Metal Time Warp: An Interview with Locust Leaves
[2019 Machine Music]: So, perhaps strangely, this interview with Greek metal geniuses/weirdoes Locust Leaves must begin with a kind of apology. Far from being a new interview, this is more of "from the archives" type of situation, stemming from the fact that when I interviewed Locust Leaves composer Helm about two years ago, I went ahead and published the Hebrew version, which indeed was published in my Haaretz blog at the beginning of 2018, but neglected to publish the much more immediate English version. It has always plagued me that this wonderful conversation with such an interesting, thoughtful musician was gathering digital dust instead of being published, and this is, in a way, my way of making some sort of amends. Perhaps, if I am less hard on myself, and keeping with the conversation's overarching theme of "time," this belatedness is, somehow, exactly in place. Whatever the case may be, here is that "lost" interview, complete with the introduction I had written at the time, soon after the release of their wonderful A Subtler Kind of Light.
[2017 Machine Music]: In the last few years I've had the tendency to recap the past musical years, as is customary. Someone in 2010 when I began writing about music I had made a decision to only spend time on music that matters to me and that interests me, as opposed to chasing the "new" at all times. And with the passing time that decision somewhat eroded because, for better and for worse, people like their lists. But this year, for the first time in so and so years, I won't be doing that. Instead I'll be giving that thing that I know to give: words.
And this time, perhaps apropos this previous paragraph, those words will be spend describing one of my favorite albums of this year and certainly one of the more interesting. Locust Leaves are a Greek duo working out of England [Not true anymore!]: Helm, who is entrusted with most of the composition and plays the instruments, and Nick K, who sings and composes some as well. They've been around for a while now, and in that time have created something of an aura of cult and mystery in the Greek scene. Both because of the split they released with Greek black/folk masters Spectral Lore and a testament for their quiet persistence.
So now [then, then, in 2017] after another impossible wait they finally released a full album through one of the best underground labels working today, I, Voidhanger Records. The album is a crazed work of art, moving effortlessly from sublime European prog to straight-up black metal. I have yet to hear music like this in my life [nor have I since!]. and I doubt you have either. On top of it all, Helm is also a gifted visual artist, a fact that turns this album to not only one of the most beautiful and strange albums to come out [in 2017!] but also one of the most arresting objects. Enjoy.
I'd thought I'd begin where I like to being, and that's to ask if you recall, perhaps as a younger person, a moment you had with an artist, album, or song that changed the way you felt about music? A kind of "mind blown" watershed moment?
My dad used to drive me and my brother everywhere when we were kids. He had a self-made collection of mix tapes, numbered 1 to about 300, if memory serves. Even as a six-year old or so, I remember being mesmerized in the car by a piece of music by Vangelis Papathanasiou. I would ask my dad to play that piece of music again and again for me.
I remembered it had 'fire' in the name and many years later I tried to find out which one it was. At first I thought it was the very well known "Chariots of Fire" but, although that's an amazing piece of music in its own right that connection did not satisfy. I remembered the piece of music, much in a way a child can, to be totally foreboding and magical, utterly otherworldly and dark. Darker than the major melodies of "Chariots of Fire." Then I did some more digging and found out it was instead the song "Fire Dance." In its movements and textures I think something was imprinted in my young mind about the power of awe and music and although it's not heavy metal per se, it sure fucking feels like it if you listen to it now. Outside of the world, outside of time.
That's fantastic. Does that "out of time" feeling, to your mind, also have to do with the development of your musical tastes later on? Say, when transitioning into metal and so on?
It does. My first heavy metal record was Master of Puppets by Metallica and I picked it up well after it had come out (around 1995). As a teen getting into the subculture it was impressed upon me by older friends and just by the… vibe of the scene if you will that all of metal music is equally valid, there is really no "outmoded" metal and modern metal. From Black Sabbath to Burzum it is all equally interesting and somehow, going against linear time, the future of the music is in conversation with the past. The past is alive – if you excuse the obviousness. By how musicians talked about their influences in the metal mag we all used to read in Greece in the '90s, by how the aesthetics were consistent for decades, it really was made clear to me in an illogical but convincing way that this sort of music is timeless. Growing up I understood the pathology in that line of thinking but I still consider there is something of merit to that mythological-historical approach.
Master of Puppets had a very startling effect on me, especially the one-two of "Battery" and the title track. Similarly, when I got Ride the Lightning, I found the purest encapsulation of that impression in "Fight Fire with Fire." You have to understand that we're talking about a very young teenager who doesn't know yet how this music is made piece-by-piece at all, can't tell the difference between a bass guitar and double bass. For my young mind, those violent down chords of “blow the universe into nothingness” touched a deep place in my psyche. That vision of apocalypse, or the end of meaning, it wasn't "to come," it had already come. Hell is here. There was, and remains, an existential freedom in getting that sense that time is an illusion.
As a kid I didn't have as much use for it because I didn't fear death and growing up (in fact, I couldn't wait to be an adult and for life to begin). But now that I'm going through my thirties that feeling borne of the violent collision of meanings that heavy metal achieves, that suspends all time and decoherence determinism, that upsets "the natural order" is even more crucial.
That's interesting, and a very tempting moment for me to dwell on (which I probably shouldn't) because I think we grew up in similar times and places (in my thirties, Israel, hearing 80s metal in the 90s) and I'm pretty sure Metallica had that effect on me too, especially RTL. But, being a bit of a Megadeth-head, and knowing you're into that as well, I kind of wanted to ask where you felt they had any influence, if at all? Since I think it's almost universal today to think of MOP and RTL as these originary moments, to try and see, out of pure curiosity, where would you see the Megadeth thing? In what way were they, if at all, again, important, and how? Because it's so easy to clump the two together, and i think, for whatever reasons, there's also a worthwhile difference.
I only got into Megadeth well into my 20s (Nick K. from our band was into them from the beginning). When I first listened to them I couldn't get over the vocal approach. I took a very roundabout way to Megadeth — at 15 or 16 I got really into what in the 90s European metal press was called "techno-thrash" and has been historically retconned into "progressive thrash" or "technical thrash." Those terms are a-historical because progressive metal came to be after and because of techno-thrash and all sorts of metal can be called technical anyway (Metallica were certainly playing much more robust and complex music than, say, Judas Priest). Techno-thrash was an invention of the American band Watchtower, who mixed Rush and Metallica and had left-leaning, humanist and modernist values to their music. The Germans more than anything picked up that thread and had a very vibrant scene. Some of the bands I loved and really got into back then were Mekong Delta, Sieges Even, Deathrow.
I got really addicted to that feeling of really dense and compact music that still retains the urgency (much more than the aggression) of thrash. I come from a left-wing family and it resonated in me to see modern-world concerns tackled by metal bands that even at 16 I realized were generally quite conservative minded. It's not an accident that, for example, there is little to no metal music written about the persecution of the Jews through history aside from the astonishing song "David" on the Sieges Even debut, Life Cycles.
So, to get back to Megadeth, I got really into techno-thrash, and it certainly has had an influence in how I think about metal much less in how I play it, as I am not a particularly technically adept guitar player. So, much later, I cycle back around to Megadeth to give them a fairer shot and realize that… they were concurrent with Watchtower and really helped pave the way for that sort of flowing, twisty stop-start type of thrash. I loved the flow of their songs so much on the first few albums. When Rust in Peace gets going there's no stopping it, I get drawn in such a maelstrom where I feel ״this is it, this is the only metal record that has ever existed.”
The point where I think Megadeth are still not on the level of say, a Coroner or Voivod is their reliance on the pentatonic box in which Mustaine writes seemingly all his riffs. I don't particularly care for the blues influence in metal and especially in techno-thrash I was and still am looking for a certain abstraction, a distance, a alienation that allows for a more sober look into the subject matter that these bands are tackling. And as we know, Megadeth were anything but sober.
That makes complete sense to me. I think it was only very recently that after decades of wondering what happened to Megadeth's influence I found my answer in the tech-death/prog-metal/melo-death side of things. It's funny, I never thought of them as being either technical or melodic, but when you zero in on those aspects then Mustaine is huge on melody. And, as you said, the pentatonic thing.
I think in a '90s context when we got in and there was already a Morbid Angel and a Spiral Architect, Megadeth don't sound like the pinnacle of technicality, but as I said metal music has an anachronous conceit. Once I surrendered in their maelstrom and felt as if they were the only band that ever existed, then they sound like the flashiest, most twisted jazz-metal thing ever.
It's interesting, however, since, getting to Locust Leaves, there's a very strong sense of that "stop-and-start- quality, that one would perhaps link to prog/tech music, but the stress in your album (which I have to say is just brilliant) is much less on technicality, but, and maybe this is the wrong word, undermining atmosphere. More of a slow-burning and hectic unease than flashy technicality. So, was there a point where all that "stuff" having to do with packing tech stuff in as fast as possible gave way to try to complicate by stressing mood, rather than shred?
Locust Leaves doesn't compose anything with an ear to adding “technical bits” in the music. I do not know why and how that would ever be a priority and I don't think Watchtower or Psychotic Waltz either were concerned with that, per se. I think there's a point of adding enough information density and kaleidoscopic vantages to support the subject matter. Healthy distance and intense proximity are necessary at the same time to have the experience that we're looking for. Making the listener go through tensions, peaks of release and moments of recollection without boring them takes some skill and that's exactly the amount of skill we've ever tried to acquire and put to work. We barely can play our own material a few weeks after recording it for this reason, it's right there at the edge of our capacity. And if we compose a new thing that we can't play yet, we'll work at it until we can and then forget how we did it.
I think the connection there is again found in the mindset of the '90s in metal. Where what was once called “atmospheric metal” acted as an umbrella of anything outre and kind of jumping ship from the heavy metal orthodoxy of the times included everything from romantic doom/death like My Dying Bride to melancholic progressive metal like Mayfair. I think that's where my young mind got the impression that even super-dense techno-thrash has an integral concern of atmosphere, not just empty fireworks to impress musos.
Yeah, completely. when again always leads me to MOP and Peace Sells. Two very aggressive albums but in their own way as atmospheric as it gets. And it's interesting to think of the idea of tension, ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys. It's really a question of manipulating (for lack of a better word) time, or space. Which, again, gets back at the basis of what music is, in a way, playing with time.
Yeah. I'd pinpoint the Megadeth experience as one of intense paranoia, delusions of grandeur and an aura of intense energy to accomplish almost anything. These effects seem similar to those of certain narcotics, perhaps.
And the experience of time in music is a strange one. In narratively-focused heavy metal it's quite a thing to realize that 35 minutes (the duration of our record) have passed and feel like quite a longer ordeal, perhaps. I found it telling when reviewers complained or even just made note that the record is short for their tastes or that the last ambient piece is a let down. It really was revealing, to me, that they didn't penetrate the outer shell of the music at all and they were concerned with warning potential customers that this particular product is sub-par in terms of objective time. That's a very dispassionate way to look at art.
I agree. Very surprised that was written at all.
I'm glad you penetrated the shell of the record, then. The '70 minute epic' sadly was a 90s decree imposed by record companies because cds would be longer than vinyl. And then you have all these new black and death metal bands all serious in their sacramental black robes putting out 3 hour releases on multiple cds. Who has the time to immerse themselves fully into a piece of art for 3 hours at a time? Tarkovsky had a rough time achieving that sort of temporal bubble for his viewers in a more immersive medium of cinema… don't tell me all these metal musicians hold greater talent!
Completely. Shit's gotten so serious is hilarious. Not sure that's what they're intending, but it's funny as hell.
I will take any art with good faith initially. You're saying, robed musician that this is music meant for internal work and transcendence. I'll try it if you ask, sure. And I have, and it's really not brilliant enough to be means of esoteric praxis for anyone else than that particular magician that put out the record! A lot of it just seems like vanity projects — and I have no problem with vanity, but at least keep it concise if you want there to be a public record of your own particular brand of spiritual ascendance.
I'm sure you get this question quite a bit, but: the band has formally been around for a while, and before this record you just had the split in 2012. Is this a result of this getting to the limit? Does it take that much time to mess properly with time, I guess the question is?
The overarching theme of this conversation seems to become 'heavy metal and time'. This is a good subject to me. I'll put it this way: we have recorded hours and hours of music for our own personal gratification and internal work, much like any robed black metal magician (though in a more psychoanalytic bent than anything, but then again it isn't like those realms do not collide in the subconscious realm of archetypes and shadows). We didn't keep everything private just so it would have more impact when we stepped out of the shadows. We kept everything private because we didn't want to bore people with the record of our own internal work, as I said above. We really felt that we didn't have much to say to the outer world at that point, but much to say to ourselves, to heavy metal, and to let that loop feedback until we came to greater understanding. And we did. We sincerely urge other bands to not release metal if they feel its borne of confusion. There's enough metal out there, after all. However it's a tall order to ask people to realize when they are confused, so what can you do?
We didn't mean it to be some sort of trump card that we've been doing this privately for 18 years or something. But it sure helps now that there IS a public record, in terms of gravitas, to know that we didn't just from yesterday and we do not do this sort of thing painlessly and easily because we're career musicians that can write 20 djent records in our sleep.
For heavy metal to “mess with time” as we have established it can, it has to be connected with many points in the history of itself and it has to have the capacity to induce awe in the listener. To make them feel that at once the music is in conversation with the astral library of metal itself but also in that particular time of listening, that it is the only heavy metal record that has ever existed. This grant promise (and lie) is at the core of the heavy metal experience. It takes a lot of solitary practice (for us) to even have a hope of achieving this in 2017, a node in linear time of utter oversaturation for the metal subculture. If it takes 18 years of private practice and the call of higher and lower powers and blood and sweat on our parts to make the listener feel like they are 12 years old again, so it must be.… And when they're 12 years old and unguarded, then we must take the chance and rock their foundations, their preconceptions, their conservative beliefs.
That's interesting since A) for the most part metal bands tend to mature in the public eye. Perhaps the looseness is more an American influence, but it's rare to see someone at it "in the shed" for so long, and quite admirable. but also B) because of my own work. My "day job" is a university lecturer, and most of my work is in war literature. There's one specific piece I have in mind (cont)
Metal bands used to not have a record contract until they've workshopped their debut to perfection. Maturation is not what I'm talking about — it's ingress. It's going deeper, coming to more startling realizations about oneself and metal music. Maturation sometimes implies a quieting down of the spirit and an outgrowing of the edges of our youth. I do not think this is a good thing for metal music. I think metal bands get worse over time because they do not understand what it is about their early material that makes them good. If they understood that, they would also understand themselves, culture, metaphysics. Is this maturation? Or is it going creatively slightly insane?
Yeah, for sure. There’s a war novel/poem published in 1937 called In Parenthesis. It's about WWI, but published almost 20 years after the fact. And it shares more than just the "in the shed" aspect to it with Subtler Light, because, like your record, it's interested in mixing time, confusing time: medieval battles and early-modern war and WWI as all, in a way, happening at the same time.
I'm fascinated by this In Parenthesis and I will seek it out. Thank you. I'm very happy that you realize that we're not metal sub-genre tourists. That instead this is how we understand metal music now.
Are you planning on touring at all with this? given how difficult it is for you and so on? (and if you do, Israel is super close)
I don't think we'll ever play material like this live, no. We go back and forth with this, in the band. We'd like to present something at some point in the right circumstances, but it would take so much planning and bringing together of disparate talent at this point, and because we're very concerned with perfection of details it could go so wrong. Imagine if 2 years of planning and air fare and recruiting of members and intense band practice were to be ruined because in the day of the live show one guitar was lost in the live mix. I'd be so frustrated if that happened I think I would actually just spontaneously combust right there on the stage. Well, at least if that happened it'd be a memorable live show for non-musical reasons.
For sure. Spontaneous self-combustion is a huge ticket-seller these days
But you can only do it once.
But what a show it would be!
I know! Don't give me ideas!
Do I understand correctly that you're pretty much the instrumentation guy, pardon the simplification?
I'm mostly the composition guy, I'd say. Nick K. also plays guitar and contributes ideas and in the past Miltiadis has been our bassist, it's a shame we couldn't work together on this record, but perhaps again in the future. By nature of how the material is composed and arranged on the computer, the idea of a 'lineup' becomes a little bit vague. I can do a lot on my own, but there are times where a live drummer is a better option, or an outside view on the lead guitar work as we did with Ayloss this time. The mandatory core for this to be Locust Leaves is the creation of music by me (and for reasons of low vanity, guitar playing by me) and vocals and/or aesthetic survey by Nick K. Even if the piece is instrumental, if it's not vetted by Nick K. then it goes in the shelf as some sort of composition exercise by me (of which there are dozens).
Wow. That seems almost like a miraculous dynamic to maintain. I'd be pissed if I had to bin my 9-minute masterwork.
It takes a lifelong friendship. And I am blessed to have such a life-long friend, and he's also talented. You see why spontaneously combusting members is a risky preposition. Nothing is ever binned, that's the thing. I can still listen to it, and learn from it and gain courage and moral support from it.
That's great. Now for the obligatory yet unanswerable question: Would recording the next one take as long?
Ah, but first you should check yourself before you find yourself in an unfortunate collision. Who says they're going to be a next one?
We're always composing and recording music. If any of it will add anything to the public dialogue we will put it out, otherwise not. There's enough metal out there, there's enough career musicians doing slight variations of the same thing.