Kissing the Planet Goodbye — With Doom Metal

British band Sūrya raises a cry in the fight against environmental destruction.

J.P. Williams
Tenderly
Published in
9 min readOct 15, 2019

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Solastalgia means the existential distress caused by environmental collapse. It’s also the title of the second full-length studio album from London-based Sūrya, a band that plays a doomy, predominantly instrumental strain of post-metal. On Solastalgia (2019), Sūrya decries environmental degradation and predicts extinction-level catastrophe unless we mend our ways.

Etymologically, the world solastalgia contains roots in Latin and Ancient Greek, respectively, consolation (sōlācium) and pain (algia) — two words that characterize Sūrya’s music. At times, Solastalgia is comforting, suggesting the harmony of nature and humanity’s place within it. At others, it’s elegiac, mourning the destruction of the natural world. In these moods, Solastalgia is atmospheric, coming off like Sigur Rós without Jónsi’s vocals. But then it builds in undeniably metal ways toward crushing guitars and pummeling drums, shifting through Russian Circles to Aseethe. The emotion here is outrage: righteous anger and a call to action. Interspersed throughout are spoken word passages addressing topics related to environmentalism.

Origami by E. Williams. Photo by author.

We all know the problem, because we’re living through it. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an American governmental science agency, temperatures have been climbing for over a century, the rate of increase is faster now, and the hottest years have been within the last couple decades. This results in even casually observable epiphenomena such as uglier storms and longer allergy seasons. Meanwhile, natural ice everywhere has been disappearing. One bizarre story this year was the Arctic Circle catching fire. Wildfires happen naturally, even in the Arctic Circle, but many scientists, firefighters, and environmentalists say they’re increasing in frequency and destructiveness.

Global warming, however, is only one of many problems. In “Fenland,” a quiet interlude midway through Solastalgia, Sūrya laments the passing of the fens. This type of marshy area is important for storing and filtering water, trapping eroding soil, recycling soil nutrients, protecting wildlife, and serving as a carbon sink for regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide. Sūrya’s home country once had many fenlands, until they were drained for agricultural use, but they naturally exist all over the world. They’re one of many indispensable facets of a planet on which everything is interconnected, and they’re in need of restoration and protection.

As are birds. According to a study published this year in Science, the bird population in North America has decreased by nearly 30% since 1970, largely due to human activity. And yet the current administration in the U.S. is acting to make matters worse. Trump, who has a war for everything, also has a war on birds. The administration has opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, attacked the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, weakened the Endangered Species Act, granted a lease threatening the Boundary Waters wilderness in Minnesota, and repealed the Clean Water Rule. The birdsong adorning “Fenland” is a simple yet touching reminder of what we stand to lose if such reckless policies continue.

“Trump, who has a war for everything, also has a war on birds.”

Sūrya casts blame on those most responsible. The title of the first track is “Anthropocene,” after that epoch in which the greatest impact on the earth’s ecosystems and geological character is Homo sapiens. The overwhelming majority of scientists have concluded that global warming is anthropogenic to a significant degree, but again that’s obvious. How could you pump billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year through fossil fuel consumption and destroy millions of square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest — something else that has been on fire — and not see a broader environmental impact? According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations, we have 11 years to change our ways before it’s too late.

The results of negligence would be catastrophic. To everything mentioned so far, add rising seas and coastal flooding, destruction of ecosystems, widespread drought, accelerated forest death, insufficient water and food supplies, and more. More than we can imagine. Much of it has already begun. For example, a report by the independent research group The Climate Institute details how rising temperatures are causing farmland to disappear and exacerbating plant diseases and threats posed by pests, thereby threatening the world’s coffee supply. Earth used to be the planet’s planet and we were just living on it. But now it’s our planet and we’re ruining it.

“Anthropocene” is a slow burn whose first spoken word passage is apocalyptic. In an interview with Cvlt Nation, guitarist Greg says he wrote the words with reference to Karl Marx and William Blake. The phrase “Satanic mills” is borrowed from the Blake’s “Jerusalem” (1808), which is often interpreted as representing the early Industrial Revolution’s destruction of England and the lives of her denizens. Phrases like “fog of war” and “fog of oil,” however, are also suggestive of recent upheavals such as the Iraq War. As this passage ends, Sūrya launches into the track’s climax — its thunder dramatizing the high stakes of our situation.

While Sūrya never uses the word, it also blames capitalism. The most effective example is the album’s centerpiece “Black Snake Prophecy,” which addresses the conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline. According to a Lakota prophecy, a black serpent is one harbinger of the end of all life, so some activists see it as a symbol of the pipeline. DAPL transports oil near Standing Rock Indian Reservation, across contested land, through burial ground, and under the Missouri River. One leak could poison the tribe’s main source of drinking water — and leaks have already occurred elsewhere along the pipeline. In North Dakota, capitalism is remaining true to form in putting profits before people.

“Black Snake Prophecy” starts vigorously and stays there for over seven minutes. Gritty guitar builds to a driving stomp pierced by melodic lead wails. Then a percussive rumble takes over, prefacing chantlike spoken word and battle cries such as “We can’t drink oil!” and “What has been lost?” In clashes over DAPL, militarized police brutalized peaceful protesters, including women and children. They used pepper spray, dogs, bean bags, rubber bullets and water cannons in subzero weather, fracturing bones, inducing hypothermia and sending people to the hospital. When I see that — because it’s right there on YouTube — I can’t help but think that we have lost our souls.

“Earth used to be the planet’s planet and we were just living on it. But now it’s our planet and we’re ruining it.”

The goal of resistance, according to Sūrya, is living in balance with the earth. Spoken word at the beginning of “The Purpose” encourages this so that neither the planet nor we suffer, and it likens our current mode of life to that of a child who has turned against its mother — a situation that can only mean suffering. When we talk about the death of the planet, we don’t mean the third chunk from the sun will suddenly gasp and roll over with its feet in the air, but that it will become unlivable for human beings outside of some nightmare post-apocalyptic scenario resembling Mad Max or Waterworld. Saving the planet means saving ourselves and all the things we love: our lives, our books, our ideas, our music.

In the meantime, we would all benefit from lives less tainted by capitalism. In this, it is clear that Sūrya sides with the Frankfurt School philosophers in condemning modern societies for constricting human potential rather than unleashing it. In his book One-Dimensional Man (1964), Herbert Marcuse returns repeatedly to the idea that we have the technological means to make the system of production work for us instead of the other way around, satisfying our physical needs and thereby freeing us to explore our broader potential. Instead, however, we produce, consume, and produce some more, always according to the greed of the ruling class and never the necessities of human well-being.

Far from unfettering armies of John Galts, as Ayn Rand and others who are similarly inclined would have us believe our capitalist social, political, and economic systems should, they have chained masses of functionaries, like Hermann Melville’s Bartleby, to mind-numbing and unrewarding jobs. When it comes to climate change, however, both magnate and scrivener alike face extinction. Fitting then, that both Galt and Bartleby refuse to take it anymore. What if Bartleby, instead of merely saying, “I would prefer not to,” decided to do something beneficial for humankind? What if Atlas, instead of holding up the world or shrugging it off, decided to embrace it?

“The Purpose” continues with a barrage of metal. The sound is big and heavy, with Raquel Alves pounding the drums like she’s aiming for the bottom heads the way martial artists aim behind the boards they break. But Sūrya is never coarse. A curious trait of Solastalgia is how mellifluous it is, its sludge elegant and its gloom uplifting. During a lull, a second speaker questions whether civilization is actually civilized when it’s so destructive. Then a simple, fluid rock beat leads to more boom, this time punctuated by growled screams.

Origami by E. Williams. Photo by author.

But what are our means toward balance? In his book In Defense of Lost Causes, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, with a nod to what he calls French philosopher Alain Badiou’s “‘eternal Idea’ of revolutionary-egalitarian Justice,” outlines basic principles for preventing the ultimate catastrophe. They boil down to collective decision-making and egalitarian justice: everyone must participate in determining environmental policies, those policies must apply to everyone, and everyone must face the same penalties for defying them. No one person is causing the death of the Great Barrier Reef, and no one person can save it. We’re all in this together.

The details, however, remain unclear. The Green New Deal that American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others champion is still just a basic idea: massive government investment in clean energy designed to fight climate change while creating jobs and revolutionizing infrastructure. The common comparison is to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies designed to help the American economy during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The opposition to such measures from big business is disappointing — and no surprise — but it’s heartening to know that countries all over the world are discussing similar proposals. The scale of the problem, however, demands more. What Žižek, and presumably Sūrya, wants is nothing less than a global Green New Deal.

Origami by E. Williams. Photo by author.

Sūrya’s call for action addressing climate change makes the band part of an increasingly visible generation of heavy metal bands focusing on issues that are — whether or not they should be— politically charged. There’s the anti-fascism of Allfather, the feminism of Feminazgûl, the anarchism of Dawn Ray’d, the environmental consciousness of Bismuth, the indigenous issues of Alien Weaponry, the anti-capitalism of Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze, the animal rights of Cattle Decapitation, and the communism of Kastchei. In an interview with Astral Noize, this last demonstrates an ability to discuss Marxist ideology like it’s 2011 in Zuccotti Park. These are just a few examples of the many bands today taking their causes into the streets of metal, erecting barricades, and waving their flags.

Musically, Sūrya ranks with the best of the above. I’ve listened to Solastalgia dozens of times and not once has my attention waned. Songs vary in tone, length and — crucially — structure. “Anthropocene” does the expected in slowly building and briefly dipping into a lull before blasting out the climax, but other tracks take different approaches: steadily rising, keeping low, or starting high and staying there. This helps the tracks connect into a carefully constructed whole. For a concept album, that’s perfect.

The spoken word is also integral to the album’s success. It anchors the music to a message, providing a thrust often lacking in the instrumental compositions of other bands such as Pelican and Elder. The found footage impression made by many of the sound clips conjures real people embedded in real life with all its concerns. It’s a technique that I rarely find unmoving, whether it’s clips from the movie Magnolia on Dream Theater’s Train of Thought (2003), former coal miners relating their experiences on Panopticon’s Kentucky (2012), or the mysterious and quirky poetry on Downfall of Gaia’s Ethic of Radical Finitude (2019). The words on Solastalgia stop the album from being an abstract exercise in grief, making of it instead a call to arms.

William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem,” in addition to lamenting the Industrial Revolution, speculates upon a legend according to which Jesus of Nazareth once visited England, and it ends with the hope that the Savior may yet come again:

“I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant land.”

Did you notice the catch? It’s up to us to figure out what is to be done, and it’s up to us to fight for it. Establishment of the New Jerusalem is in our hands. Whatever the religious beliefs of Sūrya’s members, they drew inspiration from Blake’s text and have imbued their album with a similar message. If you’re a metalhead, check out Solastalgia. And if you’re a member of the human race, let it move you to take action.

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J.P. Williams
Tenderly

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas. Maybe some short book reviews for a while.