an interview w/ Altar of Plagues ++ the lyrics to Tides!
by Stefan Raduta
DOWNLOAD: Altar of Plagues – “Atlantic Lights” (MP3)
Ireland’s Altar Of Plagues is surely one of the most bewitching and captivating bands I have come across in the last few years. Over the course of three EPs and a much lauded LP, White Tomb, AoP have established themselves as a leader in field of forward-thinking black metal. Their latest release, Tides EP keeps that streak alive with some of the most hypnotic and profoundly sorrowful it it’s less-than-40 minutes, immersing the listener in an ocean of sadness, isolation and melancholy. Tides is simply sublime and one of the most emotional pieces of music in recent memory.
The brilliance of Tides is not limited to well-executed songwriting, extending to the lyrical content as well. Per my request, vocalist/guitarist James O’Ceallaigh was kind nough to provide the lyrics of Tides exclusively for this story and the BV readers. They are not present on the CD or LP, but are available below for the first time.
As the band gets read to storm the US with Velnias (the tour kicked off on July 9th in Seattle), we caught up with O’Ceallaigh to ask a few questions about the band, it’s philosophy, and their influences.
Interview, lyrics and tour dates below…
Let’s starts this with the band’s genesis… What is your musical background?
Altar of Plagues began as a sort of bedroom band for me, so it informally began when I bought my first recording equipment with the intention of making a demo of some tracks I had been working on. I recorded this first demo entirely on my own, and once it was complete I asked Dave (bassist/vocalist – with whom I had been in a black metal band during my teens) if he would add vocals to my music. We gave the demo to a handful of people and when we were offered some shows we decided to take the opportunity and consequently a full line up was formed. In that sense I think we began in 2007, which is when we played our first show.
As for my musical background, before Altar of Plagues I played in everything from goregrind and black metal bands to pop bands devoted to Duran Duran and Tears for Fears covers. I’m an all-round music enthusiast and it does not start and end with metal for me. I am also currently making some dub-step/bass heavy electronic music and I have some performances scheduled for the summer.
Why Altar Of Plagues? It’s a name that carries a certain dramatic image…
I agree, and I think our name is much of the reason that people are so fast to put the black metal tag on us. Lyrically, we deal with the unnecessary wrongs we see in the world, and the fact that we have become a completely ignorant and selfish civilization that is using the planet as a means to an end. Earth is sacred, an Altar, and man is the plague upon it. Rather than living in harmony with this host, as once was the case, we exploit and destroy it. We feel this is the most fitting title for what it is that we create. We wanted a title that could encompass these feelings.
We don’t walk around feeling dark and depressed all day every day, I am a very happy person, so it’s as if Altar of Plagues is a sort of place where I can go to become enveloped in these thoughts and ideas. I think within every single person is a sort of personal space where they can reflect and process things. For me, Altar of Plagues is that place.
What did you guys want to achieve with this band when you started it? Do you have an agenda, is there a message behind your music?
Everything that has occurred to date has been entirely unplanned. I never had any intention of touring, or even going beyond recording a demo. As for an agenda, from my point of view, I engage with the music in a very real way by using it as a focal point for what I find most important right now. Creating this is a very personal experience and it means much more to me than entertainment. A great deal of effort is put into the lyrical, as well as the musical side of our work. As they lyrics are personal, it means that we have a stronger connection with what we create. However, we are not interested in preaching any message and we have no political agenda. We share any sort of message with people, people can take it or leave it. It seems that some people have taken to what we are ‘about’ of their own accord, which is quite rewarding.
Every release you’ve put out from Sol to Tides seems to be a little different. The latter is so much darker and depressing than anything else, it almost drains the life out of you, it becomes painful to experience…There’s also a lot more post-rock in it…what do you make of it?
Tides was written and recorded during an extremely intense winter here in Ireland. It is the first time we have ever worked on material in the winter and I think that had an influence, even if I did not realize it at the time. During the writing I was also spending a great deal of time at a house on the coast, with the Atlantic Ocean just a stone’s throw away. I could not help but become captivated by its energy. While at this place, I learned stories of the hardships endured by people living on small Islands off this coast before the modern world existed. These people were entirely at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean and as such were very much in tune with its movements and rhythm.
With Tides we also chose to go for a less studio-esq experience and record in a more raw way. The recording of White Tomb was very much a studio experience whereas Tides was more impulsive, we did not spend any time fretting over perfect takes or sounds. I think that is why the end product is less polished and more emotionally driven. That is an approach I would like to take in the future, especially with vocals. A metal ‘shriek’ is a painful, honest expression – but how can it be honest if it is recorded over and over until it sounds correct? (Of course the same approach might not apply to melodic singing, which has a ‘right’ sound.). With the second album I would like to find a balance between having an honest and real (not hundreds of takes) recording that adheres to what we would consider to be album standards.
Perhaps the presence of ‘post-rock’ on Tides may be more due to the slower pacing with this music, but that was not a deliberate intention. We never work with a stylistic formula in mind and all of our songs are composed in a very linear way, meaning we can never predict what sound the track follow.
On Tides I’m overwhelmed by feelings of regret, of desolation…maybe the fact that you’ve been living in Ireland has something to do with it? How much has Ireland and it’s difficult history got to do with the sorrow in your music?
Well the setting around the time of writing and recording, which I described above, certainly contributed to the mood on Tides. I think sadness can be quite an intense emotion – it’s as if it makes things feel more urgent and desperate.
While I have a great interest in our country’s history, Altar of Plagues is not really concerned with it. Socially, things here in Ireland are very bad right now and will of course have some influence on my mindset, be it subliminal or not. The sorrow that is channeled through Altar of Plagues is, in short, due to the sadness I feel when I see the world becoming this entirely anthropocentric place that is disconnected from anything that is actually real and not materialistic. This is not a case of some angry metal heads becoming excited that their fire and brimstone fantasy has come to life. It’s more of a matter of fact statement – the world is like this and it very much a real thing.
I’m curious about your opinion of the state this world is in right now, and where you think we’re heading…We’re poisoning everything, the air, land and the oceans. This disgusting oil spill is personally driving me nuts, everything is driven by greed and more greed.
I have a degree in environmental sciences and ecology, have worked in a number of conservation projects, and will go on to pursue this more intensively once our second album is recorded. I have chosen to become involved in this work as I want to get out there and do something, rather than be a bedroom activist. I think it is even sad that my work is a human choosing to do what is right for the planet, thus enforcing the fact that humans think they are entirely in control of something that should be free. However, that’s the way things are and nothing will change that any time soon.
At least every couple of weeks I have the ‘where is the world headed?’ conversation with someone and it’s not something I like to speculate on. I think that saying “we’re fucked” is a cop-out, but it is also naive to think that we can undo this damage easily. It will require massive and radical change, which may or may not happen. In reality, these radical changes are the sort of choices that are made behind the curtains at the ‘top’ levels (whatever they may be). Something I am beginning to understand more and more, is that ‘taking it to the streets’, while of course very important, only brings things so far. When touring we are often kindly accommodated at squats, or d.i.y spaces, and we meet some great people that have very interesting insights to offer on such matters, but in some cases a person might be too angry at bureaucracy (as are all of us..) to listen to a rational argument that explores alternatives to protest. Contrary to what being an environmentalist is, there must also be suits at the ‘top’ levels fighting the good fight and that is the reality of this. The only reason I have made this point is that it so many people in the world are fighting for the same thing, just using different tactics.
Why is Tides just an EP and not an album? It’s definitely consistent enough…perhaps this sound is just a phase that Altar Of Plagues is in at the moment?
People are asking us why is it not an album when it is almost forty minutes long. Without sounding as if Tides is just something we just knocked out, an album is something I do not regard lightly and it is something that will require far more focus and vision. Tides was more impulsive and raw, and for that reason we are all very pleased with the end product, however different it may be from White Tomb. Each release is an entity and not be held to the same standard as its predecessor.
Altar of Plagues at Roadburn 2010 (more by Allan Vogue)
What are your musical influences? What are the bands that shaped you guys as musicians, and who do you have your eyes on today? You have a very distinct sound…is there a group out there today that shaped that? Any underground bands you’d like to recommend me?
I have always been into absolutely everything. The day I brought my first ever walkman, I also bought Metallica’s “Black Album” and The Prodigy “Music for the Gilted Generation”. People at school told me that I was told I cannot listen to both rock and electronic music and that it has to be one or the other.
I do not think I could attribute our sound to any one act. Emperor’s “In the Nightside Eclipse” taught me that music can be aggressive and intense, but at the same time majestic and beautiful. God Speed! You Black Emperor were my introduction to a far more dynamic form of rock music.
I have not been listening much metal of late, it has been nothing but electronica. So on that note you may enjoy CLOAKS, Vex’d, Boxcutter and Milanese.
Black Metal has taken a very different turn with bands like Negura Bunget, Blut Aus Nord, Wolves In The Throne Room, Fauna, Fen, or Farsot. Is Altar Of Plagues a part of this new transcendental approach? Is it a part of this music that’s not satanic but rather explores other aspects, like the relation between man and his roots, or his spirit and its link with the universe?
I think that even though we may have a similar approach, we are following a very different path to these acts. Altar of Plagues does not have a spiritual agenda, though the people that comprise it do have their own. I think that only the most focused and kindred persons can share a meaningful spiritual journey by means of making music (which is of course is an ancient and natural form of expression). I cannot imagine how a band can be so spiritually focused when there is very much a business side to being in a band. Of course there are exceptions. The acts you mentioned have created a form of (black) metal that, for me, is more real than any band with an anti-christian (or whatever) agenda. Their music explores something that goes far deeper than that.
As regards this new approach, history has taught us that all artistic changes come as movements and while one particular artist may serve as the catalyst, it is the collective that creates the movement. Often when touring we meet people who like to talk to us about our music and we often hear words such as ‘trendy’ or ‘hipster’ or ‘post’. All any of that means to me is contemporary, and that means modern. I have far more interest in creating something new, but naturally we are influenced by the past sounds. I’m not making any such claims that we are part of any musical movement, I’m just addressing this as you asked.
Two wonderful quotes applicable to all artistic inspiration:
“Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photography, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. ” – Jim Jarmusch
“Its not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to” – Jean-Luc Godard
Altar of Plagues – White Tomb cover art
That’s so true. Tell me something, how important is playing live to you, and do you plan on touring extensively? What do you get out of experiencing your own music live?
Playing live is one of the greatest feelings and it is in many ways a more important representation of the music. Live performance takes away all of the luxuries of recorded music, there is no hiding behind it. It is physically exhausting and touring can be quite enduring. Besides the actual performance, I enjoy meeting so many people from different places and cultures.
If you were to choose any 5 bands you could tour with, who would they be?
Queen, and I’d be happy with just that.
When can we expect a new full-length, and which direction will it go?
We begin recording in September with a release planned for early 2011. We have begun writing but it has not developed yet so I cannot really say how the end product will sound. We are aware of what it is that we have developed with past releases, and what it is we wish to achieve with this album.
Are you happy with Profound Lore? It seems to be the most amazing label around these days, everything they put out is so fucking good. Why made you sign with them?
The exact reason you just said – they are one of the most amazing labels around these days. I was a fan long before we signed with them. Chris really has his finger on the pulse.
Are you looking forward to your US tour with Velnias? What should the US audience expect from your performance?
Yeah, we are truly looking forward to this. We have long been in contact with people there so it is great that we are finally in a position to go there. As for the performance, you can expect to see four Irish guys delivering what they have with 100% commitment. We would hope that we can offer something different to what they are familiar with from the U.S.
Altar of Plagues – Tides EP cover art
On shores we stood, to always watch and learn.
The gifts that you bestow, marvel at your beauty.
The host of our land, the pathway to my journey home.
Atlantic light, will guide us home.
The light from Earth will shine.
To you I go, in hunger and in rage,to find solace.
But you remain furious at spit at the earth that mocked you.
Shape the Earth I wander among, and your promise is true.
Atlantic Light, guide me.
Atlantic Light, shine upon me.
Within your walls, I find a certainty.
Of wood and wind you shall be my host.
Day breaks, night comes in endless cycles.
The shore reminds of times unknown.
Breathe within me – this is my path, my light.
Breathe within me – to guide me home.
Breathe within me – with my light.
Breathe within me – to guide me home.
I am not beyond.
I won’t fail.
Once we stood on the shore, but now we will not learn.
We care not for your life, and we refuse your light.
I will host our land.
I will guide my journey.
But you remain with a will to destroy.
“The Weight of All”
A weight that we can not comprehend.
Beyond all reason.
This weight that we won’t comprehend.
Beyond all reason.
All that you know, you will not allow.
This weight is within every shiver,
within the the spin, inside the heart.
We will remain floating numb.
Allowing ourselves, to forget.
It is as if we are in the center of time,
and we are within our steel towers.
It is to float within the cloud, to tremble inside the land.
All are numb.
A weight that we can not comprehend.
Beyond all reason.
This weight that we won’t comprehend.
Beyond all reason.
Racing on foot, holding to hope like a shield from the truth.
They cry, “Sleepers Awake!”
Racing on foot, sleepers awake.
The rhymes promise was true.
We have returned to this place.
Home to a calm dawn, and the work we had just begun.
Eating roots, grown in soil.
Drawing on life, of the living.
Clustered points of light, spun out in space.
And the time, within the skies.
ALTAR OF PLAGUES – 2010 TOUR DATES
Jul 9 2010 The Fun House Seattle, Washington
Jul 10 2010 Berbatis Pan Portland, Oregan
Jul 11 2010 Burial Grounds Salem, Oregon
Jul 13 2010 The Wandering Goat Eugene, Oregon
Jul 14 2010 The Alibi Arcata, California
Jul 16 2010 Elbo Room San Francisco, California
Jul 17 2010 Your Haus Oakland, California
Jul 18 2010 Salt Lake Recording Services Salt Lake City, Utah
Jul 19 2010 The Blast-O-Mat Denver, Colorado
Jul 21 2010 Phoenix Project Collective Dallas, Texas
Jul 22 2010 North Gate Tavern Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Jul 23 2010 The Big Top New Orleans, Louisiana
Jul 24 2010 Drunken Unicorn Atlanta, Georgia
Jul 25 2010 The Firehouse Birmingham, Alabama
Jul 26 2010 CFBG’s Greensboro, North Caro
Jul 28 2010 The Triple Richmond, Virginia
Jul 29 2010 TBC Washington, DC
Jul 30 2010 TBC Baltimore,, Maryland
Jul 31 2010 Kung Fu Neck-Tie Philadelphia, PA
Aug 1 2010 The Studio @ Webester Hall New York, NY
Aug 3 2010 Great Scotts Allston, Boston, Massachuse
Aug 5 2010 Bourbon Street Cafe Columbus, Ohio
Aug 6 2010 The Dojo Indianapolis, IN
Aug 7 2010 The Metal Shaker Chicago, Illinois