by Niklas Göransson
Irish metal veterans Primordial are closing in on their third decade as a band. With an epic chorus resounding through the ruins, A.A. Nemtheanga prepares for the future by studying our past.
The following is an excerpt from the full article, which is more than twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #4. The same issue also includes conversations with PROFANATICA, SOLSTICE, Götz Kühnemund, Louise Brown, THERION, KATATONIA, BLACK FUNERAL, COUNTESS, Stockholm Slaughter, MARDUK, and TAAKE.
– It’s now been twenty-seven years for the original three. When I joined the band in August 1991, Ciáran and Paul had already been playing together since 1987 so that’s over thirty years they’ve been putting up with each other and nearly the same with me. Strange how time flickers by in an instant, yet simultaneously the sixteen-year-old me seems like a distant character from a novel.
“To Hell or the Hangman” was the first song I heard from the Irish quintet’s ninth studio album, “Exile Amongst the Ruins”. Though the soundscape carries that distinct PRIMORDIAL vibe, it’s conveyed in a bit more fist-pumping manifestation than one might be used to.
– Just about everyone has a different opinion on how it sounds, for some the 16th drum shuffle brings to mind post-wave JOY DIVISION, KILLING JOKE, and later NEW MODEL ARMY, then “Run to the Hills” (IRON MAIDEN) and “Gypsy” (MERCIFUL FATE) to others. Some have even referenced electronic music. Ciáran had this very Irish-sounding riff and as soon as he played it to myself and Simon, we knew it could be moved into an up-tempo dance-floor shaker! This new one was a strange album to make, we didn’t do much prior rehearsing and recorded it quite functionally and spontaneously without many frills or indulgences, two of which being time and comfort! When creating a new record, the most important and perhaps difficult thing is stepping outside the band bubble and being entirely rational and critical. Asking yourself, ‘Do we still sound as if we mean it? Do we sound vital, does this have conviction and passion?’ We have to acknowledge that, for the most part, metal is a young man’s game so by album number nine most bands tend to tread water, sound tired, and are more or less spent as a creative force. I’d like to think we’re not there quite yet. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed making it but that’s somewhat subjective and beside the point. There are a few new elements introduced along with some ‘classic’ PRIMORDIAL, if I can call it that.
Speaking of which, I’m curious if Alan can, in somewhat understandable terms, explain what conjures up that instantly recognisable PRIMORDIAL sound – a feeling that appears to survive regardless of studio choice.
– Well, these 6/8 and 11/8 timings which are fairly unique to PRIMORDIAL are the rhythms of traditional Irish music. Then add in the ghost beats, snare movements, and open-chord guitar playing – a motif often occurring in the acoustics of traditional music. We don’t use the palm-muting thrash metal-style very often, you’ll also notice how we sometimes employ what we call a droning note that the song revolves around… so you could theoretically play one note on, for example, the bass and be ‘in’ for most of the song. Then add that we often don’t have solos, middle eights, breakdowns, or a chorus… although this is more common nowadays; I doubt there were any on say, “A Journey’s End” (1998). What you get from all this is an at times rather unconventional approach, then add old-school metal influences from BATHORY to BLACK SABBATH to CELTIC FROST and VENOM.
Alan says another key element is that, despite being reasonably accomplished musicians, they have very little understanding of music theory and generally avoid getting caught up in the technical aspects of composition.
– Don’t ask me why there’s a pentatonic scale over a major note sequence – I really won’t have an answer, none of us do. If something is wrong but right then it is what it is. We’re not striving for the best take or most perfect version of a song; the flaws are what make it human. We don’t trade files but always write together in a room, nor do we use click-tracks or cut and paste riffs. I wouldn’t consider myself a great singer by any means but I try to get the best out of what I’ve got and then allow instinct and technique to battle it out. I don’t have a deep work-ethic or much patience for the repetition of studio recording, if it feels right I’d rather have one take of vocals, move on and then live with any imperfections. Sounding like you mean it is far more important than if the note falls in a perfect counter-movement to the bass drum or whatever. I’ll try doing a ‘Dio’ when I can but it’s mostly beyond me. Add to that well over two decades of stubbornness, single-mindedness and, I think, a cherry-picked refusal to learn from certain mistakes and you almost have it! The atmosphere or movement of a song is more important than individual riffs or any one single thing.
I read with interest the title track lyrics, which struck me more as melancholic contemporary musings than the usual historical reflections.
– “Exile Amongst the Ruins” is about what I perceive to be some kind of sickness or malady currently infecting the Western mind – planting deep-seated nihilism and mistrust of the social contract, a misanthropic and bored alienation. Structural post-modernism decreeing that nothing has meaning. Loss of any form of spiritual connection we might have had to not only Christianity but our pre-Christian religions, replaced by amoralism, hyper-sexuality and decadence; an almost suicidal urge for the end of ‘Empire’. And those who see it for what it is will all be exiled. I became very interested in 15th to 17th century Europe, from Martin Luther and the Diet of Worms to Isaac Newton, secret orders such as the Rosicrucians, and the development of the printing press along with its similarities to the internet of today.
Mostly known for his role in the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther was both a priestly and scholarly theologian. He rejected parts of the Roman Catholic teachings and caused great uproar by translating the bible into German, making it available to people besides the Latin-speaking clerics. The Diet of Worms wasn’t quite the flavour sensation it sounds like, but rather a 1521 imperial assembly called by the Holy Roman Empire held in the German town of Worms. Luther appeared before the Diet who asked if he was ready to revoke the numerous heresies riddled through twenty-five of his published works. After having been granted a day of contemplation and prayer, he responded, ‘I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.’ Martin Luther was excommunicated by the church and declared an outlaw within the Holy Roman Empire. Moving on, English natural philosopher Sir Isaac Newton was a late-17th century scientist, theologian, and occultist – widely acknowledged as a key figure in physics. Among other things, he identified the concept of gravity. Sir Isaac was highly influenced by a cultural and spiritual tradition known as Rosicrucianism, of which philosophies came to eminence through multiple written works describing obscure arcane orders supposedly ‘built on esoteric truths of the ancient past’.
– I also studied the Enlightenment, rationality, empiricism, separation of church and state, mathematical analysis, and the parting of science and magic. Modern society appears to be gradually moving away from these values, with certain elements who view Western culture only in a pejorative sense actively striving towards a new theocracy; a contemporary puritanism. Their activism bears all the hallmarks of a religious movement so no wonder they side with the Caliphate. The song isn’t written from a right or left political perspective, it’s more of a document – observations on culture, society, and politics… watching the lemmings come tumbling off the cliff, as it were. I suppose there’s a sense of resignation over the tone and rhetoric.
As part of my daily work I consume a fair bit of metal literature and can barely remember coming across any established musicians discussing these topics in interviews, let alone lyrics.
– I don’t know; I suppose that for me the cultural, historical, political, and social awareness has always gone hand-in-hand with being artistically creative. I don’t really have much interest in fantasy or escapism, this is the only way I know. Of course, at the end of the day I’m only the singer in a metal band, not a politician or lecturer, but without doubt there’s something intensely gratifying about being on the main stage at some foreign festival playing meaningful and historically weighted songs like “The Coffin Ships”.
The song takes its name from a term commonly used for the often overloaded and poorly serviced seafaring vessels carrying Irish immigrants fleeing the mid-19th century Great Irish Famine to North America. Disease, dysentery and limited access to fresh water left the coffin ships’ three-month duration with fatality rates sometimes as high as thirty percent. Perhaps superfluous to say but their popularity largely stemmed from the fact that it was by far the cheapest way of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
– Factual tragedy, not fiction. Renditions of living, breathing history – moving against the modern world and trying to reconnect with people amidst a culture telling us that we’re alien, that our past means nothing. It wouldn’t be the same if we were standing up there singing about zombies, rituals, horror movies, or dragons.
The lyrics for “Last Call” provided another curious read. Instead of reveries on his surroundings, it’s more of a seemingly introspective self-analysis on the tribulations of hedonistic living. Not themes I’d normally associate with PRIMORDIAL.
– I’m not sure about that, I’ve written similar lyrics before; “Bloodied yet Unbowed” being one example. I call them ‘redemption songs’ or, perhaps, in the fine tradition of country music. During the last decade or so I’ve been listening to and influenced by the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams and, of course, WOVENHAND among others. This ability of confessional narrative certain musicians have – Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen would’ve been my first loves from this style – is a difficult voice to find and write without it sounding trite and forced, a fine line to tread indeed. The mistake many people make is thinking that just because they like Townes, they can lift his musical template. But it’s also about life experience, simply liking rock and roll doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to create something genuine. I guess it’s the same with everything, the search for authenticity.
Alan says lyrics such as the aforementioned wouldn’t have sounded honest ten or fifteen years ago – perhaps even five years back.
– But now well into my early forties and looking back over some things, I feel more in ownership of an authentic voice. Not entirely, but it’s a learning curve. The song is really just about being at the last station mentally, emotionally, and physically. A feeling that it’s about time to hang up your hat on the recklessness and selfishness that defined the previous decade – the rock and roll lifestyle if you wish. Not just yet… but some light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. It’s about atonement for wrongs perpetrated and suffered, apologies and refusals. I suppose it’s that moment where you have to leave the party; I tend to just take my hat and coat and disappear without a word – the Irish goodbye. This song is about being in that moment.
So was it time well spent, in retrospect?
– I don’t really have any regrets, my teenage years or even early twenties weren’t spent living like that. There was no adolescent rampage – I was more of a bookish, nerdy, sci-fi reading, sporty introvert. I dabbled with the myth of rock and roll in my twenties but it was really only in my thirties that I threw my hat in the ring, said ‘fuck it’ and ran with it. That said, you know, it’s not like I was singing about fast cars, boozing, occult hocus-pocus or some other nonsense even on our ’93 demo or “Imrama” (1994). PRIMORDIAL always stood for something meaningful, despite my off-field antics and relative immaturity. Even back in the early nineties we were trying in our own naïve way to say something with cultural and historical resonance – no shame there. Unlike some of my peers, I guess, those years weren’t defined by reckless abandon and rebellious posturing for whatever reason. Being a mini-rock star was and is something a little alien to the Irish. I definitely wasn’t behaving like Jim Morrison, though I did have leather pants!
Alan is vigilant to point out that this is not to be conceived as some manner of retirement from the life of carousing.
– I’m not stupid or foolhardy enough to shout about how much my life has changed only to slip into old habits the following weekend. I’m saying the ride is slowing, its impulses become less and less intense. Whatever voice I have creatively will change as I go through my forties. Should I still be singing into my fifties it will no doubt change again but, as of right now, writing about very real things that happened during the last decade regarding sex, drugs, and rock and roll doesn’t feel fake. You become more a voice of experience – fact rather than fiction.
He adds that a natural follow-up to this would be pondering if a lifetime in devout servitude to extreme metal was really such a wise investment.
– Were we buying into the same destructive nihilism we now see defining the worst aspects of Western behaviour? Hard to say with certainty. At least I didn’t spray-paint my misanthropy in as large or colourful letters as others. At the heart of my reserve there were always innately conservative or classic ‘liberal’ politics instead of the religious amorality of black metal, but I definitely aligned myself with its destructive elements. However, much of that was also the impetuosity of youth; we can’t all be old beyond our years. These things are easy to over-analyse and pull apart in hindsight and middle age. It’s interesting to observe though, how black metal in the mid-90s moved from the more political, nationalistic, and occasional intellectual angle – such as Satan being a metaphor along with all the usual will-to-power rhetoric – into some form of primitive and obedient worship of a biblical creation myth, almost anti-intellectual in nature. Somewhere or other around the millennial shift, the Devil became real and that boat left me on the shore. I became more political instead so maybe I have less existential regret than some others, who knows?
Alan says it’s been a very interesting and engaging debate among his peers over the last few years as they collectively descend into middle age, concerning how their time was spent and what good it ultimately brought society.
– I did an interview last week and the guy more or less told me that black metal perfectly bought into all the post-modern nihilistic tropes of the same cultural marxism we now criticise in the new left – that it was just too easy morally to always want to tear everything down. He might have had a point and it was an interesting observation but maybe, just like in the process of Gnosis, this was a journey we had to undertake. Perhaps art doesn’t need moral justification.
In light of all this philosophising, I’m wondering if the A.A. Nemtheanga of today remains as susceptible to the primeval and anti-intellectual aspects of metal – headbanging at concerts, getting drunk and raising hell – as in his younger years.
– Ah, I think I was always a bit too reserved and outside the bubble to totally immerse myself in sheer abandon… but without a doubt crossed the line every now and again. The thing is, and this is not to be insulting, the dumb glory of old-school heavy metal is a beautiful thing that I never thought myself above… well, maybe for a brief moment during my most pretentious twenty-something pseudo-intellectualism, but “Hit the Lights” (METALLICA) never failed to get the adrenaline pumping. To people outside looking in it may all seem Luddite and artistically redundant but they entirely miss the point.
Alan says he loves the fact that PRIMORDIAL gives him a platform to rabble-rouse through massive choruses, while also enjoying full artistic and intellectual freedom within music and lyrics.
– Sometimes you have to tear loose, let go and submit to the music’s primal energy. I think it’s really important to not totally sacrifice the adolescent love you had for all of this before reading a book or two. The transferral of energy on this base level is a thing of beauty, just the hangovers are growing increasingly worse…
Have you come to value any other elements of metal as you get older?
– Of course. The beauty of a simple message, the unbridled energy of youth and how it moves us to this day. The original blueprint has a pure mission statement, you can’t always intellectualise a punch in the face, eh? Toxic masculinity in all its glory! Not to mention the greatness of a huge chorus. When all shouting is done, I am at heart still a metalhead. I didn’t outgrow it. Undoubtedly adding a few things to my bag of tricks and colours to the palette but still, throw on IRON MAIDEN’s debut and I can remember the first time the needle hit the groove of “Prowler” back in the mid-80s. That’s when I knew that was me, this is who I am – what I’d been searching for. It is what it is and here we are over three decades later.
This is an excerpt from the full article, which is more than twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #4. The same issue also includes conversations with PROFANATICA, SOLSTICE, Götz Kühnemund, Louise Brown, THERION, KATATONIA, BLACK FUNERAL, COUNTESS, Stockholm Slaughter, MARDUK, and TAAKE.