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Incantation are one of death metal’s elite bands. After a genre-defining debut album in Onward to Golgotha, they’ve continued to put out compelling albums for almost two decades. While many of their peers from the late ’80s have fallen off creatively or strayed into questionable territory, Incantation have kept to their murky, darkly melodic style. John McEntee founded the band with Paul Ledney in 1989, and has been its main creative force since then. In this interview, we delve into his creative process and what has kept Incantation so consistent over the years.
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You sent me a replacement copy of The Rack recently since mine was warped. Thank you!
Oh yeah, no problem. I like vinyl, but it’s just not quite as durable. There’s so many things [that can happen] between shipping and even just getting them from the pressing plant. I like it a lot, but it just sucks because with CDs – even though a CD is not so kick-ass, I guess – it’s a little more durable. I’m a vinyl guy. I like vinyl.
I try to do a thing where I make a meal and just sit with a record and listen to it, rather than listening to it in my car or on my computer. I’ve found that I’ve lost that “immerse yourself in music” type of thing that I used to do when I was younger, so I’ve been trying to recapture some of that.
I think it’s always a good thing, if you like a band, that you’re able to really sit down and really listen to it. Especially with stuff that’s older than modern-age recording, where everything’s a little bit sterile. With the older stuff, you can get – I don’t want to sound artsy – multi-dimensional. Whereas now, everything is up front, and everything is what it is. I don’t know how to explain it. There are a lot of awesome things about modern technology and recording, but, at the same time, there’s something really cool about being able to capture a vibe with a recording and then to be able to hear whatever kind of magic was going on between the band.
There’s always a lot of good stuff out there in all different areas of music, but unfortunately the way things are recorded these days affects the personality of the actual band. Especially drums, which are all mechanical. There are aspects of it which are good. I mean, you can hear stuff more clearly. But there’s something about when you listen to an album, and you really feel like you’re in a room with the band, that I think is important. Most of the stuff that I really like has that feel to it: a personality, not just kick-ass production and kick-ass playing.
Yeah, and that tends to get lost if you’re listening through computer speakers…
I think a lot of people listen to music on the computer, and that’s it.
I know I’m guilty of that, because I’ll be working on the computer, and it’s just like, “OK, I’ll listen to this thing, then I’ll listen to this thing”. And also, when you look at all your records and CDs, I have thousands of dollars worth of music. It’s an investment that I feel like I should enjoy.
I agree. I don’t have as much time as used to, but it’s definitely really cool when I get to immerse myself in something that I might have forgotten about or something that I never really got a chance to focus in on. To get a chance to really sit down and listen to something, to me that can make it really special. Or it can make it suck, I guess. (Laughs)
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Do you feel constrained by what you’ve created in the past and by what Incantation means?
I don’t feel constrained by it at all. I put a lot of thought into what I wanted to accomplish with the band early on. Before Incantation, I played in a band called Revenant. When I left the band, we were in negotiations with Nuclear Blast to do an album. And I had to make a decision on “do I want to do an album with Revenant and not have it be 100% representative of me and what I want to do, or do I say ‘fuck it’ and start a new band, take the chance of totally failing, and have fun with it?” Basically, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to have my first album be something that wasn’t representative of me. It turned out to be the best decision for me, and also for Revenant, since they didn’t really need to have me arguing about everything that I’m not happy about.
If I want to do a different style, I can do it under another banner that isn’t Incantation. For me, the idea wasn’t to be all experimental. Our core concept was to be a straightforward death metal band and to do things the way that we wanted to do things. Sometimes you get together with a band and it’s like, “OK, let’s all jam and see what happens!” That kind of a band is a different thing.
It’s difficult for me to explain, since what we do in Incantation is more of a mental state for me. It’s not something I can always put my finger on. We’re a pure death metal band, but, at the same time, we’re totally untraditional. That’s always something that I’ve taken as a great compliment, because we always wanted to be a straightforward death metal band. But, at the same time, it’s nice to know that our own personalities are there.
I really get a lot of flak from both sides. People say that the band sounds totally different, while other people say that the band sounds totally the same, and that we don’t change at all. So, I think that if both sides are getting annoyed, we’re probably doing something right. We’re not trying to do Diabolical Conquest or Golgotha over again. We want to be who we are now. But, at the same time, if it’s not in the ballpark of what Incantation is, we wouldn’t be doing that with Incantation.
It’s been about five years since we’ve done an album. We’re not going to think about doing another album unless we’re sure we’ve got something to contribute. We don’t want to just become one of those bands that does an album every year. We’re to the point where we have enough songs. We don’t need to just keep throwing extra songs onto the discography that aren’t special.
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You say you want to be a straightforward death metal band, but a lot of the stuff that you guys are doing is very unique sounding. You have a tendency to play a lot of bending single string riffs with a lot of pinch harmonics and things like that. To my knowledge, you and Immolation are the first to do that. Did that come from somewhere in particular?
The Immolation and Incantation connection – there’s a connection, but not in the way that people think there is. They’re really good friends of ours. I got to know them when I was playing in Revenant. We heard their demo, and we thought they were so fucking kick-ass, and we wanted them to play shows with us. Since that time, I just knew that they were stand-up people, really cool guys, and also that we had a lot of the same influences. Both bands were really influenced by the early thrash, black kinda thrash, bands like Possessed and Venom. But then we were also really underground at the time, so bands like Necrovore and Necrophagia…Master…just the bands that were really pushing the limits of death metal [also influenced us].
I remember when I first met Ross from Immolation, we realized that we’d been to almost all the same shows, but never met each other back in the mid-’80s. I know that aside from being friends, we were both fans of each other’s bands. But I don’t really think that either band wanted to rip each other off at all. We both wanted to do things our own way. But a bit of healthy competition… if you see a band, and they kick your ass, it inspires you to want to be better as a musician. I hate it when I go to a show and I’m not blown away, because I want to go home from that show like, “I gotta fucking step up to play!”
I actually learned a lot when I was jamming with Paul Ledney [drummer for Revenant and the first iteration of Incantation, also in Profanatica and Havohej]. He was always into the way riffs sounded and writing riffs from humming ideas. I started to do that more when I started to jam with him. He would come up with some riff ideas, and he’d just hum them to me. It was kind of funny, because he’d just stand behind his drums and pretend he’s playing guitar and just hum these riffs, and I’d try to follow what he’s doing. And I realized, “This is a really good way to write riffs”, because you just hum what you’re thinking.
When you play an instrument, you have habits of wanting to go where is normal for your fingers to go to. When I started jamming with Paul, he’d just come up with these cool patterns where I was like, “Whoa, awesome, I never would have thought of that”. Maybe Paul was the one who came up with that. Maybe he deserves credit for me writing like that. It wasn’t like we were thinking, “Oh, we’re going to start this new awesome way of doing things”. It had nothing to do with that. It was just like, “Let’s write what we feel”.
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What about Celtic Frost? The intro to To Mega Therion sounds like the root of a lot of Incantation songs.
That album is absolutely devastating, just that whole epic vibe. Celtic Frost is probably an influence on everybody who heard it at that time. Most of their stuff is pretty basic, but it had that feeling to it. Not necessarily just a talent show.
They weren’t good enough to have a talent show.
That sometimes helps, because if you have a lot of ideas that want to come out musically, but you’re not Yngwie on guitar, sometimes you have to find other ways to get it across. Honestly, the majority of really good riffs from bands that I like come from people that aren’t necessarily super-talented musicians, but they just know that “this sounds cool!”
The thing with To Mega Therion is that it wasn’t as meat-and-potatoes as Morbid Tales. They were able to add a whole epic vibe to it while still keeping the core, heavy-as-fuck kind of vibe going. To me, that’s probably one of the best albums of all time.
Voivod was another band that had totally weird fucking riffs, and the chords that they were using…you can’t even tell if they knew what they were doing, or if they were just insane. (Laughter) It’s great, you know? The music that comes up from that is stuff was a big influence on me, because they’re totally thinking outside the box, but they’re able to make it work in an amazing way. Both those bands were definitely really big influences when I was playing in Revenant. Voivod was definitely a huge influence. They just wanted to take it a bit more into that cleaned-up, technical vibe. I really liked that War and Pain, Rrröööaaarrr, and Killing Technology insanity. They’re still keeping that barbaric heaviness, but they’re totally out there.
I really like the comment about “do they know what they’re doing, or are they just insane?”
(Laughs) It’s true!
If I think that, it probably means I really like something.
(Laughs) I don’t know if you’re familiar with Necrovore. They only did a demo. I listened to that, and I was just like, “What the fuck is going on here?” I didn’t really understand 100%. There was just so much insanity going on. It made sense, but it was also just totally out there at the same time. Those were the kinds of things that I really found interesting back when I was younger. I liked the bands who had killer songs, but when you tried to listen to it you’re like, “Where did they come up with that progression?”
Being a young kid and trying to write songs, I’m doing really basic structures, and I’m hearing all this stuff where people are just letting go of anything that might be sane. And it’s in outer space, but it just sounds fucking awesome! I don’t even know how to explain it. You listen to it, and you’re just like, “What the fuck? This fucking rules, but what the fuck are they doing?”
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Especially on that Necrovore demo, because the production is pretty awful.
It’s borderline. Maybe if it was mixed a little better, you could maybe tell what’s happening, but probably not.
The thing is that I listened to that demo so much when I was a young kid that I was able to figure out most of the songs just by default. The thing that was great about it is that there was a crazy personality, almost psychotic or something, about the music that I just like a lot.
I’m very fortunate, because I grew up in New Jersey, and I played in Revenant, and we did a few shows with Morbid Angel in ’88. Jon from Necrovore was actually their sound guy on that tour, and I got to meet him. Even the Morbid Angel guys at the time – they were all really into this psychosis form of playing death metal. I really learned a lot from that experience, because there were great bands from around our area, but for me, these were bands that were already legendary in the underground. Morbid Angel wanted to take on the world and destroy everybody, which was great. But they were also really into being over-the-top with the idea. and just making it total insanity. Same thing with Necrovore.
When I was talking with Jon, he was just like, “It’s all about the feeling. It doesn’t matter about the riffs, it’s all about the feeling you’re getting from them”. It’s almost like being mentally deranged at times. Something might be repetitive, but it’s repetitive in a way that’s intense, and you start hearing more than you’re actually hearing. I’ve almost been like that with Incantation. Really early on, especially when people are asking me about the riffs, I try to explain that it’s the feeling you get from the riffs, it’s not the notes. Who cares if it’s a lot of notes or a few notes? Do you feel something when it happens? It’s not just about the talent show.
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“The Ibex Moon” (1994)
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“Primordial Domination” (2006)
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