Interview Magma PR
1. For those unfamiliar with AthanaTheos, how would you characterize your style, in your own words? There is a pretty wide array of influences that I pick up in varying amounts, such as BRUTALITY and MONSTROSITY, but nothing that seems to fit as a ‘pure’ frame of reference.
It’s strange because I never considered BRUTALITY and MONSTROSITY as possible influences except maybe Jason Avery’s vocals on the In Dark Purity album. Moreover, although Aurélien Guerriau (guitarist) composed 75% of the riffs of Alpha Theistic, 95% of those of “Prophetic Era” and about 55% of those of Cross. Deny. Glorify. (CDG), I know he never listened to either of those bands.
Then, although having composed the rest of the riffs of these three albums and the entire “Eskhatos” EP, I do not consider these bands as influences in my guitar playing at all. That said, they are from the United States and I really like old-school American death metal. The influence you hear is perhaps attributable to that scene more broadly; we can find a bit of MORBID ANGEL, IMMOLATION, MALEVOLENT CREATION, NILE and SUFFOCATION in the riffs but I must also mention FEAR FACTORY in another register for all the staccato parts. Greg, the former drummer and I really liked this band and it’s an influence that is still present on CDG.
Moreover, the influence of black metal is very clear in the overlays of guitar tracks with EMPEROR, DISSECTION, ABIGOR, 1349, SATYRICON, NIGHTBRINGER, MAYHEM, MARDUK, FUNERAL MIST, THE LEGION, WATAIN.
Few people know it but Aurélien was a hardcore guitarist at first and after the end of his band, he wanted to learn new guitar techniques and develop his game to play death metal. Greg and I introduced him to death and black metal by playing him hundreds of CDs.
I think it was difficult to catalog us when we were still a four-piece as AthanaTheos because EMPEROR was the only group that really had unanimous support within the band. We all had different inspirations and impulses that we tried to reconcile in one band.
The base has always been death metal but with a wide variety of influences from death metal and black metal, as well as progressive metal and classical music. There’s even an element of influence from sacred music for me personally, since I learned some of my clean singing technique from Gregorian/opera-style choirs that I incorporated into AthanaTheos.
2. France has, over the past couple of decades, become viewed as a hotbed for unique and creative black metal, thanks to bands like DEATHSPELL OMEGA, BLUT AUS NORD, AOSOTH and S.V.E.S.T. But the French death metal scene remains largely under the radar, save for some legacy bands like LOUDBLAST, MASSACRA and MERCYLESS. Does AthanaTheos express kinship with those bands, or do you consider yourselves more cosmopolitan?
I listen to a lot of bands from the French black metal scene, it’s still one of the most interesting right now with the bands you named. I’ll further mention bands that are clearly in the same or similar styles, like ESOCTRILIHUM, DECLINE OF THE I, SETH, REVERENCE, MERRIMACK, MOONREICH, HEGEMON, BELENOS, EPECTASE, VI, HYRGAL, DRASTUS, or even the late CHRISTICIDE.
Then, indeed, despite some big names like those you mentioned, the French death metal scene seems less known abroad.
Even if I have a lot of French death metal bands in my collection, I have a clear preference for death metal from North America like IMMOLATION, SUFFOCATION, MORBID ANGEL, NILE, INCANTATION, GORGUTS, DRAWN AND QUARTERED, ORIGIN , DEATH, HATE ETERNAL, VITAL REMAINS or even FLESHTIZED whose only album impressed me a lot in 2001.
I also listen to bands from all over Europe like DEAD CONGREGATION, MITHRAS, TRAUMA, SINISTER, HOUR OF PENANCE, SARPANITUM, NAPALM DEATH, ADE, AZARATH, HATE, BELPHEGOR, CARCASS, MORGOTH, BOLT THROWER, VADER, FLESHGOD APOCALYPSE, AD NAUSEAM, DAMNATION, REDEMPTOR, VANHELGD, HEAVING EARTH, JUMPIN’ JESUS or even SULPHUR AEON who blew me away with its 3 albums. I also listen to bands from Latin America (ESCARNIUM, THE CHASM) and Australia (GOLGOTHAN REMAINS). So there is clearly a cosmopolitan tilt to our inspirations, both in death and black metal, as well as in other metal styles such as funeral doom with ENNUI, SHAPE OF DESPAIR, MOURNFUL CONGREGATION, HYPONIC, SUFFER YOURSELF, ESOTERIC, ATARAXIE, EVOKEN, MONOLITHE, old school thrash, SLAYER and KREATOR in the lead, and even heavy metal and its derivatives JUDAS PRIEST, SYMPHONY X, BLIND GUARDIAN, NEVERMORE.
Among the old French death bands, I really like MERCYLESS who play American death. And out of the more recent ones, I love SLAVE ONE whose first 2 albums are awesome. There is also IMPUREZA, who offers death metal with brilliantly incorporated flamenco influences.
3. AthanaTheos has undergone a couple of re-Christenings, if Metal Archives is to be believed. The original name of the band was Ill Divine, and later Soul Rejected, before settling on AthanaTheos in 2012. Were these simple name changes, or did they also represent stylistic and philosophical shifts for the band?
From Ill Divine to Soul Rejected, there was a significant shift in the guitar playing, as Cédric Fétiveau left the band in August 2004 and Aurélien arrived in November. At the time, we had kept a single piece from the old repertoire, which Aurélien (Guerriau) had adapted to his style. Later, after multiple structural changes, this piece became “Dawn of Genesis”, the first track from the first album.
When the name of the group changed in 2006, it was mainly because the other members wanted it. I proposed the name Soul Rejected but nobody in the band was completely happy with it. Subsequently, I created the name AthanaTheos in 2012 but if I had found it before, I would have named the band that way from 2006.
So there was no philosophical change because I had already worked out a large part of the overall concept between 2001 and 2006. For example, the concept, the album title and the number of songs planned for Cross. Deny. Glorify. date back to 2001. I knew that would be the title of the third album, that it would have 9 tracks and that the story I would tell would take place between 312 and 392, within the Roman Empire. Just as I knew that the first 2 albums were going to approach the Jewish and Christian conception of the Bible and that other albums would approach the sciences, then the atomist, materialist and existentialist philosophies. I refined the details afterwards, discarded elements, added others based on new readings, etc.
4. While your debut, Alpha Theistic, was characterized to a great extent by speed and aggression (with exceptions like “As your Lord Was in the Storm”), subsequent releases have been paced somewhat more deliberately, with a greater emphasis on dynamics. Did anything specific trigger this change in approach, or was it simply an organic shift that felt right to you at the time?
Regarding speed, I don’t find this element to be major on the first album at all. First of all, the fastest tempos do not exceed 215-220 bpm, which is well below what seems to be typical for death metal today. Then there are a lot of tempo changes and different rhythms on the drums because Greg Pein was against the idea of putting blast beats everywhere.
Second, Alpha Theistic‘s aggressiveness is almost accidental. I made a lot of mistakes in the process of recording the instruments and the vocals, which considerably complicated the mixing/mastering work for Marc Ar Ruz. He did what he could to try to save what could be saved. The dirty and messy production therefore plays a lot in this aggressive feeling.
Of course, we wanted a certain brutality and intensity but our intention with this old line-up was the same as today with the new one, namely to develop a multidimensional death metal with many layers of reading while trying to remain catchy. Long compositions like “The Souls’ Congregation” and “Purification by Primordial Waters” easily proved it, or even “As Your Lord Was in the Storm,” which is a kind of waltz incorporating a fast and violent middle passage.
To highlight all of these elements, we all wanted a much better sound for Alpha Theistic, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way.
The dominant theme in the music of AthanaTheos has always been “contrast”: how to create as much contrast as possible between fast and slow, aggressive and atmospheric parts; between simple and effective riffs and other more twisted and complex ones with counterpoint; between including breaks and tempo changes at the right times or else continue on the momentum; between the mixture of extreme vocals and clean choirs.
There are also significant contrasts between the individual songs and in the way they comprise the larger piece. I’m always very careful that the end of a song is different from the beginning of the next song. I pay the same attention to the duration and structures of the songs. I avoid putting 2 short and fast tracks in a row, for example.
In the end, I conceive each album as a whole piece to be listened to in the planned order and by reading the texts to understand obviously what it is about.
I conceive them almost like motion picture soundtracks. I have a lot of them on CD. I have an almost cinematographic/theatrical approach when I write my lyrics. I place my characters in places, I imagine them talking, moving, interacting with other characters and events.
The Prophetic Era was the logical sequel to Alpha Theistic both textually and musically. Only the production has changed because I made a lot less technical errors in the recording which allowed me to do better mixing/mastering. The EP Eskhatos is itself the direct and logical continuation of The Prophetic Era but the production is even better, and for the first time, I am totally satisfied because everything is in its place, all the layers are audible. Finally, CDG keeps the characteristics of AthanaTheos with even better sound.
If I could have had better production for Alpha Theistic I would have and I really think the aggressiveness would have been less noticeable.
5. On the topic of lyrics, AthanaTheos is, on the surface, cut from the same cloth as innumerable anti-Christian bands that have come before it. The difference is that AthanaTheos’ lyrics take what I consider a more cerebral, materially-minded approach to the broader topic. There are numerous Biblical and historical citations peppering the text of the lyrics, dating back to the first album. Cross. Deny. Glorify. is written from the perspective of three generations of Roman soldiers, observing the downfall of their society following Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the official state religion. Do you have formal experience as a scholar of these topics, or was it a more casual inquisitiveness that led you to pursue them as the foundation for the band? Moreover, how did you come to choose to present your ideas in the specific manner of this album? Are the Romans in whose voice you’re speaking purely fictional, or are they based on real figures?
I absolutely do not view myself as anti-Christian nor AthanaTheos as an anti-Christian band. It’s far too simplistic. Moreover, the anti-Christianity of some metal bands is generally futile and has never done anything to diminish the influence of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches. Satanism, which comes from Christianity, is just as crappy and also uses the same magical thinking as all other religions.
The ad hominem attack is one of the Vatican’s favorite tactics to discredit its opponents. I prefer to use reasoned deconstruction using logic but I have no doubt that my contribution is derisory in the broader context of the fight against religion’s influence.
I can define my thinking as being against ALL religions, especially when they want to invade public space and dictate their moral code to the entire population. If people want to believe in absurd things in their lives, I don’t care as long as it’s private.
I see myself as a universalist free-thinker and I consider my texts as a kind of archeology of the magical thinking that informs all superstitions, all religions and conspiracy theories of all persuasions.
CDG is actually written from the perspective you described. I have no academic experience in this field. I have simply read a considerable amount of books and listened to speeches on the subject. Each AthanaTheos album has required me to read between 50 and a hundred books to develop the concept and write the texts. I try to synthesize ideas as best as possible and build a timeline both within each album, as well as an interconnected narrative spanning across albums.
The three protagonists of CDG are fictitious. I frequently write my texts as dialogues between fictional or real characters, or as thoughts/reflections of a single fictional or real character. To write a story spanning almost a century I needed to humanize the ideas and conflicts depicted, so I created three people from the same family – three generations: the father, the son and the grandson. Each of the three is conveying his experience and his reflections on religions to the next in line. The first character in the first track also speaks about his own father, who instilled in him the importance of having a critical mind. If I manage to have enough musical inspiration left after the 8 albums that I initially planned (three down, five to go), I have already thought of making a prequel to CDG that would revolve around the first fathers of the church, approximately A.D. 100 to 300, which would involve the father of this character.
I make it a point to involve the emotional and psychological aspects of what’s being depicted in my lyrics, because History is built and lived by human beings. The characters at the heart of CDG’s story will hopefully allow listeners to relate to the historical events they’re witnessing and experiencing more easily. Religions are a 100% human cultural phenomenon which can be explained perfectly without any divine intervention and which is part of human history. And like all cultural phenomena, religions evolve according to the events experienced by human beings. It’s important to highlight the important role that human emotions and psychological cognitive biases play in the development of religious beliefs.
6. Do you view your experience living in France, where (to paraphrase a quote I saw elsewhere), Catholicism is seen as a birthright, as uniquely informing your views of Christianity and your approach to interrogating and critiquing it? Would you consider writing songs (or albums) that do so from the perspective of one who grew up under the hegemony of American Protestantism, or Eastern Orthodoxy?
France has a great tradition of satire, criticism and free thought regarding religion, as well as on other subjects such as monarchy, politics, science, and all manner of social issues. The debate of these topics is something vital to the French character. We can debate for a very long time on anything and everything, even the most useless things.
Protestantism and Orthodoxy would be interesting subjects to tackle in other albums but I will need musical inspiration. That said, my texts are also aimed at Protestant and Orthodox Christians because the Bible is the common font. Obviously, my texts are aimed at atheists, agnostics, free thinkers, those interested in history, philosophy, human sciences and other curious people.
I have read French authors but also many foreign authors, it gives me a variety of perspectives on religious phenomena.
7. In the lyrics to “The Silent Oblivion”, you express the hope that one day mankind will be free of illusion and superstition. Do you believe that an end to religious hegemony will, on its own, bring the liberation of mankind, or do you view it as part of a greater historical process in which old systems of domination must be dismantled?
No, the end of religious hegemony alone will not bring the liberation of humanity. Freedom is built gradually and it takes time, discussion, planning, and the establishment of laws and institutions that guarantee it. Unlike believers who freeze their moral codes according to the intervention of one or more deities and/or prophets at a specific time, I prefer evolving and reasoned debate according to social contexts. It’s more difficult, it requires time, listening, compromises, new ideas, but it’s far more rewarding than freezing one’s thoughts on religious codes that are several tens of centuries old, or even several millennia and completely outdated in our modern societies.
Yes, religions participate massively in the old systems of domination and these old systems must be dismantled, but we should not pursue this recklessly, lest we risk replacing those systems with something just as oppressive, or worse.
8. Who are five bands/artists that you believe are flying under the radar, whom you think more people ought to listen to?
I already mentioned SLAVE ONE. For me, they’re the best French and even European death metal band around today. They play American-style technical death while being melodic and surpassing in terms of composition all the current American groups that I have heard. They are preparing their third album currently.
Also cited, CHRISTICIDE. Alas, the group split a few years ago but they deserve posthumous recognition. To my taste, they released by far the best black metal album of 2013 with “Upheaval of the Soul”, a pure masterpiece.
ENNUI are a funeral doom band from Georgia whose last 2 albums (2018’s End of the Circle and 2015’s Falsvs Anno Domini)are awesome. They bring an extra dimension to the style with the complexity of their riffing.
Then, I would say DEATH KARMA, spiritual brother of CULT OF FIRE, with Vladimir Pavelka being a very gifted and original composer in both of these bands, as well asin his solo project.
Finally, WODENSTHRONE. They released just two albums, “Loss” and “Curse”, but definitely deserve wider recognition. I would have loved this band to finish and release their third album before splitting.
But there are so many interesting bands these days that it has become impossible to keep up with the pace of releases, and consequently many bands remain under the radar.
9. Who are your favorite philosophers and scholars?
Among the philosophers, there’s Nietzsche (of course), Epicurus, Democritus, Ludwig Feuerbach, Baron d’Holbach, Denis Diderot, André Comte-Sponville, Emil Cioran, Arthur Schopenhauer, Albert Camus, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, David Hume, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Kurtz, Ernest Renan, and the early works of Michel Onfray.
Atheist philosophers and thinkers are the real adversaries of religious leaders, much more so than scientists. The Vatican understood this very well in the Middle Ages by diverting the threat to scientists who answer the question “how how the universe and mankind work?” and reducing philosophy to a mere discipline of conceptual elaboration. However, philosophers propose to answer the question “why do the universe and mankind exist?” while proposing a moral and ethical framework for life. These precise questions and the accompanying worldviews are at the center of all religions. Religions jealously want to keep this exclusivity.
Among the scholars, there are many and in many fields. I read as many different authors as possible in order to have points of view, varied ideas and to develop and nuance my thinking as best as possible.
Of course, I am interested in religions. This integrates theology and exegesis but also midrashic studies of Judaism, biblical archeology and the history of religions. I am also interested in science, astrophysics, quantum mechanics, astronomy, cosmology but also human sciences, psychology and sociology.
With authors, in bulk, such as Thomas Römer, Pierre Geoltrain, Maurice Mergui, Bernard Dubourg, Naninne Charbonnel, Jean Soler, Pascal Boyer, Jean Piaget, Carl Rogers, Ivan Pavlov, Alfred Adler, Gérard Mordillat, Jérome Prieur, Israel Finkelstein, Neal Asher Silberman, Prosper Alfaric, Faouzia Charfi, Hubert Reeves, Jean-Pierre Luminet, Aurélien Barrau, Etienne Klein, Jacqueline Chabbi, Pierre Conesa, Olivier Carré, Djemila Benhabib, Salman Rushdie, Stephen Hawking, Kip Thorne, Jean-Pierre Changeux, Ramsay MacMullen, George Minois, Pascal Pick, Raoul Vaneigem, Charles Guignebert, Jean Meslier, Saul Friedlander, Robin Lane Fox, Jacqueline Lalouette, Bertrand Russel, Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin…
The last book that totally fascinated me is Why Do We Believe? Psychology of Belief by Thierry Ripoll. (note: the book appears to be only available in French at the moment – ed)
10. I’ve been told that AthanaTheos already has two more new albums in the works, to follow up Cross. Deny. Glorify. Could you speak at all about these records? Will they be musically and conceptually consistent with your previous work, or are you planning any surprises?
Initially, during the conceptualization phase between 2001 and 2006, I planned to make seven albums. But after the multiple Islamist terrorist attacks of 2015 in France, and having approached Judaism and Christianity, it was impossible to ignore the third monotheistic religion. It had become obvious. So I added an additional album that I placed fourth in the concept and which will focus on Islam.
This album is in the process of being finished and contains 6 tracks. The drums, rhythm guitars and vocals are already recorded. All that’s left is the bass to record, Nils (Delhaye-Boloh) has to do that by next June. And, of course, the guitar solos need to be written and tracked. For the latter, I collaborate again with Kiato Luu and Marvin Monternault because they have already done excellent work on CDG. I have several joint projects with them – in particular, SOULSLICER, whose first album was released in September on GreatDane Records, and OCEANRISE, whose first album is currently being finalized.
AthanaTheos’ fifth album is also in the works and contains 8 tracks. The drums and rhythm guitars are already composed and recorded and the titles and concepts of the songs are already in place. I still have the lyrics to write and the vocals to record, which I plan to do in 2023. As with album #4, the bass and lead guitars will remain to be done.
I composed these two albums in their entirety. Aurélien was too busy with OAKEN SKULL, his other band, his family life and his full-time job.
For a long time, I made the choice to work part-time and I have neither children nor pets. All my free time revolves almost exclusively around music. In addition, the confinement caused by the pandemic left me with an additional abundance of free time, so I took the opportunity to create and compose.
These albums are totally in line with the overall concept of AthanaTheos and will keep all the musical and vocal elements present from the first album.