“De Doorn”: Amenra’s Piercing Post-Metal Returns (Interview With Colin H. van Eeckhout)
Over six Masses, Amenra has smelted blistering post-hardcore and ecstatic post-rock into distinctive, massive, ambitious metal. Historically self-critical, the band seemed close to reaching the mélange of self-exploration and syncretic fury they sought on Mass VI. Spoken-word interludes and moments of poignant clean vocals gleamed among monolithic slabs of guitar and to-the-rafters howls from frontman Colin H. van Eeckhout. While scaling these heights, band members were branching out. The Church of Ra was growing. And then came the pandemic.
Re-emerging with the rest of us from a year of chaos, Amenra releases their first full-length for Relapse, and their first non-Mass LP, on June 25. It is their most refined record to date, their most coherent alloy of fury and intimacy.
De Doorn (get it on gold vinyl) is a turning point for Amenra, representing new personnel, new collaborations, new ideas, and new sounds. In some ways, the sound is still classic Amenra. But De Doorn is more introspective, more self-possessed. As with each Amenra record, the production is tighter on De Doorn than on its predecessor, and there’s more negative space between the columns of noise within which the shrieked, sung, and spoken vocals resonate.
Spoken vocals are a frequent presence on De Doorn. At once deeply personal, like being read a story near the embers of a fire, and also perplexing in length and inscrutability, large portions of De Doorn are effectively narration. Nowhere is this more true than in "Voor immer." If you like a slow build, this track is arguably the best on the record. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself waiting through six and a half minutes of monologue before the crescendo.
But what crescendos De Doorn delivers at every turn. Every track contains sections of the absolute best Amenra has to offer. From the opening build of "Ogentroost" to the climax of "Het Gloren," this is an album you can practically bathe in. Moments of contemplation over gentle guitar spill over into moments of existential desperation, then give way to the best clean vocals Amenra has ever recorded—"De Evenmens" uses every weapon in the arsenal, with an absolutely breathtaking final third. Besides crushing riffs and cocoons of atmosphere, new addition Caro Tanghe's (of Oathbreaker) presence adds to Amenra’s vocal dynamism. While not every listener will have the patience for the monologues, the many who do will be rewarded with an exquisitely crafted 47 minutes of glorious, genre-defying extreme music.
I spoke with frontman Colin H. van Eeckhout via Zoom about De Doorn, its origins, the changes to the band that made it possible, COVID’s impact, and Amenra’s plans.
It’s been quite a year. This album, De Doorn, seems to represent a variety of changes for the band, and I’m sure the one most people will notice right away is the title. We’ve had six Masses, but this one is De Doorn, or The Thorn. What does this new name represent?
When we had finished the album, we just asked ourselves the question, "is this Mass VII?" And then everybody had the same opinion and said it wasn’t. This album was written from a whole different angle. The Mass albums, we’ve really made a point of it to only start actively writing an album when we thought we had something to write about, something to say that mattered. Those were based on personal traumatic experiences.
We pretty much started writing for this album [De Doorn] very quickly after Mass VI. We had several city councils in Belgium asking us to create rituals or a sort of commemorative ceremony; for instance, the first was a commemoration of the end of WWI and the rebuilding of the country. Here in our region, it’s still very visible—we have lots of bunkers, monuments, war graves, cemeteries, shit like that. So, we only had to write like 15 minutes of music, but we wanted to write more and do it more decently. So, we had another one with a fire, and then another, and after we had done a couple, one of our guitar players said, "hey guys, we pretty much wrote an album." But we weren’t consciously writing an album. That’s pretty much why we didn’t feel like it was Mass VII.
Masses are very personal stories of ours that we pour into abstract metaphors and imagery. They’re still very much about ourselves. Me as a singer, I’m talking from my point of view, fighting off invisible enemies or things that cause harm. We kind of address those things. This one, the relationship to the listener is different—the listener plays an active role. It felt totally different to us, so it needed to have a different name.
Will there ever be a Mass VII, or do you feel like that cycle has kind of ended?
I’m sure there will be shit in our lives at some point where we’ll feel the urge to go back to what we were used to. It’s become part of our DNA. We’re creative people, so we’re going to keep on writing things that we think need to be done. We don’t really plan ahead that far in time or know how things will manifest or feel to us. I’m pretty sure there will be [Mass VII] at some point, but we’re going to wait it out.
De Doorn emerged from visual art collaborations with Pan Daijing, Toni Kanwa Adikusumah, and Johan Tahon. How did the art inform Amenra’s musical ideas, and how did your music maybe influence the art? What was the relationship there?
It’s very rewarding to work with people working in a different art media because they speak a different language. You learn a lot from that. We always go looking for a person who is connected with his or her thing in the same kind of way as we are. For instance, Toni Kanwa Adekukusmah built a sculpture from a single tree. That was put on display in the art center [Vooruit] in Ghent for a couple of weeks. People could go there and put their unacknowledged loss in the statue. It’s a gamble—will people feel the urge to do so, or just put random stuff? But it amazed us that people were really drawn to it and [the sculpture] was full to the brim.
[Ceremonies like these] are unseen these days in contemporary Belgian. We have installed festivities and baptisms and Christmas, which is reduced to people giving presents to each other and having dinner together, so the magic of these humans-gathering-for-some-reason that is pretty loaded or serious—it’s an honor to be a part of those things. [On the artist’s side,] we have opened them up to what was happening. They saw the potential of cooperation. Musicians have a whole platform of people who are open to receiving certain information—we’re so lucky to have that kind of public.
Shifting attention to the music on De Doorn, there are intangible things that feel different on this record—it still sounds like Amenra, but it felt like there was a refinement, shifts in production and a higher proportion of spoken vocals here. Talk to me more about the aesthetic choices you made, especially since it sounds like this record was so organic for you.
Normally, you just organize an album according to the dynamics of a song or what the album still needs, but this was really—decisions were made according to what happened at either one of these [ritual] evenings. [Guitarist Lennart Bossu] also said it was the first thing he started to write after Oathbreaker went on hiatus. They didn’t necessarily split up, but it was like a relationship ending, it felt that way for him, so it was things he said he needed to get out of his system.
The spoken parts, obviously they’re in Flemish. In essence, these things were written to be played in Belgium. I knew 90% of the people who were there [at our rituals] were going to be Flemish-speaking people, so I wanted to have a direct line to the audience. We were really addressing the people who were attending in the moment. That was how the spoken word part got there, and I didn’t want to throw away half of the things I’ve written. Normally when I go looking for singing parts I have way too much written and I throw out half of it, and I felt like, no, this is really more a story telling. These words have to be there.
The nuances and changes are pretty much because Lennart took the forefront, and he hadn’t before [on previous records]. He’s been a part of the band since 2009, 11-12 years, and he never stepped forward to tell us what he had because he’s a very introverted person. This was the first time he stepped forward to pull the chariot—he knew the band by heart, he knew what the band stands for, he knew what the essence of the band is, but he had never told the story in his musical language. This is how the changes really manifested, yet the core essence of Amenra is still there.
Speaking of Oathbreaker being on hiatus, another big change for this record is you have Caro Tanghe [Oathbreaker vocalist], and there’s a new bassist with Tim de Gieter joining. What brought on these reshufflings and how did they influence De Doorn?
Tim has played with us since 2017. When we started writing the first notes for the album, he was rehearsing with us. He was replacing our then-bass player [Levy Synaeve] when his band Wiegedood was touring. As [Levy] was more drawn to his thing, we asked Tim, our friend, to join us. After four years, both parties kind of understood that maybe it’s good for you [Levy] to focus on your band and we can continue and give Tim the place he kind of already had. Everyone was happy and felt this made sense for everyone involved. We played a last show with [Levy] in summer 2020. It was a big streaming thing called "Le circle", about the circle being broken and reconnected with a new cycle.
With Caro, the decision came quickly. Lennart played with her for years in Oathbreaker, and we automatically thought about Caro and thought she could contribute, lend her talent and her voice to the album. We missed her, also. She has been living in the States for a couple of years now, and in the past, we’ve toured together a hell of a lot, and we lived in the same city for a long time. And I’ve always had a love for mixing male and female vocals. I always loved that dynamic. It makes everything feel more in balance, more like a document of everyone’s story instead of only a certain part of the population.
So, this is your first record that’s been all in Flemish. This record was preceded by Het Dorp, a two-song EP of Zjef Vanuytsel folk covers, and you’ve said this record was in response to a local audience. Did you draw on any outside sources for the lyrics on De Doorn, or were they very of the moment?
The lyrics were very of the moment. I didn’t seek inspiration anywhere else. I’m not an avid reader, either, so I kind of just let it flow and saw where it went without trying to mold it in a certain direction. It’s interesting to analyze afterward, and with all the interviews I’m forced to think things through and explain things and find answers to why everything happened. With Mass VI, there was already my own language seeping in there, with the two Flemish poems between songs, and with the covers of [Zjef Vanuytsel] we did, I started to see the potential in using my own language, and I started to see that I might not be that bad at it, either. I just grew a pair of balls and dove in there, but not without the typical uncertainty that Amenra always has when we do something that is a little different. We always fear what that decision will mean. We fully stand behind it—we really think we’ve created something beautiful that makes sense in all the different directions—but afterward, you always automatically ask yourself what an English-speaking person will think of that.
Of course, one of the bigger changes for the band and everyone else globally has been COVID. Like the US, Belgium dealt with some serious outbreaks. How did the pandemic affect the band and this record? Since you were doing these performances beforehand, did you get interrupted or kind of find work-arounds?
Everything fell together very perfectly for us, actually. The recordings were pretty much done at the end of 2019, and then in January 2020 we flew to the States to record Caro, and then we mixed it. We were able to pretty much get it done before the earth stopped turning. In a way it gave us time to work on the artwork and the videos, which normally is something you have to do in between preparing for shows. It gave us the opportunity to fully throw ourselves into it.
The reason we want to release it now and not wait out the pandemic is because this type of music is made for situations like [the pandemic]. Our generation has never really lived through something as… traumatizing might be too wild a word, but it’s the most intense thing we’ve had to live through. Giving up some of our freedom, having to wear a mask, all that sort of stuff—in essence, we can’t complain, but it is a fact that a lot of people in Belgium had to live without being able to hug their parents or see their friends. A lot of people who don’t have families and live by themselves found themselves in extreme solitude. They work at home from 8–5, they get done and just sit there. That’s pretty wild, and for some that’s very heavy to carry. It made people think about everything and question how their lives were.
For us, that’s the thing we thrive on and work with—collective loss. We really wanted to not be strategic about [releasing De Doorn] in a smart marketing way but just throw out it out now because it makes sense to do it now. All of our albums deal with solitude and loss and finding your way through difficult periods on your lifeline. We kind of embraced the situation. The first months, we were a little lost, but we kind of found a rhythm and still be creative and work on things. That’s also when we did those cover songs.
But, yeah, we had been looking forward to a break, also. We’ve been around for 20 years, and since we live in Central Europe, we pretty much jump in a van every weekend for shows and drive to a different country. It doesn’t stop for us. While other bands release an album, do two or three tours and then disappear again for a year and a half. We had been longing for a time like this to spend time at home and finish things we’ve started.
Now that the pandemic seems to be beginning to ease, how soon will you be able to present De Doorn live? Is the band booking shows, or is it still too early for that?
We’ve been continuously booking and rebooking just in case it might be possible. Here, you have seated shows where people are kind of in a bubble around a table. That works for our acoustic sets, but feels way off for our heavy sets, energy-wise, with people sitting at a table watching you perform like a bunch of monkeys in a zoo. The energy exchange is off, and it feels extremely awkward, so we’re going to wait that out as long as possible. This summer, we’ll probably play some outdoor amphitheaters here in Europe. Those are venues that are made to be seated, and most are situated in forests or parks, so kind of gives that a different feel. That’s probably the only spot where heavy shows work for us at the moment… We still have a European Tour scheduled for September, but we have to wait it out. I don’t think half of the population here is vaccinated yet, so we’ll see.
Are there particular media you plan to incorporate in any upcoming live shows? Would you be able to replicate some aspects of those ceremonies from the beginning of the album?
It’s dangerous to make a gimmick out of those things. If it becomes a part of our live show, you’re already halfway down the drain. It was what it was, and we don’t necessarily have the ambition to do a zillion more of those because they’re pretty intense and stressful to organize. In a way, the really rewarding part for us comes afterward. There’s so much to be done on that evening that you can’t really enjoy it or witness it.
Medium-wise, we still want to incorporate everything that makes sense. I’m very interested in contemporary dance, theatre, and opera, the way their choreography and lights are done—those people are next-level. They really work things through and strive for perfection. 90% of bands just jump on stage and let someone else decide how their thing will look. There are still so many worlds to explore, still so much to do. That’s the cool thing—we always see more potential than we have time. It keeps it interesting, and it makes it worth it to keep on going.
What else is coming up for you, and for other members of Amenra? I know there are various side projects in the Church of Ra—anything you’d like to highlight?
Right before the pandemic, Lennart released an album on Relapse with Living Gate, so I’m sure as soon as there’s a possibility they’ll probably want to tour. Mathieu has a darkwave band with his girlfriend. Our bass player [Tim] has released his album with Doodeskader that he’s also writing for like a madman. I’m working on an opera/contemporary dance piece I’m a part of; I’m playing John the Baptist in that. We’re playing that in Switzerland on Saturday. And then solo projects and stuff.
For Amenra, the sound score to the Mirror from Andrei Tarkovsky and a compilation of Townes van Zandt with Caved In and Marissa Nadler are the other two things in the pipeline besides the new album. Some streams as well—we’re going to probably do a stream around one of the release date [of De Doorn on June 25] of one of our rituals, with the last fire ritual with the bronze statue, and that’s pretty much where we played the four songs of the album in their entirety for the first time. It was around the end of 2019 when we played those songs, and then we continued working on them, and they’ve kind of changed a little bit. It’s why [De Doorn] was conceived, so it’s an important thing to share.
Thanks again for your time! All the best to you and the rest of the band.
Thank you for your time! It was a nice chat. Enjoy the day.
De Doorn releases on June 25th via Relapse Records.
You can purchase a limited-edition translucent gold 2LP in our section of BrooklynVegan's web shop.