“In Darkness at Last,” Ares Kingdom’s Death Metal Continues a Violent Tradition (Interview)
The vast majority of the original extreme metal musicians from the 1980s have long since abandoned both the underground and extreme metal altogether. It’s legendary at this point how the musicians from cult bands like Cartilage (Fin), Dominus (DE), and Repugnant (Swe) have gone on to play with bands like Nightwish, Volbeat, and Ghost. Most of the classic death metal bands that didn’t break up outright ended up playing popular forms of groove metal, goth rock, or other more commercially viable genres as early as on their second album. Though the original wave of USDM was certainly more dedicated to the genre over the years than the European bands I mentioned, they were not immune to it, and the amount of musicians from that time period still just as dedicated to disgusting underground death metal filth can almost be counted on one hand. Deceased, Pentacle, Mortem, a few others…and Ares Kingdom.
Though Ares Kingdom themselves did not start until the middle of the '90s, the band was formed by Mike Miller and Chuck Keller from the mighty Order From Chaos immediately after the band split and the continuation is obvious: Keller's writing is Keller's writing, and no amount of years, changes in trends, label support or a lack of it, or anything else have ever changed that. Ares Kingdom’s newest album, In Darkness at Last, is the natural continuation of some 35 years of underground death metal mania: ferocious, unique, raw, and better written than almost anything else out there.
Much is made of youthful spirit and talent, but there’s something to be said for an overwhelming surplus of skill. In Darkness at Last does not sound like an album that a younger band could write; the aggression and even perhaps Keller’s riffing approach could be mistaken for the vigor of new writer, with his passion for extremity keeping his writing from ever feeling tired even after all these years, but certainly the class that lurks behind the hateful riffs is not something that could be accomplished without building a strong, true songwriting base. Keller has spoken about his love for heavy metal and punk over the years (and the band’s covers of bands like Dokken and Van Halen cement his '70s and '80s roots), and the melodicism those influences bring ties together the entire riffing package to form something uniquely Ares Kingdom. Add on top Keller’s incredible shredding (seriously- Shrapnel Records called and asked for their guitarist back), Miller's powerful drumming, and bassist/vocalist Alex Blume's maniac roar in front and get the total package: an album that’s as goddamn exciting on its own merits as it is for being from one of my favorite bands.
Read below for an interview with Chuck Keller and turn up In Darkness at Last loud. Hail and kill, hermanos.
You just got back from a tour with Deceased and Bulldozer. Tell me about that!
It was really special. It was as close to doing a true old-school tour as you can get these days. Bulldozer sounded exactly like they did in the mid-'80s, so it was absolutely authentic. The other bands on the tour, us, Deceased and Demiser, clearly descend from the '80s approach and spirit, so it couldn’t have been a better fit. The cooperation between the bands was really close, so the whole thing went off like clockwork, night after night, across at least a dozen shows. There’s a west coast leg being planned now with the same lineup for late next summer/fall.
What to you makes for an "old school" tour as opposed to other less old school ones you’ve done in recent years?
For one thing, on this last tour, the headliner was a true old-school band, Bulldozer, doing only material from the first two albums, The Day of Wrath and The Final Separation. That’s about as '80s old school as you can get. I know the term gets thrown around a lot, and people can argue all they want about what constitutes "old school," but for me, the old school concluded in 1989 when death metal overwhelmed thrash, which had unfortunately atrophied…with only a few notable exceptions.
What are some of those notable exceptions?
Bathory, Sodom, Voivod, Living Death, Carnivore, Razor, and Infernal Majesty were putting out great stuff right up to 1989, but there was also so much shit being released alongside that stuff that it was getting really difficult to wade through it all. I worked in a record store in those days and was the metal and punk records buyer, so I saw the endless parade of new releases. I’d get momentarily excited about a new album, crack it open and play it. Most often, I’d be disappointed, quietly re-shrinkwrap it and put it in the record bins and hope someone would buy it before we had to discount it. I’d then report to my circle of friends what I thought was good and what was shit, haha!
For my money, In Darkness At Last has perhaps the best and most live-like production that Ares Kingdom has ever had. What did you do differently?
We really didn’t do anything different apart from taking more time recording the drums - but even that was the same mechanical approach as before. We do everything acoustically - zero triggers and replacement tone bullshit.
Production tones always vary from album to album, so I think that’s what you’re hearing. It is true the drums are a little more out front on this record–and most importantly they’re all acoustic. Plus my ridiculously big guitar tone is in there as well, so again it’s the ‘everything louder than everything else’ philosophy applied. We weren’t aiming to sound live on the record, that’s for sure, but if that’s how it sounds, fine by me. To my ears, In Darkness… has a strong Pleasure to Kill spirit and texture - and who can argue with that record? - which I think is very fitting for the songs.
So, it’s probably the fact that we record our music like it’s still 1975 that gives our albums a bit of a live texture. There’s so much studio tech trickery available now that practically anyone can sound super professional if they want. Computers can correct imperfections with a couple of mouse clicks. But we think this is silly and tends to sanitize and suck the Heavy Metal soul out of recordings. We consciously choose to NOT do that. We stick to the way things used to be done and that’s it. I grew up hearing stray noises, off-time playing, and sonic warts on my favorite albums. They became part of the experience of that record, and it wouldn't–couldn’t–be the same without them.
I don’t demand every album I enjoy listening to be recorded or sound the way we do, but it is a must for Ares Kingdom. We must remain feral.
How did you achieve your guitar tone on this one? Have you been experimenting with different tones live as well?
Actually, it was the same method I’ve used since Incendiary - guitar straight into my Marshall JCM 800 50w–which never leaves the studio by the way. Sometimes I use pedals for subtle effects like delay, reverb, phaser, or flange, but I use no outboard distortion or overdrive pedals.
On Return to Dust, I used a Vulpecula-era Jackson Kelly with stock ‘Jackson’ pickups into my old OFC-era Boss Heavy Metal pedal (which has since died) into the JCM 800. That guitar was retired in 2010, after recording Incendiary, when I bought a newer Jackson Kelly Bloodline edition, which came with really good Seymour Duncan pickups. That became my main guitar for recording and live. I got great thick-and-snarly tones on Veneration and The Unburiable Dead with it. I did experiment on By the Light… a few years ago when I backed down the tone knob a few clicks, but this time it was back to being up full.
So basically, a Jackson Kelly Bloodline was the main difference between the tone on Incendiary and the one on Veneration, the next recording session we did. The Marshall JCM 800, cab, and how I mic’d it all for recording didn’t change a bit.
We’ve always received comments about the guitar tones on our albums, and it’s interesting. I could totally understand it in the OFC days because my tones were always rough and primitive. The thing is, I’m very traditional and believe in micing an amp and working with the tone from there on the mixing board.
I’m a bit foggy on what I did on the Stillbirth Machine recording some 30 years ago because I know I re-recorded the guitars across the entire album at one point - and don’t remember what changed - if anything. But I do remember our engineer/co-producer, the late Ron "West" Hodgden, brought in some ridiculously big parametric EQ just for my tone. We tried getting what I had in mind, but in the end still ended up with a tone like a Murder Hornet nest being smacked and abducted by a UFO, so that was weird. But it ended up being absolutely vital to the sound and appeal of the record. You can’t hear the damn riffs, but I guess that’s not the point there, ha!
I haven’t really been experimenting live, either. Just an Ibanez Tube Screamer into my Marshall JCM 800 100w and let it rip. Only Marshall is real, obviously. There’s very little subtlety to my live settings, too. Tones are generally up to full apart from mids which are at 5. Earlier this year, I retired the Jackson Kelly from live shows and switched to a reissued Washburn HM-20V which I modded with the same model Seymour Duncan pickups in the Kelly in order to maintain the live tone I like–pure Marshall roar.
What do you do for flyouts where you might not have access to a Marshall at all, let alone a JCM 800?
I make the best of what’s there and set whatever it is to what I use on my own Marshall and let it rip! I use a Tube Screamer live and in rehearsal (with my workhorse JCM 800 100w), Drive and level are set to highest, and tone is dialed off completely. That usually gets me into the ballpark of my normal tone.
I can and have played on just about anything and don’t get fussy if it isn’t my exact tone. Sometimes I’ll have to adjust aspects of my playing to accommodate a house rig, but the crowds never notice. As long as it sounds like a thermonuclear detonation, I’m good.
In Darkness at Last is out now on Nuclear War Now! Productions.