Interview: Aaron Charles (Falls of Rauros)
Last Friday, I took a late-night journey with some friends to Washington's picturesque Snoqualmie Falls in hopes of seeing the Aurora Borealis, during one of the rare instances where it would be visible near Seattle. No such luck—guess we couldn't escape the light pollution. Still, seeing and hearing the falling water, climbing over ancient stones and seeing bright arrays of stars felt rejuvenating to the core of my being. The soundtrack to our journey was a sample of music courtesy of Traverse City's folk black metal label Bindrune Recordings. The musicians on Bindrune attempt to emulate and capture the feeling I experienced firsthand—musicians like Aaron Charles of Portland, Maine's Falls of Rauros. Aaron's new album, Believe in No Coming Shore, is arriving just as excitement for this sort of naturalist black metal is reaching a fever pitch, and following a split with the critically-acclaimed band Panopticon. We like Falls so much that we premiered a song from their new record. I spoke with Charles about what life's like as a metalhead in Portland, and about the importance of good drumming, and pop-folk, among other things.
Believe in No Coming Shore drops Oct. 1 courtesy of Bindrune Recordings.
So much black metal in the United States seems to cluster into regional sounds—the pacific northwest has its own fairly distinctive style, for example—but I don't know offhand of any other similar groups from Portland, Maine. What effect does your surroundings have on your music?
The heavy music scene in Maine is pretty tiny. You can expect to see the same 40 people at about any show you go to. It's kind of nice in a way: there's a sense of community for sure but it's quite limited and limiting to stay within the confines of Maine. However, the state is littered with mountains, lakes, whatever you could hope for, so going camping and hiking or any potentially introspective activity here is richly rewarding and has undeniably made a mark on the music we create. I'm perpetually wishing I had more time to spend out of Portland and in the quiet of northern or western Maine.
Is there a specific place, or location that serves to inspire or fuel your musical creativity?
There's no specific place to narrow it down to, but as I mentioned before the bulk of Maine is made up of expanses of relative wilderness and provides constant inspiration for us. We live and rehearse in Portland so we tend to draw from outside sources and past experiences or our internalized necessity for escapism to write music. I personally really love living in Portland and it provides everything I would need in day to day life but I don't find anything particularly inspiring here, at least for fueling creativity within this band. It's a small and slow paced city so it meets those requirements at the very least.
The band name Falls of Rauros is a reference to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." What personal significance does that book have on your life, so much to name your group after it?
We formed the band back in 2005 at a very different time in all of our lives. While Tolkien's novel has certainly affected us the band name stems primarily from a reverence for the emotional response culled from the landscapes in his work. Specifically, of course, the Falls of Rauros. Otherwise the name was chosen in the tradition of black metal bands that inspired us early on, such as Isengard, Burzum, Gorgoroth and so forth.
Likewise, the big "Lord of the Ring"s band is Summoning, a favorite of mine, and I detect a hint of that band's influence on your music. Is that accurate? What other groups inspire Falls of Rauros?
For sure! We're all big fans of Summoning and have been for years and years. I couldn't say that we channel their music directly or carry a heavy influence that I'm aware of. We only use keyboards and synths lightly, for example, and have never used a drum machine or loops. These are indispensable to Summoning's sound in my opinion. Regardless they helped break down barriers and stigmas in the black metal aesthetic and sound and made a serious mark on the four of us all those years ago.
We all have our personal influences we bring to the table and they are far too numerous to not feel awkward going into detail about. We share a love for now-classic bands like Emperor, Enslaved, Bathory, Darkthrone, Ulver, Judas Iscariot, Ildjarn. But really any music in any style we like has influenced us to a degree. It's difficult to pinpoint.
What does the title, “Believe in No Coming Shore,” mean to you? Why was it chosen to represent the album, and why is the title track instrumental?
The title doesn't hold one particular or specific meaning but I'd like to think it evokes a feeling that suits the record and its lyrical themes. The title track is instrumental basically because it serves as a summation of the record's mood and carries that mood to its conclusion. The lyric "believe in no coming shore" is pulled from the track "Spectral Eyes." This would be roughly representative of the direction of the album:
"Believe in no coming shore for we'll cross this sea and the sea then beside it.
Navigate leagues of clamorous waters and lightning.
Smoke hovering so low it becomes us; we've all been betrayed.
Believe in no nearing shore.
No vessel could weather these sprawling expanses.
Fire so black even the night has affirmed it.
We've all been betrayed.
We have all been betrayed."
Believe in No Coming Shore will be your second full-length with Bindrune Recordings. How do you feel about working with that label, and fitting in with its roster?
Bindrune Recordings is a wonderful label and Marty is great to work with. I would say we fit pretty well with the roster as most bands on the label seem to exist under some vague thematic umbrella while each having their own distinct sound. There's always been great music on Bindrune and there only appears to be more and more on the way. He's made some excellent "signings" the last year or two. We're also very excited to be working with Nordvis in Europe as they're a label we have a ton of respect for and they've released some absolutely amazing music over the years.
Earlier this year you released a split with Panopticon. How did that split come together, what is your working relationship with Austin Lunn? Also, how has the split been received? Do you think more people have sought you out since the split's release?
Our drummer Ray and I spent a few weeks in Norway back in 2011 after the release of "Light That Dwells" and stayed with Austin and his wife Bekah. Austin of course played drums for us on "Light" and we at that point had played several shows with his doom band, Seidr. We'd discussed the idea of doing a split with Panopticon but nothing was really materializing until after we returned from Norway and had the artwork ready to go. The cover art was found stored in the basement of the house we were staying at in Norway and Bekah photographed it; it seemed like a perfect fit for the material we were working with and the inspiration behind those songs. Anyway, we wrote the bulk of our contribution to the split years ago now and recorded and mixed it ourselves at our practice space.
The split has been well received I'd say, at least from what I can tell. I'm sure some people have checked us out now who were Panopticon fans exclusively or who stumbled upon it in one way or another through Panopticon. I tend to think fewer people seek out split releases than full-length records so that's a factor for sure.
A lot of the album's song titles seem to make references to the senses—voices, eyes, shadows are a thing which obscure vision as is smoke, which has a smell, etc. Is there some sort of theme or symbology that I don't fully ken going on?
Yeah, there's definitely a sort of unifying theme to the lyrics on the record but nothing concrete or narrative. Compared to "The Light That Dwells" it deals much more directly with humankind and human related affairs. The titles are meant to invoke animal senses and interactions with those senses from within and without, interferences, their anchoring, bolstering, stifling... that's the general idea. The lyrics and titles weren't intended to be direct or obvious and there's a lot of wiggle room in terms of interpretation. That's how it's seemed at least based on those who have read the lyrics and their reactions to them; they've been very different from each other's and my perspective.
The first song from the album to be released, “Ancestors of Smoke,” has some interesting features in it: for one, the drum pattern falls in and out of time while the strings are playing a steady tremolo at the start. Also, the song comes to a full dead stop at almost the exact halfway mark. The second half of the song, after that stop, feels very different, it builds on itself into a kind of bolero, almost. Can you tell me a little bit aobut the composition of “Ancestors of Smoke”?
That song is linked with its predecessor, "Ancestors of Shadow," through both musical and lyrical themes. Riffs and melodies are cross referenced in both tracks and they were initially written as one long composition. There's an unceremonious ending to "Ancestors of Shadow" and that's exactly how it was captured live in the studio. We had planned to have the two songs flow directly into each other in the sequencing stage but we performed "Shadow" with a dead stop and decided to keep it that way on the record in its raw and circumstantial form.
The drum pattern you mentioned at the beginning of "Smoke" is basically there to accent the chord changes; a lot of the song is in a kind of odd time signature and the high hat pattern in those first couple minutes is there to emphasize that. That acoustic break in the middle is directly related to the title track on the B side of the record, and that riff builds and morphs back into the ideas from the beginning of "Shadow." We wanted everything to be related and purposeful but tried to include variety and seemingly drastic changes within the songs.
The kick drums on the whole album, in particular, have an interesting sort of sound. It almost sounds like a hand drum, it has a gentleness to it. So often in music like this the drumming seems kind of like a last-minute thought, but your drumming choices seem very deliberate. Am I barking up the wrong tree?
No I'd say you're pretty spot on here. This was the first album of ours we wrote together in our rehearsal space and had the opportunity to really expand upon and detail specific ideas. We wanted the drums and bass guitar to play an important role and it was certainly deliberate to utilize them the way we did. There's 5-string bass for example, a first for us, which we mixed prominently as to stand out without having to search for it. Interplay between the drums and bass was a definite priority and that's hopefully apparent. As far as the drum sound is concerned we didn't want a stereotypical "clicky" kick drum sound you find in most modern metal releases. We just went for a natural sound without triggers or editing the kick drum to death. Just left it as is. That was generally our approach to all the sounds on the record: don't over-do it or enhance it. Keep the layering to a relative minimum.
There seems to be a real appetite, right now, for the kind of music that Falls plays, this blending of roots music and black metal. What about the pairing of these styles seems powerful or interesting to you? And why is it that people want to hear this sort of thing right now?
Black metal has been tied to regional folk music for a very long time so the appropriation of that pairing in the United States makes a lot of sense to me. This could be through the influence of bluegrass or Appalachian country or folk blues , and so on. Utilizing outwardly American music in contrast to the European neo-folk and neo-classical elements that appear so often in black metal overseas. It appeals to me primarily because I'm a fan of folk music as a whole and these two distinct styles have been proven to complement one another again and again. Folk is very grounded music and black metal obscure and intangible.
I can only imagine the appetite for this particular strain of black metal stems somewhat from the surprising popularity and prevalence of black metal these days. Also folk music itself has seen a massive resurgence which has brought about some amazing and creative artists like Six Organs of Admittance and Alasdair Roberts all the way to the pop-folk explosion I can't stomach such as the Lumineers, the Avett Brothers and their ilk. So I guess it kind of makes sense.
By the same token, a lot of these folk-black metal bands tend to sound kind of similar. Is there anything you do to stand apart from the crowd? What sonic elements do you feel are unique signifiers of The Falls of Rauros?
I'm a bit uncomfortable attempting to describe our sound and definitely uncomfortable trying to detail what may or may not set us apart from the crowd. I know when we're writing music we don't consciously draw from any influence too heavily or obviously and we hope to write in an organic process, blending whatever music is on our individual minds to the collective melting pot and manipulating those ingredients to whichever degree seems appropriate. The goal is to avoid incoherence. Ultimately I have no idea what people hear when they listen to our music and I'm not sure I ever will. It's impossible to know after cultivating a set of songs from ideas and pieces to something complete and realized. I could be way off but I think most people writing music feel this way.