Altar of Plagues Interview

Let me begin this interview by saying that to admit one's mistakes is noble...and humbling. My mistake, albeit an innocent one, was having never heard the expansive musical attack of Ireland's Altar of Plagues, until one day out of the blue, guitarist James contacted me. After hustling over to their website and listening to about five seconds of music, I emailed back and asked to do an interview. James kindly sent me their EP Sol, and their incredible first full-length White Tomb. I listened to both for a month before sending this interview, my own feeble attempts at understanding such a massive statement obviously falling miles short. There just aren't many bands around covering this many bases at once, and just destroying them one after the other. So read this interview I did with James, but more importantly, go listen to these guys. Hopefully he and I will chat again one day when I wrap my head around it all.

HSJ: Okay, the band name....what exactly is an "Altar of Plagues" and how does it relate to your sound as a band?

ALTAR OF PLAGUES: We had recorded our first demo before ever giving the band a name. Dave and I (the only band members at the time) decided it would be best to choose a name that was inspired by the music. We feel that 'Altar of Plagues' is quite allegorical, with the 'altar' being earth, and the plagues being all of those that exist upon the earth. This title is essentially the centrepiece of the subject matter that we discuss, and it is something that all of the emotions channelled through our music is directed towards.

HSJ: What immediately strikes me about you guys is how technically proficient you all are as musicians. Were you in other bands before Altar of Plagues?

AOP:We have all been musically active for many years and have all played in a wide variety of acts. Dave and I have been playing black metal music together for years. I have also been involved in a number of bands in the past but nothing worthy of note. As it happens, besides vocals, the performances on 'White Tomb' and the earlier demos are myself alone. This is something that came about due to circumstance. I appreciate the compliment, given that I have never received a drum or guitar lesson in my life.

HSJ: Speaking of technical abilities, there are a lot of black metal fans who prefer their music dirty or lo-fi. What are your feelings on this? As a modern black metal act, is it difficult to balance sound quality with atmosphere? Also, have you found a better reaction amongst black metal fans or amongst doom/post rock fans?

AOP: I very much enjoy lo-fi or dirty black metal, and this sound if often considered 'true' black metal. Black metal is very raw. In some ways I think that the characteristic sound of early black metal may be in part due to the more primitive (by comparison to today's technologies) recording devices available at the time and the d.i.y attitude adopted by bands such as Darkthrone. I would imagine that many acts would have had much better sounding recordings were they affordable or as easily available as they are today. Just look at the sonic difference between Deathcrush and De Mysteries...

Black metal has now taken on so many different forms that it is entirely subjective. Even recently I saw an interview with Cronos he states that Venom is the only black metal band. So by his estimation, black metal as we know it does not exist.

Atmosphere is the most important element of black metal to me. I think black metal should sound huge and thunderous, with a sense of foreboding. To me, one of the greatest sounding records in Emperors "In the Nightside Eclipse". Atmosphere is an intrinsic quality of the recording quality, but this quality is subjective to the sound of each act. I think that Altar of Plagues music would have absolutely no impact with a lo-fi tone, and records such as "Transylvanian Hunger" would have not been half as good if recorded with a high quality sound. As it happens, of late we have been describing ourselves as dense black metal, as we feel we are the polar opposite to lo-fi. This derivation seems to bother some, yet it seems to be perfectly fine to describe black metal as 'lo-fi', 'suicidal', 'depressive', 'atmospheric' etc.... If it were up to me I would not label it at all, but given that we sell our music, and perform live, a description is a necessity.

Regarding the reactions, we have provoked responses from a variety of people. I think that anyone that can accept that black metal has long departed from its primitive template may enjoy what we do. That said, we recieve a surprising number of compliments from what appear to be 'elitist' black metallers. For the most part it has been quite even across the board.

HSJ: It seems that most black metal bands' message is either satanic/occult in nature, or it is about self-loathing and psychological torment. You guys are now among a growing number of bands who've taken a different approach, something much more ecological. Why do you think that the state of the earth has become a focal point, for you specifically, and for other black metal bands?

AOP: For me specifically, this interest stems from my personal life. I am a graduate environmental scientist and ecologist and this is my greatest passion. This is something I have been involved in before ever conceiving Altar of Plagues. Naturally, my views and ideas have become a part of Altar of Plagues. This to me is quite satisfying as I can integrate different aspects of my life.

Black metal has often displayed a deep connection with the Earth. I think that such views are making resurgence now due to a global shift in people's thoughts. I would say that while people have not become alert to some of the serious issues we are facing as a civilisation, we are becoming more aware. Black metal is supposed to provoke terror and dread. To me there is nothing more frightening that the idea of losing our connection with an ancient earth, and creating a sterile land of concrete and smog. That is far more frightening that some sort of fantasy fire and brimstone nonsense. I also think that people have grown tired of much of the theatrics associated with black metal.

It appears to me that the vast majority of the 'ecological' black metal bands come from the pacific northwest, and having spent some time there myself, it appears to me that many of these acts are quite close to one another. I would hope that this ecological viewpoint not be regarded as some sort of trend. I am sure that if one takes the time to read about some of the associated acts they will find that these people have very honest intentions and a lot of integrity.

HSJ: Sol is an amazing effort to be sure, but it seems that White Tomb takes all the best moments of Sol and ramps it up a few notches. Was any of this a conscious effort, or is it simply part of a gradual evolution of the band?

AOP: I think we began to find a balance of sound on 'Sol' and with 'White Tomb' we explored that sound even further. We are very aware of the stylistic similarities between the two recordings and I would also like to address that the style on 'Sol' was something we wished to develop further and expand into the context of an album. We certainly do not intend on remaining within that particular stylistic template and judging by more recent material we have been composing I think that we are going to step away from that style. We would quickly grow tiresome of the same sound if we were to continue to work within the same stylistic template. The worst thing to me would be to become stylistically stagnant.

HSJ: I've heard that you guys actually change your songs when playing live, which to me really speaks to being a solid musician, and reminds me of great rock bands like Zeppelin or Clutch trying to give their fans something more to experience....but I'm not sure I've ever heard of a black metal band doing this. Is this more for the fans, or do you like to keep the songs continually evolving even after they've been released?

AOP: We keep songs constantly evolving. This is something that we practice for our own gain and it allows us to really perform in a very live and real way. Live recording of acts such as Zeppelin or Hendrix are musical marvels and that freedom is, to me, exactly what live music should be. You can hear the players becoming lost in the music and really beginning to engage in the performance in a more honest way.

HSJ: How has being in Ireland affected the band? is there a healthy underground music scene there?

AOP: The landscape of Ireland has had a massive influence on my personal ideology. Immediately before going to the studio, I spent a week engaging in a landscape conservation project that was directly involved in preserving an ancient part of the Irish landscape known as the Burren. Beside my personal passion for conservation and the challenges our country faces in that regard (no different to those of any other country; destruction of sacred and ancient land for replacement by modern amenities), we are also enduring some hardships as a society, the like of which have not been seen here in quite a long time. This of course in having an influence on our lives.

The music scene here is excellent, with a massive variety of acts and lots of live activity. Some listening suggestions are Myrkr, Ten Past 7, and Drainland.

HSJ: White Tomb obviously veers away from black metal at points, especially the second half of the record. A sign of things to come, or will you guys snap back in the other direction?

AOP: Of late the music has been becoming more aggressive. I think that we will be veering away from the style on the latter half of "White Tomb" particularly.

HSJ:Future plans for Altar of Plagues?

AOP:We will tour Europe this coming September. A vinyl release of White Tomb is scheduled for release on Deviant Records in September also. In November we will record material for an EP release with Burning World records. Following that I believe we will tour Europe again.

P.S ; seeing as you do not seem to ask lately, my favourite Sabbath track is 'Warning'.

HSJ: Ahh yes, the Sabbath. Thought people may be getting sick of that question. Maybe we'll bring it back...


pentagrimes said...

MY BOYS!!! Nice one for talking to them. Even nicer one for seeing my band get a shout out from James during the interview :)

AK said...

nice interview.

the sabbath question is very important. it is a litmus test. fail, and i will not give the music/project/whatever a second thought.


Anonymous said...

Then it shall return!

Neckdeep said...

Thanks for this.

I'm rather new to the site and have found more than a few news bands I really enjoy. I'll be buying this record ASAP.

.: chris

Anonymous said...

Thanx for hanging out man.