Empire State Bastard’s track-by-track guide to Rivers Of Heresy

Empire State Bastard – the crushing project from Biffy Clyro men Simon Neil and Mike Vennart – sound like the end of the world. But as the duo reveal, there’s more to debut album Rivers Of Heresy than that. There’s also “some rumba here, some surf rock there…”

Empire State Bastard’s track-by-track guide to Rivers Of Heresy
James Hickie
Paul Harries

Today sees the release of Rivers Of Heresy, the debut album from Empire State Bastard. The brainchild of Biffy Clyro bandmates Simon Neil and touring guitarist Mike Vennart, ESB introduced themselves during a short UK run earlier this year and a handful of festival appearances this summer (with a touring line-up completed by bassist Naomi Macleod and ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo).

Now, however, it’s time to fully immerse ourselves in the fruits of their fevered imaginations. And what better way to help you navigate one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated, blistering heavy and socially conscious records than with this track-by-track commentary by Simon and Mike, two men on a mission to scramble minds and vent spleens…


Mike: “I don’t usually write on guitar, as I’d previously wrung everything I could out of it and know my way around it too much. But I got really enthused by the guitar again and this was one of the first songs I came up with. It’s got a sort of [Mike Patton side-project] Fantômas edge to it, which makes sense, as the spectre of Mike Patton hovers above pretty much everything I put my name to. The opening riff also reminds me of the song A Horse’s Tail by [experimental cult rocks] Cardiacs. A lot of these songs I wrote had a million riffs in them, so it was up to Simon to make sense of it and turn it into a song.”

Simon: “It starts with this sort of rumba rhythm, which you don’t tune into until someone mentions the word rumba while you’re listening to it. As an opening statement, it has the eccentricities of the album but it’s a full-on acceleration to push things to the limit. It shows our intentions for the record – if it’s heavy we’re going for it, and if it’s drudgy we just embrace it. Lyrically, it’s about identity and harvesting other people’s identities. It’s about not understanding yourself because you’re trying to live a way that someone else is showing you and not trusting your own instincts. During the pandemic, when we all lived online a lot, I was very aware of how everyone was judging themselves and their happiness based on other people.”


Mike: “Musically, this is my attempt at doing the Dimebag [Darrell] machine gun guitar. I don’t get to do it very often but it’s a good workout for the wrist. I learned how to play guitar in the ’80s as a total shredder, so I have intrinsic knowledge of some dreadful ’80s stuff. I can tell you all about Whitesnake…”


Simon: “Making most of these songs, Mike would send me reams of music and it took me a wee while to make sense of the songs, and once I did I was able to order them so there was a fluid motion to them to make it a pure adventure. Structurally, I didn’t change much when it came to Moi? The lyrics are fairly explicit in what they’re about. We’re living in a time period that goes against everything we’ve learned for centuries as human beings – namely taking accountability, so when you make a decision, you have to deal with that decision. There seems to be this modern phenomenon that you can just lie to people’s faces and it’s acceptable. And you can see it in the highest levels of government. There’s this concept that there’s two sides to every truth, when, really, the truth doesn’t have two sides – there’s right and wrong. If you fuck up, you should be responsible for your own shit, especially these fuckers who bleed the rest of us dry to exist in their little worlds. Originally, it was a post-Brexit perspective I was writing from, then the pandemic happened, and Boris Johnson let us all down. This song is basically a spasm of frustration about all that.”

Mike: “The Right has shat their pants and shat the bed and is blaming the Left. That’s the long and the short of it, but no-one will admit it. There is absolutely no comfort or pleasure or point in being correct because you’ll just end up covered in the same shit.”

4Tired, Aye?

Mike: “It’s the best song I’ve ever written that I don’t appear on. I got thrown out of my own band for one song.”

Simon: “This was the first song Mike sent me, so, symbolically, it’s been a terrible start to a relationship because I muted the guitars and bass, as I’d always wanted to do a song just with drums and vocal. I think it’s obnoxious in the best possible way. And Mike was kind enough to let me fulfil my extreme music dreams. There is another version of the song with guitars, though, that’s on the Japanese version of the album.”

5Sons And Daughters

Simon: “I love this song, but it took me a while to get my head into it because it’s one fucking chord, like [stoner rock legends] Sleep on Valium. The restraint Mike showed in the music of this song is impressive. It never breaks into a gallop. To me it feels like someone stomping across the desert, so I really wanted the vocals to feel a part of that. The one thing that really blew my fucking mind, post-pandemic, was that Russia invaded Ukraine – so you had this global trauma following a global trauma. We’re in this never-ending cycle of war, and war isn’t what it used to be. War used to be all-encompassing, but now it’s something you can skip past in the paper, as people are fighting for their country, trying to do something honourable and sent forward by honourless people. The chorus is about trying to find the value in human life.”


Mike: “It has a really special moment in it that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone else do before. It’s got Dave Lombardo doing super-fucking-highspeed kicks, and the guitars are droning on top of it, so it’s ambient drone thrash. It feels like a fresh thing. When we play it I feel like I’m fucking levitating because it’s so powerful and I’m doing virtually nothing, so I get to feel the full Lombard-ment.”

7Palms Of Hands

Simon: “This is one of the songs that, when Mike sent it to me, it immediately spoke to me. I very quickly got my vocals together for it. It’s probably one of the most eccentric songs, lyrically. During that time period when we weren’t getting much human interaction, I was imagining some form of weird sex party, a keys in a bowl type thing, and you end up in this horrible one-on-one with someone who’s going to use and abuse you. It’s about craving human connection but realising that not all human connection is fucking desirable.”


Simon: “To me, this is a beautiful fucking lurching avant-metal song. It really keeps its powder dry. Lyrically, I’m looking at all these poor bastards who are travelling for months to try and get somewhere they can make some money to send back to their families. In the Dust Bowl period [in the U.S. between 1930 and 1940], the farms were overfarmed, and the ground became so fine that during storms the dust would fill the sky. Lots of people left their homes and livelihoods to travel west to survive. And more often than not, someone would stay behind to try and keep the house in running order, so they still had that option, which I felt was symbolic of what people are going through these days: trying to escape a hell so they have a future for their family and the next generation.”

Mike: “It’s the most discordant song on the record. The guitars are pretty much just making a god-awful noise, and there’s screaming and crying. It’s the closest song I’ve made to sounding like the end of the world.”


Mike: “It’s one of the more gonzo batshit tunes. I’ve also got a solo at the end of it, so got my [late Slayer guitarist] Jeff Hanneman on, channelling him for some extreme guitar noodling weirdness. There’s also a bit of a surf rock moment very briefly before it goes into really crazy rhythms. Most of that song is designed to confuse the fuck out of me, which makes it very difficult to play.”

Simon: “Mike includes these weird influences that seep through, so once people get to know the record, they’ll be able to hear these little moments – some rumba here, some surf rock there.”

10The Looming

Mike: “As with bands like Sleep and Sun O))), the excitement is as much in the grain of the distortion as the volume and weight of the guitars. It’s the kind of guitar tone that you can physically see, as if it’s a monolithic slab of sound. For me, that song can never be slow enough, because the slower it is, the heavier it is.”

Simon: “The song is about the end of the world, and primarily about climate change stomping towards us, there are these moments of keyboard, which are like fairy dust. I may sound like a doomsdayer, but when the world does end, there will be a moment of pure beauty and serenity. ESB was the gold we created from such a shit time. And I feel that’s what those keyboards are on The Looming, showing us that there’s this thunderous mayhem, but there’s something beautiful just up above just before we fucking go.”

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