Death metal starspawn Blood Incantation take us deep into the dark galaxy of their ‘Timewave Zero’ synth release.
If you think of the bands genuinely doing something with the artform of death metal right now and taking it to places both musically and culturally that offer fresh perspectives, there’s a good chance you just thought of Blood Incantation.
The band’s style of cosmically-minded progressive death metal that combines time-honoured old school techniques with a futuristic attitude on albums like Starspawn and The Hidden History of the Human Race has let them appeal to both traditionalist diehards and New Age explorers in a way borderline unreplicated in the genre’s recent history. The latter record and its immediately recognisable Bruce Pennington cover art became pretty much the most memed metal album of 2019, if you corroborate a record’s excitement levels with how much it gets people talking.
Timewave Zero is a natural jump-off, the band’s first fully electronic synth release, designed to offer an alternate route within the same galactic prism the band have built having gradually made the ambient and meditative sides of their music, more prominent with each release but crucially not designed as a replacement for their death metal when it comes to taking their band forward. It’s a fascinating experience in seeing the world of Blood Incantation mirrored from one musical medium to another and connecting the dots of how the ferocious and the spacious compliment one another in the broader picture, and one the band feels makes them more equipped than ever to attack these things with broader scope in creating boundary-pushing extreme music.
This is death metal though, so naturally there are also those out there who upon receiving an ambient release in their laps, when they’d geed themselves up for some blast beats and riffs, found themselves a little lost and upset. In an extensive chat with usual band guitarists but this time synth ensemble performers Paul Riedl and Morris Kolontyrsky, we try to clear up this case of not reading the small print, and explore why this addition to their arsenal makes Blood Incantation a more terrifying proposition than ever before.
We’re obviously well into the release of Timewave Zero, it’s out there, and people have definitely made their voices heard about it. We shouldn’t overinflate the idea that it is the overwhelming response, because it isn’t, but were you surprised by the slightly bizarre reaction and discourse that the ambient nature of this album has stirred up on the internet?
Paul: Not really. One thing I think it’s important for people to consider is that the internet is an echo chamber, specifically social media circles, forums, chat rooms, the things you follow, the algorithm feeds you what you want. So if you surround yourself with a bunch of people who either don’t like Blood Incantation as it is, or don’t like ambient music as such, you’re going to get a lot of the same stuff coming back and forth. But as soon as you step outside of that very small chat room window, the response is tremendous. We just got the Guardian article, we’ve sold more copies of it than we had for any of our other records by a week out. We’ve already started working with new collaborators behind the scenes, the doors have started opening tremendously more so than they did for even our very high profile, successful death metal records, so while it is easy to be interested in what a person who doesn’t like Ethiopian food’s Yelp review of an Ethiopian restaurant might have to say, the people who like Ethiopian food are not going to listen to what that person has to say at all, and it’s kind of a waste of their bandwidth to tell everyone else that they don’t like this food and they didn’t like the food they served here at the restaurant that serves it. So go figure.
Is there any sense that the buzz that your band has garnered more and more of with each record has possibly put you on the radars of people who don’t entirely know the musical history of the band and the elements that have always been prominent influences in this territory?
Paul: It goes both ways. With ‘Hidden History’, we got a significant increase in fanbase of people who don’t like standard death metal but they liked ‘Hidden History’, and in the same sense, there’s a huge crossover between people who like experimental music and people who like extreme music, and this has been happening for almost 50 years now. Like I said, it’s easy to think that this echo chamber is indicative of a larger sentiment, but unfortunately, they are drastically in the minority. It’s pretty, pretty entertaining, but we don’t care either way. Some people, they don’t like Ethiopian food, and sometimes the door says push and people try to pull on it automatically. People don’t read signs that say “ambient record, not death metal record”, and so then Barbecue Bob’s Brutal Metal Reviews Blogspot is obviously not going to be interested in something that’s not Barbecue Brew Brutal Metal, but for people who like music, people with open minds, we even have a lot of people writing to us who’ve never dealt with ambient music, and they find that this music kind of takes them away from the humdrum of society and the depression of everyday life and makes them sit with themselves and contemplate. A lot of people say specifically, when each suite finishes, at the end of each side there is that moment of self-reflection, and if you’re not interested in that and you don’t want to follow through to the end, that’s totally fine. But a lot of times it takes to getting to the end of the movie to understand the plot twists.
With progressive and ambient atmospheric music being a key part again of what has made Blood Incantation what it is from the beginning, when you were going into making a record fully immersing yourself in that style, how much of it was new to you figuring out how you’re going to do it and how much of it was stripping away the metal elements to reveal what was always there underneath?
Morris: It was both because we the four of us have not played synthesisers together at the same time before, and that is a new language of music that one has to learn to understand. So we spent countless hours just jamming trying to figure it out and I would spend time at home with just my synths trying to figure out what it is I liked about this thing or that thing or that thing, so lots of different types of practice and learning a new language. But at the time we felt comfortable enough and ready to be able to do this thing together, we would jam for hours to get all of this stuff out. We have hours and hours of rehearsals, some of them are trash and some of them are really cool, trippy and psychedelic that maybe will see the light of day some time. But once we got ready to record the actual two songs on the record, stripping away the metal wasn’t that hard because our thought process going into it as far as writing was very similar to death metal in that this part goes here, and then I layer another riff or atmosphere here, so it’s a similar language with different words.
You’ve been making records exploring these styles for a long time individually in your other projects like Hoverkraft, so how much was opened up by collaborating obviously with your fellow band members in ways that are not as neatly defined as their instrumental roles playing within a death metal?
Paul: I do a lot of other ambient experimental synth stuff besides Hoverkraft and Hoverkraft was actually not my first one, it was just the first conceptual one. I’ve been doing ambient solo stuff since 2008, and I did the first Hoverkraft in 2010. I’ve got probably 40 different solo tapes out there of varying quantities and quality, most of them very bad. But it’s the same for those projects as it is for our metal bands where there’s never been a question of “is this riff a Spectral Voice riff or a Chthonic Deity riff or a Blood Incantation riff or an Abysmal Dimensions riff?” Isaac is never going to worry “Is this a Stormkeep riff or a Wayfarer riff?”, that’s really not ever been an issue, and I’ve never lived a life in a band where that was an issue. I’ve never been in a band where I could just take a riff from one of my other bands and use it the same, it’s a matter of distinguishing the atmospheres that we already do. Playing metal, you know, we don’t do anything super avant-garde. We’ve got six strings on guitars, four strings on bass, we do some weird stuff or whatnot but in general it falls back on it on a typical type of metal beat. It’s the fills and their arrangement that make it interesting. The frets are in a typical arrangement of 24, we don’t do microtonal guitars or anything, it’s very simple. And in that same sense, there’s always that simple security to fall back on when you’re jamming, improvising with death metal, or any metal, you know the general umbrella concept of the genre you’re performing. There can only be so many beats that can fit with a riff like this, this type of riff necessitates this part of a harmony, it’s all still pretty streamlined. Whereas when we did ‘Timewave’, like Morris said we would we improvise for a full year, and there’s I’d say maybe 80 hours of rehearsal recordings, most of which will never come out, some of which are very cool and they’re testament to the powers that be within the group and the spontaneity of improvisation and working together, understanding the concept and just being there feeling the essence of the moment. And once we started the actual writing process for the album, there were a couple things where we had been like “we can remember that recording from here, let’s listen to that and then we replicate it in this context”. When Morris says we’re writing it as the band writes our death metal, obviously it’s not literal in this synth part being a guitar solo or whatever, but in a loose concept, Jeff and Isaac will kind of hold it down. They both play lead parts, they both play atmospheric and melodic parts, but in general, a lot of times what naturally tends to happen as we’re playing and writing together is that the rhythm section will fall into kind of that holding it down thing, and then Morris and I will do some more atmospheric counterpoint with each other, just like we do with guitars and drums and bass. And so when we don’t have the luxury of the finite amount of frets and the only so many drum beats to guide us in the trajectory, it requires a total abandonment of previous habits and a total commitment to immersion in the now to have the exploration of what this new environment is.
Morris: There’s no safety net to it.
Paul: Yeah, exactly. The good thing and the bad thing about synths is that they’re infinite, the tonalities you can make with these things. Analogue synths seldom make the exact same tonality twice because the oscillators are unstable and the gear is finicky, like tape machines but even more so and more fragile and delicate. But at that same time, you can really push those tonalities even further into the cosmos or into the future. There’s truly no limit and obviously guitar will never die, especially in the West, but electronic music took over the world, revolutionised the music industry, television, radio, every single thing about society in the 21st century is completely dependent on 70s progressive electronic music. Even the guys that were pioneering this music in Germany back in the 70s, in particular we’re talking about krautrock and the ‘Timewave Zero’ connection, these guys that were pushing the earliest ones didn’t have these synthesisers. The first Klaus Schulze, the first Cluster, the first Tangerine Dream, the first Kraftwerk, they didn’t have synthesiers, and then the second one they maybe had one synthesiser, and the third one they maybe had one more than before, and by the mid to late 70s, it becomes synthesiser-based electronic music, and it took time for them to push into that vanguard. In the same sense things nowadays like drum triggers, whammy bars, fanned frets, seven strings and eight strings, a lot of these things that are technologies that enhance the scope of the potential application of extreme metal, all that stuff the original death metal guys didn’t have, just like the original krautrock guys didn’t have all this crazy gear. And so that pushing of exploratory, passionate, expansive perspective, we talk about the 1973 to 1993 continuum all the time, and not just the great music that came out of that, but the mental landscapes and the perspectives that gave people the impetus to create these types of expansive concepts. And so when we’re writing for this, it actually opens your brain up to have to not rely on certain tropes. Blood Incantation has a very particular type of songwriting, where really all of our songs follow generally the same approach, whether even if it’s a mix of this type of riff, that type, if we go fast to slow or funeral doom to ambient or tech or 80s or whatever, we have the tricks that we like to do. One of the critiques of our bands is that we will stop and introduce a new riff and then just keep going, which a lot of bands don’t like and our band obviously loves that. If someone doesn’t like that, you’re listening to the wrong band, because that’s one of the most fun ways, especially for me, personally, as a guitar player, I absolutely love to play those types of parts. This last album before ‘Timewave’, it had obviously a lot of starts, stops and things where a bunch of those might reside. It also has some where it continues on without, especially on the last track ‘Awakening’, which Isaac wrote, there’s a lot of it just continuing to pummel and the riff will change, but the drum will continue. We’re not averse to doing that type of songwriting, we just have our preferences as everyone is entitled, but for ‘Timewave’, we didn’t have the luxury of any of those preferences and we had to start completely from scratch. The difference between ‘Timewave Zero’ and Hoverkraft is even more considerable than the difference between Cannibal Corpse and The Beatles because they are actually using entirely the same instrument line-ups and I don’t use any gongs or singing bowls or tambura or Mellotron on Hoverkraft, you know. But the most important thing is that all of our other records have music that was written years before it was recorded. ‘Interdimensional Extinction’ has songs written when I still lived in Oregon, before we even started the band. It came out two and a half years after it was recorded, and so people saw it come out right up against ‘Starspawn’ and saw a jump really quickly but that’s three years of time. On the ‘Interdimensional’ tour, we’re already playing three quarters of the ‘Starspawn’ songs. On the ‘Starspawn’ tours, we’re already playing ‘Giza Power Plant’, we’re soundchecking with ‘Slave Species’, we actually soundchecked ‘The Giza Power Plant’ in the studio recording ‘Interdimensional Extinction’ in 2013 and we didn’t record it until 2019. So every record we’ve had ancient music, which we think is still cool, but it’s old news to us and people make their own connections when we drop the record. ‘Timewave’ is the first time where we, as four people with equal standing and equal input, totally clean slate from the beginning, created something as a group and as a cohesive unit, that is literally impossible for Hoverkraft to make, or for any of us to have made without the collective input of everybody. In addition to being the first totally fresh music we’ve made as a band, it’s the most collaborative songwriting process and musical contribution from all the members on an equal level. So when people say “This is just a Hoverkraft project with the Blood Incantation logo”, it’s like, man, you really didn’t see the sign that says push on that pull door, did you? You’re missing that point and you’re all loud about it, and everyone’s free to bump into as many doors as they want or not like Ethiopian food or whatever, but this is a collaborative record by four people who are completely invested in the total concept and presentation of this package that we’ve made. And for the first time, Blood Incantation is completely free to explore all four of our mutual interests and compatible abilities, as well as having totally fresh current music for us to look at, which simultaneously serves as a palate cleanser and reinvigorated all four of our mutual interests in extreme metal music and made us even more passionate about making the craziest technical space funeral ambient death metal we can.
When you’re talking about 80 hours worth of improvised rehearsal recording, with changing tact from that to go into the real thing of actually constructing these very deliberately laid out songs from scratch, what kind of timeframe is that process?
Paul: About a year we improvised. Basically in 2020, we were supposed to do a whole world tour for ‘Hidden History’, and we played a couple shows in New York in February, and then our other band Spectral Voice was in Mexico right when Corona dropped. And so we had to cancel that tour and everybody laid low. We did film the Century Media live in the rehearsal space, and then we went back to doing the same thing. Back then we didn’t have like individual mixers or recording interface for our PA and computer, we didn’t have a computer, we just recorded with an iPhone voice memo in the middle of the room and everybody played out of guitar amps, which is a different tonal interest as well, and we did that for a year. We only then set the drums back up to the film the Adult Swim festival thing, which I think was in August, and so only twice after New York in 2020 did we ever play death metal. We just improvised all year man and then at the beginning of 2021 we bought the mixers.
How much of the deal here is really putting time into not just the compositional front but technically and financially making sure you had the right equipment and getting all of that right?
Paul: There is a mix of old and new technology on the recording. There’s old digital synths and brand new analogue synths. There’s vintage analogue synths, there’s acoustic instruments, tape echoes, a lot of really cool old school equipment.
Morris: There’s new pedals, like I use an Eventide Space.
Paul: So it’s not 100% vintage analogue gear and although that would be nice, there’s certain limitations to it, which can be beneficial to these progenitors back then. But nowadays, there’s a bit of a renaissance in analogue synth technology and you can buy cheaper, more reliable, more stable analogue equipment than was ever possible in the 70s. Morris and I have a couple synths from the 70s and our tape echoes are very finicky, there’s a lot of personality in vintage gear, and sometimes it can be pretty annoying and a little problematic, but in general that unpredictability and that instability is beneficial to the total outcome because a lot of those early records that spontaneity and improvisation was just part of the part of the process. And so we do a mix just like we do for our death metal mix of old school and future stuff, a little bit of digital, a little bit of analogue, because there’s no right or wrong way to do it. That’s something that I think people get really hung up on. There’s no better way, better is totally subjective. There’s just tools and tools can help people manifest art or ideas and we believe that the synthesis and transcendence of these two dualities is to stand on the shoulders of giants, you know, you see further because of the people who went before you. These guys in the 70s pushed as far as they could with that technology, and then in the 80s and 90s, with the advent of digital delay and MIDI and things like that, people like later Tangerine Dream, they really became immersed in that super syncopated, hyper precise digital presentation. And to us, we want a little bit of that unpredictability, we want a little bit of the decay of the oscillator, we want it to be a little bit warbly, we want it to have a little bit instability in tuning. For many applications, that’s not possible because you need the gear to be dependable, but if the concept is that ‘Timewave Zero’ is like a death metal band’s krautrock record, you need that type of instability to give it that type of tonality. We’re doing this record with four people in a room playing simultaneously on a whole reel of tape. If somebody hits the wrong note, you don’t get the patch out, because it’s all bleeding in and you have to start over, reset every synthesiser, retune just like guitars, and then start 20 minutes ago and do it all over again.
With the fluctuations in the equipment and that there is a less obvious and rigid sense of time and tempo as in a metal band, how difficult was that to record live together as a group when playing to tape?
Morris: One thing with the record is that the album itself in the way we recorded it, yes, we can play those songs and we just did live a week ago, and it sounded like the album, but the album itself has a certain level of unpredictability and tones that will never be matched again and can never be exactly replicated the same way again.
Paul: One thing that’s important to know in a metal context, we’ve all been in doom metal bands, and some of us are still in funeral doom/drone doom type bands, and it’s markedly more difficult to remain in time and not make a mistake playing such obtuse and open music. If you’re playing very fast, very distorted, it’s a lot easier to cover up a mistake. When it comes to a live environment for a band like Blood Incantation playing fast technical death metal, or at least precise death metal, that human element of error is what allows you to adjust on the fly to get back in time. When you’re playing funeral doom that’s really slow, really sparse, a mistake is not only significantly more noticeable for recording, you have to start over. With the synth stuff, the urgency and the sense to rush can be overpowering, because we play really crazy music most of the time, and so that subtlety and that pacing is so difficult to not want to overdo. And sometimes you overcompensate, because you’re trying to count too much, or you get a little too much into a 4/4 type of thing whereas the rhythm itself of the sequence or the melody is a little more amorphous on purpose. It’s supposed to be loose, you know, and that looseness is difficult to navigate for people who are accustomed to 20 years of playing a lot of drums and guitar. It was really quite invigorating, to be honest, and very inspiring for us to as four people in the same band, in a new context, have to try to maintain that type of pacing, and that deliberate approach that we appreciate so much about our regular metal in this new context.
With this being the first record of entirely newly written material not looking to the backlog of riffs, and it being something you have said from the start that you were going to make an electronic synth-based records, when you look back over the releases that you’ve amassed up to this point and the story that you’ve crafted there across them, you could say that you’ve completed this first leg of what you planned with Blood Incantation with two albums and two EPs, one of them being an electronic EP. The relevant question here is what does that mean for what you are now able to do in your music going forward into fully new territory in the future?
Paul: Everything. That’s the point man, we have these two polarities, we have the yin and the yang, and the balanced integration of these two seemingly disparate polarities is the goal that we’ve always been trying to reach. Like you said, we had to sprinkle it throughout the past back catalogue increasing a little more each time, a little more electronics, a little more synths, because you can’t go ‘Interdimensional Extinction’ to ‘Timewave Zero’. That’s crazy, we would never do that, and if we did perhaps some of this flack might be warranted, but what’s actually happened is a very deliberate pacing of this strategy and now that we have the two established we are free to combine the two as freely, openly and cosmically as possible. We joke all the time that Blood Incantation’s final form has not been attained, and now with the palette cleansed and everything laid out on the table, we can finally honestly try to approach that type of balance and synthesis which is ultimately the goal of our band. We are archaic, we are futuristic, we are primitive, we are progressive, we are old school, we are contemporary. In the same sense, with ‘Timewave Zero’ and the back catalogue of the metal, you can see the whole gamut of what this band is trying to synthesise. For the next record, we are more invigorated than we have ever been as we don’t have to catch up with ourselves and we have that freedom of expression, we are more motivated to play crazier metal than we ever have before, and we are now more capable of integrating that with this experimental progressive music. The next metal record from Blood Incantation will be something that hasn’t happened yet. We already put the funeral doom with the technical death, the Gorguts part with the Mournful Congregation part, the Pink Floyd part with the space ambient part going back to some 80s speed metal part and some dad metal riff. We now can mix this dark ambient, drone, krautrock, new age, all these different types of experimental and electronic music in the same way we mix up all the metal, and when we put all that into a pot, now Blood Incantation is really ready to show people what we’ve got and what we mean by cosmic music for cosmic people. We just wanna combine these things in the way we wanna listen to as people. As an artist my whole prerogative in life is I have thousands of records and CDs, and most of them are amazing, and the ones that combine the things I like the most I am trying to make. For everyone who’s got a different flavour and interest in life, good, there’s billions of records so why does our record have to be a certain way when everyone else’s or another one yet to come could accomplish that for you? We just wanna be Blood Incantation. Every band is already tougher, every band is already more brutal, every band is already more cult, we get it man, and we just wanna make stuff and go “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a 1998 style Death riff with ‘Formulas Fatal to the Flesh’ style gutturals?” or “Let’s take a Gorguts riff and turn it into an 80s style Slayer part”.
Morris: Or a Cynic guitar riff mixed with Tangerine Dream.
Paul: We’ve never done the tempo mapping and click drums, we don’t rely on that in the live performance because the human element of error allows us to adjust to problems we make while we’re playing, but there’s a very good chance that in future we’ll be using sequencing or time mapped triggers to have us be playing and then a Tangerine Dream style part playing over our metal part and Isaac is keeping that tempo. It’s all synced up together. A band like Nile does that and it’s pretty awesome when they’re playing ‘The Howling of the Jinn’ and the vocals of the chanting come out on top. We just wanna be the Blood Incantation version of that and put it all together in a way that is fun for us to listen to but also interesting for people who are into these kind of things, and if anyone is not, we encourage them to keep following their own hearts and make their own music that they want to hear. That’s all there is to do in this life. Everything sucks, the world’s over, time doesn’t exist, so get out, make some art, hang out with your friends, tell your parents you love them, just do something interesting with your time, and the forum ain’t it chief. That’s not real life. Out here on the front lines, music is infinite and the creative potential of humankind has no zenith yet. There are still ideas yet to be consolidated or explored.
When you’re talking about trying to unlock the new paths of what Blood Incantation can do, we should touch on the fact that you have now unlocked a Blood Incantation milestone of doing your first full-on electronic show. How was it and is that something we can see return?
Paul: I wouldn’t say semi-regularly but for special events in a curated environment, you can definitely expect to see that again. One thing I would like to personally state is that like you said we unlocked this new thing with the show and I woke up a different man the next morning. I don’t live in the same world I did before ‘Timewave Zero’ was unleashed in the flesh on the stage, and I have a new perspective on our band and on myself where I have shed the husk of “That’s not possible, you can’t do that, you shouldn’t do that”, all that stuff is moot because we can do it and now we live in that world. In the same sense that technology changes humankind, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse but nonetheless irrevocably, we have changed the continuum. The narrative of the 21st century death metal landscape was already being perturbed by Blood Incantation, and it’s different now. The sky used to be the limit and now the sky seems very small. The cosmos, the multiverse, and all those things intersecting, that’s the limit, and for people who don’t wanna go, don’t get on the bus. That’s no problem. But the tickets are free… well, obviously the tickets aren’t free, but the bus ticket is free! How many death metal bands are in The Guardian? It’s because it’s more than just a death metal band, it’s because of what ‘Timewave Zero’ represents not only in the context of a death metal band’s discography, but also in the context of contemporary technology and the musicians shaping it. That’s what we’re most happy to share with you, what’s happening with it in the now and the synergy of these things happening at once. That’s what’s interesting.
Morris: It was seriously one of the heaviest shows. The bass frequencies I have experienced before at electronic shows and from all sorts of music made by different types of computers or made with different types of synthesisers, but being behind it, pressing that low note, adjusting the filter yourself and feeling things shake, I was frowning like I was playing the most evil black metal riff, it was awesome.
Paul: I had to physically gaffer tape my crystals to my synth because they were vibrating off of it, and my little hairs were standing off the top of my head, it was so epic. A lot of people, that wasn’t for them, and we appreciate them waiting till the end. Some people were heckling our opener, and I’m sure their parents are proud of them for cheesing on an old man, but the people who stayed and enjoyed that, it was a unique experience. Even if it sucked, that wasn’t something these people had seen before. Even going to an electronic show, that’s not the same as seeing Blood Incantation play ‘Timewave Zero’. It’s a different experience. Jeff goes to hundreds of electronic shows and this was different, not least due to the concept of this being a different type of band playing this type of music, but the set and the setting, the details of the stage presentation, the curated background music, the curated opener, the candles, the incense, all of this stuff was part of something that like I said made me wake up a different person. ‘Timewave Zero’ has already opened more doors in the past week than ‘Hidden History’ blew open when it broke the internet for the fifth time BI upset all these people. We’re out here exploring and bringing that type of music to the stage as a death metal band was especially crazy, but as Morris said, these old krautrock dudes are not playing as we did. We played it as we recorded it, four people with analogue equipment live in a room, and when there is a mistake we made that mistake. There’s no MIDI to cover that up, we can’t splice that out with ProTools, we gotta keep going just like a death metal show. That human element of unpredictability and instability, that’s the chaos of life, and to be totally immersed in participating in a mutual chaos ritual of the now… that is some transcendental ass shit, my man.
Timewave Zero from Blood Incantation is currently available via Century Media Records – HERE