The Cult Is Alive
CoC chats with Ben of Sonic Reign
by: Jackie Smit
2007 may only be five months old, but it's already been chockfull of surprises. From Mayhem decisively besting their career-defining _De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas_, to Marduk successfully pulling off a concept record without falling flat on their corpse-painted faces, you'd wonder what the rest of the year might have in store for us at this rate. Well, another very pleasant curveball has been the emergence of a little-known duo from Germany called Sonic Reign on Metal Blade Records -- hardly an established haven to black metal's elite. Founding member Ben explains how this unlikely union came about:

Ben: We were very surprised ourselves by Metal Blade's offer. I'm not sure if you know this, but we actually released _Raw Dark Pure_ on our own label, Sovereignty Productions, a year ago -- and we tried to do everything on our own, didn't send promotional copies to labels or anything like that. So it was quite a surprise to us that they knew about the album at all. The trouble with doing it on our own label was that we didn't have any sort of budget or infrastructure to promote the album at all, nor did we have own distribution network, which as you can imagine spells death for any release. So around the time that we were thinking about getting some distribution, we were contacted by Metal Blade, who told us that they were blown away by the album and that they wanted to re-release it and also release our future albums. But it wasn't like Metal Blade called us and we immediately signed the contract, either. We discussed it for a long time, because we've heard all the horror stories about small bands signing to big labels and then they start telling you what to do and so on. So we wanted to make sure that we had the freedom we needed with all creative aspects of the band, and they were happy to give us that as well. The biggest surprise to us in all of this was that Metal Blade would be interested in a band like Sonic Reign, because I don't think that they have any other black metal bands on the label. Then again, I'm not too familiar with most of the bands on their label, so I might be wrong. <laughs>

CoC: What sparked the idea between you and Sebastian [drums] to start Sonic Reign?

B: We've known each other since childhood. We had a period where we lost contact, but then we met up at a party again one day, started talking about music and discovered that we were both heavily into black metal. He told me that he was already in a band that played melodic black metal and that they were looking for a second guitarist. So I joined them, but he and I soon realised that we wanted to do something much harsher, and we then both quit and decided to do something on our own. We released our demo in 1999, which was probably still melodic but much harder than the stuff we had been doing in our previous band. So that was the first step in the direction that we wanted to go in. Then our style just evolved naturally over time and it's reflected on _Raw Dark Pure_.

CoC: For a debut, _Raw Dark Pure_ is an extraordinarily mature album. Beside the band you mentioned previously, had you and Sebastian played with anyone else prior to starting Sonic Reign?

B: We've actually been working on Sonic Reign for about ten years now, so what you may be hearing is the fact that this isn't just a debut album we've recorded after one year in existence. We got a lot of experience through just being in the band. Before the melodic thing we had been involved in previously, I hadn't played in any other bands, and I think for Sebastian it's the same. So the main experience and development for us comes from the last ten years, where apart from the album, we just recorded a demo and a mini CD. Other bands release ten albums in that time.

CoC: So am I to understand that you take your time when it comes to writing music?

B: <laughs> Yes, we do. We took a long time with this album, but it's never been our goal to release many albums. It's about quality, and I don't know if it would be good for anyone if we just created a lot of mediocre records. With this record we wanted each song to be distinct.

CoC: As far as the actual timeframe in which these songs were written then, are we talking about songs on _Raw Dark Pure_ that were six or seven years in the making?

B: Well, we actually started working on _Raw Dark Pure_ officially right after we'd finished the mini-CD, which was 2004. So those songs were written over a period of about two years and the recording process took us about a year. We wanted to get the songs as close to perfection –- at least in our own minds -– as we could possibly get them. What delayed things quite a bit was that Sebastian started his own recording studio in that time as well, and it took some time to get things set up properly. The plan had always been for us to record the album by ourselves in our own studio, so we needed to do a lot of experimenting to get the sound the way we wanted it and to build up enough knowledge of the studio mechanics to do it properly.

CoC: The album production actually reminds me a little of _Nemesis Divina_ in the sense that it's raw, but never overly so. It has a very organic feel.

B: Yeah, well, that was definitely what we wanted to achieve. With our music we've always wanted to combine that really old-school feel -– all those emotions and that whole atmosphere from the black metal scene in the Eighties and early Nineties -– with a modern edge. I think that many of the new bands in the black metal scene are very talented, but they lack that approach and that feeling. So the production and the sound of the album was extremely important to us from that perspective.

CoC: I'm always loath to ask this question, but given that many people reading would likely only be hearing you for the first time now, what are the band's influences?

B: We both love bands like Thorns, Emperor, Satyricon and so on, and I think that we're both particularly drawn to them because they have never been afraid to evolve and develop their sound with every album. If you look at the difference between _Nemesis Divina_ and _Rebel Extravaganza_ for example, there's a huge step forward that's happened between those two. _Nemesis Divina_ had a great formula and they could have copied that for ten albums and everyone would have loved it, but they very clearly followed their hearts and went with what they really wanted to create. That totally impressed me and it definitely had a big influence on us when we were developing our own material. Emperor is another perfect example: there's a major evolution between each of their albums, and they never showed any hesitation in making those changes and moving forward with their sound. I'm not one of those people who follow a "black metal codex" and look down on anything remotely commercial. At the same time, I think that it becomes very difficult for some of the bigger bands to release something that is honest and from the heart, because ultimately they have to make a living off of it. They have to fulfil more than just an artistic impulse.

CoC: You just alluded to the conservatism that runs rampant in the black metal scene -- what are your thoughts on that attitude as someone who's now a rising star within the genre?

B: Well, I get the impression that there will always be those people who start screaming and shouting when any band signs to a bigger label. The thing that I think they forget is that none of this music has ever been commercial. Listen to Satyricon, for example, and neither _Volcano_ nor _Now, Diabolical_ is even close to being something that could gain mass acceptance. So there's a lot of black and white thinking in the black metal scene, but never much appreciation for what's going on in the middle, if that makes sense. I would definitely not have a problem with any band signing to a big label or doing something slightly different, as long as I can hear the soul in the music and as long as I can get the idea that they believe in what they're doing. I'm certainly not into any sort of black metal code.

CoC: Funny you should mention that, as I was just about to bring up your lyrics, which tend to steer clear of the staid, boring epithets about religion that many other bands stick to.

B: <laughs> I want the engine behind this band to be credibility, and I have no intention of fulfilling some stupid expectation of what a black metal band should be. That's not interesting to me. So I also want our lyrics to be about things that interest me: non-fictional topics that deal with philosophy, existence, the human condition and so on. Religion means absolutely nothing to me and it has no place in my life, so why should I write about it? Personally, I think that most bands who write Satanic lyrics don't really stand behind what they're saying, and to me that's much more commercial than anything else, because all they're doing is fulfilling all the typical expectations of what a black metal band should be -– Satanic name, Satanic lyrics and bad sound. They think that they can create an atmosphere with those things, but the truth is that it's the music that's meant to do that. I don't mind if a band has a raw and fucked up sound if it suits the atmosphere, but the atmosphere needs to come from the music first and foremost.

CoC: So in terms of plans for Sonic Reign in the future, are you and Sebastian planning to recruit a touring line-up and possibly go and road test this material?

B: At the moment, there are no plans to play live. We have been offered the services of some very good musicians who would help us if we decided to do that, but we both feel that if we did do it, then we'd want it to be as close to perfect as possible. At this stage, neither of us have the time to rehearse or do any of the things that it takes to put together a good live show. That may change in the future, but at the moment it's not anything of importance to us.

CoC: And as far as a new record is concerned: are we going to have to wait for years until the next one?

B: <laughs> I sure don't hope so. We've actually already started on some new songs; there's nothing that's complete yet, just some rough ideas. We've also been really busy with promotion for this record, so that's taken up a lot of time. Plus, I don't actually live in the same town as Sebastian, so we can probably only play once or twice a month if we're lucky. So it's always a bit difficult to write, but we'll definitely be looking to get something out sooner rather than later.

CoC: Thanks very much for your time, Ben -- it's been an absolute pleasure. Is there anything you'd like to close with?

B: Well, I'd like to thank you for your support first of all, and I'd like to thank all the people reading this who have supported us, and I hope that people will start picking up the album.

(article submitted 2/5/2007)

3/25/2007 J Smit 8.5 Sonic Reign - Raw Dark Pure
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