So Near The Sky – Hel Sterne and Tom McKibbin of Undersmile

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So, you tell a band that the only thing you haven’t heard of theirs is their debut EP… and they tell you that they’re about to re-release it. A Sea of Dead Snakes (Blindsight) was very Grunge influenced” states Tom McKibbin, drummer with Oxfordshire Drone quartet Undersmile, “and we’ve gone down a much more dirge-infested road since then! We’ve just had another re-pressing done, and given it a purple tint. It’s our ‘Ribena’ edition! It’ll be going out in November, as that’ll be five years since it first came out.”

The band, comprising two couples, has had a number of experiences in their relatively short existence: “We were so disliked in the beginning; we’ve cleared many gigs before now, particularly playing in Oxford!” Tom muses. “Initially you tend to get thrown onto weird, eclectic bills where you don’t belong. One was a Gay Pride gig where they cut the electricity!”

“They came to us and said ‘Stop! You’re making everyone leave!” continues rhythm guitarist / vocalist and Tom’s partner, Hel Sterne, “We couldn’t believe it. Then on came Sassy Ribbons, a drag act…”

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The band’s second album, Anhedonia (Black Bow Records), has been out some months and has met with serious acclaim. Tom is enthusiastic about the reaction: “It’s been really great. The weirdest thing is that it was album of the month in Terrorizer, which you normally feel is reserved for Metallica or Slayer!”

The inclusion of cello on certain tracks has been considered a vital ingredient by many of the album’s admirers: “Taz [Corona-Brown, guitarist / vocalist] and I have always been obsessed with cello”, states Hel.

“We both have similar feelings about melodies, so it was basically something that had to happen. Our cellist Jo Quail is very talented: we told her to just do what she felt, and she did. She just went into that sombre zone which is where we like to lurk!”

There’s a wonderful blend of light and the disturbingly dark in Anhedonia, something that the band are aware of: “It was necessary in order to translate the amount of heartbreak that was intended in some of the songs”, Hel thoughtfully explains. “Some of those things, however, refer to other, nicer times. It’s so important to have contrast.”

“As long as I’ve known Hel and Taz, they’ve naturally gravitated to this close-harmony, slightly discordant edge” Tom feels. “As they’re the main songwriters, that’s what comes out in the music, and Olly [Corona-Brown, bassist] and I just try to bring it along. The Drone influence of Undersmile actually came from loads of different areas: Classical, Indian, Shoegaze, through The Melvins and Earth; but this time we wanted a more dynamic range. It’s nice to get these really clean chords – it has the same effect but with a cleaner, crisper sound. It can still be as mournful as it is with the distortion.”

“I think it can be more mournful” rejoins Hel. “Some people listen to music like that because they find it medicinal, purifying, even though it’s filthy, and I completely understand that. I listen to brainwave entrainment a lot, and I find a similar ‘cocooning’ thing in there too.”

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The band is now with Black Bow Records after releasing stuff on a whole host of labels. “We recorded at Skyhammer, Jon Davis’ (Black Bow founder and Conan leader) studio,” Tom acknowledges. “Jon offered to put Anhedonia out in time for Roadburn, which was really important for us. He’s well-connected of course, people are really interested in what he’s doing, and so that was it. We did our parts over four days; then it was all mixed in sixteen hours’ straight with Chris (Fielding, producer and Conan bassist) who managed to get such a wonderful, natural guitar sound. Obviously we’d be interested in working with Jon again, but it’s just whoever is interested in working with us really. In the past it’s been as a result of friends asking us if they can put stuff out, or friends we’ve made by putting stuff out. They’re all good people.”

Undersmile played two big sets at Roadburn this year – one as themselves, the other as their more acoustic, ‘Grunge Unplugged’ alter-ego Coma Wall – and has two more big sets to come in November. Tom explains further: “We’re playing the memorial gig for Grimpen Mire’s Paul van Linden, who sadly passed away in June. We knew he’d been unwell but his death was still a massive shock. We did a mini-tour with them, Conan and Serpent Venom a couple of years ago and we all got on so well: Paul was always such a lovely guy each time we met. So we’re really honoured to be a part of that. Damnation Festival just came up quite recently. It’s something we’ve wanted to play for a while so it was a ‘no-brainer’, but once we saw the line-up it was incredible! We’re on quite early in the day, so we’ve got the rest of the day to enjoy the music and get drunk!”

So, do the couples ever take a break from each other?! “We have this year, post-Roadburn!” confirms Hel. “We’re all just so busy: there are Taz and Olly’s family commitments; we’ve just moved house; I run an acupuncture clinic and Tom is very career-focused at present; we’ve a lot of material for Coma Wall…with all that, we’re really having to ‘cherry-pick’ gigs. We did realise that we were spending so much time just working – Taz and I are best friends – and we thought ‘when do we actually make time to just go out and do ‘friend’ things?”

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Finishing with another exclusive for Ghost Cult, Hel explains the band’s latest foray into the visual world: “We’ve just finished shooting a video for the Anhedonia track ‘Sky Burial’. So that’ll be two music videos this year!” she laughs.

Stardom? Probably not, but there’s certainly no doubt that the star of this incredibly hard-working, creative and crushing unit is well and truly on the rise.

 

 

WORDS BY PAUL QUINN

Undersmile – Anhedonia

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There’s something unnervingly sweet and endearing about Oxford quartet Undersmile. Comprising two very loved-up couples, there’s also a folkish offshoot, Coma Wall; and a winsome charm to Taz Corona-Brown and Hel Sterne, the female half of the outfit, which belies their stage personae as zombiefied, brutally-defiled dolls. But the music…

The band’s torturously slow style is given a creepy quality by the ladies’ dual vocals: drawled intonations, atonal yet harmonic; expiring breaths emanating from the diseased, throttled, heavily-painted mouths. Near-feathered drums and thrumming bass notes accompany at a measured pace. Sound dull? Far from it. Anhedonia (Black Bow Records) is bloody hypnotic, because you’re waiting for the explosion; a squealing lead winding itself around booming yet crawling rhythms, riffs to crush buildings and barking screams that chill the soul.

The sorrowful opening to ‘Sky Burial’ houses the first employment of the cello which has so awakened the already urgent yet pregnant Undersmile sound, adding a SubRosa-esque quality which is the jigsaw’s missing piece. The accompanying latent chants keep the attention firmly fixed until the brief but spectacular shows of savagery, full of the weight and anger of a protective bull elephant, burst forth. This is the only track to fall under ten minutes, so the uninitiated may feel more comfortable bringing butties and a flask. The already converted, however, will have no such need.

The voices of ‘Song of Stones’ are delicate, honeyed yet shamanic incantations befitting the subject matter, enlivened by brief yet poignant cello/lead duets toward the apocalyptic, brain-dissolving convergence of power. Utterly terrifying Sludge sequences within ‘Atacama Sunburn’ complement the eerie, ghoulish softness and closing melancholy they counter; whilst that folk link is evident in the highly charged, mournful crush of the incredible ‘Aeris’.

Despite the more ponderous sound being the template this is haunting, sinister, sometimes brutal yet downright sexy stuff. It boots debut full-length Narwhal (Future Noise) to the sidelines with its increased flow and depth, and will ensnare the senses of all who encounter it. The hostile quickening and psychotic intonations of metronomic closer ‘Knucklesucker’ is a boiling coda to a remarkable achievement.

8.5/10

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PAUL QUINN