Out of Exile: Calgary doom-metal act Mares of Thrace’s long-awaited return sounds like a seizure

Psst. Wake up. No, really, WAKE UP! If you need a shot of rhythm and blues to get you out of your spring rut, you ain’t finding it on the new Mares of Thrace album, The Exile, but if you want to roll over Beethoven and back up over him again, grinding gears and music into a sweet muddy pulp of wailing vocals riding the crest of walloping jackhammer rhythms, look no further. This truly is music you can’t sleep through.

The band, anchored by singer and guitarist Thérèse Lanz, put out their last album, The Pilgrimage, based on King David’s relationship with Bathsheba, in 2012 after having formed in Calgary in 2009 and releasing The Moulting, igniting a campus radio love affair.

If 10 years between albums seems to be pushing into Guns N’ Roses or Liz Phair territory, it’s not without good reason. Speaking via Zoom from Halifax, where she’s lived for nearly seven years, while packing for a move back to Calgary, Lanz, a video game developer, explains. “The hiatus — it’s been 10 years since we’ve put our last record out and I’ve had a fair amount of questions about that.

“At the time, our industry didn’t exist in Calgary. Now it does, which is great, but, I had to move to Chicago and my first big-girl job was out here in Halifax, so it didn’t leave a lot of time for playing metal, unfortunately.”

While there wasn’t a lot of time for playing music while Lanz was in Chicago, there was some time for seeing it live. “(For) my specific musical subgenre interests, Chicago was like paradise. I was so spoiled. My favourite bands, who I didn’t think I’d get to see in my entire life, would be playing on a Wednesday to like, 40 people, and I was like, ‘I have homework, I have to do my homework. They’re going to be back in six months.’

“And now, after the two-year live music drought, I’ve been kicking myself for being so spoiled about it. And also, not a lot of people stop here (in Halifax) on tour, too. Moral of the story is don’t take live music for granted.” Amen.

So, who were those favourite bands who would be playing to 40 people on a Wednesday night? “The Melvins, Godflesh, Low. I can tell from the delight on your face you probably can relate to how I was shitting my pants about seeing these bands. Then there was like the local bands, sort of peers of my bands, that would play.” 

Arriving in Halifax, Lanz encountered new barriers to thrashing out tunes. “The video game industry has a compulsory demand for brutal but unpaid overtime. I definitely worked some 100-hour weeks in there.

“There is also the fact that in Calgary I could call up a few friends and say, ‘Hey, do you want to start a death metal band or a bluegrass band?’ and I’d know somebody who’d be able to do it. But starting from scratch in a new scene, I found … especially as an adult, as someone in my thirties, you just can’t really blend in as seamlessly to mingle and to meet people, whereas in Calgary, being in bands is like being on autopilot.”

One of the bands Lanz started back then was named Kilbourne, after an impactful Native Studies professor, Dr. Jean Kilbourne, during Lanz’s communication degree. “She produced a series called Killing Us Softly that was all about the image of women in advertising. I was like, ‘I’m going to name a band after her.’ 

“And I did. And I wrote her an e-mail saying, ‘Hey, here’s fan mail. I named my punk band after you.’ And she said it was the only accolade in her entire lauded career that ever impressed her teenage daughter.”

As for the name of her current band, Lanz expands: “Mares of Thrace are legendary horses from Greek mythology that ate the flesh of the person who owned then and breathed fire and drank blood, and it was one of Hercules’ labours to capture them. I’ll always be a mythology fan as Steph (MacKichan) our previous drummer and I are.” (Lanz is now joined by Casey Rogers on drums and bass in the band.)

Some of which explains why Biblical themes and other legends come up in song, although they can be challenging to decipher over the walloping music. And good luck finding any hints online. “Um, I’m kind of glad my lyrics aren’t on the internet; that’s kind of like people reading my diary.

“It’s only very grudgingly that I actually print them in the liner notes.”

Yet, so many intriguing themes abound, like the song Dead French Mathematicians, released after The Pilgrimage. “That was when I was first studying game development, in particular 3D math. There were a lot of dead French mathematicians. Their names kept coming up in algorithms — which were used to calculate equations and formulae that are used to calculate 3D math, basically. And so Dead French Mathematicians were on my mind then.”

Then there’s Onward, Ever Onward, the intriguing opening track on The Exile, written after Lanz was depressed over Donald Trump’s win and wanted to live her values. She ended up volunteering to teach English to newcomers at Halifax’s downtown library. “I was picturing they would pair me up with like, a sweet old gramma from the countryside, but I got a woman (Rija) who was my age and was sarcastic and loved art films and hip-hop so we became really good friends. She wasn’t like my student. We just hung out and talked shit, which, I helped her practice talking shit in English and so that song is about her.

“There is a strong theme; this is a very oceanic record. As a Calgary person, I’m completely bewitched by the ocean. I can see it almost outside my apartment. It’s totally magic; I’m going to miss it.

“My Syrian friend said that to her, every time she saw the sea, it just made her think of loss, and I thought, ‘I’m going to write a song about that.’ Well, I didn’t think that because that feels weird and creepy and vulturish, but it stuck with me long enough that I did write a song about it, I guess.”

Still, with a dad who came from Switzerland and a journalist mom who fled the Marcos-era Philippines, each coming to start a new life in Canada, it seems journey songs are natural to Lanz. In fact, natural it is — there is no artifice to her writing.

“It’s not really cerebral, it’s like a seizure,” she says, which explains why at times, her music sounds like it’s having one.

“I just pick up a guitar in my hands and just move around, roam around, until something sounds evil and the rest just barfs out of me. Honestly, it’s really instinctive and reflective. It’s not cerebral at all. There’s no music theory involved.”

Find Mares of Thrace’s The Exile on Sonic Unyon Records and a streaming platform near you.