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Steve Merry: “As a band we prefer to focus on the music and the story, more than on us as people. Telling the story is usually our focus. Maybe not too many bands take that approach of really thinking about the lyrics. We are in the minority I think in Australia.”

Sinds het debuut ‘The Frail Tide’ in 2007 uitkwam en we Be’lakor op verschillende Europese festivals konden zien, zijn we diep onder de indruk van dit Australische vijftal dat erg melodieuze progressieve death metal schrijft, verpakt in lange, avontuurlijke composities. Eind oktober komt hun nieuwe, vijfde album ‘Coherence’ uit via Napalm Records, dus hadden we een hartelijk gesprek met toetsenman Steve Merry om te onderzoeken hoe het daar gesteld is bij onze tegenvoeters in Australië.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 29 oktober 2021

It is usual that Be’lakor always take its time before coming up with a new album. This time, the previous album ‘Vessels’ came out in 2016, five years ago. Can you resume what happened with you and the band since then?
Well, all the guys in the band work at day jobs and some of them have families and young children. We have been working very hard on this new album ‘Coherence’. We met every week or two times a week to write the music and it just takes a long time to write the music. I think from 2017 through 2018 and 2019, we wrote the music and the lyrics and then at the very start of 2020 we were about to begin recordings. Then the covid-19 pandemic started, that’s why the recording process took eighteen months in the studio. We all live in Melbourne and I think we had six lockdowns until now. So we did our recordings in the gaps between when it was possible. It just took longer than we had hoped for, due to what the world was going through.

I remember that you always have a kind of interesting concept or an idea beyond the lyrics. What about the inspiration and themes of the new album?
‘Coherence’ has a kind of concept too, but not as much as a narrow linear narrative story the way ‘Vessels’ had. ‘Vessels’ told a story from song one to all the way through, to the end of the album. ‘Coherence’ is set in one place, basically on a mountain and each of the songs explores a different person’s story on that mountain, but it is much more exploring their environment and the human causing suffering. So it is quite different from what we have done before, but it is still a concept album.

Did you have a specific mountain in mind when you wrote those stories?
No, not a particular world location, but probably just a combined idea of what we have seen and read and explored in our lives, but certainly not real places. We only write in a sort of imaginary world.

In a way it goes back to the former albums, because nature was always a very important factor in the music and the lyrics…
Yes it is a red thread throughout our writings. So definitely I think it is about observation.

Does it happen that you are suddenly inspired when being in nature or do you strictly sit down in the studio to write?
Yes actually in 2018 we all went away as a band for about three nights, into the forest basically. We wrote some music, we had campfires. We had the chance to go away and really think about the album. So that possibly helped us to feel that connection with the mountain. It was a long drive. It was a five hours drive to a place that had no electricity and no running water. It was a really good thing. It is three years ago now when we arrived in that middle of nowhere writing the actual album. It was good, but it was very cold. When I say it is cold, people in Europe will probably not think it is very cold here. We have 1°C in winter, there’s not that much snow, but for us it is quite cold.

I remember that you came over to tour in Europe pretty early in your career. I saw you at Summer Breeze and Brutal Assault. Did you ever come back to Europe?
As a band we have been to Europe in 2010, 2012 and 2015, but not since then. So we are very eager to go back there very soon. We would have been planning to go back there pretty soon after this new album would be out, but with covid-19 it will probably be a bit later. Yes, we really want to get back to Europe and play on those great festivals.

If they happen, because last year you haven’t missed anything…
Yeah I did see that many of the festivals got cancelled and even this year. It is really a hard time.

‘Vessels’ was mixed and mastered by an Australian guy, but for ‘Coherence’ you returned to Scandinavia. Jens Bogren did the mix and Tony Lindgren did the mastering. Was there a certain reason for that?
Yes, after working with Jens Bogren for the mix of ‘Of Breath And Bone’, for ‘Vessels’ we wanted a different sound. So we found someone in Australia who we wanted to work with and having done that, we wanted this one to go back to a more – I wouldn’t say commercial – a more robust mix, a little bit different from ‘Vessels’. On this album we wanted that sound that Jens provided us on ‘Of Breath And Bone’. We are really happy, because Jens did a very good job. He is obviously great to work with, he knows what he is doing.

It is a marvellous album. In the past Opeth was mentioned as influence, but now also Scandinavian sounds like Insomnium, surely in the lead guitar parts…
When we started as a band, we listened to Dark Tranquillity a lot. We listened to Opeth, In Flames. I think these three bands are the main influences. We didn’t really listen that much to Insomnium. When we started I think Insomnium only had one album and they were a little bit smaller than the bands we looked up to at that time. So I think that has always been part of our sound and now with ‘Coherence’, the more albums we make, we definitely try to bring in other things as well. I don’t think it is just melodic death metal, it is melodic death metal with other elements. Sometimes a little bit black metal, a little bit progressive… it is more interesting I think.

When I read the former interviews I recalled that you are a fan of atmospheric black metal…
Definitely. I think you can hear that specifically on ‘Vessels’. If I look at ‘Vessels’ we were really trying to bring more the atmospheric elements into the music, while on ‘Coherence’ we go a little bit back to direct, aggressive riffs, a little bit less atmosphere. ‘Vessels’ is probably the nearest we got to atmospheric black metal.

The longest song ever is on ‘Coherence’, the closing track ‘Much More Was Lost’? Can you tell something more about that?
Sure. That song was one of the hardest we ever worked on a song, the longest we spent. We had finished writing it, but we did not really feel that it was as good as it could be. We were not happy with it. So we sort of chopped it into pieces and put some pieces aside and started all over again. We spent I think three months more on it. It was a long time and by the time we had done the second round of that song, we were very happy that it felt like a song which is complete. Even though it is long, I don’t think it gets too boring. It keeps moving and I think that song was worth all the work, but it took us a lot of time.

You often use samples and spoken word fragments…
And ‘Coherence’ has a lot more spoken parts. We had on ‘Vessels’ a couple of times where we did spoken word and that worked quite well. Because Be’lakor is about telling stories, on ‘Vessels’ and ‘Coherence’, some spoken word in every song helped to give a feeling of narrative and storytelling. So we used a lot more because we wanted to focus on the storytelling element in the music.

Yes, it has also a kind of mystic feel to it…
I am happy you notice that. That’s how I feel about it as well. It feels like an old man telling a story. Something like that.

Why did you choose for an instrumental track?
I think every of our albums had an instrumental, but it has normally been quite short. One or two minutes, like an interlude. But we haven’t had real songs that are instrumental and a little bit longer and more a meaningful song. So one of the goals for ‘Coherence’ was to do that, at least one or two songs that could stand alone as an instrumental song that people want to listen to, not just as a break. I think it was fun, we haven’t really tried that before, so it is good.

Yes, because I think there are two instrumental songs, also ‘Indelible’…
Indeed and it has no drums, it is guitars and synthesizers. It is an interlude, but it is quite a full equipped song as well. It is probably one of the most synth heavy songs, it really relies on synths, that song.

Ah and that is your domain…
It is. And that song also gave us a lot of work, even during mixing, when Jens had the files that he was mixing, we decided to add even more synths on that song, so I had to come back to my home studio and make some more parts and send them to him while he was mixing the album. I felt that we might have annoyed him, but the result was better.

‘Hidden Window’ was chosen as first presence to the audience with a video clip. Can you tell something about that song?
It became one of our favourite songs while we were mixing the album. It is always hard for us to choose a single, because the songs are very long and each song is a bit different. There are no songs where we represent the band, so people can have an impression how the whole album will be. ‘Hidden Window’ I think has a good mixture of our sounds and it also has some new elements. It is a little bit more progressive. So we chose it for various reasons. We liked the song, but it also has a good mixture of ingredients you might find on the album.

But I think the fans who are following you through the years, will understand that you have different sides, different nuances let’s say…
I think you are right. I think people who know our music well, will not make conclusions after listening to a single song. And again, that makes it hard to decide on which song you take for the newer people who might not have heard us before. But you are right, the fans know what to expect. 

You have always been an underrated band…
Maybe. I remember at Summer Breeze in 2010 we were on stage at 11 am in the morning. That was very hot and sunny but it was very early in the day. We are gradually growing a bigger fan base, but we are not in the same spheres as big bands. So yes, there seems to be a dedicated group of fans and another group who may never heard of us before. That’s why we hope to grow a bit more.

Is there a reason to choose ‘Coherence’ as the title?
A lot of reasons. I think when you read all the lyrics of the album, they sort of explore different ways of having your mind in balance with reality or having your mind correcting fears or doubts or desire. There is a lot of talk about how having size can bring about some suffering, making sense of the world, it is also about growing up, from being a child to realizing more and more what the nature of reality is. So that seemed to work very well with the title ‘Coherence’ about bringing it all into one single idea. Then we have the cover art which was very chaotic and the title ‘Coherence’ a bit as in juxtaposition with that.

Who did the artwork?
The artwork is done by an artist called Aerozopher. He goes by a synonym. I don’t even know his real name, but he is based in Europe and we found the art on internet. We were looking on line and we really liked it and contacted him and he was happy to do that. We spent a lot of time on looking for a suitable image. His profession is to be an artist, but he is relatively small. Not famous, but he does some really good work. I think he likes to keep his images low profile.

What are the plans for the near future? Are you planning more video clips or do you dare planning some gigs in Australia to start with?
Yes, good question. We are bound to do and planning two gigs in Australia very early in 2022. We try to vaccinate the people more and more. At the moment I think 30% is vaccinated. So that will take a while and we are having some outbreaks in Sydney with corona. So I think in 2022 Australian tour and 2023 America and Europe. That is the plan. We just have to hope that things can progress to the point when it is possible. There are also two more videos coming up before October 29, so we are looking forward to that.

Were you able to shoot these videos on different locations?
As a band we never really wanted to do a typical music video or performance clip. We try to collect some extra footage, but we will not go out in nature, although a lot of bands do that already. We try to look at it in a different way when making videos.

I like the way you think about everything and your artistic and intelligent view on everything…
Thank you, we try. It is probably a mixture of things. It is a preference for focusing on the music and the story, more than on us as people. Telling the story is usually our focus.

Is there still any mythology involved? In the past it was…
In the lyrics? Yes. A little bit. It is inspired by human culture, human stories, mythology, but not directly. We don’t really tell a true piece of history in our lyrics, but we borrow ideas from everywhere.

Every country has its own folklore. Is that still alive and well in Australia or is it something you have to dig deep into, because most of the people have a shallow life?
Good question. I think Australia is a bit different in the metal scene. I think most of the metal bands we see probably, there is a lot of focus on performance and aggression and maybe they have a really good live show with a lot of stuff going on. Maybe not too many bands take that approach of really thinking about the lyrics. We are in the minority I think in Australia. Maybe people think sometimes that we are more European rather than Australian.

In Europe we can see series about crossing the border to Australia at airports, they are very strict!
Especially now. It is extremely tough now.  I remember when we were in Europe, it felt quite unusual to drive through one country, another country, another country… very unusual for Australians to have that experience. There was a period in Australia when we had no cases, minimum, but unfortunately after that the cases went up. There have been some periods when we were very lucky to have none, which has been really good.

Do you have small concerts in Australia at the moment or is it still forbidden?
I think at the moment it is forbidden. There was a period about three months ago when there were small things happening with reduced crowd capacity, but at the moment Sydney and Melbourne at least are in total lockdown and most other cities are being very careful. So very little action in the music scene here at the moment.

Yes, because the music scene is quite big in Melbourne I think?
Yeah, in a normal world Melbourne is a real music hop, but that industry is really suffering, especially in Melbourne. There are a lot of musicians and they cannot perform at the moment unfortunately.

Are you still involved in other bands at the moment?
I think at the moment only our drummer Elliot. George used to play a little bit in another band, Elliot has been in many bands before, I think now he is in one band that’s making albums. It is called Dust Code. Not as much as it used to. Most of us focus on Be’lakor only because we are getting older and most of the guys have families. They need to focus a bit more on that and on Be’lakor only.

It is probably worth it, now that you are on Napalm Records…
They are really good. They have been helping us for a long time to plan some tours, but now it could not with covid-19, but when we do return to touring, they will be very good. They are bringing us to the US, they will bring us to Europe again, so that will be great.

Let’s hope for better times…