In the introduction to an interview like this, I usually give a brief overview of the group’s history. With a band like Manes, though, that’s not really possible. Formed under the name Perifa in 1991, the Trondheim-based duo of multi-instrumentalist Cernunnus (Tor-Helge Skei) and ex-vocalist Sargatanas (who still plays with Skei in Manes-offshoot band Manii) originally played black metal in a style not unlike their Norwegian contemporaries in Strid, Dødheimsgard, In the Woods…, or Ulver. Much like those last few few bands, they also abandoned that sound after 1999’s Under ein blodraud maane for a much more electronica/jazz influenced sound.
Fast-forward fifteen years, one break-up, and who knows how many offshoot/adjacent projects later, and Manes are preparing to release their latest opus Slow Motion Death Sequence. Due out on August 24 from Debemur Morti records (preorder here), the album may well be both the darkest and the most engaging in the band’s dauntingly large discography. It’s not a metal record by any stretch, even though the songs feature plenty of heavy guitars. It’s not an easy record to get into either, despite the pervasive gothic synth-pop/electronica elements.
Honestly, in some ways Slow Motion Death Sequence feels like it could be the soundtrack to watching a loved one slowly die. For listeners who can weather the unrelenting gloom that infuses every one of the album’s 45 minutes, though, it’s also one of the most remarkable albums you’re likely to hear in 2018.
Fresh off the release of their first-ever music video–the ungodly bleak “Endetidstegn,” directed by Guilherme Henriques–I had the opportunity to talk with Tor-Helge Skei and longtime bassist Torstein Parelius about the new album, among other things. Check it out below, along with the new video.
Indy Metal Vault: So to start with, thank you for the interview. Much like every other Manes album I’ve heard, Slow Motion Death Sequence is emotionally expansive and nearly impossible to classify musically. It’s a really special album, and I’m stoked to be able to talk about it. I have to say, though, that I had no idea how convoluted a history Manes has in terms of name changes, breakups, or the concurrent projects like kkoagulaa until I started doing research for these questions. Of course, I knew that you’ve followed a similar ‘career arc’ (for lack of a better term) as Ulver in that Manes started off playing black metal and have since evolved into something more electronica-based and experimental. At present, there are basically two versions of the band, right? There’s Manii, a more traditional black metal project formed after Manes split in 2011, which released a new album called Sinnets irrganger in May. And then there’s Manes, which reformed in 2013. Given the experimental nature of Manes, why continue to keep those two sides of the band’s musical personality separate?
Tor-Helge Skei: Mainly because of other people…and I’d say there are more than two sides – at least three or four. In my eyes, both Lethe and kkoagulaa could just as well have been Manes releases. Most people have a very weird view on music, where the genre, or how ‘authority’-ish people categorize bands and artists, means just as much as the music itself. For ‘regular’ people, music is also a way of communication, a way to feel united with a certain milieu, a tool for socializing. Why do people wear band shirts? Why is it important to tell people what kind of music you like? Our music crosses quite a few boundaries, and is not really this social thing, so I think some people have a little problem with how to react to it. Is it allowed to like (neo-) Manes if you are a metal-head? Does our death-fetish fit in with your punk-pop friends?
Torstein Parelius: There are other projects, like Drontheim and EOP, that also have a close relation to Manes apart from the projects you mentioned. We’re not really a band in the typical template way. We don’t tour, and we rarely play gigs. Just sometimes, if it tickles our fancy. We focus on the creative aspects. Making stuff and sometimes releasing stuff. So when the four of us that is the core of Manes get together, it’s Manes. We make stuff.
IMV: Most of the PR blurbs I generally see with album promos are pretty boilerplate, but the section about potential interview topics in the Slow Motion Death Sequence promo is entirely too good for me to not pull from for at least a few questions. Given the album’s title, I would have guessed that death would be one of the dominant lyrical themes. Was the album in any way inspired by personal near-death experiences of any of the band members?
THS: All our music, even back to the old demo days a quarter of a century back, has been inspired and influenced by personal experiences in connection with death and “the destruction of earthly life.” I don’t like to talk too much about it, as it’s very personal, and I can only speak for myself, but, well…I have been balancing on an edge most of my life. I have been through at least a couple of episodes which are clearly categorized as NDEs. I have felt my mind disconnecting from the physical body in weird ways…not ‘floating above the body and seeing myself’ as is the usual description, or flying through any tunnel or any of that. These are probably manifestations of indoctrination and brain washing, religious hogwash. I am not religious in any way, so I guess my brain gave me more physical or natural sensations. After these experiences, I have a completely different view on life, death, dying, and similar…and it has radically altered how I see even everyday situations and things. Death is not a negative thing. It can be a soothing and blissful experience.
IMV: The PR blurb mentions that there are sounds on the album that were recorded during an assisted suicide in the Netherlands. So of course, I’ve given the album several close listens via headphones to see if I can pick them out in the mix. With everything else that’s going on in terms of sounds on the album, though, I’ve been unable to find them, though I’m guessing they’re somewhere in the album’s darker second half. How did you come to acquire that recording? Was one (or more) of the band members present for the procedure? How did you make use of them on Slow Motion Death Sequence?
TP: This was not intended to be a “PR blurb,” as you call it. On our previous albums we also have some hidden – or sometimes not super hidden – samples, spoken passages, sounds etc. from ehh…unusual settings. Mostly, these things enrich the experience for us, apart from adding to the atmosphere, being conceptual “clues,” or whatever. I don’t want to go into specifics on how, who and where, but let’s say that everything fits well with the underlying theme and, dare I say, concept of the album.
IMV: I’m curious about a couple of things in regards to your songwriting approach for Slow Motion Death Sequence. First, there seems to be a very deliberate flow to it. The first four tracks seem more dark/gothic pop-influenced – the opening synth part on “Therapism” in particular sounds a bit like a really dour Depeche Mode. Middle track “Last Resort” is kind of its own thing with the way the guitars carry the song instead of electronics. Then from there the album gets progressively darker over its final four tracks, ending with the bleak, almost industrial-sounding “Ater.” When you were writing the album, did you conceive of it as though you were composing nine movements within a 45-minute whole? Or was that flow something that came about after the fact as you were deciding on the album’s sequence?
THS: I haven’t really thought about how the mood and emotions change during the album. The final order just felt ‘right.’ Maybe because of this ebb and flow of moods? Not sure. For us, the running order it just felt natural, and we all fully agreed, almost without any discussions at all.
TP: The album has no part one and part two as we see it, but when we were working on the final order it all fell to place very easily. You were also asking if we think of the album as a whole, or if we think of it as individual songs. This is hard to answer, as we work rather untraditionally. We have a well of initial ideas. Plenty. First of all, we try to narrow it down to what ideas have that little extra something, or if we see some major potential with the ideas. All of this is usually based on a prior discussion around what it would be cool to do conceptually – and here I use the term ‘conceptual’ in the widest possible way. I think “darker” was a starting point for Slow Motion Death Sequence.From there on, we build and expand on the ideas – we pull them apart, deconstruct and discuss. Each song is being worked on as an individual song, but can end up in the trash as they develop away from where we want to go (as in “darker” for instance). So yeah, individual songs are growing and forming a whole, if that makes sense.
IMV: On a more basic level, how does your songwriting process generally work? According to the album credits, Manes writes both the music and the lyrics collectively. With how prevalent the electronics are on Slow Motion Death Sequence, though, and the amount of layering in some of the arrangements, does the band actually get together in a rehearsal space somewhere and work through songs together? Or do you do more file sharing and develop your parts independently?
THS: We make music in several very distinct and different phases. When working on the initial ideas (what I like to call ‘sketches’), there are absolutely no plans, rules, or anything involved. The idea is to have as broad and varied a ‘palette’ available as possible. We know that 99% of what we make will be thrown away, or changed or mutated into something else. Then we have a kind of ‘decision’ phase, where we listen through everything we have and find things that fit naturally together and speak to us in some emotional or mental way. Then we work with these in a different way than before, trying to make them all fit together as one entity (‘album’). This is also where things like song titles, cover artwork, and general concepts are involved. We almost never rehearse, or play ideas for each other. We throw files and recordings and samples and whatnot at each other all the time, and also receive a lot of contributions from ‘external collaborators.’ Our ‘temporary Manes ideas’ directories get totally, utterly chaotic.
IMV: I don’t like asking specific questions about lyrics – not only do they seem like bad form, but also no one ever seems to want to answer them. I do want to ask, though, if there’s any conceptual thread running through the lyrics at all, either narrative or thematic?
THS: You’re right, we don’t really want to answer. But to give some hints, there are some red threads running through ALL of our releases, even the band name. But the one single thing that stands out, that has always been with us, is death, and our relation to that.
TP: On Slow Motion Death Sequence, we saw a life taking shape and slowly dying through the course of the songs. It grew from a very loose concept to a more…peculiar one. We too, like any listener of Manes, constantly interpret and indulge in our own little mind games. We try to make suggestive music, music that has layers both in the music itself – but also in how you perceive it and understand it. We try to create both a visceral and a cerebral immersion.
IMV: That being said, I am intrigued by the track “Building the Ship of Theseus.” For our readers who may not be familiar, the Ship of Theseus is a metaphysical thought experiment that basically asks whether a ship that’s had every single one of its parts replaced is still fundamentally the same ship. Based on what I gather are the overarching themes of the record, is it safe to assume that you’re using it here as some sort of metaphor for human nature? Are you willing to unpack the lyrics to that song at all?
THS: You grasped the concept! A medal for you! 🙂 You can also take the metaphor in a bunch of other directions. Most (if not all) of your cells in your body are slowly replaced over several years, and after some years, almost everything is ‘new.’ Are you really the same person? Where are your thoughts, your personality?
TP: I don’t want to unpack any lyrics, but building the ship of Theseus can then also be seen as a sort of slow motion death sequence in a way. With a person, trying to rebuild someone – in one way or another through therapy, medicine or whatever – can be the slow death of the person you hope to rebuild. Meaning identity. This is one off-the-bat interpretation of this concept, not the song itself.
IMV: Slow Motion Death Sequence was recorded in four separate studios, which is pretty typical for Manes, and then mixed in a fifth by ex-Eluveitie vocalist/flautist/hurdy-gurdy player Anna Murphy, who also provides guest vocals on the album. Is there a reason you prefer to work in multiple studios like that? Is there ever a point during the recording where all of the members of the band are in the same room at the same time? And how did you hook up with Murphy to do the mix? Given the style of music she’s known for, it doesn’t strike me as the most obvious pairing.
THS: Except for the first album(s), we have always collaborated with a bunch of “external” people. They bring in a lot of “new blood,” excitement, and new impulses, and we avoid getting into a state where we repeat ourselves over and over. I have been working with Anna for several years in Lethe, where we both write the music, play all the instruments, work with the arrangements, and mix the final results. We (Manes) all like what she did there, and she understands the music and what we want to achieve, so it wasn’t a hard choice, really. In my opinion, she can do a lot more than what she’s known for, from Eluveitie or her new band, or whatever.
We work in different studios depending on the situation, the people we work with, and a ton of other reasons. We’re not the kind of band that makes a bunch of songs, rehearse them, and then enter a studio for a week or so to record them. Our processes are a lot more organic and chaotic.
IMV: One of the suggested topics in the PR blurb is “tech/equipment geek-out.” I generally ask about gear anyway, since the subject kind of fascinates me. How does Manes achieve their desired sound in the studio? What did everyone’s rigs look like? How close are they to what you use when performing live? Is being able to reproduce the sounds on the album in a live setting even much of a concern when you’re in the studio?
THS: Several of us are what we could call “tech geeks” when it comes to music, spending hours discussing unusual audio processing, convolution, using sensors for triggering and modifying audio, playing around with binaural beats, with phase cancellations and enforcements, you name it. I personally would call myself more of an “audio explorer” than a musician. We build some of the tools we use ourselves, be it ‘weird’ impulse responses for convolution processing, programming our own VST [ed. note: Virtual Studio Technology] plugins, hacking MIDI controllers to do what we want to do, etc.
Generally, we don’t care much about how to reproduce all of this in a live setting, as we very seldom play live. When we do, we usually rework the songs a little, to fit into the specific setting.
IMV: I generally ask about album artwork as well, and Ashkan Honarvar’s collage that adorns the cover of Slow Motion Death Sequence is very intriguing. Is it a new piece specifically made for the album? If so, how closely did you work with him on the concept for it? Can you explain some of what’s going on in the image?
THS: Yeah, he’s a friend of ours, and all of his artwork used in relation to Manes have been unique works, made especially for the occasion. If you look at the artwork for the entire album, all pages/sides of the album, and also the poster that’s included with the vinyl, you might get a better understanding of it all. It is, as often is the case with Manes, closely related to death and negativity, and I think it fits the music really well.
IMV: So what’s next after Slow Motion Death Sequence is released? Do you have any touring plans at all over the rest of the year?
THS: No touring. There are plans for a couple of gigs, but apart from that, we take things as they come. If a nice offer pops up, we will of course consider it, but it has to be something extraordinary. A traditional rock/metal-gig doesn’t suit us that well.
TP: We already have plans for another “follow-up” release after Slow Motion Death Process, but more on that later. We’re also proud to have released our first ever music video for “Endetidstegn” (apart from a few shoddy live videos). We want to do more visual stuff, so maybe you’ll see more of that sooner than you think.
IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. I like to leave the last word to the artists – anything else you’d like to add?