Photo: Eliza Janus / Hausu Mountain

Cybergrind Bibles & Messages to Ourselves: A Fire-Toolz Interview

Pivoting from cybergrind to New Age jazz within a song is nothing new for Fire-Toolz’s Angel Marcloid. What’s new is the fanbase she’s cultivating for her wild genre experiments.

I am upset because I see something that is not there.
Hausu Mountain
7 April 2023

The last time we spoke to Angel Marcloid of Fire-Toolz, she was taking a break from making some of the most sonically ambitious music in existence to take on something of real substance: what were her five favorite New Age jazz records?

To hear the music of Fire-Toolz, which careens from grindcore vocals backed by galloping tom thuds and heavy metal guitars to acoustic fingerpicked melodies that can be described as flowing and lithe, a love of New Age jazz is not out of the question. Marcloid has even released an album of “Weather Channel-core” styled instrumentals under the moniker of Nonlocal Forecast, one of several projects she is working on simultaneously. Since her 2018 breakthrough record as Fire-Toolz Skinless X-1, Marcloid has found an intense audience for her wild, ever-fascinating, experimental mix of styles into one utterly distinct aesthetic.

“When Fire-Toolz first started, the majority of my fanbase was from the noise community,” Marcloid tells PopMatters. “I had been making primarily noise music for a good five years before that, and so most of my followers were expecting that sort of thing from me. Naturally, many of them dropped off as my music began to get a little more melodic and sentimental. Around that time my music fit into the fringes of the vaporwave community to a certain degree, probably due to the visual aesthetics, the sample usage, and I guess some parts of some songs. I was pigeonholed pretty heavily as vaporwave around then because I don’t think anyone really knew what else to call it. This still happens pretty pervasively.

“On one hand it really bothers me,” she continues, “because the conglomeration of styles I channel is being erased and relabeled ‘vaporwave,’ which is absurdly reductive. I can’t imagine hearing metal, new age music, jazz fusion, noise, and electro-industrial just tagged as ‘vaporwave.’ But what can you do. On the other hand, it’s actually really awesome, because I do agree that there is some overlap, and I do feel at home inhabiting the vaporsphere. I think a lot of vaporwave acts are compatible with my music to the point where we could tour together, do splits, remixes, be on compilations together, etc. Some of this has already happened.”

While the constant collision of genres that makes Fire-Toolz’s music what it is has confounded as many as it’s entranced, Marcloid is riding a new wave of notoriety. Her latest album, I am upset because I see something that is not there., managed to hit its vinyl fundraising goal and then some, proving the resilience of her incredible and ever-growing fanbase.

“As time has gone on, people from all sorts of different scenes and communities have populated my following,” she notes. “There, of course, still are the noise and experimental fans and the vaporwavers, but there are a lot of prog and jazz fans that seem to enjoy it, as well as those more involved with forms of dance music, like progressive house, noisy techno, IDM, etc. There are also a bunch of emo and screamo fans who are able to pick up on that part of what I do, and then there are plenty of extreme metal heads as well. The cybergrind community is also starting to pick up on my work because they are embracing more diversity and don’t need their cybergrind to be constantly cyber-y and constantly grinding. Deathwish Inc. is including me on their playlists, and they’ve got some of my fav bands like Cave In and Converge on their roster. And at the same time, legendary vaporwave YouTube channel Vapor Memory uploaded one of my old albums. How many other artists are being both playlisted by Deathwish and being uploaded by Vapor Memory?!

“And then I’ve got support from extremely skilled musicians with Berklee cred like Adam Neely and Ben Levin who appreciate the melodic and rhythmic complexity,” she continues. “Additionally, session drummer John Sterling (Taylor Swift, Lana Del Ray) likes my stuff, and he’s engulfed in the pop world. Then members of groups like Thundercat, Thursday, HEALTH, Codeseven, Death Cab For Cutie, Capn Jazz, and Kayo Dot are also enjoying my work … it’s just un-fucking-real man. I don’t think a lot of other artists are able to experience something like this, this enormously diverse pool of fans. It’s not a brag or anything, my mind is just blown and I am just really grateful because that is such a cool thing and a dream come true. Everything I do is some kind of meta-hybrid, whether it’s how I decorate my room, how I dress, the music I like, and the spiritual traditions I align with. Being on the radar of so many different corners of the music world at the same time is heaven.”

There is a method to Marcloid’s madness, as the hairpin turns from one genre to another over the course of a single song are planned out, embellished, and meant to surprise her listeners, which it so often does. I am upset is a fascinating evolution as while it is unmistakably a Fire-Toolz record, there are longer passages of calm and sticking with a single sound, much as how Nonlocal Forecast largely sits in its own distinct wheelhouse for the length of an entire album. New Fire-Toolz track “Paraclete Bhishajyati”, in particular, rides a powerful guitar/sax pulse that feels oddly comforting, almost as if Marcloid’s latest radical act is playing around with conventional song structures just a bit.

Photo: Lyndon French / Hausu Mountain

“I think that Fire-Toolz does change over time, but I am not planning to become more accessible,” she clarifies. “I might make some more accessible songs, but like you’ve noted, on those same albums there may be other songs that are just pure gibberish to a radio DJ. I have been listening to a lot of AOR and soft rock, so I think that is where ‘Paraclete’ arose from. I was trying to channel a little Def Leppard with the clean guitar loop, and maybe a Christopher Cross jam from his latest album Take Me As I Am with the sax. Sometimes you just have to say something, and there are no words for it, so you make a really simple repetitive song that doesn’t change keys and just has sensual guitar and sax solos all through it. Sometimes that’s how we feel, so there’s gotta be a song for that.”

The album opens with a voice warning, “Angel, it’s not happening again,” right before the New Age synths flush in, followed by drum-n-bass breakbeats. In a recent interview with The Quietus, Marcloid noted this record’s themes are in reference to trauma, and that Fire-Toolz aesthetic, as chaotic as it is, is about healing trauma. Lyrically, there are often references to celestial bodies and/or geometric shapes, interplaying with first-person perspectives and references to objects, bedrooms, and shadows. When asked if her lyrics are Marcloid having conversations with herself or viewing outside perspectives, she quickly notes that her words are “constantly in conversation with myself.”

She goes on to clarify: “These other perspectives are not really ‘other’ perspectives because they are within myself. Everyone is made up of parts, and often those parts can have their own perspectives. Part of you wants to eat that banana because it knows it’s good for you. Another part thinks bananas are gross and doesn’t want to eat it. Another part thinks it’s silly that you care so much that you fight yourself on eating a fucking banana. Another part thinks the banana is phallic, which makes you giggle. Another part gets distracted and starts to think of ‘Banana Song’ by Sam Greenfield (which I mastered) and that ridiculous music video he made for it. A perspective that another person has is a perspective that is a part of you if that perspective is being considered by you. So that is how we go through life. All of these parts are always in dialogue with each other, or ignoring each other, or comforting each other, or at war with each other, or whatever it is. If you ever want to explore this, research IFS Therapy.

“A part of me knows it is not happening again,” she notes of that album-opening lyric. “A part of me knows it is. Another part of me is angry with me for not realizing it’s not. Another part is anxiously waiting for it to happen because it’s happened 100 times before, so it must happen again. Another part is actually manifesting it happening when it wouldn’t have otherwise because focusing on fearful thoughts can actually bring them into fruition. The mind hears “bad thing,” not necessarily “I don’t want the bad thing.” What we focus on can come to be in some capacity, even when we don’t want the thing we are focusing on. That voice opening the album is my wife’s voice, and she is reminding me of what some of my parts already know. But other parts don’t believe it. Those parts are stuck.

“Every lyric in every one of my songs has so many meanings and implications. It’s hard to give a linear explanation of any of it. The song meanings are more like Russian dolls. Meanings within meanings within meanings. None of the meanings are wrong, and none of them are more or less important, they just exist at different levels and represent different layers. It’s all the same doll. Dolls all the way down. Or, turtles.”

The time when we spoke to Marcloid was right around when the 2023 Oscars were happening, of which professional pop songwriter Diane Warren was nominated for Best Original Song for the umpteenth time. In starting a conversation about process, I noted how I caught an interview where Warren says she treats songwriting like a day job, going in to her studio every day and pounding out music and lyrics, not all of them useable, until she’s found the shape she’s aiming for to give to a movie or artist or any other interested party. In response, Marcloid bluntly notes that “Warren’s process sounds utterly miserable. I could never work like that. It would be far, far too depressing throwing away all those ideas. I don’t let most of my ideas go like that. I don’t believe that they aren’t worthy just because some big film doesn’t accept it. If I was working on music for a film, all the songs they rejected would wind up on an EP or a compilation or something. I finish 98% of my ideas and they materialize eventually, even if it takes years.

Photo: Eliza Janus / Hausu Mountain

“Yes, always tinkering,” she clarifies. “But intently, sometimes aggressively. Music is work and fun. If it were just fun, I wouldn’t be able to make a living with it. If it were just work, I’d be miserable in my job. I am not saying that crafting music is my job … I mix and master other people’s music for a living. But I kind of lump it all together because the lines between mixing and producing can be blurry, and the lines between re-working someone else’s music and making my own can be blurry.

“I don’t think the creation process gets easier really. I guess it can, but then I’ll get some new VST or something that I have to learn. I am a perfectionist but not in the way one might think. It has to feel perfectly right to me, even if technically something may be imperfect. I look back now and cringe a little at some of my mixing choices, but being a perfectionist cannot save you from hindsight. I don’t really hold myself to standards. I do need to feel good about what I release, but that doesn’t feel like a standard. It just feels like a law of the universe.”

While Angel notes that there are several other New Age jazz records she’d add to her list since we last spoke (including albums by Maxxess, Jim Bartz, Richard Souther, Twelve Tribes, Dave Blamires Group, Sam Cardon, Dan Siegel, Fred Simon, Mysia, Checkfield, and Marcloid’s beloved Kyle Jameson), the art of making music, of pulling on so many genre strands to weave together an article as gorgeous as it is unexpected, remains as close to a non-denominational spiritual experience as one could have.

“The most spiritual part of any record I make is watching meanings and messages form as it comes together, and allowing them to teach me,” Marcloid tells us. “And then when it’s released, it’s like publishing a Bible that was written for me only. As it spreads across the world, I continue to feel the effects of the meanings coming together. Even now I look back at albums released years ago and have a-ha moments about what I was trying to say, or what higher dimensions were trying to say to me when I wrote it. (This isn’t to say I am anything special, or that I have access to things other people don’t. The word “higher” isn’t the best term …you could say “subtler” if you wanted.)”

Photo: Manda Boling / Hausu Mountain