To call the Chicago group Huntsmen’s latest album Mandala of Fear ambitious would be an understatement, but with crushing ambition, the band have memorably presented a strangely alluring tale of love and loss in the shadow of humanity’s penchant for self-destruction. The concept running through the doom-soaked yet poignant melody-driven, sweeping metal is that humanity has reached the point of a final world war that has essentially driven the complete upending of human civilization. The album’s perspective mostly rests with a lone woman fighting at the tail end of the struggles. The sheer volume of this epic tale shines brightly through the sweeping tunes, which sound like the infusion of a classic Americana-sense of strong, irresistible melody into the thick, doom-ridden textures of some of the heaviest metal.
Crafting the Story
“We are all fans of post-apocalyptic stories, be it from music, comics, film, television, or art,” bassist (and vocalist) Marc Stranger-Najjar explains. “We all also understand, on a personal level, a lot of the central themes of the record — trauma, loss, recovery — all of which are peppered into the lyrics and orchestration.”
The story driving the record gets quite traumatic at times, as he suggests. To briefly summarize, the main character (a soldier) suffers serious wounds and amnesia when her first field mission almost immediately goes south. She barely escapes the approach of a ruthless guerrilla group that seems as hellbent on destruction for the helluva it as it is on any other aim. Eventually, she falls in love with one of those living in the small village where rescuers bring her, after a language barrier ensures that their relationship has to be focused on emotional connection. The two of them conceive a child, but the guerrillas discover her hideout and her lover is among the victims of ensuing carnage — but she escapes and returns to her original base, intent on protecting herself and her child.
The story finds poignant, memorable bursts of expression in the lyrics — and the band have also made an accompanying graphic novel available, which was designed by Danny White.
“Exploring the apocalyptic themes from our previous recordings, we had a nice starting point to draw from,” Stranger-Najjar shares. “This one really got moving after [vocalist] Chris [Kang] had a major back surgery and needed months to heal. It was during that healing process where he began to construct ideas for what would become Mandala of Fear. When we had our first practice after his recovery, he was like “alright…here’s this loooong ass record! Hear me out…” He explained it so beautifully; the love, loss, war, trauma, recovery. All of these themes that reached us directly. It was a long and deliberate process to orchestrate the songs to convey these ideas musically, but it was also an easy process because it was so enjoyable.”
The Sounds of the End of the World
The band utilize both the heavy and more flowing, gentler sides of the spectrum, sometimes within the same song, like on the standout track “God Will Stop Trying,” which was released as a single. There, Huntsmen richly musically deliver on the dramatic journey suggested by that song’s title alone. Gradually, throughout the track, they build into more and more intense yet still melodically direct performances, driven by earnest, strong singing from Aimee Bueno.
Stranger-Najjar explains that sonic inspirations range from CSNY, Springsteen, Norma Tanega, Joni Mitchell, and Dylan for the storytelling aspects to Mastodon, Russian Circles, and Converge for the heavier side of the music, in addition to Yes and King Crimson’s prog work. “I think the ideal listening experience is up to the listener,” he adds. “We can’t dictate one’s attention span, so even if it’s in 15 minute segments during the commute to work/school/etc. — as long as someone is enjoying it, that’s truly all that matters. To capture the essence of the story, popping on the record and reading the graphic novel simultaneously would help. Any way you slice it, the war, loss, and trauma are themes that should jump out, though we’re also big fans of people drawing their own conclusions.”
After all — bombastic, ambitious stories grounded in science fiction have stuck around for so long for a reason. Often, the themes that are expressed and played out in these stories emerge with an earnest, real-life relevance. On the band’s side, Stranger-Najjar explains that a range from “personal feelings in regard to the current socio-political climate, the actual climate, and trauma” to “stories of dystopian futures, zombie films, and science fiction” drove their creative process. Some of those stories that stick out to him include works by authors Tom Robbins and Phillip K. Dick, films by George Romero, Yes records — particularly from 1970 through 1975, he explains — and The Walking Dead comics.
Going Forward from Here
Through these diverse thematic sources, Mandala of Fear’s development was tied together, he shares, by “a yearning for more compassion, love, and empathy in the world” on the band’s part. As news seems to only get more chaotic, that acute emotional relevance runs deeper.
Stranger-Najjar admits that “it’s been rather difficult to remain optimistic given the amount of amplified vitriol that we’re forced to consume all day long,” but he explains, noting the aftermath of devastating tornadoes in Tennessee: “My optimism, personally, is drawn from the notion that the vast majority will simply get worn out from all of the bitterness and hatred. There are glimpses of hope in Nashville at the moment, hearing stories of my friends and their neighbors helping each other out via walking the streets with power tools like chainsaws to help clear the debris so people can try to make sense of their lives. I suppose the flip side of that is fearing the opportunistic, greedy developers ready to take advantage of these folks’ loss, but time will tell. I truly think we, as a species, are just growing tired of the hatred and pointless division. Perhaps the collapse of social media is more imminent. That’d be nice…”
In the meantime, listeners can imagine a world without the toxicities of social media via diving into Mandala of Fear and sticking around through the eventual triumphs of the story. The album feels like a reach for the emotionally upending reset switch that many have been after — hopefully we just don’t have to go as far as the characters in the story to see it through.
Listen below! The album is out via Prosthetic Records.