‘We create Avant-Thrash for the discerning listener.‘
As succinct as an introduction that is for a modern band’s Facebook page, it contradicts in being both all you need to know about Azusa and not even close to scratching the surface. Although I’m not too keen on the term, technically – perhaps literally – they are a supergroup, made up of Extol‘s Christer Espevoll and David Husvik (guitars and drums respectively), The Dillinger Escape Plan‘s Liam Wilson (bass), and Sea + Air‘s Eleni Zafiriadou (vocals). That is, uh… quite a pedigree, and should instantly pique your interest if you’re at all familiar with even one or two of those bands.
If you’re also familiar with the geographical origins of those bands, you’re already hip to the fact that Azusa is an international project with all four members spanning across three distant countries (more on that later). Creating art with a group of diverse, worldwide pals speaks directly to the energy of Everything Is Noise, so it’s with great pleasure that we host them as our latest Weekly Featured Artist.
Equal parts strident and serene, it’s hard to accurately describe Azusa‘s music in a concise way other than to say it’s really damn good. Given the combined artistic origins of each member, you can expect the guitars to be uncompromisingly melodic and driving, and drums to have a punkish and thrashy tone as they were in Extol. Bass is thick and chaotic per TDEP‘s legendarily unhinged sound. Vocals are sweet and affecting just like in Sea + Air… at first anyway. Zafiriadou hides a searing talent for harsh vocals that are unleashed liberally with Azusa – you’d only be privy to them if you were familiar with her previous underground indie/punk project Jumbo Jet. To go any further would likely turn me into a living Pepe Silvia meme, so let’s turn it to the band. I was somehow lucky enough to secure the time and energy of not just one member of the band, but two – Liam and Christer – and they graciously indulged my questions relating to their history, influences, how they make it work from a distance, and more.
‘I was headed to the studio to record a Dillinger album and I was making a list of bass tones I wanted to use as a reference,’ Liam recounts on how his involvement with Azusa came to be. ‘I found and wrote to one of the Extol bassists on myspace to ask about the bass tone on [their album] Synergy, I wanted to know about the gear they used or if there were any special pedals, etc. He didn’t have anything special to share, but said he would pass along what I had written and that I was a fan of the band to the other members.’ What happened next was perhaps unexpected, but an integral next step for the seasoned vet.
‘Years later David and Christer randomly reached out with a message like ‘Hey, we have some ideas for a new project that have some of the orphaned ideas that started during the Synergy era, would you be interested?‘ – needless to say, I was. At that time, The Dillinger Escape Plan was kinda winding down so I was looking for something more to do and figured this could be a nice transition. As a fan of Extol, I felt it was a unique opportunity to be able to get under the hood and decode the way David and Christer think about music and songwriting.‘
Christer’s account goes back a bit further, but completes the picture of Azusa‘s formation. Since he left Extol in 2004, right after the release of Synergy, his contact with David understandably lessened as David was seeing Extol through to its indefinite hiatus in 2015.
‘David and I met at a show back in the winter of 2014. We had not seen each other in a long time and talked briefly about starting to play together again. We thought it would be cool to make music in the direction of Absurd², the thrash project we released an EP with in 2004. We started to meet regularly and picked up some old ideas and began writing music. Not long after we asked Liam to join. David had had some contact with him earlier and it turned out he was interested. Then it took a while before Eleni joined. A female vocalist wasn’t what we envisioned to begin with, but it proved difficult to get a male vocalist on board that had the qualities we were after. That opened the door for Eleni. We knew she could scream (Jumbo Jet) and sing (Sea + Air) and that gave us new options. When Eleni joined, most of the ideas and song structures for Heavy Yoke were already in place, but we could now arrange the songs in more intriguing and unexpected ways because of Eleni´s versatile vocals.’
Ah yes, Heavy Yoke, the band’s debut LP. Very favorably reviewed here when it released in November 2018, it quickly became an end-of-year favorite of mine. It had a wide array of textures and tones in it, all honed and masterfully used, as you might expect for a band made up of to-the-bone musicians and artists. “Fine Lines” was atmospheric and haunting, Zafiriadou’s vocals staying cleanly sung throughout, floating her voice in the air like a wisp of smoke. The explosiveness of opener “Interstellar Islands” can’t be contained as the band blazes a warpath with fiery guitars and bass, lockstep drums, and fierce vocals.
As Christer said before, much of this album was already formed before the final lineup even came to be which is, frankly, astonishing given how strong it was for a debut. Liam adds, ‘A lot of the writing for Heavy Yoke was completed before we really knew each other, how to play to each other’s strengths, and truly understand each other’s personal goals, tastes, things we’d like to lean deeper into as well as trends or tendencies we’d like to avoid or distance ourselves from as a group.’
From there, the future was already in motion – even with Heavy Yoke yet to be released, the band had already begun on sketches and ideas for their follow-up, the soon to be released Loop of Yesterdays, which comes out via Solid State Records in North America (Indie Recordings in Europe and Ward Records in Japan) on April 10. Liam and Christer divulged a bit on how their sophomore effort came to be, how it was different from Heavy Yoke‘s process, and if pressure was a factor in its creation or a simple desire to create something artistically satisfying and encompassing:
Liam: ‘As far as I’m concerned, especially considering how quickly we wrote and recorded the follow up, we just kept writing, and going through the pieces of things we abandoned that were worth developing. I think at this stage in our careers, we trust the process, knowing we’re never going to settle for a less than par release, but also realizing we’ll likely keep producing music together so we don’t need to be so precious about everything and cook it past the point where it loses flavor…
‘There’s always going to be a few choices you question or wished you had the opportunity to do differently in hindsight, but that’s what keeps the creative process exciting – trying to eliminate as many of those variables as possible as you make progress. We knew we just wanted to continue to create honest music from the heart that showcases all of our talents and would be something we’d want to listen to and be excited about helping to manifest.’
Christer: ‘It took some time to release Heavy Yoke. After a somewhat tedious signing process with three labels (Indie, Solid State, and Ward) they had to coordinate among themselves to fit the release into their schedules. In that time we simply kept writing music and by the time HY was released, the majority of the songs for Loop of Yesterdays were already written. We always work towards ‘creating something artistically satisfying and encompassing‘ as you put it. There is always this drive towards innovation and trying to bend or expand ‘the rules’ or whatever is viewed as normal or accepted in metal. So I would say the process was quite similar from HY, but we wanted to evolve and take a slightly different path to keep things interesting.’
Loop of Yesterdays has a strong theme of struggle – intrapersonally with yourself, with others in your life, against an establishment or system, and beyond. I hear an undercut of triumph in some lyrics, a success in feeling reality as it is, without any tint or coating. Though ‘triumph’ carries a mostly positive connotation, sometimes that ‘winning’ feeling is far away for some of us, and it’s in the themes and lyrics for Christer that things get personal and show a long journey of growth and recovery. I offer a small content warning for a discussion of mental illness, particularly that stemming from a toxic and abusive hyper-religious upbringing for the next set of quotes:
‘That’s an interesting word. I guess ‘triumph’ in some ways is a fitting word even though many of the processes of personal struggles that my lyrics are based on are still going on. In that sense it feels like I´m not out of the tunnel yet even if I can see the light at the end of it. Of course coming to life-changing realisations about identity, personality, faith, etc. is certainly a triumph in itself, but the realisation is just the beginning. The way you choose to respond and the choices you make after coming to these realisations is when the real struggle begins.
‘For the last few years I have been in a place of deconstruction. As someone who grew up in, and as an adult, being involved in a conservative charismatic environment, moving away from a highly dualistic world view has not been as easy as one would expect. The body is an amazing work of art, and I have learned that even though your mind will let you forget about difficult experiences, probably because they hurt too much for you to deal with at the moment, your body will not! Over the years, I felt less and less at ease with the whole pentecostal narrative and all the tribe language and norms coming with it. Throw into the mix an abandonment issue due to my parents divorcing in my early teens, some really unpleasant experiences with mentally and spiritually abusive church leaders and my sensitive and introverted personality among other things, and there you have the recipe for some mid life crap for me to work through.
‘My Neo moment of discovering The Matrix happened through therapy and brought with it some unexpected side effects like depression and anxiety which I had never experienced before. During this time of deconstruction sorrow has been an overshadowing emotion for me: grief over loss of fellowship, over the feeling of being betrayed, and over missed opportunities. Luckily, sorrow is not dangerous – it’s the body’s way of telling me that something needs to be dealt with. I have therefore learned to accept it and walk with it, unlike the predominant message from my pentecostal upbringing where ‘negative’ emotions are bad and should be overcome by reading the word of God, singing praise and worship songs and putting them in God’s hands, whatever that means.
‘I touch on this on “Monument” where I critique the charismatic´s heavy leaning towards victory, joy and prosperity, leading to massive repression of so called negative emotions, robbing people of the full human experience. Emotions are not good or bad, they are simply the body’s way of telling you what is what. A smoke detector feels really uncomfortable when it goes off. It warns you about an important issue that you should deal with, and turning it off or ignoring it without looking into why it went off is a terrible idea. Mental health issues are completely normal, and the best way to deal with them is to be open about them. Talking to someone you trust and/or going to therapy will most likely help you sort out your issues.’
It’s here, even in only the singles from Loop of Yesterdays, you hear a distinctiveness in it from Heavy Yoke. While some themes may run close between the albums, it’s their second album that houses a more complete salvo of emotion and expression. In retrospect, it does make the seams a bit of Heavy Yoke more visible, as good as it was.
“Monument” has immediacy to it, peeling off a mask – the ‘sacred façade‘ as the lyrics refer to it – of spiritual authority and its repressive and unhealthy prescribed governing of self. The progressions and melodies make it one of my favorite songs of the year so far. Likewise, the blistering “Kill / Destroy” is riff-heavy, imbuing its eruptive lyrics with a catchy hook and a violently rumbling low-end. You can tell these songs are more involved and conclusive – everyone has a place, everything is where it should be. With Loop of Yesterdays, you’re not just witnessing an artistic evolution, but the mind-meld of four people exhibiting more comfort in finding their place amongst each other, and complementing what they each have to offer.
You have to wonder, how the hell do they make it work? Working cross-continentally poses some unique challenges, but we also live in a time where more and more bands work under these conditions, not to mention our current technology makes it easier than ever to make that a viable way to work. Liam details how Azusa makes it happen:
‘I think there’s a lot of ‘muse magic’ happening. I’m not the kind of artist who likes to take much responsibility for what comes out of me. I believe it was Alan Moore who I heard say something along the lines of – we’re just the window, we’re not the sun, nor the ray of light that comes through it, and we’re not the spot of light on the floor, we’re just the window, and our responsibility is to keep that window clean. That’s what all the practicing and rehearsal is for, to wipe the dust away so the light can come through us more freely.
‘Of course we sacrifice our time amongst other things to keep that window from getting foggy, but the magic happens when we connect our creative force with the creative source. David and Christer are the architects, engineers, and foreman – they build the framework and I like to think I’m just in there hanging drywall and maybe doing some finish carpentry, Eleni makes the house a home with her lyrics and stylistic additions. A lot happens in our respective locations, but we get together at David’s studio in Oslo to track everything, and that’s where the (cliche) ‘magic happens’ and everything stops being trees and comes together as a forest. I feel like I show up with my ideas about 90% worked out, but something supernatural happens when we’re together doing the final tracking that pushes the songs to 110%.‘
To be clear, Liam is based in the US, Eleni is from Greece, but both David and Christer hail from Norway which gives them the most opportunity to work face-to-face and flesh things out. Naturally, Christer’s perspective on the matter is a little different – relatable, even – as he’s able to treat the situation more amicably with David:
‘David and I meet once a week to create music, practice and talk crap. We’ve made it a steady routine, it’s the only way to get things done with full time jobs and family life. This is where the majority of the ideas are born. Once the songs have a certain structure, they are sent to Liam and Eleni for further processing so they can prepare for recording. They then come to Oslo and record in David´s studio. A lot of the bass and vocal magic occurs in the recording process as we leave room for creativity in the studio. It always feels good when unexpected and fun elements that otherwise wouldn’t have come up make it to the album.’
Modern problems, modern solutions. Maybe it’s not a conscious thing, but you can feel a sense of perseverance in their music that you can relate to the band and how they function. Though not a perfect scenario, it seems effortless on their part, likely indicative of them all being professionals within their craft and close enough personally to make it work.
Still, this can’t be the apex of Azusa, right? A band with members as storied as them surely have a lot more to dig into, even just sonically. It’s this potential that always encourages me to ask what could possibly be incorporated into future work, even just anecdotally. Liam remarks, ‘I’m always open to unorthodox instruments, and feel like there’s more room for something like a flute or some woodwinds, or something with more overtones like singing bowls, harmonium, sitar, etc., but also the authenticity of being able to reproduce things live or honor the ‘metal-medium’ keeps some of that in check, so it would likely be something I’d use sparingly.’ As a big fan of the sitar and woodwinds: yes, please. More generally, he adds, ‘I can always imagine some room for improvisation or more fusion-y elements since we all seem to share a lot of influences from that world.’ Christer has similarly lofty goals for a primarily metal band, but no less interesting: ‘I have this idea that using a xylophone on some technical metal riffing could be really cool. It would be an exotic ingredient to spice things up, and I don’t know if the others would approve, but I don’t know any xylophonists so it will probably never happen, haha.‘
Azusa have already had the distinct pleasure of working with Bobby Koelble – a jazz guitarist who has worked with Death, Abysmal Dawn, and Monotheist among others – who soloed his ass off on “Iniquitous Spiritual Praxis” from Heavy Yoke. On Loop of Yesterdays, “Detach” has a solo from the legendary Alex Skolnick (Testament) which you can hear below. Who else would they like to work with? Liam is curious how jazz fusion guitarist and composer David Torn would fare on a track, as well as Daniel Lanois, a rock guitarist who has worked with Brian Eno, Venetian Snares, and Bob Dylan to name a few. Christer on the other hand is gonna required a flying DeLorean to make his dreams come true: Allan Holdsworth, another jazz fusion and progressive rock guitarist famous for his involvement in Pierre Moerlen’s Gong and Bruford as well as a prolific solo career; and the proclaimed Godfather of Fusion, Larry Coryell. Both sadly passed away in 2017.
These wild wishes call back to the influences of each member – after all, who wouldn’t want to work with their artistic influences? ‘The musical stuff seems obvious to me at least as far as this band/style is concerned,’ says Liam. ‘Sometimes when an influence doesn’t directly fit, I try to at least imagine what sort of choices I might make, what things would I say or do so as not to embarrass myself if one of my heroes were in the room with us, or I like to think what that person’s advice might be at a certain impasse.’ My mild anxiety just tingled reading that, so I feel you there, Liam. Sometimes influence comes from the most unforeseen corners of our periphery. ‘I try to take influence from everything and everywhere. For example, the song titles like “Support Becomes Resistance” comes from looking at and listening to lingo associated with financial markets and stock charts, but we felt it was appropriate in the sense that anything that may have supported you at some time can very easily become the thing that tries to hold you back.’ It helps to know that “Support Becomes Resistance” is a short interlude that comes before “Monument” and can be partially heard in the video for the latter track above. Christer and David’s influences are more forthcoming:
‘David and I have listened a lot to 70s jazz/fusion for some time now. How much of that can be traced in Azusa I will leave for others to judge, but I have had a great time discovering bands and artists like Brand X, Gal Costa, Gong, Bruford, Larry Coryell, Allan Holdsworth, Annette Peacock, U.K. and many others from the crazy experimental 70s as an adult.’
As of this article’s publishing, we’re twelve days out from the release of Loop of Yesterdays. Azusa looks to get back to performing live as support for other bands or at festivals as circumstances allow, and, you know, assuming we’re not under worldwide quarantine any time soon I’m sure. They also seek to keep the music flowing generously for fans. As is tradition, I’ll leave the last word to the band, Liam specifically, but first would like to thank both him and Christer for taking as much time as they did helping me develop this feature during a tough and busy time. I, and the EIN team as a whole, wish them the best as they weather the storm that the world currently is, and beyond.
‘Thank you for inviting us to contribute in this way and for taking interest in our band, and for asking good questions. I read this quote this week and it’s stuck with me, so I’ll share it here:
‘When a bird is alive, it eats ants.
When the bird has died, ants eat it.
One tree can be made into a million matchsticks…but it only takes one matchstick to burn a million trees.
Circumstances can change at any time…Don’t devalue or hurt anyone in this life.
You may be powerful today, but time is more powerful than you.’
Eleni Zafiriadou – Vocals
Liam Wilson – Bass
Christer Espevoll – guitars
David Husvik – drums
Azusa can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and their own official site. Preorder the hell out of Loop of Yesterdays through this link, and check their merch on Bandcamp – all Loop of Yesterdays shirt profits will be going toward a global charity to be determined soon!