interview by: Roberto Martinelli
More often than not, the best black metal albums are the ones that say the most by initially saying the least. And this month’s issue presents us with two of the greatest examples of this theory: the second album by Germany’s The Ruins of Beverast, and the debut by one-man project Wrath of the Weak, based in Buffalo, New York. Both come in packages that are understated, to say the least. No credits, and in Wrath of the Weak's case, no lyrics or photos.
Wrath of the Weak’s self-titled album is also the first remotely black metal release on the Bastardised label, which has, up till now, specialized in noise. But the pairing isn’t that far-fetched, as Wrath of the Weak draws its power much from its swirling, feedback-damaged compositions that plunge the listener into a fog that’s as freezing as it is meditative, as it does from the more standard black metal blastbeat and thin, razor-like, bodiless vocals.
We endeavored to find out more about who is behind all this, and we were led to “j” — just “j” — who wrote to us from the frigid wastes of upstate New York.
Maelstrom: I was really taken by Wrath of the Weak. I kind of see it in some sort of tradition that Blut Aus Nord has gotten into, but frankly I see your record as out Blut Aus Nording Blut Aus Nord... at least as far as the rut I see them into with their <MoRT> album. Were you at all influenced by that French group?
j: Not really, at least for the self-titled disc. At that point, I hadn't really explored black metal beyond the “classics” (Burzum, Darkthrone, et. al.) and things that had hooked me independently of being black metal (Ildjarn, Weakling, Velvet Cacoon). I did hear MoRT shortly after it came out and was blown away, though... I really dig on atonal / chaotic things like that or Gorguts' Obscura, so you might hear that sort of vibe creep into future writing.
Maelstrom: Excellent that you discovered Weakling. That's really one of my all-time favorite albums, black metal or no.
j: Dead As Dreams was basically my introduction to black metal. For about a year or so I was a complete Fucking Champs fanboy and actively sought out any other band or label with ties to them. That led me to a *lot* of good music, namely Weakling and Spaceboy, as well as some of the comparatively mellower bands on Drag City.
Maelstrom: Do check out Blut Aus Nord's first four, and first three in particular, albums. I think they blow MoRT away. Let me know what you think.
j: I've heard The Work Which Transforms God and The Mystical Beast of Rebellion and I like them quite a bit, especially the former, but MoRT just hits me in the right spot. I'll be sure to look into the other ones as well.
Maelstrom: You mentioned Burzum. I've noticed that part of what grabs me about Wrath of the Weak is what makes Filosofem my favorite Burzum: the tracks contain many layers of noise that, although being ever-present, waft in and out of the listeners' consciousness through trance and focus shift. Now the bass part becomes apparent... then the hi-hat... but it's all been there the whole time. It's at the same time meditative and ravaging.
j: It's nice how the mix congealed into one big, heaving mass of sound... there was enough sonic movement within the parts to allow for different layers to shine through without needing to specifically highlight them. If I'm sleepy enough, it almost sounds like it's coming through my speakers in 3D.
Maelstrom: I agree. Please talk a little about what it's like listening to your own material. I know it's hard for me in a sense to tolerate recordings that I appear on, and certainly more difficult to play said recordings for others. How do you personally feel about your own art?
j: I'm really hard to please when it comes to making music and could probably spend the rest of my life tweaking a mix in pursuit of perfection if I didn't have the sense to just leave it be at some point. But on the other hand, I think that if I'm not my own biggest fan then I'm doing something wrong. So it's kind of an odd balance at times... I tend to despise my music (and often music in general) for a few weeks after I've finished recording/mixing something, but once that wears off I go back and it'll sound amazing to me. If by some chance it still sounds like shit, I just scrap it and start over again.
Maelstrom: It's kind of an unusual marriage that your project is on a noise label... until you hear Wrath of the Weak. Very noisy. However, it works as the noise elements have a definite meditative and subdued quality, which makes the album work so well as black metal. Was this sonic description your intention? How much of it turned out as planned, and how did you achieve that sound?
j: It was kind of a happy accident. My knowledge of “proper” noise is pretty slim, so there wasn't really any direct influence... I just like saturating things with loads and loads of distortion until little melodies and rhythms start to pop out of the swirling mess of harmonics and overtones. As such, the backbone of the Wrath of the Weak sound involves layering different strengths / kinds of distortion and ambience over vaguely harmonic triads until something cool results, with drums underneath that don't really “blast” so much as they “clatter.”
Maelstrom: You hooked up with Bastardised, a notable noise label. You said you weren't a noise guy. How did that come about?
j: Myspace, haha. Sandor (Finta, Bastardised’s owner) really dug the material I had up, offered to put out a CD, and the rest is history.
I figured that Wrath of the Weak would be best served on a label which wasn't myopically geared toward black metal because a) it'd likely expose the music to a wider variety of listeners and b) I wouldn't feel like I needed to play up the black metal aspect to please anybody. And Sandor came across as a quality fellow, so I was comfortable that I wasn't just forking over my work to some random guy with a CD burner and a Kinko's hookup.
Maelstrom: It's at this point that I guess I should ask you the rather obligatory, probably banal question of how you see yourself fitting into, or would like to fit into, the black metal pantheon. Feel like giving your version of the "State of Black Metal" address? Go for it.
j: It's hard to say... I don't really have any desire to fit in with a particular “scene.” Wrath of the Weak is undeniably rooted in black metal, but it's also received a lot of influence from music which isn't even remotely black metal, and it'd be silly to neglect one or the other in the interest of trying to align myself with a specific group. All the albums which are currently considered legendary have already been written, so why the hell would I write them again? I'd rather be the guy that people try to imitate down the line.
But no matter what I do, there'll be people who don't enjoy my music... it's a fact of life. I just figure as long as I can please myself and maybe a few friends with trustworthy taste then I'm doing it right.
Maelstrom: Talk a little bit about the ambient noise outro to the record. That section goes on for about half of a half-hour song. Did that part grow out of the moment?
j: Pretty much. I wanted a little bit of chaos to close out the disc, so I just started experimenting and ended up with fifteen minutes of ringing discordance. It felt like an appropriate way to end things, so I kept it. It came out of some combination of reverb and infinite delay, but the exact procedure escapes me.
Maelstrom: We support gear dorks here at Maelstrom. If you would, please tell us about what you used to record your album, and spare no detail if you like to talk shop.
j: Oh, man, I'm going to get murdered by the anti-digital and/or anti-shitty equipment brigades after talking about this.
Maelstrom: It's ok, their keyboards are all probably broken.
j: Everything was recorded direct to computer and processed from there. I used a pair of headphones for a microphone partially because I couldn't find my real mic and partially because I've grown fond of the squished, muffled tone they provide. My guitar is a reliable but barely functional Ibanez, recorded direct and run through an amp simulator. The drum sounds were taken from samples that came with a sound card I bought five years ago, since at the time I couldn't find anything that fit better. However, I'm proud to say that aside from the obvious bits (the piano at the end of "Journey of Many Days" and the Mellotron flutes in "Cuniculean Rampage") there's no synths on the album and that all the guitar parts were done with only one track. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best.
Maelstrom: Right on. Speaking of that, the booklet is super minimal. No lyrics, photos, content on the inner pages, or even a name/stagename or credits. Design or oversight?
How about the artwork on the album? It almost looks like a forest that's upside down no matter how hard you try to make it rightside up.
j: As seemed to happen with everything else for the album, the cover art came out of me screwing around while bereft of real ideas. I kept the overall layout minimal because I didn't really know what to do with it otherwise, and it didn't seem appropriate to fill it with all sorts of content for its own sake.
Oh, and if you flip the cover image over and invert the brightness you'll see the original picture.
Maelstrom: Know what the headphones you used are called?
j: They're just a set of Sony headphones I bought a few years ago because they were on sale.
Maelstrom: Oh! I see. you actually recorded the music through headphones that you reversed wired or something, so they'd act as a microphone? This all sounds very interesting.
j: Well, it was just the vocals which were recorded with the headphones. If you plug them (or a speaker of any kind, really) into a mic input, it'll effectively function as a microphone. Every once in a while I'll read about a band using a guitar / bass cab to mic their kick drum for some extra thump, but it's a pretty rare “technique” beyond that since I don't think it's very good at picking up detailed sound.
I'm not sure of the exact principles behind that beyond converting sound waves to electrical current and vice versa (much less able to explain them coherently), but I think a quick check on Google could give all the information you'd want, and then some.
Maelstrom: Which sim did you use?
j: Guitar Rig 2. I like it a lot because you can get blatantly ridiculous and (for example) layer five different distortion boxes, run that through a chorus and two phasers, split that signal between four different delay settings, stick on a couple more distortion boxes, and send it all through a Class A tube amp running at half-power into an 8x10 bass cab and a Leslie cabinet. I like having that ability to put different things wherever, as opposed to the usual one of each wah-distortion-modulation-ambience-amp order that it seems like most hardware and software units restrict you to. Sure, it doesn't sound quite the same as a real amplifier... but then again, I'm not looking for real amp tone so much as I'm looking for a hell of a lot of noise that sounds good.
Maelstrom: Please talk about the vocals. How many tracks are you using, and how did you achieve your results? How much of the result was a surprise, and how much was as intended? What did you have in mind before you even recorded anything?
j: Vocals were one track and effected with lots of reverb and a little bit of distortion to help them blend in with the guitar. I didn't want the usual shriek / scream thing, so I settled on sort of a choked whisper... it sounds pretty strange and inhuman if handled right, and it also hides the fact that I have a terrible voice otherwise.
Maelstrom: Now, let's talk concept. Wrath of the Weak... who's the weak, and why the wrath? Please tell us about the ideas behind the track listings and album flow; we're asking because it's rather apparent that there's something going on here beyond a collection of buzzing, humming black metal drones. You've got themes of storms, what's that about? How about "The Rosewater Diamond"? I tried to look up "cuniculean," but no dice. Please explain.
j: The name “Wrath of the Weak” came about when I was randomly brainstorming in the shower. It stuck with me, and since I couldn't think of anything better, I kept it. I'm sure you could extrapolate all sorts of meaning if you tried hard enough, but it really just boils down to me liking how it sounded... kind of menacing, fairly sonorous, and all without being a name which would completely pigeonhole the music. As far as the actual songs go, I like evocative titles. I'd much rather use something which may or may not (directly) have anything to do with the song at hand but helps define its atmosphere, instead of just using a snippet of lyrics or something.
Maelstrom: Yeah. Great ideas in the shower. Washing dishes and sitting on the throne, too. And not the throne from Darkthrone, if you catch my drift.
j: Yeah, exactly. My hygiene is near impeccable at times just because I always have a reason to bathe, be it stench or thought.
The "storm" songs were written during their respective storms and given those names first as working titles, but I kept them since I felt like the music sort of followed the theme of the titles... to me, "The Snowstorm" sounds like the aural equivalent of a really good blizzard, while "The Thunderstorm" is a little more reminiscient of the first big thunderstorm to come once Spring has settled in.
"Cuniculean" comes from "cuniculus," which I believe is the genus of your garden-variety rabbit. A few years ago there was a period when I was finding dead rabbits seemingly everywhere, and over time that sort of fermented in my head and became this bizarre tale about a race of warrior rabbits who wanted to overthrow humankind.
There's really no high concept behind the material on the s/t disc as a whole, though. If you want concept, wait until the next album... I'll have some interesting tales for that one, haha.
Maelstrom: Oh? Is there more material already in the works?
j: Yep! Coming out (hopefully) this year is a cassette EP with a couple more ambient / drone-ish tracks, as well as a split with a pretty cool band from Minnesota called Dreamless... they're sort of like a stripped-down Bardo Pond, so it'll be an interesting balance of material. I've also spent the past couple months writing material for Wrath of the Weak's second album, and I'm hoping to get that recorded sometime this summer and released who knows when.
Maelstrom: Is all this stuff to be on Bastardised?
j: The cassette should be coming out on Earth / Space Noise Research Laboratories, while I'm not sure who's going to handle the other two yet... there's been a little bit of preliminary interest in the second full-length, so that might be coming out on a “bigger” label if I play my cards right.
Maelstrom: How about you, Jordan? Who are you, where did you come from? What would you like the world to know about you?
j: Well, today I biked over to the library after class to pick up some books on tonality and temperament (and to enjoy the nice weather now that it's here), and right now I'm figuring out what to do for dinner while using a rubber chicken to fend off a very affectionate cat owned by one of my housemates. That's a pretty accurate slice of myself and my existence, I'd say.
Maelstrom: What do you study? How old are you? Did you grow up in Buffalo? I got accepted to Syracuse / Siberiacuse University and kinda sorta nearly went there until they told me that it often snowed through April. I also entertained getting a Sabres jersey that said "Satan" on the back because the coincidence was too dorkily rad (The NHL Buffalo Sabres once had a player whose last name was “Satan.” – ed). Is it too mundane to ask how your suroundings have affected your art?
j: I'm a 24-year old perpetual student who grew up in Syracuse, and currently I'm going to school in Buffalo and aiming for a BS in Geography / Urban Planning. The winters around these parts are shitty, but I don't mind three months of knee-deep snow if it means I get six months of largely sunny and warm weather, another three months of picturesque autumn, and little to no chance of ever having to deal with a major hurricane /earthquake / etc.
I've often wondered why so much American black metal seems to come from California when there's far more depressing / grim / frostbitten locales to be found up in the northeast (esp. around the Rust Belt), but it's hard to say whether that's been an influence on Wrath of the Weak or not. I suppose it could be if you count the fact that I try to leave my house as little as possible once the snow starts up, and usually fall back on music when I need to pass the time.