by RS Frost
Multi-disciplinarian Ben Boyle is responsible for some of Australia’s most forward-thinking and experimental extreme music to date. Boasting beyond-competent abilities on almost every instrument, not to mention vocals, string arrangements, sampling and studio production, Ben has been actively embedded within the Australian metal community for the better part of 15 years.
I thought it would be prudent to gain some insight regarding this multitude of artistic offerings over the years, and Ben was kind enough to provide access to the inner workings of his creative ruminations, amongst other things, in this candid interview.
- I was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, which I think very much helped shape my music and my passion for it. Melbourne has an active music scene which was a big part of my youth, and growing up following Australian bands like DAMAGED, PSYCROPTIC, BLOOD DUSTER and INFERNAL METHOD, among many others, inspired me greatly and helped me see how possible it was to write and express extreme music in the Australian music scene.
I began playing guitar around the age of 12. Being surrounded by music through my parents and my brother helped push me into that direction. I idolised Dimebag Darrell of PANTERA and was blown away by what he could do with the guitar. One day I realised that it was something I could potentially do myself, with the right amount of practice and dedication. I began pursuing, playing and creating my own style and sounds. Ever since I started playing, from around six months or so, I was trying to write songs that were my own, with whatever chords or scales I had at the time. This led me to meet like-minded people in highschool and begin jamming and trying to start a band.
The project that I formed out of high school with some friends was called SCLERA.We began gigging locally around Melbourne with bands such as BE’LAKOR, NE OBLIVISCARIS and THE OCULARIS INFERNUM around 2005-2006 I believe, though after a lineup change and differing opinions on the direction of the band, we disbanded. This led to the creation of A MILLION DEAD BIRDS LAUGHING (AMDBL) by myself and Dean Turner (who was drumming in Sclera at the time).
At present my active projects are HADAL MAW, VIPASSI and AMDBL, as well as a couple of unannounced projects, which will hopefully see the light of day in the near future. Other projects I've been involved with over the years are APHOTIC DAWN, MALIGNUS, HATCHET DAWN, VOMIT, PRIMORDIAL SPACE and probably a few more I've forgotten. I’ve always kept busy and always kept writing.
Busy is an understatement. Over the past years Ben has appeared on no less than ten albums, a handful of demo and EP releases, and has toured Australia extensively, not to mention multiple international forays.
In order to thoroughly explore Ben’s discography, I decided to start with the most recent offering, AMDBL’s ‘To the Ether’, which was released in February 2019.
This album was, from what I understand, a good five years in the making and is one of the most manically adventurous pieces of extreme metal in recent memory.
- ‘To the Ether’ is a very deep and unique beast and differs drastically to any other album I've developed or worked on and, to be honest, it crossed my mind at a few key moments while working on it that it might not even see the light of day, due to a multitude of factors. Some of the demos date back to 2014; there was only a few at that time, one of which was ‘Umbilical Dystrophy’ which we ended up releasing as a single in 2016, alongside an unreleased EP, as the album continued to develop in a different direction.
I guess, all up, I was writing and rewriting the album for a good four years; some of the songs have multiple versions as I tried to push them as far as I could creatively and had a tone and atmosphere in mind. It didn’t quite all come together until Dan Presland (drums) helped push it forward as I was in a dark place mentally; his drive and enthusiasm inspired me to really solidify and pull together the core material, which makes up the “heavier” guitar-oriented tracks. The ambient synth-heavy tracks were a different story, though something I was heavily invested in at the time, and love to experiment with in general. It wasn’t until Adam Stewart (vocals) confirmed his return to the band that those ambient ideas really took shape. Things progressed at a steady (though somewhat slow) pace from there which lead to Nick Rackham (bass) coming on board to do the bass late in the recording process, which I could not be happier about.
This album is a smorgasbord of conceptual ideas and narratives, which are further communicated through the stunning visual representations accompanying the music. What is this release all about?
- The core concepts of the album deal with the idea of the Muse, creation, as well as mental illness and the part it plays in that process, be it music itself or otherwise. If you break down the songs, some of them can essentially be seen as love songs, as they deal with the Muse, or the idea of the Muse. While others deal more directly with depression, desire, creating or longing within that framework. The setting is a void, with shadow and fire, masculine and feminine, a duality, and how they attract and repel.
‘To the Ether’s’ album cover (by View From The Coffin) depicts the Muse at the centre; the back cover (by Adam Stewart) is a representation of a yin/yang duality between the characters at the core of the concept.
What were you wanting to achieve with this album?
- I wanted to capture the way I was feeling at the time in a way I had never heard before; I was deeply depressed and have struggled with chronic depression since my teens. A lot of the writing and shaping of the album occurred during a major relapse which ended up leading to self-harm and becoming suicidal, which eventually led to me being medicated; which is hard to say, but I feel is very important to understand how the album works and what it represents. The idea was the chaos of swinging between extremes, capturing the depths of the lows, with the intensity of the thoughts that accompany it; like floating in a void of uncertainty. Sparks flying out of darkness.
AMDBL has been around since 2008, and have released four albums and an EP in that time. My first exposure to this band was at The Arthouse in Melbourne, supporting ULCERATE if I’m not mistaken. The band had just put out 2011’s ‘Force Fed Enlightenment’ which was an exercise in grindcore meets death metal on acid, and left me somewhat bewildered. I recall being particularly taken back by the unique vocal stylings of the band’s marauding frontman.
Can you offer any insight into the band’s early days?
- I do remember that show! That was actually the release show for ‘Force Fed Enlightenment’. We couldn’t have been more psyched to be on those shows with Ulcerate as we were huge fans. The early days were immense fun and very freeing creatively for me; at that time, it was the exact band and sound I was aspiring to achieve. Everything fell into place just right with that lineup and I felt as though there were no more boundaries. It was truly inspired.
2012 saw AMDBL release ‘Xen’. This album was so lauded throughout the country that I can only assume it had a significant impact on the band and gave way to the opportunities that would follow.
Taking the elements that made ‘Force Fed Enlightenment’ such an interesting and novel work, grinding them down to a fine powder, snorting them through a rusty pipe, and then utilising the psychotropic effects that would surely follow, ‘Xen’ was a lean, mean grinding machine, the likes of which had not been heard by anyone up till this point.
How did Xen come together, and why do you think it had such an effect on the scene at that point in time?
- ‘Xen’ was essentially already written by the time ‘Force Fed Enlightenment’ had been released, and we were already playing a lot of those songs live. It is one of the benchmarks of my creative life and I am still so proud of what we achieved and what we captured on those songs. I feel that people can hear, with the varying elements creating such a unique experience, that the band was trying to push extreme music somewhere new, and it is what attracted new fans and old fans alike, and pushed word of mouth to new levels regarding the band.
What was your goal when writing this album, and what do you think is responsible for the unique approach to grind/death metal that eventuated?
- When it got to pulling it together and recording it as a band, we approached ‘Xen’ as an all or nothing album. We really pushed ourselves to create something singular and that captured each of us creatively, which I feel we accomplished. Everything had fallen into just the right place to make that album possible; a once in a lifetime chain of events, I couldn’t replicate it if I tried. The approach to the material as far as the writing; we all appreciated very different forms of music.
The grind and death elements were the catalysts, but not the guide. I worshipped grind bands like DISCORDANCE AXIS and The Ocularis Infernum, which definitely influenced my approach to the guitar. The direct and concise way grind delivered its message and its intensity is what inspired AMDBL at that time and I felt that the focus and compact framework could be applied to any sound or style, which is what we strived for. To capture the grind ethic and intensity, with the broadness of no genre restraints.
In 2013 ‘Bloom’ was released, and was a distinct side-step from the band’s previous material. Original vocalist Adam Stewart had departed and was replaced by Darren Leslie of The Ocularis Infernum.
What was the situation surrounding ‘Bloom’, and the change of front man for the band?
- Unfortunately, on the back of ‘Xen’ and the buzz and touring that followed, the band suffered a bit of an internal strain; mainly on a personal level for some of the other members. Adam eventually took a hiatus from the band due to health issues (mental and physical) which left things in a bit of a limbo. It had occurred close to a touring commitment with BRAZEN BULL, which we ended up doing instrumentally. That being said, the tour was an absolute blast and we had a few guest vocalists on a couple of the dates which turned out to be really fun (Darren actually jumped up and did one song with us on the Melbourne date).
Due to the momentum we had, we were speaking with Darren about the possibility of stepping in so we could continue touring and moving forward; we were excited about the idea as we were huge fans of The Ocularis Infernum and the impact they had on us when starting the band.
Once Darren was on board I quickly had a lot of new material (because I can never stop writing), some of which transferred over from material already in the pipeline with Adam. At that time I was very fascinated by Samurai and Japanese culture which really influenced ‘Bloom’ and the concepts; a lot of that album deals with Hagakure, Bushido, the human body, honour, and finding the right path in life.
The name ‘Bloom’ was inspired by the line “A man lives as briefly as a flower” from Akira Kurosawa’s Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood). You can hear the dialogue/singing from the film at the end of the song ‘Bloom’ on the album. Though the album is different compared to our other material, I'm still very proud of it, and so happy I got to work with Darren, who is definitely one of my favourite heavy vocalists in Australia.
Ben’s other currently active band is Hadal Maw. Formed in 2010, Hadal Maw have released two albums; ‘Senium’ (2014) and ‘Olm’ (2017), and for their most recent effort, a 30-minute long EP, ‘Charlatan’, in 2018.
The band takes their name from the Hadal Zone; a delineation of the deepest trenches of the ocean, inherited from Hades, Greek god of the underworld, and is a vastly different beast than AMDBL, sitting firmly in the down-tuned groove-laden corner of death metal.
Can you tell me about how Hadal Maw came to be?
- Hadal Maw began as a studio project by Nick Rackham (guitar), and Aaron Grice (ex-vocals). The project had started in 2010 though I didn’t join until 2011-2012 when the decision was made to take it live and become an active project. I was approached by Nick and Rob Brens (drums); we did a two-track promo release in October 2012 and began gigging across Australia. That early material was written solely by Nick, from there I mainly contributed to the leads and second guitar parts and structural changes as there was already a slew of material to work with which became the album ‘Senium’. My major contributions began with ‘Olm’ and ‘Charlatan’.
Ben is also the main songwriter behind the instrumental progressively driven band Vipassi, who have a lone release at this stage, 2016’s ‘Śūnyatā’.
The album title is taken from Mahāyāna Buddhism and refers to the tenet that "all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature (svabhava)". The word is also used in Zen Buddhism to represent a primordial empty awareness or conscious void.
How did this project come to be?
- Vipassi formed as a project between myself and Dan Presland; he had briefly left Ne Obliviscaris at the time and we had always wanted to work together and had a couple of projects before Vipassi that slowly changed and ended up morphing into what Vipassi became. We jammed a lot and worked on achieving the sound for years. Out of all that emerged ‘Śūnyatā’.
Once again, a completely different musical expression. Where did this music come from?
- My inspiration for the material, in a deeper sense, comes from a meditative approach as well as being inspired by Dan and his approach to drumming and music. I am fascinated by philosophy, belief systems and the spiritual development of humans in general throughout history; it’s a philosophical project that I wanted to try to capture with music. The origins and mysteries of such motivations in mankind really inspire Vipassi; ranging from nature, to science, to the arts, to our perception of time, to Buddhist and religious concepts on Śūnyatā.
The material of the new album is very much inspired by the history of light, and fire, and how humans achieved and interpreted such monumental leaps; from darkness to light, but also from the darkest night which reveals the stars, to the manufactured neon light of modern society and its disregard of the wonders of the dark; as well as the destructive qualities of fire and what it brought to humanity in influencing worship, science, and technological advancements. I try to put myself in that head space and see what comes out musically.
Why did you choose to name the album Śūnyatā? Do you follow any particular spiritual path yourself?
- I don’t follow a specific path; I'm very open and interested in how belief systems affect humanity and look at the majority of those types of disciplines in what the core message or morals are communicating and how that’s influenced society’s development. Vipassi is certainly inspired by Buddhist thought, though it’s not exclusively that. ‘Sunyata’ compiles a collection of works that each interprets a different aspect of humanity that makes us what we are.
You were also responsible for the studio side of this album – how was that experience for you?
- It was great and very fulfilling to be more actively involved. Since the beginning of Vipassi taking shape I had a clear vision and sound I wanted to capture, so I became more involved with that side of things while working with Troy Mccosker, who is a legend, to bring it to life and match what I had heard in my head. It was a complicated process, especially when it came to the choir vocals performed by my good friend Chantelle Clancy. The drums were tracked in full one-takes and not corrected or shaped with editing so we could preserve a natural feeling and flow; the layering and the mix of tones had to be just right so it all worked together, and still captured a clear yet warm natural sound. There is a lot going on in the compositions and each aspect had to have its own space. I feel the vinyl version of the album is the true medium and sound that does it justice.
I should mention that throughout your projects, there seems to be a core group of musicians who tend to pop up in various bands at various times; namely Dan Presland and Nick Rackham.
- They are two of my favourite people on Earth and inspire me greatly, not just musically, but on a personal level as well. We work so well together and understand each other’s quirks and motivations, so collaborating musically feels so natural. I’ve known Dan since I was roughly 16 years old and have seen how far he’s pushed his craft and grown to be one of the best drummers and best humans I know. Likewise with Nick, though I first met him when joining Hadal Maw in 2011/2012; he’s a multi-instrumentalist, incredible artist (he did AMDBL’s ‘Bloom’ artwork, as well as Hadal Maw’s artwork!), and all-around amazing person.
Do you have any particularly stand-out experiences from your journey so far?
- My most memorable touring experience was Hatchet Dawn touring with MARILYN MANSON in 2009 across four sold out dates in Australia. The biggest show I've played to date was a sold out Festival Hall in Melbourne to 5,000 people. The feeling was indescribable. Other big experiences were Hadal Maw touring Europe for the first time, A Million Dead Birds Laughing performing ‘Equilibrium’ with Aaron Grice (ex-Hadal Maw) and James Turfrey at Sonic Forge Festival 2013, which was a hugely cathartic experience after the ‘Bloom’ sessions, and recording and hearing the final mix of ‘Xen’, it was the most creative and freeing album I've ever been apart of, and all the parts came together just right. Very proud of it. And lastly, Vipassi signing to SEASON OF MIST; one of my favourite labels.
In contrast, the more testing times, the writing of ‘To the Ether’ was quite possibly one of the hardest periods of my life. I really dug deep in creating the album and for a long time I was uncertain whether it would even happen for me. Also, the revolving door of vocalists and fill-ins Hadal Maw dealt with before solidifying the lineup in the lead up to recording ‘Olm’; it was a very frustrating time of hitting constant hurdles until things fell into place. ‘Charlatan’ is really the culmination of all that, being the first release written and recorded with the current lineup.
Given your time spent within the industry as a whole, I’m curious as to your motivations for maintaining such consistent active involvement?
- I very much enjoy touring and performing, though I'm mostly focused on the creative side of things. I love writing and recording most of all, and also collaborating, hearing the final product of something I heard in my head at some point and achieving a feeling through that, it is forever motivating. My brain tends to be fairly abstract so I'm not too savvy on the business or networking side of things.
It might sound cliché but music means everything to me; it saved my life, without music and being able to express myself, I wouldn’t be here, and of that I am 100% certain. ‘To the Ether’ is the very evidence of that.
My wife and my close friends, the majority of whom are musical themselves, inspire and push me to continue and I couldn’t be more grateful for them being a part of my life.
What does the future hold for you musically and/or personally?
- Hopefully just the ability to continue to put out albums, and tour all this madness and mayhem I'm a part of. Plans and writing for Hadal Maw’s third album are underway and going well, AMDBL are recording for a split to be released in the very near future. Vipassi album two is written and should see the light of day within the next year. Exciting times ahead.
This article is an excerpt of the full interview conducted, which explores Ben’s formative years and introduction to music, the importance of long-term personal relationships and ruminations on touring overseas and the ever-changing extreme metal landscape.
The full interview will be available in a later print edition of Inner Missive.