Back in the middle of February, Chicago-based doom band Flesh of the Stars put out their third LP, Anhilla. It’s a phenomenal record that fuses elements of classic progressive rock, doom metal, and a lot of movie score influences into a very moody, atmospheric sound. Since I live in Chicago, we got in touch to do an interview. I ended up talking to three members of the band about their history, the process of making Anhilla, and their thoughts on the current metal scene. The conversation was really productive, and I walked away with about an hour and a half of audio to write this. Since it doesn’t make sense to cram that much talking into one blog post, and it wouldn’t be fair to them to leave so much of what they said out, we’ve decided to run it in two parts – one today, and one on Monday. Here’s the first part, where we talk about the reception to and writing process of Anhilla! Enjoy!
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So how’s the reception been to the record overall?
Matt (Ciani, vocals/keys/guitars/percussion): Surprisingly good. Like, stupid how good, compared to the last two things.
Travis (Marmon, bass/vocals): Part of it is that we actually made an effort to get it out to press this time, unlike the last couple. With the first one we released it and were like, “okay, this is a fun project we did, maybe our friends will listen to it,” and not even seriously, because we don’t know many metalheads for the most part. And then, because the internet is wonderful and Bandcamp especially is, we got picked up by people who tend to scrounge Bandcamp. If you go look at our Facebook likes – every time someone likes us on Facebook I go check where they’re from – it’s a trip. Portugal, Russia, we have some from Ulaanbaatar who liked us a couple weeks ago. But this time around, yeah, we reached for the stars, and sent it out to everybody.
Mike (Fox, guitars/vocals/synths): Yeah, this was the first time we sent it out and did any promotion, just to see if the response would be better, and the experiment worked fucking perfectly! Which is good, but now we’re like, “shit, we have to build in a release cycle for the next one.”
Travis: We’re super stoked about it, too. We put a lot of work into this record, and so having that reception is wonderful. Kim Kelly tweeted about us, and that drove a huge spike of traffic to our Bandcamp page. Bandcamp putting it on best of the month was awesome.
Mike: That and Heavy Blog were the two biggest bumps, I think – just explosions in the traffic to our page. And we’re compulsive stats checkers, so we noticed it pretty quickly.
Well, we love the record. It was a joy to discover and write about it. Personally, one of the things I love about the record is the range of influences you guys bring in. Could you talk a little about the influences each of you brought to the writing process, both in terms of things that are apparent and things that maybe don’t translate so clearly?
Mike: Well, there’s stuff that’s very much heard in there, a lot of Yob, a lot of that kind of stuff, a lot of “strummed doom,” I guess, as opposed to “riff doom.” I mostly listen to doom metal and dance music. So synthesizers have always been on mind, they always are, that’s something that’s part of my musical obsession, so I like weird sounds you can make with non-organic stuff. Those, and also older horror soundtracks, like John Carpenter and Mort Garson. Plantasia is the best – all those weird filter sweeps and things. Whenever that comes up on the record, that’s pure Mort Garson.
Matt: There’s a synthesizer part on “Part IV” of the record, and that’s the thing I’m most proud of on there. It’s literally the “Ashes to Ashes” David Bowie synth part. I came up with the sound and I thought, “I need to find a way to fit this on there. There’s no way that this is not going on the record.” David Bowie is a big deal for us, definitely.
Mike: David Bowie is a huge influence for Flesh of the Stars.
Matt: I think we all listen pretty independently to a large amount of David Bowie.
Travis: Yeah, especially since he died, I know I’ve really ramped it up.
Mike: And a lot of this record – this one especially – was written from a theory perspective, so, for example, on “Part I” I wanted to see how slow I could make a song and still have it be comfortable to play and listen to. I grew up listening to a lot of progressive rock, so I think some Pink Floyd probably bled in around the edges, even in my best efforts to avoid that.
Matt: One thing you explicitly said – “we need to not let this sound like Pink Floyd.” Literally every write-up so far, across the board, has said we sound like Pink Floyd.
Travis: I know my parents liked it a lot because there was a background radiation of Pink Floyd throughout.
Mike: Yeah, my dad said the whole thing reminds him of the end of Dark Side in retrospect.
Matt: Well, you did do some fucking David Gilmour solos over the middle of it.
Mike: [laughs] Yeah, we were like “fine, this part sounds like Pink Floyd,” and then I spent a whole day just recording those David Gilmour solos.
Travis: The first three parts don’t really sound anything like Pink Floyd, but it definitely goes from the most metal part of the record into that. It definitely turns into that sound.
Mike: If I’m being honest, there’s also a lot of film soundtrack in here.
Matt: What was that one you played for me? Something from the Lord of the Rings?
Mike: Yeah, it was one of those Howard Schore songs, I think “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum” or whatever that one is. It’s the one where Gandalf falls down into the pit. A lot of Steve Reich, as well. I’ve been watching a lot of Stanley Kubrick films, so trying to bring in that kind of atmosphere.
Hearing that you guys paid so much attention to film soundtracks makes a lot of sense, actually. All over Anhilla it feels as though you guys are trying to conjure up a really specific vision, especially with how evocative the cover art is. So you guys clearly worked to get that somewhat visual component to the record down.
Matt: Yeah, we had a really specific palette that we worked with, and we didn’t let ourselves deviate from that at all, especially in the lyrics. We wrote a lot of lyrics and had to get rid of them. It was like, “can’t use that, can’t use that, oh, that mentions being able to see something so we can’t use that.” We couldn’t mention water, or any kind of light that isn’t black, white, or red. We were pretty obsessed with that. The cover art actually came pretty late – shoutout to Nico, our drummer and my brother – for that.
Mike: I like the idea of writing into a visual component. We definitely had something in mind, especially with writing to tell the story for the record.
Matt: Mike and I had a very clear picture of the story from the beginning. One of the parts I’m most happy with on the record is actually “Prologue,” because I think it does the best job of evoking that atmosphere we were going for.
Mike: That part still makes me uncomfortable to listen to. We set up two drum machines that were going at slightly different tempos, and just let them play. How hard it is to follow just throws my brain off so much.
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So what is the record’s story?
Matt: Do you remember the name of the Twilight Zone episode?
Mike: God damn. [long pause] I’m not going to dwell on this. Let’s not even try. The basic story is – it’s actually pretty corny to say out loud.
Travis: We’re a metal band. It’s all corny.
Mike: Okay, fair. So the Earth has spiraled away from the sun and all these disasters have happened because of it, and civilization has collapsed, and the last fully-human person is wandering the wasteland after their whole clan has gotten picked off by these sub-human beasts that have evolved out of humanity.
Matt: Have you seen The Descent?
Matt: Check it out. It rules. It’s about the same kind of mole people as in that movie really.
Travis: One of the big reasons we don’t post our lyrics is that we tend to really rip off horror movies. There’s a lot of influence from that stuff in our band.
Mike: So the story is that they get chased down by these creatures, and there’s a Cormack McCarthy/Blood Meridian-esque fight scene in “Part III” where they get wounded and then they die over the course of the record.
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Oh, so it’s pretty upbeat.
Mike: [laughing] yeah, exactly. But that’s why the back half of the record is just kind of a trudge, since you’re just there with a dying narrator.
But then, towards the very end, it sort of explodes into this moment of transcendence.
Matt: Mike and I talked about this. Literally every time we opened the Logic file for “Part V” we were like “okay, this needs to be the moment on the record.”
Mike: That’s the point in the story where they die. It’s when the sun actually rises for the last time.
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So they’re just lying there dying and watching the sun rise for the last time?
Matt: It’s brutal, man.
So the way the record moves tonally – like, how it starts off slow and ominous, and then gets faster and more hectic, then slows down again before this moment of enlightenment, and then fades out – that was all planned going in.
Mike: Absolutely. There’s a lot of things about this record that I’m kinda “nerd-proud” of, in terms of the narrative path.
Matt: And in terms of how we could make plans and then execute them, and make decisions that really served our original plan. We don’t do that often. We’re a stoner metal band, it’s in our nature to improvise.
Mike: There’s also a lot of theory there, in terms of the concepts and the musical themes different parts have and whatnot.
Travis: They’re really subtle. I actually didn’t even notice some of them until one time we were practicing for a show and I noticed that there are melodies that reappear in a bunch of places.
Matt: It’s dense.
Mike: It’s very dense. There’s a lot going on that doesn’t necessarily get heard, just because of the nature of the music.
Travis: There’s a lot of love for rock operas in our band, stuff like Tommy and 2112, the classics. And Dopesmoker, which is a true rock opera.
Mike: The 2012 remaster of Dopesmoker is actually a large part of the reason we always go with Brad Boatright to master our records. He’s done all three of our albums.
Matt: I would say the albums at the foundation of this band are Dopesmoker, Clearing the Path to Ascend, and one of the two Pallbearer records, depending on when you asked us.
Mike: Yeah, definitely. And Brad mastered two of those, so there’s no way we couldn’t go with him.
Travis: He’s also very affordable, so for young up-and-coming bands, if they want really professional mastering, Brad is probably in their price range.
Clearly there’s a lot of intention in your guys’ music. Everything is planned on that macro level, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of actually writing the parts, how does that tend to work?
Matt: We’re demo people, really. We write pretty in a pretty solitary fashion, we write stuff and record it and send it over. Mike built the skeleton for the record, but we all wrote and contributed riffs and parts and things and then put it all together. This was also the first time we tried to get together and play stuff live before recording it. We engineer all our own shit, so we don’t have to worry about buying studio time, we just show up. So we practiced a lot and went over everything a billion times and got really meticulous and tweaked really small stuff here or there a lot. It was a really intensive process.
Mike: Hair-tearing-out meticulous.
Travis: When Mike came up with this idea – before we had even recorded the first two records – Matt was like, “yeah, Mike wants to do an hour-long song,” and I was like “okay, cool, let’s do it.” When it was conceived I was like “yeah, sure,” but I was pretty skeptical. We had to do a lot to get to this point. But, once it started coming together, and we could hear what was there, it was really cool and I thought it would definitely turn out well. The first time I really heard something near the finished product, I was like, “this is really fucking good.” This record has been in the works for a long time.
And that’s where we’re gonna stop for today. Check in again on Monday for Part 2, where we’re gonna go really in depth on the use of synthesizers across Anhilla and talk about their reactions to the doom revival that’s currently going on in the metal scene at large.