It’s the late sixteenth-century, and Queen Elizabeth has approved the settlement of a colony in the New World. In 1587, one hundred and fifteen Englanders venture across the Atlantic, leaving behind their home forever. After arriving on what is today the coast of North Carolina, the colonists struggle to adapt to their new environment, and supplies begin to run low. They send their governor, John White, back home to plead for help. Delayed three years by the Spanish-English War, White finally returns to the colony in 1590 and finds it abandoned. There are no signs of struggle or panicked decampment. The only clues: “CROATAN” (the name of a local native tribe) carved into a fence post, and “C-R-O” carved into a tree.
The disappearance of the Roanoke Colony, or “The Lost Colony,” is one of the great mysteries of American history and the backdrop of A Ruined Oak, the new LP from sludge metal band Omotai.
In A Ruined Oak, soundscape is landscape; the music evokes the land the colonists settled, and the words tell their story and the natives’ story. A Ruined Oak is thus a visceral experience. You feel the natives’ anger as their land is stolen from them and the fear that must have gripped the colonists as they stood, for the first time, ashore in the New World, between the Atlantic and the dark woods that became home to them.
Halfway through the first track “Welcome to the Adder’s Land,” the band transports us to that shore. Bassist Melissa Lonchambon Ryan and drummer Daniel Mee play an interlude that sways like the trees that rocked in the wind and loomed over the colonists, and it segues into a pulverizing guitar solo, tumultuous as a summer sea. After the bridge, Sam Waters — Omotai’s songwriter, one of two guitarists (Jamie Ross being the other), and main vocalist — yells, “Don’t look back . . . forget your home,” which we can imagine the realistic colonists saying to the sentimental ones, who comforted themselves with the delusion of returning to England one day.
But Waters does shift the focus back to England on “Arms That Flood,” during which Governor John White updates Queen Elizabeth on the colony’s dire situation: “Lizzie Queen . . . it ain’t a pretty scene,” he begins. “Arms That Flood” is a foreboding slow-burner; something nefarious glares from behind the song’s primary chord progression, which moves throughout “Arms That Flood” with a skulking cadence. The lyrics betray the guile of a politician doing shady dealings with corrupt colleagues behind closed doors: “You know they’ve got no sword. You know they’ve got no armor. Depleted feed, we made / some enemies. So I petition thee to send laden fleet Arms that / flood the land with blood,” the governor requests.
At this point, the music crescendos: a solo, wicked and somewhat distant-sounding, foreshadows the violence White hopes to inflict on the natives, and the band transitions seamlessly into that skulking chord progression, which closes “Arms That Flood.” By the end, this chord progression and variations of it have been played so much that it feels mechanical, like dutiful soldiers following strict orders, marching into a future full of genocide and white tyranny.
Immediately after “Arms That Flood,” Waters gives us the native’s perspective in “Blackjaw.” “Blackjaw” is a sharp contrast to “Arms That Flood.” The difference between these songs reflects the difference in the characters Blackjaw (presumably the chief of a tribe neighboring the Roanoke settlement or the tribe’s elite warrior) and Governor White.
Blackjaw is spiritual, a prophet of sorts, who relates a warning to his tribe and resorts to killing only to defend his people and their land: “Wise owl came and told me Strangers came in from the sea / survival note guaranteed / Tribe is looking to me.” White, on the other hand, is a materialist who concerns himself only with expanding England’s empire, and to accomplish this expansion, he proposes genocide (“flood the land with blood”).
With the characters of Blackjaw and White, Waters inverts the symbolic implications of the colors white and black. In Western culture, the color white often connotes purity and virtue, whereas black connotes impurity and sin. In A Ruined Oak, John White is evil and murderous, whereas Blackjaw is virtuous, a hero who risks his life for his people. And Blackjaw as a narrator is upfront, letting his intention be known from the start, though “black” suggests obscurity. White, whose name suggests transparency (you can, for example, easily spot anything that has fallen on a blanket of snow) is deceptive. Notice that White saves his request for an army till the very end of his plea to Queen Elizabeth, giving no hint before the song’s final line that genocide is what he really has in mind. The serious issues he raises — the colony’s inability to defend itself and its low food supply — do not necessitate the extermination of an entire people (nothing ever does), yet White tacks that on at the end in an attempt to justify it with legitimate problems.
The music on “Blackjaw” is, like its namesake, straightforward: a full-on charge with galloping drums and muscular metal riffs, though its headlong momentum has the feel of a punk song. “Blackjaw” never makes you suspicious that something terrible prowls in its chording or in its cadence. Nor do you get the sense that you have been shrouded by a colossal shadow of doom preceding a colossal tragedy.
I’ve spent a lot of space dwelling on these two songs, but they represent the breadth of A Ruined Oak. With twelve songs that range anywhere from just under three minutes to over nine minutes, the album sprawls: geographically, narratively, musically, and vocally (though Waters is the main vocalist, the other three members help with the screaming, and Lonchambon Ryan occasionally sings). Moreover, “Arms That Flood” and “Blackjaw” together express the album’s major theme: the coming war between the Anglo invaders and the natives.
If you want a heavy metal take on this slice of history, pick up A Ruined Oak on Tofu Carnage Records.