In the world of Black Metal, Satyricon is utterly uncompromising. When, well into their career, the band started to incorporate hard rock elements into their sound, it may have flipped out the purists but there’s no way you could accuse them of selling out: if anything such a move is an expression of outright honesty. You don’t go exploring hard rock riffs and rhythms in Black Metal and expect hardcore Black Metal audiences to to accept it, nor to you release a hard rock album dripping in cadaverous Black Metal riffage, because comfortably hard rock audiences aren’t gonna take that either. Nope, you do what you do because that’s what you have to do. Satyricon’s latest (and self-titled) album plays down some of that hard rock influence while emphasising atmospherics and dynamics, moving further away from the Black Metal sound in some parts while turning it up to 11 in others. I spoke to mastermind Satyr on the eve of the album’s release.
What do you think would be the perfect place to listen to this album for the first time?
Well… I know it’s not possible for all writers and journalists to do this, because the way these things are being distributed is through computer streams, but it’s analog production with an awful lot of emphasis on getting an authentic, organic sound with a great dynamic range where the performance of the musician comes across in terms of actually breathing life into the song through the lows coming down really low and quiet, and the really explosive epic parts really coming across as powerful and huge. And to me it just means to play this record repeatedly on a good stereo without colouring the sound with your own EQ. Just leave everything in neutral so you can actually hear what the record sounds like the way that it was made. I also think that due to the fact that it has so many tiny little details here and there – whether it’s the mellotron or the harmonium or the piano or the acoustic guitars or the theremin, all these little instruments that have their small features here and there that are introduced in a subtle way – to me it’s more that than where you find yourself physically. It’s how you listen to it.
Even just listening to the stream over the headphones, there’s so much depth to everything, and the sounds aren’t harsh and aggressive – they’re more rich and inviting and that makes you want to listen closer.
Well, to me that’s a fantastic compliment. What you try to do as a musician is you try to make the listener hear what you’re hearing and what you’re trying to achieve. And that was just one of those things that I decided to do for this record. I was going to get rid of all distortion pedals. For rock music that’s pretty normal, to just crank the amplifier and go with that sound, and then maybe they use a wah pedal or something like that. But for metal you typically have some pedal that’s gonna turbo-charge your sound. And for me, I really believe in the amplifiers that I use and I like the microphones we were using for the guitar recording, and I wanted to bring out my style of playing, the sound of my amplifier, the sound of the old tube microphones that we were using, and I didn’t want a modern day pedal to kill the dynamics of my playing. So a lot of it was like that, and other things we did with the drums that typically, for a metal drummer playing like Frost does, he uses smaller-sized drums for more attack definition and in order for it to be more comfortable to play for the drummer. And I kept saying to him “I love the drum sound on the things that we’ve done, but nothing sounds like our old drum kit, and the last time we used that was on the Volcano record. Why are we not using that any more?” And he just said “Because it’s old and broken and fucking hard to play.” And I said “I’m not looking for any hyper speed solutions anyway. I’m looking for a big fat tone with great sustain, and if it’s broken we’ll just get some guy to fix it and get new parts, and it shouldn’t be a problem.” And then we set it up again and when we were playing the new stuff straight off the bat I said “Are you not hearing what I’m hearing? This sounds so much better, so much more musical to me.” So there were many little things we did here and there, even in the production process where there would be computer versions of some compressor or something like that which to me didn’t sound that great, and the engineer would typically claim that it’s the same as the real thing, and I’d say “I don’t believe you because I know that this computer thing is a $250 item and if you try and buy the physical version of this from the seventies on eBay it’s going to cost you two grand,” and he says “Well, there is a difference but it’s a small difference,” and I said “That’s the small difference I’m looking for!” So that meant we did spend a little bit more time than we had planned for, but it was necessary to make this record come across the way we wanted. We felt we had atmospheric songs, we felt that we needed our tone to come across and go into the songwriting and become a part of the musical expression, and we felt that we needed the songs to be able to breathe. And pretty much the opposite of what most records sound like today, as the majority of records are quite digital and processed-sounding, and we were pursuing something completely different. We’ve always had these elements in our music but never to such an uncompromising degree as on this record. It was necessary and it gave us the outcome we now have in our hands.
So what went into the guitar tones?
I was using different guitars. When I was with Ibanez they made me a custom guitar which was essentially set out to sound almost like a combination of a Gibson SG and a Gibson Les Paul, and it was pretty successful in terms of achieving that. So I used that, and I used the Gibson Les Paul Studio and I also used an old ESP Kirk Hammett US Custom. It’s an interesting guitar because it looks like pretty much a conventional heavy metal guitar, but whenever I’ve had guitar techs from around the world, be it from Norway, from the States, from England, Portugal or Germany working on that guitar, they always tell me “That’s a great guitar.” It’s just because it was from a time when ESP had that US Custom Shop going and the quality of the guitars they did there is amazing. We used more guitars than that but those were the main guitars I kept using. I used a couple of different Mesa Boogie amplifiers: an early Dual Rectifier and then the new Mesa Boogie Mark V has a replica of the Mark I channel, so the Mark I was, at least the way I’ve understood it, the predecessor to the Dual Rectifier, and the Mark I is really hard to get today, especially in good shape. So I’m really glad that when they made the Mark V, one of the channels was a Mark I replica. So I used that channel, and that gave me a guitar sound with a richer, warmer tone. For the clean guitars I used a Laney combo amp and some old Fender amp.
Especially with the distorted guitars, when you use the amp distortion it really shows the character of each guitar, whereas if you use a pedal it almost doesn’t matter what guitar you use, to a certain extent.
Yeah, absolutely. And it really affects your songwriting as well, because when you use the amp distortion typically the sustain is going to be a little bit shorter than with a pedal, and when the sustain is slightly shorter that might be one of the things that will make you hold onto that chord a little longer and make the pause between that and the next chord progression part of the songwriting, or it might make you go to the next note faster than you had planned for, which changes the rhythm around for that part. So that was one of the things I did talk to Frost about when talking about that drum kit. I said “Listen, I’m going to start working on my guitar sounds and try different amplifiers and guitars from day one, so it’s important that you get that drum kit fixed as soon as possible, because it will affect the way you play, and it’s going to affect the way I write and the overall sound. So that needs to be a part of the songwriting process, not just the recording.”
I feel like the song “Phoenix” is a really good example of that because you’re playing these strummed and arpeggiated parts, and the drums underneath are very busy yet it all fits. The more relaxed-sounding guitars aren’t eaten up by those drums.
I know exactly which part you’re thinking of, and that was one of the interesting things in working with that, for Frost who as a drummer is very raw and animalistic. What’s on the record is what he played from day one, and I said “You’re making a lot of sound. You can play that exact arrangement but there’s no need for you to hit that hard. Listen to the sound of my guitar, listen to the way that feels, and then adjust yourself,” and that’s what he did. But I think for him working on this record, if you were talking to him he’d probably tell you he learned a lot about music just playing drums on this record. I told him the other day that I think he’s got his best years ahead of him as a drummer – he’ll just get better and better.
I understand you’re releasing the album in different coloured vinyl versions, yeah?
Yes! Transparent red, then a mixture of red and black, and then ordinary black. Lots of stuff. And right now we’re working on trying to find a place to do a picture disc as well, because there are good looking picture discs out there but the problem is the sound quality, so we’re trying to find a place where they can do it with good sound quality.
Satyricon is out now via Roadrunner.