The March and the Stream: Skepticism Revisits The Re-Mixed “Stormcrowfleet”
When it comes to funeral metal, funeral doom, or whatever the genre ontology dictates, there are the titans. There are the Thergothons, the Esoterics, but, more importantly, there is Skepticism. Make no mistake, Skepticism is funeral music first and a metal band second. They always have been, stubbornly raising a somber, blazer-clad fist toward the sky in opposition to metal's self-indulgent speed and clarity of message. Skepticism marches toward an end, playing their own marche funebre at a slowing pace. As their career grows, so does their abstraction, their evolution exceedingly asymptotal as the end of the conceptual draws nearer.
But every abstract idea starts with its opposite: an actual idea. A semblance of clarity. This birth, for Skepticism, was their masterpiece. They carry their 1995 album Stormcrowfleet with them in every step they take, every note they play, and every lengthy pause in which they drink the silence.
Then a full five-piece band (the canonical Matti, Eero, Jani, and Lasse with session member J. Korpihete on bass -- the last time they would have an actual bassist), Skepticism's music was that of deliberation, emotion, and beauty. This was the painfully slow, breathtakingly beautiful music of ache and hope, a dichotomy the band finds befitting of their music. No matter the agonic nature of their own funeral music, Skepticism was meant to be seen as a vision of beauty, an artistic whole which fills cathedrals and hearts alike. A then rare example of organ-driven metal, an idea held by then-former guitarist Eero Pöyry, Skepticism's own music lurches on in solemnity and grace.
In an interview, Pöyry reflects on Skepticism's early days, looks on through their discography, and contemplates the band's existence as a whole.
The remixed and remastered Stormcrowfleet will be released October 26th on Svart Records.
I know you've been thinking about Stormcrowfleet for a while at this point since there is the full remix and remaster coming out.
The album is coming up on… how many years next year?
Is it really?
I'm doing the math in my head right now. It came out in '95, so the 25th anniversary is in 2020.
Wow. Does it feel like it's approaching this milestone at all? It still feels very fresh when I listen to it.
Well… it's been with us all the time. We've been paying all but one of those songs in gigs all these years. It doesn't feel old to us somehow. Some of the first songs we wrote seem to stick well compared to later material. Time really passes fast. When you say 23 or 24 years, it doesn't feel that long.
It seems like this first album is the definitive for Skepticism's sound. There are albums that follow which hone in on different aspects of what you achieved, but Stormcrowfleet feels like the grand statement.
Isn't that what normally happens with bands? The debut album is where you channel all your thoughts and ideas from your early career, you know? I think that happened with us. To take it from there, it was kind of more refined -- the idea we had there. I would say that. Some of the later albums where we take our ideas much further, the foundation of our ideas on Stormcrowfleet is still there. Also, I think of how those sounds came to be… in our early 20s or teenage years, we just wrote the songs and rehearsed day in and day out. The spirit crystallized in those songs, which is why I think they stick so well.
That element of time definitely plays into the album, especially considering how ambitiously slow it was. Obviously there were other albums in the "funeral doom" style at the time (bands like Thergothon and so on) who also played with time, but this seemed to be very different, almost religious feeling, the most striking element being your organ playing. Was this cathedral-like, monastic atmosphere something you set out to do?
What happened back in the day was we first released the Towards My End 7" EP. After that "classic" setup (two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals), which was how most bands were set up, we came to think of what we should actually sound like. The defining moment was when I switched from guitars to keyboards. At that time we were thinking what the sound should be. Keyboards were quite new in metal at that time. Many bands were either using them as background, almost like an effect, and others were using it like a second solo guitar, using keyboard solos and all that. Neither of those felt like ours. I kind of thought what a keyboard player in a metal band like this should be like. It should be like the organist in a church. In that lineup, the organ became much like what the second guitar would have been. The way to position it in the sound was church organ-like. Thinking through all the things you should do and not do…I started taking it in the organist direction instead of soloist direction, so I got the church organ foot pedals and played (and still do) sitting down, using the pedals as well. I eventually got a second keyboard, as well. It's pretty much a church organ setup in a metal band as well. As real pipe organs are not very portable [laughs], the only way to do that is with electronic instruments.
I position myself as a church organ player in a metal band. Our drummer followed suit and started playing with felt mallets instead of drumsticks and played with different drum sets. Currently, he has a gong bass drum and large toms. We went over what the full sound the band should be and ended up with us four -- keyboards, guitars, drums, and vocals -- and made them into a somewhat funeral band in metal form. It took us a couple years -- we recorded the demo tape after the first release, which set up the sound for the next release. Then with Stormcrowfleet we refined it further. When thinking of the songs on Stormcrowfleet, we had written some of them before without keyboards in the band and had even played them live before I had switched to keyboards. For example, "The Everdarkgreen" had been completely written beforehand, then adapted for keyboards later.
Sure, there was "The Everdarkgreen," "Pouring," and "Rising of the Flames" were reused after that tape.
Yes, yes! Also "Sign of a Storm" we wrote with keyboards, and I still remember the first time we played the opening riff and thought "well, this truly works." By the time we wrote that song, we had already known there would be an album and this would be the opening track.
When did you decide Stormcrowfleet needed or was going to be remixed? Was this something the band set out to do? Was it something the label had asked?
We had been thinking of releasing the albums on vinyl all along. We had the master tapes for Stormcrowfleet ready. I remembered earlier this year that we had bought the tapes in case we ever needed them. If we didn't use them now, when would we? So it was basically a decision in the band originally to release the album on vinyl. The mastering of the original mix isn't the best possible for vinyl, but we wanted to see if we could use the original tapes. It took some research to find a good studio who could process the tapes in the best possible way, but we also had to check and see if the tapes even worked anymore. After checking all those out and talking with Svart, they were positive about it all along, it was just about practicality. The major thing is I like the original mix, but when I found out the tapes were working and we could do a remix with the kind of equipment which existed in the '90s (but we didn't have access to), I was curious to see what would happen. Svart made it happen, so here we are.
While it retains that original spirit, there is a different character when listening through. It's like hearing it all over for the first time again. How did it feel hearing these songs with the new mix with this added depth?
The whole thing took a week -- it was kind of a time capsule for myself. I spent the whole week in the studio. Getting the old tracks, playing and kind of going through them -- what was playing in which track and how. It took me back to those days in which we wrote and recorded those songs. It was a really interesting trip in itself. I was finding stuff on the album which I didn't remember anymore. For example, the clearest example is the intro of "The Gallant Crow". We did record it but for some odd reason scrubbed it from the original mix. We didn't even remember it was there until we heard it on the tapes.
Then again, another thing was there are many… not surprises, but many places which reminded me of how much we had thought about those songs and how to perform them. For example, our drummer played his cymbals in many different intensities in each song. On The Gallant Crow, the whole band plays softer than in The Sign of a Storm, for example. Hearing all that again and getting into the mood where these young men are doing the best they can do with songs that are really important to them in the studio -- it was really amazing for me.
I think we spent about two weeks recording the album itself. It was our first time doing an album, traveling to record it. We had a clear vision of what to do, but not such a clear idea on the technical side of how to do it. It shows in many places there. The perspective a couple of decades after that is really interesting. The process brought back a lot of those ideas and thoughts we had back in the day.
So your older material is finding new ways to influence you once more in the way you compose music, or is it a nice memory?
[laughs] Well…I will say there are things we will bring with us from those old tapes but I've learned to appreciate what we did back in the day better by hearing each individual tracks. We listened to the entire album with J. Korpihete, who was our session bassist at the time and did lots of photography for us. He said that hearing this makes him appreciate these "young men" doing this with all this passion back in the day.
That's really cool, especially for something so… I guess the word would be "despondent" -- this funeral music. It's interesting to hear it have such a positive memory influence on people. It's interesting how music can do this -- something so sad making people feel so good.
Yeah! That's a key thing for me. For me, playing music of slow pace is an aesthetic choice for me. It isn't about being sad; it's an aesthetic choice. Music like this is beautiful to me.
I recall in that documentary "The Stream" which was released earlier this year, you referred to the organ as something which is a source of joy and sorrow, and you found beauty in that.
Exactly, it is all the aforementioned aesthetic. You might also remember that last thing I said being in the documentary, as well [laughs].
The beauty of music itself is something difficult to describe outside of the intent of aesthetic because everyone takes it differently. I am sure there are some people will listen to Skepticism and be totally taken aback by how slow and sad it is, but there are people like you and me who listen to it for the beauty. That's what makes albums like Stormcrowfleet (and the rest of your music) so timeless.
You clearly see that in our live shows. The way people receive the music in the audience is quite different from each other. Everyone has their own way of understanding and feeling it. There is no right way. That's also related to how our lyrics are written. They tend to say as little as possible so you can understand and feel them in your own way. There is no statement as such in it. It's intentionally left open in that sense.
It's a deep approach considering how young you all were when you were creating this early music. You don't really hera a lot of teeenagers --at least here in the United States -- approaching music with that level of abstraction in hopes of interpretation.
Thinking back, one of the great things was that when you are young, you are really impassioned, but also inexperienced and a little naive. You make choices which when you are older, experienced, and more rational you wouldn't really make. When you are young, you are extreme, and that's really good. It shows in many ways and many styles of music. It's good. That's why I like the comment from J., referring to those "young men," one of whom was himself.
It's all so interesting. With revisiting this music, there is this "bonus track," the outtro. Though it was initially part of "The Everdarkgreen", you separated it. Was it meant to be its own chapter?
The idea is that the album itself is a whole. To close the whole, the album needs a "stamp." We thought if you listen through the whole album, it closes the loop. We thought of things a lot on a conceptual level and thought it needed that.
Just separating that element to say: this is where it ends?
That never occurred to me. I've listened through the album so many times that seeing and understanding that outtro as its own chapter offers more of a finality. It feeds more into the concept of Skepticism as funeral music instead of an offshoot of doom metal.
When I think of funeral metal as it is, there are other bands who are slower and heavier, but that wasn't our goal. We were trying to do something whole and whole sounding. We've been quite stubborn all the time -- our drummer has never played music written by anyone else. He's been playing all his life, but only songs he or his band has written. We have also in many ways never tried to do anything anyone else has done. People think they are more unique than they are, but we truly try to create something of our own and think from our own perspective. You hear that in our sound -- the whole concept of the band.
Absolutely -- there is nothing which sounds like Skepticism other than Skepticism itself. That stubbornness pays off over time, especially, with each album being its own statement on these abstract feelings, thoughts on existence. The only word I can think of is unique.
That's how we want to do it. When you think of things from a rational point of view, doing things like these are not commercially viable. I'm not saying it would be better if we weren't stubborn, but it's always how we wanted to do it. We aren't extreme as in burning churches, but we are extreme in that we want to do our own thing and go wherever it takes us.
There aren't many bands who hold to a philosophy or credo quite like that. Considering Skepticism has been around for almost thirty years, it's special to see that kind of inner pull still moving the band now.
Yeah. What happened in the early days was the drummer and guitarist formed the band and wanted to find people they thought would stick around and could work with. Not in an ambitious sense but the kind of people you can create music with long-term. They succeeded and we've stayed alive all these years.
It's definitely been a consistent lineup -- must take a special kind of interpersonal relationship to keep that going.
It does, and the interesting thing is we've never explicitly agreed on this being "the thing." We just keep doing our thing ad see what happens, sustaining the band along the way. Everyone agreed on that even if we didn't speak it out loud. Everyone was happy with the way we create music in the long run. We keep going and don't let anything stop us. Had we been more commercially minded in the early days, we might have had goals we didn't reach and just stopped. Even as young men we thought we'd be doing this for life and that's what happened. I'm really happy about that, because many things in life come and go, and so far the band for me has been the one sustaining thing in life. It's a good thing.
How do you feel the music pulling you now as opposed to when you were a young man making these early albums. Do you feel that same sort of sustenance, or has it evolved into a different kind?
There are same things and there are different things. I told you of the first time we played "Sign of a Storm" at a practice, I still remember how I felt. "This thing really works," and it worked on the album. That thing still happens with some songs as we write them. On the latest album, we have the March Incomplete, and when we played that for the first time I knew it was the kind of music I wanted to create now. However, as a young man, I wanted the lyrics to say more or make some vague statement in themselves. There was more to say. The older I get, the less I want to say in the lyrics. That's different, in a sense.
The less you want to say as in abstraction? I look at Ordeal and see more words but fewer statements, as opposed to Stormcrowfleet where you very specifically outline a place. Are you looking to be more mysterious?
Yeah, if not mysterious then at least leave more room for the listened to fill the holes themselves and get the feel of the song as they want as opposed to what we meant. And, of course, if you look at Farmakon, they are definitely the shortest and more minimal, but you're right about Ordeal. I want to say less as in there are no statements or agenda we would like to push through. We want our lyrics to move in a similar way to our music. We present a framework without telling you what it is about. Abstraction is a part of it and also kind of… thinking of lyrics as a part of the composition in a way you receive it.
Like a complete artistic work where you were to look at it and make your own decision instead of reading a dissertation on it.
Yes! Or kind of when you think of political punk music or hardcore, right? There are statements like "we think this thing is wrong in the world" or "here are thoughts for you."
It seems more personal that way. The "emotional nudity" where you have someone's actual thoughts instead of their thoughts on their thoughts.
Even describing the actual thoughts doesn't even happen much in our lyrics. As few concrete things as possible. That is how I like it.
I think that is important, especially with the way you say what drives Skepticism and has driven the band all these years. This credo is a great statement among all this specific music being made.
I remembered a thing! Back in the day, I used to write a lot of things to myself and to the band. I wrote a letter to myself as an adult. I guess I am one now and I do have that letter in the basement. I need to remember which box it is in, but I would like to know what 20 year old me has to say to adult me.
That's cool! I hope you find it, because that seems like an interesting read as more of an adult than you were when you were 20.
The interesting thing would be whether the young man had something to say like what is right in life or what is wrong. Like I've already said, looking back and seeing what we did, I do appreciate it. Even if we do things differently now, the drive and extremeness in our thoughts back in the day were good.
Now that this first album is being reborn, have you thought about next steps? I know something is always in the works, but I also know you take your time.
We have been writing the new album since Ordeal and after Ordeal we played the most live shows than we have ever played. We have been slowly writing after that and have more than half the new album done. There is still more than a year before the release, but it is coming and that's how we do it. We take our time. What has been keeping the band alive all these years is we never stop. Regardless of whether there will be live shows soon or if there is any knowledge of a new album: we keep writing, keep creating all the time. This is something we've explicitly discussed. We will keep creating and once we have six songs done, there will be an album, regardless if someone will release it or not.
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