Toronto, ON-based occult rock battle mages Blood Ceremony have built a reputation for spellbinding live performances and grand, gothic compositions. They channel the more elegant manifestations of horror, conjuring smoky, mystical atmospheres and building dark and often violent narratives. Their third full-length record, The Eldritch Dark, is their most dense and varied collection to date. Alia O'Brien's flute and organ have always been central to the development of their sound, and here it is even more vibrant and powerful, the organ chords menacing as the soundtrack to a silent horror film and the flute's trembling noted alternately serving as dapples of brightness on their dark sonic landscape or a bright and merciless swarm of razors. Sean Kennedy's guitar tone is thick and rich, enveloping as crushed velvet, especially when set against Lucas Gadke's clearer, more sinuous bass lines. The record was written far more collaboratively than their past efforts, with Gadke contributing the lilting, gentler piece "Lord Summerisle," O'Brien penning the wicked "Drawing Down The Moon" and Kennedy taking the helm with more energetic, ominous tracks like "Goodbye Gemini." While Blood Ceremony have certainly progressed creatively with this record, their aesthetic remains entirely intact, and they even revisit some of the most loved (and reviled) characters from their previous work, such as the dark sorcerer Oliver Haddo who is the subject of "The Magician." As a result, while The Eldritch Dark hangs together extremely well conceptually and fits the rest of their body of work, the songwriting is the most eclectic of their records to date. Exclaim! had the opportunity to speak with Sean Kennedy, guitar player and principle songwriter for Blood Ceremony.
You are currently on tour with Kylesa, White Hills and Lazer Wulf. How is that experience unfolding? Each of the bands you are touring with have very different, but potentially very complementary aesthetics.
It's been really great, the package tour is a mixed bag and it's great. Lazer Wolf are a fantastic band, they're the most technically proficient band I have seen in recent memory. They're a kind of experimental thrashy group and it's really good. While Hills are a great example of just really heavy duty psychedelic rock done the right way. And Kylesa are fantastic. It is complementary in that all the bands come from essentially the same family of rock, and also brings something different for everybody. I kind of think there is this retro vibe with every band: there's the '70s rock and the '80s thrash and space rock. I think this is one of those situations where a lot of people will come to see one or two of the bands and walk away enjoying everything, having some nice surprises.
I recently discovered that your band name, Blood Ceremony, is taken from the title of a 1972 horror film directed by Jorge Grau about the Countess Bathory. What about that story appealed to you so much that you decided to name the band after it?
At the time the band started I was personally really heavily into a lot of European horror movies, and that was one that struck me and being very moody kind of period piece. We started playing, and that was the band name we went with. It was like a flash and then before you know it that's your band name. And it's definitely an aesthetic that we draw upon with the music that we are trying to make, I always wanted to make music that would be complimentary to those kinds of ideas, that kind of film. It was really important for us to have a kind of basic aesthetic. We found those kinds of films really inspiring, sometimes a bit more so than other bands. We were going for something dark, a mood we were trying to establish.
It's not just horror film, but literature as well. On all three of your records, occult horror and other gothic narratives are stories and themes that you have frequently used for the basis of your songs. What is it about those kinds of stories that draws you?
Our sources are all over the place. Musically there's the vintage heavy rock, like Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath. There's a lot of books that we have found really inspiring, and it tends to be more the Victorian horror stuff.
I have noticed that a lot of your inspirations are very gothic.
Those are the kinds of books I have always enjoyed, that I read in school, and after. I was always drawn back to late Victorian authors like Oscar Wilde and stuff like that. It's always been an interest of mine that also fits in with the horror, and there's a lot of great horror literature from that time as well. In 1880 to 1890, there were all these occult collectives writing in places like London and Paris, this really active horror imagination at that time. It's a very potent era to tap into.
There's also a lot more dignity and elegance in that kind of horror that has been lacking in present-day interpretations of the genre, especially from the dawn of slasher films onwards. It's horror that inhabits a place, and has a history and grandness, and it is clearly that kind of horror that you are channelling.
Yeah, it's definitely a very Victorian horror, and that can be very occult-y too. It's very different from the splatter movies that you often find paired with death metal.
Different genres of metal seem to dovetail with different kinds of horror. Goregrind love torture porn, for instance. I have always been fascinated by the parallels between horror and metal, and those two things draw upon the same subject matter quite often.
I think that metal, as an extreme form of music, is very sensationalist and trying to come to grips with extreme experiences, like violence and fear, and so are horror films. It's like someone gives you a drug and everything is intensified. And so I think it appeals to people who are interested in any kind of extreme art or experiences. It makes sense that extreme music would draw upon other art that is also concerned with really going for it.
Both art forms also deal with catharsis in specific ways.
Yeah, for sure. Like you see Cannibal Corpse and it's pretty intense; I'm ready for bed after a Cannibal Corpse show. But it's all different, all the different genres of heavy rock and metal inhabit all these different areas of pop culture, and the genre that we've been placed in is occult rock. One of the funny questions that we get a lot it, "is this all for show, or are you guys really practitioners of the occult?"
That is a funny question.
I just think it is kind of a weird distinction to make. If you're making music, you're participating in something, you're putting something out there.
You're already creating something and so that's already a little bit magical?
Exactly. And I think everyone would be kind of disappointed if Cannibal Corpse admitted that they weren't serial killers. I feel like it's a part of it. I think there are a lot of areas of pop culture that work well together and that we can use for inspiration, lots of other art that we can draw on.
There are also rules to horror that have a lot in common with extreme music. Horror is a lot about structure and genre constraint, in the same way heavy metal can be. In the same way there are rituals that you follow when making or performing it.
Definitely. And I think if you take any number of fans that conform more to the specifics of the genre, though I find some of the more interesting bands the ones that you can't fit easily into a single genre. For example, we're big fans of Voivod. That's a band that stands on their own. Those are the bands that are outstanding to me. And I like the horror films that break all the rules too, like Horror Hospital, which is completely wild and makes no sense, and is one of the most enjoyable films to me because of it.
Your tendency towards rule breaking is pretty clear in that you are in an aggressive band that not only incorporates organ and flute into your music but makes those instruments central to the composition of your music.
From the very beginning, we knew that was going to be central to our sound. Right from the beginning we really wanted to amp up that aspect. It was a lot more common in the early '70s to have a flute in a progressive band, but now it is very uncommon, and we wanted to bring an element of that back in from that early rock scene. And I think that there is still a lot of areas to explore with those instruments too, Alia [O'Brien]'s always having ideas like, "Let's put the flute through a wah pedal." We're always trying different things and there is so much we're excited to try in the studio whenever we get the chance.
As eternally fruitful as experimenting with guitar tone will always be, being able to play with the limits of other instruments is a great strength for you.
It definitely gives us a different set of dynamics to play with. When it comes to guitar I am actually pretty simple, I really like the classic tone, the '70s Marshalls, the classic stuff you hear on FM radio. Those are my favourite guitar sounds and I am interested in recreating those.
How do you feel that The Edritch Dark represents and evolution of your sound?
I think the album sounds more organic than the last two. I think the production sounds more lively and energetic as well. I think what we were trying to do with the songwriting is tighten up the arrangements, everything had to be there for a reason. We also wanted to focus on a lot of different dynamics. In terms of getting everything down on tape, [producer] Ian [Blurton] was really pushing us to get the best take. So what we did, which we've never done before, was play a song all day, all night until we got the right take. It was actually pretty gruelling at times, we did some songs 20 times and started to really bug out, but Ian was always, "one more, you have one more." On this record, you are listening to a band play live. There are minimal overdubs and I think that the essence of the band, what we were able to put on tape, is done much more effectively than before.
There also a confidence that makes you come across more comfortable in this record; it seems you trust yourselves more.
Part of that is definitely the current drummer we have now. [Michael Carrillo] played with us on the Ghost tour we did last year, then some other dates after that, and with him the rhythm section just gelled. Once we had the songs, we were really eager to get in the studio. I think a lot of that was just the frustration of wanting to be in the studio, and once we were there it felt really good to just hammer it out.
Is the title The Eldritch Dark a Lovecraft reference?
It is actually a reference to a poem by Clark Ashton Smith, who was a member of Lovecraft's circle, along with Robert E. Howard, all three of them were writing for the pulps around the same time. He is one of my favourite writers, he's just fantastic, he has a really decadent style. The title is not exactly a direct reference to the poem, but I was just going for the vibe of that, because I like liminal space and the idea of it; so I thought we would take that feeling and try to make a record there.
That's interesting, because I think you've captured a lot of the potential scariness or threat that can exist in a liminal space with this record, the darkness possible within something indeterminate.
For sure. When you go walking in a forest at night it seems a lot more scary. It was that kind of a space that we felt would make a kind of a chilling vibe for a record. We started with the titles and then built the songs from there. This was actually a very collaborative record in the way that it was written. Alia came with a lot of material, and we wrote the song, "The Magician" together. Alia contributed a song called "Drawing Down The Moon," which is probably my favourite on the record. [Bassist] Lucas [Gadke] wrote the song "Lord Summerisle" which he sang on as well. This record was really a band effort in the sense that everyone was contributing quite a lot to the process.