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Altar Of Plagues

Maybe it's just a sign of yours truly slowly becoming an old fart, but some things really used to be better a couple of years ago, it seems. Whereas I recall to have discovered some really cool bands because they've gotten the opportunity to support a well-known band on a tour, many present day tour packages appear to serve the sole purpose of pushing larger record labels' uninteresting, superfluous new acquisitions down the audience's throats. It was all the more rewarding to discover that there still are exceptions to the rule: supporting Mayhem on their European tour February 2008, then unsigned Altar Of Plagues from Ireland proved to be one of the most original and promising bands to have appeared in what seem to be ages. Taking, among others, black metal as a starting point and expanding it to a sound of their own, their live presence and their impressive "Sol" EP were reason enough for Martin Perescis to ask mainman and multi-instrumentalist James about their upcoming album, the tour with Mayhem, how listening to Björk can inspire you to write extreme metal and a lot more.

By: Martin Perescis | Archive under black metal

Until you supported Mayhem on their European tour last year, the name Altar of Plagues was completely unknown to me. Can you tell me how you have managed to get onto that tour despite being an unsigned band at the time? And can you elaborate on how that particular tour went?
Dublin Metal Events provided us with the opportunity to support Mayhem at their show in November 2007. We were acquainted with Blasphemer and Mayhem's tour manager whom had watched our set and enjoyed it enough that they were willing to vouch to have us as a support slot on their European tour earlier the following year. They were both keen on the idea of bringing a new band on tour with them, though I honestly do not know the specific reason why we were chosen amongst the many other acts that could have been given that opportunity. I think we handled the tour quite well, especially considering it was our first international tour and it happened to be with one of the most (in)famous black metal bands. There were many mistakes made but that was to be expected. Frequenting venues with capacities of 500+, which house gigantic sound desks, lighting rigs, etc, was certainly not something we were used to but we quickly adjusted to the daily routines. I find it somewhat impersonal playing larger venues when there are professionals at hand worrying about every small detail. We prefer to have as much control as possible over every element of our performance, be it lighting or sound, which was often not the case on this tour. I find that there is no intimacy in a larger venue.

Please inform us about the history of Altar of Plagues before the tour. When, how, and by whom was the band started?
Altar of Plagues was originally just myself, so in one sense it has been in existence as long as I have been writing this particular style of music. Dave became the vocalist for my recordings and the band formally began following the release of a demo in early 07 (a demo which we now completely disregard from our catalogue and to some extent regret ever releasing). A full line-up was formed and we began playing live shows and released our second demo, "Through the Cracks of the Earth", in May 07. As I mentioned, the first Mayhem show we played was in November of that year so things happened somewhat quickly. Some international shows followed shortly after, as did our release of 'Sol'. We then signed to Profound Lore in April of 2008.

Although black metal seems to be a key element in your music, it doesn't quite cover the whole spectrum. Your range of influences appears to be wider. Could you explain us your main influences?
I personally listen to everything and anything so I have no preferences in that regard. When it comes to writing for AoP I never write with the purpose of adhering to a particular genre. The aggression, brutality and beauty of black metal most definitely form the foundations of our sound but I am also inspired by equally powerful music such as that of Swans, Björk and Arvo Pärt. My main issue with black metal is that bands often do not give their material room to breathe and as a result can become rather tedious and cluttered. Whilst drawing influence from many different styles, it is my aim that they will come together to form a coherent whole.

Björk? I can imagine some people having difficulties understanding how she can be an inspiration (although personally, I really appreciate her music as well). Could you explain how you incorporate those influences in your music?
Artists such as those three I mentioned, and a wealth of others, have an incredible ability to channel immense emotion through their music. The music I find most powerful is that which has the ability to make the listener feel what it is that the track is communicating, be it terror or melancholy. These individuals/acts are masters of their craft and are incredibly focused and honest in their execution. Rather than any sort of musically stylistic inspiration, these acts inspire us to try creating music that is executed with a greater purpose than to simply provide audio entertainment. The only consistency that I think engaging music requires is emotional, not stylistic.

Being a band from Ireland, comparisons with Primordial are easily made. I hear a similar melancholic vibe in your music. Do you agree with that, and do you see this as a (perhaps coincidal) result of shared influences or would you say that both bands have more common ground?
We hear this a lot when we play outside Ireland, but I think it is just a sort of preconception people have when made aware of our nationality. I find Primordial's and Altar Of Plagues' music to be extremely different. Whilst I do agree that we both create melancholic music, I think that is as far as the comparison may go. I have no idea what bands influence Primordial's current sound but I am sure that being of an older generation their original sound was inspired by an entirely different musical climate. I do enjoy their music, but it does not influence my writing.

The (relative) geographical isolation of your home country should make touring a bit more difficult. How do you see this, and can you tell me something about playing live in Ireland? How's the metal scene over there, and is it possible to play a lot?
Playing shows outside Ireland can be very affordable provided the correct arrangements are made regarding equipment and travel (flight being the most affordable means). It is far more expensive to travel to the European continent in a van full of equipment considering a ferry ticket may cost much more than a plane ticket. That said, touring Europe is expensive regardless of how it is arranged. The music scene in Ireland is for the most part excellent and there is something to cater for all tastes. Our tiny Isle is producing some acts of a calibre contending those of the world's best acts. Even take 'extreme/funeral' doom for example; just listen to Wreck of the Hesperus or De Novissimis. It appears that many of the same band names appearing on gig line-ups on a monthly basis so it is possible to play often if you want to. Being such a small country it is quite easy to travel here for shows, so in that respect touring within Ireland is not difficult although it is neither a necessary nor worthwhile exercise to tour extensively here.

So far you have recorded two self-released EPs, 'Through the Cracks of the Earth' and 'Sol'. Can you tell something about both releases?
"Through the Cracks of the Earth" was recorded in early 07, prior to the formation of a full line-up. Limited amounts were pressed, all of which are now sold out. It is currently available for free download though it will be removed shortly as it is somewhat dated. Dave and I agreed that it would never be repressed so it made sense to make it available digitally. 'Sol' was recorded in February of 08. It was quite a rushed process as we wanted it pressed on time for the upcoming tour. As a result I consider it to be flawed and somewhat unfinished work. Nonetheless, it is the release that provided us with a lot of new opportunities.

To be honest I'm a bit shocked to see that you see 'Sol' as flawed. It really impressed me a lot and, although it might have been a bit rough around the edges, actually became one of my favourite releases of 2008. Can you elaborate on how it didn't live up to your own goals? Is it the execution or the song material itself?
I think that with a bit more time spent on the recording it could have been texturally developed a great deal more. I do feel that all of the material on 'Sol' is quite strong and it is well executed, but when I listen I can hear what I think is missing. However, it completely surpassed our goals in terms of what we wanted to it to achieve for us.

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A couple of months ago it was announced that you have signed with Profound Lore Records. How did this happen? Did the fact that you have gotten a couple of very positive reviews (in Terrorizer, among others) play a role in this?
As I recall the Terrorizer issue that featured us was released after we signed, though I am sure the press we were receiving at the time would have helped. I submitted a copy of 'Sol' to Profound Lore when the recording was complete. Having been a keen fan of the label for some time, at best we hoped they would like it enough to acknowledge our submission. At the end of all our promotion we examined all of the offers we had received, three of which we were giving serious consideration, two from American labels and one from Profound Lore. We choose to work with Profound Lore, as it is a label with great integrity, and an almost identical aesthetic to Altar Of Plagues. It exists as a record label for all the right reasons with no interest in adhering to profitable trends. I think that is clear when you look at their eclectic catalogue of releases.

I agree; Profound Lore and Altar of Plagues seem like a very logical combination. The label has released a couple of very interesting albums lately. The latest Portal album really blew me away. Do you know that album, and/or can you name a couple of albums well worth listening to?
Portal is incredible; 'Outré' is one of the most twisted works I have ever encountered. My personal favourites are Asunder – 'Works will come Undone', Half Makeshift's 'Omen', and Cobalt's 'Eater of Birds' so I recommend any of those as a starting point. Although some of the releases are not to my personal taste, I have yet to hear anything less then excellent added to their discography.

Right now you are in the studio, recording material for an album. Could you tell us what to expect from this album? What can we expect musically, have you got a title already and has a release date been set so far?
All recording and mixing has been completed and the album is currently being mastered. The album will be titled 'White Tomb'. Three tracks were recorded, two of which comprise the album and a third, which we will release at a later date. The material is consistent with previous material, whilst also incorporating new ideas and sounds. The track that will not be included on the record (though it was originally planned that it would be) is by far the most unusual track we have written. We felt it did not fit in with the momentum of the album so we chose to omit its inclusion. A guest vocalist has also made an incredible contribution. I believe a release date has been set for April 14th and the label will be announcing all details shortly.

Please tell us something about the studio and the recording process so far.
The album was recorded with an extremely talented man, Ross O'Donovan. My initial appeal for working with Ross was that he has recorded some of the best sounding releases I have ever heard, whilst also generally working with bands at the lighter end of the spectrum (at least in comparison to our music). His albums have a very rich organic sound, nothing too digital. As a result, he understood the importance of recording a natural sounding album without compromising power. If we had worked we a more metal orientated engineer we may have ended up with an overly digital and 'clicky' recording, in other words lifeless and devoid of character.

During the gig in Eindhoven I attended last February, you made use of an E-bow, but this was mainly between songs instead of during them. Is this something you plan to use more frequently, and will it be used on the new album?
A violin bow was used at that show. None of us actually own an e-bow. I will purchase one should the manufacturer ever return from his religious mountain quest (which I believe is his current occupation).

Well, I already knew that was a bit of a brainfart on my behalf when I had just sent the email. Of course it was a violin bow. Anyway, the use of feedback and different textural layers seems to be a rather important facet of your music, both live and in the studio. Could you elaborate on that?
Be it live or recorded, we want to create a whole experience and not a collection of songs. As I mentioned, I think engaging music must be consistent in its mood, or at least evolve or develop in a natural way. The moods and atmospheres we aim to develop with our sound requires time for growth and expansion so I do not think we would do well to perform songs in short bursts. Textural layering is an important part of achieving this for us, both live and recorded.

Unfortunately I do not have any information about the lyrics and I would like to know a lot more about them. Could you elaborate on the lyrical content of Altar Of Plagues?
Dave and I write lyrics co-operatively. We generally share the same outlook on certain subject matter and both understand what Altar Of Plagues represents and what we wish to communicate through our music and lyrics. Each recording deals with somewhat different themes, though all are cut from the same cloth. The lyrics for the album are a product of the current state of the planet. The theme of the album explores the ongoing global transformation, both physical and metaphysical. Whilst I feel there has always been a global undertone of foreboding collapse, I think now more so than ever everything is truly on the brink. As a civilisation we have completely lost all real connections with the Earth, instead altering the planet for personal gain. Ancient and historical cultural sites are be paved over so as another corporate entity may make our lives even more convenient, and now look at where it has gotten us. It is complete insanity that people allow such things to continue, that people do not see the value in cultural identity and preserving heritage. I would describe the earth now as a "White Tomb". Everything is draining of character and colour, it won't be long before everything is the same; people, cities, and landscapes. White. (I would like to point out that when I speak of heritage I am not referring to specifically one place but to the importance of preserving the Earth's heritage as a whole. Preservation of landscapes encompasses historical sites amongst other things, however our lyrics do not address historical themes.)

Quite recently I had the opportunity to visit one of your gigs in Ireland. I was surprised to see that there have been some drastic changes in the line-up, with you switching from drums to guitar and one guitar player less. Can you explain what happened, and are you planning to expand the line-up to four persons again?
The line-up change came about as a result of people going their different ways. Considering that I write all of the music, it made sense for me to begin performing guitar rather than trying to find what would have initially been a stand-in guitarist. We were very fortunate in that an exceptionally talented drummer, Barry English, was willing to join and he has also understood and been appreciative of the bands aesthetic, which is extremely important to us. We do not feel that the loss of one guitar has compromised the live performances and it is certainly not something we would continue to do were we not entirely confident in its execution. Although some of the material requires a different approach now that guitar layers have been reduced.

Also, the set had changed radically. I only recognized one of the tracks of 'Sol', and that one was played partially, and while I'm a lot less familiar with 'Through the Cracks of the Earth' material, I think you must have been playing quite a lot of new material. Is that correct?
Yes, that set was mostly new material (some of which has been written since the album was recorded) with one of the tracks from "Sol" performed also. It included material from the album and also material that has since been written. It is only of late that we have had the opportunity to perform our new material live.

Any solid plans for the near future, apart from releasing the album? Can we expect more gigs outside of Ireland for instance?
We just recently shared a stage with our label mates Nadja and also performed some Irish show with our revised line-up. We had some U.K. shows in late February as well as a planned U.S tour for later this year. I would also like to return to Europe in the meantime.

Closing comments/ famous last words?
Thank you for the interview.

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