by R.S. Frost
Having released a demo, two splits and a full-length album – the critically acclaimed underground gem ‘Paramnesia’ – Australian death metal band ALTARS seemed to have begun an inexorable ascent to success. Then in 2016, after more than 10 years together, the band announced its cessation.
I caught up with guitarist/songwriter Lewis Fischer to discuss his musical infancy, the lead up to, and moments of, glory with the band and what he has in store for those of us who were left reeling and unsatiated when Altars crumbled into dust.
- People often attribute Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world as the reason its underground music scene has produced such extreme music. There’s probably some truth in that, but I think it’s a double-edged sword. I grew up in Adelaide, South Australia, which is arguably even more isolated. At least in comparison to places like Melbourne, which has always had a much more concentrated music scene.
Adelaide has produced some incredibly unique bands, I think in part because of this isolation. But there are fewer bands and venues. It becomes a bit of a bubble. There are some important events, past and present, which have opened that bubble up (BLACK CONJURATION, UNSOUND and other annual arts festivals). I think those kinds of larger-scale events have historically been very important for Adelaide. They inject something back into the scene and I think renew people’s hunger and enthusiasm for live music. It gets people back out to the smaller local shows.
I now live in Melbourne and really appreciate the number of venues and regular (and irregular) events on in the city. You can head out on a Tuesday night to the Make It Up Club and see world-class musicians improvise everything from harsh noise to ethnic drone-jazz or experimental percussion. It can be incredibly inspiring and it’s easy to take these things for granted.
Taking into account what you would eventually go on to create, is there a primary source of inspiration behind your artistic output?
- I’m not sure. I think a lot of my inspiration and motivation has come from outside of death metal, and even music. Trey (Azagthoth) was a huge influence on me in my early days, as was Luc Lemay, before I found more of my own style and voicing.
On Paramnesia I really began to push the dynamic range of the music. At least within a death metal context. These days, I’m trying to approach sound more consciously for its physical properties. As in its literal sonic and physical properties when fired out of a speaker cone and how that makes you feel. If you see a band like SUNN O))) in concert, you’re not just listening with your ears but with your bones and muscle too. I think the best death metal can have a similar effect, as can other music.
I’m old school, but I still think death metal should innovate (at least in a way that’s still within the realm or aesthetic of death metal). PORTAL did, and were probably responsible for a shift within the scene generally. Once upon a time, nobody had really heard anything like MORBID ANGEL either. Death metal is inherently self-restrictive, which can be a good thing. I often try to look outside of it for things death metal might be able to do.
Experimental classical music is something that has influenced me a lot. XENAKIS is a good example. I find some things in jazz and electronic music that speak to me in the same way death metal does, too. See Sydney trio THE NECKS. Even art, or seemingly mundane sounds from the natural or constructed world can be inspiring.
In 2008 the Altars demo was released and limited to 500 copies on CD. The following year the band appeared on a split release with Australian band TZUN TZU.
How was the writing and recording process for the demo, and how did this split release come about?
- The demo was written primarily in my teens. I think at the time I was very conscious of trying to carve out some kind of sound or identity. I suppose that kind of behaviour is probably typical of most creative people in their early careers. The process was probably slower than it needed to be, and I still have a sometimes-unhealthy streak of perfectionism. I’ve learnt to work much quicker and more productively though.
After playing a couple of shows, we met Don Taylor from TZUN TZU (and ONI, MARTIRE etc.). He was incredibly supportive, became a close friend and taught me a lot about the industry. We recorded the demo shortly thereafter with Nick Seja (also of Tzun Tzu). Don instigated the split release, from memory, which initially was supposed to be a four-way split with two other bands including IGNIVOMOUS (this became The Assassin/ The Burning Equinox split released by NUCLEAR WAR NOW! PRODUCTIONS). Another deal was lined up but fell through. I released the split with the intention of beginning a label but didn’t really have the cash to bankroll that kind of operation.
Then in 2012 another split release, this time with the Czech Republic’s HEAVING EARTH, came to be. This split featured two songs which would later be included on the 2013 album.
- We’d nearly completed the album and wanted to demo some of the new material. We came across some studio time, thanks to a friend who had been studying sound engineering at university. He could only book the studio in four-hour blocks per day. Naturally, we booked the studio between 8:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. on one day and then 12:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. the next.
We recorded the two tracks, Husk and Descent, only as a promo. We hadn’t released anything in a while and wanted people to know what we’d been working on. I also sent this off to Anastasis of DEAD CONGREGATION and NUCLEAR WINTER RECORDS who ended up releasing the album.
We were approached sometime before that by Gab Skowron (NIHILISTIC HOLOCAUST RECORDS), who wanted to release the recording as a split with HEAVING EARTH. The recording was quite primitive - we hadn’t recorded it with any formal release in mind - but Gab convinced us it was a good idea.
Altars unleashed their debut album ‘Paramnesia’ to the unsuspecting masses in September of 2013 and people took notice immediately.
Can you tell me about putting this album together, the themes included and the massive response it received?
- The overarching theme of the album was this concept of life, death and rebirth. The name Paramnesia itself refers to a distortion of memory and sense of confusion between fiction and reality, or déjà vu.
The album came together slowly at first, and then very suddenly. We’d been performing some songs like Khaz’neh for some time. Much to my bandmates’ dismay, I was responsible for killing off a lot of tracks in that weird in-between period. But then something clicked. I felt like I’d finally found my stamp and I think the band itself had reached a particular point of synergy.
From memory, the last song we wrote was Ouroboros. Which might be my favourite. I think it captures the album well as a whole and also what I’d personally set out to achieve, particularly in terms of dynamics.
I think objectively we knew the album was pretty weird, but good. It probably wasn’t until we got out of Adelaide and were playing shows interstate that we realised what kind of response the album was getting. I’m honestly very thankful people bought it, enjoyed it and came to shows, and that people still talk about it.
Receiving praise aplenty from both the underground and mainstream metal press, you were able to support some of death metal’s mainstays on home soil.
Do any particularly memorable experiences stand out to you from this time?
- Altars was always a challenge. Partly due to the typical personality stuff (including my own, I think I could be pretty demanding at times). But, predominantly due to a severe mental health issue (specifically, agoraphobia) affecting Cale Schmidt, our vocalist and bass player.
I had always wanted the band to tour more, to go overseas. We physically couldn’t. Even touring within Australia was physically and mentally taxing. I came to accept it as a hard limit early on in the life of the band, but it was always at odds with my ambition.
Cale was the conduit who could translate certain ideas between drummer Alan Cadman and I, and vice versa. He is a brilliant songwriter in his own right and was essential to our dynamic as a trio (check out MONOMAKH and his most recent project OSTRO, conceived while he was in recovery at a mental health facility).
In hindsight, it’s incredible we played a gig at all.
We played some insane shows at the Bendigo Hotel in Melbourne. The first few times we played there were particularly special. Also, performing with ULCERATE and DEAD RIVER RUNS DRY at the Bald Faced Stag in Sydney. That was an incredible gig.
Otherwise, the last show we ever played which was alongside good friends DEAD CONGREGATION. I didn’t really want that to be our last show but felt like I didn’t have a choice given the circumstances. Cale’s illness had taken a severe turn for the worse and I could no longer guarantee we would be able to perform a show as a full band. In some ways, I’ve blamed myself for that, by having pushed him too hard.
After Altars ended, I took a much-needed break. This last year has been invigorating for me in terms of music though.
What creative ventures do you have planned moving forward?
- At the moment I’m working with Ignivomous on their new album. It feels incredible to be playing and writing death metal again, and to do so in what is a very different dynamic. We’re expecting to begin recording in the coming months, prior to a European tour and appearance at Kill-Town Death Fest in September.
I’m also working on a solo experimental/noise project, which I’m hoping to take live and put a release out for this year. I’m also composing music for a short film called ‘The Gallery’ which, pending label support, I’m hoping to release on LP.
It’s been refreshing to work on music more actively again. Some of these projects are very much outside the spectrum of death metal but share a similar aesthetic to my other work. I’m primarily creating electroacoustic music using modular synthesiser, field recordings, contact microphones and other analogue electronics.
Thank you for your time and insight into your work.
I now invite you to offer any closing sentiments you may have.
- Thank you for the invitation to share these thoughts. It’s humbling to think that people care and I’m looking forward to sharing new music with you all soon.
This interview is featured in the print edition of Inner Missive #2, alongside discussions with THY DARKENED SHADE, WOLCENSMEN, THE ANTICHRIST IMPERIUM, ART AS CATHARSIS, GRIFT, ALTARAGE, ADRIAN BAXTER, PRIMITIVE MAN, COSMIC PUTREFACTION, EMYN MUIL, GIGAN, BYRDI, SLUDGE, ULCERATE and ÖXXÖ XÖÖX.