Insect Ark's Take on Metal Is Still a Beautiful Experiment
Stream the Portland-slash-NYC experimental metal duo's new album, 'Marrow Hymns' and read bassist Dana Schechter's thoughts on tough times and guitar-free metal.
Photo by Rennie Elliot
While you can set your sights on the stars, there’s something to be said for exploration that grounds itself by opting for a very limited set of parameters. Think of Earth thrumming the unholy shit out of a handful of deconstructed Sabbath notions, Raymond Carver whittling down his sentences until they gleam or, heck, Dr Seuss taking a bet that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 words. Insect Ark, it seems, come from the same school of thought, constructing a series of self-imposed blockades, hurdles and logistical traps that would make most artists run screaming into the night.
Instead, the duo of Dana Schechter (rumbling bass; mournful lap steel) and Ashley Spungin (cavernous drums; crackling homemade electronics) turn adversity into triumph, forging a bleak, blasted brand of instrumental ambience that has found an equally happy home with UK-based micro label Lancashire & Somerset (home to the ever-excellent Enablers) as experimental lodestone Utech or the blown-out, art-fucked realm of Sleeping Giant Glossolalia.
Their strange, wandering trajectory now finds them releasing the vast and densely-woven Marrow Hymns with avant-metal lynchpin Profound Lore—a fittingly strange home for a fittingly strange band whose story takes in everything from thrash metal primitivism to the fine art of being alone and, ultimately, the urge to create something meaningful in a frequently meaningless.
“It was about going against what I’d come from, which was a band where I was the singer, the main composer and the band leader,” explains Schechter. She’d returned to New York from Berlin, aiming to shuck off the trappings a ‘proper’ band and starting anew with an entirely blank canvas. “The goal was to make something that was straight out of my brain and to let it run,” she says. “I come from a metal background so I wanted to tap into that idea of strength and sonic obliteration. I grew up in the thrash metal scene. I’m going to be dating myself, but whatever, I was there when Metallica and Slayer and Exodus and all those bands were just getting their feet wet—I’d see them playing teeny-tiny clubs and watch them explode. It was amazing to witness.”
If this love of heavy metal was influential in terms of Insect Ark’s sense of obliterative primality, it was also important in terms of what would be absent. “The main thing for me was no guitar,” says Schechter. “There couldn’t be a normal electric guitar, because I didn’t want it to sound like anything else. I thought that if you removed the most obvious thing, the most defining thing about rock music, and find another way to represent it in a composition, right away you’re going to have something unfamiliar.”
While still anchored by looming bass notes, it’s perhaps the incongruous use of lap steel – that instrument so beloved of heart-bruised country stars and Hawaiian musos – that lends Insect Ark such a hauntingly individual edge, both cutting through and helping to forge the band’s strange, desolate mournscapes.
“I went to my local music store and they were having a sale,” is Schechter’s humorously dry response as to how she came by the instrument. “I’d heard people like Christoph Hahn [Schechter’s friend and Angels Of Light bandmate] using it in unorthodox fashion so it was on my radar, especially since I knew it could sound like a dying animal or a train crashing, and that seemed like a good thing to go for. Also I didn’t know how to play it, which really kinda fit with the whole spirit of the thing: let’s see what the hell happens here. The lap steel guitar is incredible because you can coax so many different sounds out of it, but one thing you can’t really do is riff. It’s complicated, because I like riffs, so it really made me find different ways to compose music and still have it be heavy.”
The more you talk to her, the more you get the sense that challenge, quiet obstinacy and the determination to start afresh are a big part of what makes Schechter tick. “It fit into the idea exploring the unknown,” she says of building a band’s sound around an unfamiliar instrument. “It was liberating, and because it was something new it felt like I wouldn’t be able to revert to anything. Because when we make anything, we repeat ourselves. It’s inevitable. But it felt like, well, there’s nothing to repeat here!”
This sense of pushing forward into the new regardless of consequence, inconvenience or impracticality seems to be borne out in ever layer of the band’s work, be it the inclusion of the warped, one-off sounds Spungin brings to the table via her own ORMUS Electronics creations or the simple fact that Insect Ark’s two-piece set-up means logistical pitfalls are inevitable. “The most challenging thing has been not figuring out how to play bass and lap steel at the same time,” quips Schechter. “That and that I haven’t grown an extra pair of arms yet.”
Schechter describes Marrow Hymns as “the amalgamation of a year and a half of pretty trying personal stuff” for herself and Spungin. “I won’t speak for Ashley, but we were both struggling through these existential crises,” she says. “It made me focus inward, which can almost be a good thing when you’re doing creative work, but it can also blindside you to the point where you’re staring off into the corner of the room when you should actually be working. I did a lot of that. We did the basic sessions in two chunks, and after the first it took six months to record the other three songs. I would sit down to work and nothing would come out. I had a lot of pretty significant personal changes in my life around that time, and I think you can kind of hear that.”
Indeed, Marrow Hymns definitely sounds like a record born of tough times, easing its way under your skin before slowly beginning to burn. It’s possessed of a sense of loneliness and isolation which is mirrored—and perhaps compounded—by Schechter’s closed-off dayjob and the geographical distance between the band’s two halves. “We’re both loners that like some people,” Schechter laughs when asked how this psychic remove either seeps into or reflects the duo and the music they make. “I’m pretty friendly generally, but my main dayjob is doing computer animation for films and television,” she says. “For the past 10 years I’ve worked from my own studio, so I do spend a lot of time by myself, and I work really well alone.”
It sounds moot as to whether things would even be different if she and Spungin actually lived in the same city, but as it stands it leads to a needs-must approach to work, art and existence. “I do everything on my own because it needs to be done and there’s no one else to do it. It’s the DIY ethic, where I want this thing done, or I want to learn how to play this instrument, or I want to fix this piece of broken equipment so I’m just going to figure it out. So while it’s maybe a bit weird for people to be that independent or that isolated, it does end up in the music or the art. And then there’s also the wider question: because the aloneness or the isolation comes first, that has to be the standard. Everything else is filtered through it, because that’s your reality. Right?”
Given these themes of isolation and detachment and the psychic lows surrounding the album, it seems natural to ask Schechter how she managed to push through the negativity and ensure Marrow Hymns actually saw the light of day. Her answer is insightful, but also also treads a fine line between inspirational and fist-gnawingly stressful for those of us who are inclined to curl up into a foetal ball rather than make any kind of major life decision.
“I’m really interested, as a human on Earth, in evolving, and not staying the same or recycling,” she says. “The planet is pretty fucked up and society is all over the place, and we don’t know what’s going to happen, so in order to not feel like I’ve wasted my time here I’m really driven to evolve. To have this lifestyle, I’ve given up stability and a lot of the things that people value, like owning a car, owning a house, having a family or having a savings account. But I feel like I’ve worked really hard to set things up so that I can do what I want, and that’s to make art. So if I don’t make the art then I’m failing myself and I’m letting myself down, so I have to keep pushing.”
Buy Marrow Hymns here.
Alex Deller is floating on Twitter,