Altars of Grief Interview with [June 3, 2018]

Posted by Nick Skog on Thursday, June 14, 2018 Under: Interviews
Altars of Grief Interview with [June 3, 2018]
June 3, 2018
Interview by: Mike Liassides
Original Link

We last spoke to Canadian band Altars Of Grief back in 2015, after the launch of their debut album, 'This Shameful Burden'. Since then, the band have produced a split vinyl EP, and the recently-released sophomore follow-up 'Iris', which was our May album of the month. That seemed like a good time to find out what's been going on with the band over the last few years, and unearth what Prairie Doom really means... Supplying the in-depth and informative answers are guitarists Erik and Zack." 

Talking to us today: Erik Labossiere (guitars, vocals) and Zack Bellina (guitars, formerly drums), of Regina's Altars Of Grief.

Hello again, and welcome back to I had a chat to Damian a few years back, after the debut release, but I gather this is a more open format, so could I ask you to introduce yourselves properly?

Erik: My name is Erik Labossiere, and I am the guitarist/backing vocalist. I also assist Damian with creating the story/narrative of our albums. Zack: My name is Zack Bellina, and I am the lead guitarist (originally the drummer from 2013-2018, and having played drums on "Iris"). I am also lead vocals/rhythm guitar in the death metal band Scythra, also reigning from Regina, SK. (Shameless Plug) 

Well, first things first - you've just released your sophomore full-length 'Iris'. I've seen nothing but good said about it so far, but how do you feel it's been received?

Erik:The response has been everything I could have hoped for. The majority of the musical writing process of this album was handled by the rest of the members of the band, as I've more filled the rhythm section up until this point. I was heavily involved in shaping the story and concept of "Iris" as well as making sure song structure properly conveyed the message and feel of the story we wrote. Essentially I wrote less riffs and more characters, haha. The fact that every review/article has made mention of the strength of our subject matter and that the music expressed the story well is an absolute victory and something I'm extremely proud of.

Zack: After putting everything we had - blood, sweat, and pure, mutual, raw emotion - into this record, finally having this released was a great milestone not only in my musical career, but also for this band. To then see it's sudden, growing success, put a big, stupid smile on my face, and still does. This is by far some of the best work this band has created together, and we all believed in it and the success it could reach. To see those dreams fulfilled, like I mentioned, gave not only myself, but the entire band a true feeling of accomplishment. I'm glad the concept of this record has reached out and captured so many listeners, and I hope many more as well. 

And what have you been doing, promotion-wise? Did you have any launch shows or appearances to push it out there?

Erik: With the help of our label HDR, we've released several singles, some informative promotional videos, and very soon we will be playing several shows as well as filming a music video in support of the album. It's been a bit of a slow burn release as we find our feet with the new lineup, but personally I've always been a fan of letting an album sit and grow on people over time instead of blasting all your promo off the bat.

Zack: With this record having quite the bumpy ride up to it's final release, myself and everyone were in 100% agreement that "Iris" needed every single moment of it's release. We believed that this album needed to be shown to not only our true fans and friends, but to new listeners and whomever dared to listen. With that being said, we plan to hit most of the major, central Canadian cities this year (Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and of course our hometown of Regina), to give "Iris" the exposure it truly deserves, and to finally show everyone what this band has been absolutely proud of, and cannot wait to showcase in a true, intimate live situation. I cannot wait to play live again, especially on guitar, it'll be a brand new experience for myself, and others. 

How does the anticipation and waiting compare to putting out your debut? Does it get easier or more difficult, knowing the process but having set certain expectations as a result?

Erik: As I was not a full member of the band upon the release of "This Shameful Burden" (I was only doing some guest vocal spots and mentoring the band at the time) I can't really gauge the difference. I can say that it's been very exciting to be so proud of what we've created, and knowing that the album is more than just cool riffs. Damian and I have been wanting to share a Prairie-oriented album for quite a while, so being able to finally see that come to fruition, and anticipating the reaction was very exciting for me, personally.

Zack: Releasing "Iris" compared to "This Shameful Burden" in my opinion were on the complete opposite sides of the scale. Altars of Grief was truly my "first real band" if you will, and it definitely had it's worries and expectations from friends and fans of course. But, being at this point not only as a growing band, but also as a maturing musician, "Iris" really put us and fans on the edge of their seats. Like mentioned before, this was some of our proudest work, with every ounce of effort put into every minute of the record, and of course it had it's worries up to it's release. But, we had no doubt it would make a lot of people happy, and we're pleased with how it has been received thus far. 

We're one of the sites that's reviewed it - it's always nice to give people the chance to respond to what we write, so are there any comments you'd like to put 'on the record' on that, good or bad?

Erik: Well, for starters, I absolutely appreciate your love of our "Room of Angel" cover, as I've been a Silent Hill fanatic for over a decade, and I absolutely loved what we did with the track. It's unfortunate that Konami is Konami, or we'd definitely be pushing the track more. I think your review, as others, we're nail on the head with our intentions. A vast, emotive journey from bitterness to acceptance. This album really encompassed "grief" and all of its stages, and we're so happy that fact was digested so easily. I also appreciate that your review didn't hate my falsetto use, as the only real negative criticism we've gotten in reviews is based around some of my more unusual vocal choices. So thanks for that, haha.

Zack: Firstly, I would like to thank you for the very kind words, and the very in-depth review of the album, as it gave me a very neat perspective of our work. I know Erik and Damian really enjoyed your love on the Silent Hill cover, and I can tell you share the same love for the franchise as they do. I appreciate the focus you had on the choice I had made drum-wise, and how I incorporated certain styles and feel to the record, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Of course I love blast beats and the pure rage they can bring to a record. But, I am once again very glad you see what I wanted to utilize differently within "Iris”; keeping it simplistic, and letting the music speak for itself at times. Once again, thank you for your kind words and I hope this record stays in your rotation for a while. ;) 

So, is there a back story to 'Iris'? It feels almost like it should have some kind of concept behind it - does it?

Erik: Iris is the story of a father, losing his daughter to a terminal illness. Her unwavering faith in god and refusal of medical assistance creates a separation between the two, leading to the father’s addictive issues resulting in his death. This album is his purgatory, watching as her faith slowly leads her to death. But this album isn't a shot at religion, or a rage against faith. More so, it’s an exploration of ego and control and how it plays into empathy and hope. This album is a man's journey from a selfish place to an enlightened one. There are no heroes, only the hope for understanding and enlightenment. 

According to the liner notes, the songwriting was a communal process, but with named leads for both music and lyrics. How does that work in practice: who does what in the way of contributing?

Erik: This album, in contrast to previous releases, was written very organically. In previous releases, former guitarist Evan Paulson would write the songs and structure, and the musicians would write their parts over top and Damian would write lyrics and vocal parts. In this instance, Evan still wrote the majority of the riffs, but the structure of the songs and arrangement was created by the group as a whole organically, which is why I think this album has such a powerful flow to it. Also, "Becoming Intangible" I wrote several years ago for an acoustic project at the time, and it fit far too well with our narrative to not utilize here. We wanted to make sure everyone's contributions were noted and respected, especially Evan as he is no longer with the project. He was the foundation of Altars of Grief's riff structure, and we felt it only appropriate to credit him as much as possible on this release. We want his part in this release to be as acknowledged as ours. 

There's obviously a very firm hand on the controls when it comes to the final arrangements: as one of my colleagues commented "it's so complex and well orchestrated it's almost frightening". So who's responsible for that aspect of pulling it all together as a finished product?

Erik: I don't think it was ever a matter of a "firm hand" by anyone, more so throughout the whole process we were all very heavy on communicating thoughts and criticisms. Everyone in the band was continuously reviewing and suggesting ideas for songs, structures and directions as we went. This album was extremely collaborative from beginning to end, and if the result is a frightening level of attention to detail, I'll take that as a compliment to our process.

Zack: As stated above, in the end it never really was a single-handed control for what the final product became, and I myself didn't want it that way anyways, given how unique each and every one of the members' inputs and suggestions were. This is what I believe is a huge key element to not only Altars, but to any band/project in the mixing/mastering stage of a record. With everyone's inputs and suggestions, it will truly craft a work of art that everyone should agree on in the end, because that's where the "magic will happen" so to speak. On another note, which should be fairly recognized, our producer Justin Bender, who also recorded/mixed our other 2 releases, was a HUGE part in how "Iris" became what it is. He saw what we saw in it, and I believe told the story we wrote, almost perfectly. There's no other engineer in my mind that could have guided us, and followed us on a journey so vast. He is, and will always be a huge help in what we have done and will do. 

Your Facebook description is 'Prairie Doom Metal', which to be fair, isn't a very widely-recognized sub-genre. What's the significance of the 'Prairie' part, and how does it influence the generally Black/Doom core of your sound?

Erik: I think sometimes you need to know a subject to write of it. Saskatchewan is a juxtaposition. On the surface, a barren, empty, flat mass. You can see for miles and it can be the most comforting or unnerving feeling to feel so completely alone in a vast landscape. Hidden in the valleys, hidden on the grids, and lurking just beyond your peripheral, Saskatchewan has history. Abandoned farms, towns, churches, and homes litter Saskatchewan’s back roads; deep, beautiful forests and rolling hills hide beyond the main highways. Saskatchewan is a bleak, empty place hiding beautiful, incredible secrets. Prairie Doom is isolation, and bleakness hiding its own beauty off the road. Prairie Doom is hope hidden in grief.

Zack: I personally love this term, and I feel that it suits us well. Living in the prairies, you get to experience a lot of different waves of emotions and atmospheres, (weather being a huge part in this factor), and it can definitely affect a persons mood and view on not only life, but the way something is created - in this case, music. There's something both beautiful, and haunting about the prairies that strangers wouldn't understand really unless you were a part of it, and I can say that this blends into our creation of Doom Metal, giving it not only a sense of beauty, but a nice underlay of sheer agony and despair, which I think blends ever so perfectly in the prairies. 

Speaking of which - Black and Doom Metal generally seem at odds with each other in their principal traits of tempo, degree of attack, and level of aggressiveness. How do you pull those together in a way that makes sense to your musical vision?

Erik: I think it all comes down to narrative. While many albums write of ideas, we write of emotions. We write of characters and their development. Grief is complex. Sometimes its a rage, sometimes it is quiet and alone, sometimes its a smile masking pain. We do not write to be, we write what is. Grief is Black and grief is Doom.

Zack: Each member of the band has different backgrounds of musical tastes, whether it's simply taste, or experience in previous bands. I think with the members we have/had during the creation of our 3 releases (Iris in specific), we’ve found the ability to mend all of our interest into one outlet. A track that has stood out for a lot of people "Desolation" - which was almost a shock to some - is a great example of how we can mesh all of the past and present of the minds within this band. Not only do we love the sheer intensity and harshness of a good fast blast beat over tremolo, but to then slow it right down to a lovely harmonic passage to ease off the tension. It takes great minds to pull off such vast differences, especially on the same record, but I'd like to think that we've done justice, and so do others as well. After all, we're still doom, I hope? 

Compared to debut 'This Shameful Burden', what do you feel has been your main evolution as a band in producing 'Iris'?

Erik: Definitely the attention to narrative and the writing process focusing on group creation. 'This Shameful Burden' and 'Of Ash and Dying Light' were structurally written by one person, whereas Iris was a group creation from beginning to end. I think we've also evolved in our personal lives by better understanding how to create music and make it a focus while maintaining other aspects of our lives. I think we're really figuring out how to make this project sustainable and progressive enough that it can exist for a long, long time if we want it to. 

In between those, you did the 'Of Ash And Dying Light' split with Nachtterror. How did that come about? What, if any, are the differences in approach between producing, basically, an EP-length piece and a full-length work?

Erik: As a member of both bands on that split, at the time Altars of Grief and Nachtterror were sharing a jam space and quite supportive of each other. Members of each band would hang out during the others’ time and just enjoy the community of creation. As Altars was still working the early stages of a new full release and Nachtterror hadn't released anything in a while, it only made sense to create something together to fill that time before new full releases. I personally loved the experience, seeing both of my projects creating such dynamic and interesting music. Zack: Nachtterror have been very close friends of ours for years, and we felt that combining both of the bands' styles and approach to music would mesh very well. "OAADL" in comparison to "Iris" and to "TSB" as well, was the first, kind of unique approach to the recording aspect of it. This was definitely a step more towards the collaborative writing style like "Iris" had, where instead of the heavy one-sided musical arrangement, even lyrically, each member had their own inputs thrown into the split. On my end, the drumming was definitely still toying with the black/doom style for sure, having the fast double-kick patterns present, versus the more laid-back, musically speaking drumming I had utilized on "Iris". I feel like "Iris" was definitely the most comfortable I've been behind a kit in the studio. 

With the benefit of hindsight, how satisfied are you with those two releases? Do you see them as a fairly definitive statement of where you were at that time, or more of a test-bed for where you wanted to be further down the line?

Erik: I think both albums did what they needed to. 'This Shameful Burden' introduced the world to something new and dark in Saskatchewan, and 'Of Ash and Dying Light' showed the evolution of that sound. 'Iris' is the next level of that evolution.

Zack: I will always be proud of what this band has done. Of course the two have been both a test-bed and a different time for the band, and you can definitely hear this through each release. Each record was a different time, not only for the band, but for each person as well, whether it's emotionally, or musically and that can definitely be heard through each record. I truly believe "Iris" is a perfect example of what hard work and determination can accomplish and of meshing everything each member has learned over the course of this journey. “Iris" has taught us so much, and will forever be a milestone in our career. 

I have a number of Canadian friends - reviewers, bands and labels: I always get the impression from them it's quite hard to understand how difficult how the vast geography of the place makes a lot of standard band activities - which we rather take for granted in Europe - logistically difficult. Do you find it hard to recruit/maintain line-ups/rehearse/tour or gig?

Erik: It can definitely be challenging, especially in the prairies. Saskatchewan only has two major cities and they're three hours apart and 6 hours from other large populous cities like Winnipeg, MB and Calgary, AB. Even within Altars, Damian lives 2 hours from where we jam, I live an hour away, and up until recently Donny lived out in a rural area as well. There is an added challenge to financing and planning tours when you know half of your commutes between shows will be 4-8 hour drives per day. It makes the victories all the sweeter, but it definitely makes an empty venue on the road that much more bittersweet.

Zack: For Altars especially, we have never all been within the same city limits, so organizing rehearsals has definitely been challenging at times. It takes a lot of passion to keep a band going, especially during the awful winters these prairies can offer. We’ve seen it all. Our first ever rehearsals were in my frigid, rotting garage in the dead of winter at -50 Celsius if I recall. Brutal beginnings… 

I always like to give a mention to Hypnotic Dirge, one of my favorite underground labels - they've been supporting you for a few years now: how has it been, working with them at least on the last couple of releases?

Erik: I have personally known Nic for over a decade and his absolute love for music and supporting musicians is without comparison. Unlike most labels, Nic puts bands before himself and his own financial security (sometimes to a fault, Nic!) and his hands on involvement makes the process so much easier for every public release, production schedule, and purchase required. Nic and his team are absolutely artists for artists.

Zack: HDR have been nothing short of kind and deadly for us and this band. Nic seems to see a lot of potential in us, and it gives the band that much more drive and passion to grind harder and pour in everything we have to ensure we release what we truly mean and feel through music. I have found many other bands/projects through HDR, all fitting so well with what we do, and I could not have pictured anyone else helping us with these past releases. HDR deserves so much for the time and effort they put into each and every release, and I hope they continue on doing what they do, for years and more. 

Perhaps it's a little too early to be asking, but do have anything in mind for what comes next? Any concrete plans for the future?

Erik: This is a hard one to answer. We've considered a gambit of options from this album being our final release, to new album concepts. I think I can safely say that we're going to give 'Iris' to the world, give all of the amazing support we've gotten what they're entitled to in content and attention, and if Altars of Grief continues writing and creating, then we'll be taking "Prairie Doom" to a new evolution.

Zack: As of right now, we definitely want to give "Iris" the true and proper release it deserves. With the reception it has received, and still is, there is no reason to let this album coast into the sea. As for anything after these shows, personally I am not too sure. Nothing is definitely concrete, but us as not only musicians, but friends, see no reason to slow down! We have far too many ideas and concepts that should not go to waste, and hell - I’ve put up with these goons since I was 16, what's a few more years, hey? 

And what about in the longer term, do you have any particular vision for where you'd like to take the band? Any idea how would you like it to be spoken of, looking back from sometime in the future?

Erik: We hope we've made an impact. I think as a musician, or just an artist, you want to illicit an emotional response in the world around you. From the fans that we've seen tear up during a set, to those who thank us for our music helping them through their own journeys, to those who just love to bang their heads; this is what we strive for, and if we're remembered as a band that made people feel something, then mission accomplished. 

I'm pretty much done with questions at this point I hope that's given you a chance to push across both the detail of 'Iris' and the general philosophy of the band, but if there's anything you'd like to add, please feel free to do so here...

Erik: To bring back to your reference to "Room of Angel", 'Iris' is an narrative album, as 'Silent Hill' is a narrative game. On the surface it is riffs, and harmonies, and blast beats, and cellos...but beneath that, its the story of a man facing himself in the face of a god and seeing both for what they truly are for the first time 'Iris' is as simple or complex as you choose to enjoy it. All we want, is for you to enjoy it. 

Zack: Once again, thank you for your kind words, and for your time listening and analyzing "Iris". I hope to have our music within your library, and to hopefully still give you and fans from all corners of the world music to enjoy. Thank you, and cheers. 

In : Interviews 

Tags: altars of grief  doom-metal  doom metal  prairie doom metal  blackened doom metal  iris  this shameful burden