Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Imperial Triumphant
[This is the second installment of my The Albums of the Decade series of posts and interviews. For more information go here.]
Artist: Imperial Triumphant
Album: Abyssal Gods
Label: Code666 Records
Favorite Song: "Dead Heaven"
The Bare Bones: The second album by this twisted death metal crew hailing from New York, founded by "Ilya" as a vehicle for his compositions in 2005. More importantly, however, it's the album that thrust Imperial Triumphant from the cellars of metal obscurity to the spotlight of, well, less obscurity.
The Beating Heart: The thing with Imperial Triumphant is that despite the fact that it's a bombshell of extreme, weird metal, and despite ostensibly coming up in the New York scene – the bastion of experimental American black metal in the last decade and a half – they've seemingly sprung up from nowhere, straight from the bourgeois setting of Manhattan. Not "hipsters," then, but the middle class turning on its own darkness.
Which may be part of why, more than anything, Imperial Triumphant harkens to a degree to the avant-garde pf European metal, albeit through the substantial prism of the American urban experience. Because unlike the deconstruction that the Brooklyn bands attempted to perform, as a form of artistic experiment, Imperial Triumphant represents a tradition of self examination, perhaps even self-inflicted assault, and the use of metal as a way to demarcate the devil and darkness that reside in one's own culture. But, while the European bands conducted that assault through an escape from the city, into nature into the arms of those ancient traditions that placed nature at their center, Imperial Triumphant wallows in its own urbanity, time and again, at least since Abyssal Gods, finding that devil in the decaying city-culture of the Big Apple.
The result of all this fighting and counter-fighting is different, uncompromising, cerebral, obsessive, and dark metal, that found what seems like its culmination in the group's latest release, 2018's Vile Luxury. Perhaps that's the reason I find the predecessor to that album as fascinating as I do, that statement that first paved the way into their battle with the city itself. And so, in honor of my inclusion of that wonderfully strange album in the Albums of the Decade series, I had a short chat with Ilya about composition and musical theory, about the utility of masks, and about how to make simple music sound much less simple. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to frequent the blog's Facebook page and brand new Patreon page (cool benefits to be announced soon).
Was there a moment in your life that changed the way you felt about music or made you want to become a musician yourself?
The first moment was when I was about seven and I heard Jimi Hendrix “Purple Haze” and I remembering thinking that that was a really nice sound and that it would be cool if I could do that as well. I think as far as what I do now, Deathspell Omega’s Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum is a record that…. You know, I was already very much into heavy metal, black metal, that whole thing. But this record, it opened my mind to the possibility that not everything needs to be super loud or fast, it was how you play the guitar. Make this sound weak, or make this sound frail, make it sound discordant, make it sound sloppy on purpose, you know? Those songs made me think that there was this whole other room that I hadn’t checked out.
I know you studied music, but I haven’t, so this will be an ill-informed question, but when I listen to DO it sounds like someone is having a horrible day, in a very musical way. Twisted and intentionally annoying. I would think that, given a musical background, that would not be something that would be immediately apparent to you, that you would have to unlearn some of the things you know.
Sure. Well, actually my mentor in college was the one who showed me that band. I think he wanted to change my opinion about how to play heavy music. I went for a musical composition degree, in classical music, so I was listening to a lot of modern, twentieth-century composers, and their take on classical music is so different from what everyone thinks of when they they think of Mozart, Beethoven, and that kind of style. And I feel that Deathspell Omega is to metal what composers like Ligeti are to classical music.
I’ve been following the New York Scene for almost as long as I’ve been writing the blog, and that used to be a very uncool thing to do. But I think the perception of that scene has come a long way since then. But there seems to be something unique about the bands coming out of New York at that time in that they are unabashedly urbane. You’re not chasing forests. What was it about making metal about city that made it important for you?
I’ll say this – it’s important to write about what you know. And that goes for anything, music, books, television. You have to have a great knowledge about what you’re writing about otherwise it’s going to come off extremely…. You can tell when you see a very metal band from somewhere in the middle of the United States and they write about Vikings of some shit that has nothing to do with their upbringing, with their culture, with anything, you find that it seems very much like a hollywood version of what people are doing in Scandinavia. And I think for me the thought was: “Wait, what’s my world?” New York City, the skyscrapers, and so I packaged it in a way that was unique and fresh but still metal. The art deco and the skyscrapers, they have a huge potential to be another heavy metal trope, it’s just that it hasn’t been used yet.
Have you felt when you were starting off, or even now, that you were being shortchanged, or that you weren’t getting as much attention at first because you didn’t do the usual metal theatrics?
Probably. Presentation is very important, especially when it comes to a style of music that we play, which is so hard to grasp initially. It’s hard to get into this music because it doesn’t hold your hand, and I think that if you present something else that helps people to grab onto it then it helps them process the music. The same with Portal, they have this amazing visual presentation that helps their listeners come to terms with their incredibly challenging music.
Speaking of presentation, at first, if I remember well, you performed barefaced, you didn't have any costumes at first and now it is part of your performance?
So where did that change come from?
I think we did a couple of tours with no masks or anything, and then getting more into the art deco thing and we wanted to just build a live show, to make it not so much of a performance than an actual show with some theatrics and stage production. Then we had that interesting thing with the Eyes Wide Shut aesthetic. There weren’t that many bands that were playing with that full mask on.
But it is interesting that a lot of bands are doing that now, and a lot of times those bands, when asked why they do it, they say they want the people to focus on the music and on the music alone. Is that true?
No. It’s adorable, but I don’t think it’s true at all. If you wanted to focus on just the music then you probably wouldn't even play live, you probably wouldn’t wear anything special. If you dress with some costume on stage and try to make a statement then you should stand by that statement, whatever it is.
I guess this move toward a kind a formalism, to “judge the art not the artist,” is strange in away because while performance is a big part of metal, it seems that being a real person is also important.
For an artist performing is everything. It’s not just the music. It’s more about the presentation of the music, the presentation of the band, the presentation of the stage, everything, the art, the message you’re sending out there.
I wanted to ask one specific question about Abyssal Gods. It seems to me that that album was kind of a watershed moment for the band, in terms of recognition, it was the first album with new band members, and it sounded more focused. Looking back now, what was significant about that album?
Tough to say. I think it was just a lot of influences coming into one record. I don’t know, it’s interesting because this record was written entirely by me, and I think it’s the last record that that happened. Now the band writes all together, sometimes we write whole songs together. There’s much more space in my band since it’s a different lineup. I guess Abyssal Gods was the culmination of what I as a solo composer was doing at the time, and my ideas, and where I wanted to take things, and I think it was probably the first step towards writing about New York City. There’s definitely that New York element in Abyssal Gods, the album cover, the artwork. Maybe half the songs from the album are about the city itself. And maybe we were still kind of… You know, a lot of people say that a band’s first album is a culmination of all their influences and that their second album is when they start to break away, find their own sound, and their third album is where they really come into their own, and for us that was Vile Luxury.
And you’re saying that the writing process for Vile Luxury was completely different too?
Absolutely, it became more of a band project than just me and my ideas.
But do you feel you had to get your ideas off up until and maybe including Abyssal Gods for you to enter confidently into a band situation and be ready for it?
Maybe, it’s hard to say. That’s probably true, to some point. Some aspects, I had a bunch of things I needed to write. But it is interesting that we only play one or two songs from that album nowadays. It’s kind of strange.
Is it because it’s an album that isn’t a part of everyone’s history?
Maybe, I don’t know. We usually just play “Dead Heaven” and “Krokodil,” but maybe one day we’ll play some more tracks from that.
The aesthetics of the costumes right now, it looks like a New York devil, all that art deco. Is that where it’s supposed to be?
I suppose so, it’s something that holds many meanings. The basis of it is the film Eyes Wide Shut and the meaning behind that of dark people wearing masks. I think masks have a huge role in our society, maybe not physical or actual mask but hiding your true identity, hiding your true intentions. I think there’s something very sinister about that and we want to play off that because it’s important to represent the music, visually, properly.
And was it significant that the people wearing the masks in Eyes Wide Shut are a very specific kind of people – urban, rich, decadent, that it that kind of context in which the masks were used?
Of course. Yes. Well, you know, we tried to do something unique. I mean, what you just said is 100 percent true, but we don’t want to just do Venetian-style masks, we’re not trying to do something that’s super 1920s too. We’re trying to keep one foot in every world that we play without being too on the nose. And i think we created our own new culture that way.
So, Abyssal Gods was that moment where there’s a shift from person to band, from performing without costumes to costumes, all these things that are in the past. But, is there something, when you look back at that album, that you are still connected to or proud of, even though it’s kind of a past life for the band?
Absolutely. I mean, we still play those old songs live and in rehearsal. And when you perform a song when you’re older it’s fun because you feel like what you felt back then, that energy. You feel the way you felt when you write, recorded, and played those songs. When we’re ripping through “Sodom” or “Gomorrah” or “Dead Heaven” it does feel a little old school, it does feel a little nostalgic in many ways.
Just before we leave off, what are some of the things you enjoy listening to these days?
Oh, a lot. I’m a big fan of the sixties, I listen to classical twentieth century music a lot. I’ve been listening to Runemagick, that Swedish doom band, a lot. Portal, Rammstein.
Wait OK, what is up with Rammstein? I’ve never been able to get into them so maybe you could help explain the attraction.
Rammstein? They’re geniuses. You have to listen to it in a different way. Because everything they do is coming from this industrial background. And they’re drummer is fantastic. He’s playing these really simple drum beats that are supposed to have that German machine-like quality to them, but he plays them with swing, and he’s just killing it. And the riffs… Everything about that band, song-wise, is really smart because it’s so simple but so well executed. That’s something I really appreciate, you know? I’m not really into super tech death metal, where it’s very pristinely recorded and it sounds like both guitar players are soloing at the same time.
But, to be fair, if I take a person off the street and I played his an Imperial Triumphant song, they would not think of that as a simple song.
No, but if I explained to you how the structure of some of our songs, they’re actually very simple. Where all just playing different type signatures, you know [laughs].
So you’re making something simple look complicated?
Yeah, I guess. What we do is way simpler than how it sounds. We don’t play super complicated compositions. We don’t write a song that has twenty different riffs, we try to write songs.
So that’s the kind of stuff that appeals to you when you listen to music?
I appreciate songwriting and thoughtful structures. If you listen to Vile Luxury in particular, because that’s our most recent output, you can hear that. You can hear a riff coming back after four minutes of exploring somewhere else. You can hear where we’re recapitulating after this earlier motif, stuff like that. We try to create an atmosphere or a vibe rather than show people how fast and crazy we can play.
Yeah. I think most of my time is spent looking for new music but I always say that I know when I catch on to something that I like, usually because it scares me. And being scared isn’t necessarily a simple thing. It’s not enough for you to pummel me with the biggest riff ever, that’s comical to me, that’s not scary. But there’s something about, say, an Imperial Triumphant riff or a Deathspell Omega Riff – it’s not that it’s super complex it just feels like you’re trapped by this monster.
Well yeah, that’s our job, you know?