The French trio Aluk Todolo have been together since the mid-2000s, creating a unique form of instrumental hard rock/metal that draws on black metal, psychedelia, Krautrock and improvisational/experimental strategies. They have released three albums to date—2007’s Descension, 2009’s Finsternis, and Occult Rock, a two-CD set issued earlier this year. They have also released two EPs (a 7″ and a 10″), contributed to the four-way split LP On the Powers of the Sphinx in 2010, and collaborated with Der Blutharsch and the Infinite Church of the Leading Hand on an album from last year.
Occult Rock is easily the best thing I’ve heard from Aluk Todolo to date. Each of their full-lengths has demonstrated clear and organic evolution, as the individual bandmembers (guitarist Shantidas Reidacker, bassist Matthieu Canaguier, and drummer Antoine Hadjioannou) increase their own skills and become more intuitively bonded to each other. Descension began from black metal and journeyed into noisy psychedelia; Finsternis took the relentless tribal beat of early Faust and married it to the roaring guitars of Fushitsusha; but Occult Rock displays all these elements and more, traveling over the course of eight tracks simply titled “Occult Rock” I through VIII from jackhammering blackened thrash to slow-motion, explosive doom, with plenty of mind-expanding space-rock exploration in between. And yet, as you’ll see in the interview below, this is not all new material.
This interview was conducted via email; the bandmembers read a review of Occult Rock I wrote for The Wire, and Shantidas Riedacker contacted me, asking if I wanted to talk to them.
The tracks on your new album are all called “Occult Rock,” a description which usually indicates a kind of retro ’70s “spooky” rock ‘n’ roll, much more conventional than the music you’re actually making. What does that phrase mean to you?
Antoine Hadjioannou: When the band was formed, we named our music “Occult Rock,” and by “occult,” we mean that our music deals, through all its aspects, with the knowledge of the hidden mysterious powers of cosmos and mind. By “rock” we mean rock instruments: drums, bass and guitar. We obviously don’t have anything in common with this occult rock genre. As for Occult Rock as the title of the album, it has a double meaning: naming it “Occult Rock” is a statement, since this record is a manifesto. The second significance is patent if you look at the front cover, and a deeper interpretation will appear clearly to anyone who will listen attentively and will look at the sigils we used in the artwork.
The eight pieces fit together very well, but if each one was heard independently of the others, the listener might not automatically think they were sections of a larger work. Were these pieces all written in the same burst of creative activity, or were they gathered up for this album?
In substance, this album deals with the alchemical transformation and manifestation of the primordial vibration into matter through all its elemental phases, each piece representing an aspect of one element. The tracks can be listened to as individual tracks, yet for assimilating their essence, one must listen to the whole opus. As for the way it was built, our methods are not very conscious, we proceed in a more intuitive way. Some of the songs on Occult Rock are as old as the band, at least in terms of formulas, some others are rather new. In the first place these pieces were written for the stage, in parallel to the rest of our discography. Of course, this material evolved over the years, and the songs took their final shape progressively, the music as well as its meaning, and eventually formed this double album. But we knew we had Occult Rock when the last note was written. The revelation of the full meaning of the record, its necessity and coherence in the context of our discography, and the definitive order of the tracks occurred at this moment, not before.
Do you record all together, or track guitar, bass and drums at separate times? Do you record in a traditional studio, or somewhere else?
As I said, the pieces recorded on Occult Rock were created for the stage and we’ve been performing them in concert a lot of times. Unlike our previous releases which were mainly studio experimentations, this time we really wanted a live, natural sound. Recording everything live, in the same room, was the condition and the constraint. The recording sessions happened in the Drudenhaus studio, a traditional yet very special studio, located far from everything, in the countryside of France, in Brittany. There, the sound engineer, Xort, did a fantastic job by capturing our sound without impure transformation, and he let us focus on the interpretation. He’s a real sound artisan, and one of the most devoted and passionate people I’ve ever met.
What role does improvisation play in your music, either in the studio or live?
Even though improvisation is present during the process of the elaboration of our music, we don’t improvise, in the usual sense, during our shows or recording sessions: We don’t jam, all our material is composed. But in the peculiar context of our band, which is instrumental and has hypnotic and entrancing intentions, and entheogenicity as ultimate goal, interpretation isimprovisation, since we envision our music as archetypal, and we aim to perform it by putting attention and intention in every note, in the very fraction of the moment. In this case, improvisation is inevitable and discipline becomes freedom.
Who handles the artwork for your releases—is it done by a member of the band, or do you have outside photographers, designers, etc., that you work with?
Just like the music, the artwork is done by the three of us as a band, and we use the same methods to create our tunes. We share ideas, images or concepts, and work on it together, with the goal to serve the music, each releasebeing specific. So far, we had only two times some outside artists doing our covers: Stephen Kasner did a painting for the CD edition of our second album, Finsternis, for it was part of a series on Utech Records, and Benjamin Vierling illustrated the four-way split On the Powers of the Sphinx, which was anyway a collective work. They both provided some great artworks, but we prefer to do it ourselves for total control. As we want the final product to be an artefact, i.e. a magical object, we ought to do something more than just illustrative or aesthetic; the artwork has to contain certain keys, allowing someone who studies it attentively to enter deeper into our musical universe and comprehend its rules.
Each of your albums has come out on a different label—why? Do you plan to continue your relationship with The Ajna Offensive for future albums?
Public Guilt has been our main label so far. J.R. Fritsch from Public Guilt/Implied Sound released our debut 7″ EP and Descension, our first album. He never hesitated to put us in touch with other labels: his goal was to help us getting more attention, and more possibilities to materialize our visions. That’s how Descension has been released on LP by Riot Season, and our second album Finsternis on CD by Utech, while Public Guilt has done the LP version.
We’ve been in contact with Tyler/The Ajna Offensive since the very beginning of the band and are very happy to work with him now. We are on the same wavelength, and as music fans, this label has always been one of our favorites, so we plan to continue our cooperation in the future, for sure. With the same dedication, Norma Evangelica Diaboli released Occult Rock for Europe. Labels’ visions are very important for us, being extensions of the band’s work.
You perform under minimal lighting—a single bulb onstage. What is the significance of this darkness?
Darkness is not a black metal gimmick, it is inner silence, teaching devotion and respect. It has a practical role, for focussing, immersion and reception, for us and the audience. The light bulb looks cool, but its purpose is also practical: It makes it easier to look at each other when needed, without disturbing the darkness.
The French black metal underground has a reputation for greater intellectual rigor and seriousness of purpose than the scenes in other countries. Do you think this is an accurate impression, and what do you attribute this quality to? (Assuming you believe Aluk Todolo to be making black metal at all…)
I have no idea. And I don’t believe Aluk Todolo to be black metal at all. Our music is driven by some strict rules, but they are not musically restrictive. Black metal is part of our musical culture and artistic path, and Aluk Todolo probably inherited a certain austerity from its standards, and a taste for obscure atmospheres, but I must say I’m not interested in black metal as a genre. The only commonalities between my favorite black metal bands are the same as with any musician I respect: devotion and soul.