AMENRA along with the peers in OATHBREAKER and WIEGEDOOD have helped put Belgium on the map as a home of creative and emotionally cathartic heavy music. Prior to the release of their sixth album Mass VI, we sat down with frontman Colin H. Van Eeckhout to get the lowdown on their latest album, the development of the band and the rising scene in Belgium.
There were five years between Mass V and Mass VI. What was going on for AMENRA within that time?
Colin: Shitloads of stuff actually. We work a lot in between our albums. We wrote music for a film, we did a lot of shows with AMENRA for five years, and we all have our side projects and solo projects. We had an acoustic album, we had a couple of splits with special stuff recorded, so it’s been pretty busy. We’re not a band who write on the road at all because we need to be really there in the moment. We don’t write music in haste in the thirty minutes extra soundcheck that day or whatever. We need to have a reason to do AMENRA, we need to have something within us to try to translate into music, so we waited it out until everybody encountered enough shite to be able to work with it.
How would you characterise the progressions on this album from the past?
Colin: There are different aspects I think. The emotional scale is broader. The fierce parts are way more intense and have bigger impact, while the more emotional parts where you’re on your knees contemplating are far more profound as well. The blade cuts deeper on both sides. It’s an emotional and musical evolution. Musically it’s the first album where we’ve allowed ourselves to do things that are possible in a studio but not live, like adding extra guitar layers and vocal layers that are humanly rather difficult because of controlling your breath live. We just tried to make the best songs possible for ourselves, and if we heard something in our heads we tried to get it on there regardless of whether we could replicate it live.
Does that mean when it comes to touring this album that there’ll be certain songs or parts you won’t be doing live?
Colin: I think it will take time for us to work it out. We may have to judge what guitar lines have the most function, which one is essential and which can be left out. It will evolve in the live environment from where it is on record.
One of the most noticeable progressions here is there’s a lot more emphasis placed on your clean vocals, the most obvious example of which being the track A Solitary Reign. Was that something you really hard to work on for this album and does that feel like an important song to you in terms of where AMENRA may be going in future?
Colin: It wasn’t something that I needed to work that much on at all because through the last decade we’ve done acoustic shows and albums, I have a solo project where I do clean vocals, I’ve done guest slots for other bands, and there I’ve been kind of limitless. I can do whatever I want within AMENRA as well but you work within certain lines where you guard what you have built throughout the years. But I have grown surer and more certain about myself. In the past I’ve maybe lacked the balls to do it. It’s a second voice that has grown inside my head though and when I heard the songs here, I just did it, which is also linked to the previous question in that I allowed myself to do it knowing that it is extremely hard to do it live with AMENRA. When I screaming for four songs, it’s really hard for me to do clean vocals in that same set. Either I do everything acoustic and all of my monitors and sound is readjusted to that, or I scream it all, and a combination of both is rather impossible if I don’t want to change how I work live. I’m really physical when I play with AMENRA, and if I had to do clean vocals as well, I’d have to break and have in-ear monitors and batteries strapped to the back of my pants and stuff like that, which takes away from it. It’s another thing that we will have to figure out. It’s a new door that’s opened, and a different world to the studio.
The lyrics at various points across this album are in three different languages, English, Flemish and French. What’s the motivation behind that and is it important to you to have that cross-cultural element?
Colin: It’s something we’ve always had, from the first album we’ve had Croatian and Finnish and all these languages. I always like the idea of having that universality there. If someone in a foreign country listens to the album and suddenly something talks to them in their native language, that adds a certain element. If I was listening to an American band and suddenly I hear my own language in there, it’d bring me to a halt. It would talk to me even more directly, and I like that idea. The band has become more international as time has gone on though, and I do like to keep part of our identity in there, that we’re a Belgian band and that’s part of us. It also works better for certain parts. Whatever phrase you have, if you translate it into different languages, one language will always stand out and have that little extra profoundness than any other. There’s a song called Plus Pres de Toi which is French for “closer to you”, if I hear it in French it makes more sense than when I hear it in English. In English it almost sounds cheesy or corny because you’ve heard it so much in pop songs or whatever, but in French it has another form of identity to it. It can sound more poetic or rhymes work better in other languages, and I started working with those differences writing in my lyric book in different languages very organically. It does bring that universality, because we work with darkness and light, birth and death, and these are universal emotions that live in every human being. The things we work with have no one language.
What does the different artworks represent with the various animals, the main one being the swan?
Colin: We worked with a photographer called Stephan Vanfleteren and we worked really hard to find an image that truly represents the music. The main image is the dead swan but it’s a series of pictures of animals from our area, such as the swan, the rat, the lamb. The swan is the main picture because it’s an interesting animal, it has a sort of symbolism for beauty and is a fierce animal with a lot of force, it has a certain grace in its movements, and at the end it dies but it still has that beauty and grace and demands a certain respect from its viewers. That really spoke to me because it emphasises that there is beauty in everything, even in the darker moments in time.
This is your sixth album as part of the Mass series. Approaching fifteen years on from the first one, does that name mean anything different to you now than it did then? Do you ever see AMENRA releasing albums that move away from that titular theme?
Colin: We could always decide to do that, we’re our own bosses, but it makes more and more sense now as time goes on. In the beginning I think the theory of it was more on point than the actual music was. The idea was there but the music didn’t do the job yet. The longer we exist, the more the albums actually fit with that mass theme, the idea of having that moment of introspection, going to find solace and answers within yourself.
You’ve made two different mixes of this album for the US and Europe, one by Billy Anderson and one by Jack Shirley. What was the idea behind that and what are the key differences between the two?
Colin: We’ve always had problems putting an end to our writing process. You can go on forever working on anything. Songs can even get better through age, playing them live, and songs can take on so many different dimensions. For the previous album Mass V we had different mixes for CD and vinyl, and here we just had the options to be able to do this. We let the recordings pass through someone else’s hands and it was like an exercise for us to see what happens when someone else puts their thoughts to it. The differences are very subtle and nuanced, sometimes an intro can be a little bit longer or shorter, or some guitars have a little more effect than others. It’s the same thing with the artwork, with the different covers with the different animals.
You also recorded this album in the Belgian Ardennes, and at one point you were snowed in during recording. Is that right? How did recording in that kind of environment impact the album?
Colin: Apparently it hadn’t snowed in Belgium as much as it did those weeks when we were recording the album, and it snows more in the Ardennes than anywhere else. We were in a small valley so we couldn’t really get out of there in our cars so we were stuck there for a while, but it was cool, it made it almost film-like just being stuck there, having to ration our food, it added a little flavour to the moment. We’re used to recording closer to home so we always end up having one of us quickly running back and forth home, one of us will have do something quickly for his job, and you end up splintered throughout the process. It was nice here to be all there altogether from second one till the end.
It feels like in the past few years the Church of Ra collective has really risen to more prominence. WIEGEDOOD have released both of their albums in that time, and OATHBREAKER especially had some real breakthrough success with Rheia last year. Do you view it that way and do you think this means you’ll be able to have more presence as a collective of established bands rather than just AMENRA and some side projects and be able to do bigger things if you choose to?
Colin: I don’t think we will do that. Every band stands on its own. We help each other along the way wherever we can but it’s not that we are looking to wave our big flag throughout the world. We are all friends and we see each other every week, and it’s really nice that we were able to establish a certain attention to our area and our Belgium. It’s not like we all write those albums collectively though with twenty people. I am proud though to have such talented friends around me and to see all these interesting things coming to life around us. Everybody is inspired by the people around them, learning from each other, and it’s nice to see them all evolving in such interesting ways and that they’re beginning to get the attention that they deserve.
You’ve recently finished up a tour supporting CONVERGE and NEURORIS in the States, which is notable not just because of playing with two such revered bands but because of marking your return to the US after you’d previously spoken about being unsure if it would ever be viable for AMENRA to return. Was that particularly rewarding for you to do, for both of those aspects?
Colin: It was crazy. It amazed me how happy I was when we set foot on that continent, I was like a little child. There were times when we were really sure of the fact that we never tour in that country again so it was an amazing experience. NEUROSIS and CONVERGE really took us under their wing, and they could have taken any band, so we were really fortunate for that. We were able to use their backline and share their bus, and they made it possible for us to be honest because it’s such a financial investment otherwise for a European band to go there with work permits and flights and all of that. We were able to reach a really big amount of people with one tour. The venues were like 2000 capacity so it would probably take us ten years of touring on our own to reach that many people. It’s a fact too that NEUROSIS and CONVERGE have influenced us and are the bands that proved to us that if you have an idea and a vision you should pursue it, and eventually if you believe in it enough people will notice. It was perfect really, and a pretty intense evening for the people coming to the shows.
You guys have done a lot of stuff outside of the standard albums-touring cycle you’d expect from bands like soundtracks, short films, books, collaborations with tattoo exhibitions. Are there any concrete plans for more stuff in that vein in the future?
Colin: There are always things in the making. It’s not that we plan these things specifically, but it comes down to having encounters at certain times with certain people. One talk, you click, and six months later there is a project. We do have a link to body modification and tattoo culture that makes sense to me in my head. They also work with pain, with scars, and we do as well, so for me it was pretty obvious to do those things. We were on stage and three people had a joined back piece where if you put their backs together it would form an AMENRA symbol like a puzzle, which was finalised on stage. In the calm passages of our music you hear the buzzing of the tattoo machines, and that is the sound of pain, of sacrificing something of yourself, which fits perfectly. Whenever we encounter someone who works with the same dark matter that we do whatever their medium is, we always end up with something that can be put together. I think the world of contemporary dance is something that needs to be looked into, along with film. It’s more inspiring for me to work with an artist who doesn’t work with music than to talk music with another musician, because it’s a different world, and a different world makes you look at your own with a different eye. Now the album is recorded and released, we have time again to throw ourselves into other projects.
Mass VI is out now via Neurot Recordings.
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