Reality can often be a bitter pill to swallow and Ukrainian hardcore punk trio Death Pill know this only too well. Formed in 2017, the group had steadily built a reputation in their hometown of Kyiv and were working on their debut album when Russia invaded their country in February 2022.
The band’s world was turned upside down; rather than continuing to produce their debut, their focus instead shifted to that of personal safety and survival. As lead vocalist/guitarist Mariana Navrotskaya’s face freezes onscreen, the Kyiv internet connection staggering, she nonetheless makes the reality of her situation crystal clear.
“When you read the news, you never think that it will be you. We woke up in a nightmare, and we must live in that nightmare.”
“I often hear people say, ‘Oh you’re brothers, you have to live in peace.’ I’m sorry, but it’s bullshit,” drummer Anastasiya Khomenko asserts. “Just imagine for a second that ‘big brother’ comes to your house, he rapes your wife, he kills your son, he skins your dog. He steals all your money and then destroys your entire house. What would you do? Would you punish him, or would you open up your arms and forgive him?”
As the sounds of air alarms and gunshots slowly became ‘the norm’, the trio were forced to disperse - Anastasiya fled to Spain, bassist Natalya Seryakova to Australia and Mariana decided to remain in Kyiv. But while the invasion physically divided the trio, production of their album continued. Understandably, trauma and stinging rage has intensified the band’s feral take on hardcore punk.
“I was living 30km away from Bucha when there was a massacre,” Anastasiya tells us. “Slowly, you get numb to these things… but sometimes I will wake up in the night from the nightmares.”
With a desperate need for catharsis, to howl and scream their lungs raw, every track was remastered to capture their renewed pain. Written before the war, Death Pill’s self-titled debut is as much about personal empowerment as it is about raging against societal ills. From the riot-grrrl-rousing Miss Revolt, to the ex-boyfriend-bashing of Расцарапаю Ебало (beautifully translated as ‘Scratch Asshole’), to It’s A Joke’s bitter discussion of victims of violence and abuse, the band stayed focused on the bigger picture even as the war up-ended their daily lives.
“The war doesn’t make our other problems unimportant. Everything we go through is still important,” Natalya emphasises. “With our music, there are no flowers, no sunshine - just real life,” Mariana explains.
Released on February 24, 2023 – a year to the day since Russia invaded Ukraine – every track of Death Pill’s debut is a reflection of the band’s irrepressible will. Tracks churn and rage as growling breakdowns clash with broiling basslines, Death Pill taking the proto-thrash sensibilities of hardcore punk pioneers Discharge and adding the spikiness and unfiltered fury of early black metal. In turn, their geographical separation has also intensified their desire to get out into the world.
“Moving to Europe has actually been very interesting; I have had situations where you can see people thinking ‘Stop telling me about this, I can’t handle it,’” Anastasiya explains. “I know that people may never understand - and I’m happy for them, I really am. Ukrainians - we’re traumatised. But we need people to listen. Russia will not stop in Ukraine. They will destroy us and then go to Latvia, to Lithuania, and so on. Everyone is in danger.”
While Death Pill believe it is their duty to speak up and share the realities of war with the world, they don’t want that to define them as a band, or as individuals. As Natalya puts it, “Why should war be the most important thing that’s happened with us? Sometimes, it can be exhausting,” she reflects. “Every time I buy something in a supermarket, I get asked, ‘Where is your accent from?’ and when I say Ukraine, they can’t stop apologising. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. So sorry…’ They don’t know what to say. The conversation just stops. And it’s like, ‘Just give me my fucking bread!’”
This brazen, brutal candidness is what Death Pill are all about. While this may ruffle a few feathers, that’s pretty much exactly what the trio want, their riling, outspoken ‘riot grrrl’ ethos standing loud and proud against anyone who’d try to deny them agency. “Every crowd will have one person who doesn’t like what we have to say… and it just makes us want to play even louder,” Natalya says with a laugh.
It’s an admirable goal, but one the band have often fought for alone. Mariana reveals that before Death Pill’s formation, there weren’t many other all-female groups they could look up to, particularly in their home scene of Kyiv. In turn, they really feel like their presence in the scene has helped inspire other women to form bands. “We wanted to show the world that being a woman doesn’t stop you from making heavy, heavy music,” Anastasiya says.
War may have changed the trio forever, but they won’t let it control their lives or stop them doing what they love: making heavy music and inspiring other women to do the same. “We are not who we were before; we will have this trauma for our whole lives. But we will handle it,” Anastasiya says. “Because we are strong.”
Death Pill's self-titled debut album is out now.