Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with The Ruins of Beverast
[This is the first installment of my The Albums of the Decade series of posts and interviews. For more information go here.]
Artist: The Ruins of Beverast
Album: The Blood Vaults: The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer
Label: Ván Records
Favorite Song: "Malefica"
The Bare Bones: The fourth full-length of this German doom/black crew, which essentially revolves around the singular creative tidal wave that is musician, composer, and elusive multi-instrumentalist Alexander von Meilenwald. The Blood Vaults is a concept album that is based on the life of German inquisitor Heinrich Kramer who had, in his life and through his writing of the infamous Hammer of the Witches, led a murderous hunt of women suspected of witchcraft in the fifteenth century.
The Beating Heart: While this may be a recurring motif in the coming "chapters" of this way-too-big endeavor I have just initiated, I'm going to say here that the best way to understand the impact The Ruins of Beverast have had on me since the release of this album is to say that the band (Maximillian, really) added a new shade to my murky color palate. Every person's mind, I think, houses different and sometimes contradicting poles that explain why that person is attracted to certain modes or works of art. And those poles aren't always already there but sometimes created or revealed when we come into contact with some thing that may latch on to an existing tendency but nonetheless feels brand new. And TROB felt old – moody, slow-paced metal, sometimes breaking into faster black/death infused segments. But in other times TROB takes that old thing and reimagines it as new, and often, as a result, as frightening. Which is another recurring feature of this series – music that sticks with me is sometimes also music that has scared me and still does. Not scary because of talk of demons, mostly, nor scary because of the darkness outside, but an unfurling abyss into which I am in danger of falling.
And that chasm is opened by von Meilenwald, with his impossibly deep voice, with the unique dynamics he spreads throughout his songs that, as slow as they are sometimes, are never dull. But also a result of the almost inhuman effect of those down-tuned, reverb-laden, guitars that seem to churn through the space he had just opened with a softer, slower part, until it all but vanishes in a flurry of beauty and violence. If you choose to listen to my featured song of the album you will experience a microcosmos of those movements, and what makes TROB into one of the most unique metal acts since the onset of the current millenium. The inhuman coming into contact with the human, with a personal and endless pit of pain, in order to inspire the alchemy that is the new taste in all our mouths – that of The Ruins of Beverast.
In honor of my inclusion of The Blood Vaults in this strange series of mine I conducted a short interview in correspondence with Alexander von Meilenwald, about the wellsprings of his inspiration and beauty, about how the impersonal and personal come together in music, and also a bit about Depeche Mode. But first a short logistical remark before I move on to the interview – the planned length and size of this series has prompted me to set up a kind of general landing/introduction where I both explain the project in the most general terms and where the links to all the versions of the various interviews will be posted (here it is here). In addition, there will be many more updates, additions, and more stuff in general on the blog's Facebook page. I'll try to put up as much English-language material as I can. Enjoy the interview!
Is there a moment in your life, perhaps as a younger person that you remember changing the way in which you thought of music, or that made you want to become a musician yourself?
I grew up in the Eighties and thus the very first contact with serious music I had were the more serious and profound bands from the 80s. The first one of those was – when I was a very young kid – Depeche Mode. Back in the 80s this band was working with a strong audible and visual concept, which is today – like everything that is related to the 80s – ridiculed as cheesy and ugly. But in fact it was not, this band developed a lucid vision of gloomy music beyond standard pop material. And the way they handled their music and their output somehow had a grip on me. I cannot really say why, music is nothing I can analyze validly, really. But I found myself dreaming and then even making plans of how I would handle my own music. That’s when I started to teach myself keyboards, then drums and guitar and some primitive recording techniques. I was incredibly eager and developed whole concepts of how to write songs, how to arrange them on an album and how to design the visuals. Later my influences changed of course to the darker spots of the Eighties, before I made contact with the Metal scene. But this eagerness never left me till today, and I must say that I am undoubtedly glad about this. It led and saved my life.
More generally, as an artist, how do you maintain freedom when still working with your inspirations or with history, whether personal or Medieval?
Music is ALWAYS personal to me, it is impossible for me to occupy with music without following a personal vision and leitmotif. However, the different approach of Exuvia and Unlock The Shrine that you refer to consists in the fact that those two albums do not only *reflect* a significant personal abysm that shaped my life at their specific points of time, but also helped me to *overcome* it. Those albums served as a therapy, and they arose necessarily out of an emotional urge, not so much out of a creative urge. „Blood Vaults“ however is no less a personal album. It does not merely tell a medieval horror story, but it does what every Ruins-Of-Beverast-album does: it reflects my world view. Heinrich Kramer’s inner demon is indeed a very modern one: he is filled with fear; a fear that makes him arrange a crude value system in which he sites himself on the sunny side of all morality, losing track of the fact that the evil he intends to fight dwells within himself, and so much more than in all of his enemies. This is a very modern conflict that we face very intensely in Europe nowadays. Yes, it is presumptuous to evaluate medieval psychology with modern measures, no doubt. But nonetheless, the contemporary critics of the Malleus Maleficarum rated the book cruel and false. And indeed, „Blood Vaults“ is a tale about hypocrisy, false morality, double standards, blindness and ignorance – all those pretty attributes that our race is still carrying, nowadays possibly even heavier than before. And it is the stuff that fairly every Ruins-album is dealing with. Only in different settings and colors. The scenery on „Blood Vaults“ is different from that on Rain Upon The Impure or Unlock The Shrine, and yet they feature so much of the same speeches, surely with different words.
On the same note, it seems that metal has became a kind of battleground for ideology. Not to say that you are removed these issues, but it does seem like your approach is a more personal one. That, even if you do touch on the grander narratives, such as the historical, it is always from the vantage point of the personal. What is the importance of maintaining that intimate point of view when writing material for Ruins of Beverast?
I can only speak for myself in this case, but I never run the risk of losing my artistic freedom because of my inspirations, for I never use them as a goal to achieve or as a model but as a supportive impulse. Inspiration is not a holy grail in far distance but a companion that kicks my ass if necessary, if you wanna put it that way. I have a clear vision of how my music shall sound and this is not a vision that anyone else had and that I’m eager to follow, but it is a clear picture I have in mind. But still, as you mainly refer to „Blood Vaults“ in this interview, there is something different concerning that album, because it is a concept album indeed, and it is led by the scholastic structure of the book of the Malleus. And of course in this case, the structure was a kind of corset. Amount and sequence of the content of that album was given before, and my flexibility during its composition consisted of adapting the lyrics to TROBesque speech, as I said above, and letting them flow into music. It was a challenge and certainly bearing some problems, but nonetheless also this album sounds like The Ruins and nothing else.
As I said, I am not reporting or describing or commenting on actual or historical circumstances in my lyrics. What I do is using historical or even geographical sceneries as a kind of "setting," a symbolic level, upon which I install the story I wanna tell, the „level of meaning“. This means that the actual essence or statement of the lyrics can only reveal itself when they're exempt from their metaphoric coat. This is particularly important for me, because I shall never forget that I am a musician primarily and not a sociocultural philosopher. That means that the lyrics have to conform the music, they have to stand as an adequately decorated portal to let the music out, and not the other way round. There is no question for me that it could ever be the music that has to stand behind any ideological message – that's why I always make sure to compose pictured lyrics that won't detract from the essence of the music. The more tangible and lucid and explicit the lyrics become, the more power they develop to become the attraction and main issue of a band that it is regarded as, and I try to avoid this by any means. The Ruins Of Beverast are to build cathedrals of atmosphere and not to provoke profane disputes.
One of the distinct aspects of The Blood Vaults, and one makes it stick out, for me at least, is your use of melodic breakdowns and melody, which both space out the music and emphasize the heavier parts. What is the part you feel dynamics like these have in creating the atmosphere or sense of “heavy”? Do you always have to be pummeling riffs to be heavy?
The music of The Ruins is a permanent trip of opposite moods and dynamics. It is highly emotional and dramatic, and thus it is inevitably changing volumes, speeding up and slowing down regularly. This is not only a question of heaviness, but sometimes led by the lyrics or by the dramaturgy. Slow, sluggish parts often seem so much more intense to me, when speaking of forcefulness of riffs or intensity of atmosphere. Sometimes they almost have a physical impact, deriving from the deep frequencies and/or the urge to move. At least for me it feels like that. You have to keep in mind that, within slow parts, you’re able to put more attack and more punch into riffs and into drum strokes, which surely makes them sound heavier, while in fast parts everything that is deep and heavy is consumed by the quick sequence of audible events. Nonetheless, also fast parts can have a hypnotic feeling if the riff supports it. Besides, the guitars in Ruins are extremely downtuned, which modifies the guitar sound and makes the deep chords sound uglier and grimmer. In the process of composition, the nature of those parts comes naturally, I never design tempo patterns beforehand.
Looking back, is there something about Blood Vaults, a fact about the process, a particular song, that you’re especially proud of?
Well, yes, I mean in hindsight with a bit of a distance to the production process, I usually come to a personal review of what I created and traditionally this review is not very positive. Which is OK as it guarantees motivation and progression. But there is also always some parts that really satisfied me, and „Blood Vaults“ features at least two aspects that I rate as sustainably positive in the Ruins-history. That is first the "Malefica," a song that we still keep in the liveset, because its dramaturgy works very well on album as well as on stage, and in a live situation it even has the power to push ourselves into hypnotic trance. Even on rehearsals. I regard this as a sign of quality in the Ruins-universe. Second, it is the end part of "Spires The Wailing City." This riff is something that I would call the essence of Ruins-Of-Beverast-atmosphere, weird and strange, swelling, menacing. And I remember that I extended it more and more when recording demos for the song, cause at first it was too short. And in hindsight I think I could have even extended it more, but I also appreciate it as it is. I hope that one day we manage to include it in the live set.