Ghastly Treads The “Mercurial Passages” Of Delightfully Bizarre Death Metal (Interview with Ian J. D’Waters)
There are many pathways that death metal can follow, and most of them are oft-treaded ground by this point. The bands that choose to follow their own path are always a love of mine, and especially bands that eschew conventions regarding heavy rhythms or song structures. Ghastly is one of those very special bands that pursues a more obscure path, replete with little idiosyncrasies of character that help differentiate them from all peers.
A particular focus of Ghastly is dynamics. Otherworldly melodies or even passages of clean, ghostly reverb guitar melodies will sit in the same song a pounding section of aggressive traditional death, all held together by superior songwriting rather than by tricks of momentum or force that lesser bands rely on to make disparate elements work together. The way each song twists and turns is fascinating, a veritable masterclass of unpredictability, and even when songs move through more predictable sections through a crescendo of rage or into a more mellow melodic one the actual choices of guitarwork are always fascinating.
One of the cooler techniques that Ghastly regularly uses to great effect are sections of simpler backing rhythm guitars with catchy, memorable lead melodies over the top; these are difficult to pull off but the reward is immense, and the sense of class that they impart is an important part of the record. Dual leads and other sections without effective “death metal” rhythm guitar help seal the deal of a record that’s almost psychedelic in how stretched out and mesmerizing it can be.
Though a great amount of the focus is on sections that are less traditionally death metal, Mercurial Passages is by no means anything else. Fundamentally, the class and melody rely on the demented aggression that is the undercurrent of every song to have something to bounce off, and the ferocious drumming and vocals keep even the most sensitive sections grounded. This is Ghastly’s third record and the years of experience that went into it show; every record has pushed boundaries more and more and leaned into an increasingly unique, personal sound. I can’t wait to see where they go next, but for now, it’s impossible for me to put down the new record.
Give it a listen and read an interview with Ghastly’s main songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ian J. D'Waters below.
Mercurial Passages makes heavy use of sections that rely on lead guitar melodies over slower rhythms a la Demigod or Gorement. For those sections, do you write the melody first, or the rhythm?
Most of the times the melody comes first and rhythms later. There have been occasions that I have a rhythm guitar already but it needs something to it and I’ll start jamming that part with the lead guitar and see what comes up. I have to blame the fascination with these lead guitar melody sections on Tales from the Thousand Lakes and The Karelian Isthmus, both albums affected me so much in my teen years and still are one of my favourites.
Are there any specific sections with those lead melodies on the new album that you’re particularly proud of, or that were harder to write?
I wouldn’t say any lead was hard to write, or at least I don’t remember a thing like this. Of course I stand behind every riff, lead, pulse and beat on the record and I am proud of what I came up with. Few leads ("Parasites"’ solo & "Mirror Horizon"’s final lead) were intentionally left to be written at the spot. I have done that in every recording session that I leave things a bit open for ideas that pops into my head without composing everything 100% beforehand. It doesn’t work all the time but with "Mirror Horizon" it did and that might be the song I am most happy with concerning the leads.
How do you determine the best way to balance more aggressive tremolo riffs against the stretched out melodies and jangly riffs that are so much of Ghastly’s core sound within an individual song?
By trial and error usually. First of all, I gather riffs together and record them, then I test the structure by jamming drum parts to it. If that doesn’t flow, I need to change something. Some parts can take years to find the perfect song structure that works. I attend to give every song its own feeling and atmosphere, but this time on Mercurial Passages, it got a bit out of hand and it expanded to the whole album. With this I mean that the album is almost like a concept, or how I put it - it’s like a nightmarish movie.
Will future albums take the same cinematic approach to songwriting as Mercurial Passages? Would you ever perhaps actually take that next step and combine in the music with a strong lyrical concept?
The cinematic thing has been always with us and it most likely will be there in the future. I have this feeling it might be more going to that direction to be honest. What comes to the lyrics, I am not a huge fan of concept albums or stories that are put into album form. I sure do love King Diamond but the lyrics aren’t the thing for me. I never really dug into the stories of Abigail, Them or Conspiracy for example. Vocals are merely an instrument in my books, even though I do understand the power of words. Lyrics are not my speciality at all and that’s why I am so grateful that my old friend Andy Gordon has always been keen to help us with his lyrical outpour. We haven’t talked about a real concept album ever, so can’t really say what is going to happen.
There is great care given to dynamics on the new album, with sections that even cut out for just atmospheric guitar a la “Ouroborus.” Are these any more difficult to write for you than more straightforward death metal?
Not at all as to me that’s the fun part and I love to try things out. I think it’s harder to write straightforward death metal that actually works and sound decent. The core is of course simple and straightforward with drums, bass and rhythm guitars, but that doesn’t always work - I need to add something more to it if the song needs it. Dynamics, changes and atmosphere are crucial in every art form.
There are some extremely aggressive parts on the new album, such as on “Out of the Blue.” Do you ever struggle to make those work alongside the more melodic or atmospheric sections?
Doing arrangements can be a struggle if I feel some parts just don’t click together. As with anything, trying it out, listen to it and giving time will sort things out for the best. Sometimes the answer is to get rid of the melody and make the part more violent or to do the opposite. As you have noticed, Ghastly’s music sure isn’t just aggressiveness or only melodies. I sure love those styles and I try to fit both together to have the maximum effect in my music.
This is the first record to include Johnny Urnripper of Stench of Decay fame. What does he bring to the band, and what made it the right time to become a three piece?
This is the second album to include Johnny, he was already on Death Velour. We knew him for years, he lives in the same city, he has the perfect Finnish death metal growl and he also plays guitar. Before that we had played few shows as a trio, but this music needs a second guitarist on stage so he was perfect for the job. On Death Velour he had one song to growl on his own and few smaller parts but on the new album I wanted him to have more time on vocals. There’s a great balance with his and Gassy’s vocals.
My mistake! When you were writing music for his parts and Gassy’s did you always put the guitars first, or were any sections written ahead of time with vocals in mind? How important are vocal arrangements in the greater context of the songwriting?
Music always comes first and vocals are an instrument that when found the best lyrics for the song, I’ll arrange the rhythmic vocalisation as to me that is a very important factor. This time Gassy recorded his vocals on his own and added his own touch to it which works. Arrangements mostly follow a few certain rules like the riffs will determine where there will be vocals. Many tricks learned from listening to favourite bands also are used as a homage.
What’s next for Ghastly?
Future is something we cannot foretell, so can’t really say yet what’s in store for us. What I’d want us to do is more and more live shows, rehearsals and music. Right now the situation is that there is no pressure to do anything specific, but I’d like to make us more solid live band than we have ever been. Time will tell.
Do you have anything else to talk about or promote?
Thank you very much for this interview, Brandon. It was a pleasure. If there’s someone who reads this and haven’t checked our music, I’d advise people to go to digital platforms to give it a shot. The music ain’t something that is going to hit you right away as it has so many levels in it but it will open after few plays. Best way to check our physical merch at the moment is to go to 20 Buck Spin’s website and order there. At the same time it is advised to check all the other great albums this label has released.