Music History

SubRosa's Music Might Be Heavy, But It Also Reminds Us We're Not Alone

In August, SubRosa released For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, one of the most fascinating rock albums of the year. The album’s cover — designed by Glyn Smyth, the artist who illustrated the group’s three most recent offerings — evokes mystery through mythology. It’s an appropriate representation, as SubRosa’s music calls for a thought-provoking exploration of self.

The Salt Lake City-based group formed in 2005 when singer/guitarist Rebecca Vernon, inspired in part by influential SLC sludge-rock act Red Bennies, decided that she wanted to start a heavy band that was a departure from the goth band she was drumming for at the time. Vernon tapped friend Sarah Pendleton to join her in the project.

Both women began to write their own music for the first time, and Pendleton was just learning to play violin. But Vernon worried that they didn’t have the heft one might expect of a heavy band. So they eventually folded Kim Pack on violin and vocals, Levi Hanna on bass and Andy Patterson on drums into the mix — and with six albums and world tours with respected heavy-music acts such as Neurosis, Deafheaven, Minsk and Boris in the rearview, it’s safe to say that SubRosa has achieved the weight of Vernon’s original vision.

Vernon grew up in Hampton, Virginia, and split her high-school years between there and Salt Lake City. She got into heavier music after hearing Guns ’N RosesAppetite for Destruction at age twelve. “I was instantly drawn to the heavy sounds, the defiant attitude, the rejection of society and the dangerous and disturbing overtones,” Vernon explains. “At age sixteen, I started getting into the grunge movement, and I always liked the heaviest, dark bands of that movement. That became more pronounced the older I got, and I sought out darker and heavier bands. It matches the map of my inner world.”

But like many people who play heavy music, Vernon is warm and friendly and not particularly dark. She uses her music, not who she is, to react to a world and society that she sees as full of contradictions, no matter where, or in what culture, one grows up.

“I think I’ve never fit into society, and I’ve always had this natural rebellion against conforming,” Vernon says. “Just a natural distaste and almost hatred for human society. I always knew I was an outcast, but it was when I was eleven or twelve that I started embracing it. I just had this built-in idea from a young age that it wasn’t cool to try to fit in.”

Out of that thinking, Vernon and her bandmates have crafted music that articulates and exorcises that inner conflict with the world. “That’s why I think [the dark-metal] scene makes dark music — to cope,” Vernon says. “That music feels like a true reflection of the mental anguish that comes from living in this world.”

But like many in the world of doom metal, the members of SubRosa also see their music as a way to signal to listeners that they’re not alone. “There’s this unwritten rule to be kind to people,” Vernon says. “It’s a really warm and accepting scene, and we feel lucky to be a part of it. A lot of people in the scene are very sensitive people, and aware of the darkness of the world and its misery and squalor.”

Compassion and kindness also informed Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 science-fiction classic We, the inspiration behind SubRosa’s new album. A direct influence on George Orwell’s 1984, We explores what constitutes happiness in society and on an individual level — a concept that flew in the face of the collectivist ethos of the Soviet Union, which was founded a year after the novel’s publication.

“The book raises all these questions that make you really uncomfortable, but ultimately, it’s in favor of personal freedom,” Vernon says. “[Zamyatin] was against the homogenization of society and against the crushing of the individual in the name of the greater good. Everyone is so different, and what works for one person doesn’t work for another.”

Society conditions us to be unselfish, says Vernon: “There’s beautiful things about that, but if you’re too unselfish and think what you think and feel doesn’t matter, you’re going to be unhappy. But it’s hard sometimes to honor your inner voice when it goes against what everyone else is saying. If you’re not attending to yourself and doing what you want and giving yourself what you need, then you have nothing left to give to other people. If you really want to give back to the earth and give to other people, you do have to take care of yourself first.”

SubRosa plays at 5 p.m. Saturday, December 10, at the Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway, Englewood. For more information, call 303-789-9206. Tickets cost $20-$50, and the show is sixteen and up.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.