FeaturesNecronomicon Ex Mortis – Game Over

Necronomicon Ex Mortis – Game Over

Professing a mutual love for death metal, thrash, and B-Grade horror movies, Necronomicon Ex Mortis consists as a five-piece outfit with members spread across various parts of North America. Their third EP release You and Your Friends Are Dead: Game Over contains five versatile tracks that feature killer riffs, plenty of BPM power, as well as intricate/technical prowess across the guitars and bass that can shred to oblivion, while also keeping things remarkably memorable. We gained the great opportunity recently to discuss all things band related – including their prolific output, thoughts on their style, different influences, favorite albums, and more with guitarists Michael Bala and Manuel Barbara plus bassist Yusuf Rashid.

Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell us about some of your earliest musical memories that took place in your childhood? At what point did you progress into heavier forms of music – and eventually the desire to pick up an instrument to start playing/ creating your own material?

Michael Bala: For me the first memory I have is being in the car and Joe Satriani’s Surfing With the Alien came on the radio – it was the only thing that made me shut up and stop screaming, because I hated being in the car and I hated when the sun was touching me . My parents noticed when that came on the radio station, I’d stop screaming and talking entirely. What got me into heavier stuff is when I was about 8, my dad showed me “Flight of Icarus” by Iron Maiden off the Live After Death album, things have not been the same ever since. It’s been a downhill slide. My mom got me a guitar for Christmas when I was about 10 – just because whenever there was music on, I seemed to calm down and listen. I was a pretty energetic, crazy kid, pretty hard to deal with, problems in school and all that. The only time I’d stop bouncing off the walls was listening to music, so my mom got me a guitar. Ever since then, it’s all I’ve thought about doing – playing more, practicing more, writing more.

Manuel Barbara: I wasn’t super into music until I was a teenager. I had a dear friend who got me way into Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden. This guy played guitar, and I wanted all of this right now. I dived into classic rock, heavy music, started to get into Dream Theater, Periphery, all the heavy stuff. It was a weird journey for me, I started playing guitar at 16, 17 – then went to music school at 18. I dived in headfirst and never looked back.

Yusuf Rashid: For me, I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock and what not from my dad. Somehow thanks to the powers that be of YouTube and the video game Rock Band, I started finding out about heavier bands. The 2000’s metalcore era is a big part of how I got into heavy metal and why I like playing in this style. Around 2009-10, when I started playing, I was mainly a drummer even though I play bass in this band. I like listening to bands like Iron Maiden The Black Dahlia Murder, Death, more into that stuff. Evolving forward and playing bass, I revisited a lot of bands – Periphery, I love Rush. It transcended to listening to more modern tech death and what not.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the formation of Necronomicon Ex Mortis come together?

Barbara: Mike got really bored! (laughs)

Bala: I was in a few different bands that really were not moving that fast, and that bothered me. I write a lot of songs. Because of the inter-politics of the bands and the interpersonal issues, the projects never went very far so I said it was time to take the songs that I’ve written and do something with them. I called all my friends from Berklee – Yusif, Manuel, Craig our vocalist, Joey our drummer, and said I had a whole lot of songs, come play with me, we’ll have a great time. That was pretty much it. We’ve been doing this for two years now, and it’s the highlight of my year, every year.

Dead Rhetoric: You and Your Friends Are Dead: Game Over is the third Necronomicon Ex Mortis EP. What can you tell us about the songwriting and recording process for this set of material? Also, where do you see the differences in this effort compared to your two previous EP releases from last year?

Bala: This EP fell backwards into existence. The idea wasn’t actually to do an EP – we were going to do a series of singles while we were preparing to go back into the studio, the studio sessions we are in now. It was our promoter who said, put this out as an EP, we would get a bit more traction. So that’s what we decided to do.

As far as the five songs, the entire point of them, putting out these five songs was to have them be as completely different from each other. There’s some thrash stuff, some technical, melodic stuff, somewhat punky stuff, some death/doom stuff. It’s very different from start to finish. The first two EP’s were a bit more cohesive. There was a wide range of influences, but the objectives were all similar. Whereas here, the objective was variety above all else. I’m hoping that listeners take this as a journey instead of a bunch of songs that may or may not make sense together.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you think on an EP you can experiment more, and people will be more accepting and objective about things compared to a full-length which may bring about confusion as far as the varied styles?

Bala: I think an EP is a good place to experiment because it isn’t the commitment of an album. We actually have our full-length album recorded, except for solos and vocals – we are just waiting to move forward with that until we can generate a little bit of label interest. An EP format is a great place to experiment. Silver Bullet, our second EP, was actually a huge experiment. We were going to release that as a split with a few other bands that unfortunately fell through. That was a big experiment, and it was received really, really well. This EP, I think it’ll hit pretty hard too.

As far as the recording process itself is concerned, it was a little bit of a nightmare (laughs). Because we were doing it as singles, not everybody was in the same room. Some tracks I played all the guitar and the bass, other tracks where we had to get the drums from Joey, get a guitar solo from Manuel, Joey being in Pennsylvania, Manuel being in New Jersey, emailed over. Sometimes things get lost, sometimes things get miscommunicated. Sometimes you forget to play 16 bars worth of a solo (laughs). I had to improvise the other 16 bars in the studio. I recorded most of my parts in our vocalist’s basement in Plainville, Illinois. It was driving an hour and a half from north Chicago, recording for five hours, then driving home like that for twice a week every week for two months at least.

Dead Rhetoric: You take a lot of the lyrical content from some of your favorite B-horror movies. What makes this type of media perfect to match the intensity of the death metal music you develop as a group – and what have been some of the main staples that you favor for B-horror movies over the years?

Bala: Lyrically, a lot of the stuff… I hope that this doesn’t come across as self-obsessed but a lot of this stuff, seeing things in art that remind me of myself. I love Doom for example, because when I play (the game), I feel like myself. I love hair metal, because when I listen to it, I feel like me. Be it the vibrato, the pinch harmonics. When I hear songs about B-grade horror movies, because it’s not exactly uncommon for death metal, I feel like me. I love that stuff so much; it seemed fitting to go that way lyrically. I always want the music that I make to be fun. I don’t want to remind people how difficult the world can be. I want to write riffs, have a bunch of solos, and talk about some movies that at this point are 40 and 50 years old.

Dead Rhetoric: Are there specific elements that have to be there to make for an ideal Necronomicon Ex Mortis song? Do you believe you’ve established certain parameters or are willing to experiment as the band evolves?

Bala: I’ve always said the band is shred plus 90s riffs wrapped in a B-level horror movie. For lack of a better term, this is the mission statement. But, as with any formula, you can go around and play with it a little bit, add in different elements. I think that’s what we’ve done on the new EP. There are a few deviations from the formula, but there are still long, over the top guitar solos, the songs are still about horror movies. Trying to reach a little higher up the tree too. “The Dead Zone”, the next single, is different for us – a little slower, a little dissonant, in terms of structure there’s no real choruses, or set verse. In terms of harmonic content, it’s mostly in triple augmented, it’s a very ugly scale we keep layering over and over again. That’s the experimentation we have. It’s about The Dead Zone by Christopher Walken, it’s got over the top guitar playing from the both of us, and a slight thrash element as well that ends up being a big part of what we do.

As much as I say we are a death metal band, I don’t think we’ve gotten ever completely away from a thrash element either. It’s 80% death metal 20% recycled Kreator riffs (laughs).

Barbara: We do a lot of experimenting in the studio too. I come from more of a composition, prog background. When we get done with the song, I’ll whip out all the pedals and spend two hours with the engineer making weird noises and layering things in. Which is not the usual stuff that you hear on old school death metal records. We have that core that is Mike, but the rest of us are like ‘hey- what happens if we do this?’.

Bala: I have the old school influence. I was showing the guys Leatherwolf and my favorite album of theirs from 1987, and they thought it was a bit dated. But these guys also keep me a bit modern, they show me things they are listening to. Being firmly rooted in the old school, that can be a little scary at first. Going forward we are going to embrace that, the old school roots with just the right amount of modern ideas thrown in.

Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the major differences in terms of styles of guitar playing between yourself and Manuel’s?

Bala: The players I listen to are all the old Shrapnel guys: Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker, Tony MacAlpine, Vinnie Moore, Derek Taylor. That old school late 80s, early 90s shred scene, I am about that. The modern players, Ryan Knight, Michael Romeo, Christian Münzner, Jeff Loomis, even those guys. That’s the guitar playing I really love – the explosion that those guys have in the way they play. Manuel is more into the compositional side of things.

Barbara: We merge on players like MacAlpine and Loomis. I love Tony because he is one of the old school shredders who understands how to compose a piece of music. His melodies are phenomenal, it’s clear he knows how to play a piano and he’s studied a lot of Chopin. I like guitar players that are a little more experimental, a little more thought out. I don’t tend to improvise a whole lot, and I’m not as into solos as much as Mike is. I like riff people – Tesseract, Monuments, those guys never play solos, or almost never. It’s more part of the composition – Meshuggah too.

Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the state of the underground and death metal scene in general – not just on a local Midwest basis, but also the wide spread appeal across the US and other parts of the world?

Bala: Part of me wants to go back to the early 90s to see what Tampa, Florida looked like or what western New York looked like. It seemed like a really incredible time for people into this new, crazy music. Now what I love is, even though we don’t have these pocketed scenes that were there 30 years ago, the internet has brought a lot of cool, niche bands to light. It might not be as easy to build a fanbase in a localized area, but you can reach more people. I’ve found countless other bands building up the Necronomicon Ex Mortus stuff, some really cool bands. One by one these bands start hopping on tours, coming to your city, introduce yourselves and hanging out for a while. The guys have had me embrace the internet a little bit, you find a lot of cool death metal bands putting out their crazy music, three guys in a basement. 30 years ago, that was a lot harder. I’m grateful that we can see so many new, interesting bands.

Barbara: I think it’s a very mixed bag. And the times have changed, you can’t really do anything about it. All the gatekeepers are gone – you can pretty much record a song in your basement, but there are also a million other people doing that now. The difficulty is getting found by an A+ R guy now or a label, it’s how do you get people on the internet to pay attention to what you do. You are no longer restricted by geography in terms of a fanbase. We have members from Toronto, Chicago, New Jersey, Philly, and southern Illinois. We can make music without being in the same room.

Rashid: In the last five years we’ve seen a huge rise in the blending of elements in metal and synthwave. More experimentation with electronics, and a lot of kooky, spooky things. Archspire is tech death that sounds like a siren half the time. The way metal has evolved over the last 15 years is a testament to how the internet has allowed us to be ourselves. Do whatever the hell you want to do – and if they like it, they like it.

Dead Rhetoric: Can you discuss the importance of hiring a strong PR firm like C-Squared Music in pushing the band into different markets that may have been tougher or harder to achieve on your own?

Bala: C Squared has been great. They have pushed us into areas we wouldn’t know where to go to in the first place. Speaking for myself, I don’t really go to the internet for my sources of entertainment. I’m at a loss for things like that. I hired them, they’ve been super friendly, very responsive, pushed to areas I wouldn’t have known to look for in the first place. I think it is important to hire a PR firm, just as you are going to learn a lot, and make connections too. The first thing they tell us when you are at Berklee is – meet a lot of people. Connections, talk to as many people from as many backgrounds as you can. Because you never know who is going to call you for a gig, or who is going to drop an opportunity at your feet. I would very much recommend C-Squared to anyone. I can go to them and ask for advice – lyric videos, artwork. They can provide a business aspect that I as the cranky artist may not have. It’s very important because they have access to channels the artists don’t have, as well as providing good insights, and that’s arguably more important.

Barbara: As much as we like to do as much as we can on our own, it pays to pay people to do a good job for you. Even on the nuts-and-bolts business level, we don’t have the connections or the reach that a marketing firm like C-Squared is going to have. They can put us in touch with people that we would never get a word with. Sometimes throwing a couple of dollars at a problem can make that problem go away. They’ve done a great job, I’m happy with the returns they’ve shown us. Our social media numbers have jumped 500%.

Dead Rhetoric: What are three albums that helped shape your appreciation and approach to heavy metal?

Bala: Album one, Second Heat by Racer X. Paul Gilbert and Bruce Bouillet playing together, that blew my mind in a way I am still not over. I love a lot of guitar duos, but there is something about that album that took my head off in a way I don’t even fully understand. Omnivium by Obscura. I’m a die-hard Christian fan, I took guitar lessons from him for a while. I still talk to him semi-regularly. That album was the perfect blend of interesting music and technical brutality. And sounding like people, it didn’t sound like the robots had taken over quite yet. And his solos on that record are amazing. For my third… oh man. Reign Supreme by Dying Fetus. John Gallagher in my opinion is the coolest riff writer. Great songs, great hooks, insane playing ability. I love that record for the opposite reasons I love the Obscura record. It is just bonk in the best way possible. My wife and I both love Dying Fetus, we’ve seen them three times. We are always in the front row; I have nothing but love and respect for that band.

Rashid: In no particular order – Nocturnal by the Black Dahila Murder. It’s my favorite metal record ever made, and my introduction to the genre when I was younger. Hearing that I learned things could be so fast and sound so cool. Growing up as a drummer, the relentless playing, I wanted to learn how to do that. Killswitch Engage- The End of Heartache. One of those records that I still revisit from time to time. Reminding myself that you can still be very heavy and have very memorable licks and riffs in that stuff. It doesn’t have to be all… for lack of a better word, bonk! (laughs). The last one, Fortress from Protest the Hero. They are my favorite band of all time. My big introduction into progressive metal and metal as a whole. I wanted to learn how to do all this – all the wild playing. It strives me to be better as a musician.

Barbara: There are so many records, it’s hard to narrow them now. I want to name every Iron Maiden record that got me into music as a kid. First, I’ll go with an obscure record, Awaken the Stone King by Keith Merrow. That album made me want to play guitar the way I play guitar. It’s instrumental metal, and it’s riffs. Cool riffs, I’d never heard anything like that before. Periphery – II. That album pushed the way how I thought about how you could play guitar in what rhythm is. I didn’t realize just playing one note and making it weird could be cool until I heard Periphery. There is so much wacky, experimental stuff on that record. Altered State – Tesseract. I love them a lot, when I was in college as a class I learned about 40 minutes of their music with a bunch of my best friends. It was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I am sure we got most of it wrong. It’s the biggest big brain music I’ve ever heard in my life.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for anything related to Necronomicon Ex Mortis over the next twelve months? Are there any other side bands the members participate in that we need to learn more about?

Bala: We are currently in the studio recording three EP’s, all at once. Our idea is, we will keep dropping smaller releases, learning more about social media and proper ways to market ourselves until our following is big enough, then approach labels and drop an album. They will drop pretty quick once they are done – around a year of music. We have our first couple of live shows we are looking at in early January, possibly some tours in early 2025. A lot of stuff for the band is coming up. We like hanging out and being goofs together. The three of us play in a very odd progressive metal band called the Apocalyptic Sandwich of Doom. The lyrics in that band revolve around a very strange story we wrote about aliens sending descent food to kill all of humanity. We both play guitar in that band, Manuel writes more songs in that band than I do, Yusef plays drums in that band. A concept EP we’ve recorded, and we want to get the lyrics finished. We hope to have it out before the end of the year. It’s all over the map.

Barbara: Influences from Tears For Fears all the way to Suffocation. I have my own music under my own name, it’s all progressive instrumental metal.

Rashid: I just had an EP come out of my own solo material. It’s far different – if you like disco metal, you’ll love that. I play drums in an indie rock band that’s working on an EP right now. It’s a busy time for me.

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