Italian progressive metal alchemists Ephel Duath, led by guitarist and composer Davide Tiso, have been in a dramatic state of flux for some time. With a rotating cast of musicians and session members, with Tiso serving as the sole fixed point, Ephel Duath have learned to embrace change as the only constant. In 2009, the entirely lineup changed once again after the release of Through My Dog's Eyes, and the group entered a state of hiatus while a new iteration of the band could be solidified once again. It was during this time that Tiso joined forces with Karyn Crisis (ex-Crisis), who became his partner as well as collaborator, and with the addition Steve Giorgio on bass and Marco Minnemann on drums, Ephel Duath rose, hydra-like, regrowing limbs and seeking out a new interpretation of their eccentric and dynamic sound once again.
Following last year's EP On Death And Cosmos, their first full-length with the new lineup Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness is a massive, mountainous effort full of unexpected structures and sudden rock slides. A listening experience as perilous as attempting to sneak into Mordor (Ephel Duath is Elvish for the Mountains of Shadow that serve as a wall around Sauron's country), the record's clever and artful qualities can't quite obscure the deep, tectonic threat lurking below the surface, like magma about to split the earth apart.
Ephel Duath has existed since 1998, but the last EP and this latest full-length feel very much like a rebirth for the group. What do you think defines this latest incarnation of the band?
Karyn Crisis: I met Davide [Tiso] right after Through My Dog's Eyes was released, and found that all the members [of Ephel Duath] had gone their separate ways. From the beginning, it is my impression that while Davide always had other musicians to help bring his ideas to a full-band reality, it was his own emotional landscapes that were the genesis for Ephel Duath's music, and his vision is so strong that it directs the flow of musicians. After Through My Dog's Eyes, I think what was most impactful was vocalist Luciano George Lorusso's departure. The strong impression I have is that Lucio was like the band's bulldog: the brave, loud voice that spoke up for the band's pride in business as well as from the stage. While Davide's internal world screamed into his music, he is by nature introverted; in contrast, it seems Lucio provided the external voice for the band. When he left, it created a large space to be filled, and Davide had to rely solely on himself not to just write the music, but to forge ahead in every aspect. Even though it seems he had done this since the inception of the band when he alone sent out demo tapes and garnered a name and reputation for the band, there's something to be said for the energetic support and compliment of a band member who makes noise where others don't.
So when I met Davide, he wanted to take a break from Ephel Duath. He felt composing pulled him into a very dark and difficult mental place when he wrestled out the songs. Songwriting for him was demanding, and required lots of time and care and energy, and he was concerned about delving back into that world lest it eat him alive. But, I encouraged him to do so at a certain point, and very loudly, because I saw that his music is an undeniable part of him, like one of his bodily organs, and necessary for his survival in this world. He's not just a guy who is content with stuff in this world; he's rather like the proverbial nomad, preferring to walk like a lone wolf, with as few possessions as possible, no ties, to just follow his inner voice. Without his music, which offers an intimate communication, he seems to get lost in the physical world unhappily. So I felt, at a certain time, it was urgent for him to start making music again, and I intuitively felt it would not be mentally troublesome but rather the songs would come quite easily. And in fact, they did. He would take his guitar and go into the closet and it would seem like ten minutes later he'd written a masterpiece.
When you joined Ephel Duath, what were you hoping to bring into the group via your performances and input?
Crisis: When Davide asked me to join, I was honoured, and I didn't want to change the relationship the voice had with the music. I wanted to offer little contrast to this long-standing relationship and not interfere with the guitars. I also wanted to offer candid support. I have an objectivity about his songwriting where I can tell, the very few times that it would happen, when he was settling for a passage that was weaker than what was already written just to move the song along, and I would not let him get away with it. I feel very protective of the guitars.
What are some of the joys and challenges performing vocals for Ephel Duath?
Crisis: The very real joy is that I didn't expect to feel so connected to any other music than [former project] Crisis. When I sing, I feel a force of energy I call "summoning," but I now understand is channelling. The force of energy comes only when it wants to, when it feels connected, I have no control over it. So for years I was unable to connect to other music because this energy was not connecting. Yet, when Davide offered me to sing for Ephel Duath and gave me the lyrics, I felt that "summoning" feeling again! The challenge is that while his vocal patterns feel familiar to me, they are rather difficult and demanding on the lungs. While they may sound deceptively simple, it was surprising even for [producer] Erik Rutan to hear how much air is required to make these passages happen. Many of them are almost physically impossible!
Your last EP, On Death And Cosmos, felt very exploratory, whereas Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness seems more solid and confident in its aesthetic. What do you see as the progression between these releases?
Crisis: The progression is natural. With the EP, Davide was carefully approaching his music, stepping into trusting his process again. With that accomplished, the album was no less taxing and demanding, but it knocked on his door, shall we say. The music presented itself to him and he followed the call, and didn't question all the time he devoted to writing and then also going out on long, nomadic walks to find the lyrics. So, it was a confidence building in expressing his inner world.
Do you embrace or resist genre labels like progressive, avant-garde and jazz fusion? What do you think is the most accurate description of this music?
Crisis: I have no idea! I am terrible with names, categories, and labels. I don't think any are harmful, and none may be helpful. They can be limiting, but it is equally difficult to explain many expressions.
How do you attempt to balance complexity and accessibility in Ephel Duath? Hemmed By Light seems to walk a very careful line between alienation and challenge.
Crisis: I've not made much attempt to craft the vocals. I felt they told me what to sing and how to sing, and even when I tried to change them, I felt no other options. I felt there was a protective spirit helping to create this music, and I was just a vehicle. This energy did the dictating.
Hemmed By Light is more aggressive, almost wild, when compared to the more thoughtful On Death and Cosmos. Why did the band move towards a more vicious sound? What inspired that change?
Davide Tiso: Since the early stages of the new album's composition, my perception was that these songs were going to be more refined and less aggressive than the EP. You are feeling the exact contrary and that's quite interesting.
Both in terms of music and lyrics the 2012 EP On Death And Cosmos was mournful, heavy, dark. With those songs, I brought Ephel Duath back from few years of silence and I did it in a moment in my life when I was coping with grief. Returning to compose for the band I managed to squeeze out something positive from a very negative moment.
The new album Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness is a much more complex opera that born from months of great musical inspiration. The songs are layered, abstract, adventurous, I envisioned them like trips inward in my own mind. After loss and grief there's a return to form, there's the opportunity to come back to life with few scars but new intentions and, hopefully, a renovated focus. In my particular case, composing and releasing the EP was a very effective tool to canalize my pain and the release I got from it proved to be quite powerful and effective.
The adventurous aspect of Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness shows my need to keep searching new paths in music. My ambition as a composer has always been quite bold and my main focus this time around has been to search for as much musical intensity possible. I wanted every song to reach peaks of drama and catharsis, I wanted the structures to keep being open and undefined, I wanted the instruments to dialogue and fight against each other creating a vortex of different emotions.
What are some of the primary conceptual and lyrical influences at play in this record?
Tiso: The album is very introspective for what concern the lyrics. All the songs are tied together by metaphysical topics, even if there it isn't a proper set concept to be followed. Out of body walks, self empowerment through openness of mind, spirit awareness and communication, mental cleansing and grounding are some of the topics I have touched in the lyrics, all express through a pretty visual and sometime gory approach.
Going inside your own head, taking those paths that aim to the dark side of each of us could be a pretty painful experience, physically speaking too. My lyrics try to emulate that process, combining aery element with brutal and down to earth consequences. Guts, puke, blood, broken bones included. Being aware of the evil in yourself it's a pretty potent reality check. Accepting the nature of it and defining the reason why this is embossed in some of your daily actions it's empowering, it puts you in control of yourself. Some use religion to get close to these topics, in a sort of sick commercial transaction: I believe, fear and worship you, in exchange you redeem my sins. I choose to get to the core of why I act as I do, trying to face my dark side and cope with it. Part of this soul-searching process finished in my lyrics.
What are Ephel Duath's current or burgeoning tour plans, if any?
Crisis: Ephel Duath has some exciting tour plans in the works! It seems we'll be coming to Europe for more than a month in the springtime, and there are also offers coming in from the U.S. after!