Originally written by Juho Mikkonen
It might not happen very soon, but there will be a day when the oceans finally turn themselves upside down and the atmosphere cracks wide open from stratosphere to mesosphere, killing all the oxygen we so voraciously gulp every day without even giving it a single thought. Eventually the sun will suck our home planet to its infernal embrace, and while mankind descends into its final demise they will go in the tranquillity of knowing that the universe—as a physical entity—has no memory. It will continue without mourning or celebrating our loss.
For the majority of the folk this may be a scenario too gruesome to reflect on, let alone write stories or paint pictures about it, but last year the members of Ireland’s Altar of Plagues were bold enough to try and capture the whole of its essence with a flock of furious notes and beats. This maelstrom known as White Tombwas probably not the most original in its musical concept – a combination of Burzumic black metal and post-rock pastures, which has already been done to death. Still, the band was able to break loose from this institutionalized sound with their intensive execution and distinctive ideas, which resulted in one of 2009’s highlights in underground metal.
Quality didn’t go unnoticed, and the full-length debut of Altar of Plagues was well received among the headbanging populace. Suddenly the band had tours, follow-ups and new record labels to think about, and one could assume that running Altar of Plagues would be slowly becoming like a second job for all the people involved. As if they didn’t have enough to think about already, the band is currently embarking on an extensive European tour, while, for example, the band’s singer-guitarist James Kelly has spent the first quarter of this year in Costa Rican jungles practically without electricity, computers or guitars, busying himself with his environmental studies and research. Still, Kelly refuses to become distressed about all the hassle, and for him, Altar of Plagues is not a chore.
“We are all very well, thank you. We are currently rehearsing in preparation for our European tour next month. Our U.S tour is almost fully booked and we are also writing for our second album, which we will record later in the year. The Tides EP is coming out next week (the April 1st) also.
“I wouldn’t like to associate [Altar of Plagues] with the word ‘job,’ but the work load has been steadily growing,” Kelly continues. “Touring for longer periods can certainly make home life a little more stressful, and leaving frequently for periods of time requires arrangements. I began to worry that all of this might begin to distract us from the music but it has not at all, and if it did I think I would give it up quite quickly. All of us very much enjoy touring and performing and we commit a great deal of our energy towards doing so, but we would stop doing if our passion was ever curbed or if it began to feel like labour.”
Besides being fairly successful–whatever that means in the context of underground metal–White Tomb was almost universally acclaimed by reviewers and fans alike. Kelly finds this surprising, although the frontman is clearly confident that there actually was something to rave about on their debut.
“Yes, it really was quite surprising to us. We are all very proud of the album and can look back on it and say that we are 100% pleased with the outcome. We created what it was that we wished to create with White Tomb. If I really wanted to analyse it, there are certainly things I would like to change but I can say the same for any of our releases.
“I do not tend to listen to music I have written, there is too much other music to listen to. I hear Altar of Plagues enough when we rehearse or go on tour. I think the only time I really listen is when we are in the mixing stages of a release, or when I need to refresh my memory before touring. That said, once in a while I sit down and listen to one of the releases in its entirety and sort of savour the experience. The music is written for ourselves first and foremost, so something would be very wrong if we were unable to listen to it.
“White Tomb now exists, and for how long it will be relevant to people, if it is relevant at all, I do not know. As a whole, it is about something that was, and still is, very important to me at the time and documents our musical expression at that point in time. It will certainly be a very important relic in my life for a while to come.”
Instead of resting on their laurels after a hard day of work, Altar of Plagues has taken the bull by the horns and started preparing new material for future releases. The first outcome of this process is the aforementioned Tides EP, which, according to Kelly, is the band’s final experiment along the stylistic lines set by their first releases.
“Stylistically, I think that it is more of a continuation. But it is hard for me to say, because when I write music, my mindset never changes so to me everything we have ever done is the same. The major difference I observed is that we wrote this with the intention of keeping both tracks entirely separate, and so each track has its own energy and pace. It felt as if it had been a long time since we wrote like that and as a result the tracks feel much different to me. White Tomb, as an album, was intended to work as one entire piece and its writing was a far greater undertaking.”
“I think the material on Tides is much darker than anything we have done before. I am reluctant to say something so often overstated, but it just feels much colder to me, both lyrically and musically. It was written in a very passive sort of manner, as it came together in the time that passed since the writing and recording of White Tomb. We know the sounds that we wish to explore with our next album and I think Tides sort of closes the chapter on the sound developed with the past releases.”
With the new EP, Altar of Plagues ended up joining forces with Burning World, the record label run by the same bunch of chaps that have initiated Roadburn Festival. It’s customary that every year some of the bands that join Roadburn’s eclectic cavalcade also record something for the label. Usually, these carefully selected artists have taken this chance as an honor, and so does Altar of Plagues.
“When the Roadburn guys originally got in touch with us, we spoke about the possibility of working with them for a release. At the time we had been working on new material, considering White Tomb had been written for so long time ago at that point, and we suggested they release an EP.
“They are all really great people and we are pleased to have had the opportunity to work with them. Such hard working people make the musical world turn and it would be lost without them.”
The band also has a new place to call home in Europe. They signed to Candlelight Records not so long ago, while Profound Lore will still continue as their stateside label and distributor. One could begrudge that Candlelight may not anymore be the old flag-bearer of yesteryears, but there’s no denying the legendary status their house still holds. Kelly is clearly excited about the prospect of having Altar of Plagues next to such classic Candlelight bands as Emperor and Opeth, although his legitimate enthusiasm does not outweigh his commitment to Profound Lore.
“Yes, we will continue to work with Profound Lore but will now also deal with Candlelight in Europe. Being a part of two excellent labels is a great opportunity, and thankfully Candlelight had no problems with us remaining with Profound Lore also.
“When I first began listening to black metal, Emperor were one of the most important and influential bands I listened to. The completely blew me away. To be a part of the same label means a lot to us. On the other hand, as I got older and more interested in underground music, labels such as Profound Lore became much more interesting and exciting and it was obvious they were passionate about exploring new frontiers. It is great to be a part of two very different labels that are both highly credible and also entirely different to one another.”
The band already has plans for their sophomore full-length, as well, but obviously it’s not a matter of mere months. With Kelly residing in Costa Rica and all the tour preparations, the song writing process is only in its early stages, and nothing seems to be set in stone in regard to schedules.
“Right now the material exists in on paper and will materialise over the coming weeks or months. I mean it quite literally when I say the music exists on paper, as I have spent the past three months living in a tent in a Costa Rican cloud forest with no electricity, guitar etc. We are currently fleshing out ideas and I think it will be quite a change from past material.”
On White Tomb, Altar of Plagues collaborated with Colin Marston (Krallice, Behold…The Arctopus, Gorguts), who handled the mastering of the album. Kelly agrees that Marston did a fantastic job by trimming the sound to its fullest potential, which by no means is a negligible aspect of White Tomb’s appeal. Still, the Irish singer-guitarist believes that the potential continuation of this liaison could be a double-edged sword.
“Our label put us in touch with Colin, though I was already fan of his bands. Colin did an excellent job and played a big role in helping us achieve the sound we envisioned for White Tomb. Of course we would love to work with him again and may do so in the future, but we are also reluctant to fall into the trap of using the safe, tried and tested methods or people as we want all of our releases to have their own unique character.”
The band seems to have at least a dozen of loose ends to tie before they can seriously even think about the recordings of the new full-length, but, be that as it may, touring is the priority number one for Altar of Plagues at the moment. Their Stateside fans will be in for a treat, because the touring plans will reach the shores of the new continent, and while all the details are not yet sealed, it’s safe to say that it’s not going to be just a small trip to Seaside Heights and back.
“Yes, we will actually be doing our first U.S tour in July/August this year and will be covering quite a bit of ground. Due to the expense associated with such a trip, we have been biding our time for quite a while with that tour.”
Before that they still have a hectic European run to finish. It began from the “Mother of All European Festivities,” namely Roadburn Festival, and while the likes of Wolves in the Throne Room are almost a household name at that celebration, it’s not exactly the most obvious circus for a black metal band to attend. Still, before their gig, Kelly refused to get intimidated by the festival’s ganja-fueled audience with hash oil dripping from their every pore, and, frankly, there was never really anything to worry about. Potheads are open-minded, and this year’s bill included black metal related acts from Triptykon to Enslaved. For Altar for Plagues, as for almost every European underground metal band, getting a chance to climb on the Roadburn stage is a rare privilege.
“We are very much looking forward to the Roadburn performance. I have always wanted to attend the festival but have never been able as it falls in April, which was always a bad time of year for me for whatever reasons. To think that my and the other guys’ first time attending will be to perform is quite surreal.
“I am in no way nervous about the audience not enjoying our performance – some will and some will not. Festivals such as Roadburn give the audience freedom to roam around and no one is forced to sit through an act they do not enjoy. Also, given the diverse nature of the Roadburn bill, I would expect that the crowd will be quite open to hearing different things.”
From all the genres of heavy music, black metal and its existence is probably the least dependent on live shows. Many masters of the black mass are also really impressive performers, but on the other hand some of the biggest and the best of the biz are either one-man bands–thus unable to transubstantiate their craft of studio mayhem into a live concert–or just otherwise not interested. Overall, black metal somehow comes off as a music made to digest in privacy. For Altar of Plagues a live performance is not better or worse than an album. Instead, it’s just different.
“We did our first live show in 2007 but we only really started gaining momentum quite recently. Touring requires a lot of commitment and over the past year that is what we have done.
“Live performance is in some ways a more honest representation of the music. The album is a private experience for the listener, whereas the live performance is more real. The energy is physically there.”
Speaking of genres, it’s clear that, music-wise, Altar of Plagues has more than a few things in common with pure black metal, and their style of riffing is deep-rooted in the standards set by the Vikernes Academy. Still, both musically and lyrically, they stretch far beyond just that. Utilizing lush post-rock and ambient soundscapes that showcase indie-sensibility to die for–while shying away from the Satanic or occult imagery and motifs–doesn’t really compute with the original ideals of how real black metal should be done. Although classifying Altar of Plagues as black metal is the most convenient thing to do for avoiding the hellish genre nit-picking, Kelly wishes to underline that they are not a black metal band.
“No, we do not see ourselves as a black metal band. I have a very clear idea of what I would consider to be black metal and Altar of Plagues certainly is not that. Black metal has had a massive influence on my views on music, and how it can possess far more passion and meaning that simply existing as music for entertainment. We are influenced by black metal, ambient, progressive, kraut, minimal, noise, electronic, classical, anything. Whatever else the final product of all that may be, I think we are at our core a metal band. I agree with what you say, sometimes it is more convenient to label a band with whatever seems easiest.
“Altar of Plagues is in absolutely no way concerned with Satanism or the occult. Some of us may find the occult to be of interest at a surface level, but it goes no deeper than that. Satanism is a core part of what true black metal is. That is one of the primary reasons we do not consider Altar of Plagues to be a black metal band.”
Instead of singing praises to the horned one, Altar of Plagues deal with urban decay and flirt with anti-urban notions, which are themes that have always held a pivotal yet secondary role in black metal’s epistle. During the past few years, bands like Wolves in the Throne Room and Lantlös have led a small explosion of black metal bands who have rejected the preconceived Satanist / occultist themes and lifted ecological conservatism and critique of urbanism at the forefront of their message. Kelly admits that Altar of Plagues shares an ideological connection with these bands, but at the same time he rejects any notion of a scene brewing. More importantly, Altar of Plagues is not a conglomerate of opportunists jumping on a bandwagon.
“To an extent yes, but I think we are about as related as all other black metal acts of a similar era are/were, such as the Norwegian movement of the early 90’s. Musical movements and trends often occur as a result of a greater large scale, even global, trend. Many forms of metal music are strongly driven by emotions, and these will be influenced by the world around us.
“Our subject matter has been in no way premeditated and was not chosen as such. I have been involved in environmental studies before Altar of Plagues ever existed, and this subject matter eventually became a part of Altar of Plagues. Much of the reason that it became a part of Altar of Plagues is because what I learn through my work is more often than not quite sad – seeing isolated rivers being used as a means of waste disposal, using ancient lands as a means to expand infrastructure. These things make me angry and Altar of Plagues provides a platform to express these feelings.
“We are very much in an era of immense change – I think that is why I feel compelled to deal with this subject matter, both in my personal and musical life.”
To quote our very own John Ray: “White Tomb is bleak, especially in its assessment of the human condition. And the bright spots on the album seem to reflect a hope for the world that lies in not the people but despite them.” Kelly agrees that this line captures a shred of genuine philosophy shared by the band members, and also recognises its implication: our efforts–musical or otherwise–are futile if the cosmos as a whole just simply gives a shit. Thus, this philosophy manifested in the band’s lyrics works not as a motivation but rather just as a motif.
“That is an interesting statement and while we do not ever force our lyrical content upon people, it is rewarding for us when people like to take something more from the music. One of the core sentiments of White Tomb is that, in all our selfless acts, and the scars that we will leave upon the Earth, we are completely insignificant and ultimately the Earth will prevail as it will continue its cycle. The other driving sentiment of White Tomb is our connection with the Earth has been completely lost, we live in ignorant bliss.
“As I said, Altar of Plagues is in many ways a way of expressing the anger generated by the terrible scenes in the world today. Music is something that, contrary to the fact that we play metal music, makes me very happy.”
Opinionated as he may seem, Kelly is still not a guy who preaches a clear-cut worldview, and he turns down the question of his outlook on life as “too vague…to really get too deeply into.” Still, his philosophical leanings are not just hollow speech.
“In short, in my personal life and work I do what I can to contribute toward what I hope will one day be a greater body of knowledge and may help decrease our ignorant behaviour. One would be naive to believe they can change anything in their lifetime, but that is certainly not an excuse to try to evade good living. I enjoy my life, I am happy, but I also know that our world and the powers that be are following a path that is corrupt and damned. All one can do is create their own living environment and enjoy life within that.”
With their musical and lyrical habitus, you would think that Altar of Plagues would draw a shit-ton of naysayers shouting Wolves in the Throne Room comparisons and accusations of hipsterism. Surprisingly, the group of merciless internet warriors has left the band pretty much alone, and Altar of Plagues even seems to possess a teensy bit of kvlt-credibility among the true black metal crowd. Unsurprisingly, Kelly himself is pretty indifferent towards any kind of ideological hullabaloo surrounding current black metal.
“Politics do not interest me in any way, though unfortunately it is sometimes impossible to stay clear of them. I only believe in what is fundamentally right and wrong, I don’t need to be a part of any ‘side’ to be assured of that.
“To be honest, I do not listen to a whole lot of new black metal. I do keep an eye on the activities of the older bands that I can rely on, including Burzum of late. There are enough classic albums to keep me busy for the rest of my days. Some more recent bands that come to mind are Fell Voices and Wodensthrone.”
Having that said, it doesn’t come as a big shock that Altar of Plagues draws musical influences from relatively common sources and that this influence doesn’t extend into ideological spheres.
“Burzum, (I had better emphasise that the influence is purely musical), Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse. As regards to philosophy – no, I know better than to try finding such things in black metal.
“Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse is the first album that I heard which captures the intensity, despair, and contrasting beauty of black metal. That is the sort of black metal that really appeals to me. Godspeed You! Black Emperor was the first band that really influenced my perception of musical dynamics.”
Kelly still stresses that, as with any other artist, his impulses to create are not dictated merely by the ins and outs of his chosen art form. Instead, natural inspiration doesn’t discriminate.
“Just everyday life – sights, sounds, people. I enjoy photography and art. Painting can often inspire ideas. Books and poetry. Landscape. Sometimes a scene can provide emotional inspiration that will then be translated into music, using the appropriate musical composition to express the feeling.”
When talking about inspiration, the surroundings play a major part in many bands’ work. The Irish metal scene is especially famous about emphasizing their cultural heritage and its influence on their music. In addition, it’s an ascendant scene. Whereas it used to be just Primordial, nowadays there are dozens of top-notch bands coming from Eire. Kelly himself touts for his friends at Drainland, People of the Monolith, Wreck of the Hesperus and Ten Past Seven. Altar of Plagues has not really been that outspokenly and self-consciously Irish band as most of their brethren, but there is no denying that their sound is somehow distinctly Irish. The guitarist says that their band indeed is a part of the big shapeless object called the Irish metal scene but doesn’t relate Altar of Plagues with the nation’s pagan metal movement, despite the pride that he feels about his home country.
“I attend shows here and we also perform here in Ireland so yes, we are a part of the scene. I think that Irish pagan/black metal starts and ends with a handful of bands. We were never a part of such a thing.”
“I am extremely proud of my Irish roots and I absolutely adore our country. Altar of Plagues is very much inspired by our land and its culture. However, we never specifically discuss our history. White Tomb, for example, was inspired by a land on the west of our Island known as the Burren. This is an incredible, vibrant, and ancient land that would be paved over was there not opposition to fight the powers that be. This is a sad scene and can be observed the world over. Our Tides EP was inspired by the Atlantic Ocean, and particularly is importance as a means of travel for families generations ago, living on remote and tiny islands off of the coast.
All in all, it stands out that Altar of Plagues is not a unit run by cold reckoning. There appears to be a mix of control and chaos, conscious and sub-conscious in everything they do. So, it’s not that surprising that Kelly doesn’t really seem like he spends a lot of hours reflecting on the future of the band.
“I’m not really sure. Thinking about where I will be in my non-musical life is of enough concern without having to plan for Altar of Plagues. I would like if we were able to continue to move at the same pace as we do now. But we will see…”