(In this new interview Comrade Aleks catches up again with Kostas Panagiotou, mastermind of Pantheist, whose latest album Closer to God was released earlier this month.)
Years ago Pantheist was known as a funeral doom metal band, international to some degree, and sometimes experimental. Twenty years passed since the release of their first demo 1000 Years and Pantheist went far away from the point where they were back then. 21 years, 24 different members, 6 full-length albums, and one man who holds this project on his shoulders – it’s obvious that he’s free to do whatever he finds necessary to this creature, whatever he feels right.
It’s Kostas Panagiotou who not only performs the duties of vocalist and keyboard player, but also writes music and lyrics and produces Pantheist. Is it a one-man band indeed? We’ll know it soon, of course. The new album Closer to God was born during this anxious and stressful lockdown, as Kostas lists the ingredients of the new material — “the ghost of Ennio Morricone; the soundtrack of videogames endlessly played; an unfulfilled need for connection; an acute awareness of the futility of it all…”
The album was planned to be a single track, but after all there are four gorgeous tracks on the verge of different genres yet based on a funeral doom fundament. The result of Pantheist‘s recording sessions is inspiring, the band gives some food for the soul and the brains, and Kostas serves it for us in this interview.
Hello Kostas! Thanks for your time, how are you doing now? A new album, a new wave of covid, new restrictions on civil rights… “Strange time”, isn’t it?
Hello comrade Aleksey. Yes, you can say that! Who would have thought, say two years ago, that something like that would be happening worldwide? But there you go, in a few years’ time suddenly everything we have been taking for granted changed, some of these things probably forever. Strange times indeed, there is a ‘fin du siècle’ vibe around the world and we are not even anywhere near the end of the century yet!
I was thinking what else can I ask after the four interviews we’ve had, but let’s try… First of all, Pantheist’s sixth album Closer to God is out now, and it sounds like a direct continuation of its predecessor Seeking Infinity (2018), as if most of the original O Solitude (2003) alike stuff you left for Towards Atlantis Lights, another band you take part in. May we say what Closer to God represents Pantheist’s ultimate manifest today?
That’s an interesting view. When I was working on the album, I thought it would be closer to O Solitude in terms of atmosphere, but once we started working on the demos with the whole band, it developed its own ‘vibe’ as usual. I think every album represents the ultimate manifest of the band at that particular time. I know people are making fun of bands who say their latest album is the best yet, but why even bother making music unless you truly believe that? This time we wanted to highlight the cinematic aspect of the band, so there are a lot of symphonic, atmospheric elements, choral arrangements and, as I wrote in the liner notes, the ghost of Ennio Morricone is never too far away!
You didn’t waste time after Seeking Infinity‘s release, as the band’s followers got the compilation Alternative Pantheist and the live album Live at St Giles, London. Was it a way to celebrate Pantheist’s 20th anniversary or did you have an idea to show these two, “alternative” and “live”, sides of the band?
Both! I wanted to do something special as it was indeed the 20th year anniversary of the band. And the best way of doing that was by releasing something that would be a bit of a treat for our biggest fans. At the same time, I had a lot of time in my hands as we were still in lockdown mode and I had lost my business due to covid, so making these two compilations was a rather therapeutic activity!
Lost your business? How did you manage to recover after that? Well, at least you keep on releasing your music DIY and that suggests that things aren’t bad now, aren’t they?
It was a long and difficult process, and music helped me a lot. I recorded two solo piano albums in the first part of 2020, which helped me express some of my feelings at the time. I eventually found employment again and sorted myself out. And yes, I continued releasing my music DIY through that period. I keep the funds for ‘music business’ separate from living costs, I am quite disciplined with that. Therefore, there is always some money available to invest in merch and keep me going at all times, as long as I have the support of my followers.
By the way, there were about 24 different musicians in Pantheist’s lineup over time, and now you have a new crew since 2020. You don’t create the impression of being a kind of satrap, but how do all these changes happen usually?
It’s something that frustrates me immensely, but it is what it is. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I am a rootless person. So far, I have moved from Greece to Belgium, then to England, then to Wales, and next year probably back to England. Consequently, I have been attracting similar types in the band. Two of my ex-band members moved to the USA, one moved to Finland, another to Norway, another to Spain, another to Romania… and the list goes on. I sometimes get jealous of the ‘typical’ band with three or four guys growing up in the same neighbourhood, then forming a band and staying together for years. Alas, it has been anything but that in Pantheist.
John Devos (drums), Jeremy Lewis (guitars), and Nereide (guitars) have rich musical backgrounds, and Matt Strangis (bass) seems to be new for this music. How did you recruit this lineup? Is it a studio lineup or do you see a chance to play live now?
Yes, it was a studio line-up as they were all recruited during the lockdown. After I moved to Wales, our guitarist Frank and bassist Aleksej left and our drummer Dan moved to Romania. So practically, I was the only remaining member in the band. This gave me the freedom to search for the ideal musicians, regardless of their location. Not that location mattered much during lockdown, at some point we weren’t even allowed to visit anyone living on our own street!
Describing the new material in the band’s Bandcamp profile, you start with “a lengthy and joyless lockdown; the ghost of Ennio Morricone; the soundtrack of videogames endlessly played; an unfulfilled need for connection; an acute awareness of the futility of it all…” Occasionally I’ve found that mister Greg Chandler recorded a soundtrack for Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, the game. Did you play it? What did you play during the lockdown?
No I haven’t, but should check it out. To be honest, my obsession is currently devoted to one game: the original Quake. I play and replay its endless mods on Quaddicted. Nothing more satisfactory than wandering in these obscure claustrophobic corridors, discovering secrets and shooting fiends and ogres with a big smile on your face. In fact, I am so obsessed that (and you heard it here first) I will be collaborating with one of the current developers to produce the soundtrack for a new map next year!
Yes, Quake! I understand your feelings : ) Don’t you think this occupation has the same effect on you as doing these variation on doom themes? A sort of nostalgia, a sort of trying to reach a glimpse of old lost moments? Eh, not enough penetrating questions as you show with Pantheist’s new material that you have a will and skill to grow and to develop.
That’s an interesting take. Yes, playing Quake certainly has something to do with nostalgia, akin to the character in A la recherche du temps perdu, who locks himself in a cupboard with some biscuits, the taste of which takes him back to his childhood. I don’t think writing doom has anything to do with trying to recreate a sense of nostalgia though. For me at least, it has always been about immediate expression of what I feel here and now.
You still define Pantheist’s music, partly, as funeral doom but it’s obvious you don’t care for any labels now. You were one who support the doom-metal.com site in its early years, and you performed one of most non-commercial of music genres. How do you see the changes in people’s perception of heavy music since the early ‘00s?
I think people’s perceptions have changed a lot over the years, and ‘funeral doom’ has become more accepted as a term in the metal world. Bands like Bell Witch even manage to have some moderate success in the bigger scheme of things. Having said that, you are right in that we don’t really care whether we fit in the label or not. Over the years, our association with the genre has done us some good, but also some bad, as many people refuse to see us in any other way than a ‘funeral doom’ band, even though our music doesn’t really fit with the stereotypes of the genre. I even heard someone branding our self-titled album, where we had incorporated prog and even pop influences, as ‘post funeral doom’!
I have some experience so I believe that I avoid most of the blunt questions usually, but why not to try? Anyway I think I didn’t ask it since our first interview… So what were your musical influences during the work on the Closing to God songs? Echoes of which bands may listeners find in this material?
You can find echoes of Ennio Morricone as discussed above. There is perhaps some Shape of Despair here and there in the ethereal arrangements, some Katatonia-type guitars, a Candlemass-type riff somewhere in ‘Wilderness’, some Type O Negative-type atmospheric passages… and probably some other unconsciously filtered influences scattered throughout. But most and foremost, it’s a Pantheist album and I think those who have been following us over the years will be able to tell us apart after a few chords.
And that sounds like a really sweet collection of influences! Or rather echoes of influences. Didn’t you think to record some cover song as a bonus for Closer to God?
We already have! It’s called ‘Shadow of the Hierophant’ and it’s a cover of Steve Hackett’s solo track with the same name. Subscribers to our mailing list get this track for free, and those who buy the album digitally on our Bandcamp page get the track as a bonus. You can hear it here on YouTube: Pantheïst- Shadow of the Hierophant FUNERAL DOOM METAL HACKETT GENESIS – YouTube
There are only lyrics to the ‘Wilderness’ song available online. It’s touching… It reminds me of a way that Patrick Walker speaks out his feelings in 40 Watt Sun, even though you’ve used this kind of straight and emotional lyrics for some time — it isn’t something new for Pantheist. However, what do you tell about in the new songs? I have a feeling there’s one common theme, and you’ve said that you wanted to record an album consisting of just one song, so bring it on! Please.
The main theme of the album is related to the frustrations felt during the extended lockdown period. It’s not a concept album as such, but similar themes are explored. ‘Strange Times’ is trying to make sense of the quickly changing nature of our lives in recent history: climate change, fires, a global pandemic, floods, people talking about unity and sticking together, but acting typically selfish when it comes down to it… all this stuff. ‘Erroneous Elation’ is about all the false hopes that were given during that period: we are almost there, the pandemic is over… and then a new variant comes and everyone is locked in again. Even now, we have booked tickets to go to Greece for Christmas, which would be our first trip abroad in two years, but it could be cancelled at the last moment if cases flare up nearer Christmas (as it happened last year).
‘Wilderness’ is about escaping from it all with your beloved or significant other to some wilderness far away from all this darkness and insecurity… perhaps to a fictitious world of no worries and no disappointments. ‘Of Stardust…’ deals with the realization that, ultimately, everything is futile and ephemeral and that despite the constant changes in our lives, this persistent feeling of cosmic loneliness is perhaps the only thing that remains in the end.
Now after 20 years in the metal underground… would you say that Pantheist’s title fits right for this band?
Considering what I wrote above, perhaps ‘The Wandering Orchestra of Doom’ would be the most apt title!
And what does make you feel Closer to God after all?
Well, it depends on which metaphor we want to focus on (assuming we are looking at this purely metaphorically of course). In the context of the album, ‘Closer to God’ means something like ‘meet thy maker’: It’s about how we are moving towards our destruction as humanity, as described in these lyrics of ‘Strange Times’:
Come, burning fire
Throw us in the pyre
That’s where we belong
Closer to the God
that we have never seen before
Closer to the mirror,
the final sight before we’re gone
I think the current environmental destruction and man-made climate change take us ‘Closer to God’ in that sense. Using a different metaphor however, ‘Closer to God’ means for me to be closer to your true self. In this context, we are closer to God when we are in flow, in a state of pure being, without the distractions of overthinking, stress, and anxiety which are all taking us ‘away from god’.
Thank you Kostas! Let’s hope Closer to God makes more people closer to Pantheist, and I hope you will meet Christmas in Greece. It’s good to change surroundings. Especially in our case.
Here’s to that Aleksey! As ever, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Looking forward to the new Lexicanum of Doom!