Secrets of the Sky – Following An Intentionally Mysterious Pathway

Wednesday, 10th June 2015

Many bands are happy to provide the same old thing – rinse, wash, and repeat. Disposable tracks that suit the entertainment purpose, but grow stale with time. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with that approach – it’s tried and true for a reason. But there is still a drive and hunger to make an album that is something more. It can be daunting, but some bands are up for the challenge. California’s Secrets of the Sky are one such band. Their latest effort, a concept album called Pathway, is a piece that rewards those that put some effort into giving it a listen.

A deliberate body of work with hidden/user-designed meanings throughout, Pathway operates on the basic premise of entertainment but there are many layers that can be explored. Everything from the lyrics to the artwork to the interludes has a purpose and this attention to detail is a great asset. But so is the dynamic of crushing metal with atmospheric and trippy soundscapes Secrets of the Sky employ.

On one of the last nights of their tour with Anaal Nathrakh at Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn, DR was able to catch-up with guitarist Clayton Bartholomew after the band’s excellent set. We delved into the meanings of Pathway on several layers and how the band has purpose in each step along the way. Towards the end of the interview, vocalist Garett Gazay also joined us to discuss the lyrical inspiration for the band.

Dead Rhetoric: This is a bit of an eclectic tour (with Anaal Nathrakh and Incite) – how’s it been going for you so far?

Clayton Bartholomew: I think it works! It’s been really good. It is a little strange, but it works because it builds up. We start slow and moody and trippy. Then Incite comes on and they are mid-tempo, with the “get up, come on” – that stuff. Then Anaal Nathrakh just gets on and destroys every night. We’ve been received pretty well by Anaal fans, and even Incite’s fans. All the bands are getting along and everyone is cool and chill. We’re very professional with each other.

Dead Rhetoric: Could you explain what Pathway is about, conceptually-speaking? I’m sure that you won’t go into too many specifics…

Bartholomew: The overview of what we had in mind was that the album is a journey. It’s a symbolic telling of a journey that we all go through – how we live our lives and how it’s possibly all a transformational period. Right up until we die, then afterwards, there is a transformation…reincarnation type stuff. That’s all big picture stuff. The interludes and the artwork, the lyrics, and even the pace of the music and the way that it starts from beginning to end. We wrote it sequentially, so we started with the first song and wrote it right out until the end. It gave us a better grasp of the dynamics. The key, and the most rewarding thing for us, is if people do all of those things: look at the artwork, listen to the album, put on headphones, turn the lights off and whatever. Just get involved in it and develop their own sense of what the meaning is.

Some of my favorite albums, like Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son. It’s a concept album, and it’s pretty laid out for you. But Powerslave…I always wondered, “Is Powerslave a concept album?” I wanted to believe so when I was a kid. So I envisioned a concept of my own and I made something out of it which resonated with me. If people do that, if they give a fuck enough to think about it and do that, it’s the ultimate goal.

Dead Rhetoric: While doing the album sequentially, did it make it easier to give you some sort of roadmap along the way? Would you have been able to come up with the same thing if you did the album piecemeal?

Bartholomew: I think it had to be [done that way]. It’s kind of like writing a book. You don’t do chapters randomly and put them together and hope it makes sense. So for us, it made sense to do it like that, going song by song. I’m not sure if that is conveyed in terms of the dynamics in the way that the album flows, but I hope it does. It was definitely a conscious effort.

Dead Rhetoric: There are a number of instrumental and mood pieces on the album. How did they come into play when sequencing the album? It seems like it took a lot of thought in terms of their layout.

Bartholomew: There is a story in those transitions. We’ll never tell what it is, but there is a story. That’s the fun of it. Now that I’ve told you it’s a story, you may go back and listen to it and be like, “what the fuck?” It obviously starts on a beach, with a dude walking. Then he ends up in a forest and there are wolves. Then he’s in a building…there’s a progression within those. I know that it sounds like noise, but it’s not. There was thought put into those.

We wanted to keep them separate, so that people could skip them. Because a lot of people will. It’s one of those things where you may listen to it in its entirety once or twice and hopefully people will. Like I said, you take your drug of choice and listen to it all the way through and either you connect with it or you don’t. We’ve had a few reviews where people were like, “what the fuck is up with these transitions?” That’s cool, because you can skip them. You can go right to the meat and potatoes of it, and that’s fine.

Dead Rhetoric: At the end of the album, it kind of flows right back into the beginning. Is that intentional? Is it cyclic?

Bartholomew: Absolutely. And if you go back to To Sail Black Waters and listen to the way it ends, the last fading out (the single guitar) and the first thing you hear [on Pathway] other than the waves, is that the guitar fades back in. I’m not sure if a lot of people will notice it, but everything was really intentional. And yeah, it comes full circle because it is sort of about the cyclical nature of life. I’m not trying to say this is anything new or be pretentious about it, it’s just a story and what we chose to write about this time. Next time it will probably be totally different.

Dead Rhetoric: The terms of “an experience” and “album” were mentioned a lot in regards to Pathway. You said the listener absolutely has the right to skip over the interludes. But do you feel that the album needs to be heard from start to finish in order to get maximum enjoyment out of it?

Bartholomew: It depends on what the person listening to wants to get out of it. Some people are just in it for the riff or the chorus or the song itself, and that’s fine. I’d be okay with someone just listening to it once or twice, trying to figure it out. If they can’t wrap their head around it, pick out the parts you like. Ultimately, it’s completely out of my hands what people think about it. I hope that they can listen to it all the way through, and I hope it’s not too “out there.” There is some meaning in there, and there is purpose. I don’t know if it would be better for us to be like, “this is what it means exactly…”

Dead Rhetoric: I think you’d be pandering to our ADD-ridden culture by doing that. You have to leave a little bit of mystery…

Bartholomew: That’s right, yeah. Everything is so immediate. Some of my favorite bands don’t put out traditional band photos. You don’t really know what they look like. It’s sort of mysterious, and there’s something to be said for that; it’s missing in our Internet culture. Everything is readily available. Back in the day, you’d buy an album based on the album artwork. Because you spent your money on it, you’re going to give it a chance. Now, you just go to the Bandcamp and you stream it. If you don’t like it within the first 30 seconds, you move on.

Dead Rhetoric: If you don’t just download it illegally…

Bartholomew: That’s right. I guess the hope of the industry is that if people hear the downloaded version and love it enough, they’ll buy the physical product.

Dead Rhetoric: With both albums being conceptually-based, do you see yourselves continuing in this direction with each release?

Bartholomew: Yeah, I think so. We’ve already started to write new stuff and we have a pretty good idea of what we are going to do, conceptually. But yeah, I like the idea of making an album mean something a little bit more. It means more to us, so maybe it translates to other people. But it will be a different subject, a different topic, a different kind of artwork. The music? We kinda know now what we do good now, so we’re going to stay within that. I can’t see us making a nu metal album or something.

Was the first record a concept album? Kind of, yeah. It had overarching themes. It’s there if you want it to be there. If you want it bad enough to be a concept album and to make sense in some way to you, you’ll find a way for it to make sense to you.

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