Oppressive, otherworldly and terrifyingly transcendent, Vassafor’s visceral violence represents the quintessence of Satanic Black Metal in its purest, most primeval form. As the inimitable, uncompromising New Zealand death worshippers open the gates of hell once more on defiantly-titled, utterly-decimating third full-length, ‘To The Death’, I was curious as to how this chaos is so efficaciously channelled, not just musically but more specifically from a production and engineering perspective. Thus, I contacted founder and frontman VK (who is also one of the underground’s most intuitive and adept sound engineers) to discuss the thought process behind crafting Vassafor’s distinctive and suitably sinister sound.
Atmosphere is critical in all types of music but arguably nowhere more so than in extreme Metal – particularly the complex Black / Death Metal hybrid crafted by Vassafor and Temple Nightside. An inappropriate production could go a long way towards messing things up. From a sound engineering point of view more so than the musician’s perspective (not that there should be any wide discrepancy between the two), what in your view are the main qualities or traits that need to be imbued into this style of music and why are these so important?
“Music is more important than anything. Good music transcends any kind of production. That is how everything starts. After that, the aesthetic should suit the style. Whatever that ends up being. There should be no rules. Hopefully the artist has some form of vision, you would hope so anyway.”
As a musician with a wealth of experience mixing, mastering and engineering records, I’m sure that the production of a Vassafor or Temple Nightside album is no afterthought… Is it as much a vital component of your overall vision as the actual music itself? Even during the writing process, do you already have a visualization in your head as to what you want the final product to sound like (and how the production could potentially alter the listener’s perception of the music)? Generally speaking, what effect are you seeking and how difficult and painstaking is it to bring this vision to fruition?
“It’s very natural. It is the same kinds of sounds as in our rehearsal room while we are practising. Recorded naturally with mics and not programmed or chopped up and edited in a computer and then I add to it with whatever it needs. In Temple Nightside that is generally just extra vocal textures and solos but in Vassafor it can be all sorts of extras buried throughout the songs and mixes over the course of the song in question.”
One of the first things that strikes me about the forthcoming third Vassafor full-length, ‘To The Death’, is the actual sound of the album. With this decidedly opaque sound, have you deliberately gone to some lengths to disguise or bury beneath the surface a lot of what is going on? The music certainly reveals itself more with repeat listens (and especially using headphones) but still, compared to albums with a clearer production / sound, the music is submerged and murky, which affords it an organic, analog, cavernous vibe, befitting necromantic death worship. This relatively unpolished and stubbornly elusive sound is a trademark of both Vassafor and Temple Nightside (and, indeed, is also prevalent on the latter’s latest opus, ‘Pillars Of Damnation’) … why is this style of production so important to you and your art?
“I don’t agree with that at all, in my opinion our production is very clear on this album. I think the difference between our sound and some others that are seen as standard at the moment is more that we actually sound like a band, as it is inside a practice room rather than an antiseptic and sterile puzzle pieced together and constructed via a mechanical approach to recording that is the more usual approach these days from the vast majority of bands releasing records. To me, some of the most important aspects of music that are often absent from using this kind of approach are any form of dynamics and feeling. You can have the most perfectly executed, supremely technical or whatever piece of music but if it’s completely sterile and there is absolutely no feeling to it, then it may as well have been made by machine. It certainly often sounds like many of those records have been pieced together inside of a computer, that’s for sure. Even though we may use digital DAWs to record with, we’re not editing the music with it, in fact it’s more like a glorified 4 track. There’s no click tracks, replacing or quantizing or triggering anything, we like the sound of drums to be actually what’s recorded and to be able to dynamically speed up and slow down according to the feel of the music as we play and record. Our guitars and amps are changed and mixed and matched from song to song according to what suits best for each individual song, but sonically that’s how my guitars sound in the room when I record it. Not digitally finessed afterwards and given impulse response modelling in computers like many bands do these days. I’m not knocking that approach, as it does require skill, but I am not into doing it myself. We prefer to make our choices about sound BEFORE it is recorded and follow through with that intention for the entire process. As all music used to. I still think records of the ‘70s and ‘80s sound about a billion times better than now for the most part. Good drum sounds sound heavy and thick. Not tiny and tinny and sharp and brick-walled to death and super clean. When a record of ours is played, it sounds better and better the louder it’s played, unlike many of these rotten and loud masters with the kick louder than any other element. When those kinds of records get turned up loud they sound weak as fuck. Makes no difference for most people on a cell phone through Bluetooth, I guess, but we don’t make records for casual ‘fans’, or anyone else for that matter. We make them how WE want to hear them…”
For me, the murky, distant and inaccessible production values found on much underground Black / Death Metal represent an essential, intrinsic component of this subgenre. While I’d personally be disgusted if Vassafor sounded any other way, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that you are perhaps alienating some of your potential audience with this approach. For example, if you gave ‘To The Death’ – or any of the previous albums – a bigger, bolder, clearer sound, perhaps those who can’t get past the cavernous sound would be more inclined to purchase the record? You would possibly gain more fans than you would lose, so could there perhaps be an element of self-sabotage in persevering with the more challenging sound?
“Everything you are saying is describing a homogeneous, stale, trend-based sound of conformity and the exact opposite of what Black Metal is and has always been. The second wave of BM was brilliant precisely because every important band sounded unique and unlike the bands around it. Masters Hammer sounded completely different to Blasphemy or Necromantia or Samael or Beherit or Mortuary Drape or Sigh or Mayhem. Why would any band want to have a homogenous, cookie cutter, toothless, plastic, bright sound to play music for the Devil? It makes absolutely zero sense to me. I can’t understand why casual people don’t seem to grasp the idea that Black Metal should always be individualistic in its very nature. We ARE our own band. We don’t sound like other bands, we’ve never tried to sound like other bands and we never will sound like other bands. That is completely intentional and in fact is an essential element of real Black Metal. Vassafor has nothing to do with whatever is the current standard, professional or popular way to record music and sound as homogeneous as the rest of the herd. Or subscribe to whatever imaginary standard some random trend listener decides is a palatable enough production for them to digest. If that is what is required to gain some fickle asshole as a fan that could only tolerate us if we had a clean production then I am satisfied to have the possessed maniacs that ARE into our band instead, even if it isn’t a huge number. The connection is supposed to be the content inflaming someone’s soul, not the packaging or extra trinkets or multi-coloured swirl vinyl colours of limited numbers or hyped edgy bullshit. We are fortunate to have some amazingly die-hard fans that absolutely feel that possession which is very gratifying, but again, it’s NOT why we do this or remotely influential on how we write or sound.”
Is there also a place in extreme Metal for clearer productions / sound? Does it all depend on the impact you are seeking to make with the music? It’s hard to imagine bands like Mgła, Vortex Of End, Deathspell Omega, Svartidauði or Marduk being as effective with a more obscure production. Having said that, in my opinion, The Ruins Of Beverast’s most-intriguing and enduring album is ‘Rain Upon The Impure’, which coincidentally is the one with the least-revealing production job…
“There’s plenty of appropriate and clear production in metal that doesn’t sound emasculated and weak. Deathspell Omega haven’t done a lot for me musically since those 20-minute compilation songs (still a great band obviously) but to me their best sound was ‘Si Monvmentvm Reqvires, Circvmspice’, by a long distance. Why? Because it sounded genuinely menacing and rippled with power. Sure, not the most transparent production and clear, but clear enough to get the point across. ‘Drawing Down The Moon’ would be far too noisy by these imaginary standards and ‘muddy’ but in fact at high volume through a stereo or PA it is one of the most evil-sounding records ever made. ‘Rain Upon the Impure’ is one of Ben’s favourite records and the next one sounds incredible in a completely different way, but they continue to be a visionary band, transcending any production, because he is an artist and supported by the right people around him these days to achieve his singular vision. Art is not a democracy; it’s trying to accurately express and present that vision.”
To what extent is the producer or sound engineer trying to deliver a natural, organic or untouched sound? It’s obviously important that every piece of music should be able to breathe organically and stand on its own feet, so should the producer go about his task as discreetly as possible or does each producer bring a unique set of capabilities to the desk in terms of being able to achieve a specific set of results? The work of most of Metal’s big-name producers like Rick Rubin, Eirik Hundvin, Fredrik Nordström, Peter Tägtgren, Fred Estby, Martin Birch and Scott Burns is almost instantly recognisable, so does it follow that a producer inevitably develops his own trademark sound and this is why he is sought out for specific jobs?
“Every band and album is different. The idea is to try and get whatever vision the band has to transmit via the recording and mix. Many bands want to get a sound like some record previously made and therefore approach that engineer or producer or studio to deliver that for them. So that’s good for producers that ride that wave, à la the Sunlight HM2 sound or Morrisound Florida DM style as examples that really exploded at their time and place. And there’s plenty of skill involved in consistently delivering that of course. Just not much originality or vision, in my opinion. Rubin was most interesting because it was stripping away all excess and, say what you want, but every metal record he touched still sounds pretty timeless. Super clear but lets the band’s natural sound come through. I know it’s cool to shit on ‘Reign in Blood’ these days, but it still sounds ferocious … even if I prefer the Mercyful Fate influence on ‘Hell Awaits’. But those Danzig records are still absolutely timeless as well. Although how much of it was Rubin vs the actually engineers and mixers that actually worked on the records is probably a moot point. I wouldn’t consider Abyss Studio productions as a positive endorsement personally, some of the weakest sounding Black Metal records ever were destroyed by that place. Andy LaRoque, on the other hand, managed to engineer some incredible sounding BM records. Blot Mine’s first album comes to mind. Absolutely brilliant album, both musically and sonically.”
Murky productions can of course provide some camouflage for bands who aren’t great musicians as they could be used to mask shortcomings in performance. When choosing this approach for Vassafor, were you ever concerned that people might point fingers and suggest that you had something to hide? Or have you always been confident in your convictions and that the integrity and aesthetic of your art form would prevail?
“I couldn’t give a single fuck whether people are into our musical ability or not. I may not be Paganini or Eddie Van Halen but I am the best musician in the world to play the Vassafor material. Outside opinion or influence has never entered our thinking. We are a Black Metal band and write Satanic music, it is not for the herd. Whether a song is long or has ‘too many riffs in it’ will filter out exactly the kinds of people that we don’t want listening to our music. Did people accuse Setherial of doing the same thing on ‘Nord’? It’s utterly ridiculous! Tell that to Stravinsky or Shostakovich!”
The aforementioned new albums from Vassafor and Temple Nightside will be released on August 7th. Normally you handle all the mixing and mastering yourself. While you once more oversaw everything for ‘Pillars Of Damnation’, you brought in outside help for ‘To The Death’. Why did you decide to go down this road? What was the briefing you gave to Greg Chandler, why did you choose him specifically and how pleased are you with the results?
“By the time I had done all the tracking and mixing of the ‘To The Death’ sessions it had been almost a year. I have done test masters on past releases with other engineers and ended up using my own, but for this I wanted to try with Greg as I have a huge amount of respect for him and like the depth he can bring out in his Esoteric mixes and masters. I thought it was a good chance to experiment and if it didn’t work out then I could always just do it myself again. So I did a test master myself and then what he came back with was a very different approach and I really liked the way he was going, so a few tweaks later we arrived at the finished master. He is really incredible and I am glad he was into working with us, a great guy!”
The list of bands you’ve worked for in a mastering, mixing and engineering capacity is extremely impressive. Some of my favourite Black Metal and Death Metal hordes are included in there, from Witchrist and Black Funeral to Diocletian, Dakhma, Irkallian Oracle, Triumvir Foul and Sempiternal Dust. There’s one I really have to ask you about, though – Nyogthaeblisz’s relentless debut full-length, ‘Abrahamic Godhead Besieged By Adversarial Usurpation’. How on earth did you approach mastering that ridiculously violent and uncompromising record? It must have given you nightmares…
“I like the idea of working with the most extreme metal bands I can. I like what all the OSI bands are doing and one of the most insane gigs I have ever seen was Nyogthaeblitz playing to an almost empty room with only the touring bands watching and absolutely annihilating it at 100%. A level of ferociousness I’ve only ever seen a handful of times. And that was enough for me to get on board. Especially since I like the guys involved and respect their ultra dedication. So once I received the final mixes and knowing they wanted to push it further, not clean it up or be nice and safe, but to rip and rend and fuck every stereo it was played on, I knew that was a master I wanted to make happen. Mastering is just the last stage of attempting to fulfil the vision of the record. That’s the most important part of it. In whatever direction that might be. Listen to industrial albums that are well mastered, it is a hammer to the skull. Nice, safe, beige, clean, tidy … these are all the enemies of Black Metal. Fuck the herd mentality of clean and nice Black Metal records. Last thing I would ever want to be associated with is a Dark Funeral-esque plastic turd.”
I’ve noticed your name attached to quite a few vinyl remasters, too. What specific changes do you make to a recording to optimise it for the vinyl format or what considerations are needed? And is this a preferred format for you due to its analog nature? Do you agree that Black Metal and Death Metal sound better on vinyl or is this some form of audio snobbery?
“Well, half the time I get to work on reissue records it can be with some old master or, if lucky, the original final mixes – which is always best obviously. Was fortunate to get those on some of the Pagan Altar records I got to redo last year. But unfortunately I find myself trying to uncompress slammed mixes sometimes as well, whether reissues or not. Certainly, I’m not a fan of heavily brick-walled mastering as it is super tiring on the ears and generally sounds much weaker at high volume. I’d rather keep dynamics and have some juice in the tank so the bass can be in there pulsing and the drums can breathe. I just try to serve the record and do what is most musical for it. But in the case of older demo material, I generally try to not change the sound of a band too drastically, or scrub all the dirt and noise out of it. I’ve owned enough reissues of a demo or EP where the remaster is a different-sounding album … and it’s not good or true to the original recording. If a band member specifically wants to correct a past production or mix / master mistake, then of course I will work on it as much as I can to try and correct that. But otherwise I try to keep it as natural to the original as possible. I think Floga have released some great LPs of things like the early Unleashed demos that still have that disgustingly filthy tone, but are mastered really well for LP format and sit just right. That’s a great way to do justice to killer artefacts from the earlier days of our scene. I like LP and tape as formats to listen to but have actually mellowed my stance on CDs. CDs are fine when they aren’t being brick-walled to death. I could give two shits about digital vs analog in recording, though. Classic wanker tosh to burble on about how the audio is at a certain quality when playing harsh metal anyway. That’s the true snobbery in metal recording, not the format. And it’s snobbery generally because of the price for the majority of studios these days recording, mixing and mastering on a purely analog chain. Still gotta get those reels cut onto the plate and that’s asking a lot of trust in an engineer who most likely doesn’t know metal. It seems to me anyway. I could go on about this for hours but I will stop there.”
We’ve spoken at length about production values and the sound of music, but I guess it’s still the music itself that’s the most-important thing at the end of the day? Without the music, you would have nothing to work with. Do you still see yourself as a musician first and foremost, channelling the dark arts in conspiracy with your bandmates? Well, if ‘To The Death’ and ‘Pillars Of Damnation’ are anything to go by, this fire is burning brighter than ever…
“Well, music IS the most important part of it. That is a fact as far as I’m concerned. I play and write music as best I can and just keep doing it in the vein that seems to work for me, however that vomits out or comes across. And I always will, To the Death. Hail Satan.”