I’ve been with Everything Is Noise since the end of 2019, so just over three years. As a result, I have of course heard and reviewed dozens of albums I would otherwise have missed entirely – to be honest, I don’t remember all of them, but there are some that have stuck with me over the years. I have a rotation of perhaps ten albums I found through EIN that I keep coming back to, and one of those is ILLT’s 2021 debut Urhat.
Calling it a debut is a little cheeky and not entirely accurate – ILLT is the solo project of Norwegian film composer Roy Westad, who has been writing soundtracks since 2006, so he’s not exactly a novice. However, Urhat is his first metal release – a return in many ways to his teenage years, when he picked up the guitar and spent hours in his bedroom ‘jamming out to the usual suspects like Metallica, Pantera, Sepultura and so on’. Despite quickly becoming quite proficient, he never took his music out of the bedroom, and never actually wrote any songs himself. That changed when, at age 24, Westad turned his attention to film composing: ‘Being 100% self-taught, it took me a couple of years to get through the basics and start to find my voice, but I managed to get some small gigs pretty fast’. He was still playing guitar in his spare time, but as the years went by, his scoring work took up so much of his time that his guitar sometimes ended up unplayed for months.
Then, after ten years of working as a composer, Westad’s first child was born, something he describes as ‘a turning point in many ways’. He explains:
‘It gave me a whole new perspective on life and existence. For some reason it also resurrected the dream of putting out metal songs again, and I became a master of exploiting small time windows when the little one was napping. I hooked up my laptop, soundcard and guitar and was always ready to go. I wrote the whole album in six months or something, and did more within that time frame than in the last twenty years combined. I guess I just had to think less and create more. That was most likely always the problem with me before ILLT. So I wrote 8 songs of which 6 ended up on the album, and I started to send out demos to labels. And here we are!’
Westad describes himself as ‘a sponge when it comes to inspiration’, listening to ‘pretty much every single genre of music’ and allowing all of it to influence his writing, be it consciously or not. He might hear part of a hip hop track at a café while waiting for his coffee, and later in the day draw on that song to write a riff, even if it’s just borrowing from the tonality of the groove. He also likes to conduct thought experiments, ‘just letting my mind wander and imagining how for example Nick Cave would sound like if he was writing extreme metal. Sounds silly maybe, but this method of working with contrasts actually gives way to lots of interesting ideas for me anyway’. While he has an (albeit fluid) top 10 list of metal albums, which includes The Crown’s Deathrace King, Mastodon’s Crack the Skye, and Crowbar’s Sonic Excess in Its Purest Form, Westad finds himself most influenced by existence itself; ‘that’s a well of inspiration that never runs dry’.
ILLT’s songs usually start with Westad playing around on the guitar until he finds an idea that catches his interest and demands repetition. There are no concrete criteria for the style – ‘it’s a gut feeling all the way’. Westad then puts the idea to the test, trying it at various speeds and over a multitude of drum beats and grooves; this helps him establish how ‘durable’ the idea is. Once he’s satisfied, he begins what he calls his ‘game of contrasts’. Westad explains:
‘Contrasts are probably my main writing tool. It just works. And it helps me out of creative blocks. For example, if my chorus is based on a busy melodic idea with blast beats and lots of stuff going on, the verse will probably be a lot less busy with no blast beats and a more static tonality.’
From there, it’s crucial the song’s structure gets finalised quickly, ‘so I can see the whole picture before I start working on small details within the different parts. It’s all about creative momentum, and avoiding getting stuck in a loop, flicking on the same 30-second part over and over’. The song will then build from version to version, until Westad feels it’s done – and with that feeling comes a sense of achievement: ‘It’s just amazing and a personal victory every time I get there!’ A standout track for Westad was “Blood of the Unbeliever” (which, by the way, is also one of my favourite tracks on Urhat); he found great enjoyment in hearing its ‘relentless energy’ come to life during the writing process.
Once the song arrangement is completed, Westad begins work on the lyrics. Usually, he will have come up with the general idea during the initial phases of writing the song, but it’s never his main focus during that time. He will normally listen to the finished instrumentals ‘an unhealthy number of times’ to get a feel for what themes will work with the different songs, and how they can all tie together. He ensures that none of the songs are touching on the exact same subject matter, while still fitting in with the overall story of the album.
After he’s decided on a song’s theme, he breaks it down into different parts, deciding what each verse can be about, how the pre-chorus could lead into the chorus and so on, focussing only on keywords to make sure the story makes sense. He explains:
‘If I don’t have a rough outline of the story, there will be just too many options, and I’ll be stumbling around in the dark, getting stuck in creative blocks and losing motivation, having three verses that all say the same thing…from there, it’s all about filling the gaps, writing something that makes sense for the listener, that sounds cool, doesn’t feel awkward for the vocalist to perform, and ultimately fits the initial vocal arrangements. Sounds easy, right?’
For his debut album, Urhat, Westad contemplated a relatively simple idea – humanity’s inevitable destruction at its own hands. The name ‘Urhat’ translates roughly to ‘ancient hate’, and the album ‘revolves around the idea that humanity set itself up to fail from the start’. Further, the album explores the idea that ‘almost every ‘constructive’ thing we do or ‘create’ is just a distraction on our way to destruction’. Urhat traces this idea through the ages – ‘spanning from the dawn of man, all the way through warfare in the dark ages, the crusades, WW2, and beyond the digital revolution’.
At the time of Urhat’s writing, Westad looked at the world around him and saw a situation that seemed hopeless: ‘We had the bombings in Syria and the alleged gas attacks with dead children all over the news. We had a fucking racist clown in the oval office, I mean; I’ve never felt less hope for the human race’. At that same time, he had his first child, and found hope and happiness on a personal level, but was also confronted with the state of the world he was bringing his child into. He elaborates:
‘[Having a child] gave me a lot of food for thought. What kind of place will we leave behind for the little ones, you know. I’m not just talking about the climate changes, famine, and wars, but the thought of my kids one day having access to social media and all the self-indulgent, bullying, narcissistic shit designed to make people feel inadequate and depressed so some greedy idiots can sell them their so-called solutions only to make weak people feel even worse, desperately trying to fix what was not broken in the first place. That shit right there scares the hell out of me. I assume it will only get worse. And in all of this lies the backdrop of the album’s concept. It started ugly, and it will end even uglier.’
The name ILLT is not an acronym – in Westad’s native dialect, it means ‘bad’ or ‘painful’, and is also the Icelandic word for ‘evil’. Westad is a fan of ‘short and snappy names’, so this was his main criterium for selecting the moniker for this project. ILLT’s logo is written in runes, giving it a subtly asymmetric, arched look, and pairs nicely with Urhat’s album cover – a dark, simple photo of an ‘old and really angry’ ram that Westad’s friend Jo Bergersen took some years ago, up in the mountains. Westad loves the lighting of this photo, and the fact that the ram’s face is hard to make out – ‘in my opinion what you can’t see is always scarier than what you can see’. To him, it bears a subtle relevance to the album’s name.
To realise the album’s dystopian vision, Westad employed the help of four heavy-hitting names in metal: Megadeth’s Dirk Verbeuren on drums, Soilwork’s Speed Strid on vocals, and Nile’s Karl Sanders and Chrome Division’s Mr. Damage on guitars. Westad chose these musicians as they have ‘the diversity and experience to handle the somewhat eclectic song arrangements and genre mishmash, but also the aggressiveness and sheer intensity’. He found this group to be perfect for the project, all being ‘creative professionals that deliver in accordance to my vision, but at the same time have the balls to challenge me, ask the right questions, and come up with their own ideas along the way… they really delivered beyond my expectations.‘
In what Westad calls a ‘very Covid-friendly project’, he sent all the musicians demo recordings with dummy vocals, lyrics, and programmed drums. While the songs where complete, Westad says it was important to him that the musicians ‘invested and took ownership in the material, not merely doing what they’re told. It’s a fine balance between giving me what I want, and what I don’t realize I need’. The recordings were made all over the world – vocals in Sweden, guitars and bass in Norway, and drums in Los Angeles, and the album was mixed in Massachusetts by none other than Kurt Ballou. With a musical and technical line-up that high-calibre, it’s unsurprising that Urhat came out sounding absolutely fantastic.
ILLT’s second release is in the works, fully written and with drums already recorded: ‘Dirk (Verbeuren) did an amazing job once again. The drumming is insane on this record’. Westad is taking the next release in slightly different direction, ‘while still maintaining a fair share of the ILLT vibe’. He believes ILLT fans ‘will come to know that it’s a little ‘expect the unexpected’ with me’. About the new album, Westad says:
‘It will definitely be a more personal and emotional album than Urhat, as it was written and recorded during the most challenging time of my life so far. That said, this album is even more intense than Urhat, and in several aspects a very demanding one to record. It’s a lot angrier and faster, but also more melodic, melancholic, even more genre-defying and with even longer song arrangements than last time. We’ll also see the introduction of more instruments than just drums/guitars/bass. I really hope that people will feel this record. Nonetheless, it’s gonna be a wild ride, I can promise you that.’
While Westad is fully invested in this new release, there are no plans to take ILLT on the road. He explains: ‘I work with some of the busiest names in metal, and it would be really difficult if not impossible task to gather for rehearsals and gigs. And it’s really of no interest for me to have a completely different line-up live than on the albums’. In any case, I for one am very excited to see where ILLT goes, and am chomping at the bit for the second release.