Ufomammut – Music As A Religion

Originally written by Juho Mikkonen

Although the plate of underground metal is full of impassioned zealots who seem to do nothing but harness all their energy to bring new pieces of art into being, only few of them manage to make it a true walk of life. For example, Fenriz needs to sort out mail as Gylve Nagell to be able to bring home the bacon, whereas Insomnium’s Ville Vänni struggles to make ends meet (and more) as a doctor. Granted, quite a few metal musicians have been able to latch onto a career as a label / distro owner, producer or multidisciplinary musical pantologist, but there is no escaping the bald fact that an independent, freewheeling full-time artist is somewhat of a rara avis within the halls of underground heavy music.

Awkward transitions (or lack thereof) aside, it’s early autumn at the shores of Gulf of Bothnia, and the brash fall colors of birch leaves bare a striking resemblance to the stark hue of the walls encircling the small backstage room, where I sit with Poia – the co-founder of Malleus Rock Art Lab (an Italian collective of graphic design and visual arts) and, more importantly (at least for our purposes), the guitarist of the massively-weird-slash-obscurely-heavy stoner / doom trio known as Ufomammut. I can’t help but think that my deuteranopia prevents me from enjoying and absorbing the pigment of dying flora at its fullest, and, at the same time, I keep wondering what kind of emotions this bleak-yet-rich scenery outside must stir in the mind of my companion, hailing from Lo Stivale of the infamous Silvio Berlusconi. Being a professional barnstormer in the fields of music and visual arts, Poia is a physical representation of those aforementioned odd birds in underground metal; people who can wake up every morning just to occupy themselves with the next piece of painting, illustration or musical composition and – above all – be gainfully employed by it, which is almost as uncommon as to witness a giant panda giving birth to healthy baby.

To my disappointment, Poia’s head is clearly not at struggling with the question of how to exploit the Finnish cycle of seasons in the nanostructure of his next artistic venture. Instead, a matter as mundane as alcohol is keeping his mind busy. Namely, the guitarist is bothered by the fact that every gig organizer seems to take for granted that a rock musician needs nothing but whiskey to get things going, whereas the members of Ufomammut don’t belong to the ranks of spiritus frumenti lovers. Despite this grievance, Poia acknowledges that he’s among the lucky few:

“Yeah, it’s very satisfying. Although I’ve said that it’s a job, it’s still more like playing when you were a young kid. I enjoy it so much. Sometimes, though, I lose the idea that drawing is also my hobby.”

The “job” that Poia talks about revolves mainly around the aforementioned Malleus, a collective that functions like the heart of a tumultuous volcano; erupting regularly in a capricious manner and spewing lava all over the place from its hulking, bloodthirsty mouth. With Ufomammut and Malleus, everything is intertwined, which means that music contributes to visual arts and vice versa. Still – as the collective’s whole name suggests – the soul of this shapeless behemoth consists of rock ‘n’ roll exclusively.

“Actually, music came before everything else. Well, I’ve always loved drawing, but it was a childhood thing. I started it when I was very young. I discovered music early but started playing when I was pretty old…probably seventeen…and tried to replicate some songs. Then we formed the band and wanted to play in our town, which led us to design all the posters and Xerox them, like basically every band does. Since that, we started putting a lot of effort in doing our own graphics and decided to expand on that, to dedicate the graphics to the band, you know…make them always to be connected with the music. So, the music comes before everything. Nowadays Malleus is my job, but my passion is to play (music). It’s not a real job. I love to draw too, but it’s different,” Poia reflects in his fascinatingly disjointed style.

A telling example of this betrothing of music and visual arts would be the set of two gigs that Ufomammut played in the US in 2009. Originally, the whole shebang was supposed to be only an informal exhibition of selected works of Malleus, with the idea of laying some groundwork and giving the Americans a small taste of the talent of our featured Italians. Coincidentally, Poia and Urlo (vocals, bass and effects) had accompanied themselves with sufficient components of their gear and Luca (drums), who’s not officially part of Malleus. So, eventually they found themselves also playing two shows in two art galleries in Los Angeles and San Francisco with the help of borrowed backline equipment. Due to it being reciprocal love at first sight, Poia reveals that they might have tentative plans for a proper US tour some time in 2011, although nothing is yet set in stone.

Malleus has long since grown out of just serving exclusively for the purposes of Ufomammut. Naturally, the collective has had its fair share of art gallery exposure and interest from the hip bundle of post-modern, pop art consumers. Furthermore, they have done concert poster designs for respected bands such as Melvins, Sonic Youth and..erm…Linkin Park, among others. Lately, these übermensch-like visionaries have spread their wings to try and take over the record industry with the creation of Supernatural Cat, which, essentially, is a company established by a bunch of craftsmen with the sole purpose to meet needs of their ilk. There is also no surprise in finding out that the crusade for promoting the physical format holds a top spot in the firm’s tried-and-true ethos.

“The reason for starting the label was to have a full control at everything you do, from A to Z. I know it makes everything more complicated, because there are just so many things to do, but when you for example do something wrong, you know it’s your fault, and you can’t blame anyone else. Moreover, we decided to do this, because we wanted to give the right importance to the representation of the music. Nowadays, music is mainly just flowing in the internet. You can hear it and decide, if you like it or not, but you can’t touch anything. We want to go back in time, when you bought the vinyl, touched the cover and could feel the dust on the record, you know…we’d like to connect the good sides of the both aspects of the music,” the guitarist woolgathers before getting dropped from the clouds by a good-natured bartender, who storms in to kindly replace the guys’ whiskey bottle with a hefty flask of Jaloviina (a Finnish mixture of brandy and traditional rotgut).

Poia – now visibly flattered and positively surprised by the aforementioned accolade from left field – proceeds with explaining that, besides knuckling down to rejoin the abstract and the physical, Supernatural Cat is additionally on a mission to elevate the Italian underground music scene. He speaks highly of bands like MorkobotLento andIncoming Cerebral Overdrive – all of which are currently part of the label’s roster and firmly rooted in the same experimental imperative that commands Ufomammut’s sensory expedition.

Speaking of Ufomammut, the outfit’s relative popularity has been on a steady rise for quite some time now, reaching another level after each consecutive full-length, thus enabling the trio to take longer and longer uninterrupted hikes to the spread the gospel of audiovisual psychedelia. Notwithstanding the fact that, for the band, touring still bears little resemblance to a gold mine in terms of revenue expectations; the iron-fisted professionalism that characterizes everything revolving even at the remotest outskirts of Malleus prevails when playing live is in question.

It all boils down to having the pro tools (pun intended), the most important of which for Ufomammut are an espresso maker and a sound-guy with overalls not unlike those of Super Mario. Poia’s assessment of this sparkly little feller as being “the most important person of the band” may seem like an unnecessarily overflowing compliment, but – before jumping into such hasty conclusions – one seriously needs to get a taste of his coffee and hear him mix an eardrum-shattering stoner/doom gig in a teeny-weeny club, where the ceiling height would’ve never met Mr. Glenn Danzig’s standards. Seriously speaking, the man seems to be nothing short of Supreme Ayatollah of Sonus, making everything sound and feel as if you were listening to Ufomammut jams through a high-quality amp and headphones in the comfort of your own home – and not in a jam-packed club, where the sweat of two-hundred stinking John Does vaporize and subsequently form a thick mist, only to drip from the ceiling and infiltrate your pint, leaving your hard-earned barley milkshake utterly undrinkable. Anyway, everything these Italians do to keep the circus on the road reeks of pure effort, and as Poia exemplifies with his presence, it’s easy to put effort into something you love doing.

With the release of Eve, the band’s sixth full-length, in early May 2010, Ufomammut also went to great lengths to restructure their live set in a true out-with-the-old fashion. Everything except “Stigma,” the crushing opener of Idolum (and also their revised set list), had to go and make room for the haunting 45-minute epic that is Eve. Although there are no Raining Bloods or The Number of the Beasts in Ufomammut’s discography, the decision seems slightly unorthodox. The motive behind it, on the other hand, is as simple as it is clichéd-yet-sincere: all three band members honestly believe that Eve is, by far, their most accomplished piece of work to date, the highest level they have so far reached on their self-professed “sonic research.”

“This is the record I prefer, and, yes, this the usual phrase you hear from musicians trying to sell their newest album. You know, the last one is always the best. But still, I’m very convinced that this is the best work we’ve done. It’s better than the other ones. I don’t know…I can’t look at this very objectively,” Poia assesses before getting wrapped up in an all-out analysis about the definition and significance of this aforementioned research:

“But, yes, we try to explore things, while having always the idea of not changing too much. Sometimes bands are doing really strange things just to show how skilled or strange they are. This is not what we are searching for. I remember a Sleep interview, which was made in the beginning of their career, and Matt Pike said that for him music is like a religion. And while I’m not religious at all, this kind of thing is something that touched me. Yes, music is like a religion, and you have to respect what you are doing. Music is something that is beyond you, something that has to be treated as a sacred thing. It’s not there for you to just show how well you can play an instrument.”

Vita, the drummer, who has been just sitting at the background and quietly observing the situation, jumps suddenly into the conversation, interrupting the guitarist with a surprisingly spot-on one-liner:

“You have to play with your heart and soul, not with your instrument.”

Poia, empowered by the unexpected entry of his skin-beating companion, concludes:

“That’s the main thing: exploring what the music is suggesting to you and not proving to yourself how far you can go. It should be a way to discover something, like a research or digging up fossils from the ground.”

Both Poia and Vita explain that Eve stands as their attempt to create something equivalent to Pink Floyd by using the tools of heavy music; something that puts the emphasis on ambience and atmospherics instead of the riff-heavy ass-kicking of Idolum. In a live setting, the massively layered track – completely devoid of the effortless catchiness and fist-pumping intensity of an instant crowd-pleaser – provides the band not only with a major league challenge but also a mise-en-scène for a competent display of flawless execution. The way Ufomammut can replicate Eve with an almost note-by-note precision is impressive as hell, although Poia does admit that his extravagant pedal rack and their soundboard lend two extra hands in this respect.

“We have to trust in technology. In the beginning we had a keyboard player…well, actually four of them in six years. We always tried this out with friends, because in the end it’s a matter of being together and playing music. We recorded everything ourselves, and then these guys came and tried to play it live, but they didn’t find their place. They had another idea of how to do things. We remained as a three-piece, and we have to try different things to replicate the sounds on the record, so we use samples for instance. Moreover, we also have to put the visuals together, because they are one of the most important things in our live show.”

Besides being a work of sonic probing, Eve carries also spiritual and symbolic weight. Exploiting the mythical first woman on earth as a muse doesn’t leave much room for imagination, when the album’s message and meaning is concerned. As with so many metal records, Eve is an unabashed glorification of rebellion, only this time with an unambiguous directive that demands people to bite the hand that feeds them, when obtaining knowledge is concerned.

“I think the message is simple and complicated at the same time. It’s about the way the idea of a rebel has been approached by religion, especially in this case, in the Bible. You know, Eve helped man to discover knowledge. She was someone, who said: “Let’s think with our own heads and don’t follow the dogma. Don’t follow the authority.” The idea is to choose and go your own way. You know, we could talk about this for hours…it’s only a symbol, but there’s also another level in this discussion; the question about how religion has treated women. We believe that a woman is like the mother, the nature, the most important thing in the universe. A woman is someone who creates life instead of war.”

No matter which way you look at it, Eve is a big album, and when something big gets dropped into a crowded pool, it will make a splash. The more Ufomammut gained recognition and column millimeters – which was probably more than the band had ever done before upon the release of its new album – the louder the roaring voices of dissent begun to echo. One might even argue that, at least among the so-called old fans, Eve is the band’s most divisive recording to date. Of course, the novelty of the fact that another man’s thrash is another man’s crossover has worn already decades ago, and – as in this case – it’s only natural that some people see directionless straying where others find gradual momentum building. For Poia, though, the causality of this relatively mixed reception lies in the naked truth that – unlike all the other Ufomammut albums – Eve wasn’t forged on the anvil of the riff.

“It’s a little bit different from the things we have done in the past, but it’s still recognizable as Ufomammut, I guess. There are all the old elements mixed together in some way, but there’s a different attitude towards dynamics. There are these big, roaring parts, but they are sort of compressed in really small pieces, and the “ufo”-part of the music is more peculiar this time. The album is kind of divided into five movements, and everything is more concentrated than before. It has to be so, because it’s only one song. I don’t know, if people are disappointed, because I don’t see it that much different from the other albums. Eve is just another chapter in what we’re doing. Maybe the next album will be something a little bit different again, because I don’t also want to make the exactly same record every time. There are bands that I love, like Fu Manchu, AC/DC or Motörhead, who always make all their songs with the same structure and attitude, but that doesn’t work for me personally,” the guitarist states with a determined tone, and I decide to leave it at that.

Both Poia’s characterization of Ufomammut’s latest installment as “just another chapter” in their yet unwritten autobiography and his way of viewing music as something else than an exploitable natural resource reveal something essential about how the band looks at their pieces of work. Fundamentally, records are not products with set standards to judge their quality. Instead, they are something born out of the collision of vision, inspiration, interpretation, and talent; the artist’s more or less enigmatic abstraction of existence at that given moment of time. Thusly, recording and releasing material should be business as usual, small steps on the journey towards the perfection one never reaches. Although approximate values are the best of what comes out of the equation, at the end of the day – like Poia says – it’s about you getting something from the music and not the other way around. One might disagree with the guitarist’s conclusion, but it’s hard to contest the little seed of truth inside of it. Ultimately, one artist or band – no matter how big – is relatively trivial in the big picture.

Through this mindset, it’s easy to comprehend why Ufomammut as a collective seems to find pigeonholes and comparisons to ‘similar’ bands even more cringe-worthy than your usual self-assertive outfit. Without repeating the reasons, the Italians aren’t in the game for crafting a stoner/doom classic or leaving a more lasting mark on the genre than Sunn O))) or Earth, to whom Ufomammut gets often likened due to its drone tendencies. On the contrary, they have set their sights on discovering as much as possible by letting the music show the way. Keeping that in mind, it’s no wonder that, after all, even the context of heavy music is somewhat insignificant to the members of the band, who feel that their lineage spans way beyond just Metallica and Black Sabbath.

“Of course, we can’t hide what we’re doing. We play heavy music with a psychedelic sound. It’s not pop, rap, reggae or classic heavy metal. In this big group of bands, who are doing a similar kind of thing, there are bands that I like and bands that I like less. I love Kyuss. They are considered to be the pioneers in the genre of stoner rock with Sleep, but they are totally different bands, even if they are both psychedelic and heavy at the same time. But anyway, it doesn’t really matter, you can call it (Ufomammut’s music) what you want,” the guitarist reflects before diving into a conclusive monologue about his real musical mentors, such as Pink Floyd and The Beatles:

The Beatles and Pink Floyd were products of their own time, but they were also discovering new things, exploring and doing things in a different way. They didn’t want to sound and play like everyone else. It’s the same thing with us: we don’t want to sound like Sunn O))), for instance. We don’t want compare ourselves to The Beatles, because they were geniuses and were responsible of some of the all-time masterpieces of music. But to draw from the attitude of The Beatles and Pink Floyd is important for us. Just the idea of exploration…and The Beatles, for example, they explored so much. They have these amazing records with everything inside, and there are songs like “Helter Skelter,” which, while not heavy, is a totally frightening song. We really love other bands, as well; like for example Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. You know, I could go on and on about the bands I like, but, really, The Beatles and Pink Floyd are my childhood. My parents were listening to The Beatles, and when I was very little I had these cassettes full of their songs. You know, The Beatles are like my DNA.”

I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface, but the clock is merciless, bringing the zero hour closer with every gasp. People keep barging in and out of the room, demanding to know when the show starts. I pose a couple of chop-chop questions about the band’s future and that Berlusconi guy. Apparently, the future is as uncertain as always and the Italian prime minister is a plague to the whole world. The most important guy of the band walks in with a clear intention to make use of that espresso maker, which is a sign for me to leave the Italians to perform their last minute rituals and, thus, wind down our discussion – and not least because it looks like my beer cup is empty. One should never let that happen.

Posted by Old Guard

The retired elite of LastRites/MetalReview.

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