Deepest gratitude to El Negro Metal for allowing Hate Meditations to publish the English language version of this interview with Josiah Domico of Polemicist. You can find the original version of the interview here, along with other great articles on underground metal.
Judging from the first impressions, your second album sounds quite different from the first, in spite of the natural continuity, which in my opinion is undoubtedly a good thing. What can you tell us about the origin of these songs? Were they envisioned as a more ambitious follow-up to Zarathustrian Impressions or rather as a different direction for the band?
JD: The production is clearer and fuller, people seem to notice that immediately. Most of this album was written in Fall 2019, which was an active time for the band, as Zarathustrian Impressions was released late August 2019. We wanted a continuation of the best aspects of Zarathustrian Impressions, but also to succeed in the places we thought we sold ourselves short. I think with Return of the Sophist we achieved a methodology of bending and marrying genres, instead of having songs that lean one way or another. The approach now is more holistic.
The music for the record was written in full without any lyrics in mind. The final concept ended up growing into something completely different than the first ideas I wrote down. The music-writing-flow of the album was disrupted by natural events, but the direction we aimed for remained intact, the result was something much tighter and shorter than we expected.
One of the main differences in this new album is obviously the inclusion of Pendath from Mefitis, who recorded drums and keyboards, among other contributions. How was the process of involving him in the recording? Did he contribute to the actual compositions or just help with more secondary matters?
JD: It turns out though we didn’t know each other before, that we were both fans of each other’s work. The process was as simple as asking him if he wanted to play drums. He very enthusiastically agreed and worked diligently to both map out the percussion and record the final product. We brought Pendath the material completely composed, so his work on this record more so dealt with arrangement, when it comes to the electric guitar-based tracks. In addition to the above, he also performed some acoustic guitar and clean vocals, and created an album introduction based off of a motif of mine, and the interlude “The Delphic Temple Part III”, based on some motifs by Lydia.
The arrangements seem also more developed and complex, and suit very well the music in terms of variety and completeness. Was that a conscious choice while creating the music or did it just happen during the recording process?
JD: The arrangements are more developed and complex. The continuity somewhat adheres to Side B of Zarathustrian Impressions. Lydia and I brought Pendath the arranged guitars, but he deepened the overall arrangements with his intricate polyrhythmic drumming and atmospheric keyboards. Keyboards/synths on the record are all played by Pendath, but we used it sparingly. Overall, we wanted to present a more developed vision of Polemicist, to show growth. It all happened very naturally through focus.
Your new record impressed me by featuring a deepened version of the narrative approach found on your debut. The progressions are more manifest and there is more variety inside of each track, despite keeping perfect cohesion. Would you say this is a result of a more mature approach, or rather a change in the way you create music?
JD: Perhaps both. I’ve grown as a musician since the first recording. These recordings are improved in every single area. Lydia and I are much tighter as a unit. We take Polemicist very seriously, including the task of honing in on what makes our togetherness unique. We pay close attention to every musical detail and try to adhere to the whole.
I also found that the new tracks are more compact and even shorter than the older ones, although they generally feature a similar or even higher degree of content. Did you consciously strive towards concision, or is it a virtue that just came along the way?
JD: These tracks are shorter and denser than the tracks found on our debut. We wanted it to be more musical, to contain more layers. We wanted to adhere to the musical story more than tying together loose anthems. This approach could be considered similar to the true Symphonic Metal works like early Emperor, who also take influence from symphony works by orchestras, developing themes and motifs without repeating ourselves. Symphonic too-often is mistaken for “orchestral-sounding”.
However, I would like to someday really experiment with longer form track lengths. I don’t think longer necessarily equals more important or more epic. We only want to say musically what is necessary at that point in time of conception.
If I am not mistaken, I have the impression that Polemicist works as a duo of guitarists who contribute in almost equal measure to the project. That’s quite far from the usual scheme of a single mastermind that seems to prevail in most bands. What can you tell us about your composition process? Do you create and jam together or develop instead individual outputs that are later fit together into songs?
JD: Lydia and I have written some songs together in the same room in time. We don’t jam in a typical Diatonic Rock sense, though we have done that and that can be fun. We love Instrumental Rock, but that is beyond the scope of Polemicist.
The usual scheme is that I present Lydia with a skeleton and she adds to it. Sometimes we work independently and bring each other what we have and sometimes we work closely enough to string skeletons together. Sometimes awesome “parts” that one or both of us have written for a different context are strong enough to be remembered for a more relevant context where they fit better.
As far as your artistic vision is concerned, I would say you are more focused on compositive cohesion than innovation in terms of style. Do you consider yourselves to be “traditionalists”, that is, thoroughly faithful to the styles of old, or do you simply feel comfortable inside older stylistic models you don’t feel the need to alter too much?
JD: All artists should at some point engage intensely with tradition. Then it may be best for each artist to ‘forget’ their training in order to avoid simply copying the past. I take in a lot of different music but I am drawn just as much to the primitive as to the avant-garde. I’d like to think Polemicist is forward-thinking, but we are worshippers of analogue formats and historical approaches to Metal. As a unit and vision, Polemicist derives from Heavy Metal and Extreme Metal, but of course we represent the more melodic side of things. Innovation is important, but usually those who claim to be innovative have done what we are doing, which is simply deepening the language in a coherent way. We’re not hanging a toilet upside down or re-inventing the wheel with this record. As Polemicist continues to develop maybe we will get to that point, but I’ll continue to work just as hard in my way, no matter what journalistic considerations are unconcealed.
Re-reading your 2019 interview for deathmetal.org, I came across some quite enthusiastic words about your view on live performances. Excluding the obvious inactivity in later times, I guess you consider concerts an important part of a band’s offering. Is it a chance to prove your real value as musicians or rather a way to present your material under a different, complementary light?
JD: I think live shows are a great way to demonstrate talent and gravitas. I think many once-skeptics have been turned into fans by any band x in Metal, after witnessing a sick set. It’s overwhelming to think how many actually awesome live bands there are in Metal. I think that the live aspect of Metal is one of its most important traditions. It is cool to be in a different environment than one’s own comfort zone to experience Metal. The most academic listen is headphones or studio monitors in otherwise silence, of course. But experiencing the music live, seeing it really brought to life really gives the music just as much meaning. Similarly, I love to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct Stravinsky pieces rather than never see those pieces performed live again, simply because Stravinsky has departed. There is something to be said about enjoying the personal experience of listening to an important Black Metal album, alone without intruding voices. I don’t think that is the full-scope or goal of many bands. Polemicist can be enjoyed alone with tea or live with libations. Results may vary.
After approaching Nietzsche on Zarathustrian Impressions, for your new album you focus on Socrates. Both were philosophers that faced incomprehension and reject in their lifetime, and could be considered rebels and nonconformists in a way, yet they are undoubtedly also two of the pillars of western philosophy. What does this dichotomy say about them both and also about your affinity for both figures?
JD: Nietzsche’s work sort of opened up a rhetorical space in order to address the dead and ‘dogmatic’ philosophers of old. Yet, there is still a reverence for great minds, even if we want to argue as thinkers against those minds. Nietzsche brought Philosophy back to lived experience. Plato’s dialogues use Socrates to demonstrate immutable truths of all time that lured many a thinker into cloister life or academic life. I think Nietzsche wanted his philosophers of the future to be effective in their every-day being. To live in the world and experiment. I say this without trying to inject Phenomenology anachronistically into his thought. Nietzsche, due to social alienation and illness, was not able to take this sort of command in his own life. So a true Nietzschean follower has to make their own path. Ludwig Wittgenstein perfectly elucidates this with his quote at the end of his Analytic Philosophy masterpiece Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw the ladder away after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the whole world aright”. People think of Philosophers as Authoritarians, but those just know thought in the way we Metalheads know music.
Nietzsche’s criticisms of both Socrates and Plato are contained in Twilight of the Idols and Beyond Good and Evil. His criticisms aside, Socrates was a fascinating figure who should be heralded for all time. Socrates was considered wise by many, but he rejected the ability of those people to even be able to call him wise, because most of their daily assertions were unfounded statements that held no ground. We see this daily on social media. I’m not saying that only scientists and people who have studied philosophy should be able to speak. As a species, we don’t know as much as we think we do. We all have our metaphorical cave that we must leave behind. Socrates would challenge these individuals not with symbolic action but with the spoken word. Not out of maliciousness, but out of a need to get to the bottom of certain matters, to clarify confused conversations. We take information as granted now that Google has replaced the Oracles of Old. We shouldn’t become fully irrational, though the Dionysian side to things is just as important as its Scientific and Mathematical counterpart. Yin and Yang. There is no reason we shouldn’t all get our shit together intellectually and realize that there are more questions and answers than what influencers tell us what is important.
In contrast to your previous album, the lyrics are not what one would call “impressions”, but actually tell a whole story from start to end. Did you set out to create a concept album from the beginning or is it something that appeared during the process?
JD: To first answer the question: as I alluded to earlier, I had an initial concept in mind that eventually grew and grew into something much bigger in scope. I wanted to work out a concept on adversarial culture in Philosophy, but the ideas were too dry. After all, Polemicist is also just as much into Mythology, as Philosophy. After speaking with a fellow Hessian about some of his musical ideas with lyrics, I was reminded of Socrates telling of Chaerephon going to The Oracle at Delphi, in the dialogue The Apology. So, I decided to make a synthetic version of this tale, since Socrates is the ultimate Adversarialist.
To elaborate: In our modern world where EVERYONE claims to have the answers, and most people are probably wrong, the blind leading the blind… It seemed important to recall Ancient views of Epistemology. Perhaps this is because I had too much time on my hands while conceptualizing the lyrics, as the music was long-finished. On a more serious note, I think there’s something about Ancient Philosophy that still has messages for all (and none) about living in the world. It’s not just religion as many people seem to think. Otherwise, there’s more than The Western Perspective of Philosophy in the World of Thought, but Socrates is such a powerful mythical figure, and many of us who are into (or were once into) philosophy, find that there’s still plenty to learn from reading Ancient and Medieval texts, even if it doesn’t directly mirror the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter world we live in today.
To go back to the question: I wanted to turn this short mention from The Apology into a synthetic story. The narrative is mostly from the perspective of Chaerephon, the man who went to the Oracle to see who the wisest man in the world was. She said Socrates. After Chaerephon hears this answer, the last track “Hemlock”, goes to the Socratic perspective. Democracy killed Socrates because he questioned the social illusions that now dominate modernity. The track, then, is about the hemlock that he was forced to drink, or that anyone who questioned the status quo after him was forced to metaphorically drink. I didn’t do this from a dry perspective. I took liberties, but I honor the culture of Philosophy, even if most of the world thinks it is pointless, religious or can’t find time to read a non-fiction book. This album has a much more mythological vibe, since I’m not talking about the philosophy, but rather the story behind a certain philosophical age. There’s the Pre-Socrates, there’s Socrates, and there’s everything since.
Once again, I’m surprised to see your lyrics are rather intelligible, which is quite a rarity for a metal band dealing with philosophical topics. Do you think metal is a music genre apt to make its listeners think about real world or daily life issues rather than taking them to imaginary worlds or otherworldly states of mind?
JD: I think there is Metal that deals with Reality and Metal that deals with Escapism. Black Metal, in its (usually) rejection of modernity, is far more prone to escapism. That’s what I love about the genre, though I’ve enjoyed stuff that doesn’t fall under that paradigm. But I think many Metal bands house reality and escapism under the same album many times (“War Pigs” and “Iron Man”), though there are some bands that choose to eschew escapism and imagination entirely, at least lyrically. For this album, I found guidance under the aesthetic “Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense” adopted by early Nietzsche. I wanted to tell about this story, without having an absolutist position on it. I am giving my perspective as an artist the way I would tell villagers this story, as an old hermit with a lyre. Ultimately, people need to come to their own rational (and sometimes irrational) conclusions about what they think or care about or choose to believe in.
Cold-hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the colours from our sight
Red is grey is yellow white
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion
For all your different features as a band which we discussed above, I would say Polemicist is a one of a kind band in many aspects, even inside the extreme metal realm. Do you feel you are some kind of outcasts when compared to the metal scene at large, or do you just happen to be a band with personality and a unique approach that differs thus from the rest?
JD: That is a very kind thing to say. I can’t provide much insight on this topic, but as a social outcast, that notion is projected into my art as well. We certainly have plenty of personality and we try and be as unique as possible. I think our view of ourselves as full-time musicians even into our 30s, makes us take what we do really seriously. We hold ourselves accountable to ourselves to deliver the best possible product no matter what. It’s not about either rushing or taking our time, it’s about staying true to the vision at all costs, even as the vision evolves around us and we try to make sense of it.
For several decades now, metal values have been clearly at odds with the values popular in the western world. Would you say metal is a refuge for those striving towards freedom of thought and action, or could it also be a powerful tool for changing society and the world as a whole?
JD: Metal can be a refuge for those striving towards freedom of thought and action. It isn’t always, since rules that were invented by children often prevail. The cold fact is that Metal isn’t just for the kids anymore. Many of its major players are mature adults. There is so much diversity in Metal, which is reinvigorating in many ways. It is fantastic to know people from all over the globe, as many people in our own backyards are close-minded against Metal. I got into Metal for Unity, but all I see is a lot of division.
I don’t think the musician and artist lifestyle is always associated with role models. I can’t say I’d make a good role model. But I think it’s my duty as an artist in a declining civilization to point to the best aspects of humanity, whether my listener already knows these things or not. I think the artist should lead some astray from their every-day thought and action, or at least cause the audience to challenge themselves in ways that they may or may not have done on their own.
I’d like to think that Metal can inspire men and women to take action in their communities. But this means different things to different people. Preserving the arts for generations to come is noble whether Metal is directly involved in shaping future leaders or not.
Thanks to El Negro Metal for this interview. And thanks for giving me a platform to speak in an age of “Shut Up and Play”.
Polemicist: Return of the Sophist is on Hessian Firm on 25th June 2021