It may be too late to stop global climate change, but at least you’ve still got time to check out Moss Upon The Skull’s new EP The Scourge of Ages. But time is running short. You’ve got less than six months to hip yourself to these Brusselians before you’re the only death metalhead without Moss Upon The Skull on their top records of the year list. Lucky for you, you’re here now; you’re reading this article which more than extols the band’s greatness, it provides a stream and an interview!
By combining the fetid stench of early ‘90s death metal, the heady musk of ‘70s prog rock and the fecundating fresh air of unbridled nature, Moss Upon The Skull evoke this strange, semi-melodic death metal that, if nothing else, taxes the vocabulary of seasoned metal enthusiasts. Thus, in an effort to better understand this Belgian anomaly, Decibel reached out to the band for an exclusive interview. But first, check out the opening track from The Scourge of Ages, “Keys to the Dragonpaths.”
First, with whom do I have the pleasure of conversing, please? And what do you do in the band?
My name is Jef. I play guitar, write songs and do some backing vocals as well as a few clean singing parts.
Has Moss Upon The Skull always been a quintet?
The first seeds of the band were sown by Jense (drums) and Tristan (guitar), whose previous band had ceased to exist in late 2009. In early 2010, Tristan contacted me to see if I would be interested to join as second guitarist, as they knew me from sharing the stage with bands we were in before. After hesitating at first - I was active in several other bands - I went to try out a few riffs and quickly joined after that. That same year we recruited Mathijs on bass and Jo on vocals, as they both were also acquaintances of Tristan and Jense through other bands.
Your aesthetic is nature-centric, for a lack of a better term, and you describe your death metal as being "organic." How does that come into play as far as the writing process goes? Are songs or lyrics written while in the midst of nature?
The "organic" term refers as much to the way our songs are structured, as it does to the sound we are going for. First of all, we like a very natural production; we love the dynamic productions of the ‘70s, often achieved with minimal sound editing which gives the whole a very 'live' sound, as if you were at the ideal concert so to speak. That is also why we recorded the two songs 'Cursed Crown' and 'Turiyan Wrath' live as a band, although still using a click track, with only very limited punch-ins or corrections. Unfortunately, we could not adhere to this way of recording due to circumstances beyond our control, but we would like to do it again in the future, because it was much more fun than everyone recording their own tracks separately.
Secondly, we like a narrative approach to songwriting, where each individual part follows naturally out of the previous part and has its function in the development of the story, much like how in nature everything is interrelated.
What efforts are made to preserve the "organic" element of the music?
When I write, I try to pick a good idea and then start looking for variations to that same 'theme' in another key for example or with slightly different techniques, so the idea stays interesting and doesn't become redundant. A good example is the second half of the song “Keys To The Dragonpaths” where I took one idea and completely exploited it in different forms until the end of the song. Of course, I admit that we do have some adventurous parts here and there for the sake of surprise, just like in any story, but we absolutely try to remain focused on functionality.
I must add that in our situation, the drum parts are heavily influenced by ‘70s prog bands who, like us, consider the drums not just as a support for keeping time, but as a prominent part of the whole. I like to believe that all of this combined makes for an interesting listening experience and allows for repeated listening.
Where does the focus on nature come from, anyway? Is one of you an avid hiker or an ecologist or something of that sort?
Personally, I absolutely worship nature because it can be extremely beautiful, but at the same time extremely ugly and that is what I try to convey when I write music for this band. Humanity seems to have forgotten it's place in nature, and that is basically what drives me to play this kind of music. Not that I expect our music to change any of that, nature will take care of that by itself in the end. I just need an outlet for this and other frustrations.
You might have noticed from our artwork that a recurring theme is decay, and this is represented in the harsher, dissonant death metal parts of our music, but as in nature, from decay springs new life, beauty and power, which the listener can also find in the more melodic or more straightforward parts.
When you describe your style as being "dissident," do you mean lyrically, sound-wise, or both? And how so is it, or are they, "dissident?"
This started as a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing when we started out, as we wanted to make a statement against 'modern metal' bands which resort too often to pop song structures, overproduction, image over content etc... I still stand behind it, though. At the same time, it was also a respectful nod to Absu with their mythological occult metal, which has had considerable influence on our music.
What is the scourge of ages? Is it humanity? Is it death?
To me, the scourge of ages is represented by the concept of time. I know time is also a human invention in order to organize our practical lives, there is no objective 'time' in the universe I guess, but nevertheless time as we perceive it, brings deterioration and decay to all things and none can escape it, it is equal for everyone and in that way it could also be a metaphor for death, but in this sense I feel it would be limited to animate creatures which is not the case in reality; all things perish in time even cosmic entities like planets or stars.
It could indeed also refer to humanity in a Sartrean way (L'enfer, c'est les autres), but I felt that 'the scourge' of decay over time applies to more than just humanity.
How centralized is the songwriting process? Does one member bring the music in, or is it a collaborative effort? I ask because there's a cohesion to all six of your songs that unifies them without rendering them interchangeable among one another. Most impressive and killer! Is there one mastermind or do you all work so well together?
That's cool to hear, thanks! I would say it is more of a collaborative effort really. Up until now, everything started with guitar riffs coming from Tristan or me who have a general direction for a track in mind and then Jense usually works out 90% of the drums at rehearsals. It happens that someone has almost an entire track worked out, before anyone else from the band gets to hear it, but that's exceptional. Bass and vocals are usually done at the end, when the structure of the song is more or less final.
In order to maintain consistency, I think it is important to have a vision of where you want to go, with a few clear rules against which you evaluate each idea in the context of the song or album you're working on.
I strongly believe that Jense's drum style is key in unifying everything, even if our individual contributions can come from vastly different backgrounds.
How come you've only released your material on wax so far?
We are avid collectors ourselves, so releasing vinyl seemed like the most evident thing to do. For me, it's not so much the sound argument, but the format itself, the artwork and the general charm vinyl has. Obviously, our tracks are also for sale on Bandcamp in digital format. If we were to find a label that shares our view on things, we'd release everything on any format.
Would you be willing to name-drop any of your influences from '70s prog and '90s metal?
The ‘70s influences come from both classic rock as far as the guitar sound is concerned and prog rock (drum parts); think of bands like Rainbow or Judas Priest in terms of guitar sound and Magma, Gentle Giant, Dun or Popol Vuh as far as drums go. In terms of late ‘90s metal we refer to obvious bands like Immolation, Gorguts, Morbid Angel, but also a lot of black metal like Ved Buens Ende, Burzum, Fleurity, Abigor . . .
How "into" current death metal bands are any of you? Any contemporaries out there that you want to officially respect? If you could do a split with one current death metal band, who would it be, and why?
I try to keep up with the underground to find new music, but there's simply too much and you have to really invest time and effort to find the gems.
A band we collectively worship is Stargazer. In my view they are on all fronts, lyrically, conceptually, musically, THE best active death metal band. and their side projects are fucking awesome too; Mournful Congregation, Misery's Omen, Cauldron Black Ram.
Other bands I absolutely have to mention are Defeated Sanity, Howls of Ebb, Blood Incantation (can't wait for their full!) and Horrendous. I believe Horrendous' last album was Decibel's death metal album of 2015? Damian, their guitarist, also mixed and mastered our new EP, because we loved his work on the Blood Incantation EP that came out last year. These guys are in my opinion the future of death metal and we would be honored to do a split with any of them.
Sorry to bring it up, but would you mind talking a little bit about the passing of your bandmate, Tristan van Dorsselaer?
Unfortunately, we lost our good friend, founding member and excellent guitarist Tristan to cancer late 2015. We are grateful that he could still gather the strength to record with us in November, but sadly his situation abruptly became critical and he lost his battle. That's why we dedicate this release entirely to him. We see it as our mission now to continue on the path that he has made clear to us and we hope to honor his legacy with the best metal we can possibly write.
What's next for Moss Upon The Skull? Any plans to take these songs on the road or over the pond?
We hope to release our new EP The Scourge of Ages on 10” vinyl later this year, and we still have 8 unrecorded songs ready for a full length which we will hopefully record early next year. The full length will merge seamlessly with the other material music-wise as well as in terms of artwork. No touring plans yet, but we will keep you posted!
Moss Upon The Skull plan to release these four songs on vinyl, but nothing’s been solidified yet. In the meantime, throw the band a few Euros and get The Scourge of Ages in FLAC and jam it until the moss grows fat all over you.