by Niklas Göransson
Pete Helmkamp and Gene Palubicki of American black/death metal pioneers Angelcorpse speak of past and present. Of broken bones, lethal sickness, and internal strife – how ultimate sacrifice was required to resist the wheels of commerce. Twice.
ANGELCORPSE have returned to active duty. After disbanding in the year 2000 with five years and three albums to their name, they reformed in 2006 only to resume hibernation a mere three years later.
– Comets only come around every six or seven years, says bass player and vocalist Pete Helmkamp, it is spectacular while we fly across the sky and then it’s dark. But we were never in darkness, we always remained active and kept creating new music.
Helmkamp has been a musician his entire life. Starting out with death metal titans ORDER FROM CHAOS in 1987, he went on to play with REVENGE, FELDGRAU and TERROR ORGAN – and still operates KERASPHORUS and ABHOMINE.
– Creating music and lyrics has been my constant desire, Pete continues. To this day, my live performances evoke the same energy I felt when I was 15 years old – I never strayed from this path.
He says that if one is truly committed to extreme music, there is no choice but to keep pushing forward and cross new thresholds.
– It’s not enough to just break boundaries to a certain extent and then use that as your plateau to ride upon. You have to keep moving forwards; which might mean that you’re always ahead of the pack, in the foreground or the shadows or perhaps even lost – no matter as long as you’re not on the same track as everyone else.
ANGELCORPSE are currently touring in celebration of their 20th anniversary, with the intent of trying to bring the band to fans that haven’t had the chance to see them before.
– There are shows booked for 2017, says guitarist Gene Palubicki, so it’s not coming to any kind of close by the end of the year. There are many new things we’re looking to do, hitting territories we never played in the past for example, like Scandinavia.
This conversation took place on October 29 at the Black Harvest festival in Stockholm, Sweden. Performing also were DESTRÖYER 666, BÖLZER, IRKALLIAN ORACLE, NIFELHEIM, SATURNALIA TEMPLE, VOMITOR, ROOT and UNPURE.
– It’s our first time at a lot of these places, and because we’ve been going for 20 years now we’re getting the opportunity to play to an entirely new generation of fans. This is great for us, and exciting for them too – many of them probably never dreamed that they would get to see ANGELCORPSE.
Gene mentions that while new material is a possibility – at this point in time the focus will remain on performing live, following the path that leads to uncharted territory.
– We would have to settle on an honest representation of what would be new music from ANGELCORPSE, not just throwaways from the other projects that we’ve done over the years.
Like his bandmate, Gene remained active during ANGELCORPSE’s demises, playing and recording with PERDITION TEMPLE and BLASPHEMIC CRUELTY. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who is frequently cited as their conceptual influence, spoke of the art as an aid in remaining sane; a distraction from the constant flood of inanity in the mundane.
– I would agree with that, says Gene, I would have been real bad if I wasn’t working on a project at any given time. I would have become some sort of introvert and vanished into a cave. I always have at least one inventive process going – it’s a motivator.
Creativity in itself, he says, is an art form much like the arcane; the practice of summoning something tangible out of nothing.
– It’s amazing. That’s what music is like, magic we use as ritual. If it’s powerful and strong, people will remember it and then you will have left an impression in their head. Now you have this collective understanding of sound, these things that are being heard in joint experiences.
Pete points out that throughout history, music has always been with man – but it’s only in recent times that we’ve been able to record and reproduce it.
– The essence of music is the live performance, it’s something that everyone becomes part of. It’s a very ritualistic thing, this collective immersion you capture in a live situation. You have to be able to encapsulate everyone in that experience.
The ability to conjure up this galvanising feeling is precisely what determines an excellent band, as opposed to the mediocre. One that’s really going to make a mark and affect people in the intended way.
– This requires discipline and the ability to perform at a consistent quality. Every time you play, it’s going to be somebody’s first ever show and that’s fucking important.
Pete is 46 years old and for someone who has the life-on-the-road mileage he has, I must say he looks surprisingly vigorous.
Were you ever into the hedonistic lifestyle?
– I’m an alcoholic, he says, but I quit drinking five years ago so I’m a much healthier man now. Why I’ve been blessed with these young looks I have no idea, but I’m very thankful for it.
ANGELCORPSE have toured with a wide range of bands from both the death and black metal scene, so I’m curious what separates men from the boys on the live front.
– The strong, says Gene, are the ones who can handle all of the trials and tribulations that come with being on the road, and keep going until the end.
Those with the grit to come out and deliver a hundred percent every night and deal with whatever is thrown their way without causing a fuss.
– The weaklings will quit after two weeks; they either go home or play badly, have drama and give up on stage – you know, terrible events like that. We’ve seen all sides of it. It’s pointless to name any names but if you have been around long enough, you’ll have seen all these things happen.
It was actually on tour when ANGELCORPSE split up first time; a US venture with IMMORTAL, SATYRICON and KRISIUN.
– The tour itself was fine, says Gene, how it ultimately ended was regrettable but it was also badass; great shows all around. It just so happened that we suffered some unpleasant events.
Such as the rather severe automobile accident that started off their roaming endeavour, one that resulted in torn ligaments and broken bones.
– We ran head-on into an embankment on the highway, went into a ravine and then hit a turnaround point.
– Luckily, says Pete, it was very foggy that night. It was three o’clock in the morning mind you, and we rode about 40 miles an hour. Had we been going 80, none of us would have survived.
But they did, and so did the will to keep going.
– After taking one day off we rented a new van and resumed the tour. In my conviction to prove that ANGELCORPSE was that extreme, I hobbled forward on my busted leg.
– I couldn’t even lean over, adds Gene.
As if touring with various debilitating injures wasn’t miserable enough, Helmkamp’s girlfriend at the time was then stabbed in a mugging. The tipping point to a period of increased frustration; Pete quit the band and left the tour.
– I had started feeling that pull towards a more commercial direction. I felt that the path we were on would lead to a loss of control over our real creativity and the very essence of what ANGELCORPSE is. That was the primary reason, but what transpired on the tour was pretty traumatic and became the straw that broke the camel’s back.
This wasn’t his first time of disbanding at the brink of commercial success, the same was done in 1998 with ORDER FROM CHAOS.
– Initially, we had talked about only writing three albums. This was meant to mimic our perception of many early eighties bands we were fans of; KREATOR, SODOM, SLAYER and so on.
Meaning, classic acts deemed unable to muster more than three good albums before they started deteriorating.
– Their whole vision seemed to change. Commercialism, they drifted into the wheel because they had decided to make music their career instead of passion.
Pete says that it was immediately apparent to him that this was now happening with ANGELCORPSE.
– I needed to maintain my artistic integrity, to be able to create the way I wanted to without any perimeters set upon me. Even things like touring schedules, I just can’t do six months out of the year. It’s simply not possible – physically, mentally, or realistically.
In retrospect, he believes that this was for the best – especially since he’d likely been dead by now if they had kept going.
– I had major surgery three years ago; a tumour was removed from my spinal column. It was found accidentally, and had we become a commercial touring band and got stuck on the wheel I would have further aggravated this by headbanging and just not taking care of my body. I can absolutely say that I wouldn’t be here speaking now.
Did this experience affect you much?
– Absolutely; you appreciate life more and it makes you respect the abilities and gifts that you have but normally take for granted. I’m very thankful for that – after learning that I could have died, that finding the tumour allowed me to have the surgery that saved my life.
Pete reveals that it was through his artistic pursuits that the cancer was discovered. It was by exploring the lyrical concepts for his ‘occult project’ KERASPHORUS that ultimately led him to the revelation that he had a malignant cyst.
– A lot of the material for that band was sort of delivered to me, so it is what it is. It’s up to the reader to interpret but it certainly shows the struggle that I was going through. The battle between dark and light, how that conflicts with one’s soul and the choices you have to make in life.
ABOMINHE on the other hand, is about the world we live in today.
– There’s no fiction there, it’s all based on reality. This is what we see on the street, hear from the media and see happening around the world.
Pete mentions that abhomine means ‘from man’, and that it is the root of the word ‘abominations’.
– This world we’ve created is full of abominations, that we now live with and face having to decide how to find our way through.
Warfare has been another regular lyrical concept, Helmkamp can even be said to have been partly responsible for the entire war metal genre. Recent geopolitical developments seem to be pitting Russia against NATO, a theatre of war that would probably go nuclear. This should provide thematic inspiration for the genre for many generations to come, if any.
– I certainly have no interest in a nuclear holocaust, he announces, I think there’s a lot of crazy, insane possibilities that could happen at this time so I’m not sure and just hope that doesn’t happen.
On topic of instruments of war – is the Panzer Bass still in use?
– No, it has its place in a museum in my home.
While preparing for this interview, I came across a mention that Helmkamp enjoys teaching and first assumed he meant in the sense of spreading enlightenment through his authorship. It turns out he’s actually an elementary school teacher, tutoring young children in mathematics.
– Teaching is a great experience because the kids are learning, they’re being shown things in a way they might not have had the opportunity to before. Then again, whenever I’m in any kind of public setting I’m constantly lecturing and elaborating, talking and running my mouth.
Besides his music, Pete Helmkamp has also authored two books – The Conqueror Manifesto and Controlled Burn. In them, he outlines a worldview described as a ‘philosophy of ascendance’.
– Sure, they represent the core foundation of who I am. One also has to recognise that I was 23 and 26 years old when I wrote those, so now at the ripe age of 46 I have accumulated far more wisdom. In conclusion, I certainly understand more about life now compared to back then.
Even back in the ORDER FROM CHAOS days, Pete lamented the dumbing down of the human race. Given that this preceded the advent of reality television and social media, one would assume he hasn’t seen many improvements in that development.
– The numbing has obviously continued, people are easily steered into paying attention only to what’s in front of them, rather than digging to find where the truth really lies.
He thinks this is an intentional process, to combat the fact that people in general are born with the ability to think and reason for themselves.
– I see this all the time in the children that I teach. They’re not dumb – they just don’t know the math rules until I explain them. As such, once people are shown there are other ways to go about things, they will go out and seek on their own.
Pete believes that civilisation is now on a slippery slope, balancing on the cusp of history.
– These are the times that people will write books about – historical documents that will be studied in the future, providing there is still freedom to actually do that. I think there is a battle between death and life playing out on this planet.
In his past writing, he describes Christianity as a spiritual plague of the greatest hindrance to the West. It’s hard to judge here in the most secular country in the world, but I’m curious if this is still the case or if religion in general warrants concern.
– I wouldn’t consider… I’m not really sure.
At this point the band’s manager announces that we have strayed too far from the topic of ANGELCORPSE; ‘Just write that the council says no’. Seeing as my remaining questions were all philosophically inclined, we decide to wrap up the conversation.