Mark Whelan was attracted to heavy music because of its honesty, and that’s the approach he brings to his death metal-infused hardcore band Fuming Mouth. The 29-year-old wrote the entirety (guitars, bass, drums, lyrics) of the group’s long-awaited debut full-length, The Grand Descent, which dropped via hardcore households Triple B Records earlier this summer. A cursory reading of his lyrics may register as standard-fare death metal brutality. That is: gruesome descriptions of ostensibly fantastical acts of violence, played up for theatrical effect. In Whelan’s case, a song like “Out of the Shadows,” which contains the lyrics “painted the ground / with the insides of innocence,” is actually a direct recount of one of his real-life brushes with death.
“[It’s] about this girl I saw die a few years ago on the fourth of July,” Whelan says candidly during a phone call with The Collaborative. “Her car crashed and she was with four friends and they all jumped out of the car—they were going like 40 miles per hour. Because she thought that was the right idea and the car ran her over. It was the weirdest thing ever. Her house was two blocks away and her mom heard the crash and came out and tried to revive her, and it didn’t work. She passed away. And my mom and I were driving right behind her. It was a very surreal experience and “Out of the Shadows” is in no way, shape or form a metaphor. It is a literal translation of what I saw that night.”
Whelan says that he’s not interested in writing gory lyrics (a tenant of death metal) unless they’re authentic. So the ferocious album opener “Fatalism” is also based on a terrifying freak accident he witnessed a few years back.
“In my old apartment I lived in the basement and I heard a boom on the fourth floor, and all the guys who were working outside ran in and I didn’t know what they were doing. And I ran up the stairs and this guy walked down and his oven, I don’t know what he was cooking, it exploded and his skin was burnt off.”
Not all of his lyrics are about physical pain, many touch on depression, loss, and “just not fitting in.” But Whelan says that no matter what he’s yelling about, the goal is always to “make sure I’m saying it exactly how I feel.”
Interestingly, these very real circumstances are being expressed through a much larger than life form of music. The Grand Descent is a titanic sounding record. Cavernous drums, earth-rattling guitar tones, and vocals that sound like they’re coming from the screeching demon giant on the album’s gorgeously terrifying cover art.
“I know we wanted it to be really big, the whole thing,” Whelan says. “We wanted it to sound huge. Even with the artwork I know we wanted it to take up a lot of space and just present itself as mountainous.”
Much of grandiosity is due to the production work of heralded Converge guitarist and renowned engineer Kurt Ballou. His boardwork in the 2010’s alone ranges from metalllic hardcore bruisers like Code Orange and Nails to death metal juggernauts like Kvelertak and Gatecreeper. Fuming Mouth sound like the hellish depths between those styles, and intentionally so. When Whelan formed the band in 2013 he had a distinct vision to marry two styles that he had never heard linked together in perfect harmony.
“I wanted to be super, super heavy. Super aggressive. But I wanted it to hold a groove like Motorhead,” he says. “Because I would feel like on one side, something would be so overtly heavy and so aggressive it wouldn’t even be real. It would be trying too hard, it’d be sweaty. And then on the other end anything that had groove got kind of boring.”
A song like “Burning Hand” is one of the most effective examples of this. The track oscillates between a swinging hardcore riff, stomping beatdown mosh parts, and fits of blast beats. But it doesn’t sound clunky or stitched together because the entire thing is soaked with a uniformly metal production. The hardcore sensbilities are crushed under the metallic weight of the guitar tones, but they’re always able to wiggle themselves out and leap atop the hammering leads to keep things from turning repetively stale; a trap that death metal and hardcore albums alike often fall into.
Whelan found Children of Bodom and In Flames a few years before he started digging into The Rival Mob and Trap Them, but he’s always kept one foot in each scene, and proudly so.
“I think hardcore punk is extremely important to any metal band, especially present day. I think metal has become a very conservative genre. Not in a political sense in the sense of people want their metal to sound like it did 20 years ago, 30 years ago. There’s a foundation that’s been built and nobody wants to mess with any of those elements. And I know it’s really important to [us] to bring in a hardcore punk mentality. That way we bring that liberal approach and that way we can break the mold.”
The tour they’re currently on, opening for Harms Way, Jesus Piece, and Portrayal of Guilt, is full of bands who operate in that same disruptive lane, which has only been growing wider throughout the last few years. Harms Way’s skull-shattering breed of beatdown hardcore was as much of an inspiration to the young Fuming Mouth as Dismembered was. That diverse influence is what makes the band who they are, but it can pose problems when they’re considering which side of the invisible fence they’d like to tour in.
“Sometimes it’s like, oh, metal makes perfect sense. And then it’s like, hardcore makes perfect sense. And then the next thing you know, the hardcore side is rejecting us. Like, hardcore thinks we’re too metal and metal thinks we’re too hardcore. We’ve just come to a place where we’re like, ‘fuck it.’”
Fuming Mouth plays Chrome in Waterford with Harms Way and Portrayal of Guilt on Thursday.