On an ever-poignant date for Manchester, and in a venue situated within a small area of the city known as ‘Little Ireland’, it seems apt for the morose, blackened death of Eireann quartet Malthusian to be laying waste. Through the bloody annoying strobe effects, impressive frontman Pauric Gallagher stood behind his bass like a colossus, his Lemmy-style stance and ferocious, deep scour complementing the blackened rasp of co-vocalist Andrew Cunningham. Brutally savage yet with added elements of crushing doom, this was a huge assault on the senses and a delicious aperitif.
Minor issues blighted the early Winterfylleth sound but old favourite ‘Ghosts of Heritage’ had the floor bouncing. Emotive new track ‘Careworn Heart’, from the band’s The Divination of Antiquity (Candlelight) opus, was led in by a beautifully taped acoustic intro; the more subtle yet crashing, almost mournful feel which displayed the new expansion and versatility of the band grasping the room in the palm of its hand. It’s this creative freedom, embodied by much of Dan Capp‘s delicate, post-style leadwork, which has propelled these local boys-next-door to hero status. Crowd favourite ‘Defending the Realm’ was greeted with unfettered joy, yet there was more an awed reverence rather than a pulsating throb for this adored outfit.
A stirring Irish lament played Primordial to the stage, whence the unmistakable figure of the painted, hooded Nemtheanga roared “Are you with us?”. Generating rapturous, impassioned crowd accompaniment, one of Metal’s truly great frontmen stared wildly and prowled like a possessed madman through the rousing ‘Where Greater Men Have Fallen’, sorely apt given tonight’s close proximity to the site of the 1819 Peterloo massacre. Fiercely expressive, yet allying the bitter anger to a dark humour, the spokesman for The Committed announced the outrageously powerful, emotive ‘Babel’s Tower’ as “my confession”; whilst the ‘skipping bullet’ guitar line of ‘As Rome Burns’ is introduced to ecstatic roars with the tagline “This is the United States of Europe – you have the right to hate who you want”. The constant wall of resonant riffs were part of the defining proof that this is no mere backing band, subtly and skilfully producing a thunderous swell of sound, the rhythm and drums a colossal thunder. Tolling bells blending with brutality, classics ‘The Coffin Ships’ and ‘Empire Falls’ were greeted like old friends and closed not merely a scintillating night, but the most passionate, moving, Herculean live performance I have ever seen.
In the second part of our two part series of features with the indomitable Alan Averill, aka AA Nemtheanga of Irish extreme metallers Primordial, he discusses with Ghost Cult the veteran band’s eighth album, Where Greater Men Have Fallen (Metal Blade), and its powerful messages; the band’s legendary anger and intolerance of their homeland’s modern culture in his always thoughtful, forthright and occasionally provocative manner.
There seems to be less of a Celtic or Black feel to the new album, compared to songs like ‘Bloodied and Unbowed’ from the last outing. I asked Alan if this was an organic evolution or something the band was striving for?
“I really have a problem with the word ‘Celtic’ or ‘Folk’, but I know you mean the Irish traditional music thing which underpins some of the rhythms and notations in our sound. Nothing is planned though: whatever comes, comes. Take ‘Ghosts of the Charnel House’: the riffs are like Black Sabbath! It’s odd for Primordial, but we’re not one of these bands that’s going to go through an electronic phase or a goth phase, or get a female vocalist and do a folk album, or make an orchestral reinterpretation of our songs. The album’s a continuation of our path, in that sense.
“We’re our own biggest critics too so if it gets by us, then people who like the band, they kind of trust us to be bullshit detectors – which is something that we, and Irish people in general, are pretty good at! It’s a trait of coming from a sort of dark, rainy, gritty, grey, urban landscape. It also stops us taking liberties with each other. Primordial aren’t rock stars, we’re not difficult to deal with. We still get into fistfights with each other for fuck’s sake and we’re 40 years old! But sometimes that’s a better way to solve a problem than to bitch about each other, then have divided camps and end up having to throw someone out.”
You’ve been quite scathing in your views of modern Irish culture in the past. Primordial curated the recent Redemption Festival in Ireland, with some exciting names on the bill, not least The Ruins of Beverast. How well was it received? Have things improved at all?
“A little. Redemption was good. The proviso is that bands have to be our friends to make the bill: we have to either respect them or like them. Without the foreign fans travelling over for that weekend, we’d have possibly been looking at about 60 percent of people showing. But the weekend after Redemption, Dublin hosted Saxon and Hell, then we’ve got Sabbath and Behemoth…people haven’t got plenty of money.
“Things have changed for us in Ireland and we have to acknowledge that. But we’re still not particularly well-known and I would always look on myself as being at odds with the Irish mainstream musical culture. We’re not looking for acceptance, but Ireland is very ‘anti-rock’ despite breeding Rory Gallacher, Lizzy and all that kind of stuff. Popular music culture – and by that I mean the sense of ‘dumbing-down’ everything – has reached some sort of ultimate victory in Irish society, which is deeply unfortunate and something we stand against, but what can you do?”
It’s been a busy eighteen months or so for Alan and for Simon (O’Laoghaire, Primordial and Dread Sovereign drummer). 2014 saw new albums from those two bands, and 2013 saw the emergence of Alan’s trad metal project Twilight of the Gods. I asked Alan where middle-aged guys get such energy from?!
“From my own point of view, I’ve always kept myself fit: I’ve always played sports, I’m always running… I’ve always done things like this which means I can play harder in other aspects. Maybe it’s also because I don’t have kids, family, a mortgage, other such responsibilities the other guys have which obviously wear you out. I’m quite intense and always feel I have to have a challenge or a major obstacle to overcome. The Twilight of the Gods album was a challenge of my willpower: with Dread Sovereign, I told the guys ‘we make an album and within fifteen months we’ll be on tour’. That’s exactly what we did. That’s my way of doing things I guess: don’t fuck about!”
Primordial are bringing their famed live performances back to the UK and Europe from the end of January. What can fans expect when they take …Greater Men… to the streets?
“Well we’ve recently played six or seven songs in Dublin, so we’ve more or less played the whole album live. I think our future will see these ‘blitzkrieg’ weekends, two or three shows with proper support acts, and people will undoubtedly have to travel to see us: the chances of seeing us on a Tuesday night again, in front of 80-90 people in a small town, are pretty unlikely. What with our age and the economics, it’s just not feasible anymore. But we’re playing Glasgow, London and Manchester, and we just added Portrait to the London show which is killer. With the performance, we’re going to try and add a few different things, but it’ll still be Primordial.”
Amen to that. It’s a nice line on which to finish, Nemtheanga in high demand and already having overshot our allotted time. This interview was conducted some time before the recent horrors in Paris, which I don’t doubt Alan would have had a view on and which bear out his comments on the evils of our time. It is a harsh world we live in, and long may Primordial highlight and protest against its folly and iniquities with such stirring, emotive yet violent music.
Just after midnight, UK time, and the hour finally arrives to bridge the gap twixt Blighty and the US West Coast with the indomitable Alan Averill, aka AA Nemtheanga of Irish extreme metallers Primordial, who discusses with Ghost Cult the veteran band’s eighth album, Where Greater Men Have Fallen (Metal Blade), and its powerful messages; the band’s legendary anger and intolerance of their homeland’s modern culture in his always thoughtful, forthright and occasionally provocative manner.
I began by commending the band on such a powerful album and wondered what the reaction had been across The Pond? “We have a small following here, we haven’t really toured enough to have a big one. It’s entered into US charts – the Newcomer’s charts, the Heatseeker charts and so on. There is a groundswell of people over here in the States who are really fascinated with what some European bands represent: we are a part of that, but it’s a terribly hard place to come and tour effectively, especially when you’re middle aged!”
The Americans do seem to see the British and Europeans as having a uniqueness, a quaintness about us, that maybe doesn’t buy into the mainstream. “Oh yeah. We toured with Korpiklaani and Moonsorrow in the States and some people there were chuffed to be seeing ‘Viking bands’. We had to explain that these guys came from Finland and Vikings didn’t! There’s always been a deep fascination in the States with European bands and obviously, being Irish, it means the times we’ve played Boston or New York have been almost like a riot. You can depend on ex-pats to show up in places like that.”
One word I’d use to describe the music is ‘impassioned’. I wondered if Alan felt that was appropriate? “I think it’s a good word to use. To me it’s always been a no-brainer: you mean what you say, and you say what you mean, and that is the way your music should sound. Obviously with us there are cultural and historical reference points within the music that are fact, not fiction. Fantastical escapism has never interested me in any way whatsoever: I couldn’t engage the same way if I was singing songs about killing prostitutes or killing zombies! That’s probably Primordial‘s biggest stumbling block with some sub-sections of the metal society: most people don’t want to be reminded of how dark the world is. If you take a song like ‘Ghosts of the Charnel House’ [from the new album], which is about institutional child abuse by the Catholic church, for most people that’s not Saturday night entertainment. We’ve never wanted to be!”
‘Babel’s Tower’ and particularly ‘The Seed of Tyrants’ from the new album is surely some of the most angry, heartfelt music of this year. How do Alan and the band maintain that anger after doing this for so long, and how do they control and direct it? “People told me that the older I’d get, the mellower I’d become, but the opposite has become true. We’re living in a dark world, and Primordial obviously reflects that. So yes, maybe this album is grimmer than elements of the last few. But whether it’s a war in the Ukraine, whether it’s ISIS a mile from the Turkish border, the rise of the religious Right and rise of the Left…this world is full if evil and some bands will do their best to block that out. We don’t.”
Being surrounded by so much pain and suffering, I felt that there must indeed be no end of grist for Alan’s words at present. “I’m maybe hard-wired a little more intensely than others and it’s not my place to generally want to switch off from it – which can make things a bit tiring! We’re not without a sense of humour of course, we’re not completely drab, but from the get-go, Primordial has always had a serious, dark tone. ‘…Seed of Tyrants’, for example, is about the Arab Spring. There’s a naive view in some sections of the West that somehow Democracy would be bloodless in these countries. All the rejoicing that occurred in Tahrir Square after the Egyptian uprising, and then this vacuum of corruption, this epidemic of rape, all the dark things that followed… We’re just saying that ‘Look, if you remove one tyrant, twelve will take his place’. So yes, there’s an awful lot to be occupied with.
“That said, I’m always on the side of the committed. If you want to write about 60’s and 70’s zombie exploitation movies, good: go for it. I don’t want every band to have the same tone as Primordial but what I do ask is that they be committed to an ideal at least, and to be passionate about it.”
There’s a tremendous sense of emotion gained from listening to Alan’s phenomenal vocal performance. I wondered how the power of the music affects him and the rest of the guys, especially when performing live? “We’re five very different people: hardened, cynical guys who bring five very different things to Primordial. We’re committed, y’know?! Music isn’t created in some sort of emotional vacuum: you get out what you put in, and if Primordial sounds emotional or powerful, this is how we are. If you think what ‘Babel’s Tower’, for example, creates within the listener is real, then that’s what you’ve placed into the song. It’s not really meant to be entertainment; there’s an artistic value as well.”
The toms stir, an introductory galloping battering, a rhythmic tribal call to arms, as the simple lead guitar line rides up and down the front of the horde, rousing, preparing, hinting at what is to come, as the opening track of Where Greater Men Have Fallen (Metal Blade) builds to kick into a timeless opening, an initiation where all the trademarks of the very best of Primordial are evident. Our title track erupts with ‘Hammerheart’ (Bathory) meets ‘Blood Of My Enemies’ (Manowar), driving, open, churning chords and Alan ‘Nemtheanga’ Averill’s distinctive, powerful vocals, preaching, imploring and then leading a stirring chorus to what is, unconditionally, one of the anthems of the year.
After a gap of three and a half years since the Redemption At The Puritan’s Hand this is a mighty return, with the weight of expectation not just shrugged off, but decimated by the pounding Pagan Metal delivered by the hands of the best in the business. For, at their peak, Primordial have no peers in the field of the epic.
Emote is what Primordial do best, and this is an album that drips with feelings of regret, reflection and, conversely, inspiration; Averill’s intelligent themes, authoritative words and voice enhance the profound interplay of Ciáran MacUiliam and Michael Ó Floinn’s guitars, whose interaction on tracks like ‘Come The Flood’ call to mind Anathema’s grandiose The Silent Enigma (Peaceville). ‘Born To Night’ gradually unfurls to reveal a ‘Battle Hymn’ most proud, while ‘The Seed of Tyrants’ releases the rage, nodding to a more extreme past, both musically and lyrically. While Primordial are oft mislabelled as a Black Metal band, ‘…Tyrants’ serves as a reminder from whence they came, but, as ever with those touches of class the band possess to enhance, colour and immerse.
Yet, this is not a flawless album, as with blood both stirred and pumping by our introduction, ‘Babel’s Tower’ and ‘The Alchemist’s Head’ are downers; decent if unspectacular down-shifts of pace, which, while still intrinsically “Primordial”, call to mind the unhurried moments of Imrama (Cacophonous), and despite Averill’s impassioned story-telling, neither grab or evoke like the opening track, or the crushingly pessimistic ‘Ghosts of the Charnel House’. That can be the problem when you start that strongly, as it is a high watermark for the rest of an album to live up to.
After establishing their sound on second album A Journey’s End (Misanthropy), it has been since their fifth album, The Gathering Wilderness (Metal Blade), that the band have truly matured and hit an exceptional run of form that takes them into Where Greater Men Have Fallen, their eighth full length, and its moving combination of classic Bathory inspired metal, doomier tropes and an unmistakable grasp of the epic, all draped in those characteristic Primordial effects.
Yet, are Primordial victims of their own success? The previous three albums are of such a high standard, and are pregnant with anthems that, like the title track or the exceptional closer ‘Wield Lightning To Split The Sun’ – murky, bleak, earnest, wringing with remorse and possibly the best piece of music the band has delivered over the course of their career – means that when Primordial deliver “good” it can, initially appear disappointing.
Bookended by two incredible tracks is a layered, powerful and impassioned album, resplendent with mood changes, from reflective, to angry, to moving – the leads that pull ‘Born To Night’ to its close soulfully uplifting – and to judge by the merits of others Where Greater Men Have Fallen stands tall. Yet measured by their own imperious canon, this latest release, while showcasing everything that is respected and esteemed of Primordial, is not first among equals.
Primordial are too proficient an outfit to release anything other than an excellent album. Just how excellent, when compared to their own standards, is the question at hand, but Where Greater Men Have Fallen is laden with dark anthems and fervent sincerity and, chest out, stands proudly as a laudable addition to a most impressive catalogue.