Chances are that anyone who’s familiar with Steven Blackburn knows him for one of two reasons: either from his stint playing with Ævangelist’s Matron Thorn in Benighted in Sodom, or for playing alongside Alex Poole in several projects including Esoterica, Lithotome, Chaos Moon, and the recent live incarnation of Skáphe. Given that list of bands, one might get the impression that Blackburn is primarily a sideman. That impression, however, would be incorrect. Blackburn co-wrote the music for the most recent Chaos Moon album, the brilliant Eschaton Mémoire, and then less than two weeks later released the first album from his newest project Entheogen, entitled Without Veil, Nor Self. Yes, Entheogen finds him once again working with Poole, who handles vocals on the album, but Without Veil, Nor Self is very much Blackburn’s creation, and it’s fucking breathtaking – a dark, psychedelic journey through the underworld anchored by Blackburn’s tempestuous riffs.
I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Steven a few questions via email, which he graciously answered while flying to Portland to play with Skáphe at Torment is Flesh. So either head over to Entheogen’s Bandcamp page to pick up a digital copy of Without Veil, Nor Self, or on vinyl from Fallen Empire Records, and then check out what he had to say about both the Chaos Moon and Entheogen albums below.
Indy Metal Vault: Before we get to Entheogen, I want to ask at least one question about the new Chaos Moon record, Eschaton Mémoire. I talked to both Alex Poole (before it came out) and vocalist Eric Baker (after it came out) – you’re the only one who had a hand in the songwriting I haven’t talked to yet. So I’ll ask you almost the same thing I asked Eric: From what AP has said, it sounds like the album had a long and somewhat difficult gestation—including abandoning nearly an album’s worth of material and starting over—so I imagine it must feel pretty good to have it out there in the world. Have you been paying attention to the reviews at all? In general, has the reception been what you were hoping for?
Steven Blackburn: Yes, it certainly was a massive relief when the album was finally complete and ready to release. I didn’t have any part in writing the first version but my role was to just record Jack [Blackburn, drummer in Chaos Moon and Entheogen and Steven’s brother] and mix everything. I felt as though I had unfinished business with Chaos Moon from almost a decade ago, so when Alex asked me to return and co-write the album, it was like everything just fell in to place. The writing process was the smoothest experience I’ve ever had with another musician, and I think it only took a month or two to finish. The overall response seems to be very positive from what I’ve seen, but I don’t like to focus on how many reviews or year end lists we get on. The satisfaction of creating something that I’m proud of is enough for me.
IMV: Speaking of long gestations, the album notes say that you wrote the music for Without Veil, Nor Self in 2013, which would put it roughly around the same the lone Lithotome full-length and the final Esoterica recordings (at least at the moment) were being released. Was your intention from the start to use those songs as the basis for a new project? Or were they intended for something else at first?
SB: I was on a long hiatus from making music since 2009, with the exception of playing bass for Esoterica briefly, and plans to join Lithotome and create new material. We were going to use Jack, but since he was busy with Vital Remains we never had a chance to follow through. Around this time I think all that lost momentum compelled me to keep writing music, so I switched to standard tuning and began writing this material that later became Entheogen. There was no concept or grand scheme. I just started recording.
IMV: How steadily have you been working on the tracks since 2013? The notes also mention that you mixed Without Veil, Nor Self over the course of 2016-17, but they don’t say anything about when it was recorded. Was that done in 2013 as well? At various points over the course of several years?
SB: It was three more years after initially writing the music in 2013 before Jack was available to record, so I waited patiently and the music didn’t seem to expire by that time. I resumed work on the album in 2016. After drums were finished, I recorded the guitars again and added instrumentals and atmosphere as intended. The same year I met Bradley and asked him to take care of bass duties, which he obliged. Finally, after struggling to find a vocalist available to participate, I asked Alex if he would be willing to give it a shot and the results were even better than I expected. I had passively mixed everything while all these additions were taking place, so I decided to take care of the final mix at the end and send it to Jacob [Buczarski of Mare Cognitum] to master.
IMV: I was really excited when I saw that Haunter’s Brad Tiffin plays bass on the record. In my mind, Haunter is probably the most underrated black metal band in the US right now – I’m convinced that if they were from Brooklyn or PDX, their profile would be much higher. At what point did he join the band? And how did that come about? I know that Haunter and Skáphe were both at Red River Family Fest this year, but had you crossed paths with him before then? If I’m not mistaken, you live in Texas, right?
SB: I live in The Houston area, and yes – Haunter is very underrated. I’ve been somewhat disconnected with the local music scene, but had a general idea of what bands were active near me. I saw them perform in Houston randomly and was very impressed. It was refreshing to see a band in their style here, since most bands I’d seen up until that point weren’t doing anything like that. We kept in touch and I later asked him to play bass on the record. I was originally going to record the bass myself, but when I saw him perform, I knew he would bring something more to the table.
IMV: I’m really curious about some of the thematic aspects of the record, starting with the name of the band: Entheogen. I’m sure some people will look at the name and latch on to the hallucinogenic/psychotropic aspect of it, but the term ‘entheogenic’ actually refers to using psychoactive drugs for spiritual purposes – like the contemporary peyote or Ayahuasca-centered religious groups. Were you intending to invoke the more spiritual aspects of the word “entheogen” when you chose that as the band’s name?
SB: The name is open to interpretation, but by no means are we a spiritual band. People seem too focused on the potential of spiritual enlightenment with these drugs. They forgot that you can just as easily shift your perspective into the other direction. I’m more in awe with the experiences themselves and tapping into different perspectives without completely losing it. The music itself is often a sort of translation of what these experiences feel like. It’s a way to bring the experience to life through the music, especially when it’s been written while in a manageable altered state.
IMV: In the promo notes for the album, you’re quoted as saying, “Entheogen is an emanation from the depths of my own subconscious […] It marks the beginning of a journey inward, challenging perception, and dissolving the ego.” However, Alex actually wrote the lyrics, right? Given how many projects you’ve done with Alex over the last decade, I’m guessing there’s not only a lot of trust there, but also that you don’t have to explain all that much to each other anymore. Still, given how personal the project seems, how much guidance did you give him throughout that process? Did you outline the lyrical themes you wanted him to write about and then leave him to his own devices? Or were you more involved than that?
SB: The music is just a sort of reflection of those experiences. Alex’s role was to interpret the music for himself, but also with that in mind. The music is sort of a force to the narrative form.
IMV: I want to ask something about the lyrics, but I don’t like asking those “what were you talking about here – can you explain yourself?” kinds of questions. They strike me as being bad form, and hardly anyone actually wants to answer them anyway. So instead, let me ask this: how conceptual is Without Veil, Nor Self? With the overt references to Greco-Roman mythology—the Roman sun god, the River of Forgetfulness, Apollo—it’s very tempting to read the lyrics as a whole as a variation on the traditional hero’s journey. However, the hero’s reward, if one actually exists, seems to be something intrinsic rather than any kind of worldly good. Is that more or less the gist of it?
SB: Any noticeable concepts came from Alex, since the foundation of the album was left for his interpretation. I can’t speak for him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was intentional. The hero’s journey is one of the most subliminal, widespread ideas spanning numerous mythologies.
IMV: Given the close proximity with which Eschaton Mémoire and Without Veil, Nor Self were released—November 17 and November 27 (digital), respectively—and the near identical rosters of Chaos Moon and Entheogen, it seems almost inevitable that people will compare the two albums. There are some areas of overlap. Neither record wants to be traditional, riff-based black metal, though I think Entheogen leans a bit more into French avant-garde territory. There’s also a loosely conceptual, at least partly mythology-based approach to the lyrics on both albums. Are the two albums in any way companion pieces? And if not, why release them both in a ten-day span?
SB: There was no intention to release these as companion albums, but it seems as though it could be interpreted as such. There were moments when I thought it could have been ready earlier last year, but little by little different events set things back to where both albums were ready around the same time. I could have maybe waited to release it later in 2018, but after four years of sitting on the music, I felt like it was time.
IMV: So now that the Entheogen album is out, what’s next for the project? Any chance of playing live at some point – maybe at a fest alongside Skáphe or Chaos Moon?
SB: There’s some material in progress for a Mystískaos split, but that’s all that I can reveal about it at this time. I’d like to begin work on a second full length near the end of the year, but we will see what happens. As far as any live performances go, I can’t confirm anything yet but I am making preparations to be ready to perform later in 2018. And I can definitely see a scenario where any related bands could be playing together.
IMV: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. I’ll leave the last word to you – anything else you’d like to add?
SB: I’d just like to express gratitude to anyone that supports my work, and to look forward to more things to come this year.