Saved From Extinction: Decomposed Interview

Speaking with bassist/vocalist Harry Armstrong of the legendary doom/death band Decomposed on the reissue of their debut/sole full length, Hope Finally Died…

Today we celebrate the removal of one of the greatest death metal records of all time from the Extinct Records list. To amplify this already monolithic occasion, we here at Decibel also managed to get in touch with one of the masterminds behind the record. Meet Mr. Harry Armstrong, formerly of Decomposed. Due to his busy schedule–nowadays Harry performs in End of Level Boss and The Earls of Mars–Harry could only manage one interview. And we are grateful that he chose Decibel.

First, if you’ve never heard Hope Finally Died . . . I envy you. Stop reading, scroll down and click ‘Play’ right now. Come back to this after you’ve gathered yourself up tomorrow. Because the only thing better than listening to HFD . . . is listening to it for the first time. You cannot know what your soul has all your life been crying out for until you hear the opening riff of “Inscriptions.” And the record only gets better from there–or, rather, it stays so awesome that its consistency makes for some sort of exponential increase in pleasure/dread.

Yet, somehow, after the initial run of who-knows-how-many-copies-anymore?, Hope Finally Died . . . simply fell through the cracks.Whether it was fading fads, or the fact that Decomposed dissolved and therefore no longer promoted the album, it remains a mystery–even after speaking with Harry–how such a truly amazing album ended up OOP.

But finally Candelight Records have if not solved then circumvented the mystery with the best solution imaginable: a reissue of Hope Finally Died . . . Here’s what Harry Armstrong, bassist/vocalist/founding member of Decomposed, had to say about the highly anticipated reissue.

First of all, what took so long for the reissue?! Were you all somehow unaware that there has been a major outcry for this record to be reissued? I’ve heard that there have been many attempts to reissue this, but they all fell through for one reason or another. I’ve also heard that certain members didn’t want the album reissued, though no explanation was ever given as to why. There are all kinds of rumors, you know? Could you clear it up for us, please? What took so long? and, furthermore, what’s different now?  

It’s a long story, and to be honest with you, none of the band have seen or heard a copy yet so I can’t really give an opinion on it, but I think that speaks volumes. We’ve been in discussions with the original label about this for a couple of years now. Previously proposed release dates came and went. Some contractual details still haven’t been cleared up. Loads of boring stuff that stopped this from being released. I’ll try to summarize…

Originally we were told that it was being licensed to a German label with political leanings that we really didn’t agree with, so we had to stop that from happening. I still work with a lot of underground promotors who are friends of mine and it would have made life difficult to have my name associated with something like that. Then Candlelight offered to do the release themselves. Which we’re cool with. That was maybe 2 years ago. We offered from the start to do the artwork and add a load of old flyers and stuff to the packaging, but we also needed to clear up some legal stuff that never got sorted out. I’ll be interested to see how this release looks and sounds when I find a copy.

Loads of other labels have shown an interest in doing this, so we’ve been aware for a while that there’s a demand for it. At one point we tried to buy the rights ourselves so we could get things moving. That was refused. But, y’know… we signed the rights away decades ago, so we can’t complain about that.

I don’t think it was so much that none of us wanted the reissue to happen, more that we’re all involved in other things that take precedence in our lives now. Getting Hope Finally Died . . . back out has always been on the “to-do” list, just a long way down!

Dude . . . Candlelight. What’s the story there? Are they this “original label,” the one that you’d been “in discussions” with? Seems like their interest in reissuing this perennial classic has not always been as persistent as yours. Do I err in what I infer?

Yeah, Candlelight were the original label. It took them forever to release the album, and then they put the wrong photo on the cd sleeve and printed it in the wrong colour. They promised us they’d change it and I guess it only took 22 years for them to get around to it. Having said that, I haven’t seen the new one, so maybe they still haven’t! The biggest delay in getting the reissue out has been the legalities. We’ve been asking them to clear up the contract details, as the original one didn’t mention publishing and a few things like that, but they’ve just ignored us.

How exactly did the Decomposed sound come about? Did somebody have Realm of Chaos playing on too-slow of an RPM? Was it Paradise Lost’s demo?

That Paradise lost demo had a lot to do with it, I’m sure! Along with Cathedral’s demo. We were all heavily into the underground tape trading scene. I’d just come out of a band with Jus Osbourn (now in Electric Wizard) called Lord of Putrefaction that was playing some really cool slow stuff. He turned me on to the Winter demos. Man, that stuff just changed the playing field for me. Seeing them (Winter) live at Roadburn recently was mind blowing. But yeah, there were a few bands starting to come out with that stuff. Death metal was a completely new thing and it evolved quickly. Mixing in a ton of misery just seemed the logical thing to do!

Holy shit, Lord of Putrefaction? A pre-Decomposed band! You were on the ’89 demo?  How has this band escaped me?

I wasn’t on the demo. If I remember rightly I’d just left to start Decomposed when they recorded that. Things with LOP weren’t moving quickly enough for me. We spent more time smoking than playing so I thought I’d try something else. Guess I shoulda stuck around! heh heh! I haven’t seen Jus in a while. I bumped into him at a festival in Germany a few years ago and it was great to catch up briefly. Jus also did the artwork for a 7” single that Decomposed released through a French label around ’91, so it wasn’t an unfriendly split when I left.

Back on topic, what I love most about Decomposed, and specifically Hope Finally Died . . ., is how literally it is death metal. Every song is concerned solely with death and dying. Back then, in the early 90s, what kind of world brought about such clinically hopeless lyrics? Had you been reading a lot of Ernest Becker? Or watching a lot of Ingar Bergman films?

I was addicted to horror movies back then. Especially the old Hammer stuff. But not just for the gore–more for the loss and despair associated with death. I’ve always been fascinated by the darker side of the human psyche. I still am, although I tend to enjoy the more twisted, unexplained stuff these days. David Lynch movies get regular plays in my house.

It’s just that talking to you now, you seem like the last guy who could tap into such cold, darkness. But that’s what’s so great about metal, I guess. It gives us that outlet. A place where we compost our nightmares and harvest fresh shadow archetypes.

I remember being interviewed in the early 90’s and being asked the same kind of thing. We always felt that playing depressing or heavy music cheered us all up! It’s kinda like therapy. Get all the darkness out of you through the music. I’m a miserable bastard when I haven’t been playing!

No doubt. By the way, The Earls of Mars! Your vocals are off the charts! And you play the piano, too? This self-titled The Earls of Mars full length is so killer! I bet your favorite Beatle is Paul. Am I right? Your presence is TEOM kind of reminds me of his grinning, sort of sarcastic pluck. You have the same sort of experimental aplomb in your approach to writing songs, too.

Glad you like it. It’s been a fun project to work on and we’re about to put out a new EP.

As for my favourite Beatle… I’ve never really thought about it. It’s kinda like comparing water to air. We need them both! I’ve always thought each member of a band contributes to its whole equally. But now I am thinking about it, and if I’m pushed, I probably would go with Paul. Bass players unite, and all that!

So what was the state of Decomposed by the time you guys were ready to release HFD . . . in 1993?

We were all super-charged and ready to go. It was a good time and a great scene to be involved with. We’d become good friends with the guys in My Dying Bride and Anathema and started playing a bunch of gigs with them. They were just putting out their first albums and the whole UK scene was thriving. I have a lot of good, if a little blurry, memories! I think I have photographic evidence of the My Dying Bride guys changing a tyre on our tour van outside one of Anathemas houses in Liverpool. Always makes me chuckle seeing where those lads are now. Top blokes.

I’ve seen some live videos on YouTube and it’s incredible how energetic you guys were despite the fact that you were playing such heavy dirges. You just don’t see that anymore. How were guys typically received? The crowd from the video seemed abundant and into it. Was it always that way?

Ha ha! I remember gigs where people were sitting on the floor playing card games while we were on, so yeah, it was up and down! There was a peak after our first ep (The Funeral Obsession) where we seemed to be on the brink of something. We played a tour across the UK with a bunch of other unsigned bands, all arranged between us, total DIY thing. That got a lot of attention and some of the crowd reactions then were completely nuts. But I think a lot of that was to do with the era. Death metal bands were few and far between then, and people had a hunger for it. Pits and stagediving would be going on between the bands, so you kinda knew it was gonna be insane before you even plugged in a guitar.

How’s it looking for a Funeral Obsession reissue? Or how about another run of the shirts you guys had for HFD . . . ? I love that design, man. So elegant.

I think the plan originally was to release HFD . . . with all the demos, but it just never came to be. We’re looking into putting that stuff out, but we’re all in different projects that we barely have enough time for outside of “real” life, so don’t hold your breath! The older we get, the harder it becomes to do something as simple as getting 4 guys in the same room at the same time!

Bummer. Anyway, from your own experience and perspective, what was it like just to be in a death metal band in the early 90s with a recording contract and booked studio time? Could you just take us back through time and describe recording and producing HFD . . ., please?

It was a great time. The rest of the world seemed to be freaking out over Pantera and Nirvana, but we were just scouring the planet looking for Revenant 7”s and Atrocity demos. The tape trading scene that was going on back then was our internet. Every day I’d be getting tapes in the mail with a bunch of unheard of extreme music. And the best part is that no one was doing it for the money–no one thought that there’d ever be any success in making this stuff. It was purely done for the love of it. You could hear the “fuck you” in the music. We just wanted to be a part of that. By time we recorded HFD . . . we had barely stopped for breath. The years leading up to that just never stopped in terms of gigs and demos and traveling miles to out-of-the-way venues to catch stuff like Cathedral’s first gig. There was always something going on. The ball just kept rolling and we were hungry for the noise! At the time, stopping for a week to record an album seemed like a necessary evil. We just wanted to tour. Doing an album was an added bonus. We went in and hammered it out as quickly as possible and went back to playing live.

So how long did the band last after HFD . . . was released then? Did you guys ever tour on it? Was there a record release show?

Not long. If I remember rightly there were some problems with getting the record out – funny how some things never change! We recorded it in April ’93, but it never actually hit the shelves until early ’94 changing and we just kinda drifted apart.

Would Decomposed ever reunite, if only for a show? Not that I have one in mind, or anything. But . . . Would you?

I doubt it. We’ve been asked a few times, but we’re all busy with other projects and I don’t think it’d be fair to do it half-heartedly. But it’s been fun unearthing a few memories with this, so who knows?!

Right on, Harry. I’ll keep my fingers crossed and my incense burning. Thanks so much for answering all my fanatical questions. Any closing thoughts you’d like to leave your unworthy devotees with? Maybe something along the lines of “Misery strikes fear . . .” Ha ha ha! Fuck, I love it so much, man! But really, anything?

“Procession of the Undertakers, Removing those who’ve Died!” We always used to end interviews by telling people not to be cremated. The burial ceremony is too beautiful to miss out on! We fucking meant it, too. On tour, we’d stop to applaud every time we passed a cemetery, cause y’know… the dead… they know where it’s at.