As the man who IS Ephel Duath, Davide Tisso doesn’t believe in making easy choices. Following their 2000 debut Phormula they seemed poised to pick the leftovers from the appealingly-eccentric black metal with bits buffet that Arcturus were still keeping well-stocked, but instead Tisso has taken the bizarre choice of hitting the reset button (to abandon one over-stretched metaphor for another) after each album, starting again with a new line-up, new theme and a different take on a familiar sound.
It’s an approach which hasn’t always worked out for him, delivering misses as often as hits and at worst making Tisso seem like some Poundland Ihsahn, but HBL brings the success rate back up, constituting both a massive step-up from 2009’s heroically boring Through My Dog’s Eyes, and a genuinely rewarding album in its own right.
The biggest draw for non-fans is that Tisso’s wife Karyn Crisis handles sole vocal duties, the first full album she’s sung on since 2004 (save for 2012’s On Death And Cosmos EP). Her performance is initially disappointing, forsaking the rapid shift between extremes she used in Crisis for a middle-register audible rasp throughout, but once it settles in it’s a quietly engaging performance, simmering with pent-up resentment and a controlled anger which stands out from the shrieking and raging of most Extreme Metal.
The music this time around seems to take its cues from Karyn’s vocals, feeling at times like a more restrained and introspective take on The Hollowing era Crisis. This is not music that tries hard to grab you, there are no hooks or catchy melodies here, and equally no showboating tech-fests – though much of what Tisso does here is genuinely bold it’s quietly so, with little flash. Atmosphere and the building of tension are more important here than catching attention, and at its weakest the album can drift into the background and lose focus, but overall keeps the balance maintained.
Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness (Agonia Records) is a quiet, unassuming album that doesn’t bellow its qualities out loud, but whose hidden depths open up on multiple listens to reveal a genuinely rich and layered collection of songs.
Davide Tiso makes for one of the most fascinating characters to study in the entire realm of heavy music. Through the entity that is Ephel Duath, Tiso has been blending the very best of experimental music, harsh contrasting styles, and deft philosophical lyrics for over a decade now. He has always had a singular purpose, but now he is fully in control of his destiny via a fruitful partnership with Agonia Records. Plus, he has cohorts who can match his talent and vision, such as Karyn Crisis, Marco Minnemann, and Bryan Beller, and he can fulfill his artistic vision. Chief Editor Raymond Westland interviewed Tiso about a range of topics, yielding some surprising answers.
Congrats on releasing such a strong and convincing album as Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness. Are you happy the way it turned out?
I’m very, very proud of Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness. I did my best to put together some meaningful pieces of music, I got an exceptional line up performing the songs and one of the best extreme metal producers out there working at my side. The album’s artwork is absolutely gorgeous and so are the formats and packaging available: yes, I’m happy for the way everything turned out.
The album has a rather enigmatic title. What’s the meaning behind it?
Ephel Duath has always been a band that feeds itself with opposites: lightness and heaviness, empty and full spaces, colors and darkness. The new album pushes this dichotomy even more, and I felt like marking the title itself with it.
There’s a constant search for dark sounds in my songs but there’s no real darkness without light. My music often diverge towards softer melodic parts just to create more tension, this way the release gain a much more dramatic effect. Lightness plays an important role in Ephel Duath just because it is in direct function and symbiotic correlation with heaviness. My lyrics and Karyn’s raw, lacerating way of singing my words, mark even more clearly how important are contrasts for this band: the harsh juxtaposition between this abstract and surreal music with these visceral, painful words create an odd balance that perfectly represent myself and Ephel Duath in 2013.
Can you take us through the motions of writing and recording the album?
I started working on these new songs right after we recorded 2012 EP On Death and Cosmos. From the second half of 2011 and the whole 2012 I did nothing but writing new music for Ephel Duath.
Drums for Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness were recorded by Marco Minnemann in the 2012 summer. Bass was recorded by Bryan Beller in September/October 2012. In February 2013 Karyn Crisis and I flew to Mana Recording Studios in St. Petersburg, FL, to record guitars and vocals with Erik Rutan. We finally mixed and mastered the album this past July and August.
Working on the album spanned in almost a two years period. Composing the music was overall a pretty smooth process, I experienced a burst of creativity and inspiration that let me nail one song after the other in a relative short amount of time. It took me more time to write the lyrics, I wanted to heavily dig inward in my head this time around and I took all the time I needed to make any words count. Recording, mixing and mastering the album has been a long and fragmented process. I’m glad we opted to book some extra weeks to mix and master because we badly needed more time. Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness reaches over 50 minutes and being the music so layered and structurally complex we didn’t feel like rushing anything just because we were passing the deadline. Both the studio and the label have been accommodating and understanding through all this process and now the album sounds like it should.
As writer and composer what are things you’re aiming for when working on Ephel Duath material?
When I work on new material for Ephel Duath I aim to use music notes to walk myself and the occasional listener to the place I hide in my head. This band might be the most truthful tool I found to open up and reveal my inner self. Being this course of action so intimate, I often feel I should not even share Ephel Duath’s music with people. Not every listener out there feels like entering in someone else troubled mindset just for the purpose of listening a piece of music. Some people just want to listen music to be entertained, not to be challenged and how can I really blame them? I am so protective of Ephel Duath because I frankly don’t see its music like a way of communicate with people but my own personal vehicle to come to terms with myself.
Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness is the album where I most successfully shut down that wall that protects me from the external. This is the album where I blindly immersed myself in my head the most, without even try to filter my words and my music for fear of revealing too much. This music will now be dissected by reviews and people’s comments: I’m not looking forward for that. With each new album, I’m not trying to gain a wider public, I’m trying to express myself more and more but to do so truly, I cannot afford to worry about what people’s reaction to my music might be.
Ephel Duath is signed with Agonia Records nowadays. How is it like to work with them compared to Earache records?
The main difference to underline is straight and simple: Ephel Duath is one of Agonia’s priorities; we never had the same status at Earache. I can’t stretch enough the importance to be in this position: after so many years playing this music, I’m very glad to have found a label that blindly supports the band. Agonia is doing an excellent job promoting Ephel Duath. They believe in my music, they are betting on my music and they are going way overboard to offer me the very best they can. Our new album is coming out in a limited double gold vinyl edition, how awesome is that? I’m very grateful for having such dedicated people working for my Ephel Duath. Another difference between the two labels to underline is that I’m in a position of total control with Agonia. Everything concerning Ephel Duath is discussed together, every decision we make needs my final approval.
Two years ago you decided to turn Ephel Duath basically into a one man project with a revolving cast of musicians in order to execute your musical ideas. What prompted this decision and how do you see things in regards of this nowadays?
This band is my own personal trip since many years, not just two. I composed every song and lyrics for Ephel Duath since 2001. Recently I just opted to work with exceptional session musicians as rhythmic section to make the whole process smoother and faster. Since I live in the US I never found a full line up for Ephel Duath, plus now I have a regular full time job: I can’t keep dedicating much time looking for musicians to jam, I prefer to spend my energy composing the best songs I can and hire professionals to record for me. This specific choice is making each release more economically demanding but in terms of musicianship, well, these new songs are reaching so much dynamic, expression and character. This is so rewarding for me, I’m investing all I have in this band and I want the best for this band. I aim to keep putting out albums that are strong statements and will stand the test of time. I feel very grateful for the opportunity I have to share and perform my music with such talented musicians.
With Bryan Beller and Marco Minnemann in the band you have one of the most talented and coveted rhythmic section within (experimental) rock and metal. How is it like to work with them for you as bandleader and composer?
As a songwriter, it is extremely refreshing and liberating to have such strong collaborators at my side. When I send the pre-production of my songs to Marco Minnemann, I know that he will promptly send me back the files with his parts to listen to. It is incredible how professional, fast and efficient Marco is. I feel that he’s able to adapt his drumming to my guitar style in such an elegant and eclectic way. Every guitar’s accent is interpreted and enchanted by the drums and there is definitely a good, magic at times, alchemy between us two.
Working with Bryan Beller for the bass parts has been absolutely great too. His parts are literally locking guitars and drums to each other and they add power, attack and heaviness to each and every riff. Bryan’s bass lines are very rock music oriented and his tone is so warm, rounded and well balanced: it perfectly complements my guitar ones.
Hemmed By Light is recorded with Erik Rutan. What did he bring to the table as far as ideas go?
Structuring, recording and mixing this album was pretty challenging. There’s really a lot going on in each song, Erik and I tried our very best to make any instrument, any part, any detail shine on its own and cohesively work together. Dealing with my guitars’ panning was particularly difficult. My parts resemble the shape of a spider web more than a typical metal rhythmic + solo guitar structure: every riff has different layers and harmonization’s that come in and, sometime, abruptly go out. Mixing wise, my guitars cannot be easily separated in left and right: Erik was extremely helpful adapting his way of working to this album’s special needs and he worked so very hard to make these songs dynamic and crushing. After few days of working together in studio we realized that nailing the right guitar panning was crucial for this specific album, especially for what concerned the heaviness of the music itself. We opted recording every guitar part twice and panning everything in stereo with different spectrums’ opening percentages; the result is a pretty odd and unique listening experience that grows and slowly reveal itself at every spin.
Rutan is mostly known for his work with death metal bands. Why did you choose to work with him?
Since I live in the US I keep choosing Erik Rutan for my productions because of his talent, dedication and military work ethic. Erik expects nothing but the best in terms of performances by the musicians he chooses to work with and he’s not that shy to let you know when you are playing sloppy. His perfect pitch hears and his attention for details is absolutely out of the ordinary and the results of such hard work pay back profusely. My music needs a producer that is ready to commit 100% to the songs and it’s ready to take the music to the next level: Rutan is giving me that, plus the drive of an extra band member and the support of a great friend.
What touring plans do you have in support of Hemmed By Light?
We just started booking an April 2014 European tour with Nero di Marte as main support. For updates and more info about ED please check facebook.com/ephelduathofficial. Thank you for the interview and support!