Demilich – Excerpts From A 17-Year Swansong

originally written by Juho Mikkonen

It’s rather unfortunate that the term “cult” (let’s just pretend that the other transcription doesn’t even exist) has gone through a process of depreciation through inflation of Weimarian proportions and stigmatized with parodic connotations, rendering the word into a mere burlesque in extreme metal’s nomenclature. For a moment, it used to describe outfits that morphed from a band into a phenomenon with an aura, that would begin to live on its own and blow up like a balloon; whether the troupe of musicians would be active or not. This attribute was intended to be used in moderation and reserved for only a handful of artists — including the weird Finnish death metal collective known as Demilich.

However, most of us probably know that there’s nothing extraordinary and nothing “cult” about the band’s so-called career. Four guys from Kuopio, the biggest town in Eastern Finland, started jamming together, recorded a stack of demos and a full-length, played some gigs, and then disbanded in 1993 without hails and commemorations –everything in mere three year time-span. Then, not long after that, a soothsayer somewhere decided that Demilich was, still is, and will always be a cut above the rest. With the help of other bands’ flagrant inability to produce anything that would stand tall next to Nespithe, Demilich‘s sole full-length, this assessment of the quartet’s uniqueness got slowly adopted as a public opinion within the realms of underground heavy music.

In 2006 — thirteen years after Antti Boman, Demilich‘s frontman, rhythm guitarist and main songwriter, had pulled the trigger and interred his brainchild — the band was at the height of its ever-growing popularity and ready to reform. The plan was modest: to record some new demo tracks and embark on a string of low-profile gigs in the States, before announcing that they would make their final performance in Henry’s Pub, a local joint in the outfit’s hometown. After this run, Demilich was supposed to be dead and buried ’til doomsday; but the ghost of the past came back to haunt them the form of a drunken pledge. At the hands of that nasty old bugger, Demilich had to be resurrected for the second time, just to play another final concert in mid-August 2010 at the infamous Jalometalli festival.

The story of the Savonian orchestra is definitely one for the books, and — with this short coda — Boman is finally closing the last chapter. Intuitively, one would probably hypothesise that he would be riding an emotional roller coaster from longing to relief on this evening before the definitive ending. But, surprisingly, the guy in front me seems more like an embodiment of blissful laid-back-ness than harbinger of schmaltzy tearjerkers.

“Well…with the last so-called ‘final show,’ there was no nostalgia involved and it was just simply fun. We had a great feeling and great time, and I believe that tomorrow’s gig will be no different. To be honest, this performance feels less like a last concert when compared to the one in 2006. It’s only a gig among other gigs, and there’s is no reason to think otherwise. That’s the way I’m gonna psych the guys tomorrow, so that nobody would feel extra pressure about it. You know, something like: ‘This is our last chance to show who we are, and if we fuck it up, people will remember us like that forever.’ I don’t want the other guys to think like that,” Boman reflects.

Demilich‘s existence is characterized by absurdities; one of them being the fact that, while conducting this interview, we — the two handsome Manolos under the dark, blue-shaded Osthrobothnian sunset glow — are perching in comfy leather armchairs behind a construction booth, which is situated beside an old meat factory. Be that as it may, the frontman finds it ironic that basically they had to start from scratch for the third time, rehearse a fuck-ton of riffs and make a return to Henry’s Pub for a warm-up gig before packing it in for good at Jalometalli. Everything by dint of this one, age-old promise, the mentioning of which makes Boman burst into laughter.

“It was just that I had promised to Järkkä (the festival’s promoter, Marco Järvenpää) that I would make sure that Demilich would play at this very festival before quitting. Then we both sort of forgot that. I’ve already told him that I actually hoped that the whole thing would somehow get erased from his memory, so that I wouldn’t have to break the other implicit promise I had made for the people who were at the ‘last’ gig in 2006. Well, last year during the Death Angel show at Jalometalli we started eyeballing each other. I was like: ‘Fuck, should I go and tell him that we should just do the damn thing and get it over with,’ while Järkkä was thinking that it would embarrassing to ask me after all this time. Then, I don’t remember which one of us made the initiative, but we just agreed to arrange this, and here we are.”

Boman is well aware that the popularity and appreciation of Demilich is currently at all-time high and that everything would speak for the decision to just forge ahead with the band. There’s a real demand for new Demilich material and subsequent touring, but Mr. Boman is stout in his resolve. For example, the representatives of Maryland Deathfest had to settle for a polite “no,” and numerous offers from all over the old continent have been equally turned down. In the light of many recent reunion fiascos, you can’t really do anything but tip the hat and applaud for Boman’s iron will.

“I have these certain kinds of absolutenesses. I want to stick to my decisions, and because of that even this forthcoming gig felt like a bad idea at first. Still, the main reason for not continuing — and keep in mind that I’m only speaking for myself here — is the fact that I don’t want to be that clown who tours for two years with material that was recorded in 1993. Sure, we could churn out new stuff, but, with this history, I don’t want to do it. I will follow the stylistic lines of Demilich, but, as I’ve said, it will happen with a different band, although even the core members will be the same. This is only, because I want to free myself from the burden of people expecting me to deliver a Nespithe II.”

Imagining this burden and pressure it brings to pass shouldn’t be too hard. Nespithe has been long revered as one of the monuments of technical death metal; an album that paradoxically set the boundaries for the said style, only to lay waste to them right off the bat with an iconoclastic fervour to unwalk the middle path. Still, it’s bordeline impossible to draw a straight line — or any kind of line, whatsoever — from Demilich to the hell-for-leather, blast-happy compositional recklessness of tech death du jour. Actually, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to gainsay the whole idea that Demilich should be included among Suffocation, Gorguts et al. as the forefathers of the rigorously spawning technical death metal scene. Whether one finds this surprising or not, Boman agrees that his work has only little to do with all the dime a dozen, modern tech death bands:

“Technical death metal seems to stand for instrumental virtuosity and, honestly, I don’t think we’re technical in that respect, but structurally I understand that we are somehow considered technical. I respect people who have the ability to put so much effort in musicianship, and I would like to be as skillful as they are. But I am not, and neither are the other guys in this band, although Corpse (bass) might be the closest thing we have for a virtuoso. I understand that our fast parts, odd chord progressions, time signatures and unconventional song structures create an image of a technical band, but, as I said, we aren’t nearly as competent musicians as most of the people who play technical death metal. For me, Nespithe is an album that still sounds fresh and twisted, because it hasn’t been imitated to death, so I wouldn’t even call it a pioneer or something like that, even if it was ‘technical’ death metal. Of course, I’m happy if the album gets praised, despite the context.

“Generally speaking, I like it when the band has the whole package, so to speak. You know, something of their own in the music, and at the same they can really deliver it instrumentally. On the other hand, there are these bands…well, I’m not gonna start dropping any names, but there are bands, where the whole thing is built on the crowd of teenagers, who just drool over how well the band members can handle their instruments, but the musical substance is nowhere to be found. More power to them; they are artists of a different branch. Musicianship is their artistry, but for me this kind of art spurs no emotion. I support eccentricity.”

It is often forgotten that this splitting of hairs over Demilich‘s place and significance in technical death metal’s genealogy is a very recent phenomenon. The band was a prophet neither in its own time or country. Upon its release, the album’s reception wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. Boman recalls — even taking into account that the scene was a lot smaller in those days — that Nespithe went pretty much disregarded. The only corner of the world that showed genuine interest was the United States, but by the time Demilich was approached with a possibility for a Stateside tour, Boman was already determined to bring the band to a close.

On the other hand, what could one expect? Demilich completely ignored the song writing playbook of the epoch, and although death metal had already dived into the bottomless pit of chromatic scales and linear song structures, these four gentlemen were just too far out there. Still, the myth that band was way ahead of its time in experimentalism and know-how gets shot down by Boman himself. For instance, a Demilich riff might be revered as a standard in skill and vision nowadays, but back then it was just our young protagonist doing his thing and shredding these riffs, because he “couldn’t and didn’t want to play according to other people’s instructions.”

“I guess my riffs seem complicated and technical, because there’s plenty of quick jumping from string to string. For me, they are pretty simple. There are no sweeps, because I can’t play them. It’s strange. For example, there was this one live review from our American tour, written by a guy whose opinion I respect, and he wrote something like: ‘Musicianship-wise this was the most impressive gig I’ve ever seen, including all the jazz concerts I’ve been to.’ I was wondering if that was really our performance he was writing about, because I can’t understand that. Maybe it’s just that the riffs are so weird and unconventional, and people don’t expect them to go where they go. The low tuning might have something to with it, as well. You don’t always decipher everything just as it is, which can be seen from the tabs people have made for Demilich songs. There’s always something they have missed from a certain riff. Also, at first when we brought Corpse in, his mind didn’t bend in the right direction to get the scales right, but then the formula behind the riffs clicked with him…so there’s a formula from where you can deduct my riffs.

“But you know, it’s just that it’s really hard for me to let people teach me how to do something. My mom and sister used to try and teach me to tie my shoelaces, but I wanted to learn it myself. My family still laughs at me, because I still tie my shoelaces the way I did in my childhood. The same thing with guitar: a friend of mine taught me the barre chords, but otherwise I’m self-taught,” Boman explains.

Still, the figurehead admits that it would be smug to suggest that he would’ve painted Demilich in a vacuum on some imaginative tabula rasa. First of all, he is willing to give a nod to his main influences from Bolt Thrower to Pestilence and Atheist  to Slayer, among a handful of other sources of inspiration. Secondly, Boman clarifies that the drum arrangements on Demilich tunes were almost completely created by the drummer, Mikko Virnes, whereas the solos (excluding the one on “The Echo“) are of Aki Hytönen’s (guitar) hand-writing. Of course, everything was prepared under the primus motor’s strict guidelines, but Boman proclaims that, although the band members still might have some differences in other fields of life, they share a telephatic code musically.

Nespithe was recorded in mere six days; a reality dictated by their miniscule budget, hardly sufficient to buy a wedding ring for a bag lady. The studio was no Sunlight, and when it comes to twisting the knobs for creating a righteous death metal sound, the engineer didn’t exactly know the ropes. Yet, there seems to be no doubt in Boman’s mind that the upshot of the process can do even more than just stand the test of time.

“I’m happy about it, although people seem to keep insisting that the production is sub-par. It’s probably because of this irritating trend that everything has to be so fucking compressed these days. I think the sound is suitable for the album and very atmospheric. Anyway, we just drove there with a trailer, slept on the studio floor and almost got into a fight in a suburban pub because of our long hair. We worked on the album from ten to twelve hours a day. And there are parts on the record which, nowadays, would be either fixed with Pro Tools or at least played over and over until it would sound ‘better.’ That was the zeitgeist back then, but, on the other hand, we probably still wouldn’t have enough money for those fancy production jobs that seem to be commonplace in today’s metal.”

Besides being a gang of musical eccentrists and outcasts, Demilich is also renowed for its weird, gore-soaked lyrics that flirt with esoteric science fiction, as well as those ridiculously long song titles. Boman reveals that the words are indeed a mirror to his soul, reflecting the man’s profound atheism and scientific rationalism, mixed with his penchant for storytelling and following outlandish ideas to see where they go. The titles of the compositions, instead, are what they are “just for the sake of it.” However, the extreme of all extremes in Demilich‘s music lies not in the quirky riffs, sinuous structures or off-the-wall lyrics. Everyone knows what we’re talking about here: the deep, inhumanely gurgled vocals; those that reach frequencies few of us can claim to hit. It probably goes without saying that there’s nothing premeditated about this world-famous vocal delivery, which apparently ruins the music for certain people. It was simply a case of somebody having to step up for the job, so Boman just commenced growling.

“There had to be a singer, and nobody was up for it, so I took the gig, tried to follow my idols and did a lousy job. These vocals came out naturally. I had a bad technique, but somehow the style just developed to be as it is. I’m glad that people seem to appreciate my vocals, even though I sometimes have doubts about their quality myself. It’s also fun that I’ve tried to teach the style for example to Juha Harju (Deathchain, Ajattara), who, in turn, promised to teach me how to shriek properly. The process really didn’t go nowhere, because Juha said that he simply can’t do it. So, maybe there’s more than just learning to it. Of course, I acknowledge that there are people out there who can probably do it. Actually, last fall I realized that the core technique in my growling is probably pretty close to that of throat singing,” Boman elaborates with a smooth-sounding Savonian dialect, the hearing of which makes it almost impossible to believe that this is the same person who spews tar and vomit on Nespithe.

Despite my desperate attempt to depict the members of Demilich as castaways in the sea of early 90’s extreme metal, the band’s frontman doesn’t embrace this conception with open arms. In truth, Demilich was actively involved in the scene antics of the era. Boman’s vicinity got their share of death threats from Norway, which was a matter of course if one happened to be a “false death metaller” during the uprising of the church-torching Norwegian black metal intelligentsia. Due to a few minor misunderstandings, he also had a personal vis-à-vis with a well-known Finnish black metal artist and one writer in a French zine, to whom Boman sent a box of worms as a gift in return for an unfavorable review (the guy responded with a message that he would smash the Finn’s face, if he were ever to set foot on French soil).

More importantly, Demilich was an integral part of the already-withering first wave of Finnish death metal. As opposed to all the other well-established scenes, the Finnish one wasn’t defined by a certain sound. Instead, it was the emphasis on atmosphere and some kind of introverted outsiderness, which strangely was the bundling common denominator between groups like Demigod  and early Amorphis, for instance.

“When we think about bands such as Xysma, Sentenced, Abhorrence, Amorphis and Unholy, then maybe Demilich is not that bizarre in that context. I’ve said it before: maybe it’s something about Finland that makes this country breed outfits such as these. Half of the year it’s pitch black and freezing, and the other half is nightless and not so cold. You know, even the pop music here is really melancholic. Anyway, the Swedes had the Sunlight studio sound, and of course we liked the stuff they were releasing; even idolized it. Finland had nothing like that, but I guess it was this certain color of the music that connected us. Especially before the year 1991 and the beginning of the great antagonism between death and black metal, everyone was playing with everyone. For example, we were playing with Beherit before things escalated,” Boman recollects.

Indeed, this feud, almost unfathomable for today’s broad-minded, genre-hopping metalhead, was the straw that broke the camel’s back in Boman’s case. Although Demilich got spared from the most ludicrous forms of black metal scene kids’ jackassery — save a couple of poor souls trying to boo them off stage before Beherit — the frontman reveals that the general mood was not very conducive. Thus, Demilich was to face a very common destiny for a Finnish death metal band of the early 90’s: wilting away without an explicit decision to call it a day.

“Yeah, it was the overall ‘fuck you’-atmosphere, death threats from Norway and all that shit. I wasn’t afraid, but I felt like I didn’t belong there anymore. All of our friends’ bands had either quit or changed their style, like for example Sentenced and Amorphis. We were still plowing the same field and fighting with the black metal kids. On top that, it just simply killed the inspiration. I couldn’t get any songs done.

“I don’t think that Demilich was born too early or that it should have been better off in a different environment. The time and place were perfect for the band, and we had fun. Of course, I’ve thought that we should’ve just carried on with the band. The time period between 1993 and 1998 feels like wasted years in every aspect of my life. I tried to start living the normal life by getting a job and starting a family. The problem is that working has always felt like a nuisance and the idea of me starting a family doesn’t feel quite right. Later, I realized that I shouldn’t try to pursue those things, because I’m not that person. It bugs me that I spent the my best years in that shit.”

Thus, Demilich‘s initial demise bared little resemblance to a crash landing. Instead, fittingly to its lyrical themes, the band just drifted away into some unknown dimension of collective consciousness, away from people’s eyes and minds — including those of its founding members. The lack of closure was the motivator for Boman to begin to work on Demilich again. It seems like there wasn’t a clear picture of what he was doing, but evidently something needed to be done to revive the patient from respitaror and then find a way to break its chunky neck — no matter how long it would take.

The first step was to make sure that everyone would be able to get their hands on Demilich‘s recorded material, which was implemented not only through a couple of re-releases of Nespithe but also by putting both the full-length and all the demos up for free download on Demilich‘s official homepage. A peculiar stunt, indeed, but Boman states that the little currency that gets lost in the process shouldn’t be too big of a deal for anyone involved. His bread still comes from daily grind — no matter how much he dislikes working for living. The same thing will happen with the upcoming demo collection, also including three unreleased songs, which, according to Boman, “terminate the existence of Demilich.” Somehow, this foggy reunion appears to have accomplished its mission, and from hereupon Boman will be able to set his mind on future endeavors — rather than trying to make the latter-day wrongs a right.

“I’ve been working on Winterwolf and the new Deathchain album, so I’ve had some extra hassle side by side with my day job. But now, when we were rehearsing for this gig, I made the atheist’s holy promise that I’ll start seriously writing the new songs for Demilich‘s heir, so that we would get that thing going, and now we’d also have a few well-rehearsed Demilich covers for the new band,” Boman states and insinuates that he wishes to be able to fully concentrate on the new material before saying anything definitive about it.

The curtain is inevitably closing on Demilich‘s career, although our interviewee insists that the band never even had such a thing. When I ask Boman about regret, he assures that there’s none of it. Maybe this is how it was meant to be, and it’s sure as hell better than reluctantly trying to blow life into a fading flame, which is something too many bands fall prey to. Boman philosophizes that, at the end of the day, it’s the music that defines them as artists. Discovering that perspective might help one understand, why there isn’t more sentimentality involved in the situation. The body of Boman’s work with Demilich was finalized a long before this ceremonial final appearance.

The following evening, I watch Demilich perform for the last time and can’t help but notice how casual the atmosphere is. This is no-one’s last journey or funeral; it’s more like a memorial for an old friend…who’s been long buried under a mausoleum of turbulent riffage.

Deliverance has been received. Good riddance.


Posted by Old Guard

The retired elite of LastRites/MetalReview.

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