(Comrade Aleks brings us many illuminating interviews, but this one hits a high level, much like the music. The discussion comes with our thanks to Max Johnson from the U.S. black metal band Noltem, whose debut album is set for release on October 15th by Transcending Obscurity.)
Elegant and fluid atmospheric black metal from Connecticut-based Noltem was exposed by Transcending Obscurity Records just a month ago, but their first revealed tracks, “Illusions in the Wake” and “Ruse”, are just teasers for the whole album which will be released physically very soon. Vast soundscapes taking form from breathtaking harmonies, piercing vocal lines, and a wide palette of dark moods are delivered by this trio with flawless effectiveness and high competence.
Noltem is recommended for fans of Agalloch and Panopticon, and I agree with this reference, though you’ll find that their individuality reaches out beyond this fluid sub-genre’s borders. Max Johnson (guitars, bass, keyboards), John Kerr (drums, vocals), Shalin Shah (bass)… who will enlighten us and reveal the driving force behind Notlem? It seems that Max is on line tonight.
Hi Max! How are you? I’ve realized only now that despite Transcending Obscurity already starting to spread promos of Noltem’s debut Illusions in the Wake, the album’s release date is set on the 15th of October. So the label already supports this release, and did they leave something to do considering promotion?
I’m well, thank you for reaching out! There is definitely a large gap between pre-orders and the actual release date. I think this is mostly related to the massive demand for vinyl. Most (if not all) manufacturers are experiencing extreme delays and unusually long lead-times. In the meantime, we’re doing our best to help Transcending Obscurity promote the album. The response so far has been excellent.
Max, you started your exploration of black metal territories with the bands Aegrimonia and Wind Through the Trees nearly twenty years ago. What didn’t work with these bands?
I was about 14 years old when these groups came into existence. Aegrimonia had some great ideas, but we weren’t very good at playing together as a band. We released a demo CD-R and then everyone lost interest in continuing with the project. I am still in contact with the other half of Wind Through the Trees (Bob Davis). He’s a good friend of mine who is responsible for the limited cassette version of the Mannaz EP. There were plans for a follow-up to the Rising Fog demo, but we eventually left to attend university and moved to different states. If we ever have time, I’d still like to do it!
You founded Noltem soon after these two outfits disbandied but there weren’t any recordings besides the Hymn of the Wood (2005) demo for years. What caused this? Why did you close any musical activity?
Hymn of the Wood is what happened when I started to discover bands like Vintersorg and Agalloch. I was filled with a huge amount of inspiration and finished this demo in about a week. As I mentioned before, I ended up moving to Vermont to attend college. After that, life just kept getting in the way. The years were going by quickly and I started to think of Noltem as a memory from the past. I think this style of black/folk metal was a little less “common” back in 2005. There has been an explosion of excellent bands producing the same kind of music, so I couldn’t find much of a reason to record new songs.
What led you to Noltem’s resurrection and the recording of the Mannaz EP? How did you decide that it was time to try again?
My friend Bob Davis was running a cassette label in Atlanta, GA called Ritual Ugliness Productions. He was coming up with these very detailed and interesting hand-made layouts which were becoming popular in that “scene”. He has been a longtime supporter of my music, and he approached me with the idea of re-releasing Hymn of the Wood. I didn’t think it would be worth the effort, but I gave him my blessing. We kept talking, and he suggested that maybe I could record a one-off bonus track to make the whole package a little more desirable. One thing led to another. I dusted off some old riffs, and suddenly I had three new songs ready to record.
A mutual friend (Jon Rosenthal) introduced me to John Kerr, who ended up recording session drums and vocals. He agreed to sign on as a full-time member soon after, which is something that I am eternally grateful for. My brother-in-law Dennis McLaughlin handled mixing/mastering (and most of the recording). The rest is history.
You’ve mentioned “scene” — do you feel a part of it? A kind of black metal brotherhood or whatever? Sometimes I think that stuff like this is obsolete, but some bands keep strong bonds like it was 15 – 25 years ago.
There are some people who I’ve been trading music with since those early days, and we still keep in touch. They’re all over the world. Many of them are also musicians who have been releasing music since the early 2000s. It’s probably the closest thing to a “scene” that I’ve ever been involved in. Without the internet, this would be a very solitary thing. We have a small handful of fans who I recognize as supporters of the original demo tape. It’s amazing that they’re still following us so many years later. There were only 50 copies of that demo, and I remember sending most of them to Canada, Europe, and Australia.
Noltem’s sound is based on black metal but with a huge influence of its “atmospheric” branch. May you name those bands that formed your vision of how Noltem should sound?
I would say that my original influences were Agalloch, early Vintersorg, and Opeth. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Pale Folklore and The Mantle have been essential to my progression over the years as a songwriter. Ödemarkens son and Cosmic Genesis opened my eyes to the possibilities of incorporating synths and keyboards into the music. Opeth’s Orchid is still on my regular playlist, and it had a lot of influence on those early acoustic passages. Since then, I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from bands like Nechochwen and Obsequiae. The best thing about Noltem’s current lineup is that it’s much less of a reflection of my personal interests. The songwriting process now involves three people instead of just me. We all enjoy very different music, and it comes through to produce some interesting songs.
And this attitude leaves a lot of space to develop Noltem’s sound further! Now that you have a proper complete album (and I bet you find it at least satisfying), do you plan your next step? Will you follow the same way or shall time tell?
That’s a good question. We already have plenty of material for the next album. I’d love to start recording later this year, but it’s likely going to take place in 2022. So far, I see the new songs as a logical progression from where we are now. Noltem’s earlier material was very mid-paced, with only a couple of fast sections on the demo. I don’t think there’s anything like that on Mannaz either. Overall, I think that Illusions in the Wake is a much faster album. I’d like to keep some of those tremolo blast beat sections, but I also want to slow things down at times. We want to build some suspense.
I’m saying these things now, but the songs always morph and change once we get together as a band. That’s the beauty of it, I’m always surprised by what we have in the end. The demo recordings for Illusions in the Wake were drastically different; there certainly weren’t any keyboard solos or foghorn samples. I never would have come up with this stuff on my own.
How do you see the phenomenon of “atmospheric black metal”? Where do its roots go? It seems to be a relatively new thing as well as post-black metal.
That is a highly subjective question, but the roots go pretty deep. I think this all began with many of the classic bands from Norway (like early Emperor, Satyricon, Ulver, etc.). In my opinion, any music can be considered “atmospheric”. A very raw album like Under a Funeral Moon has its own vibes and feelings, especially when you compare it to an Iron Maiden album or something like that. Even if Bruce Dickinson is singing about ancient Egypt, he’s still trying to set a mood somehow. The tag of “atmospheric black metal” really refers to any release which aims to take you somewhere else. It’s music for escapism.
I get your point… How much of escapism is there in Noltem? I guess that switching the focus to “Nature topics” is just another side of reality, though a “pagan message” is probably another thing…
It’s probably the entire reason that the band exists! When I was young and learning about this type of music, it was the greatest thrill ever. It just took me away from everything and brought me to another place. That’s exactly the sensation we’re looking to recreate. Most of the natural themes in this genre serve the same purpose. Songs about terrestrial nature or the cosmos achieve the same thing.
First of all, your new album Illusions in the Wake strikes with its remarkable artwork. Whatever people say, each album – as a complex artistic work – starts with an artwork. What led you to this image? How does the album’s cover keep the album’s line?
To be honest, we simply stumbled upon this painting, which is named As the Winds Blow (by artist Anthony Hurd). After the album was complete, we were desperately searching for a cover. There were several options on the table, but we couldn’t commit to any one of them. The original idea was to use our own photography. Nothing we came up with felt powerful enough to represent the music. Shalin Shah randomly came across this painting online, and we knew it was the one. We were very lucky that it was still available for license.
I think it represents the colorful, epic, intricate, and mysterious aspects of Illusions in the Wake. There are so many twists and turns in the painting. When you take some time to really stare at it, you’ll notice something new every time. I like to think that our listeners will have the same experience with this album. I really cannot stress how lucky we are to have found Anthony’s work.
How did you work over this material? Did you fulfill all your initial ideas in the album’s final version?
I started writing this album in 2015, and it wasn’t recorded until 2019. Now here we are about two years later, and it’s finally being released. I think it’s natural for musicians to be overly critical of their work (especially when they have a lot of time to look back over it). We had about two years where we were just sitting on this album waiting for something to happen. You start to pick up on things that you might want to change, like subtle aspects of the production. There are even riffs that I’d record differently if I had to do the whole thing over again. That being said, we are happy with the final product. Most of this album was recorded during a 3-day session in Pittsburgh, PA. Spenser Morris did a wonderful job with the recording, mixing, and mastering. I believe we successfully created an album which honors the classic bands of the past while simultaneously reaching out towards something new.
Three years is a huge period. What kind of obstacles did you meet on your way to release? Pandemic? The label’s schedule? A lack of motivation to search for right labels?
It was certainly a long process. I mentioned that most of the album was recorded during one session, but there were several sections which couldn’t be completed in the studio. A big obstacle for the band is that two members live in Connecticut, while another lives in Pennsylvania. It’s an 8-to-10-hour drive. If we were recording this stuff individually and swapping files, then it wouldn’t be a huge problem. Still, we were very adamant about recording in a “live” setting as much as possible. John and I ended up recording a few things on our own, and obviously all the guest solos were recorded at different times and locations.
That whole process took a few months, but we were able to make it work. Once the album was mixed and mastered, it didn’t take long to get hooked up with Transcending Obscurity. Kunal was quick to show his support for the band, but this was around May 2020 when many countries were really starting to feel the effects from the pandemic. This slowed down their schedule due to manufacturing delays, and the lockdowns made it difficult for anyone to get work done. All in all, things came together in the end. Many of these delays were virtually unavoidable.
Three guest guitarists are mentioned. Who helped you with Illusions in the Wake’s recording. Can you tell more about this collaboration?
The album wouldn’t have been the same without the following contributions: Aaron Carey (Nechochwen) recorded a guitar solo for thesong Ruse and added lead guitar harmonies to the end of On Shores of Glass. Zach Miller (Pyrithe) and Jordan Guerette (Falls of Rauros) also performed guitar solos on the final track. The synth section which ends the album was actually written and recorded by my wife Katie McLaughlin. We had this idea of ending the album with a bombastic instrumental which featured solo after solo. We were inspired by the In Flames song Wayfaerer. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s kind of a spiritual tribute to one of our favorite albums (The Jester Race).
Which role does Noltem’s lyrics play for you? Do you care for the band’s ideology or some kind of message? Do you pay any attention to black metal lyrics yourself?
Noltem originally started as a black/folk/pagan metal band which displayed a lot of runic imagery and themes from European mythology. While I’m still interested in these things on a personal level, the band no longer has any association with those concepts. It’s all been done before… there’s nothing that we can gain from being another “viking” or “folk metal” band. Even the lyrics from Hymn of the Wood and Mannaz are more focused on nature, escapism, and transcendentalism.
To be completely honest, my lyrics have always come as an afterthought. The music is paramount, and the lyrical concepts are never a factor from the beginning. Illusions in the Wake deals with existentialism and the unknown. The lyrics for Ruse are from a Robert Frost poem. There’s even a song about being drowned by ghosts (no, seriously).
Drowned by ghosts? “Nightmares? Coming all the time?” Well, why not… Thanks for this interview Max, it’s much appreciated! Did we forget something? Or maybe you have a few more words for our readers?
Thanks again for the opportunity to answer these questions. I don’t have much more to say, but we are continually humbled by everyone’s support. This band has been around for over 15 years. I haven’t released a large volume of music, and it’s crazy how we still have some fans who showed their support from the very beginning. Pre-orders are live for Illusions in the Wake, and copies of Mannaz are still available through Northern Silence Productions or directly through the band.