One of the best releases of 2013 was A Storm of Light’sNations To Flames (Southern Lord). Led by multi-instrumentalist/visual artist Josh Graham (Neurosis, Red Sparrow’s, Battle of Mice) we have followed their quiet evolution over five releases. Perhaps equally well known as the long time artist in residence for Neurosis and other Neurot recording artists, he has also done an array of brilliant, genre defining artistic work that would have our attention, even if he didn’t also make music.
Nations To Flames is a departure of sorts stylistically from most of ASOL’s previous work. The slow post-metal tracks are lessened, in favor of aggression and venom the tempos. The music has an urgency that matches the subject matter too. Graham expands on the genesis of creating his new opus: “The entire album took about ten months, maybe close to a year to write. We decided that we wanted to play faster music after we played with Slayer and Wormed last year. We got to watch Slayer at sound-check. I had seen Slayer a bunch of times, but never without an audience. Seeing like that was pretty cool. It really inspired me, the first spark to make a faster, heavier album. Then we started the writing process. We’d put together a rough song, guitars and some rough vocals. Then we sent the tracks to Billy. We all live in different places. Our bass player Dominic (Seita) lives in Rhode Island and Billy (Graves), our drummer lives in Knoxville, TN. I’m in New York. I’ll send the tracks around to Billy and he will send back drums, and then we change the tracks around some more. We’ve had days when I worked on and edited the songs. Dom adds bass, and we’ll change them again. We just kept rearranging tracks until we were happy with them. I think we’ve had a better response with the faster songs too. Our first record, (And We Wept)The Black Ocean (Within)…. I mean I like it, and it’s heavy, but some of it is so…slow. (laughs) There is so much stuff between guitar notes, that it is a little stagnant to play the songs over and over. Even when we are rehearsing, it’s mind blowing how fun these new songs are to play. There is really no time to think about it. It’s a really different way of playing together.”
Throughout his career, he has been a person sought out by others to collaborate with. How then does Graham choose his own band of conspirators when the stakes are high? Although names like producer/engineer Travis Kammeyer and producer Matt Bayles, who mixed the new album, jump out at you, neither was chosen on their reputations alone. Rather, they were tasked to join up based on a trust of what they bring to the process:
“Billy our drummer plays in Generation of Vipers with Travis. Being as how we are situated not living in the same state, we were struggling at first to figure out how to get the tracks we were recording back and forth. We did the official demos for the last two albums with Travis. Just basic stuff, with drums. They didn’t even spend that much time on it. The sound they got, we were really blown away by it. For Valley… (As the Valley of Death Becomes Us, Our Silver Memories Fade) we already had the recording plans in place. We did the demos again with Travis for Nations.., and we just felt it was time to go with him for the entire album. We thought we would just track with him at last. He didn’t have a lot of outboard gear in the studio either. While we were very comfortable recording on our own, we felt it was important to have someone we really had the respect of, for his knowledge. And it’s the same thing with Matt. Matt, I just know him for a long time. His work with the ISIS guys, who are friends of mine, and a bunch of other bands is well known. His work obviously speaks for itself. Our friends in KEN Mode just recorded and mixed their new album with Matt. And the sound of that record, it was amazing at how different it sounded from anything they had done before. He’s so versatile. He was able to get clarity out of all of the insane layering that we do, which we’ve never been able to get before. It was awesome!”
It would be an error to classify all of Graham’s output as “conceptual”. Sometimes what that concept is is left to the listener’s own interpretation as a teaching instrument, but sometimes people miss the point when everything is esoteric. Still, ASOL’s albums are each a unique concept album in their own right. Nations To Flames tells a very specific tale. A dire warning of the eventual end of times for the human race, lest we fail to alter our course: “For the last two records that we let the concepts be more loose and not defined. For the first two records, the concepts were so entirely adhered to, the sequencing of the songs, the concepts of the songs; because of the lyrics was a linear story across the entire record. I think it was keeping the records themselves from being as good as they could be. After the second record we felt maybe that was too self-sacrificing to the songs to keep to this linear story. We are now approaching it better, and more loosely. As for the current album, overall lyrically, we are looking at the current state of humanity versus the environment and the potential of where these things might end up. The powers that be ignoring the larger issues: government, global warming, pollution, things like that. The lyrics capture this view of humanity leading a view of the climb in our inhumanity. The artwork itself is more of a focus on what might happen before and after that. The girl signifies some hope. Maybe someone younger will come along, spread some ideas and help change the path that we are on. It also of fits with kind of the fully destroyed environment, and surviving after this catastrophic event has happened. Just biding time until this environment reveals itself, or creates this non-friendly environment to people, and they just end up dying out. It’s a multi-tierd story.”
True to the spirit of the bands’ past body of work, Nations has some great guest turns such as Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Wolves In The Throne Room axeman Will Lindsey. Josh talks about working with both:
“Actually we sent Kim the full record out and I just told him to pick out whatever he was feeling. The same with Will. We’ve known will forever. We’ve toured with Wolves In The Throne Room and he’s toured with us as a second guitar player. So we’ve have a long term relationship with him, I’m sure he’ll be back, touring with us again. I love what he brings to the table. The same thing with Kim. Having been with Soundgarden, as their art director, in a way, for over three years, I have gotten to do about four packages with them. I did the King Animal artwork, a few seven inches, several shirts, and a few videos. So I’ve gotten to know Kim well. He also played on the Valley… record. This one is way heavier, so when he heard, it threw him for a loop. The stuff he ended up bringing to the table was amazing. The most important part of it for me was to have guitar input on the the record that isn’t me. I can layer stuff until the cows come home, but it’s going to sound like me. So having Will and Kim on the album really completes the palette.”
Even the most talented and confident person in the world doesn’t get up in the morning and proclaim that they are going to make a masterpiece happen on a given day. For the true artist, the creative process is not akin to turning a faucet on to high and waiting for brilliance to pour out. Josh talks about how he juggles music and design work without hurting the quality of either, by compartmentalizing each: “I have to shut down writing. I don’t like doing that, but once we finish a record, I have to shut it down. It just becomes too consuming. Then I will start it back up again more formerly when we need to start writing again. When we are actively writing, I am not doing any art yet. I am working on how the songs fit together. Eventually, I start arriving at a place where I am ready to start exploring visual ideas. I can think visually and figure out where the visual concepts tie back to the lyrics, tying them back into the whole concept. On this record, I actually re-wrote some of the songs three times. More so in the case of what I wanted the melodies to be. Some stuff ended up changing to fit better into the concept of what I wanted the record to be. It’s definitely both. It’s so hard to be focused on artwork and then break away and do music. I tend to work 10-12 hours at a time on whatever I am doing. So to split it up, I would just get derailed. It’s not ideal, but that is what I do.”
At one point Josh was one of those artists as well known for the number of side projects he was in, as he was for his main proclivities. Of late, he has dialed those distractions down a notch to focus on his main gigs.
“I’m working on a dark-folk thing called Crooked Sun, but it keeps getting side-tracked. My hope is that once we get touring I can dedicate more time to that. Other than that, I am trying to focus on the stuff at hand, and not trying to get side-tracked. A lot of the stuff I was doing before, I wasn’t really interested in where it was taking me. I wasn’t getting all that I needed out of it. That is why the side projects were happening. Right now, between ASOL and Crooked Sun, I am getting everything I need out creatively. I am still definitely open to working with more people in the future.”
Keith (Keefy) Chachkes