Asphyx have been such a reliable presence in the underground that it's easy to forget they ever went away, providing such solidly satisfying hits of their classic Netherlands death metal like the raucous sweet spot between Celtic Frost, Bolt Thrower and straight up Lemmy-approved rock & rock chutzpah. Where 90s staples like The Rack and Last One On Earth though supply a very distinct kind of lo-fi dungeon walled filth, their output since their 2009 return Death... The Brutal Way has gradually become a little larger in stature and a little longer in the wait for it.
Album number 10, Necroceros, is the most notable example of this yet while continuing to exist in the kind of space that marks Asphyx as one of the patron saints of the style's most timelessly primal form. Frontman Martin van Drunen, legendary for his howling presence and records with Pestilence and Hail of Bullets alongside Asphyx, is mighty proud of his band's slow and steady advance to death metal glory.
First thing we have to ask, what exactly is a Necroceros?
It’s a thing that came out of my mind because next to reading a load of books and history, I have a weakness for sci-fi and fantasy comics. I came up with this album title and the guys liked it but I still had no clue what the thing actually meant. So I thought up this entity that’s sat far away in some universe we don’t know of that’s like a planet consumer or universe eater, whatever you want to call it, and in the end of the song the lyrics are describing its approach to our galaxy and Earth and we’re done. That’s the short version. When we started Asphyx again back in the 2000s every album we made since had the word “Death” in the title, and this time just to change ever so slightly I picked “necros” which is the classic Greek word for that. That’s the way I explained it to our cover artist Axel Hermann too, and he has a similar weakness for those genres and comics that I do, that kind of imagery.
How are you feeling about the new album then?
Bloody chuffed, really. I’m really happy with the variation in the songs. Any artist when they finish a new album will say that it’s the best they’ve ever made but for me this is definitely one of my top ones.
It’s the first record in a long time not to be produced and mixed by Dan Swanö which certainly gives a different feel to the sounds on the record. Was the decision behind that change?
The thing is of course is I’m always the last to do the vocals but then when I’m done you’ve still got the rough recordings and it’s not mixed. Me as a vocalist, I don’t really have a clue about what the guitar sounds should be like. It had nothing to do with Dan’s capabilities. First of all he is a good friend of the band and not only a relationship we have on a professional basis, he’ll come to the shows and have beers with us. We just wanted after three albums with Dan a fresh input and so we got a few guys apart from Sebastian Levermann who we went with to do their mixes of the song Mount Skull which has both the fast and slower parts, and said “surprise us”. Seeb came up with the best one that we wanted to take further. The fun part is he’s not someone who works in death metal usually, with his band Orden Ogan he’s coming more from a power metal background, but when we met he explained that he loves old classic death metal and that it was a desire of his to mix a band like us. He really gave this album his time then and everything he had, so we got something really good out of it. There’s not so many really fast parts on this record as we usually do so maybe for him it’s easier when in power metal of course they have this really bombastic sound.
On this album the bursts of speed definitely feel more selectively deployed rather than being such a major portion of the package.
Yeah but that’s just the natural thing. When we arrange and compose the songs, we don’t so much consciously think about needing those things. Paul Baayens our guitarist has been our main songwriter for years now and when he is into a certain vibe for a while that’s just what he’ll write and in the end in fact we did notice how little fast material there is but figured hey, we’ve got plenty of material here already, we don’t necessarily need to go back and write for a specific thing. Who knows, maybe next album we’ll be flipped.
It also feels like your sound is becoming noticeably more melodic with each passing album, with songs like Three Years of Famine on Necroceros having a really strong melodic presence and grandeur to them that wouldn’t have been present on early Asphyx records.
That’s very much Paul’s thing on those kind of songs. I remember asking him where he even wanted me to sing on that song but I didn’t want to interfere with it and destroy all of that built up music with my vocals. I really liked the atmosphere he was creating and was thinking of what topic I would take on with it that would be suitable for that kind of tragic drama, so I took the Great Famine in China under Mao where 40 million people or so died. It just comes fantastically together. When we did songs like The Grand Denial on Incoming Death, we knew as a more conservative band that was us pushing it and afterwards we were surprised to see so much positivity towards that material from not just press but also the fans. That gave us the encouragement to take it a little step further which I think we have done a little bit with this album.
Are the influences the same as ever when it comes to integrating that kind of material more over time?
Yes, sometimes just depending on which of those old influences we decide to pick. The title track Necroceros when we started writing it we started it with just the drums and so we labelled it originally Warhead, after the Venom song. Paul is a big Candlemass fan and of course we all are fans of Candlemass or Black Sabbath, but as a guitar player he is really influenced by Tony Iommi or Leif Edling as a rhythm guitarist. Malcolm Young too though you likely can’t hear that in Asphyx that directly.
You’ve mentioned Three Years of Famine’s lyrical ideas, what else is going on on this album for you as you’ve obviously been in the past in bands like Hail of Bullets requiring a great deal of historical research?
Yeah Asphyx has always done topics of war but it gets all of that now rather than splitting it. There’s the Knights Templar on one, and the Battle of Kursk on Molten Black Earth, which when Paul brought in that song it really felt to us like a Bolt Thrower vibe also, and with Bolt Thrower being good friends of ours where we too mourned the death of Martin Kearns, that song took on a kind of a tribute to them as well. Another is The Nameless Elite which we just released the official video for, which is a more modern day warfare song based around all the international special units that have had their tasks changed from just fighting behind enemy lines in war-zones to battling terrorism. It’s got that “who dares wins” at the end which is the slogan of the SAS but it’s different to the usual World War Two that I do.
There’s also Botox Infusion which is more obviously humorous and tongue-in-cheek. How important do you feel that is to have when making heavy music?
It is, definitely, death metal has always been quite a humorous thing with the gore and the horror stories. That was the fun of it back in the day. For us it’s really important to have laughs as a band. Asphyx is a band that laughs a lot and we try to project that out to the people. If people would see us, like last year when we played Quebec Deathfest and arrived on the same night that Benediction were playing and the mess that that became backstage when we met each other again! That’s what death metal is about for us and that’s always been the case for heavy metal. When I was a kid and even Iron Maiden were so fun and had a lot of humour in it. They did b-sides like Sheriff of Huddersfield, Venom were clearly laughing, all the bands were having a lot of fun. It’s a good thing I think.
Have you been keeping busy during the pandemic?
Yes, first of all because of everything related to the new album. People forget that once you finish recording there’s a lot of work that’s still to be done. There’s the mix, the artwork, and of course I’m now in the zone of doing interviews and interviews and interviews. We normally also do a release show and of course now we are doing a release livestream in two weeks. I’m preparing for that, learning all the new lyrics from the new album, so I’m busy. That’s 23rd January and it’s actually for free for everybody. If people want to donate we will have extra costs on the side but we’re doing it for free because we know there’s a lot of people right now who don’t have that money to spend 10 euros or so to watch a band play a stream. Otherwise I’ve not spent too much on new music but I had to check out the new Benediction of course which is pretty good, as well as a couple of younger American bands like Coffin Rot or Necrofagore from Peru who opened for us when we played in Lima. I’ve been reading The Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd which is a fantasy story, I do have the time to do some other things now aside from promoting.
How much time do you spend maintaining your ability and technique to make sure the performance standards are high?
Right now with the stream really a lot. I really want lyrics to be there, to go on stage and dream them rather than having to work to think what the next line is. Fortunately I’m blessed with a good memory when it comes to that and there’s a lot of vocalists who aren’t, but now the record is basically playing the whole day for me to get that. Even on a usual day, it’ll usually be something like ten hours a week spent with my voice to keep it in shape. As soon as things change with the virus we want to be ready to go out right at that first call.
Death... The Brutal Way came out over a decade ago now which marks a decade of you returning as an active band making music again. How do you feel about looking back over that period now?
It’s been a fantastic period. We’ve had a couple of ups and downs but less downs than ups. We evolved beyond what we were when we started. I like every album and I like to play every song live but looking at Death... The Brutal Way, that was the first time Paul came into the band and started carrying the songwriting on his shoulders and so for him that was quite a rough one. He did a fantastic job doing so but now with so many albums together it’s a way more natural thing. He knows he’s going to deliver and we trust him. I think we got better with every one of those albums. With this album it’s a fairly unique thing in Asphyx’s history of having the same line-up for two albums, and that was one of the downs in that period from our previous drummer Bob had to leave. He said though that he didn’t want to be the person to stop the whole band and we got out of that really well.
Do you feel that the comeback has been appreciated by people?
Oh yes. Absolutely. Of course when we did that first gig at Party San we did 10,000 or 15,000 people and when you do it for so many years that moment is gone, but we still sometimes come to places where we have never been and always have overwhelming reactions. We have a strong fan-base, not as big maybe as Bolt Thrower but similarly very loyal, and that is something we cherish. After every release we gain more fans and have seen way more younger kids coming through since that first return to primarily the old fans. That means you have a future and the longer you play people aren’t going to disappear. There are younger bands taking influence from bands like us, and sometimes people ask me what I think about the huge success of a band like Amon Amarth. Of course they have lots of catchy tunes but the cool thing is they can build a bridge for people wanting to listen to more extreme death metal after listening to them. It's a privileged spot to be in.
Necroceros from Asphyx drops January 22nd on Century Media Records. Pre-order the album - HERE