It’s hard to pin down the leader of Blood Ceremony’s pagan rites, Alia O’Brien. Once night falls, she consigns her spirit to the old gods of rock’n’roll and Summerisle, but by day, the soon-to-be doctoral candidate dedicates her time to academia. O’Brien is currently working towards a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the University of Toronto, and when we speak on the phone, she’s in between classes, getting ready to TA a course called Global Popular Music. The course of study is fairly broad (as one would expect, given the “global” aspect), and so far this semester, she’s touched upon the work of Nigerian jazz musician Fela Kuti and Pre-Revolution Iranian pop music. O’Brien is obviously well-versed in and appreciates a multitude of musical styles, but the multi-instrumentalist is still very much looking forward to delivering her two-hour lecture on global metal culture in a few weeks’ time. She chuckles as she recounts the first impression she made on her boss.
“The very first class, the professor who's teaching it had me and the other TA play a sample of something that we would be playing in our lectures that we would do later in the semester. So it was nine in the morning ,and I went first. I played GISM's "Endless Blockades for the Pussyfooter,” she says. “So yeah, that's sort of my style. Shock first and then explain.”
It’s not an altogether surprising viewpoint from someone who’s been breathlessly referred to as an “occultist rocker,” the “queen of doom” and a “multi-powered enchantress” in the media. Purple prose aside, O’Brien is a veteran flutist (and keyboardist, and, of course, vocalist) whose myriad talents are on full display on Blood Ceremony’s latest album, Lord of Misrule (out 3/26 via Rise Above Records).
“We wanted the songs to be cloaked in a shroud of darkness, basically,” she tells me, explaining the impetus behind some of the album’s darker, heavier tracks and its underlying themes of death and decay. Originally conceived as a concept album, Lord of Misrule quickly took on a life of its own, building upon the band’s tried and true template of 70s rock, 60s folk, and proto-doom (as well as the requisite nods to Black Sabbath and Deep Purple) to result in their most fully realized, dynamic release to date. There’s even a mellow acoustic number, "Things Present, Things Past", that throws the album’s morbid intent into sharp relief.
“It was this beautiful, haunting number that [guitarist] Sean Kennedy wrote, and that we brought into the studio and that [producer] Liam Watson really made come to life. And he made it warped beyond our wildest dreams with a lot of tape effects and backwards reverb and all sorts of wonderful studio wizardry,” O’Brien explains. She told me quite a lot more about the album, too, as well as her thoughts on touring, pagan vibes, and the timeless appeal of The Wicker Man.
Noisey: It’s always interesting to speak with a heavy metal musician who is involved in academia, because even as some strains of metal affect an anti-intellectual stance, there’s a whole burgeoning “metal academia” movement to counterbalance it.
Alia O’Brien: Yeah, that's an interesting world in and of itself. On one level, I cn get it. I understand if you live a certain way and if things mean so much to you, being put through an analytic sieve can feel quite violent, actually. I think, anti-intellectualism can be dangerous because we always want to be thinking critically. But at the same time, I also kind of understand people not wanting to be studied and scrutinized. We're living in interesting times.
There's always going to be an underground, but the genre has gotten so much attention in recent years that it sometimes seems like a lot of metalheads don't really know how to handle it.
Yeah, yeah, totally. It's just the way people consume music has changed so much, so you don't necessarily have to be embedded in a scene to consume metal and feel like metal is a big part of your life, so it's very interesting. We're sort of living in this atomized age of music consumption. I feel like it's caused a massive shift, basically, and I guess Walter Benjamin would have something to say about this, but there has been a sort of flattening. No longer do there need to be certain gatekeepers and there's a flattening of access and a dismantling of hierarchies which can be tough and good all at once.
Blood Ceremony is a scene unto itself. You guys have the ability to play with pretty much any kind of rock band, and still make sense onstage together.
Yeah, totally. When we organize shows, we like to put unlikely pairings of bands together. We've played with riffy stoner-rock bands and NWOBHM-sounding bands and 60s psychedelic rock bands. There's this one group from Toronto, The Saffron Sect, that we've played with a couple of times who are just incredible. And it always feels right, it always feels like there's some continuity between acts. That's kind of our approach to sculpting an album, too—have a lot of variety so that people's ears don't get tired.
And your new record, Lord of Misrule, that's totally in line with that goal to keep us guessing.
Totally. We are trickster rock. That's a new label.
That's a lot more fun than "female-fronted occult stoner rock" or whatever.
Totally. Purveyors of trickstercore. It was Sean’s idea to name the album Lord of Misrule. First of all, it picks up this thread from the The Eldritch Dark, which had that The Wicker Man influence. So there is some kind of thematic continuity between the two albums. But initially Sean imagined that this could be a concept album, where between songs there would be this Lord of Misrule character, who would introduce the songs and narrate, but we quickly decided that that wasn't really us. But it was interesting because that was in the backs of our minds when we were writing the songs. I like to think of it as musical Feast of Fools, so you have this smattering of very different sounds to choose from, and each song is quite different from the last, so it's a bit disorienting, a bit chaotic. And some of the songs are fun, because bacchanalia involves a degree of revelry.
If it's a bacchanalia, you're going to have a good time.
Exactly. But then it ends, and there's the idea of the sacrificial lord, and, of course, the album ends with death and demise and this sort of reflection on the past. So I think, even though the concept album didn't come to fruition, having that idea in the backs of our minds did shape the album.
Even without having an explicit focus on it this time, the specter of The Wicker Man still looms large in Blood Ceremony— things always comes back to that. That original film is so iconic that it's bled into so much of this sort of otherworldly, heavy rock music. Why are you musician types so into it?
It's true. And the ending is quite unsettling. I think we musicians like our unsettling stories. What else are you gonna write about? You can't write about being happy and content all the time. But it's also visually such a compelling film, and "The May Pole", the song they sing when they're running round the May Pole is one that is embedded in my mind. I really love the bar scene, too—music plays a really important role in that film.
That movie definitely introduced a lot of people to that kind of old, eerie pastoral English folk music, which obviously speaks to you too. Was that your introduction to it?
For me, I think I must have first encountered that stuff through Fairport Convention, which I probably heard in my early 20s. That stuff, British folk rock, was definitely in my ear before I saw The Wicker Man, so that just made it that much more compelling.
And that pagan aspect seems to be a big part of the band’s image, as well. I mean, even the name Blood Ceremony evokes the mental image of Druids gathered round a stone altar in a field.
Yeah. It's so funny because I think a lot of people hear the band name and expect us to sound totally unlike what we actually sound like, which is kind of fun. I think that's why we've leaned on the figure of Pan so much, because he is a trickster. We like to have surprises around the bend.
So many bands are obsessed with moving forward to the next thing, the next trend, the next sound. But you guys are very firmly ensconced in the past, and seem very content with staying there. Why do you prefer to look backwards?
That's a good question. Maybe it feels safe and comfortable because these are sounds that I think we were all raised with. Maybe “safe” is the wrong word, but I just think sometimes you play what you listen to, and I listen to a lot of music from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, so, creating a sound that fits into that world is desirable to me, I suppose. And it's interesting because obviously we're sometimes pairing unlikely sonorous combinations that maybe wouldn't have happened back in the day. There's this composer and producer, Adrian Younge—he produced one of the tracks on Kendrick Lamar's new album and he's done a ton of other stuff with Ghostface and many, many other people. But he puts out these amazing soul albums. He's a multi-instrumentalist, but he works only with vintage recording gear and instruments, and apparently he has an amazing keyboard collection. His music sounds like it was recorded in the late 60s, but when you listen closer, there are unlikely pairings and little stylistic things that give away that it's not of that time, which is kind of cool. So it's sort of embedded in one era, but then stylistically there are little things that give away that it is of the moment. And I feel like that's kind of what we do. We anchor ourselves in the sound palette of the late 60s, but then we aren't necessarily bound to the compositional rules of that time..
That's the benefit of existing in the modern era. You can cherry-pick the best bits of the past, but then you can utilize forty years of technological advancement.
Exactly, exactly. For this album we really wanted a haunting, old-school sound, and so we decided to record with Liam Watson at Toerag Studios. And speaking of someone who sculpts sound with the past in mind, he records to 8-track, all tape. A lot of the gear that he uses, he was sort of pointing out, "This is what Joe Meek used" and "This is what George Martin would've used." And so he's created this world where you step in, and it's like a time capsule, and so the sounds that come out if it are also encapsulated in a particular moment in music history. So that worked well!
I guess it's not really that strange for people to yearn for the past or for things from the past when the future is so terrifying.
Yeah. There's a film, Hard to be a God, which was based on a Russian science-fiction novel. Essentially it's set on this planet that is basically Earth if the Enlightenment hadn't happened—Medieval Earth. It's like a time capsule. But things have changed, so there's some sort of technological advancements, but society works in this very medieval way so it's still like the past. I feel like maybe our music is a little bit like that. It's rooted in the past, but is perhaps a world unto itself—an alternate universe. A fantasy world where the past has been dragged into the present in an interesting way.
That's a hell of a lot more interesting than singing about Satan. I mean, he's a great guy and all, but I feel like we hear enough about him.
Yeah, he's a good guy. We like to give him a shout-out every so often.
When it comes to that interest in pagan lore and days gone by, do you ever make an effort to seek places like burial mounds, cemeteries, or other physical manifestations of the past and that world?
I suppose so. I enjoy architecture. What a profound thing to say, "I enjoy architecture” [laughs]. Lucas, our bass player, is really into that stuff. We're going to Europe to do a two-week tour next month and Lucas is staying on a couple extra days because he's gotta go to Stonehenge. And for me, I actually studied music in the Middle East for half a year, and when I was there, I checked out a lot of old mosques and various sorts of monuments. Those were some of the more memorable excursions that I've made. Oh, and graveyards, yes, of course. Examining different tombstones and how people or their families have chosen to be remembered via a slab of stone or whatnot is very interesting to me, and the phrases that they choose to be remembered by.
It makes you think about your own.
Yeah, totally, and I have no idea what I would say. Who knows?
We have some time to figure it out.
Well, hopefully. Knock on wood. Oh, and so when we were taking promo photos for the album, we shot with Ester Segarra while we were in London recording. Sean has called it a very English album and I do agree with him. And because this album makes a lot of reference to England lyrically, but also to London in particular—you have Half Moon Street, “Flower Phantoms” is set in Kew Gardens—we wanted to walk the street of Old London, imagining Victorian-era Pagan revival, Egyptian revival themes. So we had Ester take some photos of us down in some alleyways and whatnot, and we took our photo in an old pub. I think the setting there was very important to us, considering, lyrically, what the album delved into.
You mentioned that you're going back to Europe soon—I know you’re playing Roadburn, but where else are you hitting on this run?
We're only at Roadburn for the one day! Unfortunately that means I'll be missing Diamanda Galas' performance. We're starting with a show in Paris and then we go to Roadburn. We play the second day of Lee's curated event, do some club dates, then finishing up with Desert Fest in London.
You guys tour Europe more than you tour over here. Why is that?
Yeah, we do, we just don't have the same following in the States. And urban centers are farther apart. We can do a headline tour in Europe and play decent-sized venues and get decent guarantees. Typically artists are taken care of really nicely in Europe, so it's more comfortable and financially feasible. But the thing is, touring the States is just incredible. Audiences are amazing. We've toured the states only really doing supporting acts or we've done a few one-off headline shows. Hopefully we'll be getting round to the States soon, because those were some of my favorite tours. I think if anything, we'll try to get down to the Northeast to try to do a handful of club dates, play Saint Vitus Bar or something.
Yeah, that's the way to do it. It's easy to tour over here on the coast— it's a lot tougher when you get further out. I have no idea how bands from Salt Lake like SubRosa have made it out so many times. And touring Canada's got to be even crazier.
That's a hard one. Doing a tour of Eastern Canada could be alright because you've got Toronto and Montreal, but once you start crawling out West, there are further long drives between cities. We did it once when we were on tour with Kylesa, we came up through Canada and drove east from Vancouver back to Toronto before heading down south into the States again. The drive from Vancouver to Calgary is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Just through the mountains. Also probably one of the most dangerous drives, but so incredibly beautiful. So it's breathtaking, but it's also gas money.
Bands have to be cognizant of the realities of existing as a musician—it's not like record labels will give you a million dollars to make a record anymore, you have to really pick your battles. How do you guys go over when you play at home?
We've always had a following that's bridged the weird music scene here in Toronto and the more heavy music scenes, like the punk and metal scenes, but we play Toronto very infrequently, at this point. Maybe one show a year. Toronto's one of those places where I think we would have diminishing returns if we played every couple months. So we try to just keep it sparse. We'll do an album release show later this summer. It's a long delay, but we really want to make it a fantastic event, and we want to have interesting and varied opening acts. For previous album releases, we've screened films after we've played or during the performance. There's this place called Trash Palace that was a sort of DIY cinema where they would screen all kinds of B-Films, we had a couple shows there. So when we do have a show, we want to make it into something people really do want to go to and will also remember long after the evening has passed.
A couple of years ago we played The Wicker Man after our show. It was really funny because a friend of ours— this was at that venue, Trash Palace—Gavin, who heads up this band The Saffron Sect, a really amazing 60s-sounding psychedelic rock band, he was manning the sound booth in the back while the film was playing, and toward the very end of this film, the sound started getting all distorted and delayed and I looked back and he just had a twinkle in his eye and he was totally applying all these effects to the film sound. That was amazing. It was the end of the night, people were tired and probably drunk, perhaps stoned, and it was just perfect.
Are you planning to do anything special at Roadburn?
We're playing a long set, I think it's actually 70 minutes that we're spotted for, so we're gonna have a few audio tricks up our sleeve. We're always trying to improve our live show and the sounds that we can get. I know a lot of bands will do an awesome projection or an awesome film behind them. We considered doing that, but I think we're just going to keep it super simple.
And leave all the complexity—and trickery—to the music.
Kim Kelly is fire leaping on Twitter.