I’ve been pondering quite a bit the anonymity angle when it comes to being a musician, as that phenomenon seems to occur more and more often as the years flow by, manifesting itself in a wide array of different ways. I’ve been dealing with that in numerous articles here as well, and while there’s no telling whether there’s confluence between this aspect and the style of music being performed or not, there seems to be a certain kind of emphasis on that front when it comes to extreme music, and metal in particular. More often than not, per my awareness and interpretations, this matter ties itself to the most savage and ruthless musical expression imaginable, which very rarely fails to deliver. Such is the scheme with our newest Weekly Featured Artist as well, who are producing some of the most stunning aural distress imaginable currently, treading on cacophony but coming together by means of firm and memorable, hook-laden writing and impeccable execution.
Altarage come from Bilbao, Spain, and have been more or less shrouded in mystery throughout their career. The act spawned into existence seemingly out of nowhere in 2015 with their two-track demo titled MMXV and quickly made their way to the pinnacle of the most twisted and cavernous underground death metal scene, their name well-known to everyone even remotely invested in that particular field of music. I’m not saying that being anonymous would elevate the music itself, but it helps in directing all the conceivable focus into it, exterminating all biased notions and possible prejudice the band might receive otherwise, in case the artists in question have been notably present elsewhere prior to Altarage.
While the above is the conclusion I’ve usually arrived to, the band gave their affirmation to the fact:
‘The intention was to start this personal project from scratch without advantages of any type, with no connections to names, past bands or whatever, for the music to stand on its own. In the very beginning even there weren’t plans of playing live so you can tell the show or any kind of gimmick weren’t on the cards. I started this on my own just to record an album and see what happens. Music is what really matters here.‘
Interviewing a band with an elusive status has its own ups and downs, but from what I’ve gathered, Altarage hasn’t really shied away from the public when it comes to talking about the mentioned appearance and other factors contributing to making them what they are, which is something I noticed upon my initial contact and brief discussion with them. This, to me, is another important aspect that can be handled either well and with dignity, or in ways that only produce more questions than they answer, leaving somewhat of a grandiose and a pretentious aftertaste. But it appears that Altarage knows how to handle their public image, which only adds to the quality and intention of their doings.
There’s an overarching, albeit mostly unexplained, aesthetic to the band, which feels obvious as a concept, regardless of being left to the listener’s own reading. Upon closer scrutiny of their career so far – four full-lengths and the mentioned EP – we’re able to follow the band’s growth in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a sparser release schedule. One thing that thoroughly grabbed me right from the first release is the organic production that not only makes the listening experience itself less tiring despite the dictating wall of sound-esque tone, but also highlights their collective prowess as musicians. I inquired whether this was by carefully crafted design or something that came entirely naturally, the latter being my best guess based on the overall grippingness and ultimately the honesty of their expression.
‘It comes naturally, yes but it’s true that we came a long way playing loud tube amps through the years and developing our sound to, later on, put that in favor of the songs. Digital and sterile productions are not for us, that’s for sure. Each time we release an album the intention is the same old, but true, saying: to crush everything on our path, although there’s always a sense of uncertainty, misery and disgust linked directly to the music and lyrics.‘
‘To crush everything on our path‘ is perhaps the most genuine statement I’ve heard in a long time that actually holds true through thick and thin, no matter how you look at it. This path to destruction got its proper ignition on their debut album Nihl, which came out five months after the demo, early 2016.
Opening track “Drevicet” wastes to time in making abundantly clear what Altarage are about, with the ultra-transformative riffage and evolving rhythms, the howling vocals that make you question the very fabric of reality when it comes to a sound a human can make, all enveloped in a murky, ominous atmosphere. After the disgusting grooves of “Womborous”, the dismal, evil flair of “Graehence”, and the demolishing pulsation of “Baptism Nihl”, you already know that there is something special here, and you’re only barely halfway through their debut. It might take a while for the uninitiated ear to get accustomed to the harsh and massive production, but once properly adjusted, there’s a world of details and nuances to be discovered, just like in the subsequent records. Five and a half years later, there’s still plenty to discover, no matter how many times you or I have spun it.
Nihl already bore all the signature characteristics Altarage is known for, from the artwork and track titles to the music itself. Again, the integral thematic angles are kept hidden, but upon asking about the sources of inspiration in a relatively vague manner, I got an answer following suit, albeit in a rather all-encompassing fashion:
‘Life and death serve well. Our very existence is the main inspiration. I’m at stage in life that I can’t avoid to think of certain things; issues that comes with age, like being aware of my mortality or the absurdity of the everyday life.‘
Endinghent, Altarage‘s second album, came out only a year and a half after their debut, but already saw them taking significant strides on multiple fronts. The production, albeit still cavernous as hell, introduced more angularity and depth to the band’s overall tone, and the songwriting utilized more dynamics, expanding on both ends. It’s flagrant that the band seeks to write without holding themselves back, and it’s all for the better, as Altarage has established their own vortex-like realm where to operate the way they see fit, abandoning the usual, linear development that most bands seem to proceed with. This thought is further underlined by J (guitars/vocals), who described the writing process as an open one, and unlimited in terms of inspiration and influence.
‘I write the songs but there’s no specific formula for it. Only a word can lit the fire. A riff, a beat, street noises, a concept, whatever… And, in rare occasions, playing the guitar can be useful! I dare to say that my writing is a total exercise in egocentrism because I write what I want to hear. Sometimes, when the album’s out, I can be more pleased than others, but I don’t rely too much in the past for that matter. There’s always a next batch of songs to write.‘
Furthermore, I inquired whether or not this apparent transformativeness and the resulting complexity that shines so evidently in their output actually plays a part during the writing process:
‘Not really. The songs are what they are. I mean that the songs aren’t written in a way or another just for the sake of being complex or fast or whatever. Those are issues that the listener must deal with, receiving the music in her/his own way.‘
Tracks like “Spearheaderon”, “Rift”, and “Weighteer” from Endinghent represent some of the best crop ever harvested in the world of extreme music, and stand out to me from the band’s discography when it comes to individual songs. I only realised this after I noticed that whenever spreading the word about Altarage and trying to get other people listen to them, these particular tracks have been the constants that I actually share with them, when trying to get them instantly hooked. Then again, when linking full albums, I tend to gravitate towards their third record The Approaching Roar, which in turn demonstrates perhaps the most immersive, well-rounded, and striking aspects of the band when it comes to bigger bodies of work from them.
I recall being somewhat out of the loop around the release of The Approaching Roar, as I only learnt about its imminent arrival during the day of its release. I spent the following week or two engulfed in haze, obsessing over every second of this dismal entity continuously, without much of a pause. I know it probably doesn’t sound healthy per se, but it was everything I needed for a long while, and contrary to it’s pulverizing datum, it made me feel rather good. That album was, and actually still is, what I’d call their most sophisticated effort so far, as it has this strange, certain kind of edge to it that manages to cut deep time and time again, making it an oddly satisfactory experience. That doesn’t, however, lessen the value of any of their other albums one bit.
Rather unexpectedly, after letting their listeners settle down for two years, Altarage took the harsh leanings they’re known for and mangled them even further, resulting in the unbelievably vile, absolute hellscape of an album that is this year’s Succumb.
Succumb lives up to its name, being an effort that abides to its title by unleashing a tremendous, near unbearable weight upon its unaware listener, forcing them to, well, succumb to it. The unrelenting, claustrophobia-inducing atmosphere and tightened intensity make it a difficult but rewarding listen, being one of the few factors setting it apart from Altarage‘s earlier releases. The chaos on it is near indescribable, although I did my best on my review of it back this April. The album builds pressure and collapses on itself, forming a feeling of a strange, void-like time warp with no clear beginning or ending, running throughout its 63-minute duration.
‘Every album is different. When writing Succumb there was a self-destruct feeling around us, an unpleasant period surrounded by suffocating industrial vibes that, somehow, is reflected in the music. It was the building of a breathing and violent monolith. Although we never do the same record twice, we were aware of doing something different this time, as the chaos was getting to a point of being almost physical.‘
From the first seconds of “Negative Arrival”, this change of pace causes an immediate reflection on what you’re exactly getting yourself into, a sentiment that only strengthens as more time passes. The cavernous production I talked about earlier on gets a whole new meaning on Succumb, with the droning walls of distortion and abysmal sonic violence. The songs are slightly more straightforward, but perhaps because of exactly that, they possess an immense power that’s more or less unprecedented on the band’s – or anyone else’s – career. The examples are plenty, but you can take songs like “Maneuvre” and “Lavath” and their stunning pummeling as proof of concept.
And while speaking of concepts, Altarage has always seemed like the kind of group who know what they’re doing, despite of living in the moment when it comes to writing as elaborated above. This, in fact, ties in quite well with the central idea of the band and the constant drive embedded into their existence:
‘Our only agenda is to put out great albums, again the ones we want to hear. I always complaint that many of my favorite bands take two, three or more years to release new music. I hate that. And life’s short. I understand the business but I don’t have to like it, if you know what I mean. So if you dig what we’re doing you’ll be pleased because we don’t like to waste time. Just stay tuned.‘
Those last two sentences have quite a nice ring to them, don’t you think?
Thus, my study of Altarage arrives to its conclusion, for now. Operating with the demeanor of an eternal motion engine, the band has established themselves first and foremost as artists doing it for the sake of art itself, with no grace notes or parallel stratagems. They exist solely with the intent to execute their own vision and to simply annihilate absolutely everything on their way. That I can appreciate in a multitude of ways.
Be sure to listen to and acquire Altarage‘s fiendish tunes from their Bandcamp, and throw them a follow on Facebook while you’re at it, to ensure that you’re not missing the next tidal wave of terror when it arrives – without a doubt sooner rather than later.