“This image is something that happens in the world. Religions use children as a weapon of war, and people need to see that. Some religions put bombs on kids! It’s fucked-up!”
To many, the banned front cover of Thy Art Is Murder’s new album is enough to send chills down the spine. To others, it’s a depressing reminder of one of the many gruesome realities this world can offer. Above all else, however, the image of a young, hooded child strapped up with explosives is one that forces us to confront the very real issues that society’s rather complicated relationship with religion continues to harness.
But then, of course, religion and metal itself have rarely been easy bedfellows. From the earliest whiffs of Bible-thumping vitriol unleashed upon a bemused Black Sabbath, to Marilyn Manson’s one-man crusade against the Christian establishment and, perhaps most unexpectedly, the rise of the endlessly prolific Christian metal movement, metal’s relationship with all things God-like has continued to remain a curious affair. What has remained true regardless is that metal is meant to stand for the outsider, the rocker of the status quo and, above all else, a middle finger to anyone or anything that tells us we can’t do something.
Many would perhaps not naturally associate Thy Art Is Murder – a band renowned, albeit totally unfairly, as symbolic of a generation of death metal bands deemed “out of touch” with the scene’s origins and core values – with standing true to metal’s fundamentals. That is about to change.
“This album was designed to cause a commotion,” affirms guitarist Andy Marsh down the phone, no hint of hesitation in his voice. “So far it’s stimulating a lot of really good discussion, which I’m really happy about… and it’s mean-looking!”
When news first broke that Thy Art’s third studio album would a) be titled Holy War and b) be packing artwork that had been banned from front cover usage by retailers, there was suddenly a different kind of attention being afforded to a band that had already been courting mainstream exposure. The cover carries a very real message about the role of religion in today’s world and the atrocities still being carried out in its name. Pertinently, it also highlights the fearlessness with which Thy Art Is Murder go about their business.
“It was pretty logical,” adds Andy of the inspiration behind the photo. “The album’s called Holy War, and there are lots of holy wars going on around the world with kids being roped into being pawns, so it made sense to do something very striking and very clean. We went with a photo to add that level of realism; if we had gone with a drawing, it probably wouldn’t have been that scary. I had to sit through a ton of conference calls with a bunch of suits trying to get it into stores, but no one wanted to touch it.”
And so, under pressure from those pesky suits, Thy Art had a decision to make. Compromise their original vision or risk the message not reaching people at all? Ultimately, they chose to stick the artwork within the album’s inner sleeves, opting for a more ‘shelf-friendly’ take. While it was a halfway point the band were willing to reach, they were determined to not let it ultimately blunt their capacity to address the significant issues that underline much of the material that runs through Holy War’s punishing, 40-minute aural beatdown.
“It’s getting to the point where you can barely criticise religion without being labelled a bigot yourself, which is unfortunate,” Andy notes with a resigned sigh. “It’s slowing down intelligent discussion on the matter. Metal is one of those genres where our message can get out there, and it’s not going to greatly affect us. If a top 40 singer goes out and says something crazy, they’re gonna get shut down by the media and criticised, but we’re lucky in that most metal bands can basically say whatever the fuck they want. Part of the genre is to be ‘offensive’, but if we can shift our lyrical content from being offensive for the sake of it to having more meaning, I think we can use that to start stimulating some more intelligent discussion in the metal community.”
As if to prove the point, the band – rounded out by frontman CJ McMahon, Sean Delander on bass and drummer Lee Stanton – made the decision to post the original album art on their Facebook page, explaining the meaning behind its bold image. As it turns out, they were delighted by what’s happened since.
“We’re having Christian kids, Muslim kids, kids from a variety of different denominations, all having friendly, intelligent discussions about how confrontational the Holy War artwork is,” explains Andy. “They’re having discussions about their own religions and discovering about other people’s religions, and that’s what this record was designed to do. Some people just don’t give a shit; many kids in America are just sitting in the Bible belt, drinking Pepsi and living off an IV drip of fructose corn syrup. They’re not getting an education, so if they like our band, maybe it’ll help them take an interest in something worth researching.”
“Basically, we’re the news for metalheads!” beams CJ with a chuckle, before adding with more sincerity: “It’s something we all feel strongly on. Don’t hate someone because of what they wear or believe or pray to, but don’t be afraid to question things. This is a middle finger in the air, like, ‘Fuck everything and fuck everyone.’ We’re telling it how it is.”
And if you think this particular middle finger is aimed just a bit too squarely towards some religions over others, rest assured: Thy Art Is Murder are equal opportunity offenders when it comes to sticking it to religious oppression.
“Even on a base level, like your grandma at church putting $5 in a collection jar on a Sunday? That money is funnelling its way through a massive organisation immune from most taxation laws around the world,” says Andy when asked about his thoughts on whether religion’s more positive influences balance out its negative impact on the planet. “That organisation is educating people in Africa to not use contraceptives when they’re having sex and spreading HIV. They’re protecting child molesters in the Vatican! That’s where your money’s going when you’re giving it to the church.”
Ultimately, that Thy Art are unafraid to make a vocal stand on religion’s more negative influences is something that deserves kudos. It’s by no means the only subject tackled on Holy War – “There’s some deep shit, some important things that don’t tie into religion or politics,” offers CJ tantalisingly – but it will inevitably be the topic that defines this next phase of the band’s career. Furthermore, their attitude towards ensuring their music is more than the sum of its parts derails any argument that they represent a shallow facet of death metal’s hierarchy.
“It’s beyond me that some bands want to pander to those criticisms,” offers Andy on the subject of his band being ‘tr00’ enough to hang with the underground’s greats. “Why we would give a shit about seven kids spread across the Midwest saying that we’re not ‘true metal’, I don’t know. But we’re slowly becoming more popular to ‘mainstream’ kids that aren’t listening to Behemoth or Cannibal Corpse – they’re listening to Pierce The Veil and Black Veil Brides. They think that’s ‘extreme’ or ‘heavy’, but then they hear us and think, ‘I could get into that as well!’”
“We do appeal to a broader audience,” agrees CJ. “Some guy might wear Nikes and a flat cap and likes death metal, but he can’t go to a death metal show because people think he’s being a poser because he doesn’t have black hair down to his arse. Then there’s probably a death metal kid who wants to go to a hardcore show, but if he goes there, he thinks, ‘They’re gonna pick on me because they’re gonna think I’m a goth.’ Those kids will come and look at us on stage, see some of us in Nikes, some in skinny jeans, some with long hair, some with short hair, some of us being funny and some of us pissed-off. We appeal to everybody because we’re not anybody!”
And that sums up exactly why Thy Art Is Murder are worth giving a shit about. A modern, heavy-as-fuck metal band (and one listen to the fire and rage spewing through Holy War will tell anyone that this is a very fucking heavy band indeed) that are kicking down doors for kids to discover extreme music and keeping metal’s tradition of being loud, proud and vocally against the mainstream alive.
“We actually got offered Warped this year, but we can’t because we’re doing Mayhem,” reveals Andy with a laugh. “We’ve love to go out next year and scare all the pop punk kids!”
Don’t count on them being silenced any time soon.
HOLY WAR IS OUT ON JUNE 29 VIA NUCLEAR BLAST