Teeth Into Red: Dead Congregation – The Toilet ov Hell Interview
Few bands in extreme metal today can shoulder the crushing yoke of hype and expectations like Dead Congregation. Often compared with their forebears Incantation, Immolation, and Morbid Angel, and anointed kings of the contemporary death metal scene by many critics, peers, and fans alike, these Greek death metallers have their work cut out for them when it comes to living up to the hype and delivering the goods. Having to follow 2008’s monumental debut album, Graves of the Archangels (an album already considered a classic in the genre), would flatten many a musician, smothering any attempts at replication and extinguishing all creative verve. How did Dead Congregation answer this call? By flooring the metal scene at large with one of 2014’s greatest albums, the superlative death metal leviathan, Promulgation of the Fall. Pressure and expectations be damned. Dead Congregation are the real deal, and they prove it every time they hit the studio or the stage.
Recently, I had a chance to chat with Dead Congregation frontman and lead guitarist, A.V. The band is on the verge of an American tour in support of Promulgation, and A.V. was kind enough to answer a few of my questions and offer some insight about one of metal’s most exciting bands. We chatted about the upcoming tour, the new album, the songwriting and creative process, musical and guitar influences, and favorite bands, among other things.
Howard Dean: Dead Congregation recently headlined Kill-Town Deathfest in Copenhagen, Denmark, and has been touring in support of the excellent new album Promulgation of the Fall, which was released in May. You are set to embark on a short tour of the northeastern United States next month, hitting seven cities from Maryland to Western Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. How has the tour been so far, and how have the fans reacted to the album’s new material being played live?
A.V.: Actually, after the release of the new album we’ve only played a couple of shows in Greece and then a couple of festivals. We have a lot of shows ahead of us though, that’s for sure, including a 2 week European tour and individual shows here and there. The mentioned shows in Greece were sort of a release party, only a few days after the release date of the album. So people were not too familiar with the new material yet, however attendance and the response was incredible nevertheless! At the festivals in Belgium and Denmark the response to the new material was overwhelming, it was very encouraging to see that since our previous album ‘Graves of the Archangels’ has been extremely well received and the old songs are considered classics by many.
HD: I know many American fans outside of the northeast were disappointed that the tour is not going to be longer or more extensive. I can’t even imagine how difficult it is to plan a tour on another continent. The logistics and planning involved with a large tour must cause serious headaches, especially when dealing with the notoriously difficult customs agencies and laws we have in the United States. Is the tour limited to those seven shows due to time constraints or other commitments?
A.V.: We’re lucky enough to have other people taking care of the planning and logistics, we get approached by respective gig organizers or tour managers and they take care of all that. Unfortunately due to our job commitments we can’t do an extensive tour unless we quit our jobs but the unemployment levels in Greece are off the roof so I don’t know how wise it would be to do that, especially for the two band members who have really decent jobs. We had a 10 day opening in October, 7 shows was all we could squeeze in and the tour organizer (Vinne – Signature Riff) felt safer to keep it within the northeast. We’ve been approached for more shows, hopefully we’ll make it in the future, we too are bummed that it wasn’t in the cards to do more shows this time.
HD: You have played in the United States before, including a spot at Maryland Deathfest a few years ago. American fans are extremely excited for this tour, as the chance to see Dead Congregation play live on American soil does not come very often. Is Dead Congregation excited to return to the United States?
A.V.: Yes, we’re definitely super excited and can’t wait to play in the US again. As said, we look forward to playing on more cities too.
HD: Are there differences—positive or negative—between playing a show in Europe or in the United States? Do you think there is a difference between the average American fan and the average European fan?
A.V.: From our small experience in your side of the Atlantic, I’d say there’s no difference between the fans. We’ve had great shows in front of very passionate audiences on both continents. The only difference the way we see it is that it takes a lot more money on flights for someone to bring us over in the US, the country is huge so distance between shows can be very long (we remember some looong rides during our small west coast tour, it was really nice and relaxed though because we had a show every other day and not daily), plus the customs agencies that you mentioned. It’s tricky to get by them, which shouldn’t be for bands of our caliber since it’s not like we’re making a fortune on shows.
HD: Promulgation of the Fall created significant buzz upon its release, and is considered to be one of the best albums released this year by many music fans (including myself). It is an amazingly brutal, memorable, and powerful record. Before its release, it was one of the most highly anticipated and talked about albums in black and death metal circles. How long did you work on the album? Did you start work on it immediately after Graves of the Archangels and the split with Hatespawn?
A.V.: Thanks for the kind words. It’s not like we ever plan to work on material, you either feel inspired to write music or you don’t. Many of the songs in ‘Promulgation’ have been composed right after we recorded ‘graves…’ then some were changed after playing them for such a long time and a couple were written at a later point. We have been doing many shows between albums and we’ve always been active practicing but we haven’t been working on the new album for six years as some people think. It’s just a matter of priorities, in between shows, personal lives and personal problems, you can’t always be in the mind state required to write music. Personally, I’ve had very long periods that I wouldn’t even touch the guitar apart from the band practice and we never put songs together at practice. We have to have a solid composition finished almost to the final detail before the composer presents it to the other band members so that all of them can learn the song. We don’t work by exchanging ideas, gluing irrelevant riffs together or jamming random shit in the studio. When the stars are aligned you get a stroke of inspiration, riffs pop one after the other in perfect flow and you come up with a song. So we haven’t been too prolific, that’s for sure, but we’ve been through a lot in the last years and it hasn’t been easy to feel inspired to write music and we’d NEVER force ourselves to sit down and come up with songs just because it’s been too long since our previous recording.
HD: Graves of the Archangels was such a highly-regarded debut album, and has in the years since its release gained status as a modern death metal classic. With the success and recognition Graves generated, did the band find it difficult to follow it up? Did you feel any pressure—either internal or external—when making Promulgation of the Fall?
A.V.: No pressure at all, as I explained it’s all a matter of inspiration and inspiration means satisfying the creative drive within you. It’s not about making popular songs for your fans. With all due respect to our fans, if we’re not sincere to ourselves we might as well stop playing. Dead Congregation is not a past time project, it’s a band that serves as an outlet for the creativity of its band members. ‘Promulgation of the Fall’ has been the pinnacle of that creativity and as long as it satisfies our needs as artists, we couldn’t care less about the response it would get.
HD: You worked with two of the best labels in the underground—Canadian label Profound Lore and Norma Evangelium Diaboli out of France—to release and distribute Promulgation. Were you pleased with this partnership, and do you foresee Dead Congregation working with either of these labels again in the future?
A.V.: One fundamental reason we chose to work with those two labels is that there’s mutual respect, trust and great communication between us for long before the release of the album. So we already knew they’d keep their end of the deal and respect all our wishes. We just didn’t want to work with a label that would treat our album as a product and Dead Congregation as a cow to be milked. You never know what the future brings but I think we’d definitely work with them in the future.
HD: Chris Bruni, the head of Profound Lore, recently said: “Dead Congregation’s set I witnessed tonight reaffirms they are the most important band in death metal today. By far the best metal live performance I have witnessed all year. Or maybe the last several years.” (source: http://instagram.com/chris_bruni ) You are known for your very potent, formidable, and tight live performances. In an era when many bands cannot accurately translate their music from the record to a live performance, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a band that brings talent and energy to the stage. What does performing live mean to Dead Congregation? Is it an essential component to the band?
A.V.: We’re not that tight if you ask me, we’re alright I guess but far from bands like Morbid Angel in the prime, Cannibal Corpse, Nile and the likes. It takes a lot of years on the road to achieve perfect tightness and we’re not super skilled musicians to begin with. We do however see every show as something special for us, when we get on stage we put all our energy and passion to it, it’s not something we can control even if we wanted to be more focused on playing our instruments flawlessly. A live show should be a manifestation of the band’s dark energy and not an exam on how well you play your instrument. I rather give 100% of my heart and soul into my playing and fuck up a couple of times than play like a fucking robot. I can’t play like a robot anyway, I get too carried away by the music and live in the moment without caring if we’ll be judged for our fuck ups later. I think that’s what separates an honest band/musician from one that’s either not dedicated enough or just got tired of shows and keeps going only to pay the bills.
HD: Is there any chance that the excellent split with Hatespawn might be repressed and rereleased on either vinyl or CD? “Perennial Blasphemous Affliction” is a great track, as is the “bestial” mix of “Subjugation.”
A.V.: We want all of our releases to be available if there’s demand for them. Unfortunately Hatespawn didn’t want to keep the split in circulation and we have to respect their wish. There have been thoughts on releasing only our part as a EP or re-recording ‘Perennial’ on the next album since the split EP was pressed in only 1000 7”Eps and 1000 CDs so the song kinda got much less attention than our album songs. We’ll see…
HD: Your drummer V.V., who also plays with Inveracity, is an incredibly skilled drummer. He gave an otherworldly and impressive performance on Promulgation. His drumming is so powerful. His ferocious double bass and creative fills on the album reminded me a lot of the insane kit work of the mystery drummer in Deathspell Omega. V.V. has been with you since the days of Nuclear Winter. Does he also contribute to the songwriting process? How does Dead Congregation typically create new material?
A.V.: He is incredibly skilled indeed and most importantly he’s extremely passionate. You can have a lot of drummers who are technical yet perform like machines, every beat is calculated to precision. Vagelis is a fucking beast and that can be validated by anyone who’s seen him perform live. When it comes to songwriting, usually we have everything composed to the last detail and tell him that this part must be like this and that and he takes the core of the drum patterns we describe and he adds his signature on them. Sometimes he just goes crazy and plays something completely different that might or might not work, haha. It may sound a bit restricting for him, however, we’ve been playing together for such a long time that I definitely know what to expect from him and thus all the songwriting is done with his drumming in mind, if you know what I mean. If we had another drummer, we might have written different material, who knows?
HD: When looking at your discography, Dead Congregation never seemed to have any “growing pains.” Your first release, the Purifying Consecrated Ground EP, was very good, and far superior to many demos and first recordings that come from bands. Did you “work out the kinks” for what would become Dead Congregation during the Nuclear Winter days, or do you see both bands as completely separate entities?
A.V.: They are definitely completely separate entities. I wasn’t amongst the founding members of Nuclear Winter, nor did I have much say in the musical direction of the band. Regardless if I was the main composer of the material in Nuclear Winter’s swansong, the ‘abomination virginborn’ demo, I felt compelled not to drift away completely from the band’s past sound. In retrospect, that demo doesn’t sound much like Nuclear Winter’s previous recordings, still I wasn’t feeling completely free when I was writing that material. Dead Congregation was formed so that I could finally unleash my creative demons with no constrains whatsoever. Don’t get me wrong, I still like ‘abomination virginborn’ very much, however it was with Dead Congregation that my vision of what Death Metal is all about was finally fulfilled. ‘Purifying’ is a bit raw, we recorded it in haste and didn’t think twice about its flaws, it has some of my favorite Dead Congregation songs in there but the whole thing is recorded too fast and the doomy parts sound like mid tempo parts, there not as effective as we meant them to be. You grow and learn and ‘promulgation’ definitely doesn’t suffer from mistakes we did in the past.
HD: Dead Congregation has top notch musicians behind every instrument, and I see this as one of the things that sets you apart from the rest of the pack. Your guitar playing in particular has a feel and a tone to it that is unique. Songs like “Serpentskin” off of the new album illustrate the dynamics and diverse spectrum of the songs you craft: It explodes violently out of the preceding song before deepening into a slower, dirge-like riff in the middle. And the crawling, menacing riff that comes in around the 3:40 mark is one of the most evil things I’ve ever heard. Who are some of the guitar players or songwriters that influenced your playing? What things—musical or otherwise—influence Dead Congregation?
A.V.: Calling us top notch musicians is an insult to all the good musicians out there as we are FAR from skilled guitarists. Both V.V. (drums) and G.S. (bass) are quite skilled technically but personally I struggle to play a Slayer song properly, heh. Feel and tone, yes, those are two words that well describe my playing. I am self-taught and never bothered to practice exercises or play for hours, I gradually became better by covering Metal songs, just like many other self-taught guitarists I suppose. It’s weird because I’ve always liked and admired skilled guitarists and somewhat technical Metal (not progressive Metal, I hate that) but never had the patience to practice enough to improve my playing. My favorite guitar player would probably be George Lynch with his unorthodox phrasing, killer licks and tremendous feel (with bad tone on lots of occasions, haha) followed by many others such as Malmsteen, Mike Wead, early Satriani, Jeff Loomis. When I was really young Dave Mustaine was my idol, later I discovered that all my favorite Megadeth solos were not his but Chris Poland’s and Jeff Young’s, haha. As far as extreme Metal goes, my admiration goes to Trey Azagthoth, Brian Malone (ex-Diabolic), Karl Sanders, definitely Hannemann/King, no matter if guitar nerds say that Slayer solos are bad, I can’t imagine any kind of solo being more appropriate for Slayer than the ones they recorded on Hell Awaits, Reign In Blood and South Of Heaven. Plenty of other guitarists on the list too, can’t name them all. My influence stems from all of them subconsciously, however I can’t touch that level of guitar playing to save my life. Being able to play with feeling and write good songs is not something that can be taught though, you either have it in you or you don’t. Not saying that I’m a good songwriter, that’s not up to me to judge…
When it comes to Dead Congregation, there’s no direct source of inspiration other than being psyched to play with the band and come up with great material. We all grew up listening to the same bands pretty much and devouring all those albums for ages molds your musical character and defines the way you play if you know what I mean.
HD: Support for the upcoming American tour will be provided by Mausoleum out of Windber, Pennsylvania, and Pissgrave from Philadelphia. Pissgrave has been generating a lot of buzz in the underground here in America with their absolutely filthy and disgusting sound (I’m very hopeful to hear a full length from them soon). Have you had a chance to check out any of the material from either band?
A.V.: Oh yeah, I’ve been following Mausoleum since their early days, just got to check out Pissgrave recently. The tour will be quite devastating.
HD: Heavy metal is a very diverse and expanding genre in the 21st century. What current bands (if any) do you consider to be pushing the envelope and advancing the genre forward? Do you have any favorite new bands? Are there any bands for whom you genuinely get excited when they are releasing new material?
A.V.: It’s not necessarily about pushing the envelope, one of my favorite albums of the recent years for example is ‘beyond the flesh’ by Skeletal Remains. Far from being original but definitely great riffs and songwriting. Who’s advancing the genre anyway? Morbus Chron? Not my cup of tea… Portal? I have huge respect for the band but still not something I can listen to with the same excitement as I listen to older classics. I’m quite traditional when it comes to Metal, some of my favorite contemporary bands are Tribulation, Vanhelgd, Ataraxy, Deathspell Omega, Vektor, Procession… But no, I can’t say I’m ever looking forward for releases from specific bands nowadays, it’s definitely not like being in the eighties-nineties when a band’s new album would be a masterpiece in most cases. Now I have low expectations and sometimes I get positively surprised! The new Behemoth for example is far far better than I expected, definitely my favorite since ‘Satanica’.
HD: I, as well as the entire staff of the Toilet ov Hell, would like to thank you for taking the time out of your day to conduct this interview. Congratulations to you and the band on releasing one hell of a great album this year, and thank you for bringing your sonic brutality stateside. Any last words?
A.V.: Not really, thanks for the interview and see you on the road.
Dead Congregation will hit U.S. soil in mid-October to play seven shows in support of their new album, Promulgation of the Fall. Tickets and show information can be found at: http://signatureriff.com/
To purchase the new album, visit:
Martyrdoom Productions (Europe): http://martyrdoom.bigcartel.com/
Profound Lore (North America): http://www.profoundlorerecords.com
Norma Evangelium Diaboli (Vinyl): http://www.noevdia.com/
For more information about Dead Congregation, visit:
Like them on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/deadcongregation
***I would like to thank A.V. and Dead Congregation for accepting the interview, and for answering all of the questions with great insight and lucidity.***
***I would also like to thank Edward Meehan for his contributions to this interview, and all of the editors, writers, collaborators, fans, flushers, and lifelovers at the Toilet ov Hell for crafting the best spot for heavy metal news and info on the internet.***