Moenen of Xezbeth
by Niklas Göransson
Fanning the flames of dark nostalgia, new black metal with an ancient sound – the two nameless members of Belgium’s Moenen of Xezbeth reveal the alchemical formula behind their recent rise to obscure prominence.
– I believe the reason why the demo was spread so widely and received such good feedback is because there aren’t a lot of bands out there doing what we do. Most of them sound very similar to each other – lots of raw, cavernous, ‘treble on eleven’ black metal or plastic-sounding black/death stuff. The initial idea behind MOENEN OF XEZBETH was making slow black/doom heavily inspired by the old Polish band XANTOTOL. Our very first rehearsal was quite minimalistic, even more so than what eventually ended up on the demo; very dry-sounding stuff with only drums, vocals, one guitar, and bass. During the summer of 2016, we began recording “Dawn of Morbid Sorcery” in our old rehearsal space.
The demo which would garner their project all the online notoriety was self-released by the band in February 2017. As the tape found its way through the underground, so did news of this new band with an ancient sound. The following month their demo was uploaded to YouTube by someone who’d bought the cassette – it then spread like wildfire and was subsequently reissued by Darkness Attack Records, a small US label run by Impurath of BLACK WITCHERY. “Dawn of Morbid Sorcery” has since been re-pressed two additional times. At the time of this conversation, MOENEN OF XEZBETH recently released a teaser for their upcoming debut album, “Ancient Spells of Darkness…”, which will be released by Nuclear War Now! in the summer of 2018.
– The promo tape contains two songs that are already finished – mixing, EQ, and mastering all taken care of. We’re currently in the process of completing the remaining material, which still needs vocals. Next up is completing the artwork and that’s essentially it for the album. It will clearly be the same band as on the demo, perhaps a bit more evolved. “Ancient Spells of Darkness…” was recorded in our new rehearsal space using different mics, so the sound isn’t quite as raw. Despite having been written and put on tape in just a few sessions between September and December 2017, the music is more elaborate with some additional thought having gone into it. Between releasing the demo and preparing our debut, we also recorded a seven-inch called “Forever Rotting Winter” which will be out in June on a young Belgian label called Medieval Prophecy Records.
A fitting name for a label releasing material strongly reminiscent of early SAMAEL. The band’s own index of influences was an interesting read and pretty spot on – ROTTING CHRIST “Satanas Tedeum”, BEHEMOTH’s “The Return of the Northern Moon” tape, the first CARPATHIAN FOREST demo, and so forth. Listening to MOENEN OF XEZBETH, I was also partially reminded of THE BLACK’s “Black Blood”, the first GRAND BELIAL’S KEY demo, as well as THORNIUM’s “Dominions of the Eclipse”. The releases they’ve referenced were almost exclusively from bands in their very beginnings, which makes me curious if they have any thoughts on this proclivity of theirs to hone in on the initial phase of a musician’s career.
– The reason why our musical tastes gravitate towards the early days of all those bands is because we try to channel the same spirit. Of course, our sound is always evolving but we strive to do so without abandoning our roots. Most start out as spontaneous entities full of youthful passion, rawness and aggression – too bad they have a tendency to ‘grow up’ and focus on matters such as technicality and polished productions. The only examples I can think of regarding bands who stayed true to their roots are ones that only existed for a few years and never released an album: INVOKER and BEHEMOTH from Brazil, PARABELLUM from Colombia, MYSTERIES from Poland, and of course XANTOTOL.
Tell me about XANTOTOL, what’s the appeal with them?
– XANTOTOL started out in ’91 as a very SAMAEL-inspired band but gradually evolved into something more unique from the second demo onwards. They released two demos and an EP – all of which have since been re-released on CD and vinyl but with really shitty sound quality, which is a big shame!
Given their obsession with the utmost primal and raw manifestations of bands, I’m wondering to what extent they consider musicians obliged to develop their style and explore new ground between records. Many artists I speak to never want to make the same album twice and scoff with distaste at those who do. Others prefer exploring nuances of their own established recipe, claiming there to be great variety in subtleties.
– We used a very similar formula on the demo, EP and LP – with miniscule differences in sound. The demo is the rawest, the seven-inch clearest and our album will be the heaviest. I don’t see why we’d ever change what we do. There will always be small differences but the basics remain the same. What’s important to us is creating music we ourselves would listen to, regardless of personal involvement. Our specific ideas about what type of sounds we enjoy make us stick with certain ways of producing once we’ve discovered them. But most importantly, we’re not trying to imitate other musicians or bands – the way we play is our own so while there might be occasional changes, it will always sound like MOENEN OF XEZBETH.
Completing a thirty-minute demo, an EP, and a full-length album in such short time leads me to suspect the boys must have had a manically productive past year and a half.
– Both of us are music fanatics, it’s been our bond ever since we first met more than a decade ago. Music is a big part of our lives so once we get an idea into our minds, creating comes very naturally. We also share the same mentality when it comes to producing music together: not overthinking things and always trying to put together only material which sounds interesting – no filler riffs. We’ll work on something ’til it’s done and then move on to the next thing. This approach will often result in us gathering enough decent material suitable for release.
Not only the soundscape but also their visual representation is heavily reminiscent of nineties demo tapes and ‘zines, I’m assuming there’s been some thought put into this.
– Actually, quite the opposite – it doesn’t take us very long to figure out what to do for artwork because we’re not consciously trying to replicate that style. It just happens to be aesthetics we like, so whatever we come up with will automatically end up looking like something straight out of 1994. We’re also lucky that coming up with such artwork doesn’t really require much time, and that a few friends of ours help out with the digital aspect of turning ideas into actual covers.
Most people I’ve heard raging about the demo have been mature gentlemen, such as myself. I’d have to put this down to their uncanny ability of capturing that uniquely mystical and ancient-sounding feeling found in many atmospheric proto-black metal songs – SAMAEL’s “Into the Pentagram” and TIAMAT’s “A Winter Shadow”, for example.
– That’s probably got something to do with the way we record. Our workflow is quite spontaneous and we handle everything ourselves without outside interference, in the cheapest way possible. If you’re reaching for that specific sound, there’s only one way to go: analogue tape.
So you use something like a multitrack portable recorder?
– Yes, we record on a Tascam eight-track machine. What we do is fairly simple: one mic for the drums and one for guitar, which is what’s tracked during the basic take. Then we start doing overdubs, one track for each additional instrument; everything written and recorded in one afternoon. The vocals are done last, in a separate session. We use standard instruments, nothing fancy, paying attention to the EQ on the amp and using good effect-pedals goes a long way. Another key element for the creation of that eerie ambiance in the songs is our use of keyboard; there are a few sounds in the synth we have that always work for creating a dark mood. Not just any kind of dark mood though, one that isn’t bombastic or cheesy – it has to be just right. That ethereal sound…
I can’t help but reflect over how infuriating it must be for bands who first spend months labouring in the rehearsal room and then endless hours in a studio – only to then have their own output receive none of the hype MOENEN OF XEZBETH have attracted from essentially recording improvised rehearsal compositions.
– All our music might not be entirely improvised on the spot but we usually go into the rehearsal space cold, without knowing what’s going to come out of it. There might be an existing idea for a riff but more often than not, we have nothing. We’re fortunate in that writing music doesn’t take us much effort, our guitar player can barely turn around without shitting out a good riff. Both composing the music from scratch and recording it typically occurs in a single afternoon. The lesson here is simply doing what comes naturally and not overthinking things. Trying to work with certain limitations also helps; entering an expensive thirty-two track digital studio in a race against the clock isn’t going to spark your creativity, working in a moist basement with an old analogue eight-tracker is.
’Retro’ is a word I’ve seen used in connection with MOENEN OF XEZBETH, do you resonate with this moniker?
– I don’t like that term at all, I personally only use it in a negative way: retro doom, retro thrash… it has bad connotations to me. Rather than merely paying tribute, our motivation – what keeps us going – is channelling the same spirit as all those good bands who came before us. Good music is ageless, which has been proven time and time again. Trends die out after a few years, only that which is really timeless sticks.
In this context, it’s interesting to note how many releases stemming from the early nineties are still considered unmatched to this day. Not only by those who were in formative years at the time of their release, but also an entire generation of younger black metal fans with no nostalgic bonds to them.
– I think that’s due to the music’s pioneering aspects: except for the obvious giants, there weren’t many big and famous acts out there to copy. Nowadays, there’s thirty years of black metal history to pick and choose from whereas early-nineties bands starting out didn’t have that luxury. I’m not saying no one was being a copycat back in the day, but I think it was more about emulating moods or approaches rather than recognisable styles.
You have announced your complete disinterest in live performances – why is that?
– Playing shows doesn’t really interest us. We’ve already devised a highly satisfying way of realising all the different ideas which together constitute MOENEN OF XEZBETH – there’s no need to bring it to the stage, we’re just not that type of band. Shows are important but ephemeral moments in a musician’s life; what we aim for is creating music which transcends time and isn’t constrained by the logistical and physical requirements associated with concerts.
Preparatory research uncovered nefarious connotations to their band name, with Xezbeth being a demon of lies and fabricator of untrue tales – essentially, an infernal architect of fake news. Moenen is the name used for the Devil in a medieval play from the Low Countries. I wonder if there were any underlying metaphysical considerations involved in the selection.
– During the initial stages of the band, we didn’t really have a name but soon started looking for one that summed up what we sound like. After a few weeks we picked one with links to demonology as well as Flemish and Dutch medieval literature. We’re genuinely fascinated by witchcraft, demonology, magic, Satanism, the occult… without actually believing in any of it. Too rational for that I guess, but we’re interested in the various metaphors and images mankind has come up with to describe the dark side dwelling in all of us.