When Rebecca Vernon, frontwoman for Salt Lake City-based band SubRosa, cited her artistic inspirations, she named punk-metal band The Red Bennies (also from SLC) and seminal stoner rock band Sleep. She also mentioned an unexpected name: 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert.
"I think his writing is just precise, beautiful and devastating," she said. "He mixes that gorgeous language with the most devastating revelations. That kind of art, I feel like I aspire to. I think it manifests--or I hope it manifests--in SubRosa. The beauty and the devastation, the beauty and the darkness."
"Beautiful and devastating" isn't a bad description of SubRosa's sound. Since forming in 2005, the sludge-doom metal band has built an international fanbase with its thunderous drones, mournful melodies and alternately soothing and dissonant violin lines. SubRosa's latest release, More Constant Than the Gods (Profound Lore, 2013), received a nine out of 10 from Decibel Magazine, and Rolling Stone named More Constant No. 11 on its 20 Best Metal Albums of 2013, describing it as "dynamic, doomy magnificence." Pitchfork's Grayson Currin gave the album an 8.3, declaring, "It's hard not to be caught up in the incredible power of SubRosa's sounds and the wide-screen permanence of their songs."
Boise metal fans experienced that power earlier this year at Treefort Music Fest 2014, and they'll get another chance Friday, Aug. 15, when SubRosa plays Neurolux with local doom metal band Wolvserpent.
Released in September 2013, More Constant came out nearly two and a half years after 2011's No Help for the Mighty Ones (Profound Lore). Vernon revealed it almost didn't come out at all.
"We had a disagreement after No Help for the Mighty Ones came out," she said. "Literally within a month [of its release], some disagreements came to a head. ... It was really hard on me, and it was really hard on other people in the band, too."
Vernon added that after the falling out, "there was nothing else to do but take a break and reassess whether [SubRosa] could even be restarted in the future or whether it was time to lay it to rest. And I did consider laying it to rest. I'm glad I didn't, though."
It's surprising that SubRosa--whose lineup now consists of Vernon on guitar, Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack on violin, Levi Hanna on bass and Andy Patterson on drums--became known in the first place. Though she'd been playing drums in bands since she was 19, Vernon had little songwriting experience.
"I kind of wanted to stay a drummer; I didn't want to play guitar and sing," she said. "I felt really comfortable at the back of the stage behind the drum set. ... But I had this kind of vision inside of how I wanted [SubRosa] to kind of sound and how I wanted it to feel."
Vernon wanted SubRosa's music to be punishing, loud and angry--"like an anvil hitting people on the head"--and had reservations when Pendleton, a violin player and one of her best friends, wanted to join.
"I just thought it would bring down the whole brutality of the band for sure. I thought it would be delicate and all that," Vernon said. "But luckily, Sarah was open to experimenting. And from the beginning, she's had this mind to experiment and to make her instrument almost like a noise instrument rather than a violin."
Today, Vernon considers the addition an indispensable part of SubRosa's sound.
"People talk about our atmosphere and our vibe a lot, and I attribute that to violins," she said. "It's at least 90 percent of it."
SubRosa's musical heaviness is matched by the weight of Vernon's lyrics. For instance, "Beneath the Crown" from No Help was inspired by a book she read on the eugenics movement in America. For Vernon, such dark subject matter isn't mere sensationalism.
"I kind of see SubRosa as my outlet for activism, honestly," she said. "I mean, it's not like I'm trying to preach or shove a message down anyone's throat, but it's definitely a way to express myself about things that bother me or that I think is wrong with the world or just things that personally upset me. And yeah, I do think about the fact that I'm spreading awareness about certain issues in some of the songs."
Vernon will continue to voice her feelings: After finishing its current schedule of shows, SubRosa plans to spend six months working on new material. In the meantime, Vernon is looking forward to playing with Wolvserpent, whose music she admires (as of press time, Crowbath replaced Wolvserpent as SubRosa's Aug. 15 opener).
"It's amazing how you can listen to the sound of a band ... and kind of grasp the message that a musician is trying to get across or the feelings that they're trying to convey," Vernon said. "I just think it's amazing."