L’Acéphale Unveils (And Talks) Its Avant-Garde Self-Titled Full-Length
When complimented on the expansive replies to e-mailed questions, Set Sothis Nox La said, “I endeavor to do things well when I can.” Just listening to the latest album by L'Acéphale, streaming below, proves that to be the case.
L'Acéphale, which started as a solo project for the Portland vocalist, has morphed over the course of three albums and a slew of singles and splits. This culminating self-titled release is ambitious and multifaceted. “Gloria In Excelsis Mihi,” with female vocals and lilting strings, is eerie Gothic melodrama; the 12 minutes of “Sovereignty” remind us of fellow Pacific Northwestern brethren Wolves in the Throne Room's open-ended black metal excursions (fun fact: current WITTR guitarist Colin "Kody" Keyworth previously played with L’Acephale as Borkthraldrazil); and “Hark! The Battle-Cry is Ringing” is a pagan metal take on Dead Can Dance’s mysticism. The rest of the album brilliantly and often beautifully straddles the lines between dark folk, dissonant blackgaze, and raw black metal.
Aside from releasing the most intriguing album of the band’s history, L'Acéphale also seem poised for a higher profile. This release is the first through Eisenwald, a long-running German label that just opened a North American webstore. Also, on the day the record is released, the band will perform at the prestigious Roadburn Festival in The Netherlands.
Set Sothis Nox La took time to answer some questions about the new self-titled album and where the band goes from here.
L'Acéphale began as a solo project. At what point did you decide that you wanted it to become a more traditional band -- or would you even call it a traditional band now?
I would not call the project a traditional band. I think of it as more a recording project and sometimes live ensemble.
It started out of my desire to create sound I wanted to hear. I have been recording music and sound for personal reasons for decades; I bought a four-track cassette multitrack recorder in 1989 and have been recording music ever since. Very little of this music has been released, so the start of the project was not to create a band to make my mark; instead it was more a personal project to mix elements I felt were interesting.
I eventually did create a limited run of CDrs of the Mord und Totschlag demo. I was friends with Tim Call from Parasitic Records, who had played drums in Hail for a while. I gave him the demo and he asked if he could release the song “Book of Lies” as a 7-inch. Because he is a drummer I asked him if he wanted me to record it with actual drums. He said sure, so I asked Jeff (Bloody Rich) who played drums with me in Order of the Vulture if he would go into the studio to record that song. He agreed [and] we made plans to start rehearsing the song.
Jeff mentioned the project to a couple friends and by the time we had our first practice both Liz [Abyss] and Kody asked to join the project. They are both amazing musicians and I was thrilled to have then involved. The project became a more traditional band at that point but I continued to record experimental type pieces as well.
Around 2006-2007 things changed and I moved away from Portland to be with my wife while she went to graduate school and the live ensemble was put on hold. We were still completing Stahlhartes Gehäuse so it was natural to focus on personal recording projects. Some of this material has been released.
The band has periods of time when we work on music as a full band and perform live but also times when the band is inactive as a live ensemble. I do not think of the project as a traditional band, all the members of the live ensemble love writing and working on music but not all members have had interest to make the project a traditional band. We work on music we are interested in and sometimes play live.
The album took six years to record. How different did the album turn out compared to what was in your head when you started the process?
That is an interesting question. When conceiving music, I think in very broad concepts. Either I will have a couple riffs and that will give me an impression of a larger conceptual framework for a piece, or I might have a specific concept for a song and develop riffs to fit with that concept. In either circumstance, it may lead to developing other parts to create dynamic changes in the piece, but the process is very intuitive and I also try and leave space for the other members to add their own elements and shape songs as well. I really like collaboration; the musicians that have been part of the project are amazing and I value their abilities.
When we were first tracking the new record, the engineer [Gabriel Espinoza] was often confused when we were completed the base tracks. We went into the studio at first with just three members, Charlie [Mumma, drums], Danny [Costa, bass], and I, tracking only the fundamental parts.
He said several times… “Ok… that is it?” We would have to reassure him that once the other members recorded their tracks the pieces would blossom into complete songs.
The process was additive and recording with the live ensemble tends to continue until each piece “feels” complete. Often, I would ask members to be creative in the recording process and we would experiment with various elements until we got things just right. There was plenty of time between sessions so they were able to listen their mixes and return to revise or rerecord parts. The final mix for each piece feels complete and all the songs have been finalized into versions that I am very happy with.
Would you say that L'Acéphale is a concept album or that there’s a theme to it? It certainly feels like it with the epic, Wagnerian way it ebbs and flows. If so, can you describe the story?
I would not say the release is a concept album. The specific reason is that it contains “Runenberg” and “Winternacht” which are songs that were written in 2005-2006. All the other material however, does fit into a larger context inspired by the writings and ideas of the original Acéphale group that Georges Bataille, Laure [Colette Peignot], Michel Leiris, Andre Masson and others were involved with in the late 1930s.
For any release, I try and think about the dynamic flow to make it more than a collection of songs. With the new album, there was a lot more thought put into it to create the release intentionally. There were a few songs that were set to be recorded: “Sovereignty,” “Runenberg,” and “Winternacht.” The rest of the songs were added or developed out of a desire to fulfil a conceptual idea or contribute to the overall dynamic flow of the release.
“Hark! The Battle-Cry is Ringing!” was previously recorded and released on a compilation CD, but I wanted to incorporate it into the release not only due to its sonic elements and contrasts, but also as a reference point to the political ideas of Georges Bataille, Laure, and the original group Acéphale.
Most of the members were involved with leftist political groups and felt that the active political groups that they were involved with left a few things to be desired. They felt that some of the specific groups they were involved with: Democratic Communist Circle, the French political crisis in 1934, and Contre Attaque failed to confront the rise of fascism and the ultra-right sufficiently and they also feared that democracy might also fail. They considered what could be an alternate solution, how can you make a movement succeed in the face of these difficulties. For them, they felt that they needed to incorporate their politics and create a new religion outside the modern monotheistic religions of the time that could congeal group cohesion and transform their lives.
Their concept was to merge parts of Nietzsche’s philosophies with the sociological understanding of Émile Durkheim who looked at group cohesion, the taboo, and the role of collective effervescence within societies. They sought to transform the theories of how societies work with their vision of how a society could work. Their specific experiment failed but the insight and critique of social dynamics of the time are still particularly acute today and worthy of re-examination.
In many ways, those are the themes that I strived to incorporate and contextualize with the music and lyrics for the release. Offer a series of interconnected metaphors and literary exploration into various themes pertinent to the goals and ideas of the original group. I feel it accomplishes that goal, but for the Bataille scholar, there are specific lyrics and authors whose work that we utilized that are not directly derived from the source material or related writers of the original Acéphale group.
I would say that the record seen through the lens of Bataille, or as seen through the larger set of goals from which the original group viewed the world, that the release succeeds in touching on many of those themes pertinent to the original group; be it through allegory or metaphor. “Sovereignty,” “In Gloria In Excelsis Mihi,” “Sleep,” and “Last Will” have direct association to the writings of the original group or other writers that influenced them.
The packaging seems important to you; you go out of your way to use Markus Wolff for more than just synths. In this age of digital and streaming, that is not a given. Why is this facet of presentation important to you? And whose head is that on the album cover?
Music and the package of a release [are] critically important to me. I want my releases to be something more than just a physical object that the music happens to be on. I have collected music, books, and been a fan of art my whole life. I love when a release becomes a work of art independent of the music that is on the release. I have some releases in my collection not for the music but strictly for the physical object itself. I like to be immersed in a release; I like to hold it and examine it while listening to the release. I want there to be elements within the release as well: Inserts, booklets with lyrics and other elements. All of this contributes to my personal enjoyment of a release, so I strive to incorporate as much of that as possible.
We also spend quite a bit of time working on lyrics and as a band we try to make references to literary and philosophical sources. Reference material is often included in the design and text of the release, without the presentation and packaging, most of that would be lost.
I love Markus’s artwork and we have discussed the ideas and lyrics extensively over the years. His artwork for the release is fantastic and I appreciate his interpretation of all the elements we discussed for the artwork.
The front cover is a design his own fashioning, I like that both the name of the release, and the band name are turned on their head. Instead of the headless man, it is the severed head itself.
The back cover features a rendition of Laure’s likeness. Her writing is featured in the song “Sovereignty.” Additionally, there is reference to an obelisk which features prominently in Bataille’s writing at the time of the original Acéphale group; it is also the name of short essay he wrote “The Obelisk.”
Bataille indicted, “The Place de la Concorde is the space where the death of God must be announced and shouted precisely because the obelisk is its calmest negation.” It is also the place where the guillotine, the public face and focus of the French Revolution, resided and a space that the Bataille and the original group planned to pour a pool of blood at the foot of the obelisk and notify the press that Louis XVI’s head had been found.
The inside of the gatefold is an artistic fusion of some of the images that Masson drew of the Acéphale figure for the original journal and a reference to an experience that Laure and Bataille had when climbing Mt. Etna. They both had a spiritual/metaphysical revelation together at the summit feeling a sense of vertigo as they ascended to the heavens with the terrestrial world of fire below atop of the volcano looking down into its depths. I asked Markus to interpret these things in some manner and I am very happy with his results.
Additional artwork that Markus contributed more directly reference Andre Masson’s drawings from the time that he was involved with the original group. They represent some of the themes they all were wrestling with at the time.
All of this is impossible, or severely limited with digital only and streaming services. I do think that having music available digitally and through streaming serves a purpose. I do appreciate when I can listen to an album before deciding to purchase it. There is so much music and no one can buy every release. Having music available to be heard so that people can decide if it is of interest to them or not is worthwhile, but [that] does not take the place of a physical release.
You’ve worked with Menace Ruine’s Geneviève Beaulieu’s before -- I believe you were both involved with the Union Finale label -- but I think this is the first time you recorded with her. I see that Liz Abyss also added vocals. Who was involved with “Gloria In Excelsis Mihi?” Did you write that with female voices in mind or whomever you used in particular?
The first interaction I had with Geneviève was meeting her at Stella Natura. Menace Ruine performed there and we became friends there. Later, we also performed with them in Portland. I asked to interview her for my journal Amarantos. She agreed and we worked on a long interview together which featured selecting several pieces of writings from various authors and theorists that we discussed in the interview.
During this process, I also asked her to do a collaboration piece for the upcoming L’Acéphale release as we had started tracking it at the time. She agreed to do the collaboration and we discussed possibilities for the lyrics. We both enjoy Bataille’s writing and her favorite book is “Inner Experience.” I suggested “Gloria in Excelsis Mihi” and she agreed.
I also asked if she would be willing to sing it in French, her native tongue, which is unusual for her as she normally sings in English. I sent her a simple acoustic guitar melody as a starting point. When she sent me her draft mix it was amazing, it is exactly as it appears on the final release. She wrote and recorded all of it: acoustic guitar parts, keyboards, and all the vocals. It was perfect; all it needed was to be mastered along with the rest of the record.
The cassette that Union Finale released was after both our work on the interview and the collaboration was complete. Because the recording for the full length took so long, the cassette came out before the full length was completed. I am thrilled that both Steve [S. de La Moth] and Geneviève released “Will of the Abyss” [and] I am very happy with that collaboration with Sorc’henn.
Liz Abyss did record vocals on “Runenberg” and “Winternacht.” She helped write and develop the songs along with the other members of the original group. She was available to record her vocals which were wonderful; I am hoping that we can continue to work together in the future.
The album is textured and definitely avant-garde however it retains accessibility even within relatively unorthodox and experimental passages (“Sleep” especially uses both extremes to great effect). Is that a goal or just how it turns out once everyone contributes?
My desire is to create music that covers a range of black metal, dark folk, avant garde noise, and musique concrète. The range of styles is the goal from the outset. We also consider this when compiling songs together for a release. A lot of the textures within a piece come from all the contributions of the band, developing and recording each piece.
I find it hard to comment on the accessibility of the record. We write music without thinking about what people will think of it. We focus on the individual songs themselves and then the larger spectrum of how the songs fit together. I do like to offset textures and styles as much as I like to think about interesting and unusual textures to include in the material as well. I like the interplay of tension and release that comes with mixing different styles and riffs within a composition. “Sleep” is a song that was built out of a cerebral concept specifically; to explore contrasting textures matched to a lyrical concept.
Black metal is a very diverse beast but it also seems very compartmentalized, even by fans. This record incorporates a lot of styles -- including some things that seem far more progressive than most black metal. Where does L'Acéphale fit, or is not fitting anywhere very neatly the whole point?
The history of black metal includes a vast array of styles. Early on there were bands pushing barriers, even as it sought out to define what black metal was. Bathory and Celtic Frost/Hellhammer had a broad range of music they created in their black metal periods. Abruptum, Sun of the Sleepless, MZ. 412, Mysticum, Thorns, Sadastor, DØdheimsgard, Borknagar, Apollyon, Manes, and Sigh are just a few bands that challenged the barriers of what black metal was. Even Mayhem and Burzum included some genre re-defining elements.
I feel that the fans and bands that try to limit what “true” black metal is are the ones that homogenize the genre and miss the point entirely. I don’t really give a fuck. I have my interests and pursuits outside of any relationship to the state of black metal, the metal scene at large, and the throngs of vapid hordes pontificating on what should or should not be kvlt or “true.”
This release features songs that were written before many of those" hordes" started listening to metal, black metal, or formed bands. Counter to the kvlt scene police imperative, I know many people that have a wide interest in music and those people who share a similar affinity as us listening to the whole spectrum of avant-garde sound and underground music from all over the world and music going back through all time are likely to find interest in the project. Detractors can record their own music. Nothing is stopping them. It is precisely why I started this project, with the question: “What if…?”
You’re playing the legendary Roadburn Festival right as the album comes out. How did that come about? Could it be the catalyst for more L'Acéphale touring?
José Santos Carlos is the main reason we are playing Roadburn. We have been in touch since he worked on a piece about Order of the Vulture, a band I used to be in. He likes both projects. Last year I was uploading all the Order of the Vulture material to Bandcamp and we got back in touch. I mentioned the upcoming L’Acéphale release and a potential tour in Europe to support it. He mentioned that he helps curate Roadburn and would put a word in.
In November I was talking to Fauna and they mentioned that they were going to tour Europe this spring, we agreed to tour together. And as it happened they were also slotted to play Roadburn. We are thrilled to tour with them and for Europe to finally see Fauna live, which is the proper way to experience their music.
I hope that there will be more touring; I am not sure how extensive that will be. Many of us have lives that are fairly tied to important commitments and obligations, but I am hopeful that a balance can be struck between them both.