Celtic Carnage
CoC chats with Sir Proscriptor McGovern of Absu
by: Paul Schwarz
Absu's latest album -- called _Tara_ [reviewed in this issue], and released a few months ago on Osmose Productions -- begins and ends with bagpiping. When first I endeavoured to explore the music which interposed _Tara_'s intro and outro, I tried to ignore the 'piping; it seemed incongruent. Then _Tara_ began to become open to me in all sorts of other new ways, and after being consistently enthralled in recent weeks with the album in its entirety -- its every minute, lyrics, vocal patterns and all -- the bagpipes finally began to make sense, fit in, and become a worthy part of the mighty metal massacre that Absu's fourth album and fifth release is. Absu are not averse to grandiosity, yet the band are simultaneously the most untalked-up of bands in a very important sense: the ultimate greatness of Absu is rarely exaggerated, though it is often misunderstood. Some people seek to label Absu a "black metal" band, though I've never seen such a position defended or justified. In my opinion, such a position cannot be convincingly defended. If you look at and think about what "black metal" really is -- what makes a "black metal" band -- and compare what Absu really are -- musically -and- conceptually -- you will find between few and no shared qualities between the two. Only the broadest, most unhelpful definition of a "black metal" band could include Absu -- and no-one should really be able to get away with calling them "black thrash" either. Musically, the classification that comes closest to defining Absu is "speed metal" as it was used circa the mid-Eighties. Absu use the term "mythological occult metal" to describe themselves for their own reasons, and though the term is essentially just an idiosyncratic, relatively direct description of what they actually create, in 2001 it's as useful a label as any you could propose. I say Absu are a ferocious heavy metal band who don't require greater pigeonholing with words, but instead need to be heard to be understood and enjoyed. _Tara_ is a complete package, the most complete Absu have ever presented. Musically, it represents Absu's signature sound, but is blessed with by far their finest production to date. I said "signature sound", and though within that classification there is a coherent, consistent style also to be identified, the breadth of Absu's expression is unusually varied. Forget the bagpiping, I'm thinking of the way that though "Pillars of Mercy" or "Manannan" may remind you of Slayer, "Bron (of the Waves)" will bring to mind mid-Seventies-era Rush; the way that "Yrp LLuyddawc"'s brooding synth-led atmospherics will truly intrigue you and draw you in before "From Ancient Times (Starless Skies Burn to Ash)" batters the shit out of you; the way that the utter, furious extremity of "Four Crossed Wands (Spell 181)" or "Vorago (Spell 182)" is not expressed merely by relentless blasting and creatively idiotic technique; the way that the albums closing epic "Stone of Destiny (...for Magh Slecht and Ard Righ)" can retain the character and fury of the barrage-like songs that precede it, yet simultaneously showcase a much broader dynamic range. Mixing lightning speed double-bass battery and blasts with wails that would have Halford straining, and a coherent conceptual character that would impress King Diamond, this final track is distinctly triumphant: proof that older, traditional metal elements can sit alongside aggression and impact beyond their original context. Absu are definitely a special case in the extreme metal scene, a stand-alone. Proscriptor's drumming alone is absolutely phenomenal, mixing much that is technical and will only be specifically noted after repeated, careful listens -- or by fellow musicians -- with distinct and individual, yet direct, powerful and furious playing. Not for nothing do so many have such respect for his individual musical talent, and on _Tara_ one can hear what he is doing more clearly than ever by virtue of its production, which is highly improved over Absu's previous albums. What is most uniquely wonderful about Absu is that the praise and high regard accorded to them does not cease when we move on from speaking of their music in isolation from the lyrics that accompany it or the concepts and ideas that are at work behind it. Absu concoct fiction and non-fiction into a coherent, fantastical whole. They are not quite writing historical fiction, but something close to it. The lyrics to _Tara_'s individual songs and the concepts and ideas which bind the album together are based on an expansive knowledge of Celtic history and mythology, and also more recent texts concerned with magic(k) and gnosticism, i.e. the writings of Aleister Crowley. Some songs seem to retell actual history, others concoct their own using certifiably real historical settings and characters, while others utilise or pertain to characters and events catalogued in mythology. Absu are meticulous, and though their purpose is not to teach, _Tara_ is intended to be interpretable and understandable by any listener of Absu willing to spend some time with it in its entirety -- lyrics booklet and all. Reading along to the songs whilst they play opens them up, and though technical or foreign terms may at first confuse, they are clearly defined in the album's five-and-a-half page glossary with more than sufficient accurate and relevant historical or literary detail, as appropriate. The lyrics are beautifully well patterned into the structure of the music, as well as being coherent from a literary perspective. Also notable is how effectively a range of vocal "voices" are employed. _Tara_'s lyrics are written with a broad range of knowledge in mind and in use, yet they are respectful of and faithful to their sources. At the same time, Absu are not merely singing textbooks or even transliterating them: _Tara_'s lyrics are original, written for the album. Absu are engrossed in their subject matter; _Tara_ gives the impression of being written from within a coherent, imaginative yet well-researched Celtic "worldview". Without resorting to creating Celticised metal comic book characters, Absu work the sound of metal and the subject of Celtic history and mythology together. Incredibly, they have managed to do so without degrading either element. I can't think of a single metal album that has ever treated real ancient history and/or mythology quite as effectively as Absu have with _Tara_. Apart from Nile's _Black Seeds of Vengeance_, I can't think of a single case where the two elements haven't seemed damagingly incongruent rather than mutually complementary. Rarely is historical subject matter well treated by metal bands either in terms of how much research is done into a given topic, how the lyrics themselves are penned, or how the music and the lyrics fit together. _Tara_ is not only internally coherent, it is reassuringly relevant to the actual. The hill of Tara and the so-called "Stone of Destiny" can be visited, and the area is currently being excavated by archaeologists; the background picture for "Yrp Lluyddawc" in _Tara_'s booklet is of a megalithic site near the hill of Tara call Newgrange which dates to 3000 BC; the hill of Slane near Newgrange is where St. Patrick is said to have lit the first fire to signal Ireland's conversion to Christianity, and the kings of Tara, seeing the blaze miles off, are said to have been angered, having ordered no fires to be made until their permission was given. Absu's hard work and attention to detail assure that _Tara_ is real, accurate, and worth paying attention to on a lyrical level, just as its music richly deserves to be given lots of time and your full attention. There is more to explore on _Tara_ than most albums you will encounter, period. Once you have explored it and pored over it, it doesn't diminish in appeal, but will continue to enthrall and excite the senses yet more vigorously. That has been my experience. The following interview with Sir Proscriptor McGovern was conducted before I had a full copy of _Tara_, and before I had listened to the album more than eight to ten times. However, I feel it is very informative, and provides many insights into Absu's work and ideas. I hope you enjoy reading it.

[All text in "()" brackets is approximated, from where my questions incomprehensible because of tape feedback. -- Paul]

CoC: How are things?

Proscriptor McGovern: Good, very good.

CoC: This is Absu's fourth album and fifth release. Are you happy with how it turned out?

PM: Yeah, I am. I mean, there's a couple of things about the production that I wish could be altered a little bit, but hey, I think I'll probably say this about every release that we unleash on the public so what can I do, you know? But overall I'm pleased. I think it's better than some of the past efforts we've done and overall very satisfying and the response has been quite prosperous.

CoC: I really quite like the record.

PM: Thank you.

CoC: (But I know that there are a lot of people out there who aren't really gonna understand the band, and may reject you because of your unusual concepts or the way you dress or whatever. Thus, I'm going to be quite confrontational and hard on you in this interview.) There are a lot of rather complex, bold statements that have been made about _Tara_ so I figured it would be best to tackle it all head on.

PM: No problem.

CoC: Basically, to start off with: the bagpipes. Why start and end the record with bagpipes, and why use them at all?

PM: Well, I think one of the main reasons why we chose an intro and outro and to have that with the bagpipes is that the pipes are a very emotional and a very gloomy Celtic instrument and it's a Celtic-based scene, which is _Tara_. And we used the pipes because I wanted to introduce all the skirmishing, the frenzied-like war tactics and all the hate and banefulness that's used not only with the lyrical content of the album, but also the strong skirmishing emotions of the album and what it pertains to. And actually the outro is a prologue to the album, it's just kind of... it's a recapitulation and it's just a reprise of what the intro is, and I think it just explains the thesis behind the album in the best way.

CoC: How does _Tara_ "balance a collation between tyranny, puissance, alchemical science, and magick"? [Quote derived from Osmose's advert for _Tara_, and the album's press release -- Paul]. That's a pretty large, bold, statement and, quite fairly, the majority of people who read a heavy metal mag aren't gonna know what the fuck it means.

PM: Yeah, actually I can translate that into a more elementary terminology which is just magic(k), mythology and mysticism. It's the juxtaposition between those three elements and to sum it up into one statement: that's what the album is about, divided into two chapters -- which I like to call phases -- which is Ioldanach's Pedagogy and The Cythraul Klan's Scrutiny. So, those technical terminologies I would say: mythology, magic and mysticism. I'm not a simple individual. I have to... I'm more of a vanguard eclectic speaking man, more or less.

CoC: (Do you think people will get the idea of _Tara_? Do you think you've managed to convey things in a way that people can understand? With all the technical terminology that you use, do you think people will be able to understand what you're trying to say and does it matter to you if they can or not?)

PM: Well, I'm glad you brought that up 'cause with past Absu releases the aural manifestation has been a little perplexed of the lyrical content and poetic patterns that are used in previous albums. Since _Tara_ is a conceptual opus it will become more intricate and technical not only in the vocabulary but the way the words are structured within the entire album. But for all followers and listeners of _Tara_, when they purchase the album, what I have done -- and what I don't think any other band in extreme metal music and I know no other band on Osmose Productions has done -- I have included a four-page full glossary of every foreign and technical term in the back. So, for example, when the listener of Absu comes across, maybe the second verse, a bridge, a chorus or what-not, they come across a word like Ioldanach, for example, and they think: "what the fuck is that!? Who is that? How do I pronounce that?", you just go and flip to page forty-one and all the terms and definitions will be back there. I wanted to make it a story and almost like a textbook. It's really important that the listener of Absu understands what I'm talking about. So defining technical terms and foreign terms, I think, is very important.

CoC: [I explain my point of view on _Tara_. I do not feel that the album is quite "innovative and revolutionary" as Proscriptor claimed it was in an interview in issue #15 of Unrestrained! magazine, but I do see that in songs such as "Shield With an Iron Face" there are unusual time signatures being used. I explain that to me _Tara_ is more an individual record forged mostly of thrash metal origins. I question Proscriptor on how he can justify the claim that the album is "innovative and revolutionary" and ask him to describe what he means by "mythological occult metal". I believe I also touched on the fact that many people are likely to pass off _Tara_ as mere "retro-thrash". -- Paul]

PM: The reason why it's called "mythological occult metal" is strictly due to the eclectic and eccentric lyrical content, that's basically what it is. Of course we have elements of black, thrash, death, doom, heavy metal, hard rock and progressive music all concocted into one style that, ever since we genesised -- the spawn of Absu's career in 1989 -- we felt that we'd rather call "mythological occult metal" before some kind of label is stuck on Absu's music by fans and the critics. I don't think there's anything wrong with actually innovating our own moniker inside metal music. But of course there are references and influences innovating thrash music that are very relevant in the music, especially on the album. But I believe that it's quite innovative and somewhat original because I've studied jazz fusion drumming and percussion and I've implemented about fifty percent of those styles into the music of Absu. So, for example, in some of the parts I've tried to create drum patterns similar to Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, Loft Machine and Caravan, but sped up at quadruple speed of anywhere between 270 and 315 beats per minute. So basically, I'm taking old Seventies hard rock drumming influences and just speeding them up to a frenzied tempo.

CoC: [Exchanges I can't remember particularly well, but which must have been about the underlying rhythms in Proscriptor's drumming -- underneath a seemingly simple central rhythm patterning, there is often an unusual time signature. I believe my last comment before Proscriptor here speaks was about the drum patterning in "Stone of Destiny". -- Paul]

PM: Correct, and quarter rolls that are used on the snare drum as well, which is highly influenced by Bill Bruford.

CoC: What I found about the album is that it sounds to modern Nineties listeners like you've gone back, you can definitely hear influences, but it still sounds like a single band, it still sounds like Absu.

PM: Correct.

CoC: I think that's generally what most good metal bands do: make an album that couldn't be someone else.

PM: Right, it gives their sound a signature to it.

CoC: Yeah, definitely. What I found that was really great about _Tara_ was that it did, like you say, pull together various different things. There are great bits of stuff that sound to me like Slayer, and "Stone of Destiny" reminds me of King Diamond or Mercyful Fate, but not in the sense that I'd rather listen to those bands.

PM: I understand.

CoC: It's a case of listening to it and going: wow, that's as cool as some of the stuff they did back in those days, stuff I really like. Would you say you put a limit on how much you can push innovation and revolution? Would you put yourself alongside bands like -- I don't know if you've heard them -- Dillinger Escape Plan or Botch or other American noisecore bands who are really screwing around with time signatures and melody and various other things which, for me at least, I found very interesting. And I wouldn't say that to me _Tara_ sounds as revolutionary or as different as that.

PM: To a prior question that I had answered about saying how it's kind of original and innovative: it's not like we're going out of the way by using brass or woodwind sections and slipping them into the music, but what I'm saying about original and innovative is within the -style- of Absu because, since whenever the band started, one of our objectives was always to -keep- the same -style-. -But-, on each release we wanted to be able to handle the instruments in a different fashion. So there's kind of a difference between the two because we don't wanna drastically change the fashion of the euphony, but on each release we wanna be able to progress, become better musicians, and to be able to handle the actual instruments in a different way and a different method. And that's kind of why I'm saying: yeah, it's more innovated -within- "mythological occult metal" and -within- our particular style. Sometimes we try to not really limit ourselves and what we do as far as how guitar riffs, rhythms, bass lines and percussion: how it's written. But then again, I can ironically say that we do put a limit because we don't wanna change the style of the "mythological occult metal", unquote, that we play.

CoC: _Tara_ seems like a record that is made pretty much outside of scenes and other music. It doesn't sound like Absu sit down and listen to, like, twenty or thirty records that came out last year and go: right, what are these bands doing? And either: can we do something similar? Or: can we learn something? I think there are good and bad aspects to that but would you say that in a sense Absu is written within a bubble, in your own bubble. Like you were saying about keeping the sound the same but introducing elements that come from your own inspiration, your own minds, rather than what happens to be happening at the time.

PM: Yeah, I mean, my influences and inspirations are definitely different from Shaftiel and Equitant (Ifernain)'s, but then again we do all have similar inspirations and influences. So, what we're doing is taking anything from 1959 all the way up to 1999, whatever style of music, and then concocting it into the style of Absu's music. But then again, like you said, we are remaining in a small kind of realm to where there's only so much limits and there's only a certain kind of euphonic structure that will always remain the same in Absu, because I think it's very important, not only to ourselves but to the listeners and the followers of the music, because drastic change in style and fashion -- I think it ruins the signature of a band's style. If you're gonna do that, you might as well terminate the band and go under a different moniker.

CoC: Yeah, definitely. I think there's a lot to be said for the whole thing of changing but remaining the same.

PM: Right.

CoC: It's really hard to balance.

PM: And there's many bands within the past four to five years that have drastically changed the fashion of their sound and I'm thinking: well, I know you wanna broaden your audience, but then again I know you're definitely gonna maybe lose some fans and listeners. So, it's possibly a good idea to change the name of your band and go under a different rule, your own different rule, that's the way I feel.

CoC: One thing you can argue about music is how much the -name- and what the fans expect -is- part of the music, and a lot of musicians -- I'm not gonna make comment on what is justified and not -- believe that whatever they do with their music -is- what their band is, whereas there is in a sense quite a worthwhile thing to take on; what fans want and expect not only in terms of changing but also in remaining the same, may have some relevance.

PM: Correct.

CoC: I think it's a very hard thing to balance. What I found interesting about how far back you say you go with the music was listening to the album and getting to "Bron (Of the Waves)" which just reminds me of mid-Seventies-era Rush.

PM: Yeah, correct.

CoC: In a really cool sort of way 'cause there aren't that many bands who I've known to insert something like that into quite an aggressive, fast, technical album and manage it. Was that a direct reference or something you came up with and later went: hmm, maybe I was listening to _A Farewell to Kings_ that week?

PM: <laughs> Yeah, well, it does have a strong, kind of a mid-Seventies feel and atmosphere to it but basically the structure and the melody of the guitar lines in "Bron (Of the Waves)" was written for the Celtic mythological character Bron who was the brother of Mananna'n Mac Lir and he was also a part of the sea and the way that the waves have rushed and crashed, so I wanted to make it kind of a subtle piece and I wanted it to be kind of emotional, a very sensational piece. And that I thought was a good preface before it goes into the epic song, which is "Stone of Destiny". So, yeah, it's definitely a part of the old influence that I have and I thought it would just be a good preface to the epic song on the album.

CoC: Coming onto a more common issue: a lot of the people who are gonna read this are gonna be into death metal, black metal and all sorts of other things, and Absu's a pretty -- in the traditional meaning of occult, it's a pretty occult concept. It's quite out there -- occult meaning esoteric...

PM: Esoteric. Definitely.

CoC: That sort of thing. I think the thing about this release is that you would have to absorb and take a lot of time over it, and people seem to be absorbing and taking time over things -- a lot of the time -- less and less now. What would you say -- not in justifying _Tara_ but in pitching _Tara_ to this sort of audience? If people say: you've all got Scottish names and slightly kitsch Celtic themes -- what might seem to them kitsch -- how would you answer that sort of person or that sort of attitude? Would you say they're the kind of people who could get into Absu and how would you go about convincing them?

PM: Well, you know we do have a lot of European ancestral attributions that are locked within our souls and our minds, and since there's such a short history behind North America I think it's most important that we express our ancestral attributions with our Scottish and Irish bloodlines. I mean, of course our ancestral lines are a concoction of two to three different nationalities, but what interests us most is the magic and the mythology and the esotericism behind Celtic mythology. The two releases before _Tara_ -- _The Third Storm of Cythraul_ [CoC #18] and _In the Eyes of Ioldanach_ [CoC #35] -- are actually parts, first and second parts which lead to the last part of a trilogy for Absu which is _Tara_. And, you know, _Tara_ being the exalted imperial hill in county Meath island where the high kings and tyrants once reigned in Celtic mythology, I thought this would have been the most appropriate title for this album, being the concept that it is. And _Tara_ is actually the "stone of destiny". There's a throne: that's actually at the top. So our objective was to go through each of the songs before we reached "Stone of Destiny" -- track 12, which is the epic song -- go through all these battles, go through a shitload of lessons and teachings with magic and gnosticism, conquering and beating the enemy and then being able to go up to the throne, being crowned, as kind of like emperors, and to be immortalised within our minds. That's the way I see it and a lot of humans can say that we're a pretentious, pompous type of outfit: it really doesn't matter, 'cause metaphysically and conceptually speaking, combining the history of Scotland, and Ireland especially with _Tara_, with magic and mythology -- combining those all together -- those are our certain goals and objectives that are finally accomplished with the album of _Tara_.

CoC: Right. So, the sort of impression I get is that this is more like a complex, intricate -- almost like a sort of well-researched literary work which you seem to have put together quite meticulously. I mean, maybe there's spontaneity lurking there, but a lot of it seems -- what's the word -- highly structured, carefully put together...

PM: Correct.

CoC: Nothing is out of place.

PM: Right. There are really no general rules in extreme metal music anymore and I've never thought there were in the beginning. And having a pagan heart that we do, basically, to sum this up in a conclusive thought, what I've done is just basically created and concocted fiction and non-fiction and actually put them together and that's part of what _Tara_ is all about, definitely.

CoC: Finally, where would you say the Celtic mythological side and the heavy metal side meet? 'Cause one of the ways of interpreting Absu, that some people might take, is that heavy metal and rock, more than some other forms of music -- not necessarily more than all but certainly more than popular pop music, maybe not more than opera -- has this tendency to go for big concepts, and go for costume or mythology in a sort of -excessive- way which in other genres would just be thrown out the window. Some of the stuff Rush would do with concepts would just be plain silly coming out of certain other bands, but rock audiences seem to just go with it. Would you say that's at all the reason why you chose metal to express this large, involved, intricate and complex concept?

PM: To most people when they think of extreme metal music and heavy metal music I don't think that the first thing that comes to their mind is the geographical landscapes of Ireland, I don't think that's the first thing that comes to mind.

CoC: I completely agree.

PM: They think more of like denim and leather, wearing black and red, raising a fist up to the sky, more or less.

CoC: If you're pushing into the early-, mid-, late-Eighties -- pushing into thrash -- it's the whole beer-swillin', hard rockin' attitude, sort of thing. But if take a band like Manowar -- who are quite shallow in terms of concepts maybe, to some extent -- a metal audience can accept how utterly ludicrous Manowar look to the average man in the street. And someone like me who is serious, and goes to university, and doesn't actually take it all seriously can enjoy it and enjoy it almost in a contradictory way. I find it funny but also I find it kind of cool, I can actually get into that.

PM: Correct. Well, when I think of Celtic myths and legend I think of three words that come up in the top of my mind: elegance, resonance [it sounded like he said "renaissance" but that seemed unlikely considering the comparative historical contexts -- Paul] and chivalry. Which I think is what internally represents each member of the Cythraul Klan of Absu. But ironically speaking at the same time, which is another side to our beings, I think of us as berserk-like, maniacal, tyrannical and completely insane. And I think -- I know the adjective that I had said earlier is totally ironic to what I just said now, but actually with the music of Absu and especially the album of _Tara_ it's an intertwine of all those feelings and emotions and state of minds all combined into one. So with that album: it's maniacal but at the same time it's very... it's chivalrous, it's elegant. For example, a song like "From Ancient Times (Starless Skys Burn to Ash)" is tyrannical, it's maniacal and it's murderous but... I mean, look at "Bron (of the Waves)".

[Conversation later turned to whether Absu had a "philosophy". -- Paul]

PM: The way that I look at it, it's a philosophy that's perpetual and infinite. I mean, that kind of goes back to what I was saying about there being no rules in what we do but actually the way that I look at it is: realism is metaphysical, and truth is false and vice-versa. And actually it's survival of the fittest when it comes to what we discuss within the poetic patterns of the music.

CoC: Would you say there's any influence from the existentialist movements -- not maybe Nietzsche in the typical way that extreme metal people take him but more his angle of asking why should we look for truth and why not look for falsehood? That bears some vague relation to what you were saying about truth and falsehood: you don't have to look for one or the other...

PM: Right, um, I would more say that it's about how magic is applied to the mind and tau [I think it's this Eastern notion that he was referring to -- Paul]. There are no limits to what the power of the mind can see and forecast and that's pretty much the way I look at it.

CoC: I'm not particularly knowledgeable about mysticism and magic(k), with a "k", I know vaguely that there are texts and there are "teachings". Would you say you believe in magic(k) in the sense that you can affect the world with it?

PM: I look at it more as a self-worshipping amulet [I think he said "amulet" -- Paul]. I think of it not as something that can affect the physical world, like you said, but it's something more that can ward off any mortal and human and materialistic disturbances. It's basically an internal shield for the mind and an external body-armour for the body. So an internal shield for the mind and an external shield for the body. That's the way that I look at it. It's not about casting spells and "I'm gonna turn you into a pile of ash". It's not about that, but it's about... magic is about being a self-protectant.

CoC: What would you say for the record for people who try to cast Absu away as worthless retro-thrash...

PM: <a sinister, sigh-like chuckle>

CoC: ...as some people will and have?

PM: Oh, all I have to say is that you have to be the judge of the magic(k) and the mythology that I create and that I solicit onto planet earth.

(article submitted 12/8/2001)

9/14/1997 S Hoeltzel Absu: Across Ages Arcane
9/30/2011 J Carbon 6.5 Absu - Abzu
8/12/2001 G Filicetti 9.5 Absu - Tara
11/19/1998 A Wasylyk 7 Absu - In the Eyes of Ioldanach
3/16/1997 S Hoeltzel 9 Absu - The Third Storm of Cythraul
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