No less than five years were needed for AMENRA to come up with a new album. It is the time it took to find the emotional and mental resources to fuel the composition of MASS VI, which may be their highest musical accomplishment so far. It is intense yet ambient, deep yet catchy, heavy yet more melodic than their previous releases.

For those who haven’t heard about the Belgian quintet before, AMENRA plays loud, heavy, dark and deeply emotional music. Although resemblance with bands such as Neurosis, Cult of Luna or Tool can be perceived, AMENRA have managed to develop their own sound and their own aesthetic through their almost 20 years of existence. AMENRA try to reach something deep; and it does so with a rare violence and intensity. It is therefore with no surprise that they caught the attention of Neurosis and were invited to join Neurot Recordings for the release of MASS V five years ago.

The two bands even did a North American tour together last summer along with Converge. The show at the Metropolis in Montreal was an electroshock. Other bands before them have used projections, but few of them have managed to do so with such relevance. The video projections are not in AMENRA a gadget or an artifact that diverts the focus from the musicians, but rather a way to magnify the emotional impact and the spiritual dimension of their music. An aura surrounds the musicians as they deliver their songs with truthfulness and humility. The MASS concept takes shape in front of us. The performance is a communion.

I talked to AMENRA’s singer Colin (aka CHVE), a few days after their record release show at L’Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. An occasion to talk about their new album, his relationship with spirituality, music and art in general.

Colin Church

Colin (photo © Stefaan Temmerman)

Hi Colin and thank you for giving me some of your time for this interview. First of all, I would like to know what your first feeling was just after the release of MASS VI? Relief? Excitation? Apprehension?

Relief really. I felt like a weight was off my shoulders. I was proud too, that we succeeded once again in creating a new album. We’ve almost been around for 20 years now, and I start realizing that this is really something special, not a lot of bands live such a long life.

What also was new is that I had a sense of “certainty” that we had created something of value. Not only to us, but potentially to others.

Why did so much time elapse between the release of MASS V and MASS VI? Did it take longer to compose because you wanted to explore new horizons or because you were just too busy touring or spending time with your families?

And we also have our other projects and solo projects that caught more attention than ever before, so we owed it to ourselves, to do that in a proper way. The work deserved that attention. We have worked hard with AMENRA through these 4-5 years, writing music for film, theatre, releasing a live acoustic album, several split releases with friends of ours, made art films with friends, videoclips and so forth. So it wasn’t a time at all to be lazy and wait it out.

We foremost took the time to wait out the necessity of scripture. We have to have the right experiences, that are worthy of writing about, we need a certain clay to start molding with. And in our case it is adversity, the moments that bring us to our knees, it is those exact moments we start from. All of us. And that takes time, yet those moments always come throughout life.

amenra mass iv

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MASS VI seems more melodic to me, more nuanced than its predecessor. The melodic lines of singing in particular, have more importance in the composition than on the previous albums. Did it happen naturally because the pieces lent themselves better or was it something coordinated by the desire to develop this range of your singing and explore new emotions?

Those other projects I talked about, formed us in a way. We did an awful lot of acoustic shows, and my solo shows as well as numerous cooperations with other bands allowed me to form these different voices within me. Through experience and practice, these other voices became true internal voices. So when I hear a certain part in music, in my head, I am instinctively drawn toward one of those voices. That clean sung voice has become more prominent. It has become a stronger voice.

Music wise, similar things happened to the guitar parts and layers. Levy helped writing and definitely pushed it towards a writing process with more attention to detail.

You use three different languages on this album. Flemish, English and French. Is it for aesthetic reasons or because there are things you can express better with one language than another?

Exactly, some languages tend to say more than the actual words. The beauty in the words or sounds of the words, make it ‘larger’ or better. It makes more sense to me sometimes to use a certain language for a certain story, and bundle of sentences. It’s like poetry, it cannot really be translated you know. Sometimes you feel the words more than you understand them.
In Belgium, we have different languages. It’s a part of our DNA. The use of not ‘one’ sole language also puts attention or emphasis to the fact that what we write about is universal. It lives within every human being and has no prescribed language. If the heart had a language it would be the one spoken within AMENRA.

MASS VI is released on Counsouling sounds in Europe and Neurot Recordings in the USA. Scott Kelly (Neurosis guitarist / singer and co-founder of Neurot Recordings) is a big fan of AMENRA, he sings on a track in MASS V and you have a common project (Absent in Body). How did your meeting with him and your arrival on Neurot Recordings happen? How was the North American tour with Neurosis?

The tour was one of the greatest experiences in our lives. Simply cannot put it in other words. Neurosis as well as Converge took extremely good care of us. And we owe them soooo much for doing so. We all got along well, and it was fluent, not a dark cloud anywhere.

As for Scott, he had a radio show on kmbt radio back then. We got in touch and he asked me to send him whatever we were busy with at the time. I think we met through Dwid from Integrity who is a very good friend of mine. They toured together in the past I think, then AMENRA crossed paths with Scott on one of his solo tours. And one thing led to another, there was a connection there, human, that was undeniable. Sometimes you just click with people, and it needs no words…
We got invited to Neurosis’ Beyond the Pale festival, and that’s where I think they kinda checked us out for real, not only musically, or live. But also on a human level, what kind of guys we were…

Amenra Live

Like MASS V, MASS VI was recorded by Billy Anderson. But two versions of MASS VI are available: The USA version, mixed by Billy Anderson, and the European version, mixed by Jack Shirley (The Atomic Garden Studio). Why did you ask Shirley to take care of the mix for the European version? Was the primary purpose of having two versions to bring out different aspects of the songs? and if so, are you satisfied with the result?

It has always troubled us that writing sessions and recordings have to come to an end. We’ve never found rest in that. On MASS V we had two different mixes by Billy. One for the CD and one for the LP. This time round we have two mixes by different persons. It’s really interesting for us to hear what different people do with the same recording. The nuances, how much attention goes into what, the different magical potions they use and where…

This time we had the possibility to do two mixes, cause obviously it’s not the cheapest decision for a band to do that. We knew Billy would deliver as he always does, and had done a great job already with MASS V. Lennart had worked with Jack before on Oathbreaker’s Rheia, and he was drawn to him to see what he would do with the recordings. It was an interesting exercise for us. We are satisfied obviously.

Is there a producer with whom you would like to work one day, either strictly for sound or for the studio experience?

Not really, we are really happy with Billy up until now. Like I said, it’s more out of curiosity that we’d love to work with others as well. No names come to mind.

Amenra studio

I had the chance to see you live in Montreal during the tour with Neurosis and Converge. Of course I had already seen videos of your lives but it was the first time I attended one of your concerts. I remember that moment-I think it was on the final riff of Am Kreuz-where you were all turned to your drummer. There was a huge black and white landscape projection behind you. It was then that I became aware of the extent of the spiritual dimension of your music. There was like an aura, a bubble around you, that as a spectator I could see yet without being invited. It was a bit like a communion. I then really understood why you named your albums MASS. Your attitude and the aesthetic quality of your projections on stage really allow to capture your universe. Is the visual aspect something that you work on together, or do you leave it to someone? How important is it to your music and group identity?

Well, as you could see it is an extremely important part of our ‘being’, as it helps us define what we do. It makes us more complete you know. Everything we do comes from us, with the help of skilled friends. We sketch our world, and they help us create it. Most of the visuals on that tour were made by either our guitar player Mathieu and myself, or Mathieu’s ex- wife, Tine Guns. She also created our last videoclip for the song “a solitary reign”. We are a truly a family.

I heard Scott Kelly say that if Neurosis had abandoned the projections on stage, it was partly because you had set the bar very high in terms of scenic visuals. For example, the suspension you made at the end of Ritual or the last performance at the concert at l’Ancienne Belgique have a huge impact. These are strong images that stuck in your head and say a lot about your involvement in the band and the intensity of your music. What is the deep meaning of these performances on stage? How do the other band members position themselves in regard to your performances? Is this an aspect of the aesthetics of the group they were looking for, or is it more your show?

“Mon show” is how I would never put it. There is no “shows” to whatever the fuck we will ever do. It is our moment, in time, the moment to set firm foot into the ground, prove the world we exist, and shove our vision in their throats.

I am the only one involved in body modification, that goes further than tattooing. Since I am the one working with word and texts, I automatically have images to uphold. When we work around pain and sacrifice, I want it to be real. I want to be allowed to talk or write about these things. I want it to be justified. I choose these moments, to commemorate certain experiences or moments in time. I lash out into my timeline, so a scar can oblige me to remember. It is my moment to connect with the gods of the world. I try to lose myself in the moment, and make it more precious and memorable than ever. It is my ritual. Mon rite de passage. We are all in this together. I become people’s visible internal pain. I use my body to materialize the hurt within us all. I didn’t burn a candle that night, I sacrificed my own blood, for my loved ones.

I would be curious to know your point of view on the “scream” in music. I have often asked myself as an auditor and musician how we end up screaming in a microphone and why we find it beautiful? For me, it conveys something very “primitive”, it is cathartic. You particularly push your voice compared to other metal or punk/hardcore singers. What does it represent for you? What does it mean? Does it reach something that melodic singing cannot reach?

A cry should be used for what it is intended for. Not an extra “layer” in the music, preferably for me. It tells a story like no other vocal range. You work and write about frustration, despair, fear, loss – these cries are the ones to be used. They have to come from deep within you. An instinctive scream, brings everyone to a halt. The primitive nature of it is unique, it is a weapon, it can protect you.

Est-ce-que c’est beau, pas nécessairement. Est-ce-que c’est vrai?

Yes, always, it should be. Otherwise there is no point in using them. A true scream should hurt.

Suffering, transgression, mutilation and the sacred are recurring themes in the work of Georges Bataille. According to him, bullfighting, but more widely sacrifice, produces an effect of communion of all the spectators through the anguish it generates in the face of death. Is there the same intention in the performances that you do on stage? Personally, I see a great similarity.

Indeed, it seems like I could’ve said it myself. I believe the extreme nature of the happening, brings people more together in the moment than anything else.

There is an intrinsic spiritual dimension to AMENRA. How do you situate yourself spiritually apart from AMENRA?

I have no urge to put me within a certain religious plan. I will not make the mistake all religions have, and concretize it into scripture. I take what is useful to me, and make it my own. I give value to what speaks to me. We make our own spirituality. Belief.

(photo © Stefaan Temmerman)

When told that his poetry was sad or melancholic, Leonard Cohen would reply that it was simply “serious”, because writing requires being alone and when alone, one faces serious things. To find oneself alone to write is in a way to face the tragic side of life. Do you share this point of view?

Very much so, but you can also be alone, within a group of people. It’s that introspection we always talk about within and through AMENRA. You can be the most lonely person on earth, but have a large group of friends around you. I believe it is a sign of our times.

But indeed we tend to be very serious in AMENRA, and in its creational process. It doesn’t make it easier on us. But it is what we do. Beautiful things can be tragic to. Melancholy and a deep sadness within can be grounded in happiness too and the knowledge that one day it might and will all be gone.

I am currently reading a book which is a discussion between an art critic and the painter Pierre Soulages. He has never painted anything that’s figurative; only abstract things. He has notably painted series of huge black paintings called “outrenoirs”. He sees his work as the materialization of the same primal and deep emotion which inspired humans to create parietal wall paintings of Lascaux or Chauvey more than 15,000 years ago. There is something he says that may interest you and I’d be curious to know what you think about it: “Il n’y a pas de progrès en art, seulement des techniques qui se perfectionnent et qui peuvent vous conduire là où vous ne voulez pas forcément aller. Les peintres de Lascaux ou de Chauvet ont d’emblée porté l’art à un sommet”.

Art has to come from deep within. And you indeed can get ‘better’ in it. It has to be a translation of your essential being. A description of your emotional state of mind in time. I have to agree with the idea that art is art, and there is no progress in that. Art is a means to materialize an intrinsic analytic journey. A study if you will of yourself, or an analyze or critical view on certain ‘matters’. An exploration of the self. Very much “in the moment”.

And it can indeed take you to places you do not necessary want to go. With AMENRA we deliberately go to those places. We choose to work with that certain dark matter of life. And our aim is to work bend that dark matter towards the light.

Indeed it’s really interesting that humans at one moment in time all of a sudden developed the will to ‘write’ something down, to document it. Or visually represent it to another. It’s a beautiful thought. That these moments were the first days or ‘art’.

Several writers have written about whether humans can live without believing in God or some kind of transcendental figure; some of them even think that our atheist, individualist, capitalist civilization is probably doomed because of this lack of faith. What do you think about that?

Then again recent times have proved that an extreme love for God, can also be used to feed the downward spiral humanity has fallen into. Or it can just be used as an escape to hide their own individual cruel nature.

I do believe that spirituality has a necessary function in life. It can guide you where needed, and it’s hopeful nature offers strength in times of need.

(photo © Stefaan Temmerman)

Bataille would say something like “God is dead and its death has left a big void”. In your essay “ AMENRA then and now: The history of mass” that was published in the Independent, you say that AMENRA is a platform for “the moment you turn religious”. Do you think AMENRA’s approach to music is a way to fill this void?

I strongly believe it is. It obliges you to be humble, to be one in the moment, the pas present and future blend into one. It also brings to light that, we are all still connected with each other, whether you want it or not. Faith joins us. The knowledge that we are ‘all in this together’ is undeniable, and unmistakably there in the music.

It is something you can turn to when you need to. Something strong enough to hold onto. When you fell down and need to get up.

Still in the same essay, you say that you are not sure whether your music will survive you but you think or hope your message will. What is the message exactly?

Hard to say, in my head its perfectly clear, and I know that when you read a lot of the answers in our ‘talk’ here, you know what it is too. Everybody who ‘understands’ AMENRA knows what I am talking about.

People have been working with this ‘truth’ for ages, since the early days. The arts have always made it one of its main reccurring ‘themes’. I like to refer to it as ‘the Essence’, ‘the Truth’… The journey towards that Truth.

Music can be simply a sort of entertainment. It is definitely not what AMENRA intends to be. It intends to be more. But what is this “more”? What makes music switch from entertainment to “more”? Is it when there is this “more” that music becomes art?

I believe it is. To make music you need ‘musical’ skills. To create something that transcends, that moves people in ways unmatched, you need more. More than musicality, you need ‘spirituality’, or a will to connect with that something ‘divine’. For that you need to explore your heart and soul in very profound ways.

You come from the punk / hardcore scene that is traditionally politically engaged, usually more than the metal scene. What have you kept from this scene?

Our morals and work ethic. The sense and necessity of Brotherhood. Being a Family.

Which bands or musicians have influenced you the most?

Neurosis, Tool, 16 horsepower, Cave, Rollins but thats only me personally

Has AMENRA become a full time job or do you have jobs on the side?

Most of us still have their day jobs. And we will always try to do so. Sometimes it becomes extremely busy though, with RA and all the other projects we have.

How does the writing process work in AMENRA? Does it all start with a guitar riff, by jamming together at the practice space, or with an idea, words or a vision that you try to put into music?

It used to solely be done by jamming, or guitar players would do some writing at home, and then bring it to the group. These days we unfortunately lack the time for endless jamming, and discussing certain sounds. So a lot was written at home. Levy wrote an awful lot of things for MASS VI, it was his first time to contribute to an actual studio album. He joined us right after MASS V was written. His energy was welcome, after having written 5 studio albums, and a zillion other releases.

He approached it from a different angle, he was able to view and analyze AMENRA from another perspective, for a couple of years, as a listener, not a creator. So that definitely made it incredibly interesting to hear his take on ‘AMENRA music’ as well as reworking some of the parts as a whole.
The idea or vision behind an AMENRA album will always be the same. It will always have the same spirit.

After the live album “alive”, which is composed of acoustic songs only, did it come to your mind to write an acoustic album?

Writing an acoustic full length has always been on our mind since the release of our Afterlife ep in 2009.

Could have MASS VI be an acoustic album?

No

Why? Is it too far away from the initial/original concept of MASS?

Hard to explain, just would not make sense in my head. There is no clear “concept” of what MASS should be. But the acoustic things tend to work with the afterlife.

Do you find the same emotion and intensity when you perform the acoustic songs? I guess that for you particularly it’s a totally different experience, isn’t it?

It is a totally different experience yes, but it still feels like it makes total sense in the whole. It feels like a necessary chapter in our ‘book’. We just work with a different emotional palette. I tend to experience it more as sounds and words directed to the earth, to our children. As where ‘heavy’ AMENRA is more directed to the sky. The Afterlife idea came from the realization that we actually had the possibility to address our children from beyond the grave. Sing them to sleep, comfort them with our music and words, give the strength when needed… ground their thoughts.

You play Hurdy-Gurdy in your solo project CHVE. It’s a pretty uncommon instrument isn’t it? How did you get introduced to this instrument and what do you like about it? What made you use this rather than synths to produce the drones on your albums?

I wanted to get back to the earlier days of drone. I wanted it to be a European instrument. The moments where people manually created sounds, instead of counting on solely machinery to do it for you. Movement, Wood. Vibration. Texture. The uncontrollable nature of it. The blending of different eras. Acoustic instruments with digital effects… It’s means for exploration. I will never be a button, cable sort of guy, I think. By studying an instrument, that instrument also implies you to study yourself. And I love that Idea.

In AMENRA’s acoustic shows you play a beautiful Flemish traditional song. Do you like medieval and traditional music? The main guitar melody on “A solitary reign” sounds a little bit like that to me. Is it a hidden influence that is now becoming more important?

I think it is, yes. I think its our way again to look for inspiration. Close to home.

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About The Author

Charles Marty
Blogueur - RREVERB

Charles vit entre Montréal et Chicago, deux villes dont il aime explorer la richesse des scènes musicales à la recherche de nouvelles perles. Mélomane et musicien éclectique, ses goûts musicaux vont du punk de garage miteux à la musique classique de chambre, en passant par le black métal des cavernes scandinaves et le jazz des bayous de la Louisiane. Au-delà de la musique, il s’intéresse aux gens qui la créent et la font vivre ainsi qu'aux idéologies qui les animent. En tant que musicien, il a parcouru l'Europe et les États-Unis à travers des squats et des clubs crasseux dont il a rapporté des souvenirs pittoresques.