Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Skáphe

This is the 37th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]

Artist: Skáphe

Album: Skáphe²

Year: 2016

Label: Fallen Empire Records / I, Voidhanger Records

Favorite Song: "IV"

The Bear Bones: Skáphe² is the second full-length album from American-Icelandic black metal project Skáphe, featuring AP (Chaos Moon, Entheogen, Ringarë, Krieg, and more) and DG (Misþyrming, Naðra, and more).

The Beating Heart: Behind seemingly obtuse walls of chaotic atmosphere and menacing riffs, the very core of Skáphe's music is, somehow, both pained and very human. Teetering on the edge of some unthinkable abyss, the shrouds of impenetrable sounds create an unexplainable sense of cohesion and beauty. It seems, at times, quite easy in modern mertal to create an aura of intimidating violence, and yet to create that effect while, at the very same time, alluring the listener with human, artistic dynamics is a much more difficult task. And yet that is exactly what has set Skáphe apart, right from their brilliant self-titled debut, the ability to make music that bends the very concept of what we might think of music, and yet remain music. That elusive feat is not only matched but surpassed in their incredible sophomore effort, which, not unlike the work of frequent collaborator, and another member of the Albums of the Decade series, H. V. Lyngdal (Wormlust) who is responsible for the artwork of the first two Skáphe records, manages to summon the spirit of an inhuman, terrifying object, while remaining entirely entirely fragile, moving, and human.

And it's that rare mix that attracted me to Skáphe's music from the get to, and the reason behind their inclusion in this series via an interview with AP. But before we get to that I would encourage you to catch up with the Albums of the Decade series as well as, perhaps, check out our new podcast MATEKHET (YouTubeSpotify and all that), a place to unload a heady mix of philosophy, aesthetics, and metal. Also, be sure to check out or latest compilation album MILIM KASHOT VOL. 2, which is pretty packed with unbelievable music. Trust me. Finally, follow us on FacebookInstagramSpotify and also, if so inclined, support whatever it is that we do on Patreon. Thank you for your time and readership. On to my talk with AP.

Can you think of a song or album that you listened to, maybe as a young person, that really changed what you thought about music? Maybe even scared or shocked you?

I bought Soundgarden’s Superunknown on cassette shortly after it was released as I was a big fan of “Black Hole Sun,” which was making its rounds as a single on the radio. It’s a fucking dynamic rollercoaster of an album and being a kid at the time, completely erased what I thought music was supposed to be. The odd time signatures, fantastic musicianship, the weird tunings, the occasional completely fucked up riff, and the overall atmosphere of the album was everything that I ever wanted at the time, without really knowing that I even wanted it in the first place. I don’t even think I was able to get its complexity, but knew it was something different. From the introduction of the described difference, it birthed my sincere interest in music.

Looking back as an adult and more mature musician can you find some links between what you loved about Superunknown and what you do know or the way you think about music now?

The impact of that album has come in waves, primarily within the past five years or so, oddly enough. When I started seriously writing music, many of my influences were from the classic second wave black metal bands, everything else took a back seat. I was playing by the rules, I suppose. There were periods here and there where I tried experimenting with those previously mentioned concepts, but it always sounded like garbage to me. One day it just clicked, I knew how to take the things I loved from Superunknown, add a few other elements, and make it work for me and my style. 

Speaking as a person who is also a huge Skáphe fan and also spent this past Tuesday listening to “4th of July” 13 times in a row, is there a moment on one of your songs or a more general artistic choice that you can point to and say that it was influenced or inspired by that album?

Hm, I'm not sure if there's anything super obvious. There was a section of the Wormlust/Skáphe collab I wrote that became known as the “Soundgarden part” at 10:32 on the track "Vaxvængir Vonar." Lyrically, "4th of July" was about experiences on LSD and it's always been one of my favorite songs from the album, which was definitely an influence on my thematic direction of the band. On "Limo Wreck" the riff that begins at ~0:11, is probably my favorite single riff of all time. Its essence is easily the biggest influence for Skáphe. Unorthodox time signature, bass that kinda floats around doing its own thing, and the riff itself is really weird, played in a weird tuning. Later in the song, during a verse, a dissonant, blending guitar kicks in right before the chorus, I always thought that was so eerie and weird, like it didn't come from a guitar. Definitely made an impact as that device is used a lot. There's also “Head Down,” “Fresh Tendrils,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” etc. There's something from every song that stained my musical subconscious. 

On the subject of influences, I've seen a lot of people speculate that Skáphe is influenced by Deathspell Omega or Portal, or other similar, modern black/death metal bands. I do not consider any modern band as a direct influence and any existing similarities are simply from a similar mindset working within a similar style of music. Old Killing Joke (“Frenzy from Fire Dances”) or Devo (“Too Much Paranoias” from Are We Not Men!?) are more of an influence on Skáphe style than any contemporaries. Anyway!

This often comes up with artists, such as yourself, that have an affinity to starting new projects and collaborating a lot, but I take it that sometimes a new project arises when a new opportunity or interest arises. So what would you say was the “scratch” you were looking to itch when you began working on what became Skáphe? Was there something you were trying out?

Starting new projects makes more sense to me than pivoting the direction of an established sound or theme that may or may not muddy the fresh idea. I don’t want to take my inspiration and run it through a filter to make a discography cohesive. I’ve tried it before and I regret it. 

For Skáphe, I wanted to do something unrestrained by any boundaries that I had become accustomed to. The idea, at least in my mind, was to recreate the structures and sporadic sensations of psychedelic substances… Minimize the familiar chord progressions, song structures or fully discernible riffs. Let listener perception take control. I don’t want to use riffs to express an obvious idea, I want the music to act as a box filled with keys and the listener struggling to find the correct key to unlock a door. The door can lead the listener wherever they want. 

There’s a way in which the first Skáphe album feels, perhaps as many first attempts do, like letting something loose, which, in the case of that album, felt like letting loose a particularly formless, chaotic thing. And while the second album is just as hectic and aggressive there’s something about it, in terms of composition and also of mixing/production, that feels more deliberate. That there was a much greater sense of style or the style you were looking for. Did any of this play into how you wrote and recorded that album? In what way did it feel different, if at all?

Skáphe was simultaneously an accident and something that had been subconsciously in the works for years. It was one of those ‘why the fuck wasn’t I doing this before?’ type awakenings. I ditched some stupid, narrow-minded writing practices and started experimenting with different ways of building songs. It was a big turning point artistically, I felt completely unlocked.  

There wasn’t really a break between writing Skáphe and Skáphe², they were essentially written at the same time. But, by the time I got to the first Skáphe song, I started planning the albums to different themes. If Skáphe was the awakening, Skáphe²  was going to be aware of what it was. Like the dawn of consciousness, very primitive and unrestrained, a cloud of furious chaos trying to make sense of and control itself. 

The drums on the album seem to have a pretty important role, with the riffing being as abstract as it gets and the reverbed vocals and so on, they feel like an anchor to a lot of the songs. Were they just improvised along to the tracks, or did you have a more deliberate way of thinking about their role in the album?

Typically, either bass or drums are written first, depending on where the inspiration lies. They are the core of the band, they’re the only things that keep the rest of the mess together. It’s carefully planned as pacing is important, even if it doesn’t seem like there’s any sense to it. Otherwise, it would likely be mostly unlistenable. 

I find this fascinating, both because I completely agree and I believe that may be the source of my own sense of Skáphe as something other than just “pure nightmare,” that it’s led by a force and that the songs comprise, well, songs. But you are of course aware that to even some of the most seasoned listens there is something inherently “unlistenable.” So, I guess this is a strange question, but what separates, in your mind, music that seeks to alienate completely to the point of un-listenability and music that alienates within the wider framework of art and/or artistic communication?

Pacing, dynamics, and duration. You, as a songwriter, should know if what you're writing is going to induce ear or listener fatigue, but you can control the onset by utilizing peaks and valleys, which is something I stay conscious of when writing for Skáphe. I would like the listener to be able to sit through an entire Skáphe album without being totally burnt out, so you'll notice calm or slowed down sections, insanely pitched down guitar that sort of drones until it's “go time” again. I also have a soft rule, no album longer than 35 minutes. You go too long, it's harder to absorb, it's harder to latch on something so the listener may become familiar when there's too much. Even though I broke the duration rule for full length number 3 by a few minutes, it's a bit of a departure from the raw fury of Skáphe²  musically and conceptually.  

The rules I've set in place for Skáphe come from my own experience as a listener. I enjoy violent/harsh music, complex or simple, but there needs to be some awareness and balance of pacing, dynamics, and duration

Skaphe is noteworthy in that it saw you go down a path of collaborating long distance with the Icelandic scene, something that will take up much more importance later on as you form Martröð and later collaborate with H. V Lyndgal (Wormlust) as well as form Guðveiki. It’s a scene that has been very interesting for me, especially Wormlust and Rebirth of Nefast, and I’ve always found it interesting that I seemed to have been drawn to your stuff and Wormlust separately and then see you collaborate as much as you are right now. Other than obviously being a fan of each other’s work, do you think you have a better grasp now of what it was that made that collaboration work and be as fruitful as it has become?

It’s an interesting process that has taken quite some time to refine. The collaboration took around two years to complete. Most of those two years was a slow discovery with a sudden “a-ha” moment near the final months that led us to quickly fill in the missing pieces.  

The writing process was a very delicate balancing act, more so than usual and for different reasons than what I’m typically accustomed to when writing Skaphe alone. Tons of experiment with how to make it a true collab versus a split where both bands glued riffs together back to back. Additionally, we didn’t turn this collaboration into a “new” band, it had to be a fusion of each band's characteristics. Balancing those characteristics to prevent one band from outshining the other was equally important. It was a bootcamp for songwriting through the internet and different time zones, more so than anything else we’ve done together. But, as a result, I think we’re better prepared for the future.

It’s safe to say that both you and Lyngdal have a fascination with what you could call psychedelic music, but it seems that you’re both approaching it from different angles. With Wormlust, perhaps also in your collaboration, it feels as though he’s working within the general structure of a psychedelic piece and infusing it with the chaos of black metal, whereas Skaphe feels psychedelic as a result of an excess of chaos. As if you were creating this gaping black hole of music and the weirdness of it is the result. Do you find yourself interested in, say, vintage psychedelia at all or some of the tradition that entails, or would you say your mode of expression just started as that, expression, and then lends itself to be called psychedelic in retrospect? 

Skáphe isn’t consciously inspired by any psychedelic artists, even if I am a fan of the original scene and 80s-90s neo-psychedelia. There were some characteristics of those scenes that has revealed themselves as songwriting progressed unintentionally. As I stated before, the rhythm section is carefully planned, but I don’t know what the rest will sound like until the guitars are in my hand. No idea how to describe it, like subconscious improvising that is subject to many rewrites. Because of that, most influence, outside of drum patterns, isn’t entirely intentional. 

Looking back at Skáphe² is there anything, conceptually, songwriting, production, that you’re especially proud of today, that you think held up well? 

It’s difficult to say as my relationship with it is very “personal.” I appreciate it because I’ll never make an album quite like that again. I wouldn’t want to if I could. It defined what the band was and gave me something to work off of until there’s no more room for expansion.