maandag 21 december 2015

Das Ich: When I saw Stefan and the doctors told me that he will not be able to survive this I already said with tears good bye to him.

It is almost a miracle that Das Ich still exists. Singer Stefan Ackerman suffered from several brain haemorrhages in 2011. He fell into a deep coma. The chances he would survive were very small. But he did. And so, we are able to watch them live again at the Dark Xmas festival on the 26th of December in Waregem. We had a friendly chat with composer Bruno Kramm and Stefan.

Dear Bruno and Stefan. Thanks for giving us the chance to take this interview. The most remarkable thing is that Das Ich is back after the serious brain haemorrhages Stefan Ackermann suffered from in 2011. His life was seriously threatened. He almost died. How did he recover?

Stefan: Long and hard work. Without the help of my band and the fans it would have not been possible.

Bruno: Stefan had basically to learn all again from taking a shit to eating, writing, talking, walking. But we motivated him constantly by telling he has to work hard as a new tour and album was planned.

I remember being at the WGT in the Agrahalle in 2011 when the news was made public. Against all odds, you decided to perform with guests Myk Young, Vic Anselmo and Oswald Henke on vocals. It was very moving. What made you decide to proceed with the concert?
Buno: When I saw Stefan and the doctors told me that he would not be able to survive this I already said with tears good-bye to him. But still I wanted to make a strong signal for him with this performance. Something like a last tribute. The fans sent such a strong wave of emotion, I think somehow this helped a bit to recover...

It’s rare to recover from 7 haemorrhages. Stefan, are you still suffering from sequels?
Stefan: I’m 95% recovered. But it is still hard. I often have headaches and panic attacks but being on tour helps a lot.

Bruno: I tried also to organize mainly beautiful concerts like in South America that are also some kind of vacation. But honestly: on stage, Stefan is back at full pace.

In 2013, you chose to come back at the WGT. Was it important for you to choose the WGT for the first concert?
Bruno: We are guests of the WGT since the second edition and it is somehow the big family gathering. We love to be there as it feels so close to us.

Are you working on new material for Das Ich? The last cd - the EP ‘Kannibale’ - already dates from 2008. A new CD - ‘Koma’ - is announced since 2010, but never materialised. Is ‘Koma’ still in the pipeline? What can we expect?
Bruno: Koma is in fact a done album but it is so much spoiled with the real Koma Stefan suffered. The songs seem to be from a different world and feel not like home. Therefor, we decided to work on new tracks for a coming release in 2016.

The concert you will give at the Dark Xmas festival will focus on the early years. I guess we can expect some work from ‘Die Profeten’ and ‘Staub’. How do you see the concept of the ‘early years show’?
Bruno: Of course we will put a focus on these early years and we love the concept of this festival. We are also really happy to join Alain’s great festival after so many years again. Waregem was one of the first foreign places we went in our early career. So it feels like a homecoming.

When you look back at the early years and the evolution Das Ich has made musically since, how would you describe it?
Bruno: We started from something what we called Neue deutsche Todeskunst and had a quite idealized vision of what we are doing. Then you try on the following albums all kind of different new momentums but finally you always come back to what you have started when you were young.

Thank you very much for this interview!

Pictures by Levan TK

Interview: Xavier Kruth

Dark Xmas

Boris Grebenshikov and the Russian-Irish quartet: Tears, hugs and understanding glances

I couldn’t have imagined that the Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshikov would ever play in Belgium, but he did last Friday. For years, I have been completely blown away by his music, and to date I have travelled abroad three times to see him at work. This time I could admire him close to home, in the Amuz in Antwerp, a beautiful baroque church where concerts and socio-cultural events are now taking place. 

Since it's unlikely that you know Boris Grebenshikov, I’ll give you a little introduction. Grebenshikov founded the Russian rock band Aquarium in 1972. During the 70s, he lived the life of the underground hippies with his companions in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. They played on the streets and in apartments and brought out cassettes with their own music now and then. 

In 1980, they were allowed to perform at the ‘spring-rhythm’ festival in Tbilisi - now the capital of Georgia - that somehow felt like the official legalization of Rock in the Soviet Union. The performance of Aquarium caused a real riot and Grebenshikov was fired from his job and from the Komsomol Communist youth league when he returned to Leningrad. This was usually a career death kiss in the Soviet Union, but for Grebenshikov, it was the opportunity to devote himself entirely to music. 

The circumstances were quite helpful. In 1980, Grebenshikov met Andrei Tropillo, who offered him the opportunity to record in his studio in Leningrad. The studio was meant for pioneers - the communist youth movement - but after his job, Tropillo let all alternative groups from Leningrad in to record and edit their cassettes. Aquarium accepted the offer with delight, and in the first half of the 80, a series of cassettes saw the light that would make their popularity grow gradually with the Russian music lovers. 

Founded in 1981, the Leningrad Rock Club quickly became the epicentre of Russian rock. Aquarium has an important role in the club, with several members on the board. At the annual festival of the club - conceived as a competition - Aquarium almost always became the winner. In the second half of the 80s - during Perestroika - the group could even record on the official Soviet Record label Melodija, and they filled whole stadiums with their hymns. 

But Grebenshikov wanted more. He believed he could become an American rock star. It was a flop and saw the death of the first incarnation of Aquarium. Grebenshikov returned to Russia and released the beautiful ‘Russian album’ under the name of BG Band. The success of this record convinces him to establish Aquarium again with new musicians, and the 90s were years of unrivalled success for Aquarium, with several impressive albums. 

For Grebenshikov, the success became too obvious. He wanted to follow other paths, do more experimentation, to look for renewal. He dissolved Aquarium and made a solo album with The Band, the former backing band of Bob Dylan. Later, he founded the group again and he experimented with ambient, trip-hop, world music and so on. The more eclectic and experimental it was, the better. 

And apparently, Grebenshikov lives through such a phase again. He has dissolved Aquarium this year for the second time and released an excellent solo CD. Earlier this year, he toured solo with a formation of nine men, including many members of Aquarium, and now he is touring with the ‘Russian-Irish Quartet’, in which he is surrounded by three Irish musicians. 

The initiative comes from Brian Finnegan, an Irish flutist who has been working with Grebenshikov and Aquarium for years now. Finnegan got in contact with Aquarium in 2007. Grebenshikov than established Aquarium International as a complement to his group with musicians from Ireland (including Finnegan), India, Austria and other countries to a gang of 19 with sitar, strings, bagpipes, flute, Indian percussion... They played several times with this line-up, and I've been lucky enough to see them at work in Dublin, a concert that belongs to the very best that I have ever experienced. Grebenshikov said back then that the new album was going to be very experimental, and so it was. 

On ‘White horse’ - the CD in question - we find a whole set of international guests, including Finnegan. The CD sounds like folk rock, but is especially experimental in the compositions and the song structures, that err as much as possible from the classical structures. After the disc, Finnegan was included in Aquarium as a consequence of his exceptional talents as a flutist. 

Finnegan came up with the proposal to accompany Grebenshikov with two other Irish musicians on a tour this year. Alan Kelly is considered an accordion virtuoso and performs on his own with the Alan Kelly Gang. John Joe Kelly is a master of the Irish bodhran and has already played with Finnegan in the folk group Flook. Moreover, he could be heard on ‘White Horse’. Grebenshikov leads the 'Russian-Irish Quartet' with his songs, guitar and vocals. 

The first set revolves largely around 'white horse', a record of which Grebenshikov is - rightly - very proud. It started with ‘Sitting on a beautiful hill’, a song from ‘The Day of silver’, which according to Grebenshikov is the best Aquarium release of the 80s. Then starts a set in which half of ‘White Horse’ will be played. 

There are a handful of exceptions. ‘I came to drink water’ comes from Grebenshikovs recent solo album ‘Salt’. And if you thought that a folk group could not play reggae, then ‘The words of the rastaman’ will prove you wrong. Aquarium, incidentally, was the first band to play reggae in Russian, in the early 80s. The first set is completed with three new, unknown songs. Then Grebenshikov says he urgently needs a beer, and the band leaves the stage. 

When we look around while we are enjoying a pint, we see that we are almost the only Belgians. Not surprising, because when Grebenshikov plays in Western Europe, it is almost exclusively for the Russian diaspora. The name of the organization managing the concert - Top Russian Society - suggests what kind of people you can expect, as the price of the tickets was not small. 

The second part begins with a flute solo of Finnegan, which then turns into ‘The words of the dove’, also from the recent ‘Salt’. We then go back in time. 'My Star' is undoubtedly the oldest song of the evening, as it dates back to the 70s and is still invariably played at every concert. ‘Plantan’ is an old hit from the 80s. 

On 'Little Star' - a song from the ‘Russian period’ in the 90s - we see someone who is so moved by the extraordinary beauty of the song that she starts to cry. During the concert, we quite often observe people sharing hugs and exchange friendly and compassionate glances. It’s raining splendid songs that leave no one indifferent: ‘When the pain stops’, ‘Silver from my lord’... 

A drinking song like ‘Glasses’ is on the list. ‘Put up the glasses. They say I cannot drink, but I do it anyway!’ The quiet closing song ‘on your own feet’ also refers to the Russian drinking culture, because it is a toast to the skill of returning home on your own after a night out. 

Fortunately, some encores follow. ‘Tea’ is derived from the first official ‘Blue Album’ in 1981. The particularly poignant ‘Yoshiwara Flowers’ stood on ‘Psi’, a highly experimental album from 1999, when Aquarium was reborn for the second time. The band ends everything with ‘A day of joy’, a song from the period of the BG Band, but that was re-recorded a few years ago with the magical flute of Brian Finnegan. We are not the only ones to get high on the sound. Grebenshikov is strumming his guitar in ecstasy as Finnegan produces pure beauty with his flute. 

What a beautiful ending for this extraordinary performance. Of course, the focus was put on the new work of Grebenshikov, but this man proves that at a higher age - he is 62 - you can still write wonderful music. He has never been driving on adrenaline and excitement only and was never ashamed to write sensitive songs. Many songs were relatively new, but there were - especially in the second part - also a lot of oldies. For me, the first part was fantastic and the second sublime. I hope we can see Boris Borisovich at work in Belgium again in the future. 

Xavier Kruth



Set 1: Sitting on a beautiful hill - The Lord is visible - Push - I came to drink water - The words of the Rasta man - white horse - Violets and ladybugs - Arigato - Indescribable - Tempora Mutandur (new number) - Dog Roller (new number) - Look into my eyes and tell me that it is your will (new number) 

Set 2: The words of the Dove - My Star - Plantan - Little Star - Instrumental song - ?? - When the pain subsides - March of the sacred cows - Silver of the lord - Glass - on its own two feet 

Bis: Tea - Yoshiwara Flowers - The day of joy 


Cet 1: Сидя на красивом холме - Господу Видней - Дуй - Пришел Пить Воду - Слова растамана - Лошадь Белая - Анютины Глазки и Божьи Коровки - Аригато - Неизъяснимо - Tempora mutantur (новая песня) - Собачий вальс (новая песня) - Посмотри мне в глаза и скажи что это воля Твоя (новая песня) 

Cet 2: Голубиное Слово - Моей звезде - Платан - Звездочка - инструменталь - ?? - Когда пройдет боль - Марш Священных Коров - Серебро господа моего - Стаканы - На ход ноги 

Бис: Чай - Цветы Йошивары - День Радости
Little star (live in Lviv):

When the pain passes (live in Paris):

Flowers of Yoshiwara (live in Antwerp):

Day of joy (live in Paris):

Ahráyeph: I had known for a while that I was on the verge of burning out, but you always try to ignore it and keep going until it just stops one day.

With ‘AnimAElegy’ Ahráyeph delivered an excellent CD and perhaps thé Belgian gothic rock album. In the past there were often compared to The Fields of the Nephilim, but all the same elements of prog rock - Raf Ahráyeph likes to call it ‘prog goth’ - and black metal seep into the music. 'AnimAElegy' was a tough delivery, so we asked Raf for more explanation about this genesis.

Hello Raf. First and foremost, congratulations with your new album ‘AnimAElegy’. It's excellent. You've been working on it for a total of seven years, a biblical number. Are you satisfied with the result?

Hello Xavier. Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I'm definitely happy with the result. However, I have to put a nuance on those seven years : the songs were finished much earlier, but because there wasn't a recording budget available, and I didn't get offered a decent recording contract it has taken until now to release it. I've rejected three contracts because there were just pure extortion : in total, I would have had to pay up to three times more to have 'AnimAElegy' released on a label than I've invested on my own now, without even having one additional benefit.

We know you're very perfectionistic. Do you sometimes feel that your perfectionism slows down the creative process?

It certainly does. Perfectionism has its pros and cons. An advantage is that you'll work on something until the result is exactly what you have in mind and won't give up until that goal is achieved. One of the many disadvantages is that this way, you'll often burn yourself out and when you're working with others, you'll drive them into desperation. And when you lose yourself in all the possibilities that the writing and recording process offers, it strangely enough has a stifling effect because you don't know where to start first. It just short circuits my brain. Those are all factors I'm aware of by now, but channeling them into working more efficiently, is not something I've succeeded at yet. With others, I try to communicate as clear and as detailed as possible, but even that isn't always experienced as such, or even appreciated.

A lot of songs on ‘AnimAElegy’ have been out there for a few years. ‘Maiden By The Sea’ and ‘Resolve (A Dirge)’ were already released in 2009. Even of other songs - ‘Love / No Love’ - relatively older versions exist. Was it hard to marry songs together that were written over such a long time frame? How many songs on ‘AnimAElegy’ are really new?

Simply put : there are no really new songs on 'AnimAelegy', but that only applies to myself, because I've been living with these demos for so long before they were released on CD. A couple of songs didn't have lyrics yet, or different ones; others were only partially completed. That certainly applied to the extra songs, of which I felt they should be heard, even if they weren't part of the 'AnimAElegy' story. And since it has indeed been seven years since 'Marooned On Samsara', I felt it opportune to add those four: this way, you've got an entire listening session of one hour with the regular songs, and a nice EP added to the back of that. It was possible to put all of that on one disc, so why add a second one? That's just wasteful and bad for the environment.

You once said that the songs on ‘AnimAElegy’ are telling a story. Was this accomplished? And if it was, could we get the lowdown on the story behind 'AnimAElegy'? The album title - can we translate it as 'elegy of the psyche' - sounds rather intriguing.

For obvious reasons, I don't want to give away too much about the story being told in those first ten songs. It's up to the listeners to experience that for themselves. Let's just say that it is a reflection on a time in my life that wasn't exactly the most fun and of which the recovery process is still ongoing. A couple of years ago, the day after the Pukkelpop disaster, as it happened, I spoke with Sophia's Robin Proper-Sheppard, who has become a good acquaintance of mine. He had just released his last album 'There Are No Goodbyes' and told me that in spite of the praise he received from fans and press, he really didn't want to go so deep anymore as he did because, like 'AnimAElegy', the album refers to a dark time in his life and in spite of all the artistic accolades this honest musical retelling of so much pain being heaped upon you, you just don't want to suffer too much for your art's sake either. I could and can understand him all too well.

Let's go back to 2008's ‘Marooned on Samsara’ for a second. You were regarded as a Belgian Fields of the Nephilim back then. In what way do you feel ‘AnimAElegy’ differs from its predecessor?

It certainly is a more mature album; not just song wise, but also technologically. The album's production is better and this improves the songs' qualities as such as well. On the other hand, it's hard to quantify that. You do what you do and try to surpass yourself and when you think you've succeeded in doing that, you hope fans and press will pick up on it. I of course wanted to rid myself of that 'Belgian Fields of the Nephilim' tag. Yes, they were an influence; suggesting otherwise would be quite dumb. But I've never consciously imitated them and even if such a tag makes it easier for people to typify my music, it also creates unrealistic expectations. Carl McCoy, I am not; I don't write about Nephilim or Sumerian gods, and the magical and mythical allusions, if at all present, are being used in an allegorical and metaphorical manner. When writing these songs, I've cast all the 'Rules To Writing Gothic Rock Songs' aside for the most part and concentrated on what I wanted them to become. The story I wanted to tell was much more important than singing with a voice from the grave or adhering to the trad goth cliché sound which seems to work for other bands. That's not why I do this : Ahrayeph is my personal outlet, not a heap of genre clichés.

The release of ‘AnimAElegy’ was also slowed down by you having gone through a severe burn-out in the interim. How did this happen and how did you overcome that burn out?

One day, you wake up and find you are incapable of doing anything. And I mean nothing at all, not even communicating with others. You get out of bed to sit yourself down on the couch and stay there, completely burnt out, for the rest of the day until you can go to bed again. And so it goes, for years on end. I had known for a while that I was on the verge of burning out, but you always try to ignore it and keep going until, as I said, it just stops one day. Therapy has helped me to put myself in a better perspective, but the healing process isn't over yet. There are just too many issues that caused this burn out, and they all need to be put in their place and worked through before I can move on. But I've already been more active for a while now; I'm writing songs again - not for Ahrayeph, mind you, but for my metal project Trans World Tribe; I'm working as a vocal coach and I try to exercise regularly, because the cliché of a healthy mind in a healthy body isn't a cliché for nothing : it's true. But I still have ways to go.

You're still sitting on several songs you've never released. You once intended to release a cover album, you still have a lot of demos and you've admitted that only a few of the recorded songs were released on AnimAElegy... A few songs have been released via your Bandcamp page. What else are your plans with those songs?

I've recently decided to record and release two of those demos. They will also appear on the Bandcamp page between now and early next year. And that will be the last thing I'll do with Ahrayeph for a while. Concerning those covers : I've released a new, final version of my reworking of The Cure's 'A Forest'. It's not a remix; everything was re-recorded and got a new production. The rest of those covers are what they are and can also be found on Bandcamp. I have no intention of doing anything more with them. There's just one cover I'll be recording, which is, ironically, a Fields of the Nephilim song for a tribute album by the Finnish Gothic Rock Magazine. I'm not yet going to divulge which song I've chosen, but it won't be 'Blue Water', which we played at our first concert ever, and which was meant as a tip of the hat to Tony Pettitt, who headlined with NFD that night.

I understand that you've got a new metal project. Can you tell us more about it?

Trans World Tribe came to be through the mysterious ways of the Internet and social media. Through these channels I became friends with Brian and Staci Heaton, an American couple. Brian's a journalist and Staci works for the state of California. Hence, she has worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was governor. But Staci also has a phenomenal voice. When I got out from under the worst of my burn out, I discovered that each time I picked up my guitar, metal riffs came pouring out. I still don't have to put in any concerted effort into doing that; they just flow out of me so spontaneously that I sometimes have too many ideas at once to record them all. And because it all came together so spontaneously and I didn't feel like singing or even playing everything myself, I initially asked Staci to sing. If I would be singing on those songs, it would again become too much of a genre cliché. Aside of Staci, other musicians will also take part in this project. Alex Martin, who also wrote a few drum parts for certain 'AnimAElegy' songs will be part of it, as well as several guitar and bass players. Staci's husband Brian would like to contribute some lyrics. But the core of Trans World Tribe is Staci and me. We already recorded a cover of Heart's song 'Alone', but it's not representative for the kind of metal I write, which is heavier, tighter and thrasier and contains more progressive elements. We only recorded that cover to see if we clicked. And we certainly do, because we tend to bring out new song ideas in each other constantly. We're currently writing demos, which we will record for a debut album sometime next year.

And what are Ahráyeph's future plans?

Nothing. I'm all 'goth'ed out' at the moment and am shelving Ahrayeph in favour of Trans World Tribe. I can't, at this time, say how long that will last. Perhaps I might start on new songs this time next year, maybe I'll never get around to it again, who's to say? I just can't say anything meaningful about that right now. I would have loved to promote 'AnimAElegy' live, but it's difficult to get the right personnel for that, or so I've experienced unfortunately. Maybe it'll happen eventually, but as long as it isn't, aside of those two finals songs and that Fields of the Nephilim cover, Ahrayeph will be on indefinite hiatus and my priority for at least the next two years will be Trans World Tribe.

Thank you for this interview!

You're welcome!

Interview: Xavier Kruth

Ahrayeph: website / facebook / bandcamp

Ahrayeph: AnimAElegy

Raf Ahrayeph is a perfectionist. Each detail has to be just right to him. And this in part explains why the wait for 2008's 'Marooned On Samsara' has been so long. It also explains - and this is the postive side - why this follow up - 'AnimAElegy'- is so good.
Important to know, is that Raf went through a severe crisis before 'AnimAElegy' could be made. The hardships in both the band and his personal life gave him a severe burn-out, which left him inactive for over a year. But aren't those often the circumstances in which the best records are conceived? How many great albums have been recorded by musicians who had to overcome massive problems?

Since 2001 - when he started the band - Raf Ahrayeph has had a lot of trouble to attract musicians. Perhaps this was in part due to his perfectionism, because it can't be easy having to work with someone who always strives for more and better. The consequence is that Raf recorded all instruments by himself, except for the drums and a few keyboard parts. He was able to realise his vision entirely, and this bears fruit.

Ahrayeph plays gothic rock, and is very good at it. The Belgian exponents of the genre can be counted on one hand (we automatically think of Star Industry, and also Erato, who also are exuding signs of life again after a few crisis laden years). After his debut, Ahrayeph was often compared with Fields of the Nephilim. We understand this comparison rather irks Raf, but it does remain a nice reference and one that applies to Ahrayeph, even if you can't accuse him of being a copy of the masters. Raf's voice, for example, differs significantly from Carl McCoy's voice from the grave.

It is mainly in the slow and atmospheric parts - 'Maiden By The Sea', 'Thread'... - that this comparison holds up. When things get a bit faster, the comparison quickly dissipates, like on the reasonably sharp 'Love/No Love' or the compelling 'White Square II' (which happens to be a reworking of an old Crucifire song, Crucifire being Ahrayeph's predecessor). Listening to the extended guitar solos of closing song 'Finale', one can't help but think of Pink Floyd, and on bonus songs like 'Pressure' and 'Awake' - the CD offers no less than four bonus tracks - we could even detect some black metal influences, especially in the drumming. This is no surprise, given that Raf originally hailed from the black metal scene (he used to be a guitar player in Ancient Rites). Overall, the guitars are very melodic and the synths add tension and atmosphere. A combination that works perfectly with Raf's hoarse and deep voice.

'AnimAElegy' is an extension to 'Marooned On Samsara', but is simply even better. Recorded better, more balanced, more detailed, more melodic... Fans should get this superlative to 'Marooned', and others - especially when being fan of gothic rock - absolutely should get to know this Belgian exponent of the genre.
Xavier Kruth
Ahráyeph: website / facebook / bandcamp