This interview was originally conducted with Ian J. D’Waters between May 7th-19th, 2021 for MYSTIFICATION ZINE Issue #1 “Primitive Futurity“, a limited run death metal magazine published twice per year which released this past July 23rd, and is still available through my own label/publishing imprint Spirit Coffin Publishing. | Considering ‘Death Velour‘ ranked as my #1 Album of the Year for 2018 and now ‘Mercurial Passages‘ has similarly gotten a “perfect” score + Album of the Month for May here in 2021 it makes sense to begin reinforcing the point that Tampere, Finland-based death metal trio Ghastly are a troupe I can confidently set among my favorite death metal bands, ever. Here we don’t cover anything much deeper than you’d expect from a zine but the artist was very thoughtful and kind while I geeked out over influences, the process of songcraft, lyrical themes, signature sounds and some thoughts on how their style has developed over the course of three full-length albums.
Why death metal? Although “death metal” itself is amorphous and malleable to the point that it doesn’t need an ounce of tradition in it the style tends to only reach certain people, those who are open to the extremes in life or musicians who enjoy the “deep end” of the pool a bit more. What was that spark, trauma, inspiration or particularly good smoke that’d spoke to you and said “Man, make some psychedelic death metal but like, a real trip.”? When did the idea first feel plausible in mind? Tangible in your hands?
Death metal came to my knowledge straight after heavy metal and the fierce energy accompanied with usually great visual artwork blew me away. It took years to actually start a death metal band of my own and first I wasn’t even sure would I do anything after the demotape we did back in 2011. Spark that happened wasn’t anything cosmic or spectacular. Gassy Sam and I had just bought a 4-track cassette recorder and wanted to try it out so he asked me to finalise some death metal songs I had done to try the recorder out and that’s what we did. It was something we enjoyed and had a nice feedback of the demo so it gave me a boost to write more death metal songs. What happened that it became psychedelic, well… that’s a hard question as I don’t even think that my music is that psychedelic – I just feel that I’m doing quite straightforward metal with twists here and there. The fact that I’ve been fascinated by and playing progressive / psychedelic rock has shaped me and my way of thinking about song structures and apparently it shows.
When I read the word mercurial there is an element of liveliness beyond unpredictability that comes to mind. Something akin to the charm of a goat, indicating capriciousness for the sake of ‘feral’ traits or, a certain irascible adaptability. Is there a theme of madness woven into this album? Or, some type of conscious reaction to uncertainty which you’ve meant to convey through the title? If the title is more of a description of the work then, at least I’ve mentioned goats.
[Lyricist] Andy Gordon responds: For me, the symbolism of Mercury runs through several tracks on the album. It’s an immensely manifold symbol in the field of alchemy, in particular. It is the symbol for the volatile mind and the cosmic womb. It’s also another name for quicksilver which, as we all know, shifts between solid and liquid states. Symbolically that can mean shifting between life and death, or shifting being awake and being asleep.
There are many references to sleep, dreamlike or liminal states and actual dreams in the lyrics. Instances where dreams become too real to brush off. Instances where people appear to sleep although they’re wide awake. I’d call that madness… I felt these were themes that well suited the amorphous, unsettling nature of the songs on the album. It was clear right away the songs warranted a more free-form approach to the lyrics both stylistically and thematically. You could probably call the approach feral in the sense that, when I was writing the lyrics, I was trying to let words flow almost as though they were coming through me – as unfiltered as possible. Glad you mentioned goats, though.
I’d wanted to kind of kick back to ‘Death Velour’ a bit here, I remember you’d commented that you weren’t sure the record would get made or, at least finished at some point. I believe you’ve (Ian) written/performed all but the vocals on each album so far. Were you struggling with putting it all together yourself? I can imagine how that level of work might be intense, or just tedious, for one person. Was the process different heading into ‘Mercurial Passages?
The making of ‘Death Velour’ was a struggle back then and after it was finished, I promised myself I’ll never do the same again with that equipment that I had. This time I got myself better gear and did recording almost the same way as last time, but of course I had learned something along the way and this time it was easier. The amount of work I’ve done here again is equivalent to building a house. It’s a long, painstaking road that when it’s walked through, it gives you the satisfaction. The whole idea of doing everything from composing songs to record every instrument is lunatic, but I know every tiny detail along the way so it was easier to just play all instruments by myself. It’s like you are schizophrenic human being or an actor when you first play the drum parts, so you have to take a different perspective on the album then and change your style of approach again when you start laying down bass guitar and after that the guitars. That’s not all of course as at the same time when you’re in the drummer (or in the guitar) mode, you also have to be a recorder and a sound engineer.
One of the major gripping points for my own induction into your work was this sense that you’d arrived with a distinct style ready to go on your debut ‘Carrion of Time’, with “Circle Around The Sun” representing some of strong traits carried through all three albums. Do you see your work as a personal evolutionary process? Have you reached a point of satiety with ‘Mercurial Passages’ in terms of your vision? What sort of aura are you aiming for and has that vision changed drastically for each release?
“Circle Around the Sun” was probably the first song that started the long and epic song structures for Ghastly. Been always fascinated about buildups, eerie melodies, bursts of speed and aggression in a long but well constructed songs. Even though this same pattern still is present on “Mercurial Passages”, I think progress has been made towards more sinister outcome. In a way now I feel that there’s no point of doing similar album than done before, but time shall tell what will be the next step. It will be death metal if it’s Ghastly, as we have no intension of doing a Delta blues or Goa trance albums under this moniker. Influences are something we take from various sources and that’s something that keeps the genre evolving. The aura and the vision has become more and more darker inside my head during the years and that should be the path to follow.
Just as a writer might benefit from reading, there may or may not be some precedent for musicians evolving as music listeners and conveying that evolution in their own work. If we can look back to your past work, does this check out or is the idea backwards? Meaning, has your experience with creation changed you as a listener? Or, has your way of listening to music evolved as a result of working on Ghastly?
The more you dug into the music by making it from the scratch, it makes you listen things on different albums more carefully, and respect the art form more than ever before. By listening favourites again and again or finding new music to enjoy will ultimately give you new surprising perspectives what didn’t notice or thought before. Listening to music is still something that I enjoy a lot but I haven’t been collecting music much lately. Songwriting and recording are things I’m still learning and that keeps the flame burning.
I ask about evolutionary listening because this unusual way of phrasing death metal riffs you’ve developed, a doom-blended or buzzed kind of Finnish death fluidity of motion. You’d squeezed quite a lot of feeling into ‘Death Velour’ with some extra detail and aggression in ‘Mercurial Passages’. Has it become easier to find this theme, the Ghastly sense of movement? Do you spend much time reflecting upon those previous works or, is the next set of songs always a more important prospect once things are finalized?
That is just natural way to express myself through music what I’m doing in Ghastly. If I do acoustic music or something not metal oriented, it still possesses the same thing, the riffs or atmosphere there still has the same aura. Not often I go back to old stuff unless we rehearse some older songs. I usually play only new ideas if I pick up a guitar so I leave the old ones to rehearsal room. I have always loved albums with a feeling, whether if it’s cold, ruthless, warm or tender.
I know many musicians have their sort of default mood when picking up a guitar. The first band I was in with a friend of mine, he’d just kind of keep saying “Slayer” when he wrote songs and it still works for him. Do you have that one band poster you cannot tear off the walls of your mind palace? A reference for mood or the sort of feeling music has to have? Does this factor into things like mixing, recording and general sound design? Has Finnish death metal specifically influenced your work in Ghastly thus far?
Yes, there is this one band that has been a huge influence for me from the teenage years on and it’s Amorphis and especially those first two albums, but if there would be a poster, it would be Black Winter Day. It’s not only songwriting to which these things affect, it affects to every part in the process of making an album. Finnish death metal is one of the biggest influence for me, but of course that’s not all.
Were there parts of ‘Mercurial Passages’ that stumped you? Where you’d found difficulty getting the right take or where to go with a certain piece?
There might be some difficulties in takes or in songs overall and that’s why I have always recorded more songs than the actual album needs. Just in case if a problem occurs and I need to bin a song. This time the recording went smoothly and I didn’t need to change much from the original idea what I had in mind.
How do you incorporate parts from the other two guys? It all sounds seamless and organic on record. Do you demo the vocal arrangements yourself or, leave the cadence up to each vocalist?
I do the arrangements myself when I get Andy’s lyrics as it’s already in my head where I want the vocals to be. I am quite precise with the pacing of the words and that’s why I do vocal demos for the guys. Then we sit down with the band and discuss the parts and who’s gonna do which part or a song. Both had their own ideas in there too and as Gassy recorded his lines by himself, he also added his own madness to it too.
The opening moments of “Mirror Horizon” almost speaks to extreme doom metal if we consider the severe tone of the clean guitar movements to start. Maybe it is a ridiculous question to ask considering your work in Garden of Worm but, has doom metal been a fairly constant influence for your work in Ghastly? Kind of on a similar note, “Dawnless Dreams” has something like melodic black/death feeling that is still your style but a few riffs hit like something from an early Dawn demo. I guess I’m trying not to pick your brain for namedrops associated with this new record but, aiming more for what that point of expansion was beyond ‘Death Velour’ for this new album? Where did you get weird with it, and what opened these different portals?
Doom metal has played a huge role in my musical growing and learning to play slow has made me a better drummer. I have never been into only slow or only fast music, I need variations and if you give me guitar, bass and drums, I’ll do music that is to my liking. I don’t see ’Mercurial Passages’ any weirder than our previous albums, probably just more mature and serious, but to be honest I hope we get weirder and weirder in the future.
My music has been referred to Dissection and now to Dawn and the funny part of it is that I don’t like either of these or similar bands. Sweden has produced many good bands but melodic black/death from that country is garbage to me.
From what I recall there wasn’t much of a touring schedule attached to ‘Death Velour’ so, I’d assumed your ability to make Ghastly work doesn’t ride on live shows and extended tours. Has the inability to tour caused any issues with your plans going forward? Has COVID-19 and all that affected you much in general? Can you speculate how the next six months or so will go for Ghastly in terms of live performances? Would you ever do a live stream show? I tend to think losing the exclusivity of in-person live shows is one too many hits to album sales but, maybe I’ve an outdated standard.
We haven’t done tours ever, only gigs here in Finland, Berlin and Copenhagen. It’s not we wouldn’t want to do tours, we just hadn’t had the chance yet and of course it holds us back. The pandemic has kept us from rehearsing few times but we are planning on doing shows in the future and hopefully tours too, so let’s just hope for the best. Not a huge fan of staying home and watching streams, but if that’s the only case to perform in the next couple of years, we might do these things too.
‘Death Velour’ is one of my all time favorite album covers, I believe the same artist created the artwork for ‘Mercurial Passages’ and I love the result, kind of like going from a storm at sea to the desert with the same hallucinatory spirit. Was this a commissioned piece specifically for the album? I feel like there is some profound symbolism there between the binding and the xenomorph sized brain or, another great image at least. How involved are you in the aesthetic of the band?
To me visuality is one extremely important factor in music and of course in all of art too. Band has to look like a band of their own and covers need to work with the music. If a band that I like has a bad cover, I might stop listening to that specific record because in my books that kind of nonsense kills the mood. Riikka has done something that once again suits perfectly with our music and atmosphere. All three album covers she’s done for us has been done in the way that we give her few subjects that we have on the specific album as clues and free hands to paint what ever she wants after that. We have never been disappointed.
Eh, I don’t know if it is a question you’ve gotten often but is anything germinating in Garden of Worm? Have you been inspired to write more Ghastly songs in the time since ‘Mercurial Passages’ was finalized? Or, did you have to leave any of your song ideas behind?
I am not part of Garden of Worm anymore but I can tell you that the fellas have completed recording their 3rd album and it is really good old school Scandinavian prog stuff.
I did leave few songs out of the album recordings (thing what I always do) but there’s no idea yet what to do with these yet. I haven’t done any songs in quite some time, only parts and riffs, but that’s my basic way to do music. There can be years before I have something new to present the guys. Usually an album worth of music builds up in few months but it needs the slumber before that.
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