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Beggar: the blackened sludge ragers whose riffs were forged in a war zone

(Image credit: Press)

As disappointing as it is, being in a heavy metal band is rarely a full-time job. If you want enough cash to record in a studio or tour nationwide, you are likely to need a nine-to-five for that financial backbone, and bands from Slayer to Conjurer have all known it. In Jake Leyland’s case, he’s moonlighted as the guitarist for sludge metal nasties Beggar since their formation in 2011; by day, however, he works for humanitarian healthcare organisation Médecins Sans Frontières, spending up to half of his year in the world’s harshest war zones.

“I started working with Médecins Sans Frontières in 2016,” says Jake. “I do what’s called ‘health promotion’, which is going around and saying, ‘This is who we are, this is why we’re here, and we’ll be coming back every week to give vaccines.’

“If people don’t know why Médecins Sans Frontières is there, they might attack us,” he continues. “It happened during our Ebola response in the Congo; misinformation led to violent attacks on health clinics.”

Since the start of 2018 alone, Jake has spent 12 months of his life protecting his co-workers in war- torn parts of Africa. When he’s back home in the UK, the intense things he’s seen on the front line manifest themselves into his riffs, all of which possess the slow despair of Iommi at his darkest. Combine that guitarwork with singer/bassist Charlie Davis’s black-metal-like screaming and you have the foundation of Beggar’s hideous soundscape.

“I love the idea that some of our riffs were born in Kinshasa or Bangui,” the frontman remarks. “When Jake comes back with a riff, it’s like unwrapping a present from a mate. But there’s always an awareness of where it’s come from. So, in that way, it’s complicated. You’re keen to hear what’s been cooking, but you know what’s been cooking may involve difficult stuff.”

Indeed, for Jake, his band’s new debut album has an exceptionally difficult origin. His parts for Compelled To Repeat were all inspired by one particularly traumatic Médecins Sans Frontières stint, deployed in the Central African Republic in 2017. The country was, and remains, embroiled in a civil war that’s displaced more than one million people – and the guitarist was slap-bang in the middle of it.

“I was working in an active conflict zone and life wasn’t easy,” he recalls. “All of my colleagues were Central African; they’d been living through the horror of war and all the shit that comes with it for seven years. I had one really awful experience with a colleague that I’ll never make public, but the album was born out of that. It was so grim that it informed those riffs for me.”

While Jake composed his music in the grief and horror of international warfare, Charlie’s contributions were sourced much closer to home. He wrote lyrics that drew from the ridiculous inequality found right outside his own front door, in London. Jake and Charlie had both recently upped sticks and moved to the capital after completing their studies at the University of Bristol, which was where they first met.

“Life choices led us to London,” Jake explains. “I wanted to go to SOAS [the School of Oriental and African Studies] and got job offers from places in London. We wanted to balance making money from a sludge band with jobs, which is still a challenge,” he laughs.

The duo’s bandmates (fellow guitarist Abe Whitworth and drummer Bertrand Sautier) relocated from the West Country with them, and the group were stunned once immersed in the most egregious aspects of the big smoke. “In London, there’s enormous wealth right in your face, and in the faces of those getting exploited by the [capitalist] system,” Charlie elaborates.

As a result, Compelled To Repeat is a morbid city tour, exploring the urban locale and its widening wealth gaps, its proficiency for spreading sickness and its high concentration of crime. Reading Charlie’s lyrics while working engrossed in war in the Central African Republic, Jake began to notice parallels.

“A lot of the lyrics are about violence in urban landscapes, and I spend a lot of my time in violent, urban landscapes reading what Charlie’s written about London,” he says. “I live in London but, having also lived in some of the poorest and most messed-up cities, the idea of the city being a heatmap for disease is true everywhere now. Every big city in the world is a heatmap of disease.”

Although ideas had bounced around for up to a year, it wasn’t until late 2018 – after Jake’s return from Africa – that Beggar all got together in the same room to work on their album. The guitarist calls that period “the most intense creative streak” they had ever had; 18 months later, Compelled To Repeat dropped, nearly nine years after the band played their first-ever gig.

“It had a lot to do with us being apart,” Jake says of the near-decade-long journey to Beggar’s first full-length. “But I also think this was the first time our music was good enough to release an album.

“We’re not just a sludge band,” he concludes. “Life has given us such a weird hodgepodge of ideas that it’s an achievement to have made an album with such diverse, but also workable, influences on it.”

With music that bridges the gap between Sabbath and BM, and lyrics that bridge the gap between England and the Congo, Compelled To Repeat is a sludge album crossing many borders.