MACHINE MUSIC’S ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ARTIFICIAL BRAIN
[This is the EIGHTH installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: Artificial Brain
Album: Infrared Horizon
Label: Profound Lore
Favorite Song: "Estranged from Orbit"
The Bare Bones: Coming after their full-length debut, and one of the best death metal debuts of the decade, 2014’s Labyrinth Constellation, the Long Island technical/brutal outfit returned with its sophomore album, again with Profound Lore Records.
The Beating Heart: Artificial Brain’s magic, one made manifest even in the relatively short space of two albums, lies in their ability to marry impossible components: super-sophisticated, even pretentious technical death metal with the heart, soul, and organic feel of old school death metal and even, yup, 70s prog and krautrock. An impossibility made all that more impressive when considering the fact that Artificial Brain doesn’t achieve all this welding of styles by way of putting that “tech-death part” next to that “proggy part” but by doing it all at the same, ferocious time. This tendency is even more apparent in the band’s second album that no only never dips into that infamous “sophomore slump” but takes on the original framework set by their debut and just, put simply, executes it even better. A true twenty-first-century death metal masterpiece, and that rare work of art that is both alien and all-too-human at one and the same time.
Before getting to my correspondence with Artificial Brain's bass player and vocalist Sam Smith, I’d just like to remind anyone interested that a) this is a part of an ongoing exploration of my albums of the decade and that the project’s landing page can be found here; b) that recommendations, interviews, and much more can be found at the blog’s overly-active Facebook page, as well our Instagram and Spotify accounts; and c) more timidly, perhaps, that if you’re down to contribute to whatever it is I am doing here, you can check out our Pateron page. There’s a lot of cool stuff about to happen there very soon. Enjoy:
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
One memory that comes to mind is when, at the age of 12, I heard Slayer’s South of Heaven for the first time. I was actually at our guitarist Dan’s house, he was blasting it on his stereo, and I remember having the distinct feeling that I was doing something wrong. This was the darkest music I had ever heard, but that made it feel somehow divine or magical. I remember the title track, specifically, and Tom Araya’s sort of monotone delivery calling attention to the lyrics, which I found profoundly frightening. Between the vocals and that eerie opening guitar line, it was just the most profoundly affecting music I had ever heard. I got more serious about guitar after that, and I also began to investigate extreme metal, hunting down music that would make me feel the way that Slayer record did.
It seems that, while being a very original band in its own right, Artificial Brain is very much in line or a part of a long standing tradition of northeast technical death metal. Were there bands that were especially important for you or for the band coming up, bands that were influential both musically and, if that makes sense, regionally?
There are New York bands to whom we’re probably more often linked, and there are New York bands (Immolation, for example) who are more direct influences on our sound. But, coming from Long Island, Suffocation looms largest. I think I’ve still probably seen Suffocation live more times than any band I haven’t toured with, and more than most I have toured with, too.
They’re also band that we all have a common love for, which is rarer than you might think. They’re certainly a direct musical influence for both Keith and Will, and I think they also helped inform our live show, to a degree. I don’t want to speak for Will, but I don’t think it’s far-fetched to draw a connection between his stage vibe and Frank Mullen’s — in both their sense of humor and the forwardness of their regional identity.
As an artist, how do you maintain freedom when still working with your inspirations? Or your own past as a musician?
Often when we talk about the work we want to make, we talk about the appropriation of conceptual or technical tools of musicians we admire. I think that developing creative vision might start with figuring out what doesn’t yet exist that you want to hear, or figuring out the right toolbox for the project, so to speak.
Stewart Lee, one of my favorite comedians, objected to an interviewer referring to him as a “singular voice” by saying, “I’m just copying people you don’t know about.” It’s both true and a slightly dishonest joke – he, of course, has direct influences, but he’s used them in the development of his concept, and not his voice, exactly. That seems like the balance to strike. While we may say something about wanting to have the guitars take on this contrapuntal Emperor vibe, the melodies themselves are not going to sound at all like Emperor, and the context will remove them further still from that association. Melodic sensibility can also be a really personal thing – the way that a Thelonious Monk "head" is unquestionably Monk, or a Thantifaxath melody wouldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. I think you have to just build this conceptual apparatus and then let your own basic musical ideas flow within those parameters.
One of the striking things about Artificial Brain is that as technical as things get, and they get quite technical all the time, there’s an enduring sense of a very warm, almost vintage-like rhythm-section sound. What are some of the things you and the band do in order to keep that “rock” bottom to all the crazy experimentation on top?
That kind of thing just comes very naturally from our performance styles and from the way that we record. Colin sample blends the kick on our LPs, but it’s a really natural drum sound, nevertheless, and the performances aren’t shifted around or quantized — having this more natural sound really highlights lets the nuances and humanity of Keith’s playing jump out. As far as the bass goes, I burned the tubes extra hot on my Fender Super Bassman for Infrared, which might contribute a sense of “warmth” on a purely sonic level.
Compositionally, one of our big touchstones when we started Artificial Brain was the great now-defunct Norwegian avant-rock band Virus, and I think that the way that rhythm section interacts is still something that occupies space in our heads when we’re writing. We’re not about to start playing walking bass lines and disco beats, but I think that there’s a broader sensibility to that material that we find ways to filter through our own musical perspective.
Notoriously it’s much more difficult to put out a second album than a debut, for which you had your whole life to prepare. And while there is a distinct moving forward from Labyrinth Constellation, Infrared Horizon feels like an almost pressure-free, subtle shift, without missing a beat. How different was the process, and the added pressure of already having been published, in the making of Infrared Horizon?
I don’t think that we necessarily felt much pressure after the release of Labyrinth Constellation, aside from the personal pressure we put on ourselves to try to create something we think is interesting. We knew that we wanted to wait until we had the right batch of songs, however long that would take, and Profound Lore puts no pressure on us to release material on any kind of a timeline, so it felt like a pretty natural process. We were also able to tour the country a couple of times in between the two records, and I think we developed significantly as musicians in that period as a result.
Our lives did change tremendously after we recorded Labyrinth, though, because of this touring, and because of school, work, etc. As a result of that, Infrared Horizon was conceived in a somewhat less collaborative way than Labyrinth Constellation. The writing process for most of the early material, Labyrinth included, involved Dan coming to our practice space with riffs that we would all hash out. We would end up writing a significant amount of the bass and drum parts during these sessions, and we also used this time to talk over song structures and that sort of thing. For logistical reasons, the process for the Infrared material looked a bit different — Dan demoed most of the Infrared material with programmed drums, and those demos ended up really informing what Keith came up with, so I think that that in itself is a pretty significant process difference. Beyond a couple of oldest songs from that record (like “Vacant Explorer” and “Static Shattering”), we didn’t rehearse much of the material as a full band until just a couple of months before the record came out. I also wrote most of the Infrared bass parts at home, composing right down to the wire while I was in the middle of a busy semester of school, so a lot of those ideas were never even performed with the band prior to the recording.
The vocal process ended up being very similar on the two full-lengths, with Will doing the majority of his work at home, but there was a kind of conceptual process difference between the two records. We felt there was a certain lack of conceptual unity on Labyrinth, so we spent time discussing ways to marry the lyrical and artistic themes a bit more with Infrared, and to consider how those themes relate to the idea of the project, itself.
One of the distinct things about the album is the 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?
I do think that, for us, giving the ear a little space to work with, and a little context for the particularly “heavy” bits, can help them to land heavier – that building up to an emotional climax in a song can make a heavy part feel massive. Additionally, at a certain point in listening to really some relentlessly brutal music, I cease to experience it as heavy. My ear adjusts to it, and it takes on a sort of ambient quality unless I’m really actively and attentively listening. It’s just all about context.
Looking back, is there something about Infrared Horizon, a fact about the process, a particular song, that you’re especially proud of?
“Estranged from Orbit” is the song on Infrared of which I’m proudest. I think of Labyrinth as being a moodier record than Infrared, and I see Infrared as being more structurally sophisticated and more rhythmically diverse than Labyrinth. “Estranged from Orbit” feels like it represents the best of both of the records, retaining the melancholic, lyrical vibe of the first record but deploying it in this more interesting format, with a sense of rhythmic variety and excitement. There are also some interesting production techniques in “Estranged,” like the extreme low-pass filter effect later on in the song, which is a part of our sound that we want to continue to push in the future. “Estranged” just feels like a really strong representation of what we’ve been trying to do with this band.