“A Distant Fire”: Alda’s Deep Forest Emergence (Interview)
The year 2021 has been a strong one for Pacific Northwestern black metal. The almighty Wolves in the Throne Room released Primordial Arcana, Lamp of Murmuur dropped Submission and Slavery, and after a long six-year hibernation, the Tacoma, Washington-based troupe Alda have sprouted back to life with the release of their fourth record, the excellent A Distant Fire.
Alda have always been a band keen on progression. Their eponymous 2009 debut was a mélange of longing atmospheric black metal and tinkering acoustics, utterly honest in its scrappiness. On its follow-ups 2011’s :Tahoma: and 2015’s Passage, execution finally met with ambition to create black metal on a grander scale, more sprawling efforts that captured the overwhelming majesty of the Cascades, but still held the folksy, earnestness of the Pacific Northwest close to heart. Now, on A Distant Fire, Alda have metamorphosed again, managing to stay true to their roots while simultaneously branching out into new pastures.
Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with Alda drummer/vocalist Michael Korchonnoff about the origins of the band, the philosophical underpinnings of their most recent record, and much more.
What can you tell me about the band’s formation? How well were you all acquainted before you decided to put Alda together?
We had been acquainted for about four and half years before Alda came into being, which is a crazy thing to reflect on considering that Alda has been a collaboration between the same four people for close to fourteen years now. We all met in high-school, and formed Alda not too long after putting that experience behind us. But we went through a lot together during that time in our young lives. Some serious struggle and some shared tragedies helped create that bond, notwithstanding the fact that finding like-minded comrades was not an easy thing for teenagers like us in rural Washington. Sometimes the bonds that are formed in socially isolated environments like that can be strong and lasting ones.
I’ve always found "Alda" to be a very interesting choice of name for a black metal band. For me, it’s the perfect convergence of the genre's romance with Lord of the Rings and the nature forward themes usually found in Pacific Northwestern black metal. How did the band go about choosing that name, and do you still feel like it’s a good fit for the group today?
Your impressions on our name pretty much sums up its origins. The creation of this project coincided with an intense period in our early adulthood when we were spending as much time as we could out in wild places on the fringes of civilization, and were ruminating deeply on what our relationship as human beings was to these wild places. During that time, we were becoming more conscious of the connections that Tolkien's work, modern fantasy literature and older mythological systems all have with those same kinds of relationships to the wild world. And we believed then (as we do now) that there is a strong current within black metal musical culture that draws on all of these influences while recognizing how reflections on the destructive, creative and mysterious phenomena we experience in the natural world may be found in these stories that inspire us. So you could say it all came together "quite naturally", although our musical inspirations for our name were coming more from the older European black metal scene and less from our contemporaries. The name still fits us, and we love it. Jace [Bruton, guitar] pitched the name idea one day after pouring through the Silmarillion, and it immediately resonated and stuck with us.
Alda’s formation coincided with the rise of the Cascadian scene, which during the early 2010’s was a prominent movement in black metal. What do you think precipitated that scene, and was that grouping of bands something you felt a part of, or was it merely a coincidence Alda came up around that same time? How do you feel about being referred to as "Cascadian" black metal today?
In Alda's case, our formation occurred independently of any musical community local to us, but our discovery of this community and inclusion into it definitely had a profound impact on us. Concerning the particular scene of the early 2000s you refer to, none of them were musical influences on us with the possible exception of Fauna. We first met Fauna and saw them in 2007, and experiencing their work firsthand during that formative period in our lives, as well as participating in the annual Cascadian Yule festivals they organized in Olympia were definitely huge inspirations for us. One band that has definitely had an enduring musical influence on us is Agalloch, and we tend to think of them as a deeply Pacific northwestern band, insofar as the atmosphere and feel of the region seems to be reflected in their music. I'm not sure if they'd embrace the notion of a "Cascadian" association with their sound though.
As to the question of what precipitated the Cascadian music scene, that is not an easy question to answer without writing some kind of biographical essay. In short, my impression is that clusters of bands popped up in various regions of the Northwest more or less independently, but generally with similar interests and backgrounds in certain ways. There was a brief period where there was a lot of interface between all of these bands. Lots of interesting events were organized and friendships were built during this time. Some of this evaporated over time, but some of these people remain friends and occasional collaborators. There still exists a community that emerged from this, but much of the music that has come out of it in the past few years is outside the milieu of metal music.
As to how we feel about being referred to as Cascadian black metal, we don't typically introduce ourselves as that to people because we don't think that term accurately describes a music genre. But we are people who hail from the Western part of the North Cascades, and this region is deeply a part of who we are, and it means a lot to us.
Your new record is titled A Distant Fire, which is also the title of the last track on the album. What is it about that song specifically that you chose it to represent the album? What power do you think the name of a record can have over listening experience?
The song "A Distant Fire" that appears on the album tells a story about attempting to navigate a destroyed landscape in the darkness, guided only by a glow on the horizon whose origin and nature cannot be understood until you actually arrive at its source. So the "distant fire" referred to here could either be an inferno that annihilates you when you arrive, or it could be the light of a new dawn that will illuminate your path further. This concept was partly inspired by some characteristically lively debates among ourselves around the time we wrote the song regarding what kind of future humanity may actually have in the face of complete ecological collapse, and the sequence of events that brought us to this present calamity. When all of the songs were written and we were musing on possible album titles, we realized that the message of this song basically summed up the general story and essence of the album as a whole. The songs on the album as a whole were also pretty strongly impacted by Tim [Brown, guitar] taking a very proactive role in structuring the songs, which is part of why some of the songs have a faster, more aggressive vibe to them, and "A Distant Fire" kind of embodies this character and bookends the album. We resisted the name a bit at first, because we were hoping not to have a "title track" on the album, but the choice ended up making a lot of sense.
As to what influence a title has on the overall experience of the album, that probably comes down to how individual people interpret and integrate the experience as a whole. I can say that it feels essential to us to have a meaningful title for the whole thing. For me, it seals the entire package and binds all the contents together in a mysterious sort of way.
The album artwork for A Distant Fire features a very vibrant and colorful painting of a mountain hillside, decorated with various vegetation and rocky landmarks. Is this a painting of an actual location or just a fictitious landscape created for the album?
The landscape depicted in the painting is not a specific location per say, but rather is inspired by locations that Jace has visited during his long camping and hunting trips, some of which have been devastated by fire in the last year. Jace gave our friend Craig Strother a prompt for the image based on a particular vision he had, which mirrored the way we commissioned the cover art for our previous two albums. The vibrancy of the colors is really Craig's personal touch, and part of his painting style. The booklet for the CD and LP releases of the album will also feature a set of monochromatic paintings by Craig that we also commissioned from him for the album art. They depict a mountain forest location passing through a destructive and regenerative cycle brought upon by wildfire.
The art also depicts skeletal remains strewn across the hillside. Is there any deeper meaning to that, perhaps as some sort of commentary of humanity's current relationship with nature?
Human skeletons have been featured as part of the landscape in the cover paintings of :Tahoma:, Passage, and now A Distant Fire, as well. We are not art history nerds, but it is worth mentioning that this detail bears both stylistic and symbolic resemblance to the Memento Mori motif that appears in European medieval and renaissance paintings and sculptures, which was placed to serve as a sobering reminder of the fragility and impermanence of life. This is a coincidence on our part, because the concepts for the paintings have all been originally envisioned by Jace, and he had no prior knowledge of this tradition in old European art back when he first dreamed up the cover painting for :Tahoma:. But I think it is a relevant correlation for understanding what we are getting at when we include this kind of imagery.
So, without getting too long-winded about the context, the answer is yes, there is absolutely some commentary on our relationship with nature that rides along with this imagery. In the cover to A Distant Fire, the skeleton lies on the mountainside facing upwards in the direction of some unseen summit. This was intended to imply a death that occurred in the act of striving toward a goal, and symbolizes the general futility of human endeavors in the face of nature. This is a concept of nature writ-large, the total sum of all elements that comprise our existence, if you will. We allude to this in a not-so-subtle way in the lyrics on the album. For all of our cruel hewing of the Earth and each other to build monuments to our hubris, in the end everything created by humanity is leveled by the passage of time and entropy.
In general, how important do you think the connection is between the album artwork and the music? What do you feel the art can add to the music?
Ideally the music should (and does) stand on its own, but the visual aspects that get included in the physical medium or performance space can help tie concepts together, or communicate more directly some of the more abstract ideas contained in music that has few lyrics, or is entirely instrumental. For example, the cover art of our albums or the designs that get put on our t-shirts may be the first things that clue someone into what we are actually about, if they are not already familiar with our work. This is an area where I think the spirit of early black metal continues to strongly influence Alda, where the general subject matter and intention put into the music is given nearly equal standing with the music itself. It seems pretty common for bands to utilize album art in a strictly aesthetic way, and there is nothing wrong with doing that, but we're big fans of including a certain amount of intentionality and symbolism in the art that accompanies our records. For us, all of it is tied together to deliver a specific story or message. I don't know how clearly it all comes across to those who view it, but we put a lot of thought into it.
I’m glad you mentioned earlier the fact that songs on A Distant Fire sound faster and more aggressive. I remember listening to "Stonebreaker" when it first released and thinking how much more reminiscent it was of classic, second wave black metal, particularly, Satyricon. What role did Tim play specifically in this, and how did the rest of the band react? From an outside standpoint, it’s certainly different from previous material, but still very much feels like a natural progression.
The lead line you hear in the opening riff for "Stonebreaker" is something Tim had been jamming on as far back as the writing sessions for Passage, or possibly earlier. During our rehearsals around the time we were writing the songs for Passage, I remember Tim busting out riffs like that one as a kind of warm-up, or something we would jam on for fun. When we started writing and rehearsing again more seriously in the Summer of 2018, this specific riff came to the forefront and became the basis for the song "Stonebreaker." This is something I think collectively we would have been a little bit uneasy attempting a while back, but this time around we were more open to this direction, and Stonebreaker ended up setting a precedent for the songs we would go on to write for the album. The influence for this aspect of this music is absolutely second wave black metal stuff, but that music is a massive influence on everything else we've done as well. Certain aspects of that influence are just a little more up front on A Distant Fire, and Tim was a strong advocate for this kind of energy during our composition sessions throughout the next year and a half.
Folk has always been an important part of Alda’s music, and it seems those elements have come a long way since your demo days. In particular the track “Loo Wit” and how it transitions into the intro of the title track, really feels like it encapsulates the evolution of part of Alda’s sound. Where do the band’s folk influences come from? How important do you feel they are to the music, and to the identity as Alda as a Pacific Northwestern black metal, if there’s any correlation at all?
The folk influences in Alda's music really come from a variety of sources. I grew up around an Irish and Scottish traditional music community thanks to my father's musical interests, and the Bodhran (a traditional Irish frame drum) was the first percussion instrument I learned to play. Jace had some similar musical exposure growing up, and is really steeped in old Country music and American folk music, so I think that comes out in his musical sensibilities as well. But all of this aside, I think it would be fair to say that the biggest "folk" influence on Alda's music probably comes from the acoustic elements in the songs of the metal bands we've come up listening to, with Agalloch and Ulver definitely being the biggest influences there.
To us, the acoustic aspects of our songs feel like an essential part of Alda's sound and identity, but we can only speak for ourselves on this subject. Whether this correlates with something essentially Pacific Northwestern is not really for us to say, but we definitely feel some kinship with some local projects who express themselves in a similar way, with a notable example being our friends in Fauna, as well as numerous other projects that may be found around the Cascadian Yule festivals that the folks from Fauna have organized since the early 2000s.
Speaking of the title track, "A Distant Fire” is a monolithic piece, totaling sixteen minutes long. How would you compare the construction of a song that length against your (relatively) shorter numbers, that clock in around ten minutes? Does a lot more thought go into the pacing (i.e. slower vs. faster sections) and transitions? Do you write tracks with a length of time in mind, or do they naturally find their way to a conclusion?
We definitely don't set out to write sixteen-minute long songs, or songs of any particular length for that matter. Those songs of ours that run particularly long end up that way because if they were any shorter, they would feel unfinished to us. That might seem like a vague statement, but the logic of our songwriting is pretty intuitive and hard to explain. Every song we write has a kind of narrative to it that is collectively sensed by all of us, and we write until we feel a sense of completion. Some analytical reflection is definitely part of this process, but the songwriting is intuitive at its core. All of this being said, I would consider the internal logic of Alda's songwriting to be pretty consistent, because our songs generally end up being between eight and ten minutes long after we're finished with them. In the case of the title track, it ended up being longer on the album because we prefaced the song with intro and outro sections that we lingered on a bit. We weren't too far into writing the song before we realized that it was a dramatic epic that would very likely close out the album, so working in those other parts made sense to do. In this way, the length of our tracks is also affected by their relationship to the other songs on the album, and how they flow together as a cohesive whole.
What are you most excited about with the release of A Distant Fire? What about this album to you makes it stand out from previous releases?
We are excited to share something that we pushed the limits of our songwriting and our performance skills to create, that is probably the biggest thing that makes it stand out from our previous work. And we're also really excited to push this thing out into the world that we've been sitting on for a year and a half! It is an immense relief to finally share it.
To close out, what can we expect for the future of Alda? Anything else the fans can look forward to?
We can't make any promises or suggest any kind of timeline for what we're up to right now, but we can say that we are slowly but steadily working through new ideas that will eventually aggregate into new songs and become new recordings at some point, hopefully in a more reasonable period of time than it took between our two most recent albums. You will hear from us again.
A Distant Fire is out now on Eisenwald.