.:.AWAKENING FROM THE DREAM OF LIFE.:.
An Interview with Schammasch
Plus a Bonus Review of Triangle
by M. A. Spiro
Music is essentially the food of the spirit; sometimes a small, empty-calorie snack from a food truck will do, but other times, you crave something more filling and nutritious presented in sumptuous surroundings and served by attentive waiters. Schammasch—an avant-garde extreme metal outfit from Switzerland on Prosthetic Records—create the musical equivalent of a six-course gourmet dinner filled with rare musical umami and packed with soul-quenching auditory nutrition that makes it a challenge for their listeners to fully consume in one sitting.
Schammasch released their third full-length recording, Triangle, as a triple-gatefold 3xLP (or 3xCD) in April. The packaging for this one-hundred-minute-plus album (yes, you read that correctly) was conceived by acclaimed photographer Ester Segarra, who has designed albums for Watain and Behemoth. The actual illustration for the record was left in the capable hands of graphic designer Valnoir, who has developed concepts for Alcest and the Black Dahlia Murder. The band’s previous work, Contradiction, is similarly massive, but while Contradiction may be viewed as more outward-looking thematically, setting up dialog between “god” and “self,” Triangle is more inwardly focused. Contradiction is the “Temptation of Christ,” while Triangle is his anguish in the Garden at Gethsemane, as it were.
As the title suggests, Triangle is presented in three parts: Part I: The Process of Dying, Part II: Metaflesh, and Part III: The Supernal Clear Light of the Void. It takes the listener on a musical journey that is simultaneously visceral and spiritual. Each listen reveals something new about this band’s music.
Monumental, overwhelmingly layered compositions force the listener into complete mental and emotional submission. Filled with phenomenally memorable riffs and melodies, this album will not allow itself to become the background music of your next acid trip. You are going to have to stop whatever you are doing and just listen. The music will alter your perceptions in much the same way that any drug could, without any unpleasant side-effects.
Like some of their contemporaries, which include Acension, Bölzer, Grave Miasma, Goat Torment, and the new-generation Black Anvil, Schammasch is operating in what I like to call “dramatic” blackened death metal territory. It feels cinematic and vast, not unlike a high mountain peak or a sprawling, cruel city. Like that enormous landscape, Schammasch seems to want to pack every possible musical cornerstone into their recordings. Even vocally, several styles are used from guttural growls to clean operatic baritones, and from Bowie-esque coos, to snarling punkish yowls. Musically, the songs are clearly guitar and drum-driven, planted firmly with black metal and death metal roots. Triangle also gives an educated nod to classical and sacred music, and even contains elements of jazz and world music. Fortunately, the effect is not overproduced or overblown like one might find in some of the popular symphonic black metal bands. Instead, these influences are applied in appropriate proportions with great finesse.
I could use fancy words to talk about this album all day. It will most certainly make it onto any “best of 2016” list I make, but in order to fully wrap my head around Triangle, I needed to talk with the music’s creator, Christopher Ruf. The interview follows.
Heathen Harvest: Who are Schammasch, and what should you want people to know about the musicians in this group?
Christopher Ruf: Schammasch is an unbound artistic entity that exists to transcend barriers and express freedom. People shouldn’t give too much attention to the persons behind it, but instead focus on the artistic output and its messages. We are all just human beings. Some people tend to forget that sometimes.
HH: Tell us about the philosophies behind this music.
CR: Schammasch seeks to express and provide spiritual teaching, openness towards art and religious philosophy, and unity in life and death.
HH: When and how did you become interested in these ideas? Did you have a religious upbringing?
CR: I had kind of a standard Christian Protestant upbringing and education when it comes to religion. We went to church now and then, and there was the subject of ‘religion’ at school and confirmation class later. I had a rather strong belief in these things as a child; on the other hand, I was always fascinated by and drawn to the concepts of Satan and hell, as well as darkness and mysticism in general. When I started listening to Slayer‘s God Hates Us All—at the age of sixteen, I think—I was astonished by the brutality and power of their lyrics. Yet, at the same time, I felt guilty for finding so much pleasure in them. That feeling disappeared eventually, and I started to revise my approach to these things. A bit later I discovered Darkthrone and a whole bunch of other black metal bands and became interested in their thematic backgrounds. That interest developed much over those years. I never really got into one ideology or philosophy completely because I always started to question certain things again after a while. Through the years with Schammasch, I learned that there is something deeper to spiritual philosophy than words and names. These energies are too powerful to be bound by words.
HH: How have the concepts of death, life after death, and ego death influenced you?
CR: I rarely think about after-death ideas. I do think about death quite a lot though. Death also means change in every way, which is something that represents big parts of Contradiction, as well as of Triangle. So does the idea of the ego’s death. I always write the music—especially the lyrical part—which, in a way, could be described as lessons to myself. The death of ego is a major part of what I try to express in the music. It is very difficult to live up to this, though—especially as a musician or artist, since the ego is fed constantly through outside reactions to what you do. Ego can be poisonous to the spirit in many ways.
HH: In light of the apparent messages of the album, it would seem like promoting it through interviews would be counter-intuitive. How do you want the message to affect your listeners, or is this only for you? Do you have a clear message, or do you want people to discover it themselves?
CR: There are certain basic messages to the album, of course. But I think, and I also see, that people can find them for themselves, which is the best way anyway. I write them addressed to myself in first place, which doesn’t mean they cannot or shall not reach listeners as well. In fact, it is good to see that people are able to draw out their own conclusions.
HH: Tell us about your songwriting process.
CR: This is something that happens at my home for the most part. I write all the material at home and record it there as well. The only part that is done in the rehearsal room are the drums, which I create together with Boris A.W. I found this way to be the most satisfying and efficient way to create music. It works best for Schammasch. Mostly, it’s a rather exhausting process, especially during the time when the material has progressed far enough to be changed dramatically, but also isn’t worked out well enough to already provide a good enough picture of the final result. This is where I usually start questioning everything, but I don’t think a lot of artists would say that their creative processes are an easy thing to go through. It is the ‘pain of creation’, as a good friend of mine likes to put it.
HH: Triangle is massive—another epic tome of music much like that on Contradiction. It can be fairly intimidating for some people. How should one approach an album like this?
CR: Piece by piece; every chapter needs time to be comprehended. It might be too much to listen to it all in one go. It’s going to need time no matter what the approach is. It might not get through to you after one spin; if that’s the case, then give it another few tries. It might turn out to be worthwhile.
HH: I feel like this music is not for everyone, that some people just won’t get it. They won’t make it to the end. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
CR: Of course some won’t. Probably quite many, actually. That’s just how it is. A work of art is never for everybody, and it’s not meant to be for everybody either. It’s meant to be for those who are able to connect with it. If we’d be up for being liked by everybody, our genre choice would have been damn stupid, right?
HH: Again, I feel like I have to address the idea that this music is not for “casual listening,” but something that takes hold of you and does not let you go until it is finished. What do you want this music to do to or for your listeners?
CR: It is meant to reach the mind and the spirit—to both animate the listener and make them think—but also to go beyond thoughts and words, hence the overall ritualistic, trance-like vibes throughout the album, especially on the final chapter. It might indeed inspire people to revisit parts of their views on religion/spirituality, but also life itself. This is what I wish for, because it helped me with these things a lot as well.
HH: In society today, listeners and concert attendees are highly distracted by so many things (cell phones, people around them, the fact that they have been standing for a long time, etc.). In your live performances, what do you do to try to captivate people?
CR: I don’t think we need to actually try to do that. The music and the energy usually overtake that if all goes right. People who watch our shows are rather quiet and calm for the most part. It took me a while through our early days to actually learn that I shouldn’t confuse this with boredom. The atmosphere our live appearances create can be deeply intense; there is usually not much room for moving bodies, etc.
HH: Would you call your music “black metal”? What exactly does it mean to be black metal today? What do you think of the notion that black metal must always be about Satanic things?
CR: I don’t need to give it a label because Schammasch is clearly not restricted to labels anymore. I see our music as self-containing, using whatever necessary elements we wish, of which black metal is an important one, of course. That’s the furthest I’d go.
I personally would say that black metal should at least be presented in certain ways. I usually don’t like bands that don’t care enough about visual/aesthetic aspects in what they do because black metal, to me, has much to do with aesthetics. Bands can do whatever they want, but some should maybe be more careful with what label they put on it.
HH: What is your reaction to other bands labeled as black metal (Deafheaven and Ghost, for example)? Do you care about other bands?
CR: I’ve seen Deafheaven live once, and let’s just say I didn’t like it very much. I think black metal is an art form that is created from and breathes through a certain kind of mystical energy and darkness, which bands like Deafheaven are far away from creating. And I’m primarily talking about stage appearance now.
That is what I said before, about being careful with labeling. I am the last person to say anything against artistic evolution, as long as it doesn’t violate certain roots. Don’t call it black metal if you do something completely different than what black metal has been created out of.
Though, this is always just a matter of opinion. I’ve heard people say that black metal can only come from Norway, so what do I know? Honestly, I don’t care too much about things like that. To each his own. I just want to be able to do what I want to do.
When it comes to Ghost: they are a great band, but did someone honestly label them as black metal? Seriously?
HH: I can’t immediately think of lot of bands from Switzerland. What is metal like in your corner of Europe? What did you grow up listening to? What was your first concert?
CR: There aren’t a lot of Swiss bands, actually—none that are really worth mentioning. I assume it’s the same as everywhere, more or less. I don’t really go to metal concerts often—maybe three to five times a year or so. But the majority of scene people are always quite similar in every country, aren’t they? They drink beer and act tough.
Check out Blutmond, Cold Cell, Bölzer, Zatokrev, Ashtar, Borgne, and Darkspace if you want to hear some good Swiss music (sorry to those I forgot).
In my very early teen years, I mainly listened to punk and modern ‘metal’ for some years until I got in touch with Iron Maiden and Metallica when I was fourteen or so. That basically brought me into metal, a bit later followed by Slayer and Darkthrone, which brought me into extreme metal, as mentioned before. My first concert was actually Zatokrev playing at a festival in the morning, but I went there to see a terrible German folk metal band and was shocked at how loud and ugly Zatokrev sounded. Funny enough, Frederyk Rotter—the main guy behind Zatokrev—joined Schammasch as a session bass player in the early days, and I, on the other hand, joined Zatokrev as a session guitarist for some shows. He’s one of the great personalities in the Swiss metal scene.
HH: At the end of the day, music is just rhythms, riffs, and sometimes voices. What technical aspects of the album are you most pleased with?
CR: I don’t think there’s something specific that would be the most satisfying aspect, but I’m very satisfied with most of the production results. We worked very hard and long on the drum sounds; it took a huge effort until I was satisfied, but in the end, I really liked it.
HH: Tell me about the cover art and why the image and concept were so important.
CR: The visual aspects of our work are no less important than musical ones. They give the music its face and are part of the identity of an album.
The front artwork symbolises the free-fall into the void, into unity, which is what the Triangle/the number three symbolises to me.
HH: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Are there any future plans for Schammasch, including touring?
CR: Our next step will be the release of our new video clip for the song ‘Metanoia’. Also, there’s some summer festivals coming up in Europe, and we’re already preparing new material for our upcoming release, which will be recorded in late summer this year. Afterwards, the Bloodshed Rituals tour with Inquisition, Rotting Christ, and Mystifyer will take place in October/November.