Photo courtesy of NWN
For so many metal bands, lyrics are an afterthought, tacked on after the bulk of the songwriting's done and dusted. "You can't understand the vocals anyway!" they think, sloppily jotting down whatever mindless gory twaddle about swords and viscera comes to mind before stepping into the vocal booth. Ares Kingdom isn't one of those bands, and that's one of the multiple reasons that the band's return has been met with such anticipation (that Order From Chaos connection sure hasn't hurt 'em, either)
The Kansas City trio has always held the lyrical component of its thrashing, black metal-tinged death metal output to a high standard, with guitarist, songwriter, and wordsmith, Chuck Keller leading the charge. Much like his fellow history buffs in Sacriphyx and Hail of Bullets, Keller—who holds a degree in history and has been known to appear as a guest lecturer at the National World War I Museum and Memorial— chooses to conjure up the horrors of war in a well-researched, unflinching style. He take us down into the trenches, out into the corpse-littered battlefields, and back home to face the aftermath of the Great War for Civilization.
He paints bloody pictures in sparse, weighted language in bleak snippets of poetry, as heard on "Demoralize"—"Mark each sunrise with terror / And horror-illuminated sunsets with blood /Their valiant entrails as ribbons / Shredded to decorate enemy uniforms / Awarded to every survivor / Leave nothing to chance / The clinched fist of God bursting downward," comes the roar rattling from bassist and vocalist Alex Blume's throat.
The band's new album (and first new studio recording since 2010; their last release, Veneration, was a collection of covers) is called The Unburiable Dead, and as Keller notes below, is as close to a concept record as the band's ever come. It's out September 18 on Nuclear War Now! Productions; we're streaming it below, and also took some time to ask Keller a few questions over email about the album's creation, and the nature of war.
Noisey: It's been five solid years since Ares Kingdom released the aptly-titled Incendiary. One assumes that you've been working on this new album for quite some time, so why did this finally like the feel right time to release it?
Chuck Keller: Yeah, I started working on this album before Incendiary came out, and its intellectual roots go back even further. I'm the only songwriter in the band, and with daily life in the mix, things take longer than expected. Our approach was a bit different as well. Instead of learning songs as I wrote them and then deciding at some mystical point that we had enough material for an album, I knew what I wanted it to accomplish and took my time writing it. We didn't begin rehearsing until late 2012—well after the release of Veneration. I had been writing since before Incendiary was released, but kept everything on a mental shelf for almost three years, precisely because it was all kind of close to a conceptual album, and I wanted to be sure the constituent parts worked together. Naturally I had hopes of releasing the album in 2014 to mark the centenary of the Great War, but like I said, life and stuff. Now, not all of the album was written when we started rehearsing the songs, but a good 80 percent of the music was finished, and all of the lyrics. It was important to take time with rehearsals, too, since that's where the other guys put their personal stamp on our sound as they develop their parts according to their particular playing styles.
You've said in other interviews that your writing style hasn't changed since 1987, and it shows—the best word I can use to describe the sound of the guitar work on this new album is "classic" (especially that closing track!). The Unburiable Dead could've surfaced at any point in the past twenty years and made perfect sense. Can you tell me a bit about how your songwriting process here, and what your ultimate goal for the sound and feel of this release to be?
The Unburiable Dead is as close to a conceptual album as we've ever ventured, and while it's not conceptual in a prog rock sense, I think its central theme imbues the album with a conceptual feel—which was the goal. Regarding the writing process, Incendiary was the first album I sat down and outlined song flow before writing the music, so The Unburiable Dead benefits from that experience. Another first for this album was that I wrote the songs in order, musically anyway. However, the composition process of individual songs remains unchanged from when I started writing music in 1985-1977. Ultimately I think the album is simpler and more focused musically than anything else I've done, from OFC to the present. The lyrics are, obviously.
The melodies in particular stand out on this release; they're so perfectly blended, and feel so essential to the album's dynamic. It sounds like you're drawing on a lot of classic metal influences there. When it comes to writing melodies, which bands do you most admire and draw inspiration from? At what point does a riff become "too" melodic for an Ares Kingdom song?
Those are good questions, and I don't have neat and clean answers for them. My frame of reference remains the era that made me want to play metal in the first place, the 1970s through the 1980s. That's not to say I haven't been inspired by bands that came later, I certainly have, but in terms of my musical DNA, it descends from the early era, with just a bit of Lamarckian acquired characteristics coming from the 90s. I think “too melodic” would be if I started imitating Gamma Ray—arguably my favorite current band—but that's not what I want to do as a musician.
The Order From Chaos boxset came out earlier this year, too, so I'd imagine you've been pretty swamped. Do you feel like the release of that mammoth collection has finally closed the book on OFC, and allowed you to finally focus 100 percent on Ares Kingdom?
The boxed set closed the book in terms of everything needing an updated definitive release, but we'll never escape the musical legacy—and I don't really want to. Those songs, to my mind, aren't much different than we're doing now in AK, and I won't turn my back on my own “children.” Of course, the OFC material seems to have a mysterious and unapproachable reputation with fans, but that's down entirely to the atrocious production. Once you see how the riffs are played, you realize—hey! That's a lot like AK! Yeah, no shit, how about that? Haha! We've recently dusted off “The Edge of Forever,” and it fits perfectly in the AK set.
I'm always interested in bands who choose to confront the dirty, depressing realities of war in their lyrics, and your new album shows a commendable amount of care and depth of research on the subject. Obviously you're a longtime history expert, but what in particular inspires you to eschew the ideas of glory and conquest to chronicle the realities of historical warfare?
Because the war wasn't glorious. Its immediate causes were ignominious, but were enough for imperial opportunists to seize upon and have the smash-up they knew had been coming since 1871. My interest in it comes from my nearly lifelong interest in the life, thought and work of the British writer H.G. Wells, who played a considerable role in the Allied effort through his work with Lord Northcliffe's cabinet war office propaganda department, as well as being the origin of the proverbial description '”the war that will end war.”' Well, that combined with the fact we have one of the largest First World War memorials in the world right here in Kansas City, and the national museum for the USA, where I do the occasional lecture or presentation.
World War I is often eclipsed by the fresher memory of WWII, but its impact on Europe and Western civilization was incalculable, and set the stage for many of the events that defined the Second World War. As someone with deep interest in the period, what would you say was the defining turning point of the war, and its most lasting legacy?
I'm not sure about a defining turning point, arguments can be made for several events, however the final turning point in the war was the failure of Germany's Spring Offensive in 1918, combined with the presence of fresh and often unpredictable troops from the USA bewildering the Central Powers on the western front.
I'm not sure the war had a single most lasting legacy, but certainly one of the more valuable overall lessons is one about complacency. War seemed nearly impossible in summer 1914, and few took the events of that summer all that seriously until mobilisations spiraled out of control and made conflict inevitable. From there technology took over and invented increasingly fiendish ways of killing “the enemy” that while eclipsed by today's hardware, at the time had what you rightly called an incalculable impact, especially in Europe. I suppose the most immediate legacy today descends from when the British and French drew lines across a map of the Levant (and a little beyond) and created a cauldron of inter-tribal trouble no one has managed to sort out quite yet.
Have you ever considered joining the military yourself?
My late father retired from the Army as a major, and I was set to head off to a military academy at one point. However, my interests had shifted enough by the early 1980s that my family recognized my strengths were elsewhere and didn't push it.
What do you think lies behind mankind's fascination with war and violence?
I'm not sure it's a fascination so much as simply a reflex, sadly. History tells: the veneer of civilization is very thin, and the world remains governed by the aggressive use of force. Mix that with humankind's competitive nature and, despite appeals to logic and reason, you get our world—the kingdom of Ares.
Kim Kelly is paying her respects on Twitter.