Interview: Wannes Gubbels of Pentacle
Pentacle are without a doubt one of death metal’s most powerful enduring flames. Formed at the tail end of the ’80s and eternally channeling the spirit of the earliest days of the genre, Pentacle have never compromised their musical quality, style, or ideals even across some of death metal’s darkest years; in 2019, they returned for the glorious Spectre of the Eight Ropes (review here), and Wannes was kind enough to respond to questions for this monstrously long interview with me.
When Pentacle started really releasing music, the type of death metal you play was at an all-time slump. Spectre of the Eight Ropes comes more than twenty years after the release of 1998’s …Rides the Moonstorm. How have you perceived the difference as the promotional cycle for the new album comes to a close?
Indeed, when Pentacle started to release its first demos and EP back in the early 90’s, death metal was not trending anymore. The scene was oversaturated (which can be said about the current state of affairs as well…) and lot’s of bands headed into new directions or did split up. The second wave of black metal was at the receiving end of attention through media and many fans, so Pentacle’s style of death metal wasn’t really popular. As we never started the band to become the next big thing anyway, this didn’t bother us too much, although it was sometimes hard to perform live for a very limited crowd. That nagged on our brains for sure. Anyway, the direction was set and this was the path we wanted to walk. Our musical influences were totally outdated (Venom, very early Death, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Possessed, Slaughter (CAN) etc), so it was obvious, we wouldn’t draw a big crowd. We did have a fanatic core of maniacs who appreciated our concept and music though.
Around the release of The Fifth Moon PD/MCD in the mid 90’s this whole retro-style received a lot of attention. At least here in Europe. You know, all these bands which started to perform thrash metal again, based on bands like Kreator, Destruction, Sodom, Whiplash etc. Black metal raised the interest for the old bands again. In interviews with bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Rotting Christ, Samael, Blasphemy etc one could read how much they loved the originators of the scene and this was having its effect. It was cool to wear shirts by mentioned bands again while some years previously, people would laugh about it, because it was totally outdated and certainly not cool to wear your “Pleasure to Kill” shirt anymore. Except for the shared love of such classic bands, I felt we had little in common with this new wave though. Most of these sounded way too forced and unnatural in my ears. It was just the next trend, you know, but it gave us more leverage. Bands with a retrospective musical concept were interesting again, thus we received some extra attention as well. Being a more high profile release, this album did draw more attention. There’s only a limited amount of people interested in demos and EP’s and for most around, it only becomes serious business when an album has arrived. Not before. So, with the ”…Rides the Moonstorm” album two years later, the overall situation was more favourable for a band like ours. As you know, everything comes in circles and by that time, it was OK to perform this kind of death metal again. Not that we ever cared for such an attitude anyway. The album received favourable reviews from the critics and the disciples craving for unpolished death metal did enjoy it as well, so all was well.
If I have to compare how both albums were received (which is hard because there’s 20 years in between), I tend to think there’s a difference lies in the status of the band. “…Rides…” was our first full length and even though the band was up and running for nine years by then, it was still our debut album for many, which somehow implies your band is a newbie. Today, the style of extreme metal scene we’re a part of, is way more settled. Although I don’t see us as an old school death metal band, for many we’re a part to this particular scene though and I don’t have to tell you the retrospective part of metal has grown intense through the years. It has become a scene of its own, while back in the days around “…Rides…” it was way smaller and thus restricted to a far less amount of bands/label/zines etc. It really has exploded the last years. Whether it’s a positive or negative development, everyone has decide for his/her own. For Pentacle this means there’s a bigger scene for music like ours, yet far more pretenders to the throne as well as we are all “fishing in the same pond”. If the audience would have grown into the same proportions as it has become now, yet the amount of bands would have remained the same, Pentacle would have become a bigger player in the game than we are today. There were only a limited amount of bands in this direction around when we started to release our albums. Yet, with the hundreds of retrospective extreme metal acts these days, we’re just one of them. At least we have our longevity and have earned ourselves some credits/respect by staying loyal to the cause for 30 years and releasing (if I may say so) quality releases through these years. It shows in the reviews for “Spectre…”. They show a lot of respect for our tenacity, vision/direction and musical output, which is something I am really very, very thankful for. It really warms my heart as we worked hard to achieve this. Through time, we have become seasoned veterans and there’s a lot of praise for that. Gladly, people enjoy our music as well, haha!
I do think the promotion for the new album hasn’t reached its peak yet and will continue for a while. The amount of interviews is increasing and I know there’s more to come, thus it will keep me busy for a while, which is great. With an underground band like ours, it takes time before the album reaches its worldwide audience. There’s no big marketing or promotional machine pushing the album down everyone’s throat, so the promotional part of an album like “Spectre…” is far more spread out, which is a good thing. No big bang, yet more a silent killer, hehe…
In stark contrast to all of your past releases, you mentioned in an interview that the Spectre was completed in a mere six months due to an artificial deadline you placed on yourself by booking studio time without a completed album. Did that sort of pressure create any unexpected difficulties, or unexpected boons? Would you do it again?
In all honesty, I was just fed up with the lack of direction in the band concerning any new output. When we started working on new material a couple of years ago, it wasn’t sure what the next release would be. We thought it was wise to say “we’ll see what will happen. Maybe a split 7” EP or a full 7” EP or a MLP etc etc. Whatever the muses will bring us”. All nice and well, but this was not enough to focus on. There was no goal in sight, so there was no positive pressure to work towards a new release which is necessary for a band like ours. We need to set a deadline or a certain point on the horizon to move forward to, otherwise not much will happen. So, when we had written two songs and worked on the third one, I came to conclusion the vibe wasn’t very motivating, so I decided to change direction. I told myself the next release would become a full length album, which was way overdue anyway. We did the split releases with Eternal Solstice, Mortem and Sadistic Intent (also released as the Five Candles Burning Red MCD) which served their purpose and was great to do, but now it was time to set bigger goals and this became “Spectre of the Eight Ropes“. When the third song was completed, I scheduled a meeting at Toneshed Recording Studio to have a chat with the owner, Erwin. I knew him from the Pentacle demo days when we often shared the stage with his former band Mangled. Previously, he worked on both Inquisitor and Dead Head albums and I was really impressed with the outcome, so it seemed a good option to record at this studio. So, both our guitarist Mike and I went out to meet him to have a chat about recording the new album at his place. We played him the last song we had written, played him the classic albums we loved and had a talk about our vision of recording a new album. The chat took many hours and was great fun and very constructive. At the end of that evening, we were convinced we found the right guy, so we booked the studio in March next year. This would mean we had seven months left to complete the song writing for the album. I know several bands would be up for the task and are able to create a full album in such time span easily, but for us/me, it was a very heavy challenge. Pentacle needs its time to create new material. We are not a band which composes new songs very fast. I wrote the remaining five songs on my own, came up with a suitable lyrical concept and worked on the cover artwork with our artist Manuel Tinnemans. To make a long story short, we made it happen and entered the studio with eight songs of our own. Some extra time would have been beneficial to get the songs more tight, but in hindsight it gives the material a more spontaneous and authentic vibe. The material wasn’t rehearsed to death, you know, and I believe one is able to hear the energy surging through the songs which is very important to a band like ours. I love the raw edges of an extreme metal recording. I am not a guy who’s into a slick production. Everyone to its own, but this music has to breathe and live and it’s rather obvious I want the same for my own band, so again, that worked out well in the end.
Well, it was the correct decision to give myself the boot and get moving. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a new full length album at all (maybe later though), I am convinced. I am very proud of this achievement. Without sounding arrogant or wanting to draw all attention towards me as the other guys worked hard as well, I took the challenge and made the song writing happen, so we were able to record an album. That was an emotional moment for me. I had never done something like this before and it opened my eyes to a certain extent as it gave me more self-confidence and an awareness of being proud of my achievements. Yes, it was hard work. I worked almost every evening on new material or lyrics. Many hours in the weekends were spent to come up with new riffs/arrangements/lyrics or rehearsing with the band as well. Don’t forget, I have a full time job with its responsibilities and a family too, so everything has to be done in the evenings or weekends. It was a heavy schedule which meant I had less time to be around my family as well. I am very lucky my wife is very supportive towards me and gives me lots of room to make this happen, although it wasn’t always easy for her as she has a full time job as well. Yes, we did have words about my commitment towards certain domestic dealings, but in the end, we made it work together. One shouldn’t forget such supportive attitude is very important, otherwise it’s damn hard to work a schedule like I did.
Would I do it again? Yes, without a doubt. Again, it proved to me what one is able to achieve with hard work and dedication to the cause. It’s about challenging yourself and breaking boundaries. Of course I am very glad I had enough inspiration to work with. Time and dedication are two very important aspects, but when there’s no inspiration and one is looking at the walls with a blank stare not knowing what to come up with, the story turns ugly. I have been there before and it is utterly frustrating. You want to move forward, but your hands remain idle as there is little or no useable output. No fun at all! I was very, very fortunate to be blessed with a flowing source of cool ideas to work with and this is probable the most important element of the creation of “Spectre…”.
As a follow up to the previous question, you mentioned that a longer cover had to be cut because you guys just didn’t have time to learn it on your tight deadline. What was the cover supposed to be of?
Indeed, that’s true. We had a different cover tune in mind than the Necrophagia track which ended up on the CD version of the album (“Forbidden Pleasure” from the Season of the Dead album). It was planned to rehearse it, but as commented correctly by you, time was too short in the end. After the completion of our own material in December, I felt we needed all time available to rehearse the original songs. Adding another track to rehearse would have taken time away from the preparations of the material we had written. Granted, rehearsing a cover track wouldn’t have taken as much time as gearing up a song of our own, but with the studio date in mind, I felt our own songs were priority #1, so we dropped the idea and spent all our time getting the originals tight. I won’t tell you which song we had in mind, as one never knows if we’ll record it after all, hehe…
It’s interesting we recorded the Necrophagia song after all though. I don’t know if you heard the story? Otherwise let me tell you about it. When we first met Erwin, he wanted to talk us into recording a cover track. Previously, he made Inquisitor record Dark Angel’s “Perish in Flames”. He loved the idea and wanted us do the same, free of costs. I said to him “you decide what song we should record and when it’s a suitable choice, we’ll do it. But let us know in time so we will able to rehearse it”. No suggestion came forward though. When we entered the studio, I told Erwin he had forgotten about the cover tune. He felt all bad about it, but was still interested in the idea. Somewhere during the sessions he was looking through his old tapes and started mentioning the content. When he came up with Necrophagia’s “Season of the Dead”, it clicked with me straight away as this album is a true classic in my ears. I really love that album from the moment it was released back in 1987. I know our guitarists Mike and Alex love that particular album as well, so we found a contender. I came up with “Forbidden Pleasure” right at the spot. We talked about the idea and thought it was cool to give it a try. The three of us sat around with a guitar and my mobile phone (I carry a lot of classic stuff around with me) and tried to figure out how the riffs have to be performed. After a lot of listening we had the riffs ready to go and we recorded the song. Erwin recorded the solo which sounds almost 100% identical to the original one which is really remarkable. I was a bit anxious to record the vocals as Killjoy’s phrasing is very different from what I do, but I changed my vocals a bit toward his and gave it a try. I conjured up all the Necrophagia horror and madness in my mind while laying down the vocals. The cover came out really well. We changed some drum patterns, but stayed loyal to the original tune as there was little time to experiment. I really enjoy the outcome of the song and it’s a worthy successor in a long tradition of recording covers (Hellhammer, Pentagram (Chile), Mantas/Death, Possessed and Necrovore).
It’s interesting to work on such classic material. Back when we started the band, we played all kind of songs of bands like Celtic Frost, Death, Possessed, Hellhammer etc. You have to start somewhere and as Pentacle was our very first band ever, it’s a learning process as to how to perform songs as a band. I never had any lessons to begin with, so it was all about mastering ones instrument and trying to perform a song. Plus don’t forget the sheer fun to crank out classic tunes one loves so much. It’s great to go wild at your rehearsal place while playing “Triumph of Death”, “Zombie Ritual” or “Procreation (of the Wicked)”, you know. It raises the energy level for sure!
Recording the songs we did for our albums, was showing tribute the amazing acts of the underground. We never felt very comfortable to record album tracks (although we did twice with “The Beasts of the Apocalypse” and “Forbidden Pleasure. I shouldn’t forget the Desaster song we did though either…) as it was more interesting to give a demo track a shot. With all these classic demos from the 80’s around, it was possible to give them an upgrade sound wise. Just to make sure one is getting this, it will never be possible to “outdo” the originals as these songs have such a distinctive vibe and primal level of energy (positive meant)… Those are the real deal, you know? But recording such songs in a modern studio is really interesting to do as it gives them new life, so to speak of. Some newfound energy. Plus, it’s our way to pay respect to the pioneers of the old underground scene. Such classic recording had a major influence on me. The Mantas/Death demos/rehearsals/live tapes, Necrovore 1987 rehearsal demo, both Pentagram (Chile) tapes and the EP, the Messiah demos, Hellhammer’s “Satanic Rites” demo, Mutilated from France, Genocide/Repulsion, Insanity, Massacre live and rehearsal tapes, the two Mefisto demos, Samhain/DesExult for Denmark, Tormentor from Hungary, “Unholy Blasphemies” by Morbid Angel, Death Strike and hundreds more. This stuff is really amazing and through recording some of these tracks, we paid homage to the old heroes of the underground.
What are some other songs that you’d like to put your own spin on, and what is it about covering songs that appeals to you?
Yes, for sure I would love to record some old songs again. Let me think about it…
Death – Summoned to Die
Hellhammer – Buried and Forgotten / Satanic Rites
Treblinka – Mould in Hell
Samhain – Plague of Messiah
Massacre – Infestation of Death
How much has the maturation of your song writing across the decades been a natural evolution, and how much has been a part of your need to not repeat yourself despite consciously maintaining a tight framework of influences?
A combination of both, I would say. You should know I am used to a very spontaneous way of composing new material: I sit down of the couch and let the Metal flow, as Chuck used to say. Most times, there’s no big scheme in my head in what direction to go to. Granted, there are some exceptions like “Blessed by Fire” on the new album as I really wanted to compose some slow hymns which was something I had in mind for “Under the Black Cross” already, but didn’t work out due to a lack of suitable material. Such a track was created with a particular mind set, but that’s an exception to the rule. I start somewhere with/on my bass guitar and see where it brings me. Very natural and without any pressure. That comes later when I want to finish the song, haha! That spontaneous vibe is very important to me as I want the material to sound natural and organic and in no way forced.
As a musician, I have reached my limits years ago. There’s little room for improvement left, if any. I am a mediocre bass player as I do my best, but it will never turn into something extraordinary or super tight. I have many ideas to work with, but am limited in my execution, so I tend to keep it basic to be able to enjoy what I am doing and make sure it’s not frustrating. Nothing wrong with pushing the boundaries (we talked about that before…), but there’s no use to create some kind of struggle. After all, I am still doing this because I enjoy it and gives me energy. Not because I have to do it, you know. So, I still come up with simple riffing as there’s no need for me to show off, as I am not able to do this at all, hahaha! Guitar wise, the riffing for Pentacle is rather basic. It has to do with my personal influences and the musical concept of the band, while on the other hand it is very natural, because I can’t play any intricate stuff, so the riffing I come up with is close to the original vibe of extreme metal. I am still very much close to my roots, from where I started. Some accomplished musicians go wild over scales, I still come up with Hellhammer riffs, you get my point? The original vibe is still very much evident in our sound. I truly believe we still have the same elemental power/energy/aggression as when we started back in 1989. Lots of bands loose this primal force as they progress as musicians, which is totally understandable. One progresses and would like to work with the new found freedom and incorporate this into new material. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hold back on guitar purposely. I do the best I can, but staying loyal to the original core of energy is very, very important to me, while it’s important to stay away from the trappings of repeating yourself. After 30 years it’s hard to come up with new ideas. Rehashing old Pentacle material is something I really don’t want to do. Even for a band with a very traditional concept like us, it’s very important to progress and to climb the ladder with each release we come up with. Sure, we have our key elements which define Pentacle for what we are. We’ll keep working on/with that, but the line is very thin in overusing such elements to make sure the sound stays recognizable to its band members and audience. One has to be very careful to make this work in a positive way. Otherwise, it’s just the same thing all over again and again. For some it may work, but not for Pentacle. That’s one of the reasons why it takes so long coming up with new stuff. Yes, I work very spontaneously, but I throw away a lot of material also to make sure the new material sounds fresh while the basic qualities/elements of Pentacle remain intact.
Has it even felt difficult to remain active as a live band over the years? What keeps the fire for performing stoked hot?
To a certain degree, yes. After so many years, I am not really interested in playing unprofessional venues anymore. Granted, it can be fun to do, but for my part I have paid my dues and others can take over now. I am getting old, hahaha! I will always give my best, but when on entering a venue without a decent stage/sound system/back stage etc, I kinda feel…unmotivated. Often, the enthusiasm of the audience makes it all worth, but we all know there are certain gigs not worth doing it. It’s the law of playing live, you have ups and downs. As our status isn’t the biggest one, we can’t be too picky either, you know. So you constantly have to balance between what’s doable/preferable and not. I want to able to perform under professional conditions as much as possible and no, I don’t need any big demands like only blue M&M’s in the backstage, hehe… I don’t have to be on stage every weekend anymore either. That particular drive/urge is gone as there are enough other activities to keep me going and entertained. Plus, I don’t feel the need any more to travel around each weekend. So, that kind of motivation has become less. Physical it becomes a bit harder too, but we keep it going!
As far as the performance itself, it’s simple: the love for this music and being able to keep close to the original (youthful maybe?) energy. To let the music take over and go wild. Not to feel restricted and let your body do the work. Grinding your teeth when you play a crushing riff or scream towards the heavens high while the energy flows through your body. To stay close to your original instincts and feel you are still living a life! You can still find me in the very front row when certain bands are performing gigs. A couple of weeks ago, I saw Nifelheim live again and it was front row action for sure!
Manuel Tinnemans has been a part of almost every Pentacle release, and has been working with you closely for more than twenty years. How did you initially get in touch with him? Did you know right away from the start that his collaboration with the band would last this long?
Manuel contacted me to conduct an interview. It was around “The Fifth Moon” and he wanted to ask me a couple of questions for the magazine he worked for. He came to my place and we hit off fairly well straight away. We both loved the same bands which bonds rather easy. He brought several of his drawings with him and I was very impressed with what I saw. It was of a rare quality and really something different than the usual stuff that was going around at that time. As I was searching for a new shirt design, I asked Manuel to come up with fitting artwork which he did. I saw this work progressing and at a certain moment I thought this was just too good for a shirt release only, so I wanted to upgrade the design to the cover artwork of our upcoming album, “…Rides the Moonstorm”. Manuel was totally into the idea and thus became his first cover artwork for a band. It became a milestone for both the band and Manuel and marked our first cooperation.
Nah, I still haven’t found the crystal ball to be able to look into the future, so I didn’t know how this relationship would develop. Granted, we did have our fair share of ups and downs. Not on a personal level as everything goes rather smoothly, but professionally we did. Manuel is true artist, far more than I will ever be, and it brings certain…hmmm… curiosities to the party.
Manuel is a truly gifted person, but that can work against him as well. Lucky, we always straightened out our difficulties and the cooperation between the both of us is most times fairly relaxed and very constructive. Sometimes I am in the lead for an idea and sometimes he is, but we work together very well. I am more the guy adding the realistic element, while Manuel is far more esoteric/occult/abstract-minded and it shows in the covers. The cover for the split 12” w/Sadistic Intent is for the biggest part my idea. It shows more realism, while the artwork for “Ancient Death” or “…Rides the Moonstorm” is 100% Manuel’s. He feels more comfortable dealing with this style and sometimes it’s hard to combine both worlds. Especially with my WW2 combat history related themes, I want items to be exactly as they are. Otherwise it becomes too “comic”-like or historically plain wrong, you know. I don’t know if you ever saw our artwork he did for the double split 7” w/Eternal Solstice. It features several items like a Bren gun and a SMLE and I was very strict as it had to look exactly like the original pieces. That was hard for Manuel as it offered him little room for any interpretations. Not to forget the material he had to work with, as there was no or very little room for corrections, but in the end we always make it work. It’s awesome to be able to work with someone as Manuel. It’s an honour!
What is, to you, the importance of maintaining a consistent aesthetic as a band?
For Pentacle it is a very important part of our identity. I am the first to admit we’re not world’s most original band around, yet we’re no tribute band either and I am convinced our songs are recognizable as being Pentacle. So, having an artist around being able to shape the visual element into a Pentacle-related entity, makes sure the package is complete. Maybe hard to compare, but I would like to call Manuel our very own Derek Riggs. Of course Manuel isn’t as exclusive as Derek was for Iron Maiden as he works for many other bands as well, but Manuel’s artwork still very much defines for a big part what Pentacle is all about.
How did you first meet Costa Stoios of Iron Pegasus Records, and how did he become the main force of unleashing Pentacle’s music?
Good ol’ Costa… The first time we came in contact was through his zine, Tales of the Macabre. He did an article on us, mainly based on the “Winds of the Fall” demo tape which came out in 1993. I met him in the flesh for the first time through Desaster, I think. I can’t remember for sure, but I believe it was at one of the famous Desaster parties which raged around Koblenz, Germany, those days. Oh boy, that was some intense stuff… Talking about metal madness! Sex, drinks and metal, haha! Anyway, I am pretty sure that was the first time we met and we stayed in contact through the years. We often visited each other’s place or met at gigs in the front row and a bit later, he started dating a very good friend of mine, Marleen. We hosted a radio show back in the 80’s called Thrashing Madness together. It lasted for four years and we only concentrated on the heavy stuff. Here’s some trivia for you, but now back to Costa. The first time we worked together was the split 10” (PD) w/Desaster. He released it through his label Iron Pegasus Records. Except for the red vinyl (which turned out pink, haha!) this was a very successful cooperation and the 10” has become a highly sought after collector’s item, mainly through Desaster, of course. Some years later, after we released “Ancient Death”, the original label Damnation faded away and we were searching for a new label to release our new material (this would become “Under the Black Cross”). Costa was interested and took the challenge to release the album. From then on, he became our “main label”. In the meanwhile we released items on other labels like New Era Productions (“The Fifth Moon” MLP and the 7” live PD w/Sabbat), Vic Records (“The Fifth Moon…Beyond and Back” DCD and “Ancient Death” MCD) and Deathworx (“Winds of the Fall” 12”). Not to forget some tapes as well, but Iron Pegasus always remained our core label, so to speak. It’s really great to work with someone like him as he gives us 100% artistic freedom and fully supports the band. He released many quality items by bands like Zemial, Deströyer 666, Force of Darkness, Sabbat (JAP), Dolmen, Necromaniac, Pentagram (US), Desaster, Agatus, Impiety, Metalucifer, Mortem (PER), Beherit, Sadistic Intent, Messiah, Eurynomous, Poison (GER), Massacre, Slaughter (CAN), After Death, Angel Witch and many, many more. Those names say enough, right? Always straight from the heart with a very big dedication towards the bands and the fans. He’s a very honest guy and it’s nothing less than a pleasure working with him!
Pentacle has had the same line-up for almost two decades, and half the band still remains from the very beginning at the end of the ‘80s. Has it been difficult to keep everyone together?
Yes, to a certain degree it is, though I am lucky to say it hasn’t turned into a changeover party like some bands around when you never know who’ll be the next one to be replaced. It totally destroys the identity of such a band in my opinion, but I understand the need to move forward and if someone isn’t able or willing to make it happen, decisions have to be made. Anyway, for Pentacle we kept the damage under the control.
The biggest difficulties we had to overcome, was the loss of our original drummer Marc who played on all our recordings up to “Ancient Death”. A change of drummer is radical and Marc’s performance was a big part of our sound. He was truly a beast on drums. Really pounding stuff! His priorities in life started to shift as he wanted to pursue a career. Plus, he didn’t enjoy live gigs anymore, so he left the band. He’s still very much involved in all kind of layout for Pentacle, mostly regarding his own releases. It’s always fun working with him together. When Pentacle performs a gig in the neighbourhood, he always to be found in the front row, banging and screaming.
Another challenge was Mike’s temporary departure after recording “Under the Black Cross”. Because of an injury in his right lower arm, he wasn’t able to play guitar anymore, so we had to let him go for several years. In the meanwhile we performed as a three piece, but it felt as a big compromise to me. We had a record out with guitars all over the place, yet as a three piece we were rather limited. It didn’t feel right. We tried out several other guys, but nothing worked out, so we kept it going in this constellation and recorded “Five Candles…” with this line up. Mike’s arm recovered to a such a degree it was possible to pick up his axe again and bit by bit he joined us in the rehearsal room and live. Physical, it will never be the same for him anymore, but it’s great having him back again (though we’re talking about several years by now, like six years).
This year, our drummer Robert will leave the band. It has become physical more difficult and too demanding for him to perform our material in a positive way. It has become a struggle and that’s not the intention of being part of a band as it should be rewarding and not turn into a battle with your own body. He’s a man of age and at a point it becomes harder to perform such intense songs like ours, so he decided to promote the album to a certain degree and leave the band in 2020. Concerning this matter, we will have to see what the future brings us.
As we’ve discussed above, Pentacle has in many ways had a stability and continuity almost unmatched in death metal. Do you feel like it makes your role as a musician easier to work over and over with the same people? What benefits have that stability had for the band?
Identity again. When I think of my old heroes, many line-ups where rather stable and you knew who was a member of this particular band. It gave them a face, an identity. Something to rely on and to identify with. This aspect is lost with many bands these days. There is a multitude of bands sharing members and this makes them interchangeable for a big part. Yet, I do understand it can raise energy to try out something else. To share a stage with different people or record an album with them. To create different music than your main band, but this another case.
Within Pentacle, each task is clear and well-defined. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so you know how to work with and around that. For example, Mike is our website-specialist, Alex administrates our Facebook account and Robert’s strength lies in his performance as a drummer. All tasks based on the strength of each member. Here lies a trapping as well, because after so many years around, people are being used to what they have to do and there’s a tendency not to think outside the box, you know? “I do what I always do and that’s it” or “he will handle this or that, as he always did”. In such long relationships, the danger lies in initiative becomes less because of the human tendency to “do your own thing” and not to look any further. One has to stay alert not to slide off into the realm of frustration, but isn’t this the case within every relationship between humans?
Are there any bands you feel a sort of kinship with for their own longevity and stability over these long years?
Sure! It’s not only because of the endurance of certain bands, but always a common (musical) background and/or like-minded attitude. I feel definite related to bands like Mortem (PER), Sadistic Intent, Deströyer 666, Desaster or Ares Kingdom. All mentioned bands are long-time friends and allies and it’s always an honour and plain fun to meet up with them again. Through the years, these bands have shown their dedication to the cause and the will to power any obstacles they encounter, big and small ones. I really respect them very much for their attitude and the great music they create.
How has it felt to see Pentacle’s name and music spread and grow over the years?
I find this question difficult to answer. I am not sure what to think… Sure, I know we have grown in scene as a band through the years, yet I have little clue what our status is. Are the likes on Facebook an indication of how well-known/liked a band is? To a certain degree, I tend to think it is, although there are a lot of people who walk beyond the realm of social media, so it’s not the full “truth” (ahum…) anyway. Is the audience present at a (headline) gig an indication how popular a band is? Yes, it’s one of the factors showing how big a crowd such band draws, yet it’s a momentary and geographical conclusion/assumption. Are the sales of a full length album indicative of the popularity of a band in these current days? Again yes, but with downloading and streaming around, it doesn’t give a full insight. At least, that’s what I tend to think. It’s the same with recording an album on tape for a friend back in the days. Maybe an album sold say 10,000 copies, but with all the home taping around, it could have been spread to 30,000 fans, I don’t know. With all this talk I try to indicate I have little clue about what kind of “reach” Pentacle has to offer. If I would have to speak out keeping above mentioned elements in mind, I would say our status is rather modest for a band with 30 years of active service under its belt. Longevity hasn’t to be synonymous with “popularity”, you know. I would rather ask you how you see this matter. How do you see our status in the underground scene? What is your view on this?
Is there a difference to you in the approach or feeling of playing in other peoples’ bands, as you’ve done a couple times in the past, versus playing and writing the music for your own? Is there anything you’d change, looking back?
Interesting thought… I didn’t write any music for the other bands I participated in, being Soulburn and Asphyx. Except for the version of the Asphyx cover of Celtic Frost’s “Os Abysme Vel Daath” (which was my choice, by the way) for which I added my only musical contributions for Asphyx ever (the “Black Sabbath” riff which replaces the sound effects in the middle of the song, the change of some drum beats and additional guitar picking), I wasn’t allowed to come up with any music myself in fear of “messing up their sound”. Sure, I came up with additional bass lines, but that was even on or in most cases over the edge and heavily frowned upon, so the musical input was very, very limited and in most cases just non-existing, so I can’t really comment on that element. In this case, I should have sticked to following the guitar parts, throw in the distortion pedal way earlier and kept my mouth shut. Fuck that shit, hahaha! I did perform the vocals on Soulburn’s “Feeding on Angels” and “On the Wings of Inferno” by Asphyx though. These are my lyrics (with one exception though) and vocal patterns, so that was my field of expertise. Of course it was awesome to perform Asphyx classics like “Rites of Shades”, “Abomination Echoes”, “The Sickening Dwell”, “Ode to a Nameless Grave”, “M.S. Bismarck” or “Vermin”. That early stuff is amazing and it was awesome to perform such songs with the guys who wrote them. The feeling was great, yet is was not your own material. The stuff you came up with and bled for. Actually, it’s the same as performing a cover song of a fave band. It raises the energy level, but it will be never yours and here lies the big difference. I do feel far more connected to the material I have written myself as these are my own compositions for which I worked hard. Rather obvious, but very important to point out. That was to some extent one of the frustrating parts of being a member of both Soulburn and Asphyx: as I wasn’t allowed to come up with any of the music, it never really became “mine”, do you understand what I mean? It’s not an ego-thing, but a connection to the music. To get it into your system, to feel it. With both bands, I always performed the compositions of someone else. It’s not that different from performing the old classic Asphyx songs or even a cover tune. Especially around the second go of my participation with Asphyx (around “Death…the Brutal Way”) when Martin did the vocals again, there was just nothing to contribute. Around “Feeding…” and “On the Wings…” I did the lyrics and the vocals, so I made my contribution and felt more connected to the material. With “Death…” there was very little to connect too. It was not my material, so the bonding with the songs was very limited. And when there’s little room left to add a bass part of your own, it could have been the songs of whatever band you’re recording, you know? The spiritual part of music is important to me. It’s an extension of one’s personality and soul. That’s what music for a very big part is all about and I wasn’t able to make this happen with these bands. Especially not the second run with Asphyx. I think the difference between Soulburn/Asphyx on one side and Pentacle on the other was a bit too much for a guy like me. For Pentacle I come up with biggest part of the songs, for Asphyx there was just nothing. Sure, it feels good not to have that weight on your shoulders to come up with the songs, but there’s a big connection lost as well. It’s not about wrong or right, it is how I feel and perceive it.
As far as the performance part concerns, I just keep raging. Except that Pentacle’s riffing is more intricate and needs more attention/focus than the Soulburn/Asphyx material (which leaves more room for an intense live performance), I didn’t approach the music any different. I banged by head and went wild and that’s the way how it should be done.
Did many of your original death metal related friends and comrades stay into death metal with you over the years, particularly during the genre’s lowest points in the late ‘90s? Of those that left death metal for black metal or for other pastures entirely, did any come back?
When I think about it, almost everyone kept his connection with death metal somehow intact. Some friends of mine quit playing in a death metal-related band, but always stayed in touch with the scene. Granted, maybe not on the same level as before, but most of them are rather well-informed through internet though. Yes, I saw their preferences shift through the years, but one doesn’t need to expect everyone to stay a death metal-head through his/her whole existence, right? That’s my purpose in life, not theirs, haha! There is nothing wrong with expanding one’s musical horizon as it all about the energy raised by whatever music you are listening to or perform. I know many got into different kinds of metal or totally different music as well. Most of the guys still listen to their personal classics, whatever those may be. Some return to their musicianship in extreme metal, while others “just” play their records, visit concerts and are content with this, which totally fine, of course. Whatever one likes to do.
Does the increasing regeneration of the oldest death metal sounds mean anything to you other than more opportunities to play shows, and to more people?
I see tons of people walking around with shirts of cult bands or claiming to be into them one never expected f.e. 10 years ago. I think there’s a lot of showing off and/or “trying to be cool” attitude involved. Many show their (honest?) appreciation towards bands that were only know to the initiated many years ago. I guess the internet has to do a lot with this. All the obscure stuff is available for download or on YouTube and it’s easy to order a multiply of Necrovore designs with a few clicks, which I find really odd. I find this newfound interest hard to digest and I have my sincere doubts about the integrity of certain parties involved. We all know the resurgence of obscure death metal is just another wave in the sea of successive trends. Some parties are really milking the cow as they view it as another mean of raising their funds and it really sickens me as this music means so much to me. The origin of this kind of metal lies for a big part in non-commercial realms and it saddens me to see, money has become so damn important. That was never the original intent though, yet it’s common knowledge how much of our lives are being ruled by the almighty Dollar, Euro etc. This rubs off on other aspects of our lives as well, not to forget the alternative (music) scene as well. Before this answer of mine turns into a ranting about the development (or regression, just depending how you look at it) of our worldwide social and economical system, I better return to your original question.
I do think it’s great such legendary underground bands receive the recognition they rightfully deserve. Many of these bands created some amazing music and left their mark (big and small) on the scene, even after all these years. It makes sure their impact lives on. They are not forgotten and the music lives on through new generations of fans and musicians. They created a heritage, something to be proud off and to handle with respect. The good thing about this attention it makes it possible to release those old recordings on vinyl, CD or tape (again) and this makes me happy, because I am an avid collector of such recordings. I must have them all, hehe… I still have the original demo tapes I acquired back in the 80/90’s, but although many are still in great shape and play well, time takes its toll, so it is great to buy the upgraded versions in different formats. Plus, I never owned all the classics as originals as many came to me through tape trading with not always the greatest audio quality. Many of these rereleases feature a great sound with the original artwork and extras like an interview, unpublished photos or even recordings I didn’t hear before, so this is something I really enjoy and applaud for. There are still many gems to be discovered and I keep my eyes and ears open. Just keep the dedicated releases coming!
What was responsible for the band’s period of inactivity between “Archaic Undead Fury” and the two splits that you released in 2013? As far as I can tell it’s the longest in the band’s history.
There are a multiply of reasons why Pentacle’s output was rather limited these years. After the release Under the Black Cross, I was rather burned out. The creation and release of this album absorbed far more of my energy than expected. I worked on all elements intensely and it took its toll. I don’t think I truly noticed the amount of energy and effort it took to get this album done, combined with a full time job of 50-60 hours each week, getting moved to another house and having several other personal matters on my mind. In hind sight, it sure drained me of energy. After the release of the album and said before in the interview, Mike wasn’t available anymore and we tried to work with different guitarists which took its time, yet didn’t pay off. In the meanwhile, my job situation was still heavy, my first son was born (that’s a major life changer!), I got married and the band kept performing live while both Alex and me kept working on new material, but didn’t really progress. I did all the interviews too (as always), which (as you can see) are rather elaborate, so they consume many, many hours of hard work. I started to feel burned out on the band. There’s was just too much weight on my shoulders to keep it all going, so creating new material didn’t work out as planned.
Around this time, I was asked to join Asphyx again. Originally meant as a one gig only-affair (the Party.San festival), it took off like crazy and before we knew, we performed gigs all over Europe and even the USA every weekend. The band recorded both the single and album Death…the Brutal Way and promoted the album all around Europe. Through the heavy band schedule, work and family responsibilities, there wasn’t any time for Pentacle left. To a certain degree, it gave me some leverage not to be responsible for everything within the band anymore. In Asphyx, everybody was pulling the strings and worked together to make things happen. I don’t know what the situation with the band is these days, but back when I was a member, everyone worked very hard to make it happen. It was a team effort. More than Pentacle where I look after most aspects of the band.
After my membership with Asphyx ended on bad terms, I was just fed up with the whole thing and in retrospect depressed of what happened to me. It had become a black page in my history as a musician and it hit me hard. There was very little urge and energy left to get into the writing modus again. I really had to exorcise all personal demons and get clear with the situation. This took a lot of time and effort. The trouble of both overstrained arms got bigger too, so I had to lay down for playing guitar a while (something I still have be careful about). In the meanwhile, we moved into another house in a different city and my daughter was born who obviously needed the right amount of attention. No problem about that J. Through help of good friends like Costa, Manuel and my wife, I felt it was time to get composing material again. Especially when I received the message of Rick Cortez (Sadistic Intent) announcing the 12” w/Pentacle on a local radio show, I had to get of my ass and start working on new material. Following fast, the offers to release splits with Eternal Solstice and Mortem arrived as well, so that set the mood into the right direction and got me going. This lead to the Five Candles Burning Red MCD / split vinyl sessions with before mentioned bands.
You’ve released splits with Desaster, Repugnant, Eternal Solstice, Mortem, Sadistic Intent and Sabbat. That’s already a hell of a list, but if you could add to it, what bands would you like to collaborate similarly with?
Preferable with bands of the same mind set/music as ours. It doesn’t sound really adventurous, but I really think it adds “positive weight” to the release itself. I like such split releases most (bands in the same direction), so that’s something I want to achieve with Pentacle as well. All above mentioned bands do sound different than us, yet somehow the combinations of such acts complement each other. As far as potential partners in crime I would love to release a split with Ares Kingdom, Headhunter D.C., Cianide, Deströyer 666, Poisonous, Druid Lord, Sathanas or Nifelheim. That would be a killer set up!
What draws you time and time again to splits, which are a format that in death metal seem to be most common for pre-album releases or as periodic releases between albums? Pentacle has at this point released twice as many splits as full lengths.
It’s something cool to fill a gap between albums as some kind of sign of life, that is true, but for me personally it’s more about showing allegiance to kindred spirits in the underground. Bands you enjoy, respect and have a bond with, musically and preferable personally also. That is the most important message I want to convey with such releases. Indeed, we did a few, but it’s not about the amount of such releases. I mean, it’s not some conscious decision or a calculated move to release splits in between albums. At least not from our side. When there’s a window of opportunity to create a split with a cool band, I look into the possibilities to make it happen. We didn’t plan to release three splits in row with Eternal Solstice, Mortem and Sadistic Intent. It just happened and as I loved the idea to work with these bands, we made it happen. There was no big scheme or marketing move involved. There was an opportunity and we took it. Same with the Desaster, Repugnant and Sabbat ones.
Do you have any touring planned in support of the new album, or festival dates? Any chance at some shows in the United States? How did the last tour of the United States and Mexico fare, and what are your thoughts on it now that a few years have passed?
Nothing big is (being) set up right now. I tried to work on an European tour with Sadistic Intent for this year (2020), but it didn’t work from our side. For the rest, it’s the usual weekend gigs. I don’t see Pentacle as a touring band, really. We did the one with Ares Kingdom and that was really cool. Great memories for a lifetime! Hails to Chuck, Mike and Alex! We did a smaller one with Ancient Rites to promote The Fifth Moon, but we’re talking about 1996 here I believe, so it’s been a while in between, hahaha! And yes, the tour in the USA/Mexico, but we talk about that one a bit later on. I worked on several tours through the years: one Euro tour with Sadistic Intent/Possessed/Mortem/Deströyer 666, one South American tour again with Sadistic Intent and even a mini tour with Immortal back in the 90’s, but none of them worked out obviously, so I am not really interested in putting too much energy in such undertakings anymore. With all responsibilities of my current life it takes some serious planning to make it happen. It needs to be worth it as the time to “play around” isn’t available anymore. I want to make good use of the spare time I have.
The tour in the USA and Mexico was really cool. The crowd we draw was modest, yet very supportive. Some had travelled many hours to watch us perform, which was an amazing feat. I think Chicago had the biggest turnout. Those who came out to see us, seemed to have a good time and made sure they were seen and heard, hehehe… We shared the stage with cool bands like Unholy Lust, Sathanas, Ares Kingdom, Infernal Conjuration, Oath of Cruelty (please check out their debut album for some raging stuff!), Morgengrau, Scythe and Infinitum Obscure. Got to meet maniacs whom I was in contact with, yet never met in person like Scott (Cianide) or Putrid Matt. Went out to visit LA’s Dark Realm record shop and meet up with the Cortez brothers again. We visited the USS Iowa which was a great treat for the fanatic I am, not to forget eating fish at the sea side. I should not forget we recorded vocals for an Unholy Lust song (“Ancient Times”) which was released on their Humanity And Its End album. We stayed a couple of days at Jeff Tandy’s (Imprecation/Metal Enema radio show) and Erika’s (Morgengrau) place. Had some lovely meals, went out to the shooting range to give some pieces a try and raided the local record shops. We went out to see the Texas Military Forces Museum which was really interesting and had the best BBQ ever at Chucky’s place. Our Mike ate the first peppers too heavy for him ever, hahaha! It was rather remarkable being served Dutch food in New York. Not what I expected, but it tasted damn good! There are way more stories to be told, but I won’t bore you with my recollections. As you can read, all great memories and thanks again to everyone who made this happen or came out to see us!
Given your unflagging commitment to underground metal over the course of thirty plus years, are there any aspects or advantages you prefer about today’s scene?
Communication. It’s far easier to reach people all around the globe with today’s possibilities. Internet helps the scene big times. Bandcamp, a regular website, Facebook, promoting the band, getting in touch with people around the globe for whatever reason, hunting down great releases…
The time factor has decreased immensely. It was fun writing those letters back in the days, making sure the postman had to carry them around, but I prefer the digital way. It makes little sense to talk about the pros and cons as they should be known to those who used to correspond this way, yet I do miss the flyers one received. This was (and still is) a cool way to promote a zine/band/release and got me in contact with all kind of people. Glad to see these are still around, yet in a limited amount. When sending out a package, I always make sure to include them. And yes, for nostalgic reasons too, obviously.
We don’t need to get to the postal office anymore to collect some US Dollars, put them in an envelope and keep your fingers crossed if they will reach their point of destination. One never knew if it worked out until a package arrived one day, hahaha! So yes, I prefer digital payment as well.
As said before, the current flow of retrospective releases is something I really enjoy. This development has become a steady factor in the scene by now and I am all into it. I remember only too well the very first of such releases through the iconic Midian Creations label, run by the non-less legendary Wim Baelus (at least for people of my generation and/or older). It was Poison’s (GER) Into the Abyss 12”. He released it in 1993 and from my recollections, it was the very first official (!) rerelease of an old classic demo tape. Maybe I missed one, but I am pretty sure this was the very first release. That was something very special, I can tell you that. Today, we’re all used to such “gold digging”, but this Poison vinyl was the deal!
The current scene is way more professional than the old one. Bands and releases are on a higher level than what we were being used to in the 80’s or 90’s, though there was nothing wrong with the DIY-attitude in the early days of the scene as it gave an extra flair. I love the old ways and still tend to think a demo is supposed to be released on tape and not on CD, vinyl or digital, hehe… It’s great to see you don’t need a label anymore to release a CD or vinyl. A band is able to do this on its own. It raises the opportunity to be more self supporting.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about or promote?
We are working on a double tape release of Spectre… through an US and German label, so the tape fetishists have something to look forward to. For the rest there’s nothing planned from our side (yet).
Let me thank you very much for this interesting interview with lots of questions from a different angle which made answering it a joy (within the realm and limits of death metal, of course, hehe…). You have done your homework very well. Thumbs up and thank you very much for your support towards Pentacle. I really appreciate it! Keep supporting the scene! Anyone interested in obtaining vinyl, CD’s or shirts from us, please contact the band through the sites mentioned below.
Continuing the old tradition of writing one’s playlist down at the end of a letter/interview, here’s mine:
At the Gates – Gardens of Grief
Pentagram (CH) – Demo I & II
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness
Venom – everything up to Possessed
Tiamat – Sumerian Cry
Candlemass – King of the Grey Islands
DON’T FORGET THE ANCIENT FEELING…IT STILL RULES!!!