Stormspell seems to be capturing a lot of the up and coming demo acts these days. One reason might be that Iordan is good at keeping up with what’s happening in the scene, but I guess it also comes down to the fact that he has earned a reputation for helping smaller bands and projects before some of them have moved on to bigger and better (?) things. Cloven Altar, the brainchild of Dustin Altar, is about to unleash their self titled, three track EP through Stormspell, and as always, we were curious to know as many details as possible. You been into metal for a long time, was it one specific happening that finally convinced you to give it a try creating music in this genre?
– Yeah, started playing guitar pretty late in life compared to most metal heads. I was 25 when I first picked it up, and it took me about five-six years of playing to feel comfortable enough with my playing to pursue what I would consider “real” metal as a project. I’m still a pretty mediocre player, I’m mostly a rhythm guy, but I think having grown up obsessed with music and being into metal for so many years gave me an advantage. The music was already in my head, I just had to train my hands to play the riffs.
Have the interest in pop-punk and metal gone hand in during your youth? A lot of people, at least those into underground metal, seem to have a problem accepting poppy punk. Since you are capable of creating music in both genres, do you see a lot of similarities between the two?
– I was born in 1980 and started listening to metal in 6th grade. At that time it was all “The Big Four” and mostly thrash metal stuff. I was always interested in the really heavy extreme stuff at that time. I remember when my friend showed me bands like Morbid Angel and Death and thinking to myself, “Wow, this shit is fucking heavy and rad!” At some point that same friend introduced me to punk bands like Bad Religion and NOFX, and I was stoked on it because the speed and riffs were there but the singing was more melodic than what I was used to hearing and I was impressed with the energy and vibe of that style. It was still aggressive, but had a different feeling. I have always been really into skateboarding too, so I discovered a lot of punk stuff from reading Thrasher and kind of branched out from metal into punk and other shit. The pop punk stuff actually didn’t come until much later when I watched the Ramones documentary “End of the Century”. I kind of realized that I had totally missed how influential and essential their music is, and how timeless and genius their songwriting was. It really inspired me to try writing my own shit and I started with punk, but always knew I would want to play metal when I got good enough to pull it off.
Let’s focus on Cloven Altar again, where you are helped out by none other than Ced from Rocka Rollas, Blazon Stone, Mortyr and now also Breitenhold. Apparently the first metal song you wrote, was one titled “Blood Of The Elves”. This one doesn’t feature on the EP, but will you perhaps use it for a full length release, or don’t you feel it’s good enough compared to the newer material you have written?
– I think it’s one of my better songs, but it was old and I wanted to try writing some new shit. I’m planning to release it on the next batch of tunes. If Ced plays on it again it will definitely sound rad, there are cool gallops and other headbanging riffs that aren’t as prominent in the three songs I am putting out as the debut. And of course I’m hoping Ced will create another face-melting solo for that song. I wrote one, but it’s super basic and lame compared to his! But yeah the next batch of songs will include two old ones and two new ones and hopefully a cover of Stormwitch’s “Eye of the Storm”. But I’ve been lazy and haven’t learned how to play it yet!
You say you were surprised to find out you could sing in a nice mid-range, did you have to experiment a lot to find the right type of vocals to go with the music of Cloven Altar?
– Basically my vocal style in punk is the kind of nasal, snotty kind of singing like Screeching Weasel. It fits the punk stuff that I write, because the majority of my punk songs are basically three-chord pop songs that are kind of silly and light-hearted. The metal I write tends to be more epic sounding and serious so I wanted to be sure the vocals were fitting. I wanted it to sound sincere, but not too cheesy, and I was worried I couldn’t pull it off until I actually went for it. I think it sounds fine and I’ll continue to include a lot of vocal harmonies because I think that’s a very important feature to include where it fits. It makes the songs sound way bigger and more official I think.
You name Falconer and Running Wild as two of your major influences. I’ve always seen some small similarities between those bands, when it comes to riffs, hooks and melodies.
– Both of those bands are very melodic and powerful. They also write lyrics that tend to be more rooted in history and interesting tales instead of just bullshit. There’s also a mature quality to the sound of each band that I really dig. Rolf is obviously just a master of his craft, and has deep rock n’ roll roots that really make his riffs stand out as being some of the catchiest and most clever in heavy metal, period. Stefan is also a riff-master and crafts some really interesting melodic songs that are totally unique compared to the “by the numbers” power metal shit that pretty much dominates that whole scene. Falconer doesn’t really on trendy bullshit to sell their records, they just do what they do and it works great because it’s original and there’s some integrity there. Of course it helps that they have one of the most talented vocalists in power metal (ironically since Matthias is more a theater guy than a metal guy). But back to Rolf, I really can’t believe that Running Wild isn’t as popular here in the United States. People don’t fucking realize what they’re missing! So few people I talk to have even heard their shit, and it’s a crime because I know anyone who is a real metal fan would love it.
Is there a song or an album by each band that was extra important for you and the music you create?
– I can definitely say that Falconer’s first full-length left a big impression on me and I still consider it to be their most classic and best album. The guitars are heavy as fuck, the riffs are catchy, the choruses are epic, and the quality is consistent throughout the record so it’s best to listen the whole way through. I know Stefan isn’t as into that album now because he’s progressed beyond that more basic sound, but that’s the shit I love the most. I love that meaty, catchy, straightforward power metal and Falconer’s first LP is one of the best and must unique examples of the style. For Running Wild, I’m tempted to say “Death or Glory” is my favorite but really I think he put out three perfect albums in a row: “Death or Glory”, “Blazon Stone”, and “Pile of Skulls” are fucking consistent and perfect in my opinion. It reminds me a little of Bad Religion’s perfect trilogy of albums: “Suffer”, “No Control”, and “Against the Grain” all came out around that same time and those are some of the best punk records ever recorded in my opinion. I always thought that Rolf’s songwriting was strangely similar to the skate punk shit I was listening to. He builds his songs based on riffs and traditional verse-chorus-verse songwriting that is actually quite similar to some of that So-Cal punk rock that I grew up loving. I just saw Pennywise play live this week and was reminded of the weird similarities between that style of “power punk” and the power metal that I’m stoked on the most.
Both Falconer and Running Wild are what I would call highly original. I might be wrong, but it doesn’t seem that important for you to do something unique with Cloven Altar?
– Yeah, I don’t really care if Cloven Altar sounds “original” because I’m purposefully paying tribute to a very specific sound in metal that I’m actually proud to be able to play. I think it’s a challenging style to write and pulling it off takes a lot more thinking and creativity if you want the songs to hit hard and be really catchy. It’s like writing pop music in a way, but the metal elements must be strong otherwise it will sound fucking lame! My main goal is just creating extremely catchy, fun, memorable music and it’s the same goal whether I’m writing punk or metal. I also want to do the style justice so I’m not going to try re-writing the book of metal. I’d rather borrow techniques I’ve learned from my heroes like Rolf and apply them to my own style of songwriting, which I think is a good approach. You have to allow your personal style to develop and be heard, but I like bands that pay homage to the classic shit too. I’d pretty much rather hear a Helloween rip-off band than some new progressive shit that doesn’t make me want to head bang.
Cloven Altar was a bedroom project until you contacted Ced from Rocka Rollas to compliment him on his work. Did the thought never cross your mind at that time that he could possibly help you out in some ways, either With ideas, inputs on your material or stuff like that?
– Yeah it’s a pretty interesting story I guess. I heard Blazon Stone (the band that is) on YouTube because they were a recommended link from some Running Wild album I was listening to. I immediately recognized the band name and checked it out, and was really fucking impressed with the quality of the music and amazed at how similar the riffs were to Rolf’s. I don’t mean that Ced was copying Rolf’s playing, but rather Ced has an innate sense of melody and can craft some fucking catchy riffs that are clearly inspired by Running Wild. So anyway I just sent him an email to offer my HAILS and tell him I was super into it. He replied and asked if I had any recordings, which I did so I emailed him stuff and he dug it enough to offer himself as a contributor and collaborator. I couldn’t fucking believe my luck! So I finished the three songs and sent them to him. He gave input and in the end contributed a lot of ideas that made the songs sound much more solid and official than my demo versions (not to mention he added solos and ended up recording all instruments on the final version). It wasn’t something I expected, but when I knew the opportunity was real I had to go for it. It’s kind of like writing a script and having some badass movie director offer to turn your story into a feature film. Fuck yeah!
When he heard Blazon Stone for the first time, Dustin wasn’t aware of Ced’s other projects, Rocka Rollas and Mortyr, but he soon started investigating…
– Of course when I hear some new shit I like I immediately look it up on Encyclopedia Metallum aka the metal-archives. I saw all of his other projects listed there and checked them out. I also subscribed to his YouTube page. It was weird because he occasionally posts funny videos like one pointing out that Rolf uses the same lick in so many of his solos that it’s kind of funny. I had actually seen that video before even hearing Blazon Stone so it was kind of an “ah ha!” moment where I realized it was the same dude. I don’t know, it’s kind of amazing what Ced does really. I don’t want to seem like an ass-kisser, but he’s very talented both as a songwriter and player, and he doesn’t fuck around and waste his time! He is constantly writing, playing, and recording music and it’s inspiring to see that kind of work ethic. I’m pretty sure he knows that he’s capable of creating really worthwhile shit so he just goes for it. I admire that a lot. But out of all of his projects I think I like his new one the best, it’s called Breitenhold (this one is also supposed to come out on…big surprise: Stormspell, Leif) and it’s fucking rad. It sounds a bit like the early Helloween and Blind Guardian albums, but with an updated sound filtered through Ced’s songwriting style so that the end result is metal that is powerful, catchy, and dynamic. I personally think it’s his best project.
-Yeah, we’ve discussed it and basically I think he likes my songwriting because I can come up with catchy basic ideas and he sees the potential to take it further. We both know that he’s in a totally different league as a musician, I mean he is very skilled and that must have come from tons of practicing techniques and lots of hours and dedication. He doesn’t think of himself as a top-notch lead player, but I think he is. Some lead players just noodle and do guitar tricks but he can write really catchy leads that employ some of those more impressive techniques like dive-bombs, tapping, bends, fast scales and all of those true marks of an experienced guitarist. And playing drums is no joke! He is a triple-threat – multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and pretty fucking decent engineer as well. His home recordings will definitely trick you into thinking he went to some expensive studio. I think he tracked a lot of his guitar stuff through a small Peavey amp! As for me, I consider myself more of a songwriter than a player because I’m pretty fucking lazy and don’t practice guitar techniques consistently. I’m lucky that I have a natural ability with right-hand rhythm playing that probably comes from being hyper or something. I love playing speed metal with lots of trem-picking and I love gallops, triplets, all that shit. Chunky power chord riffs are my one weakness, and I just love playing that shit all day long! As a result I became too-easily satisfied and never really focused on lead playing. On the Cloven Altar demos there were some solos with tapping and a few little tricks here in there, but they basically sounded like punk solos because they were very simple and melodic note-based leads. I guess I can hold my own as a rhythm guitarist but I’m not really proud of that. I’d love to learn some killer licks and start developing my lead abilities more. We’ll see what happens I guess. As far as attitude, I’m sure there was something because I’m a pretty friendly outgoing motherfucker when it comes to approaching people who share common interests. I have no trouble just going up to people and shooting the shit, cracking jokes or whatever. I like to make people feel comfortable. I think that’s why I became a teacher and majored in Communication in college. I’m just a performer at heart, I have no trouble at all getting up in front of a crowd and just talking. So naturally when I meet someone who’s into metal or something else I love I just start talking their ear off. My wife gets really annoyed when I do this in public. I can’t just walk by the guy wearing the Amon Amarth shirt, I have to ask him a bunch of questions and tell him which Amon Amarth albums I like best! (This definitely reminds me of someone I know, Leif) Then I usually get his email! Haha. So yeah even though Ced’s on the other side of the fucking world and I’ve never met him, I feel like perhaps we’ve developed a pretty cool friendship just through our common interests and senses of humor. He’s a rad guy for sure.
If I understand you right, Stormspell expressed an interest in the demo you did on your own, before Ced came into the picture. Did you perform all the instruments yourself on this recording? Are these recordings very different from the ones that will soon be released, and that features Ced?
– Well after researching Ced’s projects and learning about Stormspell I was surprised to find out that Danny K (Stormspell’s owner) lives about 40 miles away from my house! Rare! So I naturally had to contact him and share my shit. I wasn’t expecting anything in return, I just wanted to compliment his label because it’s a fucking awesome one and he really does things in the most official ways possible. Just look at his CD releases! The cover art is always rad, he signs great new bands, and he puts out demos of obscure old shit that people need to hear! Anyway to my surprise he replied and offered to work with me on a release immediately! I couldn’t believe it! So I was fucking wired and focused on making use of the rare opportunity to release a metal album on an official label with the help of a Swedish metaller whose bands I was already a fan of. It was too good of an opportunity, I knew I couldn’t fuck it up by being lazy or not giving it my all. So I worked hard on the songs and tried to hassle those guys as little as possible along the way. In the end they were both very supportive and encouraging and the results kind of speak for themselves. Thanks Danny! But yeah, my original demos still exist and it’s me singing, playing all guitar and bass parts, and I programmed the drums on my old-school Alesis drum machine. I fucking hate programming drums, it’s a huge pain in the ass the way I do it. But it was totally worth it. Actually the demos don’t sound bad at all because my friend Carter Felder helped me mix and edit them which improved the quality 100 percent. I was planning to just release those demos anyway until Ced suggested that he play drums and add solos. After he tracked drums he noticed that some of my guitar parts sounded out of tune (he’s super picky about tuning which is awesome because I overlook that shit too often) and offered to record all guitar and bass, too! His bass parts are way better than mine on the demos. The rhythm guitars are about the same, but of course his are perfectly in tune thanks to his new “Evertune” bridge! So in the end the demo instrumental tracks got tossed out in favor of Ced’s superior playing. My friend Carter was a little bummed that I just took out all of those tracks that he worked on for so many hours! It’s kind of crazy too because I literally recorded everything, even vocals, in my bedroom at home. So the final CD version is my raw vocals from the bedroom with some reverb and effects that Ced put in. The even more rare fact is I had a band before Cloven Altar that didn’t last long which featured a girl named Lauren handling all lead vocals! We recorded “Blood of the Elves” and “Prince of Hell” with her vocals and there’s still a bandcamp page with those demos if anyone want’s to check it out and hear the difference. Here’s the link: http://spellbindermetal.bandcamp.com/. Lauren was great, she also wrote lyrics to “Prince of Hell” and was a good front-woman for a band. Her vocals were perfect for the style and she’s pretty hot so we probably could’ve done well with her singing lead vocals! The timing just didn’t work out and my friend Mike who played drums was dating Lauren at the time which made things weird and tense at times. Mike is the one who came up with the name Cloven Altar. If I ever start playing live shows, I’ll ask him to be the drummer, he’s really good!
So it’s Ced drumming on the Stormspell-release then?
-Those drums are definitely Ced. He’s a machine! It’s crazy too because he wrote and played his drum parts based on the demos I sent him. He just went to his rehearsal room and hammered out everything super fast. He claimed it was fun, too. His biggest challenge was playing the mid-paced song “Forsaken Path” instead of playing at warp speed like a lot of the Rocka Rollas stuff!
The way you describe it, with a wife that’s hating metal and punk, having a demanding job as a teacher with lots of straight coworkers, you don’t seem to be part of a metal network or a scene? Do you feel this limits you for instance in finding musicians for a real band to record and perform live?
– Yeah man this is actually a big issue that I’ve dealt with throughout my life. I never really committed to a “metal identity” or being part of the scene because I’d rather just be a nerd and share shit with my close friends. The closest “scene” thing I’ve done is start a metal message board that is members-only. It was going strong for a while and we printed up shirts and hoodies and met up for hang-outs and shit like that. We recruited dudes we met at shows in different states and at one point I think we had like 30 active members that were all sharing rare shit and it was fucking cool. But I guess we’re living in the era of short-attention spans and eventually I lost interest in posting shit and rarely check it these days. The core dudes who helped me started are my close friends anyway so I just stay in touch with those guys and a few other board members through facebook and email. It was fun though, we called it The Infernal Circle and we had a logo and all these sayings and shit like that. BEEN HAD POSTED and HOODS UP are still classic catch phrases we created. But now I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where there are so many shows and bands that I could get into. It’s a super healthy metal scene. We recorded the Spellbinder demo in the same rehearsal room that Slough Feg uses. But now that I work full-time and I’m married to someone who HATES metal and doesn’t like it when I go to shows on weeknights, I’ve basically resigned myself to a domestic life where I just work and do my house chores and hang out with my wife. When I have free time, I write songs and nerd out on the Internet but I rarely go to shows. I missed both Manowar and Motorhead recently and I feel like such a pussy but I’d almost rather just watch some live shit on YouTube rather than driving somewhere, dealing with parking, dealing with people, and standing around for two hours trying to talk to people when there’s extremely loud music playing. The other thing is, playing with other people means I have to drive to the city, pay money to play for three hours in some shithole rehearsal room on a nice sunny afternoon in San Francisco, and then book these lame ass shows that no one comes to. My co-workers have met their quota of coming to shows when I was in a punk band called The Sprains, so they aren’t coming and since I don’t go to shows I don’t know that many metallers that I could get to come out. Sounds like a cop-out but fuck it! I get more shit done in my bedroom than I ever did when I was playing with other people. And my “band-mate” lives in fucking Sweden and I’ve never even met him! Haha! So fuck all the bullshit, I’d rather just be myself and keep putting out music on my own terms. I love the metal scene but I can’t be bothered to get that involved because it’s time and money that I don’t have. All my energy is now spent writing songs and paying for recordings. Simple as that!
How did you end up using the name Cloven Altar? The name creates associations to two cult bands, Cloven Hoof and Pagan Altar, was this intended? What’s your relationship to these acts? Did you consider other names?
-My friend Mike came up with the name, and I’m pretty sure he just took Cloven Hoof and Pagan Altar’s names and created the rip-off “Cloven Altar”. I thought it sounded cool and didn’t know much about those bands so I said, “Let’s go for it!” I got in touch with this dude Chris Horst who designs band logos and he created a great logo for the band. He’s fucking talented check out his shit here: www.horst-art.com. He’s done several logos for me that I never even ended up using, but I knew his Cloven Altar was too good to let go to waste. So when we eventually changed the band name to Spellbinder I just kept the logo and saved it for later. I could kind of see that the band wasn’t going to last and I waited until the write time to start writing metal again. When I had the new songs ready I just pulled out that logo and BAM! Cloven Altar was officially born. The funny thing is I went back and checked out Cloven Hoof and Pagan Altar and I can honestly say that I’m not that into either band! I appreciate what they brought to the table though and I am stoked on them in spirit.
Listening to Cloven Altar as well as some of the stuff you did in the past, it’s obvious that strong melodies are important to you. Do you feel this is something that is lacking more in the metal produced today compared to the metal of lets say…the eighties?
-Yeah, I have strong opinions on this subject. I think that metal bands who play traditional metal, power metal, or any style that essentially has its roots in rock n’ roll need to prioritize melodies and hooks in their songwriting. A lot of bands think they can stand out with just riffs and musicianship alone. It’s not enough! You need strong catchy hooks, big choruses, and a straight-forward approach in order to really grab people and make the experience as enjoyable as possible. When metal is super catchy it’s because it has pop/rock sensibilities. I consider the eighties to be a golden era because more bands were aware of this and infused their metal with pop hooks and choruses that are timeless. When you write metal, it’s got to be powerful and evoke emotions in order to be relevant in my opinion. For traditional metal, I think you need to study pop music and be well-versed in mainstream songwriting traditions because they are time-tested formulas that can be extremely effective when used properly. Just look at Iron Maiden! They are masters of the style because they (as Ced commented) “just know” when to use certain chord progressions and riffs that really bring out the power of their songs. Vocals play a huge role and I don’t think you need to be an extremely talented singer (or player for that matter) to craft some catchy shit that people will be stoked on and want to listen to more than once.
Stormspell says that the 3 track CD is a taste of what’s to come. Does this mean that you have already agreed to do more releases with them?
– Definitely. I will always be honored to work with Danny and release music through Stormspell. I am loyal to him because he’s been extremely supportive and basically gave me a chance to go for it and turn my little bedroom project that no one gave a shit about into something that is now actually getting some attention and has the potential to gain even more momentum.
You already mentioned that the next Cloven Altar-release will most likely be another EP. Will you work in a more traditional way in a studio this time (on your own or with other musicans), or will you continue to collaborate with Ced sending stuff back and forth?
-Well, currently I have four songs written and ready to go. I plan to begin demos next month and start sending shit to Ced and Danny to check out. I wanted to do that Stormwitch cover too so that would be a 5-song EP I guess. But I want to put out something that’s worthwhile for Stormspell to invest in because people tend to want full-length LP’s rather than little EP’s. Why waste your money right? Just get the digital files or whatever. So the goal is to continue writing and eventually have enough songs for an official full-length release. Since the last time I’ve realized some of the bad habits I tend to fall into as a songwriter (repeated chord progressions, predictable song structures, same-y choruses) so I want to challenge myself to write better songs and take it to the next level of quality. Ideally I will continue to collaborate with Ced because he’s highly professional and skilled and can offer more than just his playing abilities (which are way above average). He offers suggestions for arrangments, writes the solos, plays the drums, I mean it’s a dream come true to work with someone like him if you’re a songwriter. He takes your sketch and creates a finished masterpiece. But he’s a busy man and I would never want to wear out my welcome by expecting him to continue doing shit with me when he’s got four projects and counting and is trying to make Rocka Rollas an official band. So I guess we’ll play it by ear and if Ced’s not available then I’ll work on my playing and either record guitars and bass myself or enlist the help of willing friends. I’ll definitely always want a real drummer now that Ced has set the standard with the debut recording. Luckily I do know a few people, but you can’t always expect friends to be available since everyone has shit going on and other commitments. But the bottom line is I’m going to keep doing it and my goal is to release songs consistently through Stormspell and offer a higher quality product each time.
When you record only three songs, you don’t have to pay that much attention to the diversity, but on a full length release it’s important to have different types of songs. Is this something you have in the back of your head while making new music?
– Yes, definitely. I don’t want shit to all sound the same even though it’s tempting do just write all fast-paced double-bass songs with trem-picked riffs and blazing vocals. I’ve learned that you have to mix it up and over time I’ve come to value the potential that a mid-paced song can offer in terms of power and catchiness. I don’t think I’ll ever do ballads or shit like that though. I’m pretty committed to just doing full-throttle high-octane heavy metal with no bullshit! I just want to try to keep things interesting so it doesn’t become too boring and predictable. I hope I can accomplish this. I’ll only put out songs if I think they’re at least as good as the best songs I’ve written so far.
Will you have time for other musical projects from now on, or will you focus on Cloven Altar only in the future?
– Yeah I’ve learned that I’m always going to want to do pop punk just because it’s another big passion of mine. I love the simplicity of the style and it forces you to come up with clever ideas otherwise it sounds like lame bullshit that no one cares about. I have a punk project and the goals is to create really catchy, simple punk songs that have really dark but funny lyrics about experiences in my life. Everything is autobiographical so it’s a really fun and worthwhile outlet for me. Since Cloven Altar is actually kind of taken off now (I’ve always wanted to do an interview for a metal site, for example), I’m making it my priority project and putting the most energy and effort into developing it further. The other stuff is just for fun, but hopefully people will give a shit about that too! But even if it all tanks and I have no label support and no fans except my friends I know I’ll always continue doing Music because I need that as an outlet in my life and it’s in my blood. Metal is in my blood too! Thanks Leif for the interview, HAILS to Norway and Metal Squadron and HAILS to all the metal heads who checked out my shit! Thank you especially to CED and Danny for your direct support and to Kyle Kolvisto at SpectreLight Recordings for putting out the Cloven Altar cassette