Back to the Land of the Dead with Ancient’s Zel

By on 26 October 2016

The new album by Ancient ‘Back To The Land Of The Dead’ was released on Friday 16 September on Soulseller Records. This is the band’s first release in twelve years, and so we caught up with frontman Zel to find out what he’s been doing for the last twelve years, how the album came together, what it’s like working with Nick Barker and his life as a Christian in the world of black metal…

ancient-420x470What made you return after twelve years?

Well, in 2006 the band basically just stopped. We had been touring much in 2005 and some of us got tired of it, Grom quit the band and moved to LA (he is now working in the wine business there) while me and Dhilorz felt like we need a break I guess. I moved to Greece in early 2006 where I had a new girlfriend and I have many friends here anyways, and enjoy Athens, Greece a lot. I have been here 10 years now.

We did not make any official statement about ending the band, it just happened. I was practically not writing any music from 2006 to 2009, Dhilorz kept busy with some other bands in Italy, but Ancient was practically split up.

Then, in late 2008 we were introduced to Nick Barker by a mutual friend in London, and we met up and decided to start playing together. We both felt it exciting to have the chance to play with such a legendary drummer, and we decided to do some mini tours in Spain and Portugal to “test out” the new line up, we chose these countries just because we enjoy going there, not from some kind of strategic idea about what was a smart  move. It was a great feeling and Nick really started to give us back the spark we needed to start thinking about a new album again. We were all living in 3 different countries, but between 2010 and 2012, me and Dhilorz composed the basic ideas for the album, and we made a pre-production with Nick before getting ready to record the album.

In early 2014 we started recording drums, we had to wait a long time for Nick to be free, but it was worth it. The recording process took a long time, since we were all in 3 different countries and the album was actually recorded in 7 different locations, in Norway, Denmark, Italy and Greece, and in the end we put everything together, and mixed the album in Elfo Studios in Italy, we had the mastertape from Finnvox ready in December 2015 and in early may this year we had finally decided to sign with EMP (Dave Ellefson’s label) for USA/Canada, and Soulseller Rec for the rest of the world.

Looking back at it today, I don’t think any of us feel that something big has changed since Night Visit. In some ways we just picked up where we stopped, and moved on. The spirit and inspiration was pretty much like it was 12 years ago. With a long break it can feel good to get started again, although it is interesting how the clock seems to tick a lot faster the older you get hehe…

Looking back on the 25-30 years of the Norwegian black metal scene, in spite of the 12 year hiatus Ancient are still making albums. What has kept you going?

Apart from having the chance to have Nick Barker as our drummer, it is motivating to hear from older fans that they still love the band and they’re following us after all these years, a lot of people keep telling us that Ancient, even though we’re maybe not the most original band out there, we do have a special sound and feeling that our fans recognize and we’re being told a lot that people can easily tell the music of Ancient from the other bands in the scene, even though they might have a somewhat similar style. I think we all feel that we have a place in the scene that is special since we deliver something a bit unique, at least in many people’s opinion, and we’re not really a band that our fans easily “substitute” with other newer bands, and this is a good feeling. But we also feel it ourselves, that we’re a band that is a bit in our own genre, even though we probably feel this a lot stronger than the fans and people who listen to us.

I think what sets up apart a bit is that even though our roots are in the Norwegian black metal from the early ‘90s, we naturally include some influences from classic heavy metal, thrash metal etc, simply because it’s among the things we grew up with and it’s still in our blood today, we feel that we have a special sound and feeling with Ancient, even though every album we put out is a bit different from each other.

Are you happy with the album? Have you achieved what you set out to do?

Even though this is probably one of our best albums, I find it hard to say that I’m 100% satisfied with everything. This is not because I don’t think it’s a great album, I do, but I think after so many years and so many albums, I feel that each new album has to be “better” than what we have done in the past, musicwise, productionwise, and also in terms of delivering something that is a bit original and interesting instead of repeating old material. I feel in some ways that maybe the album lack some original and interesting parts, I like the songs a lot, but at the same time think it’s not really something “new and fresh”, on the other side, a lot of people tells us that this is exactly why they love the album, cause it sounds like a “lost treasure from the ‘90s”, so I guess it’s all good. I just feel that over the years, we have tried so many things and styles, and even though we have kept the special Ancient sound and feeling, we still want to move forwards and deliver a better album each time, you know. I think next album might be a bit different, though still following the “path” that we are on now.

We didn’t “set out” to do something other than just putting together a great album, playing what felt natural for us, like we always do. This album is our most aggressive one, and it’s a lot cause we have Nick Barker as drummer, it would just feel wrong to not let out this beast of a drummer, with the ferocious blast beats etc that he is so known for, anything else would be a pity I think. We are really satisfied with the job he did.

ancient-600-2The production on the album is very clear, the music is allowed to ‘speak’ for itself, although the music is often quite complex it’s not ‘overblown’; was this a conscious decision or did it just turn out like this?

We never made any kinds of fixed “plans” or “decisions” with any of the albums we ever made, we just created what felt natural at the time, and also with this one. We knew it was gonna be our most aggressive album since we had Nick behind the drums, but it just came natural, we felt very inspired to make an album like this after having done some tours with him in Spain and Portugal in 2009.

The production is very much how we wanted it yeah, we wanted a production that was clear and very powerful and with a warm analog heavy sound. All of us dislike the kinds of productions where the bass drums and bass doesn’t have a real “bass” sound, I guess you could also hear that on “Night Visit”, we are very satisfied with the production, though we will probably mix the next album in a bigger studio like Fredman or so, time will tell. The album does have a rather “old school” sound, but still taking advantage of modern technology, making the sound as powerful as possible.

The melodic (even symphonic) black metal movement often produces such overwrought music its relationship to black metal sometimes gets lost, what is it you think that gives Ancient such authenticity?

I don’t really have a very good answer to that one, we just follow our hearts and create a music that feels natural to us, following the “ancient spirit” and try to not focus too much on things like what the scene might “expect” our next album to sound like etc. I think it is really necessary to have the music 100% in your heart first, in order to make something with quality, and not “struggle” too much with coming up with something special. It is good to spend time and find what you enjoy doing and what feels right, but when it comes to the point where you feel you “struggle” or don’t truly enjoy it 100%, then you’re already out on this ice.

I can’t say how other bands view it, but this is how we feel about each album we make. Inspirations and mood always varies a bit, but we always make sure that we really love the music we create first, and then it usually turns out good. Some bands enjoy a lot to “experiment” and try out new innovative ideas, and sometimes that’s amazing, but it has to be 100% true to yourself to be good, and I think some bands just don’t follow this view exactly. I wouldn’t exactly think of Ancient as a kind of band that sets a kind of trend or direction, other than just the fact that we do what we really enjoy, without being afraid that some people will dislike it.

What are the central lyrical and musical ideas behind the album? How did you come up with these? How does your songwriting process function? What about the arrangements (which seem rather restrained, again allowing the songs to breathe)?

The album is not a concept album, but most of the tracks speak about the devil. The ways the devil influence humans in various destructive and negative ways. I have been somewhat studying the subject over the last years and also had the chance to meet a number of people from various countries who have good knowledge in the subject. Many black metal bands worship and glorify a kind of devil, or satan, but the devil I speak about is different, and I believe it is a negative spiritual energy that is omnipresent around us all, it is not some kind of horned goatlike figure but rather a spiritual energy that makes our lifes worse and more difficult that they should be. I felt this was a good and interesting subject for lyrics, and some music was written after I had written the lyrics down, in order to make the two fit better together, this was the case with “The Ancient Disarray” for instance.

The front cover shows a hooded figure in a kind of portal, in a place with flocks of zombielike creatures below. They are not zombies though, maybe we could call them “spiritual zombies”, meaning they’re people that are somewhat “spiritually dead”, this is basically what the title is about. The hooded figure is a person who has been away for a long time, he comes back trying to wake up some of the people from their “spiritual death” before it becomes a physical death. I see the society today a lot like this actually, how most of us live our lives, how we spend our time and money, our faces buried in Facebook and the computer several hours a day, it is not healthy when it becomes too much, and I’ve been spending some time with psychologists and doctors discussing it, there are many negative aspects that will follow this lifestyle, but as usual, it takes some years to see it. The internet is great in many ways, but too many people use it too much and in a wrong way, it’s basically just greed and unsatisfying lives we have that makes us often “hunt” for other interesting or better things, that’s how I see it.

I do believe that the devil has a hand in this game, but that is a very difficult discussion to get into, I see things in a different way than many people, and yeah I know some people would call me a bit crazy or delusional, that’s ok though.

The songs were written half by me and half by Dhilorz. The typical way is that we first create the guitar riffs, and set the basic structure of the songs, then play with the drummer afterwards, and put vocals on top in the end.

Nick did an amazing job on the album indeed, he really set his mark on the sound we have, and he was also involved in the making of the final structures of the songs, this was a great advantage as well, he has so much experience from various bands and sometimes pick up on things that we don’t naturally hear by ourselves easily.

Do you expect to wait another twelve years to record your next album? Do you think this will this have a concept?

He he, no I really don’t think so. I think that when we had finished this album, and we had gotten “warmed up” again and enjoyed writing new music, it was a feeling we could build on rather than getting ready for a long break again. I already have some new ideas for the next album, and I am also soon getting ready to record the first album with another band I have in Athens, Greece, called Melina Mortis (a kind of doom/atmospheric metal with female vocals), so I am busy again with music in general. I haven’t exactly thought about a concept for the next album, but I do have some ideas, following the path of this one, so to speak. The album has gotten very good response from the fans and media, and this is also motivating of course, though the most important is always what we feel about it.

What music are you listening to now? What black metal bands do you think are really pushing and evolving the musical form?

I don’t listen much to black metal these days, and I honestly don’t really think of Ancient as a “black metal band” although I know many people disagree with that view. I think we have just listened to so many black metal albums over the years that it’s difficult to come across some bands that are truly interesting and enjoyable to listen to. I do like a lot some bands like Septic Flesh, Khold, and Cor Scorpii (Norway), as I feel they offer something special and different than the rest, but I am not so much into black metal genres like Marduk and that style, it’s just not my thing, Dhilorz is a bit more into genres that are less melodic and atmospheric than my preferences. I even listen to music like Dead Can Dance, a lot of classic ‘70s and ‘80s metal and hard rock etc, I think it’s great when you can draw influences and inspiration from genres that are quite different than your own.

ancient-600The great rumour mill of the internet suggests that you are now either a practising or recently converted Christian. What led to this and how has this changed your perspective on life?

Hehe yeah, I know that cat has started to come out of the bag lately. It is not something I tried to keep secret exactly, I just haven’t spoken a lot about it in many interviews, cause I know a lot of people will have strange and unrealistic ideas about what has “happened to Zel” etc. It is true I did become a Christian in September 2009, I believe I had been influenced by a kind of black magic spell or so, and after spending some time with a priest in Norway, I started to change my view on certain things and started to see some things a lot more clear than I did previously in life. Many things that people consider “it’s just how life is” or it’s “unexplainable” I started perceiving in different ways, and it does have much to do with the view of the devil, as mentioned above.

The thing is, that I do not really feel like a different person than how I was 10- 20 years ago, even though I have changed some views and how I see life in general etc. I was against Christianity for the most of my life, I think from around 1983 to 2009, and when I speak to people who hate Christianity, I pretty much understand where they’re coming from and what causes them to have these views etc, I have been there myself and spent time with many satanists and “anti-Christians”, and some of them are still good friends of mine.

The way I see it, becoming a Christian was just another step on a long path in life. I learnt a lot from the years I was against Christianity, and people with those views.

There are a lot of different kinds of people who call themselves “Christians”, just like there are many different  kinds of people who call themselves “satanists”, “atheists” etc etc, and I think you can say that almost everybody who knows me say that I am very different from other Christians. I am raised in a family that is of Christian protestant views, though I do now follow any of these various forms of Christianity like “protestant”, “catholic”, “orthodox” etc etc, there is so much crap and negative things going on in the churches around the world now. I just follow the old book, the uncorrupted ancient wisdom, so to speak.

There is a lot of churches that are making big money these days, and this is disgusting, it’s basically the opposite of what Christianity truly is. I understand why a lot of people hate Christianity, but the way I see it, the relation between God and humans is very much like the relation between parents and their kids growing up. We need some rules and guidelines to follow in life, to avoid getting into trouble and negative situations. Humans always liked freedom and power to do as we please, but we are not really that “perfect” in our ways, there is too much crap going around the world that proves this. The devil’s game is usually to tempt us with things that seem really nice and amazing in the moment, while the negative side of it is something that we only see and experience afterwards, when it’s too late to reconsider (sometimes it can take many years).

We are by far the most advanced species with our brains and abilities, yet we spend our lives in ways that many times can seem absurd or completely illogical, and destructive etc, how can people say there is not a devil existing?

You can buy ‘Back To The Land Of The Dead’ here or support Ancient on their Bandcamp page.

About Miranda Yardley

I'm Miranda. Bite me.

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