(We present Comrade Aleks‘ extensive interview of Chris Naughton from the UK band Atavist, whose new album III: Absolution was released in June by Candlelight Records.)
Sometimes they come back… Manchester-based Atavist was put on hold twelve years ago and almost by accident I learned that the band had reunited in almost its original line-up: Chris Naughton (guitars), Toby Bradshaw (vocals), Shane Ryan (bass) and Callum Cox (drums) who joined Atavist in 2006, soon after the recording of their debut self-titled album. They didn’t waste the time that elapsed in that long break between their 2008 split Infernal Procession… And Then Everything Dies and their new full-length work, III: Absolution but were instead playing in different extreme metal bands and honing their skills.
Released by Candlelight Records earlier this summer, III: Absolution represents Atavist at their peak, with the band bringing deep, devastating, and uncompromised doom-death battle in its slower and minimalistic form. They pay attention to arrangements and very rare decorative elements like cello or some samples, but overall it’s cold and bleak (in the good sense of the words) doom-death. We got in contact with Chris Naughton to learn more about Atavist’s return.
Hail Chris! Thanks for your time, it’s much appreciated. How are you? What’s going on in the band’s camp?
Hello, we are doing well thank you. Things are starting to quiet down in the Atavist camp after the launch of our new album III: Absolution in June. Obviously we would be looking to play some live shows at this point of the year – after the summer festivals – and now that people have had time to absorb the album more fully. But, we find ourselves in one of the strangest periods in world history right now, so we are waiting in the wings until we are allowed to emerge again.
The band has returned to life after a 12-year break. What led you to this hiatus and what motivated you to resurrect Atavist?
When we were doing the band originally we were younger, belligerent and a little chaotic in our relationships so we sort of fizzled out after a few years of output. I tried carrying on the band with some other guys for a year or so when the other core members stepped back but it never really felt the same; so we just put the band on hiatus. A lot happened in between times. We went away, developed a lot and focused on other projects. So we’ve always been involved in making music in some capacity. For myself I was focused on Winterfylleth and making 10 releases over the last 12-13 years – so we certainly haven’t been quiet.
In terms of what motivated us to resurrect the band, I think we just realised one day that we were missing out on something great that we create together, and that the story of Atavist had not been fully written yet. So in about 2017 we got back together and started working collaboratively on some ideas I had been writing in the background for the last 10 years. Those ideas eventually evolved and became Absolution.
Did being in Winterfylleth compensate for the lack of Atavist’s vibe in your life?
Winterfylleth has been a driving force in my own life for the last 12-13 years, ever since we put Atavist on hiatus. At the time we began doing Winterfylleth it was a welcome change for me, and it was all I was interested in doing for a long time. But the thing is, I was always, and still am, a big fan of Death Metal, Doom Metal, Funeral Doom, Ambient, etc., so the urge to make other music never went away. I was always writing some Death/Doom in the background and eventually I realised that I wanted to do more of that as well as Winterfylleth. It had been a long time since doing this kind of stuff for the other guys as well, as they had been involved in lots of projects also, so we just felt like it was the right time I guess.
It’s good to know that the Covid-crisis didn’t prevent the release of your new full-length album III: Absolution. Were you nervous when considering this release? The extreme metal industry has had to live through some pretty hard times, so it’s a kind of miracle… a grim, and ugly miracle.
I think that many bands decided to delay the release of their albums because of Covid restrictions, but for myself it seemed like a great time to put out a new album. It gives people something new and interesting to focus on while they are locked away at home, and maybe even provided a little hope during the boring days. I think more people will have had time to actually play and hear the album properly because of this situation – as it forced everyone’s lives to slow down. So, even though it is a strange period of time that we are in, you have to make the best of it, and so we released the album anyway. I think it was the right decision.
Chris, as I understand it, you’ve reunited with the same line-up that recorded II: Ruined back in 2007. Were you in touch through all these years? How did you manage to do it?
Yes, that’s right, it’s the same line up as II: Ruined. We stayed in touch over the years of course, and while we had strained some of our relationships in our early years, we were always very close friends. So, it just felt like the right time to do something else. We had the basis for new material, and everyone wanted to do it. So we decided to make an album and hoped people still cared about the band and remembered us from 12-13 years before.
Atavist combines elements of doom, death, and sludge metal — how would you sum up your musical influences?
I think we have varied influences as a collective of members, but we all seem to align around certain bands like Corrupted, Esoteric, Evoken, Colosseum, Shape of Despair, etc. I think we made a conscious effort to focus more on emotions and atmosphere on this album, so there is no sludge on it at all and it’s purely in the realms of Death/Funeral/Atmospheric Doom. The sludge doom thing was partly of interest to us in the early 2000’s, but it has become boring and over-saturated with many copycat bands these days. So it’s definitely not where we wanted this record to sit, aesthetically, in 2020. Also, as we got more experienced I feel like we’ve managed to be able to realise the kinds of ideas we had in our heads when we first started the band – on this album. So we did just that and made a more mournful and emotive record this time around.
I’m no the biggest fan of sludge in the world, but I guess both doom-death and funeral have plenty of their own copycats too… Do you think that sludge has more limits than these doom subgenres?
I think you have to put it into context. It’s much easier to be in a sludge band than a Death/Doom or Funeral Doom band. In a sludge band you can write fairly catchy, pentatonic songs and scream over the music – without a great deal of consideration for the ‘art’ of the whole thing. I think it’s a good entry point into playing music for lots of people, and while there are many GREAT sludge bands from over the years, it’s become oversaturated and sterile in the 15 (or more) years since any of those early bands did anything interesting (for me at least). It’s a fairly limited format on the whole, and it’s not one that I love dearly, as it relies more on immediacy and catchiness than the layered, atmospheric and expansive nature of the other kinds of doom. I much prefer the latter style. For me it’s more creative, more evocative and more sincere in many ways than sludge, which is why I gravitate towards writing it as well as playing it I guess.
All of you do play in other bands, performing music in different extreme genres. How did this experience help you during the recording of III: Absolution?
I think it definitely helped the process, in lots of ways. Particularly my experiences in Winterfylleth, as we used Chris Fielding to record the Atavist album. Chris has produced nearly all of the Winterfylleth albums, and so I have a long history of working with him which helped in this process. Due to our long-term collaboration, we were able to share early demos, pre-production, and ideas with Chris, and in turn it meant we could record in a low-stress and prepared environment during the recording sessions. It’s all about pre-production. Making sure we went in with every possible thing demoed and then just working our way through it in recording. A long process, but one that gets the best out of the sessions.
Where and how long did you work on this material? Was it one solid session or did you split it into a few parts? Was it a stressful session or did you have some fun as well?
I have been writing the material for 10 years in small doses, but after 2017 we really focused on it together, and then spent about 10-12 days recording and mixing the album throughout late 2018 and mid-2019. Most of the recording was done with Chris Fielding at the now closed-down Skyhammer Studio in Chester, UK. We then finished the recording with him at Foel Studio in Wales. We had various 2-3 day sessions to do guitar, bass, vocals, drums and strings. It was then mixed at Chris’s home studio at Elder Tree House and mastered by James Plotkin at Plotkinworks in the USA. It was a good experience and we always have fun recording with Chris.
Did Chris Fielding offer you any ideas in the studio which helped you to polish III: Absolution into shape?
Chris always has great ideas, which is why we continue to work with him. As I mentioned earlier, we always make sure we are 100% prepped for recording and that we have done all the pre-production. So, in terms of writing, he doesn’t really comment too greatly on that, unless he can hear a layer or a lead that may work well in part of a song. Where Chris is great is in knowing how to capture the sounds that you imagine for the record and helping you to blend that all together in the mix. His great ear for sound, his patience and support in the studio and in the mix are all elements of why we make great sounding albums with him.
What about Atavist’s message? What ideas or images did you initially want to channel through your songs?
The songs have always been about ‘the individual’ in one way or another. Be that from a nihilistic perspective, or from a personal struggle perspective. The music and message has always been very inward looking. Like putting a mirror up in front of the problems and turmoils of the self. Absolution as a whole album is a story arc that is simply conveyed through the titles of the tracks and the music. Loss (the act of losing something important or valued), Struggle (the hard time you have coming to terms with what to do after loss), Self-Realisation (the balance you start to find when you start to manage grief) and Absolution (the relief at the end of an arduous voyage). This album is about finding the start of a rebalance, and not necessarily a complete inner peace. It’s the large sigh at the end of a personal struggle and the relief of having reached some semblance of a plateau after a fall.
You avoid publishing the songs’ lyrics. Well, avoid… you don’t publish it at all. Do you believe that the music tells everything to the listener? What kind of subject matter does Toby shout about when you record and perform your songs?
We always used to avoid publishing the lyrics and left the messages of the songs open to the interpretation of the individual hearing them. In the case of our last album II: Ruined, the nihilistic approach of the music and the aesthetic of the art was supposed to convey the feeling that everything is broken, destroyed, ruined and hopeless. But, on III: Absolution we decided to publish the full lyrics and give the tracks titles for the first time. I think the idea of growing, being less ambiguous and letting people know where we were coming from this time was an important change in the writing. Many people share the same sentiments that have been written and can relate to those messages we are expressing here. Rather than explain them here, they are printed in the album inlay this time, and I suggest people check them out for themselves in a quiet time of reflection whilst listening to the album.
So do you see Atavist as a band which (should) make people not only feel but also think?
When we first started the band, we were always quite guarded with our lyrical themes and the overall message of the band – other than it was about despondency, nihilism and personal destruction. We wanted the message to be open to interpretation and for people to make of it what they wanted, particularly in relation to their own circumstances. I guess as we have gotten older (and changed our style and approach), the music became less about faceless, wordless belligerence, and more about conveying real-life emotions and feelings through the story arc of an album. So while some of the lyrics are personal to Toby, we also know that they are more widely relatable and speak to a universal truth about the bleaker end of the human condition. They are not about telling people how to think and are more about how to envision personal feelings in the context of the music and imagery. Absolution is about personal turmoil coming almost full circle, and I’m sure many people can relate to that. Some have even messaged our social pages saying that the album itself helped them through some hard times in their own lives. I guess the role of music and lyrics can be to challenge opinions and to raise difficult ideas with people, but in this case it is about a window into the human condition and the plight of the individual, not a life lesson.
Manchester is known for its heavy industry and its musical scene. Can you say how, if at all, both elements are reflected in Atavist’s sound?
In truth I would say that neither of those things have had any impact on us as a band – at least not any more. I think we always had grander visions for our sound and ideas than simply a reaction to the locality we are from. We have talked about universal, difficult truths in our music and related that to the ongoing struggle of the individual in humanity. Manchester, like many other places, is saturated with bands doing the same pentatonic, sludge/stoner doom stuff and that is not really for us anymore. We love the place, and the majority of well-meaning people in the scene, but we do not really belong to it as such anymore. We’ve been away so long, and have just been on our own trajectory since we returned that we are a bit out on our own in terms of where we are from geographically. For now at least, we will continue to make music that is important to us and put it out for the people who really get it to relate to.
What are your plans for Atavist now after the III: Absolution release? Will you continue working on new material? Do you search for opportunities to play live if it’s possible at all nowadays?
We would obviously like to play these songs live at some stage. It has to be the right environment and the right timing of course, particularly as things are upheaved in the world right now. We will start working on what comes next musically at some stage and have already been coming up with concepts for the next phase of the bands writing. So this is definitely not the end, but rather some kind of awakening or a new beginning for the band. We hope people will stay with us and follow us where this leads.
Thanks for the interview Chris. Atavist’s return was an amazing surprise, and this interview is a proper addition to it.
The new Atavist album, III: Absolution is out now on Candlelight/Spinefarm records worldwide.