Interview: Altar of Plagues’ James Kelly
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For the past half-decade, Ireland's Altar of Plagues were significant enough for being one of the best bands making a certain brand of epic, atmospheric black metal. Along with fellow post-Weakling luminaries like Wolves in the Throne Room and Deafheaven, their work on White Tomb and Mammal placed them at the very forefront of a black metal movement that earned the genre more attention than any since the Norwegian Second Wave.
Now, they're blowing all that up. Teethed Glory & Injury, the band's third LP for Profound Lore Records, is only a black metal album inasmuch as black metal can be defined by the presence of howling vocals and distorted guitars. Around that familiar skeleton, founding member and principal songwriter James Kelly finds room for harsh noise, glitchy electronics, unsettling vocal dubs and starkly modern imagery that's fiercely out of step with the Satan-'n'-mountains fare of the genre's most famous forebears.
Spoiler alert: It totally fucking works. Coming from a band whose best songs prior to this record often flirted with the 20-minute mark, the nine tracks on Teethed Glory are striking in their leanness. Only one crosses the 7-minute barrier, and most hover around the 4- and 5-minute mark. These concentrated flurries of noise set parameters on Kelly and his bandmates that simply weren't there before. They're forced to bludgeon us more quickly and efficiently, even as their sonic palette forever grows.
"Burnt Year" is undoubtedly the highlight of the collection. In 280 seconds, we're treated to madman-vocal calisthenics reminiscent of Anaal Nathrakh's Dave Hunt or Bethlehem's Rainer Landfermann, ushered along by jagged guitars, implacable drumming, and deeply personal lyrics that tear at the psyche. It's one great song among many on Teethed Injury, and I look forward to continued listens revealing even more gruesome charms.
Responding via email, Kelly helped us get to the bottom of the radical change in Altar of Plagues' direction. A transcript of our conversation is below:
Teethed Glory & Injury isn't really like anything we've heard from you before. How conscious was the decision to break with your past?
It was both natural and somewhat conscious. To be honest, we grew extremely tired of an association with a certain 'scene', one which I never felt that we were a part of. Further to that I entirely lost touch with the metal scene for a couple of years. I relocated from rural Ireland to London, England. That event marked a significant lifestyle change for me and I'm sure it has affected my musical tastes as well as my approach to creating it. From the onset, we have always been very open about the fact that we never intended to stick to one sound or set of influences. While there are similarities amongst the older material, we reached a point where we felt we had achieved everything we could with that sound, and to do another album in that vein would be an injustice to that original material. Maybe more people would have liked it if we created White Tomb II, but that would have been the least challenging thing we could have done for ourselves.
Was the songwriting process any different than it had been on previous albums?
Yeah, it was extremely different. When I relocated to London, my writing became almost immediately restricted to computer based composition. All of a sudden I had moved from a place in the countryside, where I could play drums at 4 a.m., to a city where siren sounds never cease, and anonymous conversations bleed through the walls constantly. I think this was in some ways a fortunate event and it forced me to examine the music I write in a very different way. All of a sudden it was as if the whole process became more three-dimensional, as I was no longer restricted to the template of guitars, drums, and vocals. The other significant change in the songwriting process was that the songs we produced initially were much shorter than anything we had written before. It felt totally natural, and honestly, I think these songs are a very pure distillation of what we have always aimed to achieve with our music.
The video for "God Alone" was a clear departure, imagery-wise as well as sonically, from what people last heard from Altar of Plagues. What have the reactions been like?
It has been fairly mixed, from vehement hostility to full support. We genuinely did not produce this video to push buttons. My days spent using visual materials to provoke a reaction ended at 14, when my Cradle of Filth “Jesus is a cunt” t-shirt was donated to a clothing charity. It is what we felt was the best visual accompaniment to the music. Creating a video piece was very challenging but I am glad that we did it.
Black metal fans, stereotypically, are fairly reactionary. Does it matter to you whether your music still speaks to that audience?
I have mixed feelings about it. If our music resonates with someone on a very personal level, then that is great, but if someone else reacts to it in a visceral way then that is ok also. As long as people feel something then I don't really mind what it is. I definitely become most aware of people's reaction when we perform live. It can be pretty disheartening if someone says that we're a boring live band as, over the last couple of year especially, we have put a lot of energy into making our live performances become the best they can be. They are physically taxing. So I suppose I feel a bit like an athlete who comes off a track to be told that (s)he didn’t try hard enough.
When writing this album we were extremely selfish with regards to what we wanted to achieve. It was very much written for ourselves and peoples expectations were the last thing on our mind. As our third album, and knowing what people like and don't like about our band, the easier option might have been to tailor it to people's tastes. I would hope that our music reaches people beyond the black metal community but I have no preference as to who should listen.
Beyond the obvious structural differences, you're playing with sound a bit more aggressively than in the past. How did so many electronics and effects work their way into the record?
As I mentioned, my songwriting became almost exclusively computer based when I relocated to London. Most of the tracks on Teethed Glory & Injury are densely packed with different elements, both electronic and otherwise. This is so much the case that when I listen to certain tracks I cannot identify where certain sounds even came from. In my mind it is something like what I would imagine it feels like to paint a Rothko piece. Actually, Rothko paintings were certainly a prominent inspiration when composing this material (I'm fortunate enough to have access to his maroon series here).
I mentioned that I lost interest in metal for some time. I think this was largely due to the fact that I no longer felt challenged by it. Maybe there was only so many different combinations of blast beats and distorted guitars I could hear before the effect wore off, but it reached a point where I regarded something like La Monte Young's “well tuned piano” to be more challenging than anything going on in metal. And I've also had the opportunity to witness things like the noise scene bleeding over into the techno scene, thanks to people like Regis, Vatican Shadow, Pete Swanson, etc. It is exhilarating to be in a place where audiences are affected by the challenges presented by music. It reminds you of what it is capable of. And then on the other hand, probably the most (in)famous extreme metal band is Cannibal Corpse. And this is supposedly a band who has made a career out of presenting 'challenging' music. I'd like to see how Cannibal Corpse fans would react to a Vatican Shadow show.
Speaking of electronics, how is the WIFE album coming?
It's been going very well, but there is not much that I can share about it at this point.
Will Altar of Plagues ever reach a point where you'll write something and debate over whether it's better suited to Altar or WIFE?
Obviously its an entirely different thing to Altar of Plagues but there is a stylistic correlation between the two I think. I think Teethed Glory & Injury is the album where my electronic tastes became most prominent with Altar of Plagues, so maybe if we were to do another album then they may come even more to the foreground. On the other hand, maybe Altar of Plagues would become more aggressive as a reaction to that.
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