As a high-flying executive with a semiconductor multinational John Murphy lived a life comparable to that of George Clooney in the movie Up The Air. He was constantly on the go, jetting from his home in Kanturk, Co Cork, to meetings as far away as San Francisco and South Korea.
But then the pandemic struck. There would be no more international travel, just endless Zoom meetings. And so the softly spoken PhD graduate’s thoughts turned to his second life – fronting extreme metal band For Ruin. With the world flipped upside down it was, he decided, time to revive a project that served as a conduit for his anger and frustration but also his hope and sense of adventure.
“A lot of metal is about escapism,” he says, speaking from outside his converted studio high on a hill on the outskirts of Kanturk. “It’s about forgetting what you are doing all day. As a kid I would stare at the album covers of my favourite metal bands. When you wore a band t-shirt – it identified you as someone who is listening to something that wasn’t on the radio.”
For Ruin’s “extreme” metal isn’t for the faint-hearted. Murphy can sing – he has fronted pub bands, belting out songs by Sting and Lionel Richie. And he demonstrates his vocal prowess For Ruin’s recent Elapse EP. At the same time, he enjoys a good protean scream as much as the next headbanger.
“Extreme for a lot of people means growled vocals,” he nods. “And yes, I’ve done that for years. People might be familiar with more regular heavy metal – Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath. Extreme metal is…more extreme.”
Murphy put together For Ruin in 2003 when he was still still studying at Cork Institute of Technology. This makes him a veteran of Cork heavy metal, a scene which has had its ups and downs but, until Covid, appeared to have entered a new golden age.
A number of factors have come together to reinvigorate Cork metal. In 2017, new promoters Paranoid Beast were formed and started putting on gigs, initially at the Poor Relation pub at Parnell Place.
Social media was meanwhile making it easier for artists to get their music to fans – further fostering a feeling of community. The real catalyst, however, has been the emergence of a generation of dynamic new talent.
“There is a great diverse scene right now,” says Richard Duhig, a metal veteran who hosts the Metal Cell podcast from his home studio in Ladysbridge in East Cork. “You have bands like Bailer, God Alone, Red Sun Alert, Coroza.”
These groups are not always metal in the traditional sense. Red Sun Alert, for instance, describe themselves as “post hardcore”; Bailer classify their music as Hardcore/Alt/Metalcore. One difference between these younger acts and older stalwarts, says Duhig, is that the newer material is often in a higher tempo.
“They’ve brought a younger and different set of fans to the scene. The new bands are vibrant and have more energy A lot of the older bands are slow. A band such as God Alone – they can definitely get an audience to move and jump around. A lot of the older fans would be standing back with jaws on the floor that it’s that good.” “I would argue that Cork is one of the better locations outside of Dublin,” says Ciaran Coghlan, Midleton-based guitarist with aforementioned “doom, sludge and stoner” metal quartet Coroza. “It has one of the most bustling scenes of the metal community in Ireland. So many bands have sprung out of Cork in the past four or five years. “
One huge leap forward has been the Monolith festival, which Paranoid Beast put on at Cyprus Avenue on Caroline Street in 2108 and 2019 – and which, circumstances allowing, is due to return in 2021.
This, says Duhig, has served as a rallying point for the metal community and has drawn fans of all ages and tastes. He compares metal in Cork at the moment to the Leeside indie movement of the early Nineties, and groups such as Sultans of Ping, the Frank and Walters and Emperor of Ice Cream.
“Going back nearly 40 years Cork bands – whether metal indie or pop – have always celebrated being unique or weird,” he says. “Up until the pandemic things were as exciting and prosperous as they've ever been,” adds Daniel Howard, a metal DJ, co-presenter of Metal Cell and a member of much-missed band Five Will Die and newcomers Partholón (see panel).
“There was a real sense of quality and commitment across the board, from bands, studio engineers, punters and promoters,” he says. “There really was a feeling that the Cork alternative [metal] scene was approaching something remarkable by any standard. Right now, everything is naturally uncertain, but we're still seeing bands embrace the times with some interesting and creative content.
“There's some incredible young musicians coming through that have been a real wake up call to established bands on the scene,” he continues. “God Alone have been blowing minds regularly over the past year or two. Highly recommended for fans of any genre."
Richard Duhig name-checks Cork Rehearsal Studios on Upper Dublin Hill for playing a huge role in fostering a sense of community. “It opened in 2006. There are around 10 rehearsal rooms,” he says. “A lot of the bands know each other and will guest on each other’s stuff.”
“Cork Rehearsal Studios is one of the last bastions of somewhere you can actually go to play and also hang out with your friends,” agrees Coroza’s Ciaran Coghlan. “Richie Cunningham, who runs it, provides such excellent service. You could spend the whole day there hanging out chatting and playing music. Whatever you want.”
All that being said, the metal remains niche. “A lot of Irish people think metal is only the extreme stuff,” says Paul Quinn, guitarist with doom metal band, The Grief, who released a new EP, Descent, in October.
“I used to live in Finland and you’d go into the equivalent of SuperValu and you’d hear poppy metal on the radio. Even in England there’s quite a big scene. Irish people don’t necessarily want that aggression. Irish people in general want something in the singer-songwriter vein. There’s a different mood to it.”
“You never hear metal on radio,” says Coghlan, who this year took advantage of lockdown to record a solo side project as The Astralist. "Unless it’s select bands who have worked their way up through the NME or whoever.
“There used to be radio stations that would play it late at night. But that’s gone away. It has drifted into alternative media, places such as [Irish online metal radio stations] Cranium Titanium and From The Depths. For an underground band, the biggest option for getting your stuff out there is [online music portal and distributor] Bandcamp.”
Quinn got into metal via “gateway drugs” such as Nirvana and Metallica. And, of course, heavy rock has coursed through Cork’s musical veins, from Rory Gallagher via the industrial-influenced Fatima Mansions (who covered metal-adjacent icons Ministry) and Nineties heavy indie group Cyclefly.
“Rory's influence on the Cork scene was two-fold; through his incredible gigs in the City Hall which established Cork as a viable destination for international touring bands and through his amazing guitar skills,” says Duhig. “However like most iconic guitar players, it took a couple of years for his true talent to be recognised after he passed away. A lot of young metal bands coming through now, will acknowledge Rory as an influence through his music being played by their fathers, uncles and reading about him being an internationally recognised greats of the guitar and his iconic Fender.”
“In the early Nineties, everyone was into loads of different things,” says The Grief's Paul Quinn.
“I realised I really liked the heavier stuff. I discovered the early Metallica albums. And then groups such as Slayer. I just loved it. I started playing guitar with a friend of mine. That was amazing. Some people grow out of it because they were into it just for the image. I loved the music. It stuck with me.”
“I went to my first show in 1995, sneaking into a hardcore gig upstairs in the old Phoenix bar,” says Howard. “At that time, you had bands such as Belenus, Carnún, Sludgehook, Virtue, Kerosene and countless others.
“There was a legacy of other bands from the early Nineties for sure, but that was slightly before my time. For me, Ten Point Rule were the catalyst for so many bands that came after. They had a show in the Phoenix around 1999 and the amount of bands formed on the back of that performance is still growing.“
One issue down the decades has been lack of infrastructure – in particular venues for bands to play. “Back when I was a kid growing up and going to gigs, Nancy Spain's was the focal point,” remembers John Murphy. “International bands such as Paradise Lost from the UK and Obituary from Florida would come over. When Nancy’s closed it was a big loss. The outlook brightened again though in the mid-2000s with An Crúiscín Lán on Douglas Street began putting on shows.
“You were getting some of the biggest acts,” says Murphy. “People like Cannibal Corpse, Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death. Bands even a casual music fan would have heard of. It shut in the late 2000s and things took a bit of a dive.”
“At the time you had a few promoters around Cork but it was very random,” says Duhig. “You didn’t know when the gig was coming up. Paranoid Beast was set up with the whole idea of promoting Cork bands.
“You were all of a sudden guaranteed a gig every few months. They started off in the Poor Relation and did it the old school way: putting up posters and promoting through social media. They would put on one or two Cork bands and bands from Galway or Belfast.
“The scene evolved from them constantly putting on gigs. And then, because you were guaranteed an audience in Cork, you had bands from the country wanting to come down. And then the old gang started to come back.”
Fred Zeppelins also gets namechecked as a venue.
Obviously Covid has the potential to undo much of the progress. “I worry for the venues right now,” says Howard. “It's hard to see how some of them can bounce back from nine months of no business. I worry that alternative [metal]will be pushed to one side in favour of stock entertainment once things get back on track.
“It's always been an overlooked and under-appreciated art form that seems to exist in a sort of mainstream purgatory anyways. It doesn't marry well with terms of business and regulation, so it's difficult to identify what would help from that perspective. What Cork does have is some very determined personnel to make things work.” Still, in the medium term the hope is that Cork metal can carry on where it left off.
“There’s definitely been a resurgence,” says For Ruin’s John Murphy. “You have, for instance, a lot of seriously talented drummers. Drummers were always difficult to find. You were only ever as good as your weakest link. Now, you’ve got all these kids coming up who’ve learned to play drums on YouTube. Starting at around 15, they’re learning all these techniques way beyond someone of my vintage. The scene really has had a shot in the arm in the past few years.”
“One of the best acts out there in Ireland at the moment. Renowned for their blistering live shows, which generate incredible energy between themselves and their fans, and for a string of terrific releases.”
“The brilliant God Alone would enjoy defying most categories people would like to put them in, it seems. It’s a strength the band subtly play up to, despite the unbelievable musical craftsmanship on display.”
“Heaviness rests well in the arms of Coroza and they are a fine example of a band that deliver it in huge slabs.”
“Progressive sludge/post metal four-piece – an experienced band that just oozes class. Live shows are an uniquely intense sonic affair.”
“Having listened to Worn Out’s still unreleased EP, I get the feeling that they are ready to fulfil their early promise as one of the most exciting Irish metal/hardcore bands out there. The four-piece are like many bands at the moment caught in a Covid limbo waiting to charge out the gate with a spate of gigs for 2021.”