Incantation – True to Themselves

Sunday, 16th August 2020

An act that has held up the metal flag for three decades within the underground, Incantation have been a pillar of the death metal community. Their particular brand of death metal, often accompanied by dirges of doom and some melodic touches, is a sound that many have revered and attempted to make their own spin off of it. But plain and simple, there’s only one Incantation. Something that rings undeniably true with their latest effort, Sect of Vile Divinities. An album that drags you into the depths with its cavernous sound and varied approach. We talked with guitarist/vocalist John McEntee about his thoughts on the new material, bands being influenced by incantation, as well as his motivations for sticking with the genre and thoughts on its evolution.

Dead Rhetoric: Incantation has been around now for over 30 years. What keeps you motivated to continue on with it?

John McEntee: Basically, just the love of doing it [laughs]. It’s pretty simple. Ever since I was a young kid, I was really extremely obsessed with music, metal and hard rock in particular. When I started Incantation, in a way, I made an oath to myself in a way that I would make a decision to play music because I love do it, and to be true and honest with myself…not to do it for money or fame or that kind of stuff. I never thought the band would become as successful as it has been; it’s just been true to us.

All of us in the band really love playing and love playing live shows and writing music. I know some days musicians can get jaded and maybe feel like they have to write stuff to be more popular, but for me, I love playing death metal and love expressing myself with death metal and playing live. For me not to do it would be really silly. It’s kind of a dream come true to write and perform music with a band. It was something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child; it’s super awesome. The fact that people like it is an added bonus [laughs].

Dead Rhetoric: What stands out about Sect of Vile Divinities to you?

McEntee: It’s very difficult, because I think my perception of the album and other people’s perception is going to be very different since I’m so close to it. I know one thing I was really happy about was that I really wanted to have some of the old school, catchy dark rhythms in the songs. We’ve always kind of had them, but I thought that maybe the last album, Profane Nexus, could have used more of it.

Every album is like an answer to the last album, so I really wanted some catchier rhythms and more mid-tempo stuff on this one. Even if it does still have a lot of fast and doom parts, I wanted to concentrate more on really good mid-tempo stuff. Overall, I’m happy with it. There’s a lot of textures in the album. It’s primitive, but there’s a lot of interesting and more technical parts. It’s really a wide spectrum of who we are as a band. I would like to say that I’m really happy with it and it came out really well. Dan Swano did a great job, production-wise, and I think everyone’s performance on it was really good. I can’t complain.

Dead Rhetoric: There’s a distinct sound that Incantation has. You can hear it, and instantly know that it’s Incantation. If you were to think way back, was this something you stumbled upon initially or were you shooting for something like this?

McEntee: It’s kind of both. We kind of stumbled upon it, just because a lot of the style comes from the way I look at writing riffs and the way I look at rhythm. But at the same time, I know when I first started, I really wanted Incantation to be distinctively me. I wanted the band to represent me, and my style of playing and what I wanted death metal to be. My goal was always to find other members that believed in me and wanted to play in my style of death metal. In a way, to get such a distinct sound, it’s almost a selfish thing. It’s definitely who I am as a person – that style of riffing and stuff like that. But yeah, it was something I wanted to do, but it did just happen naturally because all I did was not follow the way other bands were doing things.

A lot of our influences were not the same ones that a lot of the other death metal bands of our era had. I was really into a lot of underground stuff like Possessed, which I think everyone was kind of influenced by, but we were also influenced by bands like Necrophagia, Necrovore, and some really underground bands of the time, even some black metal bands. Most bands that were influential to us at the time were kind of untraditional in their own rite too. It was natural for me to play in a more untraditional death metal way.

I didn’t even realize it that much that my style was so untraditional until maybe the late ‘90s, when bands were getting into ‘rules for death metal.’ Bands were worrying about stuff like beats per minute and how to fit kicking patterns into certain drum styles. This was all stuff that was all new to me. I never looked at it like that at all. I just played the riff and threw a cool drum beat behind it. It was never like, well thought out, as far as a musician would look at it. It was more of a punk rock thing, where it was like ‘screw it,’ if it sounds brutal let’s go.

Dead Rhetoric: Going along with that distinctive sound, and you being the only member that has been there from the beginning, do you feel it’s allowed you to maintain some consistency?

McEntee: Yeah, the fact that I’ve been the main songwriter since day one has had a part in keeping it consistent to some effect. But I’m never the only songwriter. There were a few albums that I wrote most of, but almost every album has input from everyone in the band. Part of the problem, and having a line-up changes, but many of those changes were in place to keep the sound kind of pure. It’s difficult sometimes, when you are working with other musicians, and you have a very strict way of wanting to look at things, and then somebody else says they want to try this that or the other thing. When we try it, and it doesn’t sound like the concept of Incantation, that’s when sometimes certain members decide to move on and do things in their own way. It’s totally understandable.

To be fair, every new member that comes into the band also brings something that is distinctively theirs and has added new flavors and dynamics to the sound. A band is never going to be 100% the same when members change. Even when members stay the same in the band, they don’t stay 100% the same. There are so many bands that have kept a pretty stable line-up over the years that have changed drastically in their sound. It’s kind of ironic that I have worked hard and changed members to kind of keep the sound pure and the same, when other people stay in the same line-up and the band sounds totally different.

Dead Rhetoric: Has the number of bands that have been influenced by Incantation and yourself ever surprise you?

McEntee: Absolutely. I never thought that I was going to be influential as a musician. If you had asked me when we first started, I definitely would have said I wouldn’t be. It wasn’t even a thought. I started realizing it around the late 2000s. I started noticing a lot of bands that were coming up that were really influenced by us. I was pretty surprised, in a pleasant way. When I hear bands that I can tell are influenced by us, or seem like they are, I take it as something I’m proud of. I’m proud that the music that I worked on has influenced other people.

As a musician and songwriter, that’s one of the biggest compliments you can get. For other bands to use your style and concept and create music from that, I’m extremely proud of that. I can’t see why I wouldn’t be proud. I don’t listen to a lot of bands that sound like us, because I don’t have a lot of interest in hearing more music like what I play. I mean, I play it enough, it’s okay. But I do totally appreciate that the band and our style has become a staple in certain segments of the death metal world. It’s pretty awesome [laughs]!

Dead Rhetoric: What do you recall about the days of the band around the time that Onward to Golgotha and Mortal Throne of Nazarene were released? Does anything really stick out in your mind?

McEntee: Definitely, especially Onward. We put out our first album, it’s a super memorable and important time in a musician’s life. It was amazing. I was just really proud of the band back then. We really worked hard and we came up with a really great album. We never had false illusion that it was going to do well. We knew we were doing something different. If it didn’t take off, we definitely weren’t going to be surprised. When it did well, we were pleasantly surprised. We got some great opportunities back then, touring with Entombed, Pungent Stench, and a bunch of great shows.

It was definitely a magical time for me as a musician. All of the hard work finally paid off. We didn’t expect to get the popularity but we welcomed it, because we knew we were getting it from being true to ourselves. It was a great time. That whole time I was extremely inspired. It was a great learning experience. It was sad that things didn’t really last too long with that line-up, but when you are young and you have a band that is successful, sometimes it’s really difficult to keep the band together. None of us had experience, and when you are younger you have a bad habit of believing some of your own hype, and things like that. Sometimes you make stupid and immature decisions, but that’s part of growing as a person, and you try not to make them again.

Dead Rhetoric: Is there an Incantation album that you feel didn’t get the attention it deserved when it was released?

McEntee: Yeah, definitely. The three albums that we put out in the 2000s: Blasphemy, Decimate Christendom, and Primordial Domination. They all kind of got overlooked by the mass metal underground. Just because there wasn’t a lot in the death metal underground at the time. That was around when more bands were going into nu-metal, symphonic black metal, and more power metal. So those albums got a bit overlooked at the time.

But with that being said, those albums did do well for us in the underground aspect. There was always a hardcore underground fanbase that we have had, and they really enjoyed those albums. But commercially, or whatever you want to say for death metal, I would maybe say an album like Decimate Christendom didn’t get the respect that it should have. A lot of the songs off that album are really good and go over well when we play live. But when we released the album, just with the environment of the metal scene, it didn’t get the spotlight that it should have. I really love a lot of the songs off that album. I think it’s really a brutal album but pretty catchy. I guess I’d pick that one.

Dead Rhetoric: There’s also been a lot of great artwork that the band has had over the years. Do you have any favorites in particular?

McEntee: It’s hard to say. I like Eliran Kantor’s stuff a lot on the last couple albums. I like his artwork a lot, but I like the Dirges of Elysium cover too. That’s one of my favorites. I like the earlier ones too with Miran Kim. She did some really great ones too. Mortal Throne of the Nazarene was a great one too. Of all our album covers, the only one I really don’t love was Blasphemy, but it was more representative because Paul Ledney, our original drummer, did the artwork and it was more of a sentimental reason for the cover. I didn’t really like Primordial Domination’s cover either, because I thought it was too basic and computer animated but we had a hard time finding artwork then so we ended up settling on that one unfortunately.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on the way that death metal has evolved over the years?

McEntee: At first, I never really thought it would have broken into so many subcategories. That was really strange. Even when we were starting off, there was a lot of death metal bands and we knew we were different. We kind of considered ourselves just death metal. Or brutal, grinding death metal, but it was always under the death metal banner. At a certain point in the ‘90s, it started to branch out into all of these different categories. These porno-grind bands, super brutal and chunky death metal bands, and things like that.

Death metal has been through a lot of different trends over the years, and I don’t know how long it will last, but I think it’s cool that it’s gotten more into the ‘back to the roots’ style now. It’s good for us, and it’s more of a style of death metal that I like. I like aggressive and brutal death metal, and I also like to have feeling in the music. I think there was a time period, maybe the early 2000s, where death metal started getting a little too technical and processed in the recording, but that was when digital recording became big. People used the technology so much that it stripped away some of the feeling.

I am happy that now, the older style is more popular and there’s still a lot of variety out there. But not every band is going for that super technical and tight sound. It works great for some bands, but I just don’t think every death metal band needs to sound the same. It’s actually better when there is more variety.

Dead Rhetoric: Yeah, like you were saying, it needs to have that primal and evil sound to it, which I feel it begins to lose as you process it.

McEntee: You overprocess and it screws it up. I understand people wanting to tighten up their performance and make it better. That’s cool, but you need to know the limits. You have to listen back to it and make sure it sounds like you. We have been in situations where we recorded stuff and tried to fix it up in editing and realized that it sounded terrible. It didn’t sound like Incantation anymore. So we go back and play the song normally, and if it doesn’t sound 100% perfect every second, screw it [laughs]! It sounds like us, and we aren’t machines, we are people.

Dead Rhetoric: Is there anything you’d still like to do with Incantation?

McEntee: To be honest, I have surpassed every single goal I ever made for myself early on with Incantation. I never thought we’d still be playing 30 years later. I guess I look at it more like every opportunity I get with the band now is an added bonus. I’m appreciative of it, and really happy. For us, there’s a few countries that we have never hit that we’d like to play shows in. but I don’t really feel like I have anything that I need to prove to myself. I have proved any doubt in myself – I’ve proven I can fight through it. Now, it’s just more I want to continue doing the band and continue touring and play to as many old and new fans as possible. Let them have a chance to see what we are all about and enjoy it. One of the greatest experiences as a musician is to get to go to a country where you don’t normally play and see the happiness and craziness of the crowd. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment and knowing that your music does really mean something to people.

Dead Rhetoric: Things are still up in the air now, but do you have any plans once the album is out?

McEntee: Everything is kind of questionable. We had to postpone a bunch of stuff in the summer and September. But we still do have a tour in Europe with Belphegor that was booked before the pandemic. I haven’t heard any updates on it. Our involvement in the tour is really going to be up to if the travel ban is still going on when the tour starts. We are hoping to do it. We want to get on the road, but at the same time, if it’s not safe I don’t want to do it. I don’t want people getting sick going to our shows, that wouldn’t be cool at all.

We are just hoping that things settle down by the end of the year, and we do have some small plans in the works for 2021. But at this point, no one is too willing to go out of the way and do too much work since we don’t really know what’s up now. We have been focusing our attention – we will do some sort of live show stream for a Mexico metal fest. We are also going to be doing a video, or live videos of some sort…just to do something [laughs]. We have an album out, so we want to be as high-profile as we can when it’s coming out.

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