What more can I say here about Seattle’s Isenordal that I haven’t already said at some point this year? Assuming you’ve read my Top 20 list, you already know that their debut full-length Shores of Mourning is my Album of the Year. It’s an intricately composed and deeply emotional album that flawlessly brings together elements of folk, classical, doom, and black metal, the end results of which aren’t quite like anything I’ve heard before. In fact, I got much the same feeling I got listening to Shores of Mourning the first time as I did the first time I heard Pallbearer’s Sorrow & Extinction or SubRosa’s No Help for the Mighty Ones – this is a special record that I expect I’ll still be listening to years from now. Not content to just release a full-length this year, the dark folk incarnation of the band also released a demo a few months back called Lughnasadh MMXVII, and both versions of the band have been gigging fairly regularly around the Pacific Northwest.
Kerry (vocals, guitars), Brian (drums), and Marisa (viola, vocals) did me the honor of answering a few questions about the record, their songwriting process, gear, Northwest Terror Fest, and a couple other topics besides.
Indy Metal Vault: So as I’m writing these questions, Shores of Mourning has been out for about eight months. What’s the overall reaction to it been like thus far? Having had the chance to live with it for a little while now yourselves, have your feelings about the album changed at all versus when it first came out?
Kerry: So far I have been incredibly happy with the reaction to Shores. A lot of folks seem to respond strongly to the emotional content, which was definitely the intention. Honestly, I wished we could have had more time to mix, but I feel like that’s true for any musician.
Brian: I loved making that record because it was the product of deep friendships, clear vision, and mutual trust. It represented an immense amount of perseverance; Kerry especially worked harder to make this record happen than I can realistically describe here. I used to think of the album technically, as was required to make it, but now I perceive it emotionally. It is a representation of what my friends and family in this band mean to me. Even if the reaction to the record hadn’t been so overwhelmingly positive, I would still cherish it because it was beautiful to be part of the process.
IMV: 2017 seems like it’s been quite the year for Isenordal. I remember reading that Shores was ultimately the product of some intra-band turmoil and several lineup changes, but the end results are absolutely stunning. Several folks who were there have told me that you were one of the absolute highlights of Northwest Terror Fest back in June, and came really close to stealing the show. And to top it off, the band released a beautiful dark folk demo called Lughnasadh MMXVII in September. Are there any moments that stand out from this year as being particular highlights, or have you not had much of a chance to reflect on any of it yet?
Marisa: Thank you so much for the kind words. NWTF couldn’t have happened at a better time; we were hot off the return of our US Tour, staggering along the line of potential for post-tour depression, when we got the unanticipated last-minute offer to play in King Woman’s stead. This group has proven discomforted with stagnation, so we were really hungry for whatever would progress us into the next grand endeavor, and our involvement here was like a stark invitation to keep working. It was such an awesome challenge, and that paired with our folk debut at Thirst for Light IV shortly thereafter are undoubtedly the highlights of my year.
Kerry: Terror Fest was absolutely incredible. I felt so honored to be able to play that, especially considering the bands we were sharing the stage with. Our US tour in April/May was extremely fun too, of course. We had two shows recently that I was very happy about also, first was with Bell Witch at the Highline, second was with Uada at the Tonic Lounge. I feel like I am finally really happy with my gear setup, and I got to test that out at those shows. Thirst for Light was amazing to play also!
Brian: Thank you! I liked getting out of town on Isenordal’s first US tour most. Lots more tours coming soon!
IMV: I’d like to delve a bit deeper into talking about Shores of Mourning. How long did the songwriting process for it take? It mentions on your Bandcamp that some of the songs are older – do any of them date back from before the Imbolc MMXIV demo you released in November 2014? How much did the lineup changes affect or slow down the overall songwriting process?
Brian: Most of the songs on Shores have been around in some form since the IMBOLC era, at least, I think. I remember us hanging out at the practice space Kerry and I shared until 2013 and hearing snippets that sounded like stuff on Shores, or watching the IMBOLC incarnation of the band play “Of Winged Fire and the Crawling Shadow”—before it had a name—as if it were a rock’n’roll song. It was radically different from the treatment we give it now, and the process to reinterpret and adjust these songs to accommodate and accentuate the ideas, personalities, and capabilities of the new band members took time.
Kerry: Some of them date back to around the Imbolc era, for sure. I feel like the actual songwriting process can be quite fast…it just depends highly on what else is going on in my life. The lineup changes took a ton of energy out of me, which I would have wished could have gone into more songwriting.
IMV: What is that songwriting process like in general? The songs on Shores of Mourning are all on the long side—the longest tops eleven minutes, and none clock in under seven—and fairly complex in terms of the way you weave together multiple textures and genres within most tracks. Does one person handle most of the writing? Do you jam songs out in the rehearsal space? A bit of both?
Marisa: There is so much I could say about this, but let me just share a few things we do that I enjoy:
If a section requires melody we will often vamp on that particular riff, record it, and listen back together with discussion so the melody maker can later propose a fleshed out idea. I try to be extremely conscious of stylistic intention and start there, that is to say an energetically felt passage will primarily focus on rhythmic intensity before concerning pitches, unlike, for example, droning root notes (as suffices other jams). This can be heard in “Of Winged Fire and the Crawling Shadow” post key-change before the final section, where the viola could be compared to the sound of galloping. We have unanimously agreed to differentiate the classical instruments complementary to the other voices instead of designating them entirely as slower background accompaniment throughout. Piano and viola aren’t reserved for pretty sections. This seems like a better-fitted answer for a question regarding instrumentation, but it is a huge part of the writing process in that it is a premeditation to composition.
Brian: We all prefer to write songs from riffs that are the product of thoughtful reflection rather than momentary inspiration, because intentionality is very important to the project. Usually the musical ideas that people bring are pretty long already, so songs built out of combinations of these intricately designed parts are also necessarily long. The actual weaving of the song and a lot of useful editing gets done during jamming, and we are constantly experimenting with methods and having fun, but, ideally, the riffs should be set, communicated, and practiced prior to us putting the song on the agenda at rehearsal in earnest.
Kerry: I think we definitely work best by composing our parts at home, either using tabs or recordings as a reference. I certainly write the best by simply tabbing the parts out. I have a program that lets me hear what the parts sound like from a tab. I like to change things up when writing also, maybe starting with a piano or strings part and going from there. Then I’ll loop a part for a while and just jam on it until the other parts fall into place. Any member of the band can write any part for any instrument, which I think allows for a huge amount of creativity.
IMV: How conceptual is Shores of Mourning? I know that there’s a thematic unity to the lyrics in the way they explore loss, grief, and the idea of purgatory. Is there a narrative thread to it as well? Also, who did the cover art? It fits the overall tone of the album perfectly.
Brian: It’s thematic and emotional rather than narrative.
Kerry: Cheers! My old roommate, Brian Houghton, did the art. I would tend to agree with that.
IMV: I generally shy away from asking specific questions about lyrics – I feel like it’s really bad form to be like ‘and what did you mean here?’ But I do want to ask about the parenthetical reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Requiem” at the end of the printed lyrics for “Shores of Mourning.” Comparing the poem to the songs lyrics, I can definitely see an influence. Is there anything in particular that drew you to Stevenson’s poem? Are there other, less overt literary influences on the rest of the album?
Kerry: I haven’t delved too much into poetry, but I basically just really loved that piece and wanted to include it somehow. I feel like when composing an album that it’s important to draw from all different aspects of art in general.
IMV: What was the recording process like? I notice Greg Wilkinson’s name in the album credits – did you actually record at Ear Hammer Studios, or did he come into the process later? Given that you prominently feature viola and cello in your music, neither of which are exactly common instruments in metal, how much of a challenge was it to arrive at the sound you were looking for on the album?
Brian: Greg did the mastering for us, and really nailed it. It was recorded at Sound House in Ballard, WA, and mixed by Jeff Lynn, a friend and former band member (to whom we are eternally grateful).
Kerry: Honestly I feel like the strings fit easily in the mix on the recording. I don’t know how hard it was to mix, though, of course. I wish we could have had a bit more time to explore the acoustic guitar tone on Shores. Doing clean vocals was a little challenging, also.
IMV: I almost always ask at least one gear-related question, because the topic of musicians’ rigs fascinates me. What does everyone’s setup look like? How closely do the live rigs match what you used in the studio? Does having both a viola and cello in the band pose any challenges in terms of your live sound?
Kerry: I love discussing gear. I currently use two amps, a 5150 and what I am currently calling my “MK2.” I build guitar amps, so that amp was built specifically for using in Isenordal. For me, running guitar in stereo is so crucial, not for the volume, but for the tone. I’m not exactly sure why it is, but there is no way I can go back to running just one now, haha.
Currently I am planning on building a MK3 and running two of those in stereo. I think my MK2 needs a cleaner sounding clean channel, and I also want to start experimenting with a crunch channel, and see how that can fit into songs.
Another part of my live setup I changed recently is running a volume pedal and reverb in stereo in the fx loops. Running two loops at once is kind of a pain, but having the volume pedal in the loop lets you mute any potential preamp hum or hiss or any other noise, crucial for parts where I need to be dead silent.
I would love to get an fx switching system at some point also, but that’s down the road.
Marisa: Jeff played cello on Imbolc and Lughnasadh, and I played viola on Shores of Mourning and Lughnasadh. There are passages in Shores of Mourning that are multi-tracked viola that are sought to be perceived as a larger ensemble, but it is all from the same viola, which is an instrument amazingly suitable for the emotional and melancholic audacity of our intentions. Its lowest pitch parallels the C standard tuned guitars and amplification is a true test of patience. Viola is the only stringed instrument in the metal ensemble version whereas our folk set adds Jeff on cello. We strive to apply our classical understandings to contemporary heaviness.
IMV: Instead of asking the usual influences question, let me as you this instead: if each of the band’s members had to pick one album that they felt was most important their individual approach/playing/etc. on Shores of Mourning, what would it be and why?
Kerry: Very difficult question to answer, of course. For me, probably Twilight of the Gods by Bathory. Mainly just due to the scope of the album. I don’t think Shores sounds like it really, but that is definitely what inspired me. Obviously I would want to say almost all of Bathory’s entire catalog, but I’m forced to pick album, that is probably the one.
Brian: [Katatonia’s] Dance of December Souls. I was inspired by the way that the drum parts work so closely with the melodies that the drum parts are almost melodic themselves. I wanted to incorporate melody into my approach.
IMV: Looking ahead to 2018, what’s next for Isenordal? I’m guessing there’s a dark folk record of some sort on the agenda to follow up on Lughnasadh MMXVII. Any touring plans?
Kerry: A full length dark folk album is definitely in the works! And we have plans to tour this summer also around 71 Grind fest.
Brian: We are working on a folk full length and a metal double LP. We hope to have both out in 2018, but may only have time to do one before 2019. We have a month of touring planned for 2018 so far, and I’m looking forward to that most!
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?
Kerry: Thank you so much for interviewing us!