I’ve been meaning to do this for a while so here’s a formal introduction to The Archives. I’ve dug out some older interviews and features that were published in print or on now-defunct websites, all for the sake of posterity. Most of them were originally published between 2008 and 2013. The impetus for doing this was frustration with some pieces now lying dormant as doc files on my hard drive or in magazines in a box in my bedroom. Every now and again I’ll pluck one out (assuming I can find it) and re-publish it. There’ll also be a couple of pieces that never saw the light of day. First up, we’re not going back too far but nevertheless, it’s a feature interview with Altar of Plagues’ James Kelly on the eve of the release of Teethed Glory and Injury in April 2013. Originally published in Molten Magazine.
“It’s about us and doing what we need to do”
All great art should challenge. It’s something of a clichéd statement at this point and how many times have we heard a band say their new record is challenging? But the statement still rings true in many regards.
Altar of Plagues have never had any reservations about challenging themselves and the listener. It’s something that has kept the originally Cork-based band at the forefront of the supposed post black metal scene of the last five or so years. However with their third full-length, Teethed Glory and Injury, the band has hurled caution to the wind once again, this time so drastically that the band can no longer be associated with that scene.
“The bottom line is that it’s about us and doing what we need to do for ourselves to keep us creatively satisfied because otherwise we’re just doing it for other people and that’s not it what it’s ever about,” explains James Kelly, the guitarist, vocalist and in many regards, the helmsman of Altar of Plagues.
So what exactly are these changes that have manifested on this third record? It sees the band take a notable step away from the lengthy, protracted black metal of their past into a realm of unbridled intensity, terse song structures and most of all, searing and discomforting electronics – challenging indeed. But while the change was on the cards for the band after finishing 2011’s Mammal, it is still a change that felt so natural, reveals James.
“It was conscious but at the same time it was quite natural. Conscious in the sense that we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, we wanted to make sure we were challenging ourselves and doing something that was new to us and sounded fresh,” he says.
“We finished the last album in late 2010 and I just hadn’t been listening to metal or anything like that for quite a number of years, between then and when we started writing the new album,” the guitarist continues. “So I was taking in a load of different influences and being inspired in a very different [way] and that all informed the writing of the new album. In a sense it was conscious, we wanted to challenge ourselves and at the same time, it was natural, it wasn’t forced.”
The steps away from metal are fully revealed on this record. The opening noise-laden miasma of ‘Mills’ and the scalding guitars meshed with coarse, almost-molesting electronics on ‘God Alone’ make this oh so clear. Specifically what artists brought Kelly to this juncture in his creative career? He credits the “utterly captivating” and “beautiful” music of experimental luminary Steve Reich as well as a great deal of techno and electronic music.
“I think there’s a lot of correlation between certain types of electronic music and certain types of metal music. The type of techno I like”, he says before a brief pause, “what it offers is trance inducing, intensity and repetition. My favourite kinds of black metal do that as well so to me there’s a lot more in common than people might think.”
James also re-emerged last year with his solo side-project WIFE, a sonic voyage into the world of electronic music. Compared to the White Tomb or Mammal, one would be forgiven for thinking it was an entirely different musician at work but listening to Teethed Glory and Injury, not so much. James admits that’s WIFE has seeped into Altar of Plagues “to an extent”. Surroundings and environment were a key component in all of this when James moved to London in 2011.
“I grew up living outside Cork city, in quite a rural area in a space where I had room where I could bang drums at 4am or play guitar. All of sudden you find yourself bang smack in the middle of a really overpopulated city in an apartment where you can’t make all that noise. You have to adjust your writing, the way you approach music.”
He continues: “I basically learned how to make music on a computer. I spent the best part of a year or two years doing that, which is how what I do with WIFE came about. Then that became a part of Altar of Plagues.”
While this evolution is dramatic and breathtaking, Altar of Plagues aren’t a band that have totally severed their roots from their earth; still maintaining metal elements and some of its bile-soaked aggression. “In of terms of metal, I always like to reference Pig Destroyer”, says James, specifically on their Prowler in the Yard album. “I’m not sure we sound a whole lot like them but it’s a really raw intensity that’s very real and challenging. It always stands out to me when someone is doing something that’s extreme that’s not for the sake of it and it has an intention.
“I can’t even listen to a band like Cannibal Corpse or things like that because what they do is just posturing,” he admits. “It’s not real, it’s got no emotional intent to it, it’s just posturing, they might as well be actors in a theatre. Real music with an emotional depth to it informs Altar of Plagues, not necessarily that Pig Destroyer has that emotional depth but there’s a real honesty to it, a real rawness.”
Perhaps it was most of this “posturing” and lack of emotional depth that left James feeling somewhat dissatisfied with metal as a whole and black metal specifically? “I got quite tired with the ‘post black metal’ thing,” he offers. “We kind of wanted to get away from that a little bit.
“I think the crowd has become a little pastiche, where people were making a song 20 minutes long for the sake of doing it,” he adds. “I never wanted us to do something for the sake of doing it and tick boxes.
“The intensity first and foremost,” he then says when asked about what strains of black metal were important to retain, “the honest and soulful emotional commitment that real black metal has.”
“Some of the best acts, to me, they truly believe in their work and they’re truly committed to their work and that goes across the board. A band like Swans has that when you see Michael Gira on stage, he’s into that more than anyone else in the room and with a number of black metal acts, it’s the same. They’re really, deeply committed to the work that they make.”
Altar of Plagues’ evolution hasn’t just unfurled sonically but also visually, with the band releasing a video for ‘God Alone’ in late March, which debuted on Pitchfork. Shot in black and white and featuring the abstruse cavorting of ballet dancers, the video needs to be seen as words are difficult to conjure. So what exactly is the meaning behind the visual and the concept, and in a broader sense, the album’s lyrical content?
“We decided that we’re not going to talk about it,” he says to start before deciding to elaborate. “Once we start to talk about it, it’ll validate people’s criticism or their incorrect interpretations and that’s not something we want to do so we’re just leaving it open to people and what they decide.
“The only thing I can say about it really is that if anyone thinks that we have done a video on Pitchfork or worked with contemporary dancers in some sort of a contrived or tactical capacity, they’re completely wrong,” says Kelly quite concisely.
“We’re always sincere and we take what we do very seriously. Overall we wanted to do something that was really challenging and that’s what metal is supposed to be,” he continues. “It’s a small bit of success, and not in a teen juvenile way, if people do find the video challenging, if they find the music challenging or if it annoys them or pisses them off in some way, that is a success to me.”
In a very conclusive sense, James adds: “The first thing I want to be clear about because I hate to come across the wrong way, I want it to be challenging. I don’t mean that in an arrogant kind of way, I mean in the sense that it should be challenging.
“I would certainly hope that we don’t fall victim to people thinking ‘oh they’ve put up a video with dancers’ or this and that and then all of a sudden we’re tarred and feathered like bands like Liturgy have been before. Instant communication between people on the internet means people can get ostracised really, really quickly,” he adds. “The bottom line is we didn’t want to play it safe. We did things the way we wanted to do it and we’re 100% happy with it.”
If there’s one thing people can be certain about with Teethed Glory and Injury, it’s that it is a challenge you’ll either pass with flying colours and fail catastrophically, and no matter what a band like Altar of Plagues do next, they’ll be damned if they do, damned if they don’t but rest assured it will be challenging.