An Interview with Basalte
My attention first turned towards Basalte, a black metal band based in Montréal, when I heard their 2018 sophomore release, Vertige [lit. “vertigo”]. It’s at once desolate, bleak, towering, and yet intensely heartfelt at its most elegant moments; listen closely and the nuances will surely envelop you. I spoke to the band’s drummer, L, to learn more about the band and their compositions; we also discussed band optics, songwriting processes, and the state of black metal. In regards to Vertige, L was particularly proud of how its technical aspects came together: the album did not involve digital delay or reverb, and a conscious choice was made to avoid studios in lieu of specific, unconventional places that would provide the exact acoustics desired.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
Claire: First, I wanted to know about how your band chooses to present itself, especially in the age of social media and constant exposure. Do you find anonymity to be more useful than ever, in a social media-saturated environment?
L: There are many answers to this question. The first one is that I personally don’t really like associating faces too much with the music I listen to, and the fact that metal is one of the genres where bands tend to not put their image too much upfront… well, that’s not true of all metal, but for example, Deathspell Omega — or other such bands — will not have promotional pictures. It was pretty much something we agreed on since the very beginnings of this band, that we were not interested in having a very strong promotional package. I think now, with the digital age, most of the conventions of how to promote and release an album don’t make sense anymore. They’re being broken by bands that are trying out new ways to release music and present themselves. For example, bands are slowly but surely [ceasing] to release full-length albums every two or three years, and more and more bands release various lengths of music — EPs, demos, singles, other ways to release music outside of the album format.
In the end, black metal is not such a mainstream style of music, so people who really love black metal will find the music that they want, which renders any external promotional tactics kind of useless. It’s more interesting to build your own aesthetic than try to do anything for the sake of visibility. And also for the fact that the albums are free — so many people are downloading music that we would all rather have people listen to our music than not listen to it because they have to pay. In the age where everybody downloads music, even us, we’re not going to have people pay for music; they’re going to pay if they want. I think [newer approaches to releasing music are] just really straight to the point: the music is there on Bandcamp, you can download it, there’s no point in trying to make this music as if it was something else other than just music. All the packaging and promotional material that you could have, it’s good as long as it helps build your band’s aesthetic in my opinion.
And I had another question regarding anonymity — do you think live performances ever conflict with this goal?
I think it does conflict in some respect. We considered the option to be a studio-only project since the beginnings of this band, and recently one of our members was very vocal about the fact that he wanted this project to be a studio project — even though we already had played some shows. I think if you let yourself create a different experience live than the experience you’re trying to create in an album, then it’s a good way to minimize this conflict. For me, live and recorded music are two different things; a band doesn’t have to sound exactly as it does live as on an album. It has to do also with being influenced by a lot of non-band music, like electronic music. Electronic music is full of tricks, tweaks, digital props, but it doesn’t make it “untrue” music or less compelling. Being influenced by those types of music that are doomed to sound different if they’re ever put in a live context, I definitely think that it’s okay to have these two different manifestations of the same project or band. But yeah, [live performances] are conflicting with anonymity, and it’s definitely not a question that we’ve figured out. It’s always somewhere in the back of our heads.
I was wondering about the difference between the themes of your two albums [Vestige and Vertige]. For example, were there any changes in perspective or philosophy in regards to the lyrics?
Most of the songs’ lyrics, they were not initially meant to be related one to another, but after we finished Vestige, we realized that a lot of it was dealing with urban decadence, and feelings that we associate with city life and our experience in metropolitan life. And we felt like this album was also like a remnant — literally a vestige — of this particular era of the band, a time when we were a three-piece and we wrote these first songs that were eventually to define the band’s sound. And then when we composed the songs and the lyrics for Vertige, they all came to be about some sort of anguish, different types of anguish that everybody is likely to experience in the city life. The first track is literally building on the fear of growing, getting old, and then rotting, if I can put it in very simplistic terms. It’s building and exaggerating on that fear that a lot of people have. There’s also a song, “Acouphène” [lit. “tinnitus”], which means ear buzz, and I wrote those lyrics when I was paranoid about realizing I had an ear buzz in my right ear.
I also felt that the album cover was striking. The towering gold flecked-buildings, they do immediately seem to suggest a connection to urbanism. I guess you guys were also involved in photography and designing the cover?
Yeah, N — who is one of the guitar players –he’s the main visual artist in the band. He took the picture, he was scavenging pictures and ideas with E [guitarist] in Montréal. They had this concept, and eventually he took that picture and we felt it represented vertigo, [which] we wanted to evoke. Essentially, it’s about the feeling of — not just the fear of height, but this kind of vertiginous feel that you can feel even though you’re firmly grounded in urban life and daily routine.
And this is something that others have noted before, but it seems that a lot of stereotypical black metal themes focus on nature, forests, etc. Did you guys ever feel that you wanted to evade stereotypes, or were your themes just ideas that came naturally?
I think it’s both, because we do have a tendency to want to avoid certain stereotypes. It’s definitely a conscious choice. But also, it just doesn’t make sense for us to write about forests, or ancient times or whatever; I think I can speak for the band if I say that nobody feels a connection with paganism or whatever other themes are traditional to black metal. I’ve heard other musicians that I like saying that it doesn’t really make sense for them to talk about forests or nature because this is not a reality they live in. I feel it’s the same way for us, we try to stay really close to our experience in this city. If we were to travel, maybe that would change what inspired us to write lyrics.
Do you think you’re part of any particular scene in Montréal? Would you identify any like-minded peers who share these ideas and approaches when it comes to black metal?
I think the scene has kind of exploded since the heydays of métal noir Québécois, when there seemed to be a really homogeneous scene of Québécois black metal bands. And now, I think bands are still thriving — new bands are forming, but it’s not like this one big movement. I think there are a lot of bands in the scene that are more traditional, or that are building on the more occult-themed type of black metal. But if I can speak for us, I think we are among a newer generation of bands that just happen to not associate too much with the traditions of black metal. I don’t consider this a movement, but we’re good friends with Entheos [Montréal black metal band]. Also, Malebranche are another. I guess you could simply label them as post-black metal if you wanted, but this term is too simplistic. It doesn’t really do justice to any of these bands’ specific aesthetics. So yeah, there is a new generation of bands forming, and making different-sounding black metal. But nobody ever wrote a manifesto, I don’t know if there really is a [strong movement]. I think it’s just the way that black metal will change in the 2010s, and going forward.
It’s interesting that you mention post-black metal. I do agree that as a term it’s really simplistic.
To me, if post-black metal was not associated so much with post-rock or shoegaze, or associated to Deafheaven or bands like that, I would have no problem using the term like that. Before, we were talking about post-black metal, post-metal. In terms of atmospheric metal, I’ve heard post-metal being used to describe Meshuggah, for example, because they were a band that pushed the metal aesthetic beyond the conventions, and to me, ‘post-‘ is what it means — just as you could call Venom or Bathory proto-black metal, then you could call a band that pushes black metal so far that it’s post- the style that it builds upon. In that respect, I would love to use that term if it didn’t have all those connotations associated with it.
Yeah, it seems to be too simple and too specific at the same time, it somehow doesn’t say enough and also says too much when you apply the term.
I think it mostly helps to point out that a band that’s labeled as post-something will not conform to what the general public associates with said style. I also think that, the more metal is evolving, the less these terms make sense. Because today, most bands that don’t want to emulate another band will play something that’s so hard to classify that it doesn’t really matter if you call it post-, blackened something, jazzy, whatever. But there’s always been bands, even the more old school bands, that push the limits so far that I would dare to call them post-black metal or post-whatever. For example, Celtic Frost, for me, are a band that always innovated a lot and were never afraid to change their sound, however controversial that may be. One of their musicians said something that I will never forget — he said there are many different shades of darkness than just black. It’s getting more and more eclectic in extreme metal, the style bands go towards, but it was always like that, actually, if you look back in the history of extreme metal.
Do you think that if a band writes songs in a certain language, and a lot of the audience might not understand the lyrics — do you think this significantly impacts appreciation or comprehension of the music, or is it not always necessary?
I think there are many reasons why now it’s not necessary for a band or an artist to sing in English, the first being that anybody who is really interested in another culture’s poetry or music or literature will be free to learn the language or translate it by themselves. But also, specifically for metal, most people care about the lyrics in a secondary way. We write the lyrics mostly for us, to express ourselves, but also we hope [people can relate to the lyrics]. But if they don’t really want to read them or translate them, it’s also fine. I think the lyrics are very important for the making of the music more than they are for the appreciation of the music. It might not be true for every subgenre of metal, but for black metal, I definitely think it is. That’s just a choice that we made, we’re not going to deal with the English language except if it’s for a very specific artistic reason, definitely not to reach more people. I think people are smart enough to seek the meaning of the lyrics if they want to.
I actually watched an interview of Luc Lemay once, and he said something about how Gorguts chose English for their lyrics, not because of their audience or anything, but because English had a different vibe — it was more aggressive or expressive. Do you think a different language conveys a different feeling?
It’s funny that you mention Luc Lemay because I’ve seen a bunch of interviews where he says that and I definitely disagree. I think that French lyrics in metal sound great — it’s just a matter of being careful because it’s a language that is harder to make sound poetic and not cheesy, in a way, than English. In English, there are a lot more shorter words to express some ideas, and it makes everything sound efficient, at which French is a little trickier in my opinion. Bands such as Deathspell Omega, for example — and I’m sure other death metal bands — sing in French, it’s just that there are a minority of them that do so. To speak about how a language sounds specifically, I do think that French sounds good — it’s not the only language that sounds good, but it’s definitely the language we’re all most comfortable with. Being native French speakers, it makes sense for us to try to write lyrics in French first and foremost, but there are tons of other languages that I think sound great and this is why I think more bands should sing in their native language.
Right, I’m not sure how many bands actually choose to sing in English for more exposure, but I’m assuming it exists.
I’m pretty sure that on an unconscious level, bands choose English because it’s the language that you’re supposed to sing. Even though they might not dare to admit it, it plays a role in the decision to choose English, but that’s all speculation. I can’t really know.
Are you able to divulge any information on upcoming releases, or is that top secret for now?
All I can say is, we have material that is being composed for which we have the sketches. But we also have material that’s already recorded, and that’s in the process of being mixed. I won’t say of what nature it is, but we do have something coming eventually. The rest will be unveiled when the time comes.
Lastly, do you have anything to say to the Sputnikmusic community?
We’re happy to realize that Vertige had some sort of impact or was of interest to Sputnikmusic users. That’s very flattering. I think Sputnikmusic is a great underground music website, so I’m happy that this is where the album received some of its praise.
A big thanks to L for his time and thoughts.