Interview: Noltem – Illusions in the Wake
Fair warning—you won’t be allowed to make “Noltem? Hardly know ’em” jokes after reading this.
Six years have passed since Noltem‘s last release, EP Mannaz. In that time, this East Coast, genre-bridging act added a member, signed with Transcending Obscurity, and assembled the suite of riff-forward songs that is now their first LP, Illusions in the Wake. While Mannaz has some of the characteristics of Illusions—soaring melodies, lush production, an even rhythmic foundation—it feels in hindsight like a well-realized drawing that informed a later painting.
Illusions in the Wake is one of the most impressionistic metal albums released in recent years. There’s nothing quite like it. As I’ve intimated elsewhere, it also has an incredible autumnal vibe that hit me at exactly the point the weather got cold and harnessed my love of the season. Opener “Figment” sets the listener up nicely for the moods that follow: nostalgia, awe, and the Sehnsucht that comes with meditation on the fleeting nature of time.
The title track is a further encapsulation of the overall sound. Each space is stippled with guitar lines and seamless transitions that catch the ear while the song’s currents carry you along. If what you initially expect going into Illusions in the Wake is the “atmospheric black metal” the label has advertised on Bandcamp, you might be puzzled by what you’re hearing. This is no “trees ‘n’ shit” metal, though it does have an elemental sensibility, but the “atmospheric” part is undeniable. The production makes Illusions sound as if it was recorded galloping through a glade of fallen leaves, and the songs are interspersed with coastal ambience, waves crashing among the soaring riffs. “Ruse” leverages major chords and full-speed-ahead blasts to create an atmosphere at once enveloping and uplifting. The closing instrumental “On Shores of Glass” is the album’s most driving and most atmospheric in this sense, with touches of keyboard amid stern chugging and trad-metal solos.
As to the “black metal” part, Illusions in the Wake can’t be so easily reduced. From drummer and vocalist John Kerr’s midrange growls to the warm guidance of Shalin Shah’s basslines, this is a record that is too textured and colorful to be neatly pigeonholed. Curious to learn more about how this LP came to be, and about how best to characterize it, I reached out to guitarist Max Johnson. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Theophrastus Bombastus: This is the band’s first release in six years, the last one being the EP Mannaz. What were you all up to during that intervening period, and how did that culminate in Illusions in the Wake?
Max Johnson: To be honest, it didn’t take us six years to write this album. Shalin and I live in Connecticut, and John lives about ten hours away in Pittsburgh. While that’s not the worst distance to deal with, it still prevents us from getting together for any kind of regular band practice. While I was busy putting together the bones of these songs, Shalin was performing and recording with the band In Human Form. He plays bass on III, which is an excellent album. John was busy with a few other bands, most notably his project Pyrithe. Editor’s note: look out for this band’s first full-length early next year. So overall, we were just waiting for a perfect time to get together and record. Most of Illusions… was finished by the end of 2019, so there was certainly some time spent waiting for the label as well.
Shalin joined before you recorded Illusions. How did shifting from working as a duo to a three-piece impact the band?
I think it actually forced us to be a band. Prior to this, it was mostly just John and I swapping files online. At that time, he was even further away in Ohio. It was the standard procedure, where I would record guitars and bass to a click track or drum machine, and then he would add his stuff later. A lot of great albums have been made this way, but it’s much more difficult to capture an authentic and natural sound. When Shalin sent over his first samples, it was immediately clear that his input could take us to a level which was not achievable beforehand. My plan for this album was to record it remotely, but we decided to tackle it as a band: together and in person. While we didn’t record the whole thing live, most of the bass and drums were recorded at the same time. I think it helped with the flow of the album. It’s less mechanical and sterile than it could have been. I hate to use the word “organic,” but that’s what it feels like to us.
How did COVID affect the timeframe for writing and releasing this album?
I can’t say that it had any effect on the process of writing or recording. As I mentioned before, we had fully wrapped up the album by late 2019 or early 2020. We signed with Transcending Obscurity in May 2020. I’m sure you’re aware that this was pretty much the height of the pandemic-related shutdowns in the USA. India, where the label is based, wasn’t being hit too hard yet. They were eventually dealing with lengthy shutdowns and work restrictions in 2021, and by that time there were unprecedented manufacturing delays rippling through the world. It took about a year and a half for us to see a digital release after signing. We still don’t have any physical copies, but they should be showing up soon. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. The lead time for vinyl is insane right now, and I don’t see it returning to “normal” any time soon.
Like Mannaz, the new record has strong melodic currents, with layers of riffs that are the opposite of dissonant. What informs Noltem’s sonic palette and what’s the writing process like for you all?
Up until now, our songwriting process has been structured around layering. We never dream up these grand concepts where it’s like, “this is happening underneath, the leads are doing this, the bass is carrying it in this way, and then the vocals accent this or that, etc.” I start with rhythm guitars and then we add things on top. We still take our time to make everything lock together properly, but sometimes we improv a lead and it’ll just stick. It’s important for me to have rhythm guitars which aren’t just filler. People often begin with a melody and then add chords underneath, but we’re doing the opposite. I think this helps to create strong riffs and lots of subtle harmonies. When you write an entire song’s worth of rhythm guitars without anything else, then you need to make sure it isn’t boring.
What lyrical themes do you work with on Illusions?
I guess the prevailing themes involve fatigue and disillusion, or perhaps the feeling that modern life is a joke. The lyrics for “Ruse” were taken from “A Dream Pang” by Robert Frost. There isn’t much of a connection between the songs, as they’re very much a product of how I was feeling at the time. If you want the truth, lyrics have always been a secondary thing for this band. We don’t put an excessive amount of thought into creating them. That’s not to say that we don’t take lyrics seriously, but I definitely spent more time with this interview than I did with the words on the album.
I want to address genre for a moment. I’ve heard the band take issue with labels like “blackgaze,” and I would certainly argue this is not really a black metal record per se. How would you characterize it, and where does black metal fit in the picture here?
We’ve spent some time trying to figure out exactly what genre Noltem fits into. The easiest solution is to call it atmospheric black metal, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. Almost nothing about this album sounds evil or dissonant. An exception might be the end of “Beneath the Dreaming Blue.” Aside from that, there are a lot of sections which I find hopeful, energetic, or triumphant. The genre-bending nature of this band is not intentional, but [there are riffs] you might expect to hear on a melodic death metal album, or even just a straight heavy metal album. I try to write riffs which you can’t just pull out of one song and then plug into another. We’re obviously fans of the great black metal bands from the ’90s, but I can’t say that they have a direct influence on our sound. I just call it “atmospheric, melodic metal.” Then again, all metal is atmospheric in one way or another. No one refers to [Emperor‘s] In the Nightside Eclipse as atmospheric black metal, but if someone wrote that album today then that’s what everyone would call it. In a way, we’re trying to honor these classic bands of the past while simultaneously reaching out towards something new and unique.
Illusions has really striking, colorful cover art. How’d you source and settle on this image for your first full-length?
This was a lucky find, because we simply stumbled upon it. The piece is “As the Winds Blow” by Anthony Hurd. It was still available for license, and we are forever grateful that he decided to let us use it. I firmly believe that this is a major factor in the overall success of the album. It really tugs at your curiosity, and I think it’s the perfect visual representation for an album like this. We didn’t even have to think about it; we instantly knew that it was the right fit.
The record topped the metal Bandcamp charts last week. What has the response been like for you all?
It’s been awesome so far. I believe the label also sold out of vinyl the night before it was officially released. It wasn’t a huge pressing or anything like that, but it’s a big deal for us. I think we took a few risks with this album, so we were naturally curious about how it would be received. I’m happy to see that people “get it” and that they’re already waiting for more.
What’s next for Noltem? Are there plans to support Illusions in the Wake with a shows?
That’s a good question. We’d love to play live, but the logistics are somewhat complicated. Not only would we need a huge chunk of time for the three of us to rehearse, but we’d also need to hire at least one more musician. We’d probably need two if we decided to bring every subtle nuance from the album into a live setting. Then, we’d need to decide if that person would be closer to John or if they’d be closer to me on the East coast. It’s not impossible, but it would take a lot of work. I don’t think I’d be interested in doing all of that unless we had an offer to open for a band we really like or something similar. Then again, we aren’t very well known. It all seems unlikely at this point, but we’ll see what the future brings. At the moment, we’re deep in the songwriting process for the next album. I doubt we’ll record anything until next year, but we’re committed to avoiding another six-year gap between releases.
Illusions in the Wake came out via Transcending Obscurity on October 15.