Altar Of Plagues | Interview
Altar of Plagues hardly need an introduction around these parts. As one of Ireland’s few metal success stories they have been riding a wave of popularity and creative excellence for the past several years.
Their second demo, and first physical release, ‘Through the Cracks of the Earth’ laid down a mighty foundation that shoe-horned expansive, modern black metal sensibilities, a crust punk snarl and some blissful post-rock moments into one cohesive whole that still resonates to this day- and that’s not even mentioning the cello!
It is that same sense of creative searching that has been at the core of every move the band has made since. They have just released their colossal new album ‘Mammal’ to a jaw-dropping amount of critical and public acclaim and with it they have reached a whole new level of sophistication and maturity.
Elegant, poignant, experimental and utterly engaging, it is a solidification of everything we loved about them before and introduces a few new ingredients to their bubbling cauldron, too. I gave mastermind James Kelly a shout to get the low-down.
So James, what was the initial spark that brought the band together in the first place?
It essentially began as a bedroom based demo. I recorded a few rough tracks, asked a friend to perform vocals and that was it. There were never any ambitions or even an intention to release the music. I just made it because I wanted to. When people were interested and we were offered shows, we just went with it as it felt right. As we eventually grew into a band rather than ‘bedroom’ thing, we just took each step as it came.
Your new album, Mammal, has recently been released to both critical and public acclaim, and rightly so. It is a monumental work that solidifies the established Altar of Plagues sound while pushing it out into new and exciting territories. How did it come to life?
Everything thing that we create simply culminates over time, and when we feel we are ready we just build a work. I think I have succumbed to the idea that I’m the sort of person that will always create and move on, rather than spend a decade creating a masterpiece. This very much suits what Altar of Plagues is to me and working in a more impulsive manner keeps the emotional drive quite high.
A lot of our music begins as ideas written on paper. This might be an idea for a musical movement, or something inspired by the sound of the petrol pump being put back on the lever.
“Mammal” essentially came about as we had reached the point where we felt we were ready to create an album. We felt inspired and our energy levels were high. We toured quite a bit last year and the intense energy of live performance found its way into our writing. I wrote the basic tracks first and we collectively structured them.
We prefer to let the music almost dictate its own course. We will never move on simply because we have played something ‘x’ amount of times. It is about achieving a sort of emotional exhaustion or climax. Once we have delivered that motivational force than we know a track is complete.
You seem to be riding on the crest of a wave these past couple of years. From signing with the highly respected Profound Lore Records to releasing your debut, White Tomb, playing at Roadburn and generating lots of interest along the way. Was there any pressure to follow up White Tomb’s success and maintain this momentum or was that even a concern?
That’s really not a concern. We always have and always will do this for ourselves. It began, and will end, as a very personal form of expression. I think that the strangest part for us is when the music
is released and it is given to others. I have no concerns with criticisms and I know that some people will not like it. However, we do take care not to let criticisms make us second guess our own work.
That sort of meticulous analysis is something we endure during the album’s creation, and we eventually reach the stage where we know the work is complete. As every week passes I could change past work, musical or otherwise, so I just have to shut myself off from that.
For a band that is rapidly on the rise and enjoying a certain buzz you must have had offers to record in different ‘name’ studios. Not only do I admire the fact that you have once again chosen to record in a small Kerry based studio, I also think it is a wise move in terms of not allowing a ‘cool’ and current producer to encroach on your sound.
We had considered going abroad and working with a “name” studio as you put it, but we knew that for “Mammal” is was the energy we committed that would make the album, not the production. Data Studios in Kerry is for the most part an ‘indie’ oriented studio and it is for that reason we were attracted to them in the first place.
They are not inclined towards excessive production, triggers etc. I would have absolutely no interest in working with a metal producer. Having met with one in the past who suggested that we record a perfect take of every riff, and then loop it for the remaining duration, I know that environment is not
what we want for Altar of Plagues.
The studio process was fine. We kept production to a minimum and for the most part it was as if the microphones just happened to be there while we performed. Overall, we wanted there to be a tangible energy present throughout, as that is something that can become easily lost within the studio process.
For example we did all of our vocals in one take. The lyrics are extremely personal and to falsely act out the driving emotions during the process of multiple vocal takes would have been a lie. We took the time to get into the emotional head space, recorded, and agreed to keep the outcome, warts and all.
Having done this, I don’t think that I will ever again do a multiple take of a ‘black metal’ vocal. The intent behind such vocal performances is to channel intense emotions. Where is the honesty in doing this over and over until it sounds ‘correct’? Singing has notation and can of course sound correct, but a ‘shrieked’ vocal do not exactly have a right or a wrong.
The Altar of Plagues sound is rooted in black metal but you could be considered a bone of contention within that scene as you don’t follow the rules that are often imposed on bands in the BM underground. You have no problem with incorporating outside influences but is there a point where it stops being black metal and turns into something else. Do these supposed parameters concern you?
Creating a coherent work is the most important things for us when we write. Where the sound goes is unimportant, as long as we feel the music has a reason to go in that direction. Shades of tone have always been very important to us.
I think that it is very easy to become numb to anything heavy when it is relentless. It is important to take it away also. And then sometimes relentless intensity is called for. I would certainly think that there is a point at which something is no longer black metal. As listeners, any of us can make this judgement.For me it is purely based on the audible.
As an extension of that, I find it interesting that when you discuss black metal with other fans of the genre everyone seems to have their own idea of what it actually is. What does black metal mean
to you both as a sound and as an ideology?
Of course it can be traced to Venom and on towards the Norwegian scene, and soon after that when it became a parody of itself. To me personally, black metal is an intense form of expression. It is escapism, meditation, catharsis, and sublime.
It is a means by which to channel a very intense, and perhaps primitive, energy. I genuinely believe that it is therapeutic. For me it has absolutely nothing to do with make-up, spikes or leather. Black metal is overtly exclusive, perhaps more so than any other musical form, and as such its ‘community’ would like to believe that it may have a concrete definition. I don’t subscribe to such a school of thought.
Once music is shared you are giving it to every person who listens and they may then put their own value and meaning upon this. Often black metal attempts to challenge this but I see this as a contradiction to the fact that it is music released to the general public. I also find that black metal is inherently reclusive, a quality which I find most appealing.
The artwork needs a mention at this point. There are two separate covers, both eye-catching and both highlighting different elements that I perceive to be present in your sound. The Candlelight version has a hazy photograph of a solitary figure that speaks of isolation and dislocation and has a clean and modern touch while the Profound Lore cover has a Timo Ketola (Dead Congregation, Teitanblood, Watain et al.) painting that depicts the skeleton of a horse floating over a valley with sun rays illuminating it from behind.
This brings to the fore the more mystical side of the band’s sound. I love both covers, but I wonder what made you decide to have two completely separate and highly contrasting sets of artwork made up for the same piece of music.
This was a choice made collectively between ourselves and the labels. It was not any sort of a marketing ploy to sell extra copies (we detest such things), it was just a simple means of keeping both
releases distinct from one another. We decided that we would choose two very different artworks, but wanted both to be entirely representative of the albums concepts.
We are extremely pleased with the outcome. The photograph used for the Candlelight edition was
captured by Daniel Sesé, whose work I came by when looking at some photography. We contacted Ketola as I am a huge admirer of his work and I was confident that he would be more than capable of creating the right piece, which we feel he did.
I like that both covers are quite ambiguous and are open to interpretation. However, both artworks were created (in the case of the Profound Lore editions) or sourced (in the case of the Candlelight Edition) after the album was completed and as such the lyrical content was in mind throughout this process. I think that the representational value of each cover becomes somewhat more apparent when one reads the lyrics to “Mammal”.
I know you have mentioned in recent interviews that the new album is your ‘death’ album. Can you give us some details as to what it is about death you want to say on the album and maybe give us an idea of some of your actual lyrics.
“Mammal” explores the concept of death, particularly its significance within my immediate life. I immersed myself in the works of various writers, artists, and contemplated its purpose and even value. I took the time to contemplate this as I had never before done so in a meaningful way.
Death is the other half of our existence yet we rarely contemplate its purpose. This naturally found its way into the band and the music developed in tandem with the lyrics. The work of Emily Dickinson in
particular was extremely inspiring throughout this time. Her work described death in such a vivid and often colourful way. The lyrics have been made available in the Profound Lore release.
‘Mammal’ is such a striking word and certainly an odd choice for a black metal album, but it is fitting as it seems quite loaded. What does the word itself invoke in you and why was it chosen to represent an album about death?
It is somewhat multifaceted, but at the same time it is a natural expression. The word is intended to encompass something beyond human as death is something shared. Horses, specifically, are referred to
through the lyrics. But that said, once the album was complete, we stood back from the work (so to speak) and the word was compelled from within us. I like ambiguity. Not everything always has to make perfect sense.
There is a very unique kind of vibe on certain sections of the album, specifically moments in ‘Feather and Bone’ and ‘All Life Converges to Some Centre’, where it feels like the drums and the music
detach and separate from each other. It achieves in the listener an odd sense of dislocation. Did you set out to specifically disorientate the listener or was it simply a product of what came out in the jam
Well for one thing we never write with a listener in mind, we are always creating what it is that we feel is right. A lot of the music was initially created alone in the night hours, and notes would be
repeated over and over. Repetition is very important for us as each cycle allows us to go deeper into the intent behind the music. The pairing of spacious notation with intense drumming happened very
naturally. As a drummer, I think that the physical intensity of demanding tempos can serve as a means to disengage.
I love the incorporation of the keening on possibly the most unusual track on the album, ‘When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean’. You manage to take a dying art that reaches into Ireland’s past and set it
against a backdrop of modern ambient drone and industrial, pounding drum beats.
That very much ties into the albums concept, as the keening is a funeral lamentation and the album is concerned with death. This adds something very special to the album for us, and we were very fortunate to be able to obtain an original recording of this. Repetition is, again, very
important. I prefer to avoid articulation of our music if possible, as that’s not what it is about for us. “When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean” is a reference to the ancient Irish belief the setting of the sun is
symbolic of our transition from this world into the next.
It was believed that the sun entered another world via the ocean. The rise of the sun was seen as birth and the renewal of an eternal cycle. Cycles and repetition are an important part of this track. It also begins to deteriorate towards its conclusion and this is very much intentional and bares relevance to the albums concept.
You mentioned previously that you incorporated some home-made instruments on the album. What can you tell us about these? There are moments on the album where the music drops out and there is a shamanistic / ritualistic atmosphere invoked through these percussive instruments. Is this an aspect of your sound you can see yourselves delving further into?
All of the ‘atmosphere’ on the album is built from field-recordings which I captured, rather then using constructed sounds. This adds quite a personal dimension to the album for us, as each recording can
be traced to a time and place. I think that it is import to retain a part of the work for ourselves, even after it has been shared with others.
The instruments included a variety of items, but the sound was based around home made guitar pedals and percussion made from glass, stone, wood, feathers, bone and animal hide. The title “Feather and Bone” is quite a literal representation of what was utilised in that track.
You have been very active on the live front over the past few years. Is touring a necessary evil or is there something you get from playing live that you can’t get from recording? What are the main
differences for you between both roles?
Writing and performing live are my favourite aspects of music. Recording is a necessary evil. I believe that the music only truly exists when we perform it. That is when it is a living, real thing. Recorded music is just a document. While recordings serve their own purpose, I believe strongly in the power of live energy.
Black metal can often live and die on a sense of mystery or otherness. How do you maintain this distance when playing in front of a couple hundred people or is it even a concern?
It’s really not a concern. We don’t make a contrived effort to be mysterious nor do we see the necessity in saying any more than we have to. Altar of Plagues is about music and the personal message that we may channel though this. It’s not about public relations or interacting with people.
The visual aspect of your live show seems to be quite important to you, the incorporation of background projections and dark lighting adding tension and unease to proceedings. Is there a chance you guys will ever release an actual music video and what could we expect from that if it happened?
A good friend of ours created a promotional piece for “Mammal” which I think comes quite close to what I would be interested in creating if that was something we were to ever consider. If we ever have resources which we trust for live visuals then we will resume utilizing them, but given the stress of relying on a poorly constructed system as we have done in the past we will not do so until such a time.
The lighting is something we do entirely for ourselves in order to put us in the correct mindset. Something as trivial as lighting may seem like an irrelevant detail but I think it is of immense importance. When we rehearse we use the same lighting as we do when performing
You have a split due out with France’s post-metallers Year of No Light. What can you tell us about that? Do you have any other recordings or splits lined up for the foreseeable future?
The track on the split is an unreleased recording from the “White Tomb” album recording session. I believe that it is due for release around September. Other than that, we do not plan to record
anything new for some time. “Mammal” was exhausting.
- Interview by Andy Cunningham with photo by Philip J Wickstrand::: 20/06/11