Graham Keane

Graham Keane – The Vicious Head Society

With the recent release of the second album from The Vicious Head Society, Extinction Level Event, TPA’s Nick Hudson talks to band mastermind Graham Keane about the arduous process of putting the album together…

Just to get this out of the way: my review of Extinction Level Event is almost wholly positive, and the closest I come to criticism is in regard to Absolution

Poor Absolution!

The funny thing is, I actually really like Absolution, but because (to begin with, at least) it seemed to be almost a reprise of Judgement, telling the other side of the story, it felt like it didn’t add a lot. It would be an awesome standalone song to accompany the album, but didn’t seem like it needed to be there, if you know what I mean.

It’s actually very astute, and no one else has picked up on that. The girl in Absolution is the victim in Judgement.

Ah, I actually wondered that. It seemed like it was from the point of view of the victim. But I couldn’t figure out how she could be responding when she was dead. I guess the killer didn’t actually kill her after all?

It’s from before death and her realisation that the pain in her life was because of her own decisions. I guess it’s a rebirth metaphor in a really dark way.

I’m surprised no one else picked up on it, because it seems fairly overt. The only reason I didn’t come right out and state it in my review was because I was unsure whether or not it worked that way, or if I was just reading too much into it. That I got it right, though, absolutely says more about your lyricism and story telling, than my awareness!

I definitely feel like I’ve grown a bit as a lyricist. They’re the hardest part for me as I head the vocal part first and then have to fit the words to that melody.

I can be quite obtuse when it comes to lyrics, so I think the fact that I am able to infer some of the intended meaning of the songs on Extinction Level Event really shows how much you’ve grown as a lyricist. Speaking of lyrics though, and I know this will be a connection I alone will have made, because I can’t imagine it was deliberate, but the first thing that Judgement and Absolution, as a pair, made me think of when I first heard them was Downfall from your Abject Tomorrow album. I’m not sure what Downfall is meant to be about, but the lyrics to me perfectly describe the meeting of the killer and the victim (not meant to be, but drawn to one another). Because it is the end of time, the two are destined to be one, forever bathed in eternity.

Downfall was about a guy discovering his inner voice, he thinks it’s an entity.

Ah, so the two people in the song were actually only one? That is definitely not something I picked up on at all. That’s why I like the lyrics on the new album. I can follow the story better!

Haha, yes!

Although if the inner voice is the conscience, then it’s still not too dissimilar from the killer’s reflection in Judgement, or even the self-reflection of the victim in Absolution.

That is a good point!

I mentioned earlier that Absolution seemed almost like a reprise of Judgement, telling the other side of the story, when I first heard it. But the more I have heard it, the more I wonder whether it actually came first, and Judgement came after. Which of the songs, or stories behind the songs, was written first?

Absolution was written first, I don’t think it was completed first but the initial concept was all centred around the serial killer.

Absolution is one of a couple of songs on the album that screams “single”. It’s probably the most accessible song on the album.

For me it has the most immediate chorus.

Yeah. It’s damn catchy. It’s the ear worm of the album for sure. Many times in the last couple of months I’ve found myself humming it to myself. Which just goes to show that even if I suggest it doesn’t fit so well for me, I still think it’s a great song. I kind of feel the need to reiterate that, because I was reading through your posts on your Facebook page, and saw that Absolution is your favourite song on the album!

Hahaha, don’t worry! It’s subjective stuff. It’s my favourite for different reasons than are expected.

I should probably have watched your Manufacturing Extinction videos on YouTube, before this interview. Probably some of my questions might be answered already. I haven’t watched many of your YouTube videos, but that’s largely because I really don’t like YouTube as a platform, and avoid it whenever possible. The thought of having to watch a 20 or 40-minute YouTube video makes me shudder. But I imagine I am not at all representative of most of your audience. How have you found the reaction to your videos (particularly the longer ones)?

Hahaha, I understand that. There’s a small core that enjoy them. I’m really looking out for the guys that like that content, I guess. It gives me something to do rather than worry about my job…

I remember posting on Facebook about your life being in limbo. Is the job front better now?

Yeah, I’ve had a few gigs pop up, the vaccination program here has been hugely successful.

It’s funny how much words can attain additional meaning. When you sing about “virus” it’s almost oddly prescient. Obviously you are speaking of a virus metaphorically rather than literally, but it’s hard not to think of how we have all been living for over a year now.

The main thing is, it gave me time to reassess, stop working seven days a week, and concentrate on what I really want to do.

In a way, what we’ve experienced through the Covid pandemic is almost an extinction level event. Not in the extinction of the human race, but in the extinction of what is normal. I think everyone has had to reassess their life in some way.

Yeah, I feel like I’m predicting the future haha… It was written two years before!

One of the things you learnt during your time to reassess was making videos. I may not have watched the longer ones, but I made a point of watching the lyric videos. When I watched The Signal video for the first time, I was actually kind of blown away. The song always had a Space Oddity/Major Tom vibe to me, and had some really spacey sounds, but it never occurred to me that it might be set in space. Going by the visuals in the video, is the protagonist of this song (let’s call him Tom) the only one who is experiencing the extinction level event from outside? It brings a whole new level of meaning to the lyrics.

Yes, he’s on an orbital station and has left behind a trail of destruction to people he loved and loved him. He sees the world end and rather than process the outer event he goes through an inner apocalypse.

I totally got the trail of destruction. That’s part of where I felt the Major Tom vibe. You’ve kind of gone with some quite extreme characters, haven’t you? An astronaut. A serial killer…

Haha, yes, I felt that extreme archetypes would work best.

Silver Thread is almost like that too. Like a stereotypical extremist vegan or environmentalist in full on “we told you so” mode.

Yes! Take a character like that and ramp it up to 100. All the characters are very exaggerated.

It’s actually not at all a particularly dark sounding song. Until you listen to the lyrics…

Its really just a metaphor for the kind of stubborn rage one can have towards people that have wronged us. And this particular one is happy for people to die and suffer, so not a good guy.

And yet, you can almost empathise, because we are heading for an extinction level event of our own creation.

I do think we’ll change enough to make things better. I’m optimistic.

It’s a very dark album, though, isn’t it? I mean, I love the “goodbye” section of Hymn, but it’s a very dark ending. Did you ever wonder if it was too dark?

No, I felt that there was a lot of freedom and brightness in facing the question of our own death. Even though the window dressing is dark, for me knowing I will die motivates me to do good in the world.

Is that why Throes of Despair doesn’t really sound like despair at all, then? It’s a quite uplifting and positive song.

I think the title for that came from the feeling the couple have for each other before coming together to embrace again.

I can’t decide on my favourite song from this album. I think it’s either Solipsism, Judgement or Throes of Despair, which are all quite different. There’s no clear favourite for me, the way Agenda was on Abject Tomorrow.

That’s a plus for me. I always felt Throes… would be a grower.

Actually it was fairly immediate for me. Judgement was more of a grower. Solipsism and Throes… both hit hard (from opposite ends of the spectrum).

Ah interesting! You never know how things will be perceived.

For sure. Because you seemed surprised that On A Silver Thread had a bigger reaction than The Signal.

Very much, it was opposite on different platforms. YouTube was huge for The Signal. Spotify for Silver.

The funny thing for me is, despite saying Absolution is probably my least favourite song on the album in my review, I actually like it more than The Signal. However, The Signal feels more integral to the story, so I would never want to lose it from the album, even though it doesn’t do as much for me.

There was a lot of debate about the lead single, but we settled on The Signal because it showed a change in sound. I didn’t want to follow up Abject with another album sounding the same.

And, as much as I still completely and totally and utterly love that album, I’m glad you didn’t.

I couldn’t. It was an emotionally exhausting album.

You were clearly burnt out after its release. It was obvious from your Facebook posts. Not immediately after its release, that is, but after all the hype died down. It almost seemed like part of you did too. I remember being quite worried about how depressed you seemed in your Facebook posts.

I had no idea what I was doing afterwards but I was more prepared after this album.

You definitely seem to have more of a plan this time. Your promotion is much more organised.

Yeah and I’ve spent time studying how to promote.

The next single you released to follow The Signal was On a Silver Thread. The Signal didn’t particularly wow me, but Silver is amazing – and only just misses out on being in the top three I mentioned earlier. I especially love the violin!

It’s a pretty convincing VST.

Here goes my ignorance again. I have no idea what a VST is? A violin patch for a keyboard?

Essentially, yeah.

But there is actual violin somewhere, yeah?

Yeah, during the eastern sounding part of Judgement. Shelley [Weiss] plays that part.

I love that part! I remember soon after Abject Tomorrow came out you were asking about violin players for a piece you had in mind. Was that Judgement? Silver? Something else that never eventuated?

It was mainly Judgement, I just felt that melody needed ornamentation that a VST couldn’t give.

It’s definitely really expressive playing, that I guess a VST just can’t emulate. I think it’s moments like this passage, and just the overall melodic nature of the album that really appeals to me, as someone who is not a typical prog metal listener (it’s not at all a favourite genre of mine).

Although what I’m writing is heavy, I don’t consider it metal at all.

Obviously a lot of the sound of The Vicious Head Society comes down to the sound of your guitar playing. And, in my opinion, your guitar playing isn’t all that metal either. I’m not a guitarist, so I’m probably very wrong, but as much as there might be, say Eddie Van Halen in the mix, your playing is actually reminiscent (to me) of guitarists like Allan Holdsworth and Steve Hackett. There’s far more prog than metal in your prog metal. It’s more heavy prog, than prog metal, would you say?

Yes, I’m definitely not appealing to the Slayer crowd. I think that comes from being more into the older style. Melody being more important than anything else.

Nathan [Maxx]’s vocals help there, too. Between your guitar and his vocals, it’s all very much melody first and foremost.

Yes, and I felt his voice would be fitting as he’s able to show vulnerability well.

He absolutely does in Absolution, which is another reason why I felt sure it must be the victim from Judgement.

I’m so happy someone picked up on that. There are other connections too that haven’t been discovered. One huge Easter egg hasn’t been noticed at all!

I’m going to have to go back and listen again after we finish here, and try and find more connections! Just before we do finish up, I want to mention how much I love the way the clean vocals of Nathan provide an even greater contrast when the harsh vocals [of Andy Ennis] kick in. Are there more harsh vocals this time around?

I think there’s less than the first album overall.

I wasn’t sure. I was trying to work it out. I think maybe there feel like more because they are used so much more effectively.

Yeah, that’s the way I feel about them, too. They’re a lot more convincing.

Honestly, everything about Extinction Level Event feels more convincing to me. It’s a relief, as I loved Abject Tomorrow, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy the new album as much. But you’ve surpassed yourself. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

Thank you.

[You can read Nicks’s review of Extinction Level Event HERE.]

The Vicious Head Society – Facebook | YouTube | Bandcamp