Samael – Ruling the Industrial Metal LandscapeTuesday, 17th October 2017
Really hitting a winning combination all the way back in 1994 with Ceremony of Opposites, Samael veered off into their own path early. But they’ve never been content to simply stick with the same formula since. They’ve gone in a few different directions over the years, each time attempting to adjust the sound of the band in a way that keeps it fresh.
The band’s last go-round was back in 2011 with Lux Mundi. As we discuss below, there were several reasons for the band’s absence of a release until now with Hegemony. But one thing is for sure, the band sounds quite revitalized and ready to fire on all cylinders. Hegemony takes their black and industrial sides and concocts an inviting cocktail that comes off as the band’s strongest work in a while. Frontman/guitarist Vorph was able to chat with us to fill in the blanks of the last six years, as well as look back at some of the band’s maneuvers over the years.
Dead Rhetoric: It’s been six years since Lux Mundi, outside of touring, what has the band been up to?
Vorph: The main reason for the delay – we had almost all the songs ready by 2013, and then Xy got an offer from the city we come from to compose a piece of music for a show that they do every year. There is a castle in the city and they have a light show, and they wanted him to create some music for that. So he accepted the offer and it actually took him almost a year to compose and record the music. But it was a great opportunity for him to work, for the first time, with a real orchestra. He got to play with like 100 musicians or something.
That kind of broke the whole process for the album. So we had to come back to it – maybe it was a good thing because we had some distance from the songs and they were already almost old songs. It was easier to point out where the weaknesses were, and try to consolidate the songs. Xy also added some more orchestration with the keyboards, probably due to him having this project. Maybe that helped.
We also had a line-up change – Mas left the band and we got Drop. He used to be the guitar player for Sybreed. So everything was kind of happening at the right moment for us. [Drop] knew us for a long time; he knew our songs. He’s an incredible player and he really brought up the whole game for us. Right when he joined the band, we booked some shows based on the album Ceremony of Opposites. After that, we got plenty of offers from festivals in Europe, so we kept doing that for almost two years. We even went to America and played Maryland Deathfest last year. We are actually going back to California to do the same thing [playing Ceremony of Opposites], except with new material too since we are headlining. We work with a drum computer now, so everything is very different from what we used to do in the past. Having him [Drop] at the bass – it’s tight. It gives the songs more power and impact I think.
Dead Rhetoric: Why the jump over to Napalm Records?
Vorph: We had an agreement with Nuclear Blast for three albums and we did them. Somehow we got the feeling – they are a great label, no doubt about that – but they might be too big [for us] at the moment. We went six years in and out on this album, and we wanted to have a label that would have time for us. Not just the initial promotion, and then you are already history to them. I think Napalm kind of showed that they were willing to support the album for a longer period, and that’s what we need. They were interested in us even before we signed with Nuclear Blast, so I think it’s the right home for us now. They have a new office now in Berlin, and a very energetic team. They are pretty much on the rise, and it’s a good vibe to be on a label like this.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you feel that Hegemony sits in your discography, from a sonic standpoint?
Vorph: The title – we used the title because we felt like it was ruling over everything we have done before. I had a feeling with the previous album, Lux Mundi, we were trying to make sense of what we have done before. There were elements that were typical of Samael, but a lot of experimentation that we tried here and there. With Lux Mundi, we wanted to put it together and have an album that represents the band. I think that created the base from which we created Hegemony. It’s the next level, so to speak.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you feel that the song “Samael” is a bit of an anthem for the band?
Vorph: We’ll have to see when we play it live [laughs]. For me, the song really gets its own life when you play it on stage; that’s the moment when you know what you’ve done. For this album, we have already played three songs. The general vibe is very positive, so we’ll see. But we haven’t played “Samael” yet. Lyrically, that was pretty much a song where I tried to talk about the connection we have within the band. When you are four people – when you are together doing music, there’s always somebody else. There’s an entity that is above yourself. The clash of ideas and everything. When you play live and are having a very good concert, it’s like that but on a larger scale. I wanted to talk about that. I had the idea for a song called “Samael” for a long time, but I didn’t have a subject. This time I felt it was worth trying.
Dead Rhetoric: Along the same lines, where did the idea to cover “Helter Skelter” come from?
Vorph: I love the song. For me, it’s the prototype of all the music that I love in my life. It’s probably where heavy metal started. At least that’s the way I see it. It’s so unusual for The Beatles to have a song like this, I don’t know what they had in mind. Was it a joke or something? The distorted guitar – it was very edgy at the time. A lot of bands had covered it already. So we actually listened to them too. The one from Motley Crue, for example. We thought that maybe we could do something that no other band had done. We tried to take that song, and keep the [essence] and turn it into a Samael song. That’s what we tried to do.
Dead Rhetoric: The band is more or less synonymous with innovation. What drives you to continue moving forward when many peers are content with delivering more or less the same sound with each new album?
Vorph: We don’t know if we are going to succeed in reinventing ourselves in the future, but you want to have the feeling that you are still relevant to what you want to present. When you present new material on stage, and you are excited about it, it’s the best feeling in the world. This is what we are looking forward to. If you play stuff that you are already very comfortable with, you won’t have this feeling. You will just have the feeling that this is the second or third version of something that we’ve already done. There are some of our songs that have ideas that were on the past and have gone through albums and become mature.
For example, we were trying to do a song with a 3/4 [tempo], more like a Vals thing, and we did it for our mini-album Exodus. There was a song called “Winter Solstice.” That was our idea, but I don’t think it was a total success in the way that we did it. We were happy at the time, and then the same idea came back in the time of Reign of Light. We had a song called “On the Rise,” which is also this kind of tempo. I think it’s a lot better because it’s more mixed and less predictable. The last one we did was on Lux Mundi, “Antigod,” and I think we actually reached the point where we probably aren’t going to try it again because we succeeded in what we had in mind. So it took 20 years from the first time we tried it until we got it. There are some ideas that you start at some point, and then grow…maybe you don’t have the technicity or vision to really work it out the way you’d like. It takes time.
Dead Rhetoric: Looking back, how do you feel the shift away from black metal and towards a more industrial sound came about?
Vorph: I think we kind of found our sound between Ceremony of Opposites and Passage. Ceremony was the first album that we incorporated keyboards on every song. It opened a big door for us. You can have some bigger arrangements and further opened the door for experimentation. Passage was where we started to work with a drum computer. That changed a lot of things. We were really influenced by the guitar-oriented industrial bands at the time – Ministry and Godflesh. We thought that it might not come from the same place, but it was a music that we could connect with and incorporate into our sound. I think those two albums were where it happened. I can’t point out a song or something, but it was around that time. Then we developed it further – eventually we added different elements to keep it interesting.
Dead Rhetoric: You have some albums that are clear fan favorites, like Ceremony of Opposites, but do you feel that there’s a Samael album that’s a bit underrated?
Vorph: I don’t know. I like them all really. They are different periods of our life. Eternal, for example, is an album that is really weird to me, even today. The choice to work with David Richards as a mixer and engineer for the album was just because he had the studio near our place and we had the chance to do it. He never really worked with a metal band before – that’s why the album doesn’t really sound like something from the ‘90s. It’s something else. And it’s very patchy. Songs go from the more jazzy, like “Being” to a more industrial and even electronic sound like “Ways” which is based around a drum loop. It didn’t really make sense. We made an album that was confusing. And then with Reign of Light we went slowly to get more together somehow. To focus on what the priorities were for the band.
Dead Rhetoric: As a band that has embraced a more industrial and electronically-driven sound, where do you see the future of metal going?
Vorph: I have no idea – there’s a lot of things happening at the moment. One of the big moves also looks more towards the past. There’s a lot of bands that are trying to resurrect Black Sabbath…stoner bands that are looking more to the past than the future. There’s some of those bands that I like a lot. So I don’t have anything against that; it’s just not the direction we are going. We just try to make sense of what we like, who we are, and the time we are living in. Little details make the difference sometimes. Xy isn’t like a geek, or looking up all the new stuff he could work on, but tries to keep himself updated with all of the new plug-ins that are viable to use. That probably influenced the way we work. On this album, we had some new plug-in that was making some crazy noise. We worked with that on a few songs, and maybe it gave them a different identity.
Dead Rhetoric: I know you’ve worked with your brother [Xy] for decades now, in the band. Do you feel it makes things more tight-knit overall?
Vorph: We’ve got a good connection within the band. Makro joined the band in 2002 and he was really able to melt in somehow. He doesn’t have a big ego, but knows how to make himself heard. That’s important, so that no one gets frustrated. Since Drop joined the band, we are tighter than ever before. I think, musically, things are working fine. But as human beings as well. Drop knew us for a long time. We had toured with Sybreed in Europe, so we had been on the road together, even though we weren’t in the same band. So we got along pretty good. I guess it always comes down to communication. To be sure that you can express yourself without feeling frustrated. If that goes well, then the energy is flowing.
Dead Rhetoric: If you could go back to the beginning of Samael, what advice would you offer yourself?
Vorph: [Laughs] I don’t know – don’t change anything. You have to do your own experience. I remember when we started there were people coming with their own advice and I never followed them. And sometimes they were right. Then I had to learn the hard way. You have to do it by yourself. You have to try it. Some people might say don’t do that, but you do it, and then it sometimes ends up good. I remember when we switched from the drum to the computer, everyone was against it. The record company, the management, our agent – they said to do whatever we wanted in the studio. There were other bands doing it that don’t tell, so it’s okay. But don’t do it live – they will never accept it. Still, there are people today that want us to have the normal set up and have a seat behind the drums, but that’s not going to happen.
It’s funny that I’m actually talking about this, because this summer we actually did two shows here in Switzerland in small clubs, and we only played the first two albums. So it was a normal set up – drums, bass, guitar…no electronics or keyboards or anything. Sure, it was fun to do, but it’s a different band now. The decision we took at the time, it was a tough choice. We were pretty sure about what we wanted to do, even if it was against the general opinion, I’m glad we made that choice. The point is – I don’t know any other band doing that…a metal band that is playing with a drum computer, I don’t know any. I think that’s good because it separates us from the rest and brings attention to the band. I like to do things differently from other people.
Dead Rhetoric: And that attitude is probably part of the reason that you’ve been able to sustain yourselves for so long.
Vorph: As I said, the main ingredient is the excitement. As long as you get excited about what you are doing, there’s no stopping you. Once you are tired, then you’ll get cut short.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s in the works for the rest of the year and next?
Vorph: We just have a few festivals before the end of the year. Next year, it will be festival season in the summer, so I hope we can do a European tour before the festivals. I definitely hope we can come to America, but we need to be supporting a bigger band. I don’t think it would be a good thing for us to do a headliner there. Besides New York and maybe L.A., there’s not many shows that we could put enough people together to make it interesting. So we’ll see if we can find a tour to jump on.
Dead Rhetoric: That’s kind of unfortunate – you’ve been around for all this time, but the metal scene is so different over here.
Vorph: Yeah, but every time we came over we really enjoyed it. The last time we toured in America was with Carcass. That was great. Every show was nice. I think people are maybe less judging in America than they are in Europe. You come with a different set up? Fine. There’s no preconceived idea before they hear the music. They judge you, but that’s normal. You come to a show and you have an opinion of whether you like it or not. I do that too. But generally speaking, I try not to judge a band before I see them, just because I’ve seen it. Even if it’s a positive comment, I want to see it for myself and see if it works for me.