Desperate Times

The ever-deliberate A hill to die upon are desperate. Heaven’s Metal’s Chris Gatto finds out why.

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Photo by Franze-Irene

They say too many cooks in the kitchen will spoil the soup. So how many Cooks does it take to make soup fit for a true headbanger? Just the two: Adam and Michael Cook, brothers and masterminds behind U.S. blackened death metal outfit A Hill to Die Upon, the band they started a decade ago. Consummate musicians and all around great guys, the Cooks have unleashed metal fire on the unsuspecting world twice already with the albums Infinite Titanic Immortal and Omens. After many delays and setbacks, the band is ready to ignite again with their newest project, Holy Despair. Join me as I catch up with Adam (vocals) and Michael (drums) to get the latest on their latest.

HM: Schonest Winter Wetter, nicht wahr? The East coast has had more snow and ice storms this winter than we’ve had in decades. How has the Midwest fared this winter?
Adam: This winter has been pretty nuts. And now here in the Midwest all of our snow and ice is melting, so it’s muddy and wet everywhere. I am so ready for winter to be over. Screw black metal and grimness, I’m ready for spring.

It seems it was just a while ago we were talking to you about the release of Omens, but I guess it’s really been three-to-four years, right? And now we are here to discuss A Hill To Die Upon’s next work of art, Holy Despair. You started the recording of this album with a crowd funding campaign and the record will ultimately see release (in late March). Has the process taken longer than usual for you guys?
Adam: Man, time has flown by (laughs). On one side, it feels like just yesterday, and on the other, it feels like 10 years since Omens came out. Working on Omens was pretty intense, and I think we recorded it in about eight days or so; we never had any real demos of the songs before going into the studio. This time, with Holy Despair, we had full demos of each song several months before the recording started. Mix that with the Indiegogo campaign and you have one long project. We had originally hoped to release the album closer to the beginning of January, but it just didn’t work out. We are so grateful to our friends and fans that have been so patient through this whole project. I know what it’s like to donate to a band and then to have to wait for so long.

I saw a picture on your Facebook of a triangle with a skull in it. Is that the cover art for Holy Despair? Looked pretty cool.
Adam: Yeah, the triangle skull design is the image that will go into the final design. As of my writing this, it is still in the final stages, but I’m hoping to see the cover soon. We are really excited about the skull design, though, and when putting out music, the imagery is really important for us.

Didn’t a flood destroy your studio and equipment last year? How did that situation work out?
Adam: Yeah, I have a small studio in the basement of my house, and one morning I woke up to some floating guitars and drowned drums. I must have caught it pretty quickly, though, because most of it could be salvaged and only a few things were totally ruined. The biggest problem was that we were preparing to start working on demos for the new album, and the flood set us back at least three or four months. It all worked out well in the end, I suppose, because I was able to spend some more time with the songs and we changed quite a few things before we ended up with the final pieces.

Let’s talk about the new album itself. Omens had such memorable themes, with “I am the black space between the stars” and that catchy little number “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” What does the title Holy Despair imply and what kind of themes run through the album?
Michael: The theme is despair. This started with our first album, Infinite Titanic Immortal, and continued into Omens. I think it has taken a new turn in Holy Despair, but also a less subtle one. Despair is becoming more central and more necessary with every album. With 2014 being the centennial of World War I, we felt it was the perfect metaphor for this idea. There are a lot of references in the lyrics to the war and to books (of that era), like Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Stephen Crane’s “War is Kind.” The influence of the pre-war poetry of W.B. Yeats plays is also present. If you were to read English poetry in 1913, you will find the pride and arrogance typical of a great empire. However, a poem from 1919 will inevitably be written by a broken spirit. WWI broke the pride and destroyed the hope of the Western world and resulted in the bizarre, irregular art of cubism, etc. Holy Despair is the despair, the first, necessary step in understanding our place in the universe and beginning to commune with YHWH.

By now, AHTDU has something of a trademark sound. A deadly hybrid of death, thrash and black metal. I’ve always enjoyed the guitars and the over-the-top drumming style of Michael. Did you shoot for the same sound this time, or stray into new territory?
Michael: We actually approached this album differently than our previous two. First, it must be said that we’ve been growing tired of the constant “breaking boundaries” that bands claim. Usually it is the same music over and over. Nothing new. Then, when I came across J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea that there is only one story ever told and that every story is merely a variation of this story, it made me view art in a whole new way. Art that tries to break the boundaries for its own sake will probably not accomplish much. However, if someone tried to be the best artist at what they know (painting, country, jazz), innovation will happen. Longinus discusses this in his work, “On the Sublime.” And, of course, the question arises: Would we rather be known for innovation or quality? It is not always a choice you get, but we would rather create quality art than innovative art that is lacking. Of course, “breaking boundaries” is common, now, so why not rebel and keep them intact?

With that said, this album has a lot of the same blasting, black/death style. It is the meat of the art that we are working with. However, we listen to a lot of music that isn’t so extreme: mewithoutYou, Eric Church, Empire of the Sun. The first half of the album is mostly fast and aggressive, while the second half is the music that happened on its own. This is the new territory for us.

Adam: I’d say each album has had some unique musical influences through each (iteration of the) writing process, but I think Holy Despair has to be the most mature and unique, for me at least. I feel like we’ve just been finding more who we are as musicians and performers and trying to focus on that. Also, for me, I have been trying to convey the (range of) emotions better, trying not to just be the standard “METAL” musician – but trying to think of it as an artist’s perspective who happens to write using metal.

The band is, of course, the Cook brothers, but who joined you for the recording process? Will that be the same band that plays shows with you?
Adam: We recorded the album with our really good friend Drew Webster, who recorded our single, “Manden Med Leen,” and also used to play guitar in AHTDU several years ago. We have a really great relationship with him, and working with him is really smooth and great.

Erik Tordsson is another great guy to work with. He has done the mixing and mastering on all three of our records, and he is very professional and always has a way of bringing out the life in a record.
Nolan Osmond wrote and recorded guitar solos for “Cloven Hoof Hava Nagila,” “Unyielding Anguish” and “Nekyia.” He plays live with us, and we were blown away by what he brought to the table.

The album also features many amazing musicians who added little bits here and there. The amazing and beautiful harpist Timbre preformed and sang on a cover of “O Death,” an old bluegrass tune.

Where have you been playing, and what’s in store for this year for the band?
Adam: Not too sure about what the future has in store for us right now. The last couple years have been pretty hard, and this album has taken a lot out of us. We love what we do with all our hearts and we have already started writing for another possible release, but we’re not really sure what the future holds as of right now.

What are the band members’ occupations? I know one of you is a teacher’s assistant at a university.
Michael: I have actually left the university to become a full-time drummer. After I got my B.A. in English and Classical Languages, I did one semester in the Classics department at (the University of Missouri). Right now, I am working part time for my father’s construction business and trying to get gigs. I am currently, cough, available. Adam also works for our dad doing construction.

(Laughs) You and Michael have always written music from a highly educated background. Other metal bands may brand themselves “thinking man’s metal,” but the literary references in your albums alone read like a bibliography. Do you find yourself fighting against the stereotype that metalheads are burnouts or that metal music is kid stuff? The ’80s are touted as the golden age of metal, but it was generally sex, drugs and partying. Is metal as a genre moving away from the dumbed down themes of those days?
Michael: I think that depends on how hard you look and how optimistic you are. Black and death metal have definitely moved away from the ever-repetitive sex, drugs and rock and roll mantra, but I’m not sure that Satan, freedom and anti-religion is necessarily less shallow. (Or Jesus, love and the apocalypse.)

Folks in the ’80s were really into sex, drugs and rock and roll. They wanted to hear songs about those elements in their lives and feel validated. I listen to Waylon Jennings to feel validated about one thing, Nolan listens to Extol for another and Adam listens to mewithoutYou for another.

We all want hear songs about who we like to think we are. Whatever we tell ourselves, much of our music consumption is about making ourselves feel validated. Rednecks want to hear songs that make them feel that it’s cool to drive trucks, shoot guns and be a Christian. Metalheads want to hear songs that say it’s OK to not believe in a god. Christian metalheads want to hear metal songs that say it’s OK to be a Christian. It all sounds really negative when you say it like this, but it’s true, though it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Folks in the ’80s were really into sex, drugs and rock and roll. They wanted to hear songs about those elements in their lives and feel validated. I listen to Waylon Jennings to feel validated about one thing, Nolan listens to Extol for another and Adam listens to mewithoutYou for another.

I’ve always been interested in the sociological aspects of what draws kids to heavy metal. There are two common denominators for metalheads, whether you’re the burnout (the kid who’s always been picked on) or the genius (alienation and escapism). What draws kids especially to death metal and black metal specifically? Is it a greater degree of the things I mentioned, or is there just more shock value in extreme metal?
Michael: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, though there are probably always other factors we don’t see. Our culture values underdogs and outcasts right now: different is best; unique is imperative. Fifty years ago it was fit in or die, now it is be unique or die. We feel wrong fitting in. It has gone a little, too, but I think that is why Behemoth can be No. 1 on the Polish charts and still have to pretend to be the underdogs.

Corpse paint. Just wondering: Is it always black on white, and do the designs matter?
Adam: I sometimes think of corpse paint as more like taking off a mask, and it’s become a bit of a ritual that helps me prepare for a show and focus. Playing without it is now almost like playing without a guitar.

I don’t want to destroy anyone’s hope that we are a ministry or anything, but it isn’t why we do it. There is always that element, but we don’t want to lie and say “we paint ourselves for Jesus,” but yo u asked about design.

Michael: From Arthur Brown, KISS and Alice Cooper to Dimmu Borgir, Behemoth and Marduk it has always been black on white. I saw one friend do white on black and it just looked like Spawn. It initially started as Arthur Brown trying to look dead when he performed, so I think it will always have black around the eyes. For us, it is about the overall aesthetic live. We want to engage as many of the senses as possible. That is also why we burn incense at the front of the stage. We are big Alice Cooper fans, and we understand his desire to shock. It isn’t spiritual, but I know a lot of people see it differently. I know Antestor doesn’t wear it anymore because they don’t have a spiritual motivation to wear it. That is fine, but I think we approach our music from a very secular way. We play music because we want to, we play it fast because we want to and we paint ourselves because we want to.

I don’t want to destroy anyone’s hope that we are a ministry or anything, but it isn’t why we do it. There is always that element, but we don’t want to lie and say “we paint ourselves for Jesus,” but yo u asked about design.

Hey, I listen to the music you guys play because I want to, and I always play it loud because I want to. Last time, all the talk about space and the universe got me thinking about sci-fi. I’m hoping to hear AHTDU do a song for the legendary Doctor Who series. Actually, licensing songs for sci-fi movies just might be lucrative.
Michael: Oh, now you got me thinking. We’ve been thinking about redoing the Stargate SG-1 theme as a Dimmu-style bonus track.

A Hill to Die Upon was posted on March 3, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .