2009 Man of the Year: Phil McSorley of Cobalt
Phil McSorley isn’t on anyone’s time schedule when it comes to making Cobalt music. One part of that is because he and bandmate Erik Wunder want to put out the best record possible, but perhaps the bigger part of that is because he’s on the time schedule of someone else: the United States Army. In fact, most of the people at his other, more heroic job don’t even know about his second life as a black metal vocalist.
“If anyone asks me what I do, I tell them I’m in the Army,” McSorley reveals via telephone. “I don’t promote Cobalt. I don’t go around talking about it to people. People know me in the Army for a good two years before they even know I’m in a band because I don’t fucking talk about it.”
Whether he wants people to know about Cobalt or not, it appears that they’re going to learn. With the year coming to a close, accolades for the band’s latest LP, Gin, have been crashing into McSorley like a tidal wave, despite the relative dearth of acclaim upon the album’s initial release in March. The venerable frontman takes the disparity in stride.
“I think our album grows on people as time goes on, so it’s not anything I really care about if someone has a negative opinion on our album right away.”
Gin can certainly be described as a grower. It’s not easy to take in the dense musical, lyrical, and conceptual layers of the album on a first listen. Once the listener has time to really delve into the record, though, the epiphanies can begin, the first being Holy shit, this could be one of the best metal albums of all time. Though Cobalt started in a more primal black metal idiom with recordings like Hammerfight and War Metal, the last three releases – Eater of Birds, Landfill Breastmilk Beast, and especially Gin – have taken them down a more experimental and nuanced road. The core essence of their black metal sound is still there, mostly in the dead-summoning screams of McSorley and the tremolo-picked riffs of Wunder, but the sound palette has expanded to include the likes of Tool, Neurosis, and Jarboe, the latter of whom even lent her patented vocals to the last two full-lengths.
The new and expansive sound of the band is what allows tracks like “Gin” – a furious black metal maelstrom that successfully fuses a clean guitar intro with a strangled Darkthrone-esque climax – and “Dry Body” – a subtle and dark acoustic piece that notably contains the album’s only totally clean vocal performance from McSorley – to sit comfortably next to each other on an album. And despite the sense of playfulness and expansion, one gets the sense that Cobalt know exactly what a Cobalt song should sound like and would never betray the ethic of the band. McSorley concurs.
“I think me and Erik have been playing music together since we were fifteen. We both know what Cobalt should sound like. We both know what the basic premise of our music is going to be.”
Of course, the basic premise of Cobalt goes far beyond just what comes out of your speakers when you drop the needle; the band has forged a very specific visual, lyrical and ethical identity as well. Gin represents the culmination of all these elements. The album is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson. The cover depicts a young Hemingway in his World War I uniform; the back, an elderly Hemingway holding the shotgun that he used to take his own life. The centerfold of the booklet shows Thompson shooting his typewriter. The rest of the booklet is filled with blurred images of Wunder, McSorley and fire. The back page offers few words, but more than any past albums have offered: “This album is a springboard to fuck the universe. Let’s aim our arrows at the new sun.” That’s it. McSorley speaks eloquently on the subject of the non-musical elements of Cobalt, so it’s best to let him take it from here:
“Me and Erik will meet up a couple times a year or maybe just twice or once or whatever but when we do, it’s usually something that we talk about. I’ve never wanted to have artwork for our cover be something that looks like it was drawn by a fucking cartoonist. The cover with Hemingway [in his WWI uniform] is pretty significant to us. Before the United States Army was actually involved in World War I, he volunteered and went over there, with really no moral obligation to do so, he just did it because he just felt like he was a lion and that’s where he belonged. That’s significant for my life because I really don’t have any political convictions as far as me being in the military or anything like that. I just relate with Hemingway in feeling that that’s just the natural state for man and that’s where we belong as people; individuals. And then the counterbalance to that being the back where Hemingway is standing in his underwear, holding the shotgun that he ended up taking his own life with, out of his mind, he had been in two plane crashes, he survived tons of illnesses, he’d been in six conflicts, and he got to the point where he just thought he was useless. He couldn’t write anymore, he couldn’t perform any of the essential parts of his life anymore, and he took his own life. And with that to relate to the inner artwork on the inside with Hunter shooting his own typewriter just says that sometimes the most beautiful thing is to destroy your own art. Hemingway killing himself, Hunter S. Thompson destroying his typewriter. Most people don’t know this, I don’t think we’ve ever told anyone about this, but the picture on the inside of all the fire, that’s actually a pile of Landfill Breastmilk Beast EPs that Profound Lore sent us earlier that week and me and Erik made a bonfire out of them, just burned a shitload of them out in his yard, and that’s where those pictures came from, so that artwork all ties in together without us even saying anything about it. We don’t like putting our lyrics in there, we don’t like putting a bunch of fucking words, we don’t like thanking anyone. It’s an album, it’s not a fucking plea for someone out in the scene to understand us and feel like they know us because they got their name in the fucking thank you list. What’s important is the art.”
What’s important is the art. Five words from the horse’s mouth sum up the Cobalt experience as well as any article or analysis ever could. But those words come from Cobalt Phil McSorley, and Cobalt Phil McSorley and Army Phil McSorley aren’t exactly the same person. True, that same primal rage comes out in many of the same ways in a recording studio and on a battlefield, but in a recording studio, no one is shooting at you. As he mentioned, the two spheres of his life rarely intersect. What was the impetus for this iconoclastic black metal singer to go put his life on the line without any political convictions to speak of? Again, this is best told by the man himself:
“Well, what happened was I was married for awhile and in 2003 I got divorced and basically that’s what the whole fuel for the lyrics on what Eater of Birds was all about. After a while, I was just living a chicken-shit life, working in a factory, just totally fucking unsatisfied as a human being and I decided that I wanted to join the Army. I had no moral qualms with it, but I’ve never been a fucking supporter of whatever goes on in the government; I’m no mouthpiece for the United States Army or the United States government for that matter, but I definitely just felt that I had no problems with it and decided that I wouldn’t mind taking off. So what I did was I took everything that I fucking owned and I gave it all away. I gave away my fucking t-shirts, I gave away my fucking bed, I gave away every single thing that I owned so there was no way for me to turn back. And I went and joined the Army, went to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training as a scout which is kind of like an advanced kind of infantry, I guess, and after that was done I went to Korea for a couple of years. After that, I got out, went to airborne school, got promoted to sergeant, went to Iraq for a year, was out in Baghdad for that time, then got out of there and I’m a staff sergeant now, and I definitely plan on making a career out of it. I think that this is just the one place in life where I can excel with the type of attitude that I have because I’m too high-strung for the civilian world I think now. I think before I joined the Army I was okay, but I don’t think I could make it out there now because the way that the civilian world works, just the way that everything is on the outside of what’s going on in my life bothers me too much, and I couldn’t see myself as a part of that anymore.”
That type of attitude that McSorley describes comes out pretty clearly on Cobalt albums, and it’s a testament to his own self-awareness that he can’t go back to the civilian world after doing what he’s been doing. Fortunately, his constant globetrotting doesn’t really affect the songwriting or recording process for Cobalt. Again, his working relationship with Erik Wunder is so close spiritually that it needn’t be close in proximity.
“I put a lot of trust in him and he puts a lot of trust in me as far as not coming up with anything that’s going to alter the course of Cobalt in a derogatory way,” McSorley says. The improbability of the band’s situation makes the greatness they regularly produce even more impressive.
But Phil McSorley isn’t one to put himself on a pedestal, even when he’s on top of a mountain. His lyric-writing is unparalleled, his vocal performances are nothing short of awe-inspiring, and when he’s not fronting one of the most creatively vital bands in America right now, he’s fighting to defend her on faraway battlefields. Since he’s unlikely to sing his own praises (a less ubiquitous character trait than you’d think in the me-first metal scene of today), a few of his closest non-Army associates stepped forward to give him a fair appraisal.
Chris Bruni, the head of Profound Lore Records, one of the best and most important labels in underground metal today, had this to say about McSorley: “Phil is the real deal, the embodiment of impulse and excess, and in a scene where most people do a lot of talking but can never back their words up with action, Phil is a man who puts his money where his mouth is; a very special individual. Kvlt black metal/war metal basement/internet-dwelling warriors, or all these black metal bands who sing about war, death, and violence wouldn't even last a week if they were to live Phil's life and would probably shit their pants if they were to spend a day in his shoes. Not only that, Phil is one of the best vocalists in extreme metal and pretty much the best lyricist in metal today.”
His bandmate Erik Wunder has similarly glowing remarks: “Growing up together, he was a serious reprobate. His hate for authority, in a very constructive way, is an extremely pure shout towards the real meaning of mankind. He is one of the most relentless friends I've ever had. That's why we've been friends for so long.”
Even as this article cracks the 2000 word mark, so much has been left unsaid about the greatness of Cobalt’s Gin album and the merits of its busiest creator. Words can only do so much in situations like these. Actually listening to Gin is the only way to properly appreciate it, and actually talking to Phil McSorley is the only way to really get into his head – and I’m still not even halfway there on either count despite having done both. Once again, no one can articulate McSorley’s situation like the man himself, and when asked how to sum up what his life is all about, he had some unsurprisingly profound words to offer.
“I’m not a mouthpiece for the government, I’m not a poster child for the Army, and I’m definitely not fucking Rambo. I’m not trying to act like I’m the baddest motherfucker around, but I put my money where my mouth was when I said that we were playing war metal, and even though we’ve changed our style over the years, I’m still here, and I’m still doing what the fuck I want to do with my life. I appreciate all of our fans. I appreciate all the people who write us all the time and stuff. It’s important to us to thank the few people out there who really understand what we’re trying to do.”
(Full transcript of interview with SSgt McSorley available upon request)
Mortals are mortar and life is the fuse.
Last edited by DethMaiden; 01-06-2010 at 02:45 PM.