Trigger warning: this article contains testimonials of rape and sexual abuse.
For nearly two decades, Roadburn festival has been a pilgrimage for zealots of heavy music. Over the past few years, however, the Tilburg-based event has made a concentrated effort to redefine heaviness. Surely, there’s more to heaviness than occult imagery and Lovecraftian monstrosities, right? Right.
Well, for the past half-decade, Rotterdam-based alternative act GGGOLDDD has been ahead of the curve when it comes to redefining heaviness. Last year, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, GGGOLDDD were commissioned to perform their new project This Shame Should Not Be Mine at Roadburn Redux, Roadburn’s online event. And so their respective missions dovetailed.
But in order to redefine something, it’s a sure bet to start from scratch. After some creative soul-searching on their debut LP Interbellum, GGGOLDDD’s 2015 breakthrough album No Image embodied a hard reset. In fact, the cover was nothing but a black square and the album title. The band’s name at the time, simply spelled GOLD, was infuriatingly unGoogleable and not even visible on the artwork. For its founding members, the pair of Milena Eva and Thomas Sciarone, this was all, of course, exactly the point.
“We were so ‘Fuck You’ back then,” Milena commented back in 2020 in No Zine, a self-publicised zine to celebrate No Image’s five-year anniversary. “It didn’t really get us in trouble, but it didn’t help us either. I remember sending the artwork to our label, and they were like ‘Are you serious!?’. Sven (Dinninghoff), the owner of Ván Records, always told us to do whatever we wanted. We had a really privileged situation. But he definitely warned us: ‘This is just a black square, you do realise that, right?In a magazine this will NEVER work.’ We didn’t even come up with decent press shots.”
The video for “Servant” was so graphic, it was eventually entirely removed from YouTube. Inspired by the many fail-compilations found online, Thomas created a montage of, in his words, “humanity failing”: tortures, shootings, animal cruelty, famine… well, the especially heinous crimes human beings are capable of. The band juxtaposed this footage with cutesy emojis, giving viewers a concentrated dosage of online toxicity. Though it struck like a statement, it was more an attempt by the band to hit a nerve, forcing you to contemplate your own discomfort and privilege. “”Servant” was never meant to be a bold statement about our band,” Thomas commented in the same zine. “I think it was just something we felt was missing in music at that time. And definitely in rock music.”
GGGOLDDD’s militant, almost Kafkaesque (nifty fact: Milena was named by her parents after Kafka’s lover) ‘no kid gloves’ approach to making records was honestly refreshing, especially considering how No Image came out a full year before all that post-Trump protest music stormed the floodgates.
Speaking for myself, I’ve learned over the years to (somewhat) brace for the band’s invasive, hyperrealist brand of heaviness. 2017’s Optimist and 2019’s Why Aren’t You Laughing? further fleshed out GGGOLDDD’s talent for incisively fleshing out their ideas sonically; each of these records feel like chapters of a bigger story arc. A story arc that always had something ominous and achingly personal simmering beneath its hardened exterior.
Their newly released fifth album This Shame Should Not Be Mine is once again heavy on multiple levels: this collection of songs composed by the band addresses the abject terror of Milena’s rape at the age of 19. With life reduced to a big black nothingness during the lockdown, this traumatic experience caught up to her, causing her to tailspin into writing new songs.
After their intense, at times heart-stopping Redux performance, the band quickly knew that it was time to batten the hatches. “When we left the stage at Roadburn Redux having performed the first version of this album, we experienced a big high for a full five days,” Thomas says. “‘Wow, we just did that’. And now we’re witnessing how this has impacted people all over the world, and what kind of things it can unravel.”
“We’ve gotten so many sweet reactions, personal reactions from people who were emotional, who have experienced something similar, who felt comforted. Or knew people who have been through a similar thing. They felt understood,” Milena adds. “That’s something very precious and worthwhile. It was a healing experience. I can’t say, however, I walked out of that experience happier or more upbeat.”
Organising the Redux show with music venue 013, even under the strict corona protocols, was a rewarding experience for the band. However, the protocols themselves did symbolise a point of no return. “After the show we had to clear up in a certain way, finish in a certain way, and then we were allowed to sit in a room in the dungeon of 013,” Milena remembers. “Once we were there we couldn’t go back. We were only allowed to go outside. In that room we could only eat and watch the show again. Which is unusual, because normally you can’t do that at all.”
After the performance, Roadburn’s founding father Walter Hoeijmakers briefly came in to say hello, and the first plans were made. One thing Milena wanted to do differently was to add live strings instead of synthesised ones. The spare exchange was sweet and encouraging. But, all things considered, it was time to face this inevitability.
From the black abyss emerges a chiseled figure: Milena dressed in full armor like a modern-day Joan of Arc. When flippantly asked on what it was like to don this shiny, heroic-looking piece of apparel, she readily points out it left permanent physical scars on her body.
“You can’t lift it. You’d think, ‘this is what people used to do back in the day’. But I couldn’t do it. It was quite extreme. It was really really heavy,” she says. “But, in hindsight, we felt it was symbolic in a way. The whole concept of the knight’s armor is to visualise what This Shame Should Not Be Mine is about. It’s something you carry around with you. And perhaps the boundary that remains between you and other people. It might look badass, but it’s actually a device that wards off physical contact, to help protect yourself. And on top of that, it impairs your movement. So it’s the perfect analogy. As far as heaviness goes, it was pretty on-point. Going in, I had no idea how heavy the armor was going to be.”
Thomas parries my remark on how ‘cool’ the armor looks back at me. “It’s kind of on-point as well that you called it ‘cool’. ‘Coolness’ is often an armor people wear to not be vulnerable. If you present yourself as ‘cool’ you are…”
“ …untouchable”, Milena interjects, as close couples often do, finishing each other’s sentences as if they’re occupying the same cerebral cortex. “And that was another reason: it does look kind of badass. It’s as if I’m returning from a battle. It’s a look of toughness and resilience. But it’s actually showing a very vulnerable state.”
Wait a second. More vulnerable than the cover of Optimist, which shows a closeup of Milena as a newborn infant weeping? More vulnerable even than the cover of Why Aren’t You Laughing? which shows an anonymous female figure shielded from some kind of harmful encounter? This is something worth unpacking. After all, since No Image, GGGOLDDD’s album campaigns have been insistently contrarian compared to many bands of their ilk, who often depict the woman vocalist front and center, often in some kind of elegantly embroidered dress.
GGGOLDDD have always stressed their work is the product of six equals sharing the same creative and intellectual footing. Thomas: “I hope the outside world will see that as well, because over the past 12 years we’ve encountered plenty of instances of the patriarchal construct that I’m supposedly the band leader – because I’m a guy – and Milena ‘just the singer’.”
The creative decision to finally employ Milena’s image for This Shame Should Not Be Mine was easy and self-evident, though executed on GGGOLDDD’s own terms. To discard the old ‘GOLD’-spelling was another gesture of stepping away from safe anonymity, and gradually towards the piercing light.
“I do think that out of all the records we’ve ever made, this is the most intimate one yet,” Milena says. “If you listen to this album, you will know what went through my head as I was writing it. And that’s the reason why I’m on the cover. This is my story, not the story told by GGGOLDDD as a band. Before, our music was about subject matter the whole band could stand behind. This Shame Should Not be Mine is a document of my trauma. It’s in a way weird to have others on the cover because they haven’t experienced it.”
The easiest call to make was to record the album in the UK at producer Jaime Gomez Arrelano’s Orgone Studio, the same place GGGOLDDD recorded Why Aren’t You Laughing?. “First and foremost, we were really happy with how Why Aren’t You Laughing? sounded, so that’s where it started,” Milena explains. “And next to that, all the extra reasons to find someplace familiar and comfortable, a place where I knew what I was getting into. Where I could exert some level of control: and for this record, there’s nothing more important than regaining control of your narrative.”
Opening cut “I Wish I was a Wild Thing With a Simple Heart” is essentially GGGOLDDD’s version of a sad country ballad, albeit disguised with spine-chilling string flourishes and sinister John Carpenter-ish synth stabs. “We were thinking on how to start an album with such a heavy subject. It felt a bit invasive to immediately jump into the heart of the trauma,” Milena recalls. “We’ve written the songs that come afterwards at an earlier stage. But this one was written later, as a way of saying: it’s good to see disaster coming, to simply express that you wish you hadn’t experienced such a thing. That you were just skipping around into the meadows. But that didn’t work out. It’s like a precursor, or an announcement, so the listener can be familiarised and prepared for the tragedy that’s to come. Otherwise it just blindsides you in this crude manner.”
Thomas rises from his seat with a dumbstruck eureka-smile. “Something I realised just now, is that the song is in fact a remnant – and that might sound a bit discourteous – of Why Aren’t You Laughing?. A part of that song was also recorded when we did the sessions for that album.”
Milena weighs in. ”We never released it because it hadn’t found its place yet. It wasn’t good enough yet. The words were completely different, but the vocal lines were already there. The melody was there.”
Thomas: “It’s funny that it became the opening for This Shame Should Not Be Mine, subconsciously.”
Milena: “And I think it refers to all the records that have addressed this subject, just never this explicitly. For Why Aren’t You Laughing?, those were songs that touched on the subject of abuse, but more about feeling this pending disaster, just not as concrete about the cause of it. So it might have been logical for that song to have existed in that form.”
This is another seemingly insignificant example of the ripple effect a traumatic, violent experience causes in your very core. It often takes years to process rape and sexual assault, sometimes to realise rape and sexual assault were in fact rape and sexual assault. In the wake of her own trauma, Arabella, the main character of hit HBO series I May Destroy You played by Michaela Coel, is at one point depicted trivializing her experience by equating it to global trauma, repeating the line “There are hungry children” like a mantra to tune out her own deep-seated distress.
In typical GGGOLDDD fashion, This Shame Should Not BeMine deconstructs all the stages of sexual trauma with the precision of a scalpel. Or in this case, maybe, a mighty broadsword. Each song carves out a specific stage of coping with abuse. Carried by stark electronic drum rolls, “Strawberry Supper” channels the frantic push-and-pull between being vulnerable and opening up to someone, and realising that a sacred trust has been broken. “Did you ever think about the receipts I kept?” Milena seethes halfway, as the song crumbles like a natural disaster.
The minimal synth-driven “Spring” narrates the direct aftermath of rape in unflinching realtime, with no cryptic analogies to soften the blow or to escape in. “I wanna shower till my skin comes off,” Milena sings with a resolute steely delivery. “Invisible” meanwhile features gatling gun beats and industrial-inspired squalls of guitar, but it’s somehow at its heaviest in complete silence, as Milena’s voice struggles with an emptiness and loneliness she can’t yet comprehend.
“Notes On How To Trust” meanwhile touches on an often understated side effect of experiencing sexual violence: the way it essentially keeps you from fully connecting to your social environment, and specifically, relationships. For Milena, it has been quite a detour to land in a place where she can be vulnerable again, to not always be on her guard and reaching for her weapon.
At one point in our conversation she recollects a more innocent time, the joy of wanting to play an instrument as a kid. She was fond of classical music, and especially the deep bellow of the upright bass. Unfortunately, she was too small to actually wield the damn thing. So she quickly settled on the next best instrument to enunciate that primal, guttural quality: the cello. At home, her cello is perched proudly in the living room like a prized relic. “It’s the basis for why I decided to make music,” she says.
When asked how she met Thomas, the duo infectiously start giving each other ribbings, briefly astray into their flirty adolescent selves. Thomas shrugs and lets out an uneasy chuckle. “Before I played in GGGOLDDD I was guitarist in The Devil’s Blood, and Milena came to our show in (Rotterdam-based venue) Baroeg once, back in 2009. We met each other at my 31s birthday party…” The normally articulate musician stumbles over his words and darts his eyes boyishly at Milena, who retorts his testimony in mock-incredulous fashion.
“‘Milena was invited too’”, she puzzles with wide eyes, conveying the quotation marks with two fingers on each hand. “I was invited by Thomas… he now acts like I miraculously got there! I was invited by him and he thinks he didn’t invite me. He later said, ‘I invited everyone!’ But I thought he invited me. So I went there on my own, but I was very brave!”
At the time, Milena was a big fan of The Devil’s Blood, a Satanic rock band fronted by the late Selim Lemouchi. The Devil’s Blood wasn’t much for subtlety either: the band garnered a following for intense live shows that involved actual blood rituals. “I initially thought, hmm, I don’t know if I could be into someone who pours blood on his head. Of course, it was also just really fucking nasty,” Milena recalls. “But I knew someone who knew him, and I wanted to find out if Thomas was a nice guy. And she told me he is actually extremely sweet. Then I thought: that’s someone I must get to know better.”
After calmly deconstructing the notion of ‘being cool’ as an armor earlier, Thomas circles back to it when remembering his younger self. “I was the textbook example for this. It was never my intention, but people would always tell me ‘You’re so cool’. It always irked me a bit because it means I created a distance between people and myself. With men, that’s always seen as a quality. So, in that respect, I was definitely cool back then. I did things back then you wouldn’t imagine today: I walked in a Ted Nugent-shirt. I was definitely ‘cool’. I’ve definitely shed some of that skin the past 12, 13 years. That should be a part of growing up for everyone, to try to break down the walls you’ve built around yourself.”
After leaving The Devil’s Blood, Thomas immediately started GGGOLDDD with Milena. Their debut album Interbellum – with parts of The Devil’s Blood occult symbolism still audible in its retro-rock stylistics – is something the two look back at as decidedly uncool.
“I can definitely hear you overcompensating on Interbellum,” Milena remarked back in 2020, turning to Thomas on their rooftop yard. “You wanted to be a virtuoso on guitar, which you probably aren’t. For me it was the same, I wanted to show everybody I could sing, that I had this range. In hindsight, I think we were trying to impress everybody. The Devil’s Blood was such an important band for us, our scene and our friends. It was the center of everything, so it was hard to step aside and do something different.”
“What I didn’t know back then, but what I realised later, is that Interbellum was an exercise in songwriting,” Thomas recollected in that same conversation. “There are some good catchy songs on there with a head and a tail, they are dynamic. That probably was what I was doing at the time: writing songs without really showing myself through the music I was making. The same goes for Milena. The record lacks our own personality. In the process between Interbellum and No Image, that’s what we learned to discover. The process around No Image was about rediscovering ourselves.”
Even in their formative stages, it was clear GGGOLDDD had a potent vision to carry out. The album cover of Interbellum depicts a peacock in flight: a proud, elegant bird looking rather clumsy trying to outsmart the laws of gravity. After setting out to write the music that would become This Shame Should Not Be Mine for Roadburn Redux, Thomas and Milena aimed to rediscover their clumsy, naïve selves after three records jam-packed with shell-shocking, prosaic reality bombs.
Thomas: “We had no time really to think it through: we only had half a year to prepare this live show – that small window of time was so stressful in and of itself.”
“We couldn’t really meet with the entire band either during that time,” Milena continues. “We had to write enough songs in quarantine, we had to make a selection and rehearse that selection of songs enough to do a really great live show, You can’t really improvise with that during a livestream.” She pauses and stares a thousand yard stare. ”It was a very extreme time.”
“It was a technical stage setup that was completely unknown to me as well,” Thomas adds. “I had to learn really quickly how to get that under control. There was no time to really think it through. We figured, ‘First things first, let’s make it to Roadburn Redux and when that’s behind us, we’ll see where we take this further.”
Within 24 hours, encouraged by Walter Hoeijmakers’s backstage visit, they knew This Shame Should Not Be Mine was going to be a record. And where previous GGGOLDDD records merely flirted with the non-goth rock/non-black metal influences – namely Portishead, Kanye West and The Knife – this time, the band is fully done pleasing genre purists.
Thomas explains with palpable enthusiasm how experimenting with synths and electronics was another welcome source of joy for the couple. More importantly, it provided the primal abstraction necessary to properly evoke the many wounds Milena had to reopen, to make the stress bearable. “This was a different process from other GGGOLDDD albums,” she says. “We were both looking for something primal way to write, just turn some knobs, feel our way in the dark and hoping things would turn alright. Plus hoping you can recreate that, which is always tricky with synths.”
The slow-burning, sparse “I Won’t Let You Down”, on the other hand, might be the most organic-sounding song on the record, and certainly the most opaque one lyrically. Sitting in the middle of the record, it breaks up the album in a pleasant tranquility. When the song is addressed, GGGOLDDD once again affirm that when it comes to their music, nothing is quite what it seems.
“I wrote “I Won’t Let You Down” as a declaration of love for myself. It was the hardest song to record. Because it’s the hardest thing to tell yourself,” Milena asserts.
Thomas: “It’s funny you say that, because you recorded the vocals very quickly.”
“It’s the most I’ve cried during the recording process,” Milena replies. “It was the hardest song to listen to. Because it shakes the core of what rape does to you.”
For a record that delivers such a heavy testimonial on rape and abuse, one tends to highlight the toil and diminish the ad hoc glints of joy and triumph that transpire when no one’s watching. On GGGOLDDD’s Instagram feed, they posted a behind the scenes picture of Milena from the (in more ways than one) trigger-inducing video of This Shame Should Not Be Mine’s title track. Her wicked smile and the blood spatter loosely channel the coy promotional photos of hit TV Show Dexter.
It shows GGGOLDDD’s underrated sense of humor and whip-smart self-awareness, unafraid to subvert their own seriousness with a playful wink every now and then. Reality may be heavy, but reality can also be as light as you dare make it. “We wanted to show the music video isn’t reality,” Milena wryly comments. “And that there are real people behind it. And to show that, yes, I do smile ever so often.”
Even as they were committing these earth shattering songs to tape, Thomas and Milena shared a brief moment while taking a break from recording, skipping innocently across the green meadows like a bunch of happily aloof Disney characters. It shows that love and levity are more than worthy adversaries to all the ugliness, and that fighting doesn’t always entail pointing around a big ass sword.
“I think music is the thing I love to do most, and I knew I had to deal with it through that vessel, so in that respect, there is a sense of joy in it, for sure,” Milena says. “It’s a manic way to give your notions of such a subject a clear direction. And maybe a little bit of closure as well. I think I’ve been very kind to myself on this album, because in everyday life I am not.”
“And you’re cheering yourself on,” Thomas adds. “The ending of the album with “Beat By Beat”… it’s not just a dawning on something about yourself, but also an encouragement. ‘Okay, it’s time to move forward, to take those steps and figure out how to leave this behind us. ‘This shame should not be mine’ is a mantra in and of itself in a way. These are not just statements, they are reminders to yourself, to help yourself propel forward.”
It may be a super uncool and cheesy thing to say, but beneath all that heavy iron-clad armor, GGGOLDDD’s heart never skipped a single beat.
This Shame Should Not Be Mine is out now via Artoffact Records. The band will perform the album live at Roadburn April 22 2022, with an actual (somewhat uncool maybe compared to synths) string section this time.