El Negro Metal Interview Mefitis (Pendath and Vatha)

Deepest gratitude to El Negro Metal for allowing Hate Meditations to publish the English language version of this interview with Mefitis. You can find the original version of the interview here, along with other great articles on underground metal.

On the release of their brand new album ‘Offscourings’, Pendath and Vartha of Mefitis have been kind enough to take some time to answer all our questions about their music, their composition process, and their vision of metal, among other topics.

Upon the first few listens, it seems that on Offscourings you are using many of the techniques and style elements found on your first album, but in ways that are quite different. Do you envision your new album as an expansion upon what could be heard on Emberdawn or rather a twist into something different?

Vatha: Offscourings began life as a series of experiments. A sort of chimera, this release fits together strange limbs with more familiar bodies. Meaning certain sections show us pushing beyond the limits of Emberdawn, incorporating more adventurous concepts and influences in music. This should be immediately apparent in some songs, while others will reveal their secrets more slowly… In that way, it is a much truer statement of “dark metal” than anything we’ve released yet.

Pendath: In many ways this album is a natural continuation of what we did on Emberdawn, but we’ve become more confident with experimentation, and the vision for “dark metal” has expanded. Our influences will be more difficult to pinpoint, as Vatha and I are always trying to learn new ways of composing music. For instance, the first track begins with a musical attempt to capture the unsettling feeling of a Shepard tone. I think that each song on this record narrows in on more specific imagery, which cultivates a more concise “essence” rather than a set of riffs (in spite of having no less riffs). Thematically, Offscourings will remain in the same “universe” as Emberdawn, but instead of many tracks that illustrate a concept, this one tells a story.

I think I can get what you mean by “experiments” when I hear how your new songs are very different from each other, even more than on Emberdawn. There is an amazing level of detail, and many elements are heard on single occasions and do not reappear, which is quite unusual for metal bands. I’m curious about your song-writing process, do you work and rework your material until you get a result you are satisfied with or do you have an initial goal for each piece you systematically go towards?

Both: We find it very important for songs to contain “events” that punctuate key moments and transitions. These are brief musical ideas which occur only once; to repeat further would detract from their potency. These events were certainly present in Emberdawn, but have newfound prominence in Offscourings. As far as inspiration, our songs are not built so much as they are unearthed. A powerful piece of music lies already dormant in the collective mind, one that is yet undiscovered. The piece’s resonance makes itself apparent, but of course not always immediately, necessitating stabs from varied angles and distilling of the ideas which work. After much toil, the song may reveal itself as though by providence. Or it simply ends up being crap, no matter the effort. The ego bids us not to leave any scrap on the chopping block, but it proves paramount to do so. Our songcraft regularly involves this tension and resolution between the two of us, making us both stronger for having discarded lesser ideas.

Some of our songs will be written by us together, on guitar, while others are conceived “on paper” (written in software before they are actually played). However, no matter its origin, we repeatedly listen over our work and ensure that everything maintains aesthetic consistency and a sense of flow. Because of this variation in our songwriting method, new and unique inventions arise in the arrangement, which we can explore and expand upon. Typically, a first spark of inspiration, forming the principal riff of the song, will also manifest in later sections of that song. A good riff can have unnumbered useful permutations.

You seem to hold the concept of “dark metal” in high esteem. It is arguably one of the vaguest subgenres within metal, quite hard to strictly define in terms of sound. Do you like the fact that it can be a common ground between death, black and other genres and thus allow more formal freedom, or is it more a matter of feeling and ambience?

Pendath: The formation of musical genres doesn’t emerge from a vacuum; they almost always consist of a fusion between two or more earlier genres. At a certain point, it beckons us to stop considering it a hybrid. It’s its own thing. So when it comes to “dark metal”, we look at it as a combination of black and death metal (arguably the two darkest facets of metal), with the option to incorporate other influences and experimentations. The sum of those elements creates something larger. In some sense, we use that term for ourselves. It forces us to focus on writing something unique so we can live up to our vision of dark metal, rather than being complacent in the fact that it checks off all the requirements for an already established style. It gives us freedom, and also serves as a benchmark. In many ways, black and death metal (especially death metal) have become stagnant, content to reuse the same exact ideas from yesteryear. We hope to lay the groundwork for something new, even if it isn’t entirely unfamiliar.

I suppose one could ask, “What makes ‘dark metal’ specific to your sound? Couldn’t any metal that explores darkness be called dark metal? Isn’t all metal dark to some extent?” These are all valid points. “Dark” is a vague word. However, there is some historical precedence to the term “dark metal.” The most obvious example is Bethlehem, who implemented a combination of black, death and doom metal, and aptly named their debut album Dark Metal. Quite bold. Samael, Root, Rotting Christ, and Aeternus were all bands that called themselves dark metal as well, almost three decades ago. I recently found a band from Czechia called Avenger. They had a similar mixture of black and death to us, and also called themselves dark metal. Their 1999 album, Fall of Devotion, Wrath and Blasphemy is an interesting and undiscovered relic that deserves the time of anyone into this type of music.

Similarly, Vatha points to an example in the song “Those Burning Thorns” by Fermenting Innards. While listening, you may be reminded of both death and black metal simultaneously; it is somehow both and neither. One may summon a moniker for this music by assembling subgenre lego-language, perhaps “melodic blackened death metal”. We ask why: why continue to use these names when they prove still insufficient to describe this music? For some reason the term “dark metal” got appropriated by cheesy gothic rock/metal bands (often time “symphonic”), and is far removed from our notion of it. Nonetheless, it never really developed into its own vocabulary, and we feel no guilt in snatching it away from them and re-igniting the torch originally set ablaze by Bethlehem.

We’ve gotten a bit of shit online for calling ourselves a dark metal band…in forums at least. Some people think it’s some grand proclamation of originality, and an unwillingness to subscribe to something pre-ordained. In reality, it’s a bit simpler. We’ve never been comfortable calling ourselves black metal or death metal, because we don’t fit into either paradigm. There are important elements to each respective genre that intermingle to form a separate identity. Sure, there are other labels that *could* describe our music, such as “black/death metal”, “death/black metal”, “blackened death metal”, or…the eloquent ”deathened black metal”. All of these are clunky, and the latter two imply a tendency toward one more than the other: “We play black metal with chugs”, or “we play death metal with minor bar chords”. None are as  succinct as “dark metal”. How we develop it further, and how it takes to other bands is yet unseen.

I very much enjoy the way you sparsely and strategically use non-metal elements and instruments, such as acoustic guitars, keyboards and, above all, the unusual choruses that appear on occasion. All these are even sparser on your new album. Do you conceive them as embellishments over a fundamentally metallic frame or are they an integral part of your take on metal?

Vatha: The added instrumentation on Emberdawn is born of part exploration, part necessity. That is we were eager to try new sounds in our songs with the aid of instruments and samples at our disposal, but also we found it important to highlight certain passages that otherwise could get lost in the murk. So for instance a distorted guitar part with a lot of ringing might benefit from being double-layered with acoustic guitar. Ideally though, these embellishments add a new layer of depth to these songs and perhaps draw out a feeling that the triarchy of guitar-bass-drums alone could not.

On Offscourings, I would say we maintain this varied sonic pallet, but now these brush strokes are incorporated into the songs from their conception more so than being finishing touches. A huge part of that is knowing what we can achieve, and what sounds we like. A “dimension” chorus effect makes its way into just about every song. That alone forms part of the identity of dark metal, a gothic tinge borrowed from the 90s gloomy-dirge-death bands who used it to great effect.

Out of all the new songs, the title track and “The Witherways” show a more intrepid mind towards the use of guitar in metal. Still rooted in a very metal sound, we have experimented here with pickup configurations and effects to achieve contrasting moods. That said I find a light touch is usually best when applying effects, so there is no danger of us becoming something like a ‘pedalboard band’ (or worse yet ‘psychedelic metal’).

As was also the case in Emberdawn, the lyrics on Offscourings seem to refer to some kind of post-apocalyptic or decaying world in which all hope is lost. Is this perhaps a reflection of the way you see the current world or does it have to do with more general thoughts about the future of humanity?

Vatha: A theme which is perhaps only hinted at on the first album is that construction, succeeded by collapse, is a recurring process. Even the strongest foundations show seams with time. In this world, each time our species reaches new heights of insight and “outsight” we beget our unmaking shortly thereafter. Our outerworldly Daedalus watches our progress, and delights at our fall. This gathered knowledge is lost for a time, but then is unearthed and fed back into the loop with ever greater fervour. Our yearning for meaning therefore is depicted as a curse as well as an asset. Offscourings, while continuing to depict images which might accompany an apocalyptic scenario, shows us at a possible end of the cycle.

In exploring this narrative, we hope to avoid allegory which might suggest one particular time or place. Just as we strive to devise this album as an entity distinct from metal of the past and present. But of course, we base our ideas on the tactile ruins of this world. To paraphrase McCarthy: “Those who have come before, now vanished but whose structures lashed their likeness to the living landscape”.

Let me ask you at last about the artwork for your new album. There has been a dramatic change from the recognizable, Finnish scene-related Turkka Rantanen style featured on Emberdawn to the more schematic and symbolic imagery used on Offscourings. Is this a mere change in how you wish your music to be portrayed or do you want to project some deeper evolution in how you view your work?

Pendath: Indeed it is quite unconventional, and has been a point of contention among the people privy to Mefitis. There are a few reasons why we chose to pursue such a different strategy for the cover art.

Funny enough, it started with me looking through the family record collection, which mostly consists of 70s stuff (sorry I know that dates you, Mom) and more contemporary alternative rock. Something struck me: the album covers, while perhaps not as dazzling as metal’s elaborate paintings, were extremely well designed. In metal, I often see these incredible worlds depicted, yet with a ridiculous logo haphazardly slapped onto the artwork. It can turn a marvellous piece of craftsmanship into a tasteless platitude. Of course, a painting can be engineered to have an open, less detailed space for the band logo, like we had Turkka do for Emberdawn. Nonetheless, there was something about the minimalism that made these old album covers seem iconic.

If a band has a few hundred bucks to spare, they can acquire a painting that makes their album perfectly resemble the metal classics. How many hellscapes do we need to see? It is no longer a safe bet to make a blind purchase at the record store based on that aesthetic. Everyone is doing it nowadays. If there is anything we can do to separate ourselves from the deluge of mediocre modern OSDM albums coming out, we’re gonna go for it. In fact, this strategy assists in eliminating superficial comparisons. If we made Emberdawn’s cover look like a Norwegian black metal record, people would think of it as black metal. Instead, it looks like the old Finnish death metal bands, so people likened us to Demilich, even though the musical similarities are quite meagre. With this new cover for Offscourings, it leaves people without an obvious thing to which they can compare (in metal), which forces the listener to actually listen to the music and figure it out for themselves.

I also really enjoy drawing portraits. They have a certain way of immortalizing the subject, in a way that a mere photograph cannot. Andy Warhol and his development of “pop art” is not really something I admire, much like the fact that Campbell’s chicken noodle soup is not the best soup I’ve ever had. However, if there is one thing that is evocative from his legacy, it’s his monochrome portraits. It is not entirely unprecedented in metal either, as it crept its way into the likes of Darkthrone’s Transylvanian Hunger (although likely by convergent evolution). This portrait style manages to reduce the details of someone’s face to their most basic features while still maintaining a realistic likeness. When doing the outline, it looks more like a map than it does a face. Only when the shadows are entirely filled in does it reveal the person. I think that is a good representation of our music: each individual part, no matter how abstract, reveals the overall meaning when put together.

For those that are unsatisfied with the Offscourings artwork, I have good news: It is not the only visual representation of this album’s universe. Who says that an album ought to be represented by only one piece? In the liner notes, you’ll find a surplus of original art that is perhaps more standard within the metal canon. Additionally, we are making a music video that features some traditional animation. For that, we have commissioned numerous background paintings that all equally represent this album’s themes. We give the listener a choice as to what artwork they wish to associate most strongly with the album. Consider our official album cover a mere portion of an overall gallery.

P.S. We didn’t abandon our old logo. It simply didn’t fit into the cover art neatly. There are many sacrifices that are required in creating something worthwhile.

As a reviewer, I usually find that most new metal albums fall into either of these two big categories: imitation of the past or innovation through mere blending or fusion. Your music seems to be one of the few current examples of a band consciously creating their own and unique thing. Do you see yourselves as some kind of renovators of metal or rather as dissidents and lone walkers?

Pendath: The great metal albums from the past still exist. They stand strong, like pillars of an old castle that remain unchanged, while the township surrounding it emerges and crumbles many times over. There is no need to renovate what is not broken, and we certainly feel no need to live in the flimsy straw huts that surround it. Forgive my analogies, I don’t write the lyrics for a reason. More will come…

Imitation is what I hear most in current metal bands, but that’s almost too easy to disparage. The fusion you speak of is usually the same thing, veiled by a slightly more convoluted set of thefts. Just because you play subpar Entombed riffs along with subpar Suffocation slams, and stuff it into the same song does not make it innovative. Perhaps someone bravely ventures out into the deep end of the pool, and integrates some non-metal precedent into their work – grindcore with a flute, as it were – it is usually the most sophomoric element of each aspect, with no reason to officiate a marriage between the two. There ought to be a vision that glues them together. It is often said that if you “steal” from a wide enough array of influences, it eventually turns into your own creation. I believe this to be somewhat true, but combining a variety of established metal subgenres often is not enough. Each of their paths have been plucked to exhaustion, and regressed into an overrun deer trail with mere droppings to be foraged. Yet somehow it tastes good to many.

I do think this genre needs to look outside of metal, and expand its musical vocabulary to include something greater than the omnipresent power-chord. However, that doesn’t mean aping some gimmicky instrumentation from a non-metal genre, or a seemingly unconventional pre-set from your Axe-Fx. Try venturing into an untouched forest, full of beauty and majesty, mystery and darkness, history and yet undiscovered species. People often think that the land of North America is entirely polluted by manmade artificiality (bear with me). In truth, only 3% of the land has been developed. That’s right, 3%. This fatalistic outlook is identical to what I see in metal, where the notion of new ideas is implausible. So where does Mefitis stand? We do not stand anywhere, we are lone walkers in that forest (ironic I know, coming from someone who grumbles at stale trends in metal).

As musicians, do you find there are particular feelings, topics or ideas that can only be expressed through metal music, or is metal music a path or a perspective through which many different things can be approached?

Vatha: Perhaps not feeling, but there is surely a language of metal in which we find endless enthrallment. Not so much what the music says, but how it says it. This affinity which I would call “metal for its own sake” is a large driver of our music. It is why we pull influence from different subgenres: each contains thrilling ideas that need not remain cordoned by genre.

At the same time, there must be planted seeds of inspiration, preceding the first riff. I think many of the greatest minds in metal, rock, punk, etc. viewed their genre more so as a means to achieve their vision, rather than the end itself. Whether we discuss Fripp or Vigna, these are artists who did not feel bound by convention within their medium. As it happens, the bulk of heavy music has been made by young people who come off at times as possessing a limited worldview. But the core impetus, which drives us to craft something much greater than our mere flesh, cannot expire.

Mefitis: Offscourings is now out on Hessian Firm.

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