Be’lakor – A Journey through SongThursday, 28th October 2021
Navigating the melodic death metal waters for over 15 years at this point, Australia’s Be’lakor have gone from more of a ‘cult status’ band to one of the flagbearers for the genre’s classic sound. 2016’s Vessels saw them make the leap to Napalm Records, and the upcoming Coherence has been its long awaited follow-up. Few in the genre can match their ability to sling excellent riffs upon riffs in a single track, and Coherence makes it abundantly clear that they have not lost a step in their game. We spoke with keyboardist Steve Merry about the wait between albums, what Coherence has to offer, their strategies to writing longer songs, and some of the challenges of playing metal in Australia.
Dead Rhetoric: This is your first release since 2016’s Vessels. What have you guys been up to?
Steve Merry: It’s been our longest gap between albums, this time by a year. With every album, we seem to take an additional year than what the previous album took. It’s a trend we are hoping to not continue, since the next one would take 6 years [laughs]. We all work jobs, so the band for us is both a business and a hobby on the side. It takes us a little longer to get things done sometimes, and the pandemic really slowed the recording down. We had written music, likely before the pandemic started, and we were ready to go in and had started recording the drums. That was when the pandemic hit, so we had a lot of delays and that pushed us back further, but that’s just how it goes.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel that Coherence compares to your earlier efforts?
Merry: I think it’s the most mature album in some ways. We have taken the bits from our other albums and sort of melded them into some way that works – I need to find another word but it feels more coherent. But it does feel a bit more mature and coherent. I guess the production is quite good. I’m proud of the way we worked with Jens Bogren on the production to get it how we wanted. It will be interesting to see what people think of the album. It has more progressive aspects to it, but hopefully it’s still perceived as not a gigantic departure for us – just a slight extension.
Dead Rhetoric: That was my take when I heard it. It felt more progressive, but you guys have your own take on melodic death metal, and it’s not this huge jump where people will question it.
Merry: Yes, exactly. That’s the hope. I’ve always been disappointed when bands that I like make gigantic changes to their sound. You feel kind of alienated, and that’s not what we want to do. I think it’s definitely still a melodic death metal album at its heart.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve never shied away from longer songs. How do you gauge when it is time to end a particular song?
Merry: I think when we are writing a song, we start with a collection of riffs. Let’s say that we have written four minutes of music. I’ve never felt that in four minutes we have a finished song. When we start to get to six minutes, it begins to feel like more of a finished song. Then it’s a matter of looking at what we have in the song, what riffs we still have, and how the song feels. We never really know. I think it’s a good question and I don’t really know the answer.
We don’t pay too much attention between the six and ten minutes – it just happens naturally. This album did have two of our longest songs, and the final song…we had so many riffs we wanted to get into that song. Once we had done that, it just happened to be a very long song. We like the long song format, because it feels more like you are on a journey. The stories we usually tell are more of a journey, so having a longer runtime usually helps to back that up.
Dead Rhetoric: One thing I’ve always noticed is that you have these longer songs, but it takes a certain type of band to make it work. There are so many bands that have these long songs and there is a lot of filler. With Be’lakor, there’s riffs to back it up. There’s melodies that continually come at you and keep your interest.
Merry: Yeah, that’s crucial. What was interesting with this album, because “Sweeper of Days” is an instrumental, full band song. Normally we have a 7-9 minute song and you have done everything you can to keep it interesting continually, and then you put vocals on top of it. That helps even more. It adds something else to keep the listener interested. So for that song, we did our normal process of writing a song. We knew we wanted it to be an instrumental and then we didn’t have that final step of vocals to put little interesting flourishes on it so we had to go back and add some more leads and melodies so it could stand alone at an instrumental. We always try to make sure that you are never bored during the song.
Dead Rhetoric: With a title like Coherance, do you think a record needs to have a certain amount of flow to it?
Merry: Especially with the album, once we have written half of the music for the album we start to think about what it doesn’t have yet, musically, but also about what order the songs should go in. That’s when we start to write about things intentionally that help with flow. So probably for the first 30-minutes of music we are writing as much as we can and making it as good as we can and aren’t thinking about the album format, but it has to change at some point. I think that for the last half we look at flow, balance, and order of tracks so we can do some more intentional tweaking in certain places. That’s where the instrumentals came in handy this time. It helps to put them into positions that hopefully allowed the album to remain engaging.
Dead Rhetoric: You were mentioning that the length made it easier to make the album feel like a journey. What other elements besides length make something sound more like a journey than an average song?
Merry: What Opeth does, and what we have looked up to, is that you need a balance of light and dark, as well as loud and quiet. You need to hopefully escalate in some way, from the middle point to the end of the song. There needs to be a sense of tension that is growing, similar to a story and the narrative arc, and hopefully some sort of climatic moment later on. I think are songs fall under the structure where there are 3-4 riffs that build you into the song, and they might be a normal riff structure like riff A – riff B – riff A – riff A – riff B – riff C, with some repetition, but you may enter a bridge or outro section that is actually a bit longer and gives that feeling of resolution. That’s something that we try to achieve.
Dead Rhetoric: What extra challenges do you feel you have faced as a band trying to gain traction from Australia?
Merry: The obvious one for us is that we have toured less. Part of that is because it costs us a lot more money and time to commit to it. I think if we had lived in Germany, for example, we probably would do more weekend tours, or five city drives around Europe. It would be a luxury and would be awesome. We all have to discuss our touring for the next four years as a band and talk with our families and make it very meticulous for a tour overseas. We are lucky because of the internet – Spotify, YouTube, and MySpace when we started. That has helped us to have some fans beyond what we would have had, given that we haven’t toured as much as other bands. I feel very grateful for that because it allows us to grow in some way when we are not touring.
Dead Rhetoric: What are three definitive melodic death albums, in your opinion?
Merry: For me, it would be Morningrise by Opeth. That’s not strictly melodic death metal, but that would be an album that pretty much everyone in the band loves, and listened to a lot when we started. Probably Clayman by In Flames, which I feel was their last really good album. That’s an album that I worshipped when the band was starting and it influenced me a lot. I will go with Damage Done by Dark Tranquillity for the third one, which was released in a similar time but a perfect example of extremely well written and produced melodic death metal.
To throw a fourth one in, Slaughter of the Soul by At the Gates. That’s another absolute classic. You are probably noticing that they are all quite old albums. I can’t think of any melodic death metal albums other than those that are more recent that I have really loved. It’s a genre that we keep a more old school mindset in what we do.
Dead Rhetoric: As someone who has followed that genre since the late ‘90s, there aren’t a lot of bands out there that currently capture that old school sound. A lot of them incorporate more pop and clean vocals. Be’lakor is a band that keeps the older traditions going.
Merry: I think that’s right, and it’s probably just a function of the fact that it was a part of the bubble in which we began. We are now in our mid-to-late 30s and you get to that trap that your brain still thinks its 2003. We haven’t explored as many new albums as other people out there. The other thing is that the newer bands I have discovered aren’t melodic death metal like Be’lakor. They have bits of black metal, progressive, djent, atmospheric stuff. That comes in and colors what we are making, which is great.
Dead Rhetoric: This is your fifth album to date. What do you feel are the key elements of your music?
Merry: I would say melodic, clearly, we need a strong collection of melodies that people can hum along to. We need storytelling, which has become especially big since Vessels. All of our albums have had storytelling in them, but the last two albums have focused quite heavily on storytelling. Probably mood and atmosphere, a heavy dark and weighty feeling. There’s some gravitas to what is going on. I think that’s important – the atmosphere are heavy and sort of thoughtful. And the songlength and a journey feeling. We try to avoid cheesiness when we can. As the keyboard player, I keep an eye on that because I don’t love big, juicy keyboard solos so we keep an eye on them.
Dead Rhetoric: So where do you draw that line. What’s the difference between keeping something tasteful as opposed to full-on cheesiness?
Merry: It’s probably just instinct and it’s subjective. If it makes any of us go, “Uggh,” then it won’t make the album. I think we have a very sensitive radar for that. There are a lot of things that we might think are cheesy that others might not think so. But if we take that approach, there’s not much that will slide into our albums that hopefully will be seen as cheesy.
Dead Rhetoric: Could you go into some of those storytelling aspects on this album?
Merry: The previous album was pretty linear. Once we had written them, they told a story from point A to point G in time. We couldn’t move the songs once they were tracked, they had to stay in that order. It was a little bit limiting. You would normally record the album and have the freedom to move them based on how they sound and how they were recorded. With this album, we were keen to not do that as much. It’s a story, but it’s not as linear and not as strictly connected. It’s essentially set on a mountain, or around a very large mountain. The first song, “Locus,” is describing that mountain. There is a lady who lives on the mountain, and each of the songs that follow a different character’s story who lives in or around that mountain. They don’t know each other and they are each dealing with their own challenges – common challenges to humans like things that cause suffering, things that we deal with mentally.
Towards the end of the last track, there’s a story about some children who are growing up on this mountain and they are yet to be burdened by the heaviness of life. They are learning about life and coming across these different people, incidentally seeing or meeting the characters that have been described in the album and having their minds changed by the realities of life as they go through this thing and see the world as it is. It’s a little more conceptual and less linear but we had a lot of fun writing it.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s a hobby for you or the band outside of music?
Merry: It’s probably fairly normal stuff, like a mixture of playing and watching sports. Three of the guys have got young families which keeps them really busy. Working…I know that’s not a hobby but it keeps us pretty busy outside of music. For me, there’s meditation, reading, and I travel when I can. But we haven’t done that in two years. Australia has had some fairly strict lockdowns that have kept us very close to our homes over the past 18 months. But it’s a mixture of fairly normal things.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your plans for 2022 and beyond?
Merry: We are looking at an Australian tour, followed by our first ever US tour. That will be really exciting. It’s not fully locked in yet, but we are working with Napalm Events to book a headline or co-headline, at least a series of shows that might take in 15-20 cities if we can. Then a European tour. Once we are allowed to, we have a built up backlog of desire for touring that hasn’t been satisfied for quite a while. It’ll be good to do those three tours at least, following some lockdowns opening up in Australia.