Since releasing their demo “The Shadow Era” back in 2007, Altar Of Oblivion has managed two full length releases as well as an EP. So far, everything has had quality written all over, and there is no reason not to believe the band will be able to keep the high standard also in the future. Their last album, “Grand Gesture Of Defiance” released in September last year, is probably their best so far, and it’s about time to hook up with main songwriter and guitarist Martin Meyer Mendelssohn Sparvath for a chat about Altar Of Oblivion’s past, present and future. First Martin, introduce yourself and the band to the readers.
– Altar of Oblivion is a five-piece consisting of the following members: Mik Mentor is the vocalist. He used to be an opera singer, but quit after a couple of years due to the plain monotony of performing the same shows night after night. When he joined Altar Of Oblivion, he hadn’t been singing for three years, but now he is getting better day by day. Allan B. Larsen on rhythm and lead guitars has played since the age of 15, and performed in a lot of constellations of which the old school death metal bands Cerekloth and Church Bizarre are the most predominant. Christian Nørgaard on bass has been playing the instrument since the age of twelve and is, or has been, involved in many bands and projects throughout the years, for instance The Vein, Lords of Triumph, Bound by Wire, Church Bizarre and Cerekloth. He is also a producer and has produced albums for other underground artist, including some bands he is involved with. He continues developing his chops all the time and I am looking forward to be recording with him again. Our drummer, Thomas Wesley Antonsen, used to play in a progressive metal band called Broadmoor before joining Altar Of Oblivion. I am Martin Meyer Mendelssohn Sparvath, I play rhythm and lead guitars, and used to be a hired gun in Danish speed/thrash metal band Victimizer from 2006-2007.
Different sources lists 2005 as the year ALTAR OF OBLIVION was formed, but the song “The Narrow Gates Of Emptiness” from the EP “Salvation” as well as the title track were conceived already back in 2004. Were these songs made before you formed the band, or did you simply write them with another band or project in mind?
– Actually, I would say that Altar Of Oblivion wasn’t a full-blown band until our permanent drummer,Thomas Antonsen, was recruited back in February 2010. That’s when we had our first ever rehearsal. Prior to that moment, our then drummer Allan Larsen (now rhythm/lead guitars) and I used to rehearse as a duo named “Summoning Sickness” from 2004-2006. The duo, with me taking care of the guitars and vocals, played some early editions of the aforementioned tracks plus the tracks from our 2007 demo. Combined, we had a set list consisting of about 15 songs.
Your demo, as well as your first album “Sinews Of Anguish” were based on concepts, and your latest release,“Grand Gesture Of Defiance”, is also a concept album. How would you compare a concept based on history like the one on “Sinews Of Anguish” with a fictional one like the one on “Grand Gesture Of Defiance”? Which one was most challenging and interesting to write?
– Even though the concept on “Sinews of Anguish” is based on a true event, it still contains a lot of fictional elements. The protagonist of the album is a fictive German soldier whose story I made come alive by placing him in historical scenery that actually took place. To me, it has always been exciting to mix fiction with reality and this album can be described as the sonic equivalent to a historical novel in which I am trying to paint an image in the listener’s head. In hindsight, I would say, “Sinews of Anguish” was the most interesting to write as it was the first time I put an album together song by song. Up to that point, I had only been writing “single” songs without giving it much thought that in order to make collection of songs work together in a symbiotic relationship they have to be arranged the right way. Also, each track must be able to stand on its own and make a good impression.
I used the word “challenging”, but Martin doesn’t regard writing music as a challenge.
-Since the five members of the band live in four different cities, the biggest challenge is actually to plan when to rehearse as we are all very busy people. It has taken a long time to complete this line up and I hope it will last for a long time because I really enjoy spending time with these guys.
Your first album was nearly an hour long, while “Grand Gesture Of Defiance” is around 35 minutes. Is it the story that you want to tell through the concept that determines how long an album will be?
– Yeah, our second full-length is a concept album, and when I wrote the material, I ended up with approximately one hour and 30 minutes of music which was too much to fit into one album. Therefore, I decided to split the concept into two short stories, and I’m looking forward to be recording part two someday. The pre-production of the album had a running time of about 45 minutes but in the studio, we rearranged some parts and made them shorter. Also, we skipped the album intro which was an instrumental piece. In the end, the album turned out a bit shorter than expected.
What are your main inspirations when it comes to writing lyrics?
– Most of my inspirations for the lyrics derive from material about WWII and religions, especially the three big monotheistic abrahamic religions Christianity, Judaism and Islam. When I sit down to write music, the lyrics mostly write themselves and I actually just let my subconscious do the rest of the work.
Asked about how and when he writes, i becomes clear that Martin is one of those musicians that likes to close everything else out when he composes.
– Usually, when I write music, I like to isolate myself from the rest of the world for about a week at the time and just switch on the composition mode. I remember writing all “Grand Gesture of Defiance” tracks plus recording them for pre-production purposes within two weeks. Only the final track “Final Perfection” was written a couple of weeks later as I wasn’t quite satisfied with the way, the album ended at that point.
When you first posted information about “Grand Gesture Of Defiance” on the net a long time ago, you spoke about two songs called “New World Disorder” and “Vultures”. These have since been replaced by the track “Where Darkness Is Light”. What happened here?
– “New World Disorder” was the two minute long instrumental which I told you about earlier. We chose to skip it as we figured two instrumentals out of seven tracks would be too much. “Vultures” was a track I never quite really liked as much as the other ones on the album and somehow it felt out of place which is why I replaced the song with another based on the lyrics and vocal melodies of “Vultures”.
In the past, nearly all the music and lyrics of ALTAR OF OBLIVION was made by yourself, but on the EP, “Salvation” there are a couple of songs written by Allan. Will Alan, or maybe some other member contribute more in the future, or is Altar Of Oblivion first and foremost an outlet for your own musical ideas?
– I wrote all the material for our demo and debut full-length. On our “Salvation” EP, Allan wrote the music for two tracks whereas I took care of the lyrics. On “Grand Gesture of Defiance”, I wrote everything apart from two songs, “The Smoke-filled Room” and “Final Perfection”, which were partly written by our producer Lars Ström. Also, a good friend of ours, Jesper Leth, is credited as a co-writer on the instrumental piece “The Smoke-filled Room”, as his surf-inspired lead guitar plays such an essential role in this track. In the future, however, I hope to see a greater contribution from the other band members as all of them are capable of writing good music. In fact, both the bassist and the other guitarist are writing some new material for upcoming Altar Of Oblivion releases.
Did you want to release “Salvation” to reduce the time between the release of your two full lengths, or were there other reasons why you wanted to put out these songs?
– As I mentioned, in early 2010, we recruited a new drummer in the shape of Thomas Wesley Antonsen and before recording a full-length, we wanted to get used to being in a recording studio with a new drummer. In fact, the EP wasn’t meant to be released at all, but after having listened to the final result and at request of some people who heard it, we decided to release it anyway.
In my opinion, Altar Of Oblivion has a very unique sound. Of course there are bits and pieces here and there that remind me of other bands, but you definitely have a strong identity. What would you say it consists of?
– I think our unique sound derives from many things, above all the distinctive and irreplaceable vocal approach of our singer without whom there would be no Altar Of Oblivion. Furthermore, I am a self-taught musician and have only taken two guitar lessons in my life, but when my music teacher told me I had to learn the theory behind music, I quit. Haha!. I thought it was much more fun and stimulating to make my own discoveries just by setting my fingers in different positions on the fret-board and come up with different kinds of melodies and chord-progressions. This has most likely caused me to compose a little differently, even though my riff-work bears a certain resemblance to great bands such as Black Sabbath, Candlemass, Megadeth, Metallica and the likes. That said, I by no means want to play down the role of the other members in the band: Our bassist has a great comprehensive view during rehearsals and is always the first to point out if something doesn’t work or if an instrument is out of tune. He is great at offering solutions and he plays a seminal role in forming our music and identity. In addition to that, our drummer and other guitarist are coming up with more and more ideas during rehearsals which hopefully mean our releases will have a more dynamic approach in the future.
I kind of predicted that Martin would mention Mik and his vocals. Both his voice and his style are quite different from what we usually hear. Is what we hear on the albums the only way he can sing, or does he change his voice to make it stand out? Also, why do you write the vocal melodies, and not Mik?
– I am grateful that we have such a gifted and theatrical singer who can do a lot of different things with his voice. When we record the vocals, we always experiment and try different things out. Clearly, there are a billion ways of doing a certain part and sometimes, it would have been easier to do the most obvious thing, but to us an important thing in music is also to surprise the listener and make him stop and think for a minute. Mik Mentor can sing in many different ways and he is constantly developing new approaches. Once, I actually asked him if he wanted to take care of the lyrics and vocal melodies himself, but he takes great pride in interpreting my lyrics vocal melodies and is getting better at doing so all the time. We still all have a lot to learn. When I write music, I like to write songs in their entirety and if the vocals are missing on my pre-production, I have the feeling that the track hasn’t been finished.
Back in 2009 you announced that you were going to release an EP called “Pursuit Of Clarity”. Why was this never released? Since the style was described as the Altar Of Oblivion-sound mixed with speed metal, I wonder if you have decided to use these songs for another band or project, or if they will be released by Altar Of Oblivion later?
– Actually, these tracks were written for “Victimizer”, but since the band disbanded I thought I’d might as well use them in Altar Of Oblivion in slightly re-arranged versions. Before deciding not to release it anyway as we weren’t quite satisfied with the poor sound, we had the drums and rhythm guitars recorded. As of now, we had put these tracks on ice, but as I regard these tracks very highly, as they are in-your-face and utmost catchy, I would like to record them someday.
Altar Of Oblivion is not the only band Martin and the other guys are involved in…
– Our bassist, drummer and I are also involved with Lords of Triumph, featuring Phil Swanson (Seamount, Vestal Claret, Hour of 13) on vocals, and the style is traditional doom metal heavily inspired of Ozzy era-Black Sabbath and Candlemass. In many ways, the riff-work reminds me of some things that could have been on an Altar Of Oblivion-album but what sets this band apart, are the vocals of Phil Swanson’s which takes it in a completely other direction. I really dig the vocals of Phil Swanson as they, besides being very characteristic and unique, remind me of Ozzy Osbourne in his heydays. You can listen to some pre-production tracks at http://www.reverbnation.com/lordsoftriumph
In addition to that, our bassist, our singer and I play in a retarded football tribute band called Cheese Factory in which we compose eighties inspired pop songs for the Danish national soccer team. So far, we have recorded two songs which can be heard on Youtube: “Tro Mig Vi Kommer” and “ Dynamit-Dansen”.
There is also The Vein, featuring JBP of Church Bizarre and Cerekloth that play old school death metal with doom, drone and black metal influences.
Let’s stop there for a moment. “Scouring The Wreckage Of Time” is the title of the album by The Vein put out by Shadow Kingdom earlier this year. Why did you settle for a release that combined your first EP with some new material instead of releasing the new material separately or wait until you had enough songs ready for a full length without using the material from “Born Into Grey Domains”?
– The reason why we decided to record yet another EP called “The Poisoned Chalice” as a follow-up to our debut EP “Born Into Grey Domains” rather than recording a full-length, was that we simply didn’t have the proper time to focus on an entire album at that point. As a matter of fact, after having recorded the rhythm guitar and most lead guitar parts, I moved to Greenland and had to record the last lead guitar parts at my mobile “studio”. In other words, we had to work to a very tight and at times stressful schedule which almost always seems to be the case being an underground musician. Haha! As our first EP had only been released on tape through Danish label Deadbangers Productions, our US label Shadow Kingdom Records thought it would be a cool idea to do a combined release and in that way kill two birds with one stone. Also, two EPs should hopefully be more interesting than just one.
– Back in June 2012, my girlfriend got a job in Ilulissat, Greenland, and I decided to follow her. At first, I worked in a godforsaken supermarket as a sales assistant but after having been there for one week, I was employed as a tour guide in the travel agency World of Greenland. We stayed for about a year, and it has been a great and different experience to live in isolation on the northeastern coast of Greenland without the possibility to “escape”. It really helps put things into perspective living, and it broadened my horizon in many aspects, also artistically.
Back to The Vein. Are there plans for more releases? And what about live performances?
– Actually, just after having written the tracks for our debut EP, and prior to writing the second EP, I wrote the material for a full-length which is just waiting to be released at some point when we have the time to record it. In addition to that, more music has been written and hopefully, The Vein will be alive for many years to come. So far, we have only played one live gig which took place at a Danish metal festival called Metal Magic. As of now we haven’t got any gigs planned, but if the right offers should come our way, we will of course accept.
Moving on to what I guess we could call his main band again, at least when it comes to this particular interview. Martin’s guess is that he has written about 200 Altar Of Oblivion-songs all in all. How does he manage to be so creative? And is he creative all the time?
-When I used to study at the university, I had all the amount of free time, I could wish for, and most of these songs were composed from 2006 till 2009. I actually don’t know where my creativity comes from, but every time I am out for a walk, sitting with my guitar, bass or keyboard or reading a book, new ideas start to form in my head. For instance, when I was out for a late night walk back during the summer where the sun never disappears beneath the Greenlandic horizon, I took a glance at the fog-engulfed Icefiord which seemed to be all-consuming and never-ending. While doing so, I came up with some vocal melodies and some lyrics which later turned into an Altar Of Oblivion–song called “Profanity”. At the time, this was first Altar Of Oblivion-track for almost two years. Earlier, I used to write down all these fragments, bits and pieces, but nowadays, I let most of them go as I simply don’t have the time to finish them. Sometimes, this creativity can be both a blessing and a curse. Haha!
This autumn you are appearing at the Doom Over Vienna VIII along several other doom metal-related acts, while in contrast you performed at the Metal Magic this summer with a lot of bands from different genres. Which kind of festivals do you prefer, and which one do you think has the largest potential when we talk about reaching out to people that haven’t heard the band before?
– Even though I think the epic doom metal of Altar Of Oblivion has a commercial potential and appeals to people not necessarily into doom metal, I guess a doom metal festival provides the best forum and platform to promote the band since doom metal fans would probably be more inclined to like our music compared to a person mainly into, say, extreme metal.
It looks like the next release from Altar Of Oblivion will be a 7″ called “State Of Decay”. You have said that these two tracks will show a more dynamic side of the band. Ro you think people will be surprised by this release? Do you view the tracks as so different from what you usually do that they can’t be released as part of an album?
– I guess people who have followed us since the demo days back in 2007 won’t be surprised as they have seen the band experimenting, walking different paths and in general spotted a development of some kind from release to release. That said, the two 7” tracks contain some elements we haven’t integrated into our music before: For instance, the track “Barren Grounds” has an instinct bluesy seventies vibe taking us back to early Sabbath and Pentagram, whereas the other song “State Of Decay” contains some drum and rhythm guitar breaks Altar Of Oblivion haven’t done before. Also, Mik Mentor’s vocal approach will be slightly different, especially on “Barren Grounds” on which he will do some more snarling vocals with a lot of twang compared to the operatic and clean vocals heard on our other releases. This approach fits the seventies rock vibe provided by the rhythm section.
It’s been about a year since your masterpiece “Grand Gesture Of Defiance” was released. How satisfied are you with the album itself, the sales, the reviews and how the material from that album translates to a live setting?
-From a sheer musical point of view, I sincerely doubt that I will look back on my career deeming this record our strongest effort, but I knew that even before recording it. Originally, this record was meant to be a side project featuring Altar Of Oblivion-bassist and I, but as we started recording the pre-production for it, it sounded too much like an Altar Of Oblivion-record rather than offering something different to the plate which is why it was released under the Altar Of Oblivion-moniker. Looking back on the album, a year after its release, it has grown on me and these days, I regard it an overall strong album. On the other hand, it is our best sounding, most well-prepared and best produced output to date and we have learned a lot recording it which looks very promising for the future, indeed. So far, I have read about 55 reviews of the album of which only three have been negative and in addition to that, it has sold rather well so I can’t really complain about the way “Grand Gesture of Defiance” has been met by fans and the press. Up till this point, we have been playing “Where Darkness Is Light”, “Sentenced In Absentia” and “Graveyard Of Broken Dreams” live, of which only the latter seemed to work to our satisfaction. When we played the two former tracks live, we were rather unprepared and the tracks didn’t really groove. Now, we have started rehearsing the tracks properly, they are starting to take shape and I believe that if we just deliver our tracks with dedication, weight and conviction, all of our tracks will work in live situations. Of course, there will always be obvious choices for a live setting and there are some tracks you will always skip.
“Grand Gesture Of Defiance” will see a release on vinyl this autumn. What is your personal favorite format? Are you a CD or vinyl guy, or is the physical format dated and unnecessary in this digital age?
– My personal favorite is vinyl because you are granted three wished at once compared to other formats: It has a warm and at times “scratchy” sound. It has a large cover allowing you to venture into the portrayed “landscape”. An intelligently crafted gatefold can almost trick you into believing you are holding a book in your hands.Haha!. Last, but not least, you actually have to do a little “preparatory work” to listen to LPs. It is easier to put on a CD or even easier to click a button on your computer. That said, I listen to all formats available, be it CD, LP, MC, MP3 etc. These days, I tend to listen to a lot of tapes which I haven’t done for about four-five years. At the end of the day, music is music no matter which format you choose. To many people, the physical format has become obsolete, but I am convinced that this format will survive its present crisis mainly due to hardcore music fans that still prefer the real deal. To every fashion, there mostly is some kind of counter response which can help explain the rising sales of LPs. The CD, on the other hand, is facing the same harsh and cruel destiny as its close relative the MC which has almost become extinct. Luckily, there are still ardent labels with enough fire in their bellies to keep even the MC format from dying out.
When the 7” is done, will the next release be a full length album? Any news on whether it will be “In The Cesspit Of Divine Decay” or “Proselytes Of The Apocalypse”, or maybe even something completely different?
-I know we haven’t been that good at sticking to the original plans regarding our forthcoming releases and as of now, I can’t say for certain which album it will be. Within the band, we have talked back and forth about it and I think our next album will consist of mostly new tracks since we have started growing tired of always recording old songs. “Grand Gesture Of Defiance” was written back in 2007 and was released five years later. So in order to breed some fresh air into our lungs and to focus on the band’s status quo style, we will most likely concentrate on brand new songs combined with some old “classics” for the next full-length. As a matter of fact, we have started rehearsing some of the songs for the album and we are aiming for a late 2014 release which will hopefully showcase an “updated” version of the band. Haha! Probably, the forthcoming album will contain some songs from the “Proselytes of the Apocalypse” album, including the title track, and it would be obvious to name it after this track. Also, for the first time in Altar Of Oblivion history, we won’t do a concept album. For the time being, the track list for our next full-length, probably named “Proselytes of the Apocalypse” is as follows:
1: The Prophesy
2: Led Astray
3: No One Left
4: Solemn Messiah
5: Nothing Grows From Hallowed Ground
6: In Pursuit Of Clarity
7: Dreams Of An Empire
8: Proselytes of the Apocalypse