Brutal is a word bandied around a lot in the metal community, but brutality shouldn’t necessarily be measured by plain old heaviness or technical ability alone. There are plenty of bands that are barbaric, unrelentingly callous and cold, but aside from a certain weight there’s often little else except vacuous clatter. Not that I’m disparaging noise for noise’s sake. I’ve got plenty of mindlessly battering artists in my own music collection and I love them—who gives a fuck if it’s asinine, or even poorly recorded, blasting noise is psychologically essential, visceral, and just plain fun—but more often than not metal bands rise to the top because of distinct lyrical viewpoints, be they political, religious or social in nature. Would Napalm Death or Watain have made such an impact if not for their specifically subjective and enthusiastic narrative focus? I’ll leave that for you to answer, but let’s just agree for a moment that real brutality occurs when a band synchronises a set of mountainous riffs with an impassioned, overpowering message. Let me welcome you to the truly brutal world of The Mark Of Man.
Featuring former and current members of New Zealand’s hardcore and metal elite, The Mark Of Man released their debut in late 2010. A fiery album of melodic technical death metal, with plenty of thrashing hardcore attitude to boot, it is an unashamedly confrontational release, serving as a blistering call to arms. With an all-vegan, socially conscious lineup, the band are steadfast in highlighting what they perceive to be the callous indifference of the modern world. During some downtime before they began the recording process for their sophomore release, I discussed their first album with vocalist Ben Read, formerly of Ulcerate and 8 Foot Sativa.
After death metal stalwarts 8 Foot went into extended hiatus due to ongoing medical issues for guitarist Gary Smith, Ben gathered the remaining crew together and immediately set out on a new path. Christian Humphreys was on guitar, Steve Boag on bass and Corey Friedlander on drums. “The four of us knew exactly what we wanted to do,” said Ben. “Start fresh, with an image and identity of our own, focused on writing music that we would want to listen to, to bring animal rights to the forefront of our ethos.” Determined to expose their views on animal exploitation, completing the band with the right guitarist was crucial. “There is no way I could express what I wanted to without knowing all of my band were right behind me. Luckily for us, we found a fantastic fifth member in Andhe Chandler, who is a kick-ass guitarist and vegan to boot.”
The band has a wealth of metal and hardcore experience—members have played in acts such as Day One, Sinate and In Dread Response—but despite the New Zealand metallic history there’s an unmistakable European veneer to the album, albeit one filtered through the lens of southern hemisphere concerns. Their debut’s complex, polyrhythmic, downtuned flourishes, crunchy production and themes of social frustration are tagged with a desire to ethically awaken the listener. This, paired with an unrelentingly aggressiveness, is evocative of other trailblazing acts such as Germany’s Heaven Shall Burn, or France’s Gojira.
Given the range of musical backgrounds in the band, I was curious to know how their sound developed. “We all have very diverse backgrounds and tastes within the metal spectrum,” explained Ben. “But there are also other flavours too—elements of Christian’s hardcore musical background, Corey’s creative ideas, and I cut my teeth on death metal and hardcore bands. I guess you can hear that on the album. Our past has somewhat shaped our sound, but I think the next album will really define who we are as a band.”
Production duties on the debut were handled by Deadboy Records’ founder and former Bleeders frontman Zorran Mendosa. Through his work with Subtract and Cobra Kahn, and as production assistant to masterful Swedes Pelle Henrickson and Eskil Lovestrom, Mendosa is no stranger to capturing technical fluidity and intricate pitches and swerves, or nailing harrowing gravelled vocals. And the decision to also invite Sweden’s legendary Peter In de Betou to master the album was genius. “Mastering with Peter was all Andhe’s doing,” Ben explained. “He was working with Peter on another project and decided to send Peter some of our tracks. He loved the material… and so we decided to go with him. I mean, as far as our type of music goes, it doesn’t get much better—the guy has mixed Arch Enemy, Dimmu Borgir and Meshuggah!”
Being understood as a band with a message is imperative. “It is something that is The Mark of Man and will always be. I realise it can be polarising, but so be it. We are no strangers to being ostracised for our beliefs. To be honest, it just comes naturally to me. Something Peter Dolving [The Haunted] once said sums it up for me: ‘If you aren’t angry, what are you screaming about?’”
Of course, this raises an obvious issue. Lyrics haven’t always been metal’s strongest selling point over the years, with albums often being more cathartic than enlightening. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; metal is the perfect vehicle for pounding out your frustrations. But by giving equal importance to the sonic and lyrical aspects of the album, the band does show a healthy respect for the intelligence of their audience. They recognise that metal fans are happy to invest time in an album, and are smart enough to tune into more than just noise. As Ben notes, if you’ve got the opportunity, why not use it? “For me, what gets me angry is injustice. I have always written about social, ethical and political issues, because that’s what makes me want to scream my lungs out. I’d be a fool to waste [my time] singing about nonsense. For every person that thinks we are pussies for whining about animals, there is someone that is open minded enough to listen. For us, that is more than enough motivation.”
Motivation is of course the keyword, because the album is uncompromising, and what motivates and aggravates The Mark of Man might completely turn you off. But according to Ben, that’s just fine. “We are totally happy for people to take the album as nothing more than a killer metal record. We are grateful for that. I mean, music has to be at the forefront!” And there’s an honest pragmatism from the band too. “At the end of the day, we are all metal heads and love playing this music. So if someone just wants to listen to the music and not the message that’s cool. Of course, if people read the lyrics and want to delve further, then that’s fantastic. The amount of people that have contacted us to say that we have helped open their eyes to reality is amazing. It’s truly humbling, and makes me so grateful that I have the opportunity to present my ideas to people through a medium I love.”
The clearest visualisation of The Mark of Man’s concerns is the video for Definitions, the second single from their album. After watching all four minutes, there’s no doubting where they stand. “We are disconnected from each other, from what is going on in the rest of the world… from the consequences of each and every action,” explains Ben. “I don’t blame people for this… you aren’t meant to see what goes on behind the scenes.” The video contains images spliced from the award-winning documentary Earthlings, a film Ben says is known as “the vegan-maker, for its ability to turn people vegan.” The video for Definitions is hard to watch, and was harder still to make. “It was an extremely difficult process emotionally for me, and left me pretty numb for a while. The feedback has been overwhelming for the most part—so many people have told us how it really opened their eyes to the truth. There has been a bit of negative feedback, but that’s to be expected. It is a tall order to ask people to throw a whole life’s worth of beliefs and routine into question, and I applaud anyone that has the courage to do so.”
The band hit the road following the release of their album, with opening slots for The Black Dahlia Murder and Unearth on their New Zealand tours, but to all intents and purposes, they were a new band, with a new message. I wondered how’d they found touring. “Crowds have been pretty good! We are really appreciative of our fans. There are some extremely loyal fans that have stuck with the band from the latter years of 8 Foot Sativa to today, and we thank them for that. Gigs are extremely important to us, because it’s where we get to interact directly with our fans, and also, at the end of the day, there is nothing more rewarding that playing a rowdy, sweaty show that goes off.” Plans for the second album are well underway. “With this [next] album, we are free to explore any musical realm we deem fit, and will take a large step beyond our past. I feel privileged to be writing with such a talented bunch of gents.” And although the response to their debut has been overwhelmingly positive, Ben’s still got plenty to be lyrically downbeat about. “I would love to say I’m an optimist, but I honestly can’t. I don’t hold high hopes for the future of mankind. That’s not to say I feel completely hopeless. Every day I am reminded about how amazingly wonderful people can be. I guess you could say I am a pessimist at heart who longs to be surprised. Ha ha.” And maybe there’s even a hint of a brighter future percolating. “Funnily enough, the band asked me to have a go at writing a more positive song (something that just doesn’t really compute with me) and so I did. It was quite a challenge to say the least!”
Listening to bands so fervently promoting a specific message can be a polarising experience, but whether you’re tuning in to educate yourself, or whether you just want to thrash hard in a melodic Euro style like there’s no tomorrow, there’s no excuse for skipping The Mark of Man. On their first album they’ve set a benchmark for righteous and brutal Kiwi death metal. They’re realistic, grateful for the support they’ve been given, and not remotely interested in simplifying their message to make it more marketable. The next album is bound to make anyone who missed the first one stop and listen. Ben is ambitious, and confident enough to declare that all things going well, the band will “make our mark on the rest of the world (excuse the pun!).”
Portions of this interview were featured in the March 2011 issue of Manual magazine.