Interview Marek Steven
Photography David Berezin
There has been a connection between the occult and heavy metal ever since Black Sabbath first found that an evil atmosphere could enhance their heavy blues in the late ’60s. The ’70s continued this trend with various rumors about Jimmy Page, Blue Oyster Cult and others. During the ’80s Satanism and the occult was everywhere as extreme metal grew all over the globe. In recent years the heavy genres of music have been commercially dominated by over-produced and groove orientated crap. Atmospheric metal and various developments of hardcore have also been ubiquitous and very popular. As a result, a few progressive young musicians in different parts of the globe have independently looked back and deeply into the origins of heavy rock. These bands are genuine pioneers who have added more than a little of themselves into the mix too.
For good reasons not many talented musicians are happy to be bracketed into a specific scene. Genre terms are generally lazy and inaccurate groupings often made by journalists. That said, it is sometimes true that different musicians have similar ideas at the same time. Presently this is broadly true of the ’70s influenced bands that are coming out of the extreme metal scene on different parts of the planet at the moment. Broadly we might call them Occult Rock. These bands are not particularly raucous but often include musicians who have played in heavier bands or are on labels that are known for releasing more extreme material. Importantly, all the bands featured here have a style that is not only distinct from each other, but that is also distinct from any particular act from the past. It’s almost like they are channelling the influences of these bands to such an extent that they may as well have been their contemporaries rather than followers.
The ’60s and ’70s appeal to these bands because rock was at an earlier stage and purer at this point in history. The general atmosphere and the analog sound of these decades arguably has more longevity than the over-produced ’80s. During this time, there was also a general interest, and influence, of the occult in mainstream culture. All of this feeds into and inspires these acts who grew up with the vapid sounds of the ’90s and early ’00s heavy music. It’s unsurprising that ‘hip’ musicians are looking back – closer to the source – for inspiration. Indeed, culture generally is moving back towards psychedelia and environmental issues as a natural reaction to the seemingly doomed world we live in. This is comparable to the pessimistic and rather dreary political landscape of the ’70s too. The Satanic aspect to many of these bands is perhaps more surprising. The word is a loaded with moral panic and intensity but in fact it mostly implies an interest in magic and old methods of worship rather than genuine evil and sacrificial rituals. Either way, it is intriguing and adds a little frisson and legitimacy to the music. Make no mistake these are ground breaking bands ploughing their own furrows. It’s likely that there will be many imitators in a few years, so enjoy this mini wave of great music while it’s fresh.
Blood Ceremony are a relatively new four-piece doom band from Toronto. Although doom is an accurate label, they probably sound more like a cult ’70s heavy rock band on first listen. They take a lot of their sound and feel from Black Sabbath and lesser-known early occult acts like Black Widow and Coven. In a live setting the heavy riffing is inspiring and demonstrates a rare understanding of early doom masters like Saint Vitus and Pentagram. Amusingly, Blood Ceremony themselves list influences including; “Euro-horror, gothic castles, vintage porn, mystical forests, tarot cards, candlelit chambers, beardy-weirdies and freak-outs.” The tasteful structures are enhanced by the soulful vocals and beautiful flute work of singer Alia O’Brien. It is extremely refreshing to hear flute solos and it fits the sound like a glove. ’SUP was welcomed into the coven by guitarist Sean Kennedy.
How did Blood Ceremony come about initially? The band has an amazing sound and feel.
We started the band very early in 2006 after a few false starts. Alia had joined us as flute player a few months before and I was also looking for someone to play keys. When our first singer left the band, Alia simply took over the vocals and played keys as well. We were into the combination of Sabbath-inspired riffing and flute jams and began writing songs in that direction. Things progressed naturally from there and we had many of the songs that appear on our first album finished by the end of that year.
Your riffs are what I consider to be none-more-heavy. More so than an extreme doom or death metal band.
Thanks for your kind words. We have definitely been going for a loose and heavy feel that relies more on the rhythm sections and the riffs, than on down-tuning and distortion. Go back to Sabbath, and the heaviness is created through the interplay between the rhythm section and the straight-forward riffs.
And the flute is a genius move too. It works so well with rock.
We’ve always liked the sound of a flute player in rock and blues music. The flute can be a rhythm instrument, or it can be used to blast out leads, or to create a somber mood or dark atmosphere. Alia’s a really dynamic player and she can add these different elements to a song, where it’s needed. Back in the ’70s bands like Clear Blue Sky, Out of Focus, Jethro Tull and Black Widow made good use of flute in rock. It was very common, but it’s not as prevalent today.
What is it about the ’70s that are so perfect? Have you always been into that time?
What I like about the ’70s is the sense of design – clothes, movies, cars, and album artwork. I just prefer the way things were made, the craftsmanship that went into everything. It’s not really a nostalgic feeling for some imaginary period of time; it’s more an appreciation of what came out of that time, because from all accounts, the ’70s were a pretty bleak period, like a hangover from the ’60s. But everything in music that was produced then just seems to me more potent and alive that much of what you have today.
Despite the horror references – and your own “mind-numbing soundtrack to hippie slaughter” description of yourselves— your vibe seems more broadly positive rather than evil, much like a lot of the classic heavy rock acts.
Yeah, I guess with Sabbath you have an album like Master of Reality (Vertigo, 1971), which really isn’t anything terrifying when you get down with it! We definitely like to delve into more sinister atmospheres, and that will be the aim of our new album much more so than our first one, but yeah, we’re generally not miserable, depressed people. I feel there’s a sense of power in the horror themes we’re celebrating with Blood Ceremony. The vibe is certainly devilish, but maybe more mischievous than evil.
Are you interested in the cults on the late ’60s and ’70s? What’s your take on that kind of scene?
Yes, definitely. I think in the late ’60s people were exploring alternative ways of living and different belief systems with a lot of spirit. I think looking back, a lot of the people involved seem naïve, but we live in a more cynical time now. The so-called cults of the late ’60s were definitely branching off of the more prevalent counter-culture of the times, but what’s fascinating about them is not that they worshipped this god or that figure, but more the creativity of groups like the Process Church. They were builders! They dropped out of the mainstream, but didn’t just disappear. They worked hard and made things happen. It’s the energy of creativity that is inspiring.
Are you into the occult or mind altered states at all yourself?
I’m interested in the occult, not as a practicing occultist, but I find the history and practice of Western magic very interesting. If I find myself in an altered state these days it’s usually from drinking several beers and blasting a Budgie record.
Do you have any lesser known band suggestions from that time?
There’s an Austrian Krautrock band called Paternoster that I’ve always loved. They made one album that is well known among collectors, but I think they’re too strange to have been widely popular. And it’s a very druggy and miserable sounding record! A lot of people hear it and can’t stand the vocals, because the singer makes Ian Curtis sound like the happiest guy in the world, but I’m a devoted fan. Generally, I like the harder rock stuff from the ’70s. Stuff like Scorpions, Jerusalem and Buffalo. High Tide’s Sea Shanties (Repertoire, 1969) is a rare gem, too.
It must be cool being on Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above Records and playing with Electric Wizard and so on?
Touring with Electric Wizard last year was an amazing experience. It was our first tour and the Wizard are my favorite band. As it turns out, they’re really cool people, too. It was great watching them decimate venues every night. Working with Lee and Will at Rise Above has been very cool. Our singer has been away in America for a couple years, but we’re all back in the same spot now, so we’re going to be a much more productive band in the coming years. We’ll be releasing our second album on Rise Above, called Living with the Ancients very early next year and will follow up with more touring.
Do you feel like good music like this is on the rise generally?
I’ve been buying a lot more new music recently and I’m liking a lot more of what I hear. I listen to a lot of different stuff but I think especially there are a lot of really great rock bands appearing all over the place.
Are we living in end-times do you think?
I have to think so in order to get anything done!
THE DEVIL’S BLOOD
There are lots of bands that sing about Satan. Even Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath sang about Him. But what about openly Satanic bands who may not sing about the topic but actually practice and take it seriously? At this point you would have to name some of the extreme black metal acts. Well, not all the time. The Devil’s Blood were born of the extreme metal scene in 2006 but they sound a little bit like a heavier Fleetwood Mac or a modern Jefferson Airplane. They cover themselves in pig’s blood onstage during candlelit live “rituals” and yes, they practice and sing about Satanism. What is more interesting is that they have some of the best rock songs written in years. Guitarist Selim Lemouchi founded the band alone and drives the songwriting and vision. When his sister Farida joined in 2007 they hit open a tasty new version of ’70s-style rock. Songs like “House of Ten Thousand Voices” and “I’ll Be Your Ghost” are fantastic tunes that sound like hit records as soon as you hear them. The metal scene instantly responded to the band and they play huge shows already to a growing army of fans. And it is surely only a matter of time before the mainstream catches on to the band. ’SUP spoke to the extremely open Selim for a stimulating chat about the Devil’s Blood and their beliefs.
I wanted to first of all ask about the formation of the band, which I heard came to you alone out of your personal musical taste?
As many things go, it was just me writing songs on an acoustic guitar at home and later making some uncomplicated demos in a little home recording studio. After a while I decided that I needed to add some vocals to it which weren’t mine, and it kind of evolved from there. But from the beginning there was this sense of urgency that something needed to come out. It wasn’t really something that I had any control over. The type of music wasn’t even something that I could even influence – it was basically what happened when I started playing.
So it sort of channelled out of you?
Did something happen in your life that led to it?
Well there is a lot of stuff that I could name. I had a slightly botched musical career before I finally broke down in 2006 due to drug abuse, alcohol abuse and every kind of other abuse that you can probably think of. I was in a dark place. I guess you could call it a dark night of the soul in a way. I spent some time in a mental hospital. Then I quit making music for a while and started to focus on the spiritual side of my life. Through that I became more and more interested in Satanism and the occult. This translated itself into new areas of inspiration, which became The Devil’s Blood.
I’ll come back to that inspiration later. I wanted to ask about your sound and atmosphere which seems to be influenced by the ’60s, ’70s and maybe earlier. What’s the appeal for you there?
Ah, well I guess rock ‘n’ roll music was born in the ’50s and became an independent thing in the ’60s. People would experiment and let go of all inhibitions and boundaries – conceptually and ideologically speaking. I think something of the freedom that was expressed in those times is still alive in certain forms of music today even though the ideologies may have changed quite a bit sense then. I think music from the ’60s especially – arena rock wasn’t born yet – was made by people for whom the art was more important than the individual’s name or appearance. Especially in the early days in San Francisco during the psychedelic revolution. And this is something that really speaks to me. I’m not really interested in the whole rock ‘n’ roll theatre aspect of it, the cult of personality and all that stuff. The rebellious nature of the music and innate drive from freedom and for self-expression becomes more important that just having a single out or whatever.
I was drawn to one thing you said earlier in the band’s career, ‘We are not heavy metal. We are what becomes heavy metal.’ Can you explain exactly what you meant?
It was kind of like a knee-jerk reaction to being incorporated into something. There were a lot of people telling me that I was making heavy metal music at the time of the first demo. I think maybe that was the reasoning behind our first 7-inch which was totally un-heavy metal sounding when compared to the demo. For us it was like a middle finger saying if you really want to incorporate us into anything then it would be into the hard rock of the ’70s and the psychedelic music of the ’60s. And that is, in a way, what became heavy metal. Bands like Wishbone Ash, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath created this new atmosphere of music that became heavy metal in the late ’70s and early ’80s. For me Black Sabbath was always simply a rock ‘n’ roll band. They just managed to turn everything a little louder than everything else and by progressing they created heavy metal. We never had the ambition of being part of heavy metal or black metal. I don’t like being corralled into a specific scene that I don’t feel very comfortable in – especially in the revivalist heavy metal scene of the moment.
Going back to the spiritual aspect. You ‘found Satan’ as you put it earlier. What was your earlier experience with spirituality and how did this happen?
Well actually, growing up I think you could call my upbringing hard-line atheistic, very humanistic. I was kept quite far from anything that even had the ability of becoming spiritual. I lived like that for quite a long time until I hit a wall. I actually hit rock bottom and there was nowhere left for to go except inwards and to open a few doors within my soul. And going there without any preconceived notions of where I was to go, I basically found out that my bloodline was not that of my mother, but that of the snake. To be able to feel that rush of familiar energy passing through me… (Pauses) I didn’t decide, I simply found out where I came from. Maybe a Christian would call it a re-birthing process in a way, that’s kind of what felt like for me. For the first time in your life, accept who you really are.
Your beliefs and music are obviously personal to you but are you keen to spread the word, as it were, or is that simply a possible by-product of your art?
I hope so. I hope it’s the latter. I would hate to become a priest on a pulpit standing there screaming out the truth and wanting people to follow me. I think in a way Botticelli made a lot more Christians with his paintings than the priests could ever make. I think the same applies to me. I want to make this art, which speaks of the things that I am going through, and I would be happy to know that people are influenced by it in whichever way. But I don’t want to be the one that says ‘I have truth, and this is it for you,’ because there is no such thing as a universal truth.
And do you have some fans that are attracted to you on an ideological wavelength?
Yeah, if you immerse yourself in such currents you will find other people swimming those currents. The people in The Devil’s Blood and bands like Watain count in this instance. We can see eye-to-eye in many of these things and we have the most interesting discussions in between all the mayhem and the destruction. It’s a real spiritual path that is being walked here. But the interesting point of it is that we are also individualistic and hardly ever agree on anything. And that’s what makes it more interesting for me.
Satanism is quite individualistic, basically?
Yeah, it should be, I guess. In Theistic Satanism and Chaos Gnosticism a certain amount of doctrine is needed, of course. But at the same time there is a lot of personal interpretation and everyone’s visions aren’t similar.
I guess your fantastic live performances are one of the ways you ritualize some of the things that are important to you?
For us the rituals are indeed a way to internalize – and externalize – the powers that we seek to evoke. The songs become mantras and they become little universes where chaos finally dissolves order. This is something that we really try to express during our live concerts and this is something you can see translated into the faces of the people who are watching. Often or not they will respond in kind to this message.
Is chaos something you’d like to see in this existence?
Well, (laughing) I don’t think chaos is something that is truly able to exist within the confines of this reality. So it is up to us to destroy the confines of this reality and to break the chains – to become entropy ourselves so that chaos may rise. I am a firm believer that we are in the Kali Yuga at this point and that reality is becoming slowly undone, and when that does finally happen we shall all perish in the flames. And we will either become a part of the right side or the left side. In my case, I am sure my soul will be added to the eternal fires.
What is the Kali Yuga?
Kali Yuga is the period of time, the Iron Age, when everything becomes dissolved. It’s from the Hindu pantheon.
And what do you believe is next after this reality?
Eternal fire. Complete potentiality of everything. Total freedom.
Every few years a band comes along that just completely blows your socks off. It took about 30 seconds of listening to Ghost’s demo on their Myspace page and I had already excitedly emailed 10 friends the link. It was Fenriz from Darkthrone who first brought the band to wider underground attention. Fenriz is hugely respected in the metal world both due to his own fantastic music and also his immense passion for finding the best new and classic heavy music. His wittily written and carefully chosen “Band of the Week” feature on the Darkthrone Myspace page is fast becoming the byword for musical quality in the heavy metal world. He said Ghost would be the “It band of the next 10 years” and that is hard to argue.
As soon as Fenriz found Ghost, it was only a matter of days before two respected metal labels entered something of a bidding war to sign this amazing new group. So what is it about this Swedish band that makes them so special? They broadly sound like a black metal band before black metal existed. In this way, they sound like a quality ’70s heavy metal act with an unusually evil atmosphere. The vocals are clean, melodic and really quite brilliant. The guitar work has the true kind of heaviness that comes from the quality of the riffs and songwriting rather than the volume or crunch. And there is an overall quality to the material that is hard to put your finger on. It’s just very addictive. The band remain nameless and no photographs of them have been released at the time of writing. Their Myspace mission statement hilariously says that the band has “the simple intention to communicate a message of pure evil via the most effective device they can find – entertainment.”
Arguably one of the best aspects of Ghost is that there is no old or contemporary band that sounds quite like them. That said, they do draw a little from the ’80s proto-black metal act Mercyful Fate, NWOBHM bands like Witchfinder General and the slightly prog-rock enthused sounds of late ’70s metal like Judas Priest. Following a fantastic 7-inch release Elizabeth (Iron Pegasus Records, 2010) Ghost’s debut album Opus Eponymous (Rise Above Records, 2010) is due out this year. I spoke to one of Ghost’s “nameless ghouls”, and it was a chilling experience.
It’s no exaggeration to say that your demo tracks are possibly the best heavy music I’ve heard in five years. How was this act born? And what evil magic is at work here?
Thank you very much for your compliments. We were summoned in early 2008 by our organization to form a musical art cell targeting rock and metal-oriented consumers – those whom are already befriended by the actual message of our Lord as opposed to the ones who automatically shun away, or are estranged from it. We have other entertainment groups within our branch specializing in creating a more subliminal brainwash of that kind of consumer, still having a similar effect. Two years has been spent in the shadows, preparing ourselves for our initiation and now we look forward to the release of our debut album in October. This will be our formal arrival.
The songs all seem to have evil themes and are unapologetically Satanic.
Yes, we are officially and transparently communicating the Devil’s message to the world.
The music is completely fresh, but arguably something like the missing link between late ’70s metal and proto-Black metal, would you agree?
Our ghoul writer, who composes the music and writes the lyrics, agrees with what you are saying.
Are there any specific musical influences you would name?
Our ghoul writer says that what possesses him to create our repertoire are ungraspable powers from beyond. Like a strange whisper in his ear telling him which chords to put to which words, and so forth.
The well-phrased lyrics come to you easily then?
Since they are written by the ghoul writer, yes.
There seems to be a recurring interest in birth, specifically the birth of Christ. Can you talk about this?
I assume that you mean the Anti-Christ? Yes, we talk about this all the time.
And The End seems to be a theme too?
Yes, the end of the world is constantly present in our music.
From your bands’ brilliant Myspace mission statement you seem keen to influence others to share similar views. What would you hope they discover?
Since many of our listeners are already accustomed to, and somewhat fancy the ways of Satan, we are kind of selling bibles to preachers now, aren’t we? Well, it has worked for the Christian church for the last 1675 years. It never hurts to be reminded.
What will we hear on the debut album?
Imagine a Satanic rock album recorded in a prolific recording studio with a million-dollar budget in 1978.
And you are bringing the live show to London’s Live Evil Festival in October. What can we expect?
A ritualistic black mass to the tones of vibrating diabolical rock music, not just the old in and out.
Why do you choose to remain nameless?
Would you care to take note of the postman’s name if you are delivered a letter? Albeit an important letter.
Any final words?
Thank you for this chance to communicate to the public. For this you will burn in Hell.
Jex Thoth is an inspirational 29-year-old singer from San Francisco. She already has a popular ’70s-sounding occult rock band that shares her name. Alongside this doomy outfit she now has a very interesting new, lighter project called Sabbath Assembly. The act was founded by living American metal legend (and No-Neck Blues Band founding member) Dave Nuss, and is dedicated to reworking the so-called purification hymns of the cult known as the Process Church of the Final Judgement. The Process Church was an infamous shadow side to the flower-powered ’60s and New Age ’70s. Initially a splinter group of Scientology, it eventually opened chapters in London, parts of Europe and across the United States. Dressing in black cloaks and walking the streets with German Shepherds, they published magazines and promoted a theology that sought to reconcile Christ and Satan. The music that Sabbath Assembly has created on their debut album Restored to One (The Ajna Offensive, 2010) is atmospheric and clean enough to allow Jex’s impressive vocals to really soar. The band has successfully melded psych, blues, gospel and rock into a distinctly retro-sounding record. ’SUP caught up with the singer to try and learn more about the fascinating project and its intentions.
Restored to One is a very powerful record. Was it a eureka moment to choose to perform the hymns?
Thank you. My involvement with the church’s music began after I received a call from Dave Nuss, with whom I collaborated on this project. Knowing my affinity for singing songs about Satan, he asked if I would be into performing a few hymns of The Process Church of the Final Judgment. I played through some of their hymns, and whoa, they were like nothing I had ever heard before. They offered praise to Christ, Satan, Lucifer and Jehovah all at once. In addition to this extreme concept of unifying Christ and Satan as one, they also had beautiful melodies and intense imagery. I was hooked. I agreed to perform the hymns as part of a recreation of an original Process Mass. The performance would be in connection with the release of Love, Sex, Fear, Death, a book published by Feral House and written by one of the Church’s original members, Timothy Wyllie. The book is Timothy’s first-hand account of what it was like to be a member of the Process Church for roughly 14 years, almost to the very end. In the weeks leading up to the performance, I spent a lot of time working on the hymns, developing the arrangements and searching for the proper way to present them. We still don’t know who the original composers are, but clearly, these songs were written from a true place, born of complete devotion.
I guess you spoke to Timothy then? Did you speak to any of the other original members?
Yes, we were very fortunate to get to meet Timothy before the performance. I told him how much I liked the hymns and what a pleasure it had been working on them. We asked if he might play us any original Process recordings he may have, to which he said, to the best of his knowledge there had never been any made. We decided it would be a crime if the world was never to hear the beauty of these hymns. With that, we began to conceive of Restored To One. We went on playing through the hymns – there are over 60 – to determine which of them felt like the right fit for us. We contacted several original Process members, the ones we could find, and asked them which were their favorites. We continued like this, whittling down the list until we settled on these nine.
One can assume the founders Robert and Mary-Anne were interesting characters. What attracted you personally to The Process Church?
There has always been and still is so much mystery surrounding The Process Church and its members. The Church was started by two ex-Scientologists. Robert was an architect and Mary-Anne, the true mastermind, was an ex-madame. The members wore cloaks and sold beautifully designed magazines. They had a strange obsession with German Shepherds. But what I find most interesting about the cult are their hymns. Straight off the page, they are all quite cheery. The pages of sheet music say things like, ‘Fast and exciting’, or ‘A lively dance’, or ‘Quietly flowing’ at the top. They sang about the end of the world with a big smile. My passion for this project grew as I developed a more personal connection to the hymns because of how it felt to sing them. First, we performed seven of the hymns set inside a Process Mass, the sermons taken from the church’s original liturgies. Later, we performed the hymns in a variety of other settings. We played sacred spaces, bars, colleges even a few straight-up rock venues. Sometimes we played them within the context of the mass, sometimes not. Each incantation felt very different to me. With each new setting, the way I heard the hymns changed. The more we played them, the more I felt I understood them. All the while we were busy constructing the album and my head was flooding with ideas.
Have you had any feedback from original members about the album?
It was quite an experience working on these hymns. I feel honoured to have helped them come to light for new ears. I have not heard from any Processeans about the album aside from Timothy, who digs it. I was surprised and excited to discover that several original Processeans showed up to our various performances. After the shows, when I asked them about their experiences in the cult, why they joined, what they gained, their answers were all quite personal and all different from one another. When I asked what they thought of what we had done with their hymns, the response was pretty unanimous, saying things like, ‘The hymns did not sound like that when we sang them, they were more upbeat and happy sounding.’ From what one member told me, the hymns were mostly sung in unison and generally, with a charging, uplifting flare. The hymns on Restored to One sound the way they do now because we played them from the truest place we could find to play them from. We wanted the beauty of the hymns to come through on the recording but this was difficult as we were never in the cult ourselves. In our attempts to achieve a feeling of authenticity, as we played the hymns, we made sure to allow room for them to change. The sheet music was fairly stripped down and the more we played the hymns, the more we connected with them, the more we were able to bring our authentic selves to the music. As bits of ourselves crept in, the hymns began to change. As they changed, we tried to allow that passion we felt in them to inform us of what they wanted to sound like. My hope is that we were able to usher them into a place where their relevance can be felt today.
The idea of worshipping Satan and God, Lucifer and Jehovah is still radical. Do you think cults were ‘of their time’ in a way?
The Process church fell apart because their leaders abused their power. Their ideas were certainly unconventional and shocking in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but I think there are those who would call their ideas extreme even by today’s standards. Easy to see how one might have a strong initial reaction to the idea of Christ buddying up with Satan. However, the way The Process Church utilized the four deities was in characterizing the opposing sides of the self. They stressed the importance of embracing all of these sides equally. I agree, to ignore our darker impulses is to remain blind to the truth. To take on shame for feeling these dark impulses is to punish ourselves for a thing that is natural. If an impulse is natural, whether or not to have that impulse is beyond our control. Therefore, we are best served if we make the choice to embrace all sides within us. This is not to say that we ought to act on every one of our impulses simply because they are natural. Rather, it is to say that we are in control of how we choose to apply this knowledge to our daily lives. Acknowledging and comprehending the role personal responsibility plays in our lives is a timeless pursuit. Of course, joining a cult is not a prerequisite for practicing personal responsibility.
What can we expect to see in the live setting for Sabbath Assembly?
Come and find out!