PILLARS OF THE 90S: SAMAEL DISCUSS THE MAJESTY OF PASSAGE
[This is the Seventh installment of the Pillars interview series. You can check out the rest here]
Album: Passage (and kind of Ceremony of Opposites – we'll get to that later)
Label: Century Media Records
Favorite Song: "Shining Kingdom" (but also "Son of Earth" – we'll get to that later)
The Bare Bones: Passage is the fourth full-length from Swiss black/industrial metal band Samael, centered around the songwriting prowess of brothers Michael "Vorph" and Alexandre "Xy" Locher.
The Beating Heart: In the already bizarre, ambiguous waters of the mid-90s metal scene Samael served as a towering beacon of creative daring and unique personality. Heading into the middle part of that decade armed with two stellar black metal releases – Worship Him and Blood Ritual the band, within the space of two singular albums, entirely shifted their trajectory and by doing so created one of the most unique catalogues in metal. With 1994's Ceremony of Opposites Samael retained most of their black-metal menace while adding a sly industrial influence. Armed with huge riffs, dramatic performances and one of the best guitar tones in metal history, they delivered a crushing, economic performance for the ages. However the transformation was complete with their 1996 masterpiece Passage. The ying to Ceremony's yang it saw the Swiss masters looking at their black metal past through a thick haze of Godflesh/Pitchschifter-like beats and riffs, creating an album that was equal parts majestic and cold. On the most personal of levels, Passage changed my life. I had never heard anything that huge before, prompting me to seek out their previous album which resulted in me being crushed alive by Ceremony. And so while this iteration of the Pillars series is technically about Passage I feel like any discussion of that album would be incomplete without some reference to its predecessor, hence this bastardized result.
For those reasons and many others we have chosen to include Passage and also kinda Ceremony of Opposites in our Pillars series of interviews through a new interview with Samael's Michael "Vorph" Locher about those earth-shattering couple of albums unique album (shout out to Yishai Sweartz for the connect – check out his band Tomorrow's Rain if you're into brilliant gothy doom metal).
Before that, however, a few words about what this all is, and what I hope to achieve in an investigation of the great albums of the 1990s. I feel like what happened, inadvertently with the Albums of the Decade project was a documentation and to an extent consolidation of what it is that I have loved an admired about the music of the past 10 years or so. I began writing this blog as a way back into music and heavy music after something of a hiatus from metal in the early 2000s and it was for me an investigation not only of what I love but also why I love it. And those interviews were instrumental in my own understanding of my appreciation of music and, really of art more generally. However, having gone through that series as long as I have has also pitted me face to face with the understanding that the wellspring of my own musical inspiration as well as that of many of the artists I admire today – that weird, unique confluence of inspirations that made up the musical scene of the 1990s – had to be tackled in some way.
So, now that that's out of the way, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify (now also on Twitter!) and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, and check out our kinda-sorta podcast, MATEKHET (YouTube, Spotify and all that). On to the interivew with Vorph.
Is there a moment with a song or an album, maybe as a younger person, that really changed what you thought about music or made you want to become a musician yourself? Obviously there might be more than one of these, but anything that stands out?
That spark could be traced back to Kiss and AC/DC as far as I'm concerned, they both in their own way showed that music could be more than music. Later, Maiden, Priest, Sabbath and Motorhead became the backbone of my musical journey, but I believe when I heard Venom for the first time I knew I'll make the step and become a musician myself.
As a follow up, can you understand better now, with the years that have passed, what it was that grabbed you about that initial moment? Perhaps an element you retained in your own music?
I was a fan of heavy music but it all seemed so far away from me, the punk movement showed us that it was possible to do it by ourselves, but as much as I liked some punk bands, I didn't identify with the whole thing. In that regard, Venom became a pivotal band, they were a metal band with that punk DIY attitude.
I have always been fascinated by what I experienced as the various idiosyncrasies of the Swiss metal scene. Whether bands like yourselves, Celtic Frost and later Schammasch and Bolzer, it just seems like Switzerland produced unique bands time and again, in a massive disproportion to both population and scene size. One cause that has come up, and that may be relevant to other unique scenes such as the Australian one is a sense of relative isolation, that Swiss musicians were less involved in what was happening around them and thus developed their own style. Is there any credence to that idea, and regardless what would you say helped shape that unique musical environment?
I don't have a satisfactory explanation to that, but maybe one of the factor is the size of the country. You can't make a career being a copy cat of another band and expecting to get enough shows to make a living out of that. You have to be different in order to exist. It might also have something to do with a very individual mentality, we don't like to belong and don't mind to be cast aside as long as we can do things our way.
Worship Him and Blood Ritual were quite unusual black metal releases, and yet somewhat in keeping with some of the black metal that was beginning to emerge all over Europe. But Ceremony of Opposites, the album that leads up to our topic, Passage, was already quite different. Most notably in tighter songs, a much fuller sound, and for my money one of the best guitar tones ever. What would you say were some of things you wanted to have differently on that album, whether in terms of your own thinking, its production, and so on?
We were listening a lot of industrial music back then, that was something we were drawn to, and we wanted to incorporate some of those elements to our sound. We were looking for a defined guitar sound but with enough crunch and aggressiveness to contrast with the somehow polished sound of keyboards we were using.
One of the things that ties Ceremony and Passage together, as different as they are, is your vocal style and its place in the mix, almost like a ghost hovering over the music. Was that just something you happened into or an experiment on your part?
We were considering the vocal as another instrument and didn't want it to stand out like it is in pop music. I was a big fan of Bathory and loved the way the vocals meshed with the guitars both being agressive and abrasive. I used to like having lots of reverb on the vocals, it diminish the impact but it give it more grandeur, so to speak.
I find that in many cases artists progress in their sound after, in a way, having exhausted a certain set of ideas. Coming into Passage did you have a clear idea of what it was you didn’t want to do anymore? How did the increased emphasis on orchestration and keys come into play?
For Ceremony of Opposites the songs were mainly composed with the guitar and the keyboards were added afterward to give a different ambiance and dimension to the music. For Passage part of the songs were first composed with the keyboards with the guitars coming next. “Rain” is typical a guitar song while “My Savior” is more a keyboard song.
Obviously the move that started with Ceremony and was somewhat radicalized in Passage meant not only a huge shift for you as artists but also a quite significant shift away from the current sound of black and extreme metal. What was some of the pushback you felt after Passage came out? Were people disappointed or unpleasantly surprised?
The use of a drum machine is probably what was the biggest polarizing element within the metal community. We knew it would be a pill difficult to swallow for the most conservative ears but that was our way to move forward and open some doors to new experimentation. All in all, people accepted our choice and focused more on the music than on means we have used to do it.
I find that often radical shifts within a band’s style or within a genre sometimes entail unexpected influences. What would you say, looking back, were some of the “non-metal” influences that may have crept into your music over time, and especially in the mid 90s?
We're a metal band but of course there are lots of other influences in our sound from classical music, to industrial, to electronica you can find all that mixed in our own way. If I'll have to name drop a few bands we were listening to during the '90s I'll say Godflesh, Ministry, Peace Love and Pitbul, Laibach or Neurosis…
Being a unique band such as Samael really became during the Ceremonies and Passage era is a wonderful thing, since you feel, I guess, a sense of development and ownership of your art. On the other haמd, however, it could cause your music to be less mentioned, say, in the larger “most influential” band category when discussing 90s extreme metal. Obviously you are a very known band, but seemingly a more artistic presence that lends itself to more artistic-minded individuals. Has that ever bothered you? Knowing that your art is at its peak but that you’re not always recognized?
Not being in the mould of a music genre could make things a little more difficult when it comes to promoting the band. It might take a little longer for the general public to catch up with our music but they eventually get there. We played Ceremony in its entirely a few years ago as part of the 25th anniversary of its release and we ended playing over 30 times, mainly in festivals, so there's probably more people who have seen us playing those songs lately than have heard them back then. We'll do the same with Passage next year and will see where that takes us. We're glad that we don't sound like other bands of the same era and we're still challenging ourselves to come up with something exciting, it's probably the only way to last the distance.
Looking back at those albums now, is there something about them that you feel held up especially well over time or that you have learned to appreciate with time?
With every album we've released there is always a time were we think something could have been different if not better. Ceremony's sound could have been fuller, more massive – we actually re-recorded two songs “Ceremony of Opposites” and “Son of Earth” for the “Exodus” mini album – but with the time I've learn to appreciated it the way it is. An album is also a testimony of a period of time, and that includes its production and overall sound.