(Greek writer Aggelos Redneck of Rockoverdose.gr brings us this interview of Gunther Theys, founder and still vocalist of the long-running Belgian black metal band Ancient Rites, whose latest album Laguz was released after a long hiatus in 2015. The interview was conducted in anticipation of Ancient Rites’ performance at the Arcane Angels Festival, which will take place in Athens on September 16-17, 2017, alongside such bands as Primordial, Taake, and Zemial.)
First of all, we’d like to know your thoughts on the latest album of the band Laguz”. It’s been two and a half years already since its release. How did the fans react to it? Are you fully satisfied with its sound?
I think Laguz is our most complex album so far from a technical point of view, consisting of many layers. It’s an album that has to grow on the listener, as one keeps on discovering details. On the other hand, all musical elements have intensified, it is an intense album. The fans responded positively, but of course people have their preferences, which is normal when a band exists for as long as we do and each album sounds different.
What I find important is that the essence of our work, the A.R. universe, remains intact. Like a travel through old, forgotten worlds. I still believe in every album we ever did for they all represent important eras in our band’s history. Our musical progress is a natural, organic one, but I wouldn’t mind releasing a very raw, primitive album either. We never plan our sound, we are not influenced by any current trends or external situations. We simply create what we feel, regardless of any commercial feedback.
I’m sure a lot have asked you the same, but ‘Laguz‘ came nine years after ‘Rubicon‘. What happened in between? Were you in a state without any inspiration, or you just needed a break?
It is a question that is often asked and an understandable question too. I can imagine that people even started to believe the band had ceased to exist. But that was not the case. Several internal and external factors caused this situation. Many obstacles had to be taken, including financial and practical ones. One after the other. Also we had to deal with line-up changes. On top, some of the band members had other private obligations they gave priority to.
At the same time we were without a record deal and lost our rehearsal room. We have been writing new material over the years though, waiting for the tides to turn in our favor. The music industry had changed and labels didn’t offer any, or decent studio budgets any longer. We did not wish to release an album of lesser quality. Without a decent contract or deal there was no reason to announce any news regarding the new material anyway. We always took recording very seriously and kept on fine-tuning the material. Our own critical mind did not speed up the process either. Even in the studio, in the last moment, everything is checked and some parts are even altered for maximum result. We work with producers who are classical musicians, who keep a close eye on everything.
It is always a hard work, but a rewarding one and we always aim at writing songs that can withstand the test of time. It’s no hasty job. There always is a wait for a new A.R. record but we take the matter at heart. The moment the obstacles were taken and a studio budget and record deal were in our hands, we immediately started the procedures and within a few weeks the album was recorded, as well as the artwork made and completed, including the liner notes. The songs were also mastered, a video clip was made and the album was ready for release. So, here we are, discussing a new A.R. album, the moment the world believed to be rid of us.
Laguz combines melodies, harshness, and some symphonic touches that fit your music perfectly. On the other hand, the character of the band through the years didn’t vanish under the new sound. How easy or difficult is it to add new stuff and to remain traditional at the same time?
The process of writing has become more difficult from a technical point of view, as the musical level is higher. Also, in live situations, this demands full concentration and attention. At the same time, our music is as intense as it used to be; only more difficult to perform, because of the construction and different layers. Also, timing has to be 100% correct live, because of the symphonic aspect that colors our sound in order to achieve this “historical” epic feeling. This was a lot easier in the past when all was only based on the traditional rock’n roll instruments.
On the other hand, it is quite simple to maintain the traditional elements, because we are a band founded in the ’80s after all. We grew up with ’70s/’80s stuff. Although we are not a revival band, and do not try to imitate anyone and constantly evolve, we are children of that era at the same time. These traditional elements are natural, organic and a part of where we come from…
Ancient Rites – Motocultor Open Air 2015
Despite your experience as a musician, do you consider it as a critical moment for the band? Reappearing after almost a decade could make you lose fans, or risking they’d forget who Ancient Rites have been through the years. Was Laguz a strong and right answer to these?
To be honest my friend, I don’t think that way. If I was concerned about the reaction of the music industry, or people in general, I wouldn’t have founded A.R. in the first place. When we started in the ’80s there was no B.M. scene. On the contrary, no one was interested in our sound, concept, or type of lyrics. Commercially, a pioneering role isn’t rewarding, but that was never my concern anyway. Sure, I was curious to see how the album would be received, but we have always been a very independent band at the same time. Not pressured by managers, or labels, to pick in on current trends; or the hype of the moment.
Throughout the decades, we built up our own following, who know we don’t release albums each year. This is not the road to commercial success, but its advantage is that our crowd consists of a big part of independent thinkers. They appreciate our approach and therefore are more loyal than those who hop from style to style, depending on the current popularity. In our gigs, I see many people of the old days mixed with an entire new generation, which is positive. A band like ours isn’t manufactured and therefore works in different ways. Many don’t get it, but those who do are in general rather loyal and respect our approach.
Gunther and Walter in Flanders, early ’90s
You started playing a style that didn’t exist in your country, you are one of the first bands of the first wave of traditional black metal, we could call you pioneers in a way. How did it feel back then, creating your band and playing your first shows? Do you recall this magic sometimes, or do you prefer to look into the future?
Things were happening in the underground in an embryonic stage, but bands weren’t touring yet, just like most big names of today didn’t exist at all. In the early days, people frowned upon our approach, especially during live shows. We were one of the first using the corpse paint and blood. Many went like, “Do they try to be Kiss with ugly make-up while being a noisy band singing about the devil and history or what?” Haha. Sometimes people were throwing things that I was throwing back. Or I was inviting the anonymous hecklers to confront me in the open on stage, which never happened.
And at the same time, those were glorious times, as the few existing bands all had their own identity and one could sense there was a fresh breeze. We were part of the first B.M. tour in Europe together with Impaled Nazarene. Full house each night, because many people came out to to see what this “new thing” was; so, positive and negative reactions were all represented. Many wanted to buy our album, but our underground label was too late with the pressing and I think that made a difference. One of our early albums was “Album of the Month” in the UK underground press, but unavailable. So yes, we were pioneers but never really plucked the results of that.
We were offered a deal by a big German production company that worked with Accept and Lou Reed. We refused, because they had a contract ready saying they could control our sound and image. We weren’t willing to sell out like that. Later, when B.M. became popular, labels offered a deal on the condition that we would adapt our sound to the popular Scandinavian sound. Again, we refused. Why would we try to imitate any younger bands? Our attitude was respected by those very Scandinavian bands, but the music industry itself only thought about the $ of the moment.
Through circumstances beyond our control, the music industry did not pick up on us, because they found us a band not fitting to current trends; and we weren’t willing to change our identity, either. So we always remained an underground band recognized by the die-hard underground scene. I am not stuck in the past, but of course I cherish the memories.
I can’t help but ask what happened with Danse Macabre, a band I liked very much back then, but its end was very sudden. We saw you experimenting in a more gothic style with amazing vocals; a surprise to many people when the band was formed.
Originally the band was founded in Athens together with Magus of Rotting Christ/Necromantia and Sotiris of Septic Flesh. We recorded a single that never was released. When I realised nothing would happen at the time, I thought that was a shame and talked to Hammerheart Records, who said they wanted a complete album. Magus was too occupied with his projects, plus Sotiris fulfilled his military service and therefore lacked time as well. Thus I continued the project and saw to it that our early recordings were included as bonus tracks to respect the band’s history.
D.M. surprised people, but generally were received positively. Our aim was to create an authentic style, inspired by the historical Gothic age of literature, but also musically closer to the origins of the style with its own approach. Lyrically, I could reflect on matters that didn’t fit the concept of Ancient Rites, including very personal texts reflecting on the death of close ones and so on. I had invited one of the current A.R. guitarists to continue the project and he was very talented in doing so. But due to conflicts, our collaboration ended during an A.R. tour.
Upon my return, I found an official mail that Danse Macabre was now a registered trademark by the guitarist and that I would no longer be able to work under my band name. We had just recorded a new album, our best so far in my opinion, but the album was partly re-recorded, while my original vocals and lyrics were erased. I didn’t have the money or interest to dispute these matters in the court and simply focused on starting other projects. At first, I talked to Hammerheart Records who were about to release the album. The label had been present in Athens, when we founded D.M., so they knew the band’s history. However, they said they did know I was one of the founders of the band, but couldn’t do anything as I did not hold the official papers. So, they released the re-recorded album instead.
“Concentrate on Ancient Rites”, they said. I did, but I took A.R. elsewhere, because I felt this as a lack of support to the historical reality from an emotional point of view. So, that was the end of it. I wasn’t really angry at the label, but I was disappointed by how the music industry worked. I had kind of hoped they would have insisted on releasing the original work, because they had paid for the recordings after all. Now, they just helped on re-writing history, or at least that’s how I felt it. I was naïve to believe that the underground would have been any different. I still have the original recordings and it was an interesting work. Personally, I would have preferred to see its release despite our conflicts, because of the artistic creativity the album contained. I never erased the work of musicians I worked with, no matter if we parted on a friendly basis, or not. So, I simply accepted the legal reality and moved on.
Besides Ancient Rites and Danse Macabre, you have contributed in Iron Clad and Lion’s Pride among others. What is the current state of these other bands? How easily are you motivated to create something from the start each time? Is it about the music flowing through your veins, or does it need something like the feel of hunger to create more and more stuff through the years?
It was all about using different “musical dialects” to express different types of emotions in a fitting variable way. I enjoy several styles and different approaches to music. Also, I like to express different types of emotions. From noisy to complex compositions. From rough and simple straightforward to atmospheric cinematic ones like soundscapes. Some emotions don’t fit to certain styles, so I always liked to experiment and find fitting combinations expressing the right feel, a harmonic interaction between lyrics and music. As long as I “feel” the music and like the composition, of course.
Nowadays, I focus solely on Ancient Rites and my graphic novels work. Iron Clad were offered to tour, but I wasn’t a founding member. The original guitarist moved to the States, but he said he wouldn’t have a problem if we continued without him. However, the bass player also lacked time, so if we started playing live, the only original founding member of their ’80s collaboration would have been the drummer. It’s true several musicians offered to jump in as replacements, but I didn’t want to pull a “Danse Macabre” card, if you understand my comparison.
You see, despite of the fact that all of the guys were fine with it, I didn’t consider it correct. As if I would be taking the “glory” of a band I did not originally create. I hold this naïve value, thinking the originators hold the rightful key. I’m not a part of this music industry that often has disregard for matters that are important to my eyes. You could ask: “why did you continue with A.R. then, while two of the original members are dead?” The answer is simple, I founded and created the band, so I felt I was entitled to continue the legacy.
As for Lion’s Pride, there is no complete line-up anymore. Besides, it is almost impossible to play in my country, because we used the medieval Flemish Flag as a symbol and that is considered a taboo and politically incorrect. The masses didn’t get it. The gutter press came up with sensational articles full of gossip, or twisted info, and even our National TV station fabricated a fake reportage: they dubbed my words (they used a cursing American), photoshopped our album with forbidden symbols / corpses and projected it on a big screen. Underneath the screen, politicians and professors debated over the evilness of our work and projected it on TV as a danger to our modern society.
They were filming the house of the owner of our record label by night, while using horror music and so on. Gutter press tricks/tactics to manipulate the viewers. Laughable, but still they succeeded in causing a general boycott. We had a strong following, but no one dared to book us any longer over here. We recorded a few albums though, and I’m content with that. It was ironic that we were offered several headline shows abroad, which we played. We even were received by the mayor of Vilnius of Lithuania, when the band was invited to play at a big national fest that was celebrating their national day. We were also welcomed by the national press there. Even had classic ballet acts and folklore artists as our support, much to our surprise.
On our own soil, there was only trouble and often riot police was lined-up outside to charge whenever we played. State security were on our backs. I wasn’t intimidated, but I found the hysteria regarding our underground band over the top, tiring and uninteresting. Not constructive on a personal level. I dared to mention the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism, as well as defended our ancient cultures, which obviously made us a danger to the public opinion. I said those things decades ago, as I learnt a lot from travelling the world and saw what was happening, just like I heard testimonies of local people.
Look at our world today. Was I not right about the unpleasant truths I predicted? Only a month ago, I was stuck in train traffic here, because a Jihadist bomb exploded at the next station. I always saw us as an independent band, so I didn’t want to be a part of any organizations, either. It wasn’t even about politics, but voicing realities that rulers, the elite, and their masses don’t want to hear, as they’re bad for one’s career. Hence the boycotts here. They forgot one thing though: I don’t care about careers. It was all sad, but at the same time, amusing in a way, being received as celebrities by the authorities abroad. And considered public enemies by the authorities and the public on their own soil.
Larger than life. Or “a storm in a glass of water”, as one of our expressions goes. Much trouble over nothing, over some guys playing music. Commercial gain never was my interest, so the boycotts didn’t upset me anyway. I nodded my head and simply moved on. Never even made an attempt to defend myself. Why bother? I am sometimes playing with the idea to start a new band and I could. Lion’s Pride/Iron Clad drummer says he’d like the idea very much. It would be a heavy, no nonsense, straightforward band; an “in your face” type of thing. Plug in and play, tight like a rolling tank blasting powerful music. Simple and effective. On the other hand, I’d like to see an album with medieval and classical music of Ancient Rites classics, sounding as if they were written centuries ago. Too many ideas, too short a life, haha!
photo credit: Erwin Jonkman Fotografie
Your country, Belgium, is a small place that produces great bands. Before the end of the ’90s, the only band we all knew of was Ancient Rites, so only some thrash maniacs like me were into Acid, Target, and such stuff. Aborted became really known from a point and on, as well as you have some great stuff like Amenra, or Oathbreaker going on. How did you regard the evolution of the Belgian scene through the years and what aforementioned bands do you like? Are there any others we should keep an eye on?
In the ’80s, I liked Acid’s Maniac album and I also think the Full Moon’s Eyes mini of Ostrogoth was internationally very underrated. Except, maybe, in Greece. Much to my pleasant surprise, I heard some of the tracks being played at Metal clubs back in the ’90s in Athens. I also have a story on that one. One day, I was travelling back home from Athens, and the flight personnel had me placed at the back of the plane between some Metal guys, probably thinking I belonged to the group, judging by my looks. They turned out to be Ostrogoth, who were returning from playing a show in Athens.
We had a few beers together on board. One of their guitarists at that time (a Brazilian one), had played in a band called Hermetic Brotherhood before and remembered A.R. We had done a show together years before. “I remember your band, you sounded like a guy with a monster voice, that was original”, he said. Haha. Keep in mind that when we started, grunts, or B.M. type of vocals, weren’t common at all. We had been the only extreme Metal band that night on the bill and there was no other band of our genre over here at that time. Hence why other bands remembered us.
Another release I liked from the ’80s was the demo of Black Shepherd. They played raw, primitive Speed/Thrash with dark lyrics, but their album that was released on a punk label did not fulfill the expectations. Many put the blame on the production (which was less powerful compared to the demo), so the release went by unnoticed abroad. Moreover, Cyclone’s debut LP did receive good response and so did the demos. The band even opened for Metallica and Anthrax at a big Brussels venue, but soon after they broke up. A pity for them, because I think they could have become more known internationally, as they seemed to be gaining better support from their record company.
Concerning bands of the moment I know? I could mention FireForce, they play traditional Heavy Metal and they are veterans of the scene. They just released a new album, their members played in traditional Heavy Metal bands before and quite good at that. But to be honest, things never were easy for bands in this country. The Metal industry here lacked the infra-structure compared to the UK, Germany or USA. The mentality here is also difficult, it is anti-chauvinist. Big promoters are generally more interested in booking foreign bands, as it is more exotic to them. Only AFTER Ancient Rites built a name abroad, promoters started to show interest in our band.
I remember there was a Metal festival in my hometown and its promoters booked some label mates from abroad they had to pay a lot more for (due to travel expenses, etc), but ignored us. Some of the organizers simply didn’t like our approach in music and lyrics, while others considered us “not interesting”, because we were “only” local. We set up a show in our hometown ourselves instead and it sold out. Our band doesn’t receive support from bigger festivals in this country either. We are considered too controversial and too difficult to “label”. So, people over here are surprised to see how we were booked to play the “70,000 Tons of Metal” Cruise in the Caribbean last year, or we are invited to play at fests in the USA, or elsewhere in Europe.
When we do get booked here, the turn-out is great and very supportive, but those usually are independent Ancient Rites headline shows. Festivals ignore us. Fine by me, I don’t expect anything from anyone anyway and that is positive; because this way one doesn’t get disappointed easily. We always have been on our own, outsiders from the very beginning. In order to get our first EP out we had to create our own “label”, as no one was interested, or believed in our work. That is why I can’t really answer your question fairly, because I am not really a part of a scene as in being a part of “scene circles”. I am in touch with thousands of people worldwide on my FB, but in the end I’m just an individual doing my own thing.
No matter how the world is turning, I am easily approachable and answer everyone personally. But I live in my own world in my small medieval city, where I inhabit a house inside a fortified medieval abbey. The streets are paved with cobbled stones in an environment where time stood still. It is forbidden to alter the place, as it is a part of Unesco World Heritage. Actually, a very suitable place for someone like me with such a strong passion for history. I do travel and get out, of course, but to historical destinations for inspiration, into nature, or to my family-in-law in Hellas, as I am married to an Athenian. Base kalo mou! Only joking.
She’s smart, clever as an ancient Athenian and stern as an ancient Spartan. One can see her emotions just by her expression from miles away and her spirit is very sharp. Like Plato mixed with Achilleas and Bouboulina! I like her dry humor and actually she is very Spartan in her judgments, extremely honest. A pure soul.
Actually, when thinking of it, I can tell you more about historical locations worldwide, or about good places to drink and eat in Hellas and its islands generally, than about public scene life. It’s what happens when being a bit of a loner minding his own business, who isn’t a part of any “jet set”, or “showbiz”. I think a part of this contributes to our originality as a band, we do not observe other artists, nor are we influenced by momentary matters. We live in our own cocoon, haha!
It was about time you visited Greece once again. We know you have very strong bonds with our country and you know the Greek hordes have stood by your side all these years. What is your anticipation for the Arcane Angels Fest and what should the fans expect from your performance. More new stuff, many classics of the past, or a good combination of all?
Yes, we always had strong bonds with your country and the Hellenic Hordes. On my personal FB page, there are many Hellenic friends, who always supported our band. What to expect from us? A combination and a representation of the band’s work from the beginning until now. We are not a reunion/ nostalgia band, only basing our setlist on the early days, nor are we a band who deny their past. So, early material is definitely represented as well. As we always did throughout our career, we try to offer a balance between the old and new.
Symfono that it is high time for a return to Hellas and I’m glad we finally are invited again after all those years. But I don’t know what to expect of the live show, because many years have passed and people moved on in life. True, I’m still in touch with many of the people we knew back in the old days, who came to our shows, but that doesn’t mean they still attend concerts.
On the other hand, many of the younger people in Hellas seem to have discovered A.R. too. Our audience consists of several generations, a side effect of being a band that started back in the ’80s. In my experience, once they like a band, the Hellenic crowd stays a loyal crowd. They don’t easily forget the artists they appreciate. I hope it will be a positive experience, like it always was in the past. Even if the majority of the crowd today wouldn’t know us, even if the response would be bad, we’ll give it 100% and it’s the only way! Heart and soul must be put into it, as if it’s the last show you’ll ever play. There never are any certainties in life, my friend, the only thing that one can control is to try and offer the best you’ve got.
You know, I faced several operations these past years and dangerous health issues, but the battle continues. Life is short, the outcome is always unclear, but one controls one’s own mind and attitude. In my attitude, there is no room for self-pity. I embrace a realistic, but positive mindset, even in dark and difficult times. I prefer to focus on my interests and passions, the things worth living for and try to make the best out of every minute knowing it can be over the next. A strong mind can take a lot, my mind is not guided by external factors. But if a positive thing happens, I appreciate it twice as much.
So, for this show, I also don’t expect the best, but I’ll give it my best. That’s all a simple man can do.
I am talking too much and don’t want to bore your readers with my personal philosophies in life. Understandably, they are not interested in these personal matters, but you see I always talk from the heart. There is no show involved, what you see is what you get. I am who I am and my public work and approach is a result of my private interests and personality. They are as one. That is also one of the reasons I don’t really belong to any showbiz. I could be smart enough to play the commercial game, play it safe, fit in. But that would be selling out my soul, so I prefer to remain independent. Less popular of course, but always myself. In the end, one is born alone, one dies alone, and in the end you should be able to look in the mirror and be able to say “I was”, when you ask yourself if you were your own self.
Last but not least, I’d like to thank you very much for your time in answering these questions. It was a privilege, as I ran into ‘The Diabolic Serenades‘ back in ’94 and it still remains one of my great childhood memories and first touches with old black metal. Add anything you’d like that you feel should be mentioned. All the best to you from the heart.
Parakalo file mou! It was my pleasure talking to a veteran who respects our work. Efxaristo Para Polie. My best regards to your readers. I look forward to see the supportive Ancient Hordes when we return to the cradle of Ancient Europe. Looking forward to it all. And as you know, it will be a bit like coming home too. Let’s hope I can score some Mythos, local Krassi, Ouzo, Tirokafteri, Kalamares and Kotopoulo Souvlaki. And to fit in with the locals during the morning, while reading Herodotes, a Frappé glyko me gala, parakalo. Geia mas!
I discovered A.R. only a few years ago. I’m curious to know why the original cover art for The Diabolic Serenades was changed to a less striking image. Also, why is his voice deep and demonic in The Diabolic Serenades but not in other albums? No hate on the other albums.