by Niklas Göransson
Carbon of the Morning Star – Phil Kusabs of New Zealand black metal monolith Vassafor talks about the inner workings of their upcoming third album.
– “To the Death” is a statement of intent. Before the writing started, Ben and I were talking about how we really wanted to make a pure black metal record. We’ve had enough of being called every variant of metal other than what we are… I mean, it’s all well and good if people wanna call us fucking doom or death metal or whatever the hell but we ARE actually a black metal band. No one hearing it should be in any doubt over what the fuck this record is.
“To the Death”, VASSAFOR’s third studio album, will be released on August 7, 2020, by Iron Bonehead Productions. The material came into being through a short but intense creative process following the band’s November 2018 performance at Never Surrender in Berlin.
– Basically, the egregore was fed with a lot of energy in Berlin so, upon coming back again, we were just fuckin’ possessed. We wrote sixty-plus minutes of music over the next four or five months, Ben and I were just blasting ideas out all the time. So, yeah, it began pouring out and just kept coming. We’re very lucky in that we’ve been able to complete our line-up with two local musicians. Funnily enough, Daryl was the guitarist of BLACKMASS, my first-ever band in 1991, that later morphed into SPINE. He also plays with Ben in MALEVOLENCE, which is the longest running metal band in Auckland. Daryl is a master sound engineer and we’ve been tracking drums at his place, BlackDoor Studio, ever since the DIOCLETIAN albums. I then take it all away and do the rest of the recording and mixing on my gear. Involving someone like Daryl is just perfect for the way we prefer to work; we get the drum sound we want and, rather than having to think about engineering aspects like tracking, I can focus entirely on performance. And he’s a killer guitarist – both him and our new bass player, Josh, were with us at Never Surrender.
Phil is primarily a bass player. When I heard that VASSAFOR had acquired a new guitarist, I initially assumed this to have been a measure taken in order for him to move home to bass for live shows – but evidently not.
– No, no, I’ll continue playing guitar live – I think it works pretty well. It’s good to be able to conduct the fuckin’ sermon. But bass is definitely the trickiest instrument for VASSAFOR, there’s a lot more going on with the bass than probably anything else.
The music is written on bass, correct?
– Well, oftentimes the music is already there – whether it’s a bass or guitar I have available is just to get those parts out. I mean, it does happen that riffs emerge simply from playing the instrument but, more often than not, the music is already in there; it just has to take form. The latest album has more parts composed on guitar in comparison to the older material. But certainly, in the early times of VASSAFOR most of it came from bass.
Do you still demo your material multiple times before recording it?
– Yep. Some of the songs on “To the Death” might have been demoed… well, at least three times. I don’t use drum machines or any of that shit – I do guitar-only demos where I’m just playing two guitars. Sometimes I put bass notes in there as well, or just leave it open, and then Ben and I start turning it into something. We’ll often begin by recordings skeletons of songs, just to make sure everything kind of sits right to us as we’re playing it. Ben might want to try out different things or whatever; I’m not telling him how to play drums, because no one is going to come up with better fucking drums for VASSAFOR than Ben. Especially now when he’s been doing more and more writing as well, which is fucking great. He’s really carved out a lot of his own space on this record, and also contributed lyrics.
Alongside his regular job as an exterminator, Ben works as a Foley artist – recording and editing various sounds meant to be used either for added dramatic effect or enhancing background ambience in films or videos. This includes everything from cars suddenly hitting the breaks to shattered glass or the murmur of a crowd.
– We sit down and discuss what the song is about, and how to best illustrate that. For instance, on the last track, “Singularity”, there’s a kind of large… the part that’s not necessarily as traditional as the rest of the song. We were trying to get it to move through, and that movement through is just fucking perfect with heaps of custom sounds rather than something that’s merely internet-ripped stock sample bullshit. It feels like a natural continuation of the music to us. One of his fuckin’ genius ideas was to stretch out car springs and then hitting them with mallets. He also had these metallic scrapes with various bits of fucking debris; I have no idea where he even finds all this shit! Ben then manipulates the audio, so it sounds very different afterwards. He’ll listen to something and hear what’s possible to do with it, as opposed to how it actually sounds. Which is great, he’s got a killer ear for it and always comes up with these really fucked up pieces that sound perfect in the context of our music.
Once again, the production is a thing of beauty. I’m not sure how to describe it; dense and difficult to penetrate, yet highly rewarding of patience. As if it’s clad in a suit of armour that takes some effort and persistence to pry open.
– Well, like armour, I imagine the one thing it’s going to do is deflect people who have a thirty-second attention span. And those cunts can fuck off. You need to fucken absorb this music. Call me crazy, but those are the records I want to put on again and again. Maybe I’m a bit of a throwback. Well, I totally am, in fact. Still, listen to… let’s just say MERCYFUL FATE shall we, because, you know, why not? Think about how fucking utterly elite the production on something like “Melissa” is. I mean, “Don’t Break the Oath” might be the best metal production of all time but, holy fuck, the sound on “Melissa”… it’s so good, I don’t even know how to explain it. The very texture is just dripping in it, it’s timeless. And that’s the other thing – trying to get away from being stuck in a certain era, or in some time warp. Especially the production; so many people are intent on being inside a certain period, and very fucking specific. I’d much rather sound like something that could be electrified from the 16th century, or it could be the 60s or fuckin’ 2050. As long as you’re hitting the current, time should have no meaning.
Phil also points out that many of the early metal milestones were made by producers who had neither experience in nor any knowledge about such music.
– If you’re a genre producer and you get a steady slew of bands that are all same-ish, you’re going to have A SOUND… especially when you’ve got very limited time to make things. ‘Okay, we’re always gonna use these mics on this drum kit, placed in that part of the room, and I’ve got my templates here and in she goes…’, and suddenly you’ve got fucking fifty records that sound essentially the same, with a little bit of variation. I guess it would’ve been some kind of 70s rock guy engineering “Melissa”. The drums don’t get better than they sounded in the 70s, and “Melissa” has a classic 70s drum sound and texture to it. So, for us, this a great example of trying to reduce it to something fairly simple and tangible that still has plenty of unique character.
How is this influence reflected in VASSAFOR?
– For instance, on the new record there’s not a lot of guitars being played. Most of the time, it’s actually a single set of guitars per side – there are always two mics on the cabinet but with only one line going through. Plus, we use transposals and solos instead of trying to make things heavy by adding twenty layers of guitar on each side, like a lot of bands do. And it sounds… well, it just doesn’t sound focused, you know? It doesn’t sound particularly aggressive. It might sound heavy or it might sound flat and compressed and neutral or whatever, but we want to be the complete opposite to that. At its nature, metal really doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for dynamics, so why would you try to subvert that? If the drums are compressed to hell, you’re never going to hear the fucking nuances of the drummer. That’s another reason why a lot of those older records have more spirit…and it’s not even pre-digital, because there are plenty of great Pro Tools productions that don’t sound like a Tupperware container. I mean, fuck, I work with Pro Tools most of the time, but I really use it as a glorified eight or sixteen-tracker. Really. I try to keep it as simple as possible.
“To the Death” features quite a few solos. Earlier this year, I spoke to Michael Denner – who played guitars on MERCYFUL FATE’s “Melissa” album – about modern digital recording techniques which allow for tracking leads and solos a few seconds at a time and then piecing them together. I somehow doubt this is how VASSAFOR operates.
– No! I mean, who the fuck has that kind of time in the first place? I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but I remember somebody talking about how Lars Ulrich on METALLICA’s “…And Justice for All” recorded like a bar at a time – toms and various rolls individually – and then it was all just hacked together. And that sounds like the absolute worst idea I could possibly think of, in terms of getting any kind of performance with feeling. ‘That was really cool, but could you just play those fucken three notes again, please? That would be fucking grand.’ Yeah, sure. Anyway, Michael Denner… fuck, how good is that new DENNER’S INFERNO album of his, the more UFO-styled stuff? Awesome. What a great fucking sound that has too. It’s a perfect example of a killer natural-sounding production, even though it’s very well produced. Well produced, in the real sense of it.
“To the Death” was, as per usual, mixed by Phil on his own studio setup, VK Sound. However, this time the mastering was handled by Greg Chandler of Priory Recording Studios and British doom band ESOTERIC.
– Normally, I’d master it myself too, but I was kind of burned out by the end of the mix; there’s quite a lot in there. Towards the end of that process I began thinking, ‘Hmm, I could do it, but I really want to work with Greg.’ I mean, for a start, ESOTERIC is one of my favourite bands. If anyone gets it, it’s fuckin’ Greg. He actually is a true genius, and I don’t use those words lightly. “The Maniacal Vale” – the year it came out, I don’t know how many fucking times I listened to that damn record, but it was always just absolutely epic… still blows me away to this day. I mean, that is darkness. Just the depth of it – it’s literally the depth of it I wanted for our album. And so I thought, ‘I can do this myself and it will be fine and sound as we usually do, but I want a fresh set of ears I can trust’, and there are basically only a few people I’d ever trust with something like that. We did a bit of back and forth and he managed to get a lot out of it, he’s pretty fucking incredible.
You are both rather determined men – how did the collaboration go?
– I was a total fucking hard-arse about it. It was probably pretty annoying for Greg because I did pretty much just tell him what I wanted, but he gave me so much more than what I asked for. He did an amazing job… the depth on the top end is just fucking crazy. I do all these things in the mix, you know, I’m panning fuckin’ reverb trails and doing all this shit because that’s what I’m hearing and I want it to work so badly. To then hand it over to someone like Greg who instantly detects that… I can give him some notes or whatever, but he hears everything and just gets it because it’s all the kind of shit he does. So, yeah, hearing it back was pretty fucking cool. ‘Ah, there we go’. And he was really obsessive about it as well, he’s a meticulous guy. So, yeah, that was a marriage made in hell and everything worked out for the best.
Since I am infinitely fascinated by psychoacoustics, it’s always interesting coming across musicians with a good understanding thereof. I can’t immediately think of any black metal bands beside VASSAFOR and RIDE FOR REVENGE where I’ve noticed palpable such effects. One would presume also the new record to be properly infused with subtle sonic subversion.
– Well, I think you’re going to find that out for yourself after you’ve listened to it a whole bunch of times and it’s kind of seeped into your brain. But to answer in one word or less: YES. Oh, and RIDE FOR REVENGE – what an absolute fucking genius band that is. I always like when you can’t tell if some of the fuckin’ instruments are bass or guitars or actually what the fuck… you know, when there’s a perpetual question mark over what the hell is generating that sound.
The album features a number of prominent guests. For example, Jaded Lungs from ADORIOR – last week’s Bardo Methodology feature – wrote the title track lyrics and also makes an audible appearance in the same song.
– Everyone involved in this, the artists, are all interconnected – there are no outsiders present. I just wanted to keep it absolutely one hundred percent in-house. And if I’m gonna invite anyone else to write lyrics, it has to be someone I have an incredible amount of respect for. Jaded Lungs has been one of our staunchest and closest allies for a long time, I was truly honoured to use her lyrics. Given the song’s concept, having the opportunity to feature that kind of witch-oracle type figure within the music… it just made perfect sense. Her vocals are fucking killer; hail ADORIOR! Besides her and Greg, Carl Nordblom contributed lyrics. Steve from QRIXKUOR, now also ADORIOR, provided solos at the beginning and end of the album’s final song, “Singularity”.
QRIXKUOR, whatever happened to that band?
– They’re awesome, but it’s a classic example of how difficult it can be to get a stable line-up… I mean, I know all to well what it’s like trying to get people in a band to learn fourteen-minute-long songs. It’s fuckin’ easier said than done, that’s for sure! But the good thing about Steve is that he’s determined; I’m sure he’ll put it together. I’ve heard a demo of the whole full-length that he’s recorded himself and it sounds fucking mental. So, yeah, he’s putting together the right people and I know he’s looking to record towards the end of the year. Now that’s an album I really want to hear, the guy is a genius as well.
Swedish industrial veteran Nordvargr, known from projects such as MZ.412 and FOLKSTORM, provided lyrics, vocals, and ‘chaotic noise’. Contact was established after VASSAFOR recorded a MZ.412 cover, “Infernal Affairs II Doom Legion Ultra”, for a compilation called “Ancient Meat Revived – A Tribute to Cold Meat Industry”. Once it was released, Ben sent him a copy.
– Oh man, he’s been very cool with us. And… holy fuck, his vocals on that track are incredible. Again, it’s amazing getting to work with people we’ve respected for the longest time. Him and Ben have really connected, I think Ben is even contributing some drums for… I don’t know if its Nordvargr or one of his other projects. We’re certainly hoping we can do some more collaborations. Who knows, if we can fuckin’ get up there to northern territory, it’d be great to perform with him and maybe even do that song together.
What are the future plans for VASSAFOR?
– We’ll see, because our borders are closed at the moment. I’d imagine most of the world is. We were planning to play a couple of Canadian gigs in November, and we’d certainly still love to do it. But we’ll see how feasible that is. Later this week we’ll be playing several shows in Auckland and Wellington with ULCERATE, who also just released a new album. These gigs will be good for our domestic scene and have great local bands involved in each city also. Quite a change from the rest of the world: locked in and forced to shelter. We’ve had a lot of contact from people wishing they could be there. I was gonna try and just focus on other musical stuff, but I can’t help myself – I’m still churning out new material. I’m fucking just totally writing all the time. There are two full songs just sitting there, and then chunks of a few more taking shape. Bits and pieces. Really, what the hell is going on with me? I need to fuckin’ calm down!