INCANTATION – Dominant Ethos
On March 12th, 2014, it was reported that guitarist Alex Bouks had parted ways with Johnstown, Pennsylvania-based death metal outfit Incantation following a six-year tenure. Bouks’ overall studio haul as an Incantation member consists of studio full-lengths eight and nine, specifically Vanquish In Vengeance (November 2012) and Dirges Of Elysium (June 2014). A replacement was announced a day later.
“I don’t know exactly why he quit the band,” admits John McEntee, guitarist and vocalist for Incantation. “He posted ‘I quit’ on the internet – we didn’t have a talk about it. He didn’t say why he left, or what was going on. He just basically told us that he was out, and that was it. It wasn’t really like an argument, or a discussion. It was quite a surprise when he left, but I think he just might’ve felt that he wasn’t able to express himself a 100% with the band. Maybe he felt restricted, or something. I think he just wasn’t happy with the situation, or something like that. I’m not really sure. I really haven’t had a lot of contact with him since it happened, so you would really have to ask him to find out what he thinks about it, but we were definitely shocked about it.
“It was difficult for us, because I’ve been friends with Alex for about 25 years or something. It was definitely a bummer to have him leave in the middle of recording, but luckily we ended up being able to get our old guitar player back – Sonny Lombardozzi. He came in and did a great job with everything, so it worked out good. It was definitely a shock for us though, as well as probably other people too.”
Alex’s overall demeanour during recording sessions for Dirges Of Elysium implied something was amiss. “We kind of knew that something was a little strange,” the axeman acknowledges. “He wasn’t really that engaged in the recording process for the album, and that was definitely something that… We knew that something was wrong, but we just didn’t necessarily think that he was gonna quit the band. We thought that he maybe had personal problems, and that he just wasn’t able to take care of some of his band commitments as well as he normally does. We didn’t realise that it was to the point where he was gonna quit the band, though. We had no idea of that.”
The March 12th posting on Incantation’s official website which revealed Alex’s departure suggested the group might go on hiatus, although a mere day later the death metallers announced that erstwhile guitarist Sonny Lombardozzi would handle live commitments for Dirges Of Elysium. “That was something that was totally taken the wrong way by the press,” John clarifies. “We weren’t gonna go on hiatus. What it was was, in fact, basically Alex was gonna go on hiatus – that was the original thing. We originally thought that Alex was gonna just take some time off from the band, and get some of his personal stuff in order. We didn’t realise that he was gonna quit the band, necessarily.
“We were still gonna continue going on, but have a fill-in guitar player for our commitments that were coming up, and let Alex take care of his personal business. Unfortunately Alex quit then though, but the other guitar player we now have – Sonny – was already scheduled to fill in. I knew that Alex needed some time off, so it was really easy to replace Alex at that moment. We already had a guitar player that was gonna fill in for him, anyway (laughs).”
Sonny happened to be the engineer at Subspecies X Studios, where Incantation’s Kyle Severn recorded his drum parts for Dirges Of Elysium. “He just happened to be there, and he was around when things were starting to get a little weird with Alex on some issues,” the frontman shares. “He basically offered that if we needed help with the band while Alex was gonna go on hiatus for a while. We were like ‘Okay, that might work out.’ He just offered that he was willing to help out, and so we were really appreciative of the fact that he was willing to do it. Basically, he missed being in the band for the time that he was out, so he’s really appreciative of the opportunity. Originally we thought that he was just gonna be a session member that was gonna maybe do some touring with us until Alex kind of got whatever issues he was having organised and then Alex would’ve eventually came back, but then like I said, Alex just decided to quit. We already had somebody kind of onboard, so it just all worked out.
“On our end it worked out almost flawlessly, but it was not even expected to work out this way. It just kind of happened, but it’s good because Sonny’s doing a great job. He’s a great guy and he’s a great guitar player, and cool to hang out with. He’s made a really difficult situation really easy for us to deal with, because it definitely wasn’t something that we were happy about, that Alex left. We didn’t want him to leave. We wanted to try to work with him, but he did decide to quit, and we had to deal with that. Just the fact of having somebody else to flawlessly take his position in the band made things a lot smoother though, and the positive vibe that Sonny brings to the band definitely made the whole transition a lot better for us.
“We took a really fucking difficult situation, and made it positive. I’m really thankful to Sonny for being available and also bringing up the vibe of the band, because it’s so difficult when a longtime member of the band decides to leave. It’s not just musically a bad thing but emotionally it’s very difficult, because you’ve been friends with this person for so long. It’s sad (laughs).”
At the time of writing, Sonny’s long-term status as an Incantation member has yet to be decided. “We’re not trying to rush anything by any means, because we’ve learnt from the past that if we rush anything, it usually backfires on us,” John stresses. “We’re taking it quite easily. He’s basically officially a session member at the moment I guess, but we’re definitely looking towards working with him as a permanent member. That’s only official as far as we’re totally happy jamming with him though, and I can’t see any problems happening with him in the future. We’re already starting to work with him, and trying to use some of what he brings to the band as far as talent and stuff like that. We’re trying to integrate that with some of the new material, to make the new material even better. He’s pretty much a band member, but we’re just not saying anything officially yet. I don’t know if we’re ever gonna come out and make an official statement, but we know pretty much that he’s in the band because he’ll be on our next album.”
Sonny’s respective guitar style contrasts with that of Alex’s. “He’s basically a guitar virtuoso, so it’s a lot different,” the mainman judges. “With Alex, there’s lot more of an old school kind of jam vibe to his playing. Sonny’s lot more of a schooled musician, where he’s really tight. He really knows all of the scales. He knows all of this really technical stuff that I don’t know a lot about myself, but it’s good to have that quality of his playing in the band. He’s really good at picking techniques and really good at just making sure that everything’s tight, and really played properly and stuff. He really brings a lot of positive aspects to the band; just since we’ve been jamming with him, I’ve noticed a lot of technique issues that I might’ve slacked off with over the years. As a guitar player, it’s easy to fall into band habits that you’ve just been doing for so long. He was able to kind of work with me though, and make sure that I’m pulling my weight as far as a guitar player.
“I guess in a way, he’s been almost able to come in and really analyse everybody else’s playing, and try to make sure that as a band we’re able to sound as tight as we can live so that we can give people the best rendition of the band possible in a live situation. He’s definitely a great asset to have. This time working with him, he really understands our style a lot better than when he originally played in the band, so he’s able to integrate himself in a really positive way. I think it’s just gonna make the music in the future sound even more interesting. It’ll be a lot more guitar-oriented maybe on the next album, even more than this one, because he just has such an amazing technique that he could contribute to the band.”
Sonny’s initial jaunt with Incantation was short-lived, lasting from 2002 until 2004. “That was because he was looking for something different than what we were doing at the time,” John reflects. “He really wanted to get his name out as a guitar virtuoso, and what we were doing at the time and what he wanted to do at the time were just two different things. He was a tight player and a really great player, but at that time, he wanted a band where he could show off as a guitar player. He wanted it be almost something like Nitro, or a Yngwie Malmsteen kind of band – something like that – and it just wasn’t the right place for him.
“Now after 10 years of playing though, he wants to be more a part of a band unit and more writing good songs than just writing good solos and stuff like that. That’s why it’s working out better this time, because he’s more interested in being a part of a band unit. I think he realised after jamming with us for the first time, that his goal of just wanting to be a great solo player will only take you so far as a musician. There’s a certain point where if you can’t write good music, it doesn’t matter how great of a solo player you are.”
Much of Dirges Of Elysium’s compositions had been authored and demoed even prior to the completion of predecessor Vanquish In Vengeance. “The majority of the song stays the same just from jamming at practice,” the singer discloses. “You just try to practice the song as much as possible beforehand, so that you’re ready when it’s time to record, there are minor things that change. Maybe some vocal patterns, or some of the lead ideas, or some harmony kind of stuff.
“Once we hear certain things, we decide ‘Let’s do what we can to make this one a little more aggressive,’ like with ‘Debauchery’. Alex wrote the majority of the music for it, but once we listened to it, we realised that it might sound better being more of a faster, aggressive song. When he had it though, it was little more of an abstract, mid-tempo style. We added some faster drum beats to it, and just tried to get more of that old school, aggressive death metal vibe to it. It just kind of worked out very good. It ended up being one of our favourite tracks I guess, especially to play, because it has so much aggression to it. The majority of the main structures are there right before we even enter the studio, though.
“All we had to do pretty much is to try to finalise a few of them, to try to get a better vibe out of them, but then also, there were a bunch of new songs we wrote for the album after Vanquish In Vengeance too. Everything just kind of fell together really good. Everybody contributed to the songwriting, and just tried to get the whole vibe and everything. It was a fun experience to work on the album. It was just a good vibe I guess is the best way to put it – a good vibe between everybody – and I think it came across in terms of the way the album came out.”
Writing numbers doesn’t adhere to a typical pattern for Incantation. “There’s no real way,” John divulges. “We don’t really have one way of doing it. Sometimes I’ll write the majority of the song before going to practice, show it to everybody, and then jam it out, but a lot of times things will just change. When we’re at practice, other people will come up with different ideas, or we’ll just realise that the tempo or something isn’t working right. So really, the best way to explain it I guess is just it’s kind of a group effort that we try to pull the best out of everybody. There’s more of an actual band practice vibe instead of just coming to somebody with riffs, and saying ‘This is how it’s gonna be. Just play it.’ We’re very open to everybody’s input; pretty much everybody writes music in the band too, so everybody comes to the table with stuff, but sometimes we’ll collaborate together too on stuff.”
Certain motifs denote each members’ respective songwriting. “Definitely everybody has their own way of doing things – kinds of riffs that they normally come up with – but everybody also is…,” the axe-slinger begins. “Sometimes we’ll surprise you with something that is totally off the wall and different too, but I don’t know. At least for me, I just get in a mindset of what kind of song I’m trying to accomplish, what kind of feeling with the song I’m trying to do. Then I just try to sit there and think about it for a while, and then come up with riffs that express those feelings. Some of the stuff that Alex wrote for the album is a lot more spontaneous as far as… He’ll just play guitar and come up with some cool stuff, whereas I sit there and really think about the idea beforehand, and then try to create it I guess more from my imagination, and then try to play what I’m thinking on guitar.
“We all have different ways of doing it, but we put it all together and analyse everything. We’ll record the stuff at practice, and then listen to it, and try to think ‘Okay, would this riff sound better slower or faster?,’ or whatever other kinds of analyses a song might need. We definitely try to record this stuff, demo it ourselves first, and listen to it so we can all make sure that the song represents what we’re trying to get across with that song.”
‘Off the wall’ is a description John uses with respect to Alex’s songwriting contributions towards Dirges Of Elysium. “Really, a lot of stuff that Alex came up with on the album I was really happy with,” he cites. “Some of the riffs were definitely different than what I was expecting and stuff. It’s hard for me to say for my own riffs, because I know what my own riffs are gonna be (laughs). I can’t really make that judgement call, but definitely Alex on the ‘Dirges Of Elysium’ song, he came up with some really cool stuff that I wasn’t really expecting from him and what not. So yeah, he definitely came up with some cool stuff.”
Dirges Of Elysium’s older compositions were laid down during 2011-12, to be more precise. “‘Debauchery’ was only demoed probably three months before we recorded that, so it’s kind of a newer song, but all those songs like ‘From A Glaciate Womb’, ‘Dirges Of Elysium’ and stuff like that – ‘Portal Consecration’ – were demoed two to three years ago, something like that,” the vocalist elaborates. “We changed them since the demos, but we demoed them out just to kind of understand, to try to keep the structures and just look back on them when we had more time. When we originally recorded the Vanquish In Vengeance album, we just had too many songs for that recording. We decided to put a few aside, and just work on them more later on. We did the same thing with this album; we wrote too many songs for the album, but because we do that, it gives us more freedom to pick what songs work well together on an album instead of just using everything that we have. That’s a definite plus.
“Basically, they’re all really good songs – it’s not like we chose the best songs. All we did was just choose songs that work well together, but I imagine that probably all of them are gonna be used for our next album. What’s gonna happen is that probably for our next album though, we’re gonna have some leftovers again just because we’re always writing so much material. For us, it’s better to have a few extra songs and figure out which work well as a unit rather than not have enough songs, and just have to put everything on an album. So yeah, they’ll definitely be used.
“We’re starting to play some of the leftover songs already, and everything seems to be sounding good. Like I said, they’re not leftovers as far as not being good leftovers. They were just left over because we didn’t wanna do a double-album. We wanted to do a single album, because to do a double-album would be too much damn work (laughs). No, forget that (laughs). We have a hard enough time doing one.”
Incantation reaches its 25th anniversary during 2014, having formed in 1989. The ensemble plans to mark the occasion. “We are doing some sort of release,” John reveals. “We don’t really wanna say what it is yet, but we do have a couple of songs that we recorded at sessions for the last album that we’re gonna do for a 25th anniversary special release. We’re basically saving all of the material that we have for another album; we’re not gonna put out another release, except for the 25-year anniversary release. We don’t have a definite date for it, but it’s gonna be out before the end of the year, for sure. We don’t have everything 100% put together just yet, because we’re still trying to organise it. It’ll definitely be released within the next six months; we’ll have it out before the end of 2014.”
Just over half of Dirges Of Elysium’s tracks emerged from initial ideas the guitarist devised. “Let’s see… ‘From A Glaciate Womb’ is a majority song that I wrote,” he submits. “Let’s see… What else? ‘Portal Consecration’, ‘Carrion Prophecy’, ‘Charnel Grounds’, and ‘Impalement Of Divinity’. I can’t think of the other title right now, but those are all songs where I came up with the majority of the riffs and stuff like that, or just overall vibe. Then once everybody comes in, it kind of changes. A song like ‘Debauchery’, Alex came up with the majority of the actual riffs for the song, but once we all got together, it changed a lot from his original version.
“It came out really good, because we were all able to really jam out on it. It’s kind of weird, because the song has a totally different sound than what it originally had when he was originally thinking of the riffs. It came out better though, because we were able to take something that he did and put in a more aggressive vibe, whereas before it was a lot more melodic or something like that.”
John described Dirges Of Elysium’s material as being more ‘diverse’ in comparison to Vanquish In Vengeance. “I think the doomier parts on it are a little more atmospheric’y doomy than the last album, which was more just really barbaric, I guess – a doomier album,” he critiques. “I think it has a lot to offer; the fast parts have a really good, aggressive style to them I think, and it just has a good amount of mid-tempo. It has everything you’d expect from an Incantation album. I think it’s just done real well; I think we were able to capture a really good feeling and emotion on the album, which to me is always what helps to make a great album.”
And as well, the axeman deemed the outing to be a more aggressive affair. “Probably the key to the whole thing was just the fact that we wrote the songs and everything with the same line-up as the last album, so it was really great,” he enthuses. “We just kind of got tighter as a band, and really let everybody’s strength come out on this album. Definitely on the new one, the bass player (Chuck Sherwood) has a stronger role on the album; not just in the songwriting, but also just with what he’s contributing to the songs and stuff like that. That definitely brings another extra edge to it, but I think just the fact that we just played these songs so much and we just really got a great band vibe on it, I think makes it better than the last one. Vanquish In Vengeance is an album I’m really proud of; I think it’s a good album as well, but luckily, this one is doing better and has a little bit of a different vibe, which I think is a good thing.”
John musically identifies as a guitarist, first and foremost. “I will always be more of a guitar player than a vocalist, but I’ve taken on the role of vocalist of the band and I feel very comfortable with it now,” he muses. “I like expressing myself as a frontman in the band, but I think no matter how I slice it, I’m always gonna be kind of more of a guitar player and a songwriter than a vocalist. I’m always gonna give everything that I possibly have to doing the best vocals possible though, and fronting the band as strongly as I can.”
A variety of lyrical topics surface on Dirges Of Elysium. “One of the songs that I wrote on the record was ‘Debauchery’, and that one is another anti-Christian kind of song,” the frontman tells. “That’s just about the fact that unfortunately, there are religious people that are really judgemental about stuff. They don’t want to realise that just because they believe in something… If other people don’t believe exactly what they believe, they believe they are wrong, stupid, or something like that instead of just being content knowing that people have different views. As long as no-one’s an asshole about anything, it’s fine for different people to have different views on religion and stuff like that. That’s the lyrics that I wrote. Some of the stuff that Chuck wrote is definitely a lot more intricate and a lot more to do with historical kind of stuff than my lyrics are, but they both can work well.
“‘Charnel Grounds’, that song has to do with Tibetan monks. Basically, they were put out to die back in… I can’t remember what the year of that was, but they were basically slaughtered and tortured. Their bodies were cut up and left out to be fed to the vultures, and that was definitely a cool concept that Chuck came up with. ‘Elysium (Eternity is Nigh)’, that song – the long one – is about the rivers of Hades. It’s a Greek mythology kind of thing, where each river represents a different power – fire and water, and stuff like that. That’s where the bodies would flow down the river, and basically be open for judgement by the Greek gods. That’s a couple of really cool concepts, I think.”
Vanquish In Vengeance was cut at Mars Recording Compound in Shalersville, Ohio with engineer Bill Korecky, something that was the case for albums five through eight overall. This wasn’t the case for studio album nine, however. “We like recording with Bill Korecky, but unfortunately, his studio closed down,” John laments. “I guess he couldn’t afford to keep it open any more. He had an older kind of analogue studio, and he wasn’t getting the same kind of business as he used to back in the day. For the future, we’ll have to end up going to different studios to record our stuff other than Bill’s studio. The newest one we did at a couple of different studios; we did the drums at a studio called Subspecies X, and then we recorded the guitars and vocals mostly at this other studio called Bad Back. It’s a studio where Acheron recorded their last album at, so we had to go there for this one. It worked out good. Yeah though, we like working with Bill, but unfortunately things change over time.”
The Incantation mainman personally accredits Dan Swanö as producer for Dirges Of Elysium. “Dan Swanö did the Vanquish In Vengeance album too,” he notes. “We give him an idea of what we’re looking for and he just basically makes it happen, which I think is really good. What happens is after recording it, you just get so caught up in the recording that it’s nice to have somebody else kind of mix it afterwards and not involve us quite as much, because you get too caught up in everything. Being a musician on it, it’s better to have an outside perspective and someone to be able to capture what you’re looking for. Basically, what we do is we record it. We’ll then send it to Dan, and Dan will mix it at his studio. He’ll send us mixes, and let us know. He’ll get our feedback, and see what we like, what we don’t like.
“It’s better that way, because in the past we used to be there for the whole time of recording it, and be there for the whole time of mixing it. It’s so easy to kind of get tunnel vision that way. It’s better to have somebody come in that you can trust – that can do a good job for you – and take care of the mixing aspect of it. I think Dan does an amazing job. We like working with him, because he comes from our old school death metal era. He really understands what we’re looking for, our sound, and our style. He’s not trying to make it too modern sounding; he still keeps that traditional death metal vibe to it, which is really important to us.”
Such comments suggest that Dirges Of Elysium was a self-production, although John insists that “Dan produced it. Yeah, pretty much he did the production work for it. We gave him the okay on everything, but he was the man behind the board.”
A sole credit as mixer would arguably be more accurate. “I guess he mixed it and produced,” the singer ponders. “It’s a little complicated, because we kind of produced it and he produced it too. I guess we both worked on the production aspect of it, but he was in the charge of the mix. The best way to describe it is that both Dan Swanö and ourselves produced it. That would be the proper way of putting it I guess, now that I think about.”
Eliran Kantor handled cover artwork duties for Dirges Of Elysium. “The basic concept was the dirge of Elysium, the kind of idea of the song with the Greek mythology,” John informs. “He came up with the idea of the body giving birth, and I guess that’s supposed to represent the rebirth of the souls after they came to Elysium. They have the the serpent-head, and the wolf-head. That’s all kind of based around the dirge of Elysium concept. He definitely did a really good job. I think he definitely did a great job with the artwork – he came up with this great piece of art. I think it looks really dark. I think it fits the band, and also the concept, the dirge of Elysium, and stuff like that. I think he did a really good job with it.”
Dirges Of Elysium’s cover artwork is arguably superior to that of predecessor Vanquish In Vengeance, whose design Will Kuberski was responsible for. “The other one I thought was good too, but it was just a totally different kind of vibe,” the axe-slinger evaluates.
Dirges Of Elysium was released on June 10th, 2014 via Listenable Records.
Interview published in July 2014.
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