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The Abyss Stares Back... Smiling: Amenra Interviewed
Louise Brown , January 16th, 2018 12:37

As Amenra bring their grace-giving gloom to CTM Festival in 2018, Colin H. van Eeckhout discusses how he found light in the dark.

All photos by Stephan Vanfleteren

If the 1990s was the decade of optimism, the new millennium ushered in chaos, uncertainty, an abyss of terror. New wars, new hatreds, new fears. New technologies would make communication easier, and yet demolish the need for contact altogether. Humanity stripped bare. New neuroses, new anxieties, new pills to hide the pain. It was then that Amenra sought to find solace in music and art.

Starting out as a hardcore punk band in West Flanders as the new Centuries met, Colin H. van Eeckhout and Mathieu J. Vandekerckhove, along with a revolving cast of fellow misers, channelled their crisis into catharsis and the Church of Ra was founded, based on a bedrock of dark, desolate doom music. With Amenra as the collective's mother band, they have produced six full-length albums, or “masses” and a growing number of collaborations and split-releases, DVDs and even a book.

Each mass starts as a bleak reminder of our personal inner turmoil, but as the listener begins to ponder upon life's fragile futility, their compositions pulsate and ebb, building unbearable tension that inevitably breaks and begins to crack. On each of their six records, Amenra prey upon your darkness, and when you are forced to submit, they suddenly provide the much-needed salve. Their music is pulled taut, and snaps, and the light floods in.

From the opening strains of Black Sabbath's Black Sabbath, with it's raging storm, and ominous bells, dissonant guitars – and Ozzy Osbourne asking life's great question, 'What is this that stands before me?' – heavy metal has become synonymous with despair, darkness and dread. Black Sabbath, psychedelic rock, early heavy metal, noise bands such as Swans and Throbbing Gristle, punk acts like Black Flag and Amebix, all would collide by the last gasps of the 20th Century to provide fertile inspiration for new artists looking to building on that tension, and ultimate release. None more so than American sludge acts, Neurosis, Melvins and Crowbar. It would be on this unholy trinity that Amenra would pin all hope, or lack thereof.

This year, CTM 2018 looks for “music and sound that deals with growing strain and that unsettles us for a reason. Music and sound that mirrors the dissonance of the world and resonates with our anxieties.” The first thought is that there is no better festival this year for Amenra than this one, the second thought is that, in a world of turmoil, why would anyone want to spend a weekend embracing it? Surely, the opposite is needed. That doesn't sound very entertaining or pleasant or...

Colin H. van Eeckhout: ...inviting?

Exactly.

CHVE: I think, people don't look solely for entertainment. Especially people who have an unrest inside their heads. I don't know if all the bands playing have a thematic link with turmoil, but I can really imagine there being an audience for that. For me, it makes perfect sense as a theme, because it's a world that we know unconsciously and when I look to the music I like, there's always a certain unrest, or threat, or melancholy, or sadness. It's never perfect, and it's never positive, and that's what draws me in, whatever the style or genre might be. We're honoured to play as turmoil is what we work with as our base too.

Do you think that listening to dark music with dark themes can actually enlighten the listener. For example, I've never come away from an Amenra concert feeling drained, even though some of the music you write is emotionally complex and difficult. I may go in drained, but I actually come out feeling like, there's some therapy maybe?

CHVE: Yes, that's what makes it interesting to me. That's what makes it inexplicable, too. Why is it so? I don't know. Maybe because, in some way, you can take bad energy from people by really addressing it full on. On stage, you give the people, or the pain they carry within, a voice. Or you translate it in a certain way, which makes it evaporate. But remember, the dark themes do not necessarily mean that you draw people in more deeply or carry them with you on a downward spiral. Of course, you can have bands who play dark music and channel a negative energy, who actually give you reason to feel like life is futile and not worth living, but I am happy to be a part of the other side of the scale. It makes more sense to me as a human to use this artistic medium to create something, to do something beautiful, to do something good, to mean something to someone in a positive way.

You think that turmoil or despair can be beautiful?

CHVE: The despair isn't beautiful, but it's the overcoming of it that is beautiful; the chapter right behind it, the growing from it, the growing together, and the realisation of the importance of love and connection. That is what despair and adversity triggers, or should trigger.

Without pushing to talk too personally, unless you want to, do you feel like sometimes your art and the music of Amenra, and particularly the performances of Amenra, are cathartic for you, or do you sometimes fear that you are dabbling, or channelling for the sake of your art, things that maybe you wish that you could just forget or ignore?

CHVE: No. We don't wish to forget it. You can't forget stuff like that. You just keep on carrying it within you and then those thoughts choose when they pop up. However, if you choose your own moment to work with that energy, then they don't pop up as much as they would if we tried to push them back. That's the link to catharsis, that's the link to it becoming therapeutic. I never mind talking about my personal experience because I don't fear that someone will misuse that information, I don't really care about that. I don't fear that what people might think of me. If they want to think I'm a cry baby, they can. It's my business and it's my story that I tell and I want it to be as honest as possible because I really appreciate honest music. I can't appreciate music that is strongly built around image or this idea of being macho, it doesn't affect me, it doesn't touch me. I always appreciated artists who are personal and emotional and are able to really translate their true feelings into music or art. It makes it more valuable and more real and I believe that it enters someone's heart a lot quicker. You're able to touch someone when it's truthful.

Have you ever had contact from fans who have told you that your music helped them through dark times?

CHVE: That's a beautiful thing, in a way because we can only try to make the music as good as we can, and as honest and truthful as we can. But we can never work towards touching someone else, there's no blueprint for that. So as soon as we get these testimonials through the mail, or when people come up to us after a show and hear their stories, it blows you away that you can mean something to someone at a certain time in their life. It gives you a sense of fulfilment, that you've done something small but great. Fans get our symbols tattooed on them because our music means something to them, and it's probably the best compliment you can get as a musician.

Let's talk about the music that touched you. At CTM 2018, you are billed above Scott Kelly with John Judkins. It's not news to anyone that knows Amenra, that you were hugely influenced by Scott's band Neurosis. And then they took you under their wing, and signed you to their label, Neurot. That must have been incredible, that a band who meant so much to you, were giving you such support. And now Scott is supporting you, how does that feel, and how did his music influence you when you started the band?

CHVE: Ah, but remember it's him performing as a solo artist, so it's not like Neurosis are opening up for us. It's a logical move to put an acoustic solo artist before a heavy band. It wouldn't make sense to make him play after us, even though he deserves it more than anything. You have metal bands who have a lot of anger and frustration in their music, and you have others that draw more from the heart, but a band like Neurosis add a more animalistic, instinctive force to it. They help you fight something inside you. When I discovered them it was during the Through Silver in Blood and Enemy of the Sun era and they were really a full-on attack, on all the senses. It opened my eyes that there could be so much force from music. It had so much power; a tribal commotion.

Were you surprised when they signed you to their label?

CHVE: It's crazy,if you asked the same question fifteen years ago, or tell us that at some point we'd be touring together in a car for a month, I would have called you crazy. It's beautiful, though, and we're really thankful that our paths crossed and we got support from their end. It meant a lot to us and it helped us grow. In the beginning we heard a lot of comments that we were ripping off Neurosis and then as soon as they took us under their wing opinions changed. People were like, 'Oh shit, those Belgians actually mean something'. It gave us the street-cred that a lot of people didn't want to give to five guys from Belgium.

Being from the metal and punk world, it's not unusual to deal with the theme of turmoil. But when CTM announced this year's theme, with the statement Uneasy times demand uneasy music it seemed so apt. The world is in turmoil, we are reminded everyday, almost to the point I need to switch off the news and delete Twitter from my phone.

CHVE: Yes, it's so depressing. It's hard on me too. It's hard to see the sunlight between all this darkness that you see being thrown at you all day long, constantly.

But I read in their statement, that CTM 2018 realises that music allows a moment of rest and I'm thinking, this is incredible because it's going to be a gathering in Berlin of people who just need a fucking break.

CHVE: Yes. Everybody needs a break. Humanity needs a break but it's fucking it up for itself. But the beautiful thing about this festival is, in my eyes is, it brings different styles of music together. Turmoil is a universal theme and it's not a one-style festival and that makes it even more unifying. We're all in it together, whatever style you play.

And I guess every musician there, it doesn't matter where they've come from; which country, which sub-scene, they read the same Twitter as us, they watch the same news.

CHVE: They live in the same world as we do. They frequent another scene, but the scene is of the same world.

With that in mind, with the world in turmoil, do you feel like it's necessary to perform and to write? Do things feel a little bit more shit at the moment than they have done for a while?

CHVE: The thing is with Amenra that we keep the music really close to us. We never go a lot further than our families and our close friends. That's the world that we take inspiration from. But, it does influence you as a human being. Take the terrorist attacks we had in Belgium, it seeps into lyrics or into the overall feel of songs. We'll never be a political band or a worldly band; we're not a band that will take on the universe. We stick to things we know otherwise it gets too overwhelming. But I remember the day of the bombs exploding in Brussels airport. I was working on a project with a band called A-Sun Amissa, so I wrote about that. About how we lived in fear, but in the end I twisted it, so it's more about rising above. The news definitely influences us, the world is shit, but life also has its beautiful, short moments that are really heart-warming and keep everyone going. Even those faces in the news, who we would think are totally in the deepest shit possible, probably have moments of joy when they see their kids smile again, for the first time in weeks. It’s sad to think about that stuff, it's hard to think those things through and give it a place inside your mind. But you should, so you'll always see both sides in life.

I think that's the main theme of this conversation, that even though the music is dark...

CHVE: The end point is light. You work towards the light. That's the thing we do. We use turmoil and darkness as our clay and we try to mould it into something that is hopeful.

So, you're at CTM 2018 and you see this heavy metal band Amenra listed in the programme, but you've never heard of them. Why should anyone venture into your room?

CHVE: I don't know what would drive them to come and see us, but I hope they do. Darkness is a universal theme. We've had fans who aren't into heavy music, who are interested in what we do, understand what we are doing. I believe we definitely have a place in that line-up and it will be great to reach new people or shed some light on the metal scene, let them know that it's not all cliché. Every scene has a broad, broad spectrum that crosses over into other things. It's art, it has no boundaries and it shouldn't really be labelled or get pushed into little boxes. I really enjoy festivals that try to pull everything open and get people onto new stuff and grow as a human being. Everybody has favourite styles of music, that's normal, but it's nice to know that there's other stuff out there that can also be interesting. There's a whole world out there.

You might find your new collaborators.

CHVE: Maybe, who knows?

Amenra play Festsaal Kreuzberg on Jan 28 as part of CTM For the rest of their tour dates, click here.

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