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Ten Years Later: A Conversation With Chris Grigg About Woe’s A Spell for the Death of Man

A Spell for the Death of Man was one of those records that continued the long tradition of one-man American black metal projects, but unlike a good third of said tradition this album was actually quality. I picked it up solely based on some flyer that had a fucked up building on it, which is an aesthetic I still to this day use when judging blind buys, and really enjoyed it. Xos is a gentleman who knows how to construct every aspect of a song, but does so with a deep emotional resonance. Sure his newer work isn’t as derivative of his influences, but that doesn’t stop this record from standing the test of time.Neill Jameson (Krieg)

The original cover art for A Spell…

Somewhat ironically, it was Woe‘s breakthrough second album that actually bore the title Quietly, Undramatically, but with all due respect, that may have been a more apt description for how the band’s first album A Spell for the Death of Man made its way into the world on September 1, 2008. Do a Google search for either Woe or the band’s founder/guiding hand Chris Grigg, and you’ll be hard pressed to find much from before 2010, after Woe evolved from Grigg’s solo project to a full band and signed to Candlelight.

Anyone who may be under the impression that Woe’s pre-Quietly material is some sort of warm-up act before the better known full-band era, or in any other way a footnote to Woe’s career is sorely mistaken. In fact, on would hope that the remastered version of A Spell… that Vendetta Records released at the end of 2016 would have put that misconception to rest. On the off chance, however, that there are still people who haven’t given this album a chance for some reason or other, let me be as clear as I possibly can: A Spell for the Death of Man is no less essential a listen than the other three full-lengths in Woe’s discography, and contains many of the foundational elements of the riff-centric style that would come to be known as Brooklyn or NYC black metal (even though Grigg was actually living in Philadelphia when he wrote and recorded the album).

That being said, there are also several differences between A Spell… and the albums that would come after. For starters, it’s a much more varied album than any of the ones that followed. Modern Woe is lean and aggressive, dominated by furious riffs and blast-driven tempos. By contrast, A Spell… feels more expansive, which is evident right from the moody lone guitar figure that carries the first two minutes or so of opening track “Solitude.” Songs like “Condemned as Prey” and “Wake in Mourning” have much more of an overt second wave influence than anything off of either Withdrawal or Hope Attrition. For me, though, the standout track is closer “Memento Mori,” a slow, melodic track unlike anything else Woe has ever done.

I don’t think it’s any secret to our loyal Vault Hunters that Woe is one of my favorite bands, and that I consider Grigg to be one of the most important guitarists in the more recent history of USBM. So to mark the occasion of A Spell for the Death of Man‘s 10th anniversary, Chris Grigg did me the honor of answering a few questions about the early days of the band. Check our conversation out below, as well as some reflections by Grzesiek Czapla, who joined Woe shortly after the release of A Spell… and still handles bass duties in the band, and Steve Jansson, who contributed the opening riff for “Longing is All That Will Remain.”

Also worth mentioning up front is that Woe will be playing this year’s edition of Red River Family Fest in Austin over the final week of September. It will be both the final date of the band’s upcoming run of West Coast dates, and likely their last gig outside of the NYC area for a while because…well, I’ll let you find that out below.

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Grzesiek Czapla

Woe’s first album was singlehandedly created and delivered by Chris alone. We had been close friends for years before Woe was even a thing, but Chris had somehow managed to keep it a secret that he even played guitar. Upon hearing demos for the album, I was blown away, especially by how accurately the sound of the classics like Emperor, Ulver, and Dawn were revisited and captured.

I think an appearance at a North Jersey black/death metal festival in late 2008 was billed as Woe’s live debut, but we actually played a small show before then as a different lineup with Chris on bass/vocals, Steve Jansson (Crypt Sermon, Trenchrot, etc) on guitars, and myself on drums. Actually besides Chris, Steve Jansson is the only other individual with a writing credit on A Spell… for writing the opening riff for “Longing is All That Will Remain.” Sometime after A Spell… was released, I switched to guitar as Woe sought to present the album in a massive way by having three guitarists on stage (Melissa Moore (Absu, Sonja), Chris Grigg, and myself). Melissa’s history and involvement with Woe goes even deeper, since her label Creeping Vine Productions released the album on vinyl a year after its release. Several lineup changes later, I’ve remained in the band on bass and close confidant of Chris as he prepares demos, new song ideas, and future plans for the band. – Grzesiek Czapla

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Steve Jansson

Chris and I had become really close friends just shortly before that album was recorded, if my memory serves me correctly. I can remember him sending me the Absinthe Invocation demo the day after he wrote and recorded it. If I remember correctly, it may have been the first live Woe live show ever played with me on guitar, Chris on bass and vocals, and Grzesiek on drums. Shortly after, Chris started writing for a full-length and that sort of took over. He was just on fire. I can remember hearing endless amounts of demos of songs he had written in his car, and eventually mixes for the record. He really worked his ass off on that material and had an insane amount of ambition.

The opening riff to “Longing” was just one of a few random black metal riffs that I had come up with but had no place for them. I can remember writing that riff in particular and thinking that it would be perfect for Woe. I didn’t want to assume myself since it was his baby but I mentioned that I had a riff laying around I think he may dig and played it for him and said “this is yours if you want it” or something to that effect. If I remember correctly he made a few slight tweaks but he liked it enough to use it and it’s really as simple as that. I just had it laying around and figured he might like it. I was probably starting to write black metal riffs for one of the ten thousand projects I never even came close to starting.Steve Jansson (Crypt Sermon, Trenchrot, Unrest)

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Indy Metal Vault: Hey, man – thanks for being willing to chat with me again. Before we get to A Spell For the Death of Man, which turns 10 on September 1, I’d be remiss if I didn’t congratulate you on your forthcoming debut child. She’s scheduled for a late October release, correct? Safe to assume that Woe’s upcoming run of West Coast dates will likely be the last bit of major activity from the band for a little while?

Chris Grigg: Thanks, man! Yes, you are correct. Late October release, right around Halloween. Kid is gonna be spooky as hell. Our tour in September will be our last live run until the dust settles.

IMV: I like to do my research before interviews, and especially so for anniversary pieces. That being said, I’m having a difficult time trying to put together a timeline of your musical activities prior to the first Woe demo, 2007’s Absinthe Invocation: Five Spells Against God. All I’m really finding are names: the alias Xos, and the bands Algol and Near Dark. Did you play on any releases with either of them? Or was Absinthe Invocation your first recording? I don’t know if it’s the same band, but there was a Near Dark that released an EP called Cathedral of Demons on Philly-based War Torn Records in 2007.

CG: I was active in a few different bands before Woe.

I joined Algol, a Harrisburg-based black metal band, when I was either 20 or 21, I can’t quite remember. This would have been around 2004. We played live, wrote, and recorded a new album that never had a finished mix, though it looks like we’ll finally have that done sometime in the next few months. Our vocalist and the songwriter responsible for it died in April of 2017, so it will be great to finally share his vision with the world. He and that band had a massive influence on me. The foundational elements of Woe were taken directly from Dan and Algol, so getting that album out there is important.

Near Dark was a band I had with some friends for a couple years, probably 2006-2008 if I had to guess. It was towards (or maybe after?) the end of Algol and carried into the start of Woe. Our vocalist was Justin Miller, who did art for all four Woe albums. One of our guitarists, Joe Smiley, engineered and mixed A Spell for the Death of Man. We released a 7″ and also recorded an album that never saw the light of day. The Cathedral of Demons 7″ release was cool. It was the first time my music was on vinyl, the art was great, and the material was fun to play. I got much better at drums as a result of that band.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget Unrest, the grindcore band that Steve Jansson (Crypt Sermon, Daeva, Trenchrot) and I started together! We were later joined by Brooks Wilson (also Crypt Sermon and Trenchrot) on bass. We started doing that in maybe 2007 and kept it up throughout the first few years of Woe, releasing a demo and then finally getting a full-length out just a couple years ago. My role there was drums and vocals. Steve was the riffs guy, but he and I wrote and arranged every song together, with Brooks joining us for the last few.

IMV: There was also a band in the late aughts called Veerungaar (Farsi for ‘ruiner’), which, from what I’ve been able to find online, had a “main theme inspired by ancient empires of the Acheamenid and Sassanid periods.” I saw something about an EP that was supposed to come out in October of 2008 on Stronghold Records—who also released A Spell For the Death of Man on CD—but I haven’t been able to find any music anywhere, or any indication that it was actually released. What became of that project? Are those recordings floating around anywhere?

CG: Veerungaar was something started by a friend in Seattle. We were doing it as an Internet project. We put together a bunch of really rough demo tracks that I remember being extremely cool, dramatic, epic black metal. I’ve found a couple of the files on external hard drives in the past, but I’m not quite sure where they went. The project fizzled out. I got busy with Woe and my friend Rana went back to school, got out of music, and we just drifted apart. Incidentally, the riff that became the foundation of “A Treatise on Control” from the second Woe album was something I pitched for Veerungaar! I’m not sure if Rana didn’t like it or what, but I’m glad that I got to keep it for myself.

[ Live @ Public Assembly, Brooklyn, NY, June 7, 2009 ]

IMV: Let’s back up a bit here. Woe was a solo project until it came time to gig behind A Spell For the Death of Man, meaning you’re obviously a multi-instrumentalist. What was your first instrument? How did you get from that first instrument to recording Absinthe Invocation solo? It seems like you played drums in a lot of other projects during Woe’s formative years, including Krieg – when I talked to Neill earlier this year for the 20thanniversary of Imperial Hordes, he said you basically saved the sessions for The Isolationist. That being said, I primarily think of you as a guitarist.

CG: TLDR; I jumped back and forth between guitar, bass, and drums starting from adolescence onward.

My first instrument was guitar. I started playing when I was a kid, around 11 years old. My mom played, so she taught me some chords and then I did the rest by ear, teaching myself songs I liked and then writing my own. My first band was a punk band in which I played bass. After our drummer quit, at age 15 (1999) I wound up playing drums because my friends and I couldn’t find someone else to do it, and that somehow ended up becoming my main instrument. I drummed exclusively after that: there was a band throughout high school and into adulthood, then a Soilwork-y melodeath band briefly, and finally into Algol and Near Dark. Guitar came back into my life sometime after we started Near Dark because I wanted to help write demos, but then I started figuring out Algol songs, and that combination of playing black metal while also writing proved to be my gateway to writing for Woe.

Even after Woe started picking up speed, Unrest also started becoming a more regular thing, so there was this period where I was pushing myself to drum more but also writing and recording my own songs when I had spare time. Eventually, Near Dark faded away, Unrest went on a break after A Spell… came out, and then we became a full band, so I was barely drumming. Working with Evan [Madden, who also played in Woods of Ypres] revealed just how not great my drumming really was — he was (and still is) such a fucking killer drummer. By the time we did Quietly, Undramatically, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to play the material I was writing. It was just too demanding, and he was just too good.

Two years ago, I started drumming again to start a band with Matt, Woe’s guitarist. We’re now doing really nasty death metal as Glorious Depravity. It’s a fucking blast. Separately, I’ve been pushing myself to be a better guitarist, challenging myself with more leads, trickier riffs, and tighter playing. I’ve also given more and more thought to how I can push my vocals to do more for Woe, which you might notice in the shift to mostly lows on the last album. So to respond to your thought of me as a guitarist, I think it really shifts depending on the role that’s required. I enjoy playing and performing, first and foremost. I love the way that a song can come to life when you put its pieces together. There’s something special about each instrument and I connect with them all in different ways and for different reasons.

IMV: Since I’ve referenced it a couple of times now, I’ll admit that I hadn’t spent much time with Absinthe Invocation: Five Spells Against God prior to prepping to write these questions. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting to hear when I hit play on the demo—probably either something underdeveloped yet promising, or pure Cradle of Filth worship—but even though you seem to semi-dismiss it as “raw, home recorded, sloppy, Satanic” on Woe’s Bandcamp page, I can definitely hear elements of the direction that Woe would eventually take in subsequent years on that demo. How much do you remember about the process of putting that demo together? Had you been sitting on those songs for a while, or was the demo more of a spontaneous kind of thing?

CG: Absinthe Invocation was unexpected but not unsurprising. I had been writing riffs and songs for Near Dark, started figuring out some cool Algol riffs, and was just messing around a lot. At the time, I wasn’t particularly happy with my bands, and I was always really drawn to the idea of doing something that could just be mine, for me, at my own pace. No compromises, no arguments, just done. I already had some recording gear and wanted to pursue engineering, so I had access to plenty of equipment to do DIY demos, and I was getting deeper and deeper into underground black metal, where albums could get away with sounding like the stuff I could record. So the time was right.

The first Woe song was “Hunter Unholy,” and I remember it pretty distinctly. I was 22, it was 2006. I was messing around and came upon that first riff. I tracked some variations at home and then did drums, bass, and finally vocals at my studio. It was better than I expected, so I sent it to some friends and their feedback was good. That was sort of it. I felt confident, but wasn’t sure how or whether to proceed.

A few weeks later, my girlfriend ordered this fancy bottle of absinthe from France. We were living at my parents’ house and we drank it in my bedroom and got totally wasted. I remember feeling great, so motivated and excited, and I decided I needed to take advantage of that feeling by writing more music. I went in in another room, sat down on the floor with my guitar and laptop, and just wrote riffs to a click track all night. She was pissed. When I woke up in the morning, I discovered that I had written the rest of the songs that would become the demo. It was like they had come from nowhere, hence Absinthe Invocation.

[ Live in Brooklyn, New York City at Saint Vitus on April 26, 2012 ]

IMV: When we talked back in December, I asked you about the stories I’d heard in regards to you having scrapped nearly an album’s worth of material while working on Hope Attrition, and you said that you felt like you “acted as a better editor on the first album than on the second and third, so I wanted [Hope Attrition] to be more focused.” Now that I’ve spent more time with Spell separate from the rest of Woe’s discography, it actually seems like the least focused Woe album to me in some ways, or at least the most varied. There are plenty of moments on Spell that point towards the later albums. At the same time, there are songs like “Memento Mori” which (even though it’s one of my favorites) I can’t imagine appearing on any Woe album aside from this one. What makes you feel that Spell was more successful in that respect than Quietly, Undramatically or Withdrawal?

CG: You’re right, A Spell… is a bit more varied than other Woe releases would end up being, at least in that it draws from a lot of the black metal that I was listening to at the time. It wears its influences on its sleeve in a way that I tried to prevent on further releases, but where it succeeded was by being very focused on black metal, my black metal, with nothing but riffs that I was 100% into and songs that felt 100% finished. A lot of it goes back to drumming: if a song didn’t feel right on drums, there was a problem that needed to get fixed before I moved forward. This is still true of any song I write as a drummer. I think Steve or anyone in Glorious Depravity will confirm that. When I changed my songwriting process to use programmed drums, I think I lost that primitive, visceral connection to the material, which left me with a gap in quality control. That in itself isn’t a deal breaker. I still wrote a lot of music that I’m proud of, but I needed to train myself to look for certain issues with riffs and songs that would have been immediately apparent had I just sat down behind the kit.

I think I’ve been unfair to Quietly, Undramatically and Withdrawal over the years. They are both vicious albums, each an improvement on the one before it in many, many ways, and all crucial in the organic development of Woe. It’s easy for me to look at A Spell… and claim that it’s a more focused album because the bar was so much lower: I wanted to write black metal, and I wanted it to be a solid album that didn’t suck. Very little was on the line. The albums after it were more demanding, riskier, and we were all figuring out how this shit should work. The performances were fantastic. The good parts are very good, and it all pushed Woe to where we are now. Everyone killed it.

A Spell for the Death of Man put all the tools down on the table. I spent the next few albums figuring out which ones to use, which to discard, where there were opportunities for innovation, and when I was better off just grabbing a fucking hammer and bashing shit repeatedly.

[ Live at Semi-Legit in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York City on May 08, 2011 ]

IMV: Unlike its follow up Quietly, Undramatically, you didn’t produce or master A Spell For the Death of Man, though you did co-engineer it. I’ve read elsewhere that when you were younger you dreamt of growing up to run a studio, not to be a rock star. So how difficult was it to cede most of the control of your first full-length to someone else? And aside from the production elements, what do you remember about recording A Spell For the Death of Man? Since it’s the only Woe full-length you recorded as a solo project, does it hold special significance for you at all? 

CG: When I first started thinking about a full-length, my original plan was to do it raw and DIY. After Absinthe Invocation, I continued doing demos in my rehearsal space, and I was getting pretty happy with the quality. I was using real amps by then and a couple more drum mics. Joe Smiley, Near Dark’s guitarist, was and still is a co-owner of the studio where I had my rehearsal space, and he suggested I try doing two of the songs with him just to see how it sounded. We did “Solitude” and “Alone With Our Failures” and they sounded fantastic. I still remember driving home from the studio with a mix of the songs on a CDR when Joe sent a text that just said, “Let me know when you want to do a full length.” It just sounded so big, like a full band playing instead of just one guy in a small room.

After that, it was easy. Joe did all the hard work, he did the entire mix, my “co-engineering” role was just running the board while tracking some of my parts because I was so used to banging things out when working solo, doing punches, things like that. We ended up using some of the vocals from the two demo tracks on the full-length when I wasn’t really thrilled with my performance. I was mostly the producer, being demanding about how we could get it to match my vision for the album.

I remember bits and pieces of recording. We had to do a lot of punches on the drums, I really hadn’t rehearsed as much as I should have. I had to re-learn some of the bass lines in the studio. I was excited about my new amp, a JCM 900 that I could only afford because I sold a limited edition Agalloch box set, the Pale Folklore laser-etched wood box with photos that they sold at their Day of the Equinox Fest performance in Toronto. There was supposed to be a simple melodic solo in Solitude” but I hadn’t practiced it, couldn’t play it, and gave up after way too many tries.

The most memorable thing about the sessions was the untimely death of the external hard drive holding all my original Woe, Near Dark, Unrest, and Veerungaar demos. The album’s intro was supposed to be the shitty guitar intro I recorded for my “Solitude” demo, a nod to my roots. As I was plugging things in, I got distracted and rolled backwards on the studio chair, pulling the hard drive off the table. Kids these days with their Dropclouds and Soundboxes, they don’t understand what we went through!!!

[ live at Nowarehouse, March 2009, in Baltimore, MD ]

IMV: I haven’t been able to find many contemporary reviews of A Spell... online aside from a lukewarm one from Blabbermouth, which probably wasn’t your target audience anyway. Do you remember what the response was like when you released the album? 

CG: As you can probably imagine, there were some people who absolutely despised it. Anyone who does something even slightly new with black metal is basically drawing a bullseye on their chest, especially in 2008, when the idea of American black metal was still such an outrageous concept to so many people who had just read Lords of Chaos for the first time. I don’t remember any particularly bad reviews other than the very last print issue of Metal Maniacs, which had a scathing editorial accusing me of being an actual emo kid who had just discovered black metal. Its author would eventually come around and turn out to be a very cool guy. The rest of the harsh ones were predictable: false, listen to something from Europe, where’s the corpse paint, poser shit, etc,… Same as now, really.

The response in the American underground was mostly positive. There were a lot of new bands coming up at the time and the album found its way to many of them, so it was really my introduction to a lot of the people who are still kicking around out there today.

A handful of reviews took note of the fact that it was a solo project that sounded like a full band of competent musicians, which was a fucking thrill. Others called it sloppy and under-produced, so what the fuck do I know.

What caught me most off guard were the really glowing ones, the ones who contextualized it as part of something bigger that was happening in American black metal. That was completely unanticipated. I don’t remember how many there were, but it was pleasant. I was a depressed kid, I wasn’t sure about anything I was doing. As much as I want to claim that the reviews didn’t or don’t matter, knowing that anyone out there appreciated my work was still nice.

I really think that so much of how we interpret an album is a result of the expectations we have, the desires for what we want to find, and the album’s ability to accept those desires and become that thing. Everyone seems to hear what they want to hear in a record. It’s like how you can play Deicide for someone who’s only listened to radio rock and they’ll say something like, “Oh man, this sounds like Slipknot!” We make the connections that we want to connect.

[ Live December 8, 2008 in Philadelphia ]

IMV: And then how did you get on Candlelight’s radar for its follow-up?

CG: Like all the bands from Philly who signed with Candlelight, I found my way there because of a friend who lived in town and worked for the label. It was a very easy process. I seem to remember being pretty direct with him, proposing they sign me because response had been great and I worked cheap. It was fucking insane. A few of the folks who worked for the label were already familiar with the band, they were signing a shitload of bands (most of whom got dropped after their first album), and I was there at the right time. I thought the deal was pretty good. Of course, if I had known that they’d sell the company and half of Woe’s catalog would go out of print forever, I might have thought a bit more about it…or given them shittier records.

IMV: When Vendetta Records rereleased A Spell For the Death of Man on vinyl in 2016, Dave Downham, who mastered the album’s original release, also handled the remaster. I’ve read a bit about the…difficulties you had when you tried to master Quietly, Undramatically. Is that what kept you from trying to remaster Spell yourself?

CG: This was sort of funny. I reached out to Dave not to remaster but to see if he had his original vinyl master of the album from 2007 or 2008 or whenever the hell we did it. He said that not only did he not have it, he’d prefer to just take another pass at it so we could benefit from his added years of experience and gear. It was an easy decision.

IMV: Are you planning anything to coincide with A Spell For the Death of Man’s anniversary? I know you’ve been in the studio recently for as-yet undisclosed reasons, and you’re touring not long after the anniversary of its release.

CG: We very briefly talked about doing something but decided not to. I’m extremely proud of the album and what it accomplished but right now, we want to keep pushing forward. Maybe when it hits 20 years. If anyone gives a shit. And if I have nothing better to do.

IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. To wrap up here, your West Coast run is concluding with an appearance at this year’s Red River Family Fest. How’d that come about? Since it’s not only the last date of the tour, but presumably also the last Woe gig outside of the NYC area for a while, are you cooking up anything special for your set?

CG: We’re very excited about that show! We just happened to get put in touch with the right people and an invitation found its way to us. We have a few tricks up our sleeve, but it’ll ultimately come down to how much time we have available. Either way, I think it is reasonable to say that after two weeks of touring, it will probably be one of the tightest, most ferocious Woe sets you can possibly see, and we are glad for the opportunity.

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