A Track-By-Track Self-Analysis of 'Nihilus', by Spiralist
I began creating Nihilus, my first solo record, amidst a whirlwind of anger and disappointment with my life at the time. In August 2016 I was facing the dissolution of my main band and other side projects; the isolation of moving into a tiny apartment and having little time to see or interest in seeing anyone; increasing bouts of anger; a growing depression; and a sense that, despite having just turned 23, my life’s best years were behind me. It felt like Murphy’s Law was stomping my head against the curb like Edward Norton in American History X.
I had two weeks ahead of me with no plans, and I had two choices: either wallow in darkness and continue disintegrating, or crawl my way out of the pit. I chose to try the latter, knowing well that there were no promises of anything working out in the end. I did nine to ten hours of recording every day for those two weeks, creating the instrumentals for Nihilus, and kickstarting a long healing process that would eventually culminate in the realization of my first record.
I’m now happy to write this track-by-track article about Nihilus and share it with you all.
The album’s title-track was the first I wrote and recorded for the album (in fact, all the tracks were recorded in the order that they appear, with two cuts having been left out of the tracklist). It grew from my desire to explore the intensity of Black Metal, especially the most recent so-called “Third Wave”, but as the track progresses, it becomes a lot more than that. It’s hard for me to sit down and write something that pulls from a single source… in the end, it feels like a rollercoaster, with ups and downs, intensity and quietness.
The song begins with me using my violin bow on my beloved 1993 Les Paul knock-off, with plenty of distortion, delay and reverb, and then the instrumentation starts pilling up. I’m highly influenced by Progressive music, so instead of starting with a bang, I wanted the listener to be slowly but surely drawn into the record. A friend of mine noted how the Black Metal section that follows seems to be divided in two, which I hadn’t noticed until he told me: the instrumental part has the atmosphere of 21st century Black Metal (with more focus on lower chords), while the second part, featuring the screams and first lyrics of the record, is raw, more high-pitched and frantic (utilizing higher 4-note chords), recalling “Second Wave” Black Metal instead. After that, the curveballs start arriving one by one: an odd time signature section that is more influenced by my love of Hardcore Punk than anything else; a tribal part which allows my Tool fandom to show itself; some quiet ambient guitars to change the pace once more; and from then onward a continuous Post-Metal crescendo that gets more and more intense, until its inevitable collapse. By the time the crescendo was in its final section, I believe I was recording at least eight different guitar tracks, so that it felt really overwhelming.
Lyrically, I was very influenced by my (current, at least) favorite writer, Cormac McCarthy. “The Road” and “Blood Meridian” made me rethink my own writing and want to improve it in every way. Instead of writing the lyrics as poems, for once I wrote them as short texts, like cathartic and emotional declarations of my state of mind at the time. “Cursed to wander through the barren lands of nothingness, in search of something beyond the dusk” is, I think, a lyrical passage that summarizes the beginning of the album’s journey fairly well: the journey of a character whose growing depression changes him/her forever.
I’ve always enjoyed 3/4 guitar riffing, which genres like Post-Metal, Sludge and Stoner often offer beautifully. And while I enjoy composing from a structural point of view, the guitar is still my primary instrument, so I like to give it the attention it deserves. The entire album was written on Drop B tuning, and I feel like there are times on this track where you can really feel that bottom-end coming from the riffs. From this track onward, my synth also starts making some appearances throughout the record.
I recorded a very primal and dissonant “waltzy” riff and then distorted it in post-production to give the feeling of something burning up or being ripped at the seams, before all the instrumentation comes chiming in. There’s a clear division of this song into two halves: on the first one, the emphasis is on the riffing, the lyrics and the rhythm, focusing on dynamics; in the second one, there aren’t any vocals (except in the very last part of the song), and I repeated a single somewhat eerie guitar part and slowly increased the intensity of it through distortion, some minimal effects and more and more instrumentation. There’s also a part that has a very simple “metalcorish” riff that is then slightly deconstructed before the last bit, which is the last instrumental section that pulls from Black Metal (even though my vocals always bear a clear influence from it until the very end of the album).
I based the lyrics of this song upon two things: the biblical prophecy in the book of Joel (verse 2:31) and the Book of Revelation about the sun turning into darkness and the moon into blood, and also the prophecies of John Hagee and Mark Biltz. I absolutely despise religion, but I figured that there was something here that could be of use for the concept and story of the album (the blood moon even makes an appearance on the album’s artwork). Instead of the worldwide collapse that some of these religious nutjobs seem to so eagerly await, here each of the song’s five blood moons represents a stage in the main character’s deterioration through the hands of Nihilus (the album’s embodiment of depression). Self-doubt, paranoia, heartbreak, weariness, slumber, and other elements are mentioned here. By the time the song ends, the character is nearly converted. There’s only one little push left.
THE FIRES OF CONFESSION
I love Hardcore Punk (and Post-Hardcore, and Noise Rock… and many other stylings that spawned from Punk). It’s been a very influential movement for me, from the strong DIY work ethic to Straight Edge culture. I identify with it in many ways, but what made me really love it in the first place was the music, obviously. Converge might have been the first band from Hardcore that I got seriously into, and soon enough a snowball effect kicked in. So I wanted this record to have a vicious, chaotic and “balls to the wall” song in it (though never letting go of experimentalism and a surprise element). And this song was it.
I really had to step up my playing on this one, since it’s way faster than just about anything I’ve ever done. The left hand guitar playing wasn’t all that tough, but the right hand was a nightmare. I was losing my mind during the guitar tracking for this song. There are also some crazy time signatures thrown in there to keep things interesting that took some getting used to, but in the end I was very happy with the results. And similarly to “Blood Moon”, the song is split into two parts: the first one being a very traditional Hardcore and Mathcore affair with frantic drums and maybe some of my most aggressive and animalesque vocals; and the second one slowing things down into this mid-tempo groove that I had originally written for my old band, but then reutilized here, with some melodic and harmonized lead guitars and some pretty, sparkling synths as well. It gets more and more intense until, by the end, it’s just pummeling down on the listener. I love how economic the runtime of the track is, but how it still goes to so many different parts and places.
But while I’d say the instrumental part is fun, the lyrics really aren’t. These might be my most personal lyrics on the record, as they speak directly to some people I used to know well and were very close to me, but I haven’t talked to in a long time and our relationships have disintegrated badly as time went by. I actively isolated myself for a while, in part to focus on this and also because I was not well and needed to figure some things out; but there were other relationships that were doomed and I wanted to save, but couldn’t, for many reasons. But there were things I had to say and had never had the opportunity to… so I let them out on this song.
BLACK HOLE MAN
Fucking hell, what a beast of a track this one is… it’s over fifteen minutes, and it’s the album’s centerpiece. I knew I wanted to have at least one track on the album that would be over ten minutes long, but I really got carried away with this one.
This piece is split into four distinct acts. Act One is anchored by a harmonious and slow guitar passage I wrote a couple of nights before I started recording and developing the song in full, which then grows in intensity progressively until it’s played with distortion. Other instruments start creeping into the frame slowly in Post-Rock fashion, and I do some spoken word over it. The drum patterns then start becoming more complex and some tremolo guitars are introduced, to keep the momentum building. When things finally open up, with the distorted and spaced-out instrumentation, I start screaming. It’s probably one of my favorite moments on the album (though I have many of those). The tempo then changes a bit to 7/8 and the way the instruments play changes slightly too. Then it stops, some slow and delayed clean guitars come in, and that’s the bridge to Act Two, which is the heaviest on the song. I pulled again from Hardcore for the breakneck speed at the start of that act, but then the guitars are played in palm-mute and things become more tense, and eventually chaotic and dissonant again. It’s a wild ride. Act Three changes the pacing of the track completely, focusing more on this repetitive and slowly changing instrumental mantra. The point of it was to feel hypnotic, especially after the onslaught of the previous Act, so that the listener could chill and zone out a bit, to catch the breath back. Act Four brings back the spoken word, which can be heard over some remnants and feedback from the instrumentation in Act Three, as well as a slow and melancholic synthesizer passage below. It started quietly, reached its peak, and then came back down.
The lyrics reveal that the main character’s conversation with Nihilus and the void he/she feels inside has led our protagonist to give in, since (unlike everything else) the depression promised to be there forever. The protagonist realizes there are others doing the same and moving somewhere where they can isolate themselves from the world, and so he does it too, fleeing alone until he/she is stranded and lost, and comes across a cave that is essentially like an abyss (hence the title of the following track).
THE DEEPEST ABYSS
Some of my favorite records end with a colossal, drawn out song that appropriately feels very “final”, and that’s the exact feeling I wanted here. A solid and dark conclusion to a difficult road.
I used my intuition on this one more so than on any other track. The mood and atmosphere of the track had to be perfect, so it was a priority over the flashiness of the playing or the complexity of the writing. There is a ton of cavernous reverb on all the instruments, both from pedals and from post-production, that are intended to make you feel engulfed and suffocated. The screaming takes its time, the guitars drone out when needed, the bass resonates as much as possible, and there are some subtle synths as well. I really love this track. By the end of the track, when the intensity grows and grows, the guitar’s chord progression becomes a little more “open” and grandiose, and the song ends with the feedback from the guitars.
Alas, our protagonist bows down to Nihilus and asks it to be its student: a clone, if you will, to “spread the faith” in the darkness. Having effectively metamorphosed physically, mentally and morally, our protagonist repeats an existential mantra infinitely: “There is a final destination: we walk all over it everyday!“.
Just to conclude: I do believe in the album’s final sentence wholeheartedly. I do not believe in an “afterlife”. And I don’t think that’s so bad of a thing. We were already lucky enough to have won the lottery of birth by being here, so having the conceit to ask it to last forever seems like a bit too much for me. I believe in making our time here count. And while I started Spiralist to help myself, I now want to do it so that I can leave something worthwhile behind, even if it ends up not growing in the hearts of other listeners and only future generations of my family end up listening to it. I believe in creating a legacy, and establishing communication. That is how you cheat true death, and make the world a better place.
Listen to Nihilus in full below.