image, that completely unreachable peak with the snow, it felt like something that has come to life from a description in a novel. Someone is on a journey that is completely unreachable, completely unwinnable. I remember when writing the lyrics to this song, the notion of picturing myself on top of one of those mountains scaling it and seeing the view from the peak, even that image felt like some escapist hope while having to balance against those awful feelings of complete hopelessness and knowing you’re going to lose something.
The sort of robotic nature of the song is part of my escape from listening to industrial music like Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly while growing up. I used to close my eyes and listen in headphones in a dark room at like 2 am in the morning, being totally bowled over by these amazing sound collages they put together, some from movie samples, some from machinery and random noise. There are also elements of what people are doing with glitch music; to me it’s like Flying Lotus but with a different sound palette. That nature of giving the mountain a human and organic element to it is also meant to feel like a city made of interconnected machine parts. The vocals can be very harsh in the industrial style of music but I wanted the vulnerability to be present instead, so the vocals are all very soft and melodic. The feel is a balance of melancholy and towering gargantuan glitchiness.”
5. “Nothing Ever Stays”
“A symphonic Memento-like moment takes hold on the mysterious ‘Nothing Ever Stays’ with a shimmering piano theme and an antagonizing percussion like that of a clacking old-school photography slideshow.
This was written when I was in that rehearsal space. It came together quickly, written at the time when I thought I was only going to work on one album. I never want to be pigeonholed as the guy who only does guitar and rock stuff. I don’t even see myself as a rock guy, I see myself as an electronic artist who sometimes uses guitars. Even though there is a pained anger at the unfairness of how mortality works, there’s also a bit of a defeated vulnerability. I had no idea what style of music I was making, I was just getting it out. This song is also why Copper sounds as it does, since this was written at least a year before making Copper. This is a style I’ve always wanted to do and never had the opportunity. I loved how this song turned out so much, I wanted to make an entire album exploring similar styles. So this track directly led to what came later on Copper.”
“The big action scene of Obsidian is the extremely cinematic ‘Legion,’ which is sure to thrill audiences in a live setting. Its piercing beats and synth, heavy electronic production and warped indiscernible voice blobs make it the perfect sports anthem.
Since I was on such a deadline crunch, ‘Legion’ was made in a blind panic in less than a 24-hour stretch. I had completely run out of time for finishing this album, sometimes working ‘til 2 or 3 in the morning every night. It started from a super basic demo of a simple synth line. I think the reason I was drawn to that demo was the filename ‘Legion,’ there was something about the title that was alluring. It still kind of started from scratch, since the demo was just a basic one-bar synth riff, but I liked the title and wanted to build something from that. Most of the songs on Obsidian were already done at this point and guitars were now over-represented on this album especially for someone who considers himself more of an electronic artist, so this track was kind of a correction to that.
‘Legion’ is meant to feel like menace and strength at the same time. Approaching something from just an electronic standpoint, sometimes a song can feel even more aggressive than traditional metal songs, depending on the production. With this one I aimed to match or outmatch the power of some of my heavier tracks with something purely electronic and feel like an unstoppable force.”
7. “One Last Breath”
“Aggressive and enthralling electro-rock, ‘One Last Breath’ finds the Obsidian album nearing the peak and getting past it with a bright, uplifting melody, almost like I have accepted my truth.
This is one of the tracks written in 2018, a little closer to the ground zero ripple of all this. I was originally planning on making only the one record, Obsidian, and the goal was how many feelings can I cram into this one album? Turning that concept into a trilogy allowed me to explore all of these ideas more freely and give each idea its own space. The original demo version of ‘One Last Breath’ had all the same guitar lines that you hear now, but the drums and the synths were all intentionally very ‘90s. Even the guitar stabs are going for the feel of a very sampled sound. The purpose of the original demo was to connect with the things I loved in the ‘90s. When it came time to finish this track for Obsidian, it felt like I had already explored enough of the ‘90s reconnection in Quartz, so I paid homage to that time in a different way, and tried to modernize it a bit with breakbeats and drum and bass production as if this was a newer Prodigy song. I just treated my old demo as if I was doing a remix.”
“Alternative rock creeps in from the ‘90s for one more moment on the dreadful hard rock of ‘Catastrophe,’ with lively guitars and thunderous drums.
For the people that like the rock aspect of Blue Stahli, I knew this one would satisfy that the most. I leaned into that way more while writing, like let’s make the guitars bigger, deeper, meaner, louder. Something I had never done before in any of my songs was something like doom rock or doom metal. During the time of dealing with family tragedy, everything felt like it was in slow motion, like a dirge on the way to the hospital. I just wanted to get across the feeling of everything falling apart in slow motion. You see this in movies when they have a life changing moment, like a dramatic effect. It’s a song that feels like a massive weight crushing down on you and breaking everything apart around you.”
“Rattling, aggressive drums kick off ‘Endure,’ quickly dropping off and dying to a minimal hum. It’s a peaceful yet tense moment; you wonder if the robots or the spaceship will crash down for more destruction or if you’re in the clear. This interlude is serene yet haunting at the same time. The lack of noise brings into perspective the feelings of loneliness but also relief, turning the page and starting the process of healing and starting anew.
I had that little metal blast beat thing and I knew I didn’t want this to be a full song. I only wanted that for the heavy part. To have an absolute blast of noise and chaos that transitions into something more. Those are the last lyrics written for the album. ‘Hope in spite of abject misery.’ I want this to be its own pure bit of loss and comfort. You’re completely inundated by this crashing wave of things you can’t control and never will. But when that wave dissipates, there’s an aftermath you’re left with. Even in the middle of those harsh and chaotic times, and even if it takes a long time to get there, there can still be a small kernel of hope or at least one little moment of tranquility.”
“The most organic song on the album, ‘Daylight’ is like nothing else on Obsidian with simple guitar strums, a down-tempo rhythm and whispered vocals. It brings to mind the shining white reflecting on the obsidian rock, how something so black and dense can still awaken and breathe new life.
The main demo for the music was done in a day and I just let it play over and over in my headphones. When writing the demo I kept staring out the window of my studio room and could not stop myself from tearing up as it looped. At that point I didn’t know what the lyrics would be and I didn’t know how I would convey any of what I was feeling but I sort of knew the essence. The chord structure feels like it’s hopeful even though what’s actually behind it is like a wistful loss.
When I did finally write the lyrics and cut the vocals for it, it was hard to keep from crying every time I was working. The vocals, guitar, kick and snare are the newly recorded parts, but the main melodic elements of that song stayed exactly as they were from the demo. The initial demo itself felt like a very fragile thing, and with my own fragility I knew I wouldn’t be able to do more of this.”