Alltar Prays For Eternal Sludge on “Cantillate” (Live Video Premiere + Q&A)
I suspect I'm not the only one who, sometime this last month, looked at Facebook and got a reminder for a post I made last year about going to a show. Oh, sweet early-2020 us: we thought those shows we skipped due to bad weather, other obligations, or sheer laziness were just blips in a bountiful harvest of live music to be reaped throughout the year; but alas, the fields were barren. For many people it's been about a year without seeing shows, and though in some cases local shows are starting to be viable, they won't be anything like what we were used to, and certainly not at a normal scale for months to come. In the meantime, we have bands like Portland's experimental sludge outfit Alltar (often stylized as A//TAR) to tide us over, providing live albums and videos to kindle the flames of the underground music spirit in us while we wait for better times. Today, we're premiering the video for "Cantillate"—it was actually filmed two years ago at last year's Ceremony of Sludge, but the same track is featured on the band's recent live album Live at Ceremony of Sludge, so try this video and then hit the live album for more where that came from. For maximum authenticity while watching, grab a PBR (or an equivalently cheap and theoretically drinkable beer), throw on a hoodie, and stand in front of your computer screen—no sitting.
Groovy, angry sludge seethes at the heart of "Cantillate" (a fantastic word that means to chant or intone), but it's twisted into unusual shapes and textures through synthesizers and precisely-calibrated guitar tones as it bounces along. The middle section of the song shifts into a meditative, cleaner phase completely unlike the beginning, and a repeated invocation of "worship, cantillate," escalates the meditation into an amplified sermon, one conducted with cyclical riffing and increasingly unhinged screams.
There's a large divide between "normal" and where Alltar's sound resides, and this kind of weirdness is something that comes across excellently in live shows. I'm always going to dig watching bands level rooms with full sets of loud, uncompromising riffs, but the quarantine has really whetted my appetite for strange and unusual offerings, too. As a band that offers both at the same time, we can only count the days until Alltar can grace the stage at events like Ceremony of Sludge once again.
Check out a Q&A with the band below, talking about the allure of live shows and their approach to sludge in the thriving Portland scene.
Your live sound on "Cantillate" is huge and hypnotizing, but it also has a lot of nuance. How do you approach live performances versus the studio -- do you aim for faithful reproduction or changing things up?
Tim Burke: That is great to hear! We like to sound huge and hypnotising! We want to sound as good live as we do in the studio, and much about that has to do with everyone in the band being meticulous about the sound of their own instruments. It’s critical that everyone in the band is trying to make sure they sound awesome because it allows us to come together sonically as a band.
Have you had that experience where you see a band that sounds amazing on record but fails to deliver live? That can be really disappointing for a fan. We want to be able to deliver live as much as on record and it is something that is important to us as a band. It is more of a personal goal than anything. The tones and sounds really start off live. Much of this is from our pedigree as people who have been performing live for decades. Many of the places I have played over the years have less than professional PAs, so I learned long ago that you want the band to be able to match the volume of the drummer and sound awesome without anything going through the main PA. That way the PA can be dedicated to vocals and overall, the band sounds a lot better. It certainly is a treat to get to play better stages where the PA is proper and you have good monitoring.
In the studio we get to spend a lot more time getting things perfect. I often have a sound I am going for in my head. It starts with thick meaty, yet articulate drums, usually, the bass comes next, guitars are layered in, and then keyboards, vocals, and any samples are layered on top of that. I used to want to preserve my live sound as much as possible, but these days I am more willing to experiment in the studio with sounds. Using multiple amps for different sections, layering on effect and getting them dialed in just right. There are certainly parallels in that we are trying to do the same thing live as in the studio, and that is to achieve that perfection. I always feel like I am close, asymptotic to that perfection, because can anything in the real world truly be perfect? And if it was, would it suck the humanity out of it? Playing live, the show must go on, but in the studio you get to take your time, at least if you have the budget anyway.
2020's Ceremony of Sludge took place pretty much right before live music stopped due to quarantine. Do you have any memories or stories about the show to share?
Burke: We really miss the community of musicians and bands that come together for Ceremony of Sludge every year, and generally for shows around time. There is certainly a coming together of the community when both the local bands as well as touring acts and the local legends play. I remember the days when it seemed like three fourths of the audience at YOB shows were local musicians. A lot of us were chasing what Mike Scheidt and YOB achieved. I remember seeing YOB years ago and being like, “well damn, they are already doing what I am trying to get to.” It made me reevaluate what I was doing musically and the result is A//TAR.
This year is particularly hard because Ceremony of Sludge would be happening right around now if it were not for the pandemic. I really miss being able to hang out without everyone, to be crammed into a room with a bunch of people, and of course hugs. I personally didn’t realize how much of my life and my mental health was tied up in live music. It was my place to forget about the problems of normal life and just have fun, and it has been really difficult for me personally. I know that a lot of other people are feeling the same way, and in many ways I am very lucky in other aspects of my life, so I truly empathize with what we all have lost due to the pandemic. I do believe that the community will return once things open back up.
What has the quarantine and pandemic period been like for the band?
Burke: It has been a hard time for the band, there has been a lot of personal change for all of us to varying degrees. I think this is hard on everyone and it threw a wrench in our routine. We usually spend a lot of time working together in the practice space, hashing out new material, trying out ideas and wood shedding. It is always about doing that live, together, and in person in the rehearsal space once a week at least. But with the pandemic, we suspended practicing because of the close quarters and enclosed space.
We tried early on to do file exchanges to keep working but we haven’t been able to make that work. I suppose it is an extension of how we have worked as a band because we have a lot of songs that are not fully formed that we have abandoned for one reason or another. I have always believed in trying to choose the best ideas, and the best songs to work on, cutting ideas that are not as good at multiple times during the process of writing new songs. It can be hard to let go of something you have poured a lot of yourself into, but it makes the material stronger. We have been trying to get together in smaller groups over the summer to keep working on things, but with the weather changing, meeting in garages and porches is much less hospitable. I want to see us figure out a way to make progress though. Hopefully the vaccinations and reduction in cases will allow us back in the room soon.
What do you miss most about live music? Do you have any post- or pre-show rituals you're itching to get back to?
Burke: So many things I miss! I’ve realized that going out to a show is one of the things that really helped me cope mentally with the pressures of modern life. There is a social aspect to that for sure. But there is also the experience of seeing so many musicians expressing themselves in the music they create, and how they communicate themselves though performance. I enjoy keeping up with what other musicians are doing. Sometimes you see a band and you just know right away that they have it, whatever it is. I think of the first time I saw Bell Witch. I already loved their demo, but the live performance was simply mesmerizing.
There is also the other side, I sometimes see bands that pull large crowds and people seem to really be digging, but they don’t connect with me. That is a dig per say, not every person is going to be into whatever band or artists is creating, that is a part of creating art.
The whole show experience is the ritual I want to get back to personally. Playing shows is always focus for me, I am focused on being ready to perform, and having everything ready to go. Going to shows is much more relaxed because I just get to be there and enjoy the performances. For playing shows, I miss the post show beer and food at 2 AM after all the gear is loaded and you still have the energy cursing through you from playing a show. There is a Sizzle Pie, the local chain started by the guys who founded Relapse Records right near my house, and I miss dropping but there for a slice and a pint after in the early hours of the morning. It’s like all the things you don’t get to do in the pandemic rolled into one.
Juan, you and Nate are also in the PDX stoner rock band Tigers On Opium, which I covered a single from a while back. If I hadn't looked up lineups, I would have had no idea you were the vocalist for both projects! Can you talk about your approach to vocals here in Alltar, versus in Tigers on Opium?
Juan Caceres: The real magic in making art/music, is that there are many ways to do it. I love making visual art and making music. So any time I get to try different things, I take full advantage of the range of skills I have worked on. Alltar’s approach to music is a mix of doom and heavy post/metal with influences of mysticism, so I tend to play more towards the esoteric elements of heavy singing… Drone chants, screaming, and dark melodies mixed with a poetic element to the lyrical content. In Alltar I also don’t “write” the music, more so I play a producer style role in helping tie the music together with the vocal/keyboard content and lyrical concepts. In Tigers, believe it or not, the majority of the material starts in more of a singer/songwriter approach as I tend to write the songs/riffs/vocals on an acoustic or electric guitar sitting in my little home studio. My approach with vocals for Tigers tends to stay away from metal style screaming and I like to focus on hooks and catchy melodies. Also the majority of the material is about everyday stuff that I like to write about… From things that have happened in my personal life, to interests I have like magick and the occult, or Portland’s seedy history, along with fun stuff like cars, motorcycles, babes, and smoking weed, drugs and drinking. [laughs]
Regardless of the project I am working on, I almost always have a notebook with me and am writing songs and lyrics, and I keep a running list of ideas on the notes app on my phone.
Aside from having just released a Tigers EP in January, and this Alltar CD in February, I just finished tracking guitars for a new studio recording project collaborating with Adam Pike (ILS/Red Fang) and Justin Lee Henry that’s all death/tech/sludge style metal songs about golf! [laughs] Then in March I will be entering the recording studio with Tigers to record our first full length album and to finish a couple things for the second EP/volume of the 503.420.6669 series. Immediately after that I will be going back into the studio to record my first solo album in the style of folk/acoustic. Working with different genres of music keeps me fresh and excited to work within the confines of a particular style.