Dealing With The Devil: A Conversation With Paul & Steve O’Brien of Aeons Abyss

An in-depth look at 'Terror Manifest' leading up to this week's release.

Words by Kman (@kmanriffs):

If you know my work, you’ll know that I’m always on a never-ending search for new and upcoming bands to promote and draw attention to. Melbourne, Australian act Aeons Abyss appeared on my radar around mid 2019 after the release of their debut EP, Pity Eloquence, which was then followed up in November of that year, entitled Impenitent. But things were not as they seemed on the surface of these two releases, because musically, pretty much everything contained within had been sitting on a shelf for near-on 25 years waiting to be unleashed. Yep, old ideas were once again given life through the reformation of high school friendships and the drive and willingness to see their earlier work come to light. The journey is an interesting and unique story, and with the impending release of their sophomore album Terror Manifest just days away (as this goes to publishing) we sat with vocalist Paul and guitarist Steve (both unrelated ‘O’Brien's) to chat about the path they’ve taken to reach this point and the plans moving forward. So, grab your red wine chalice and deck of Tarot cards, sit back, and read about Aeon Abyss plight in dealing with the devil….

Welcome to Heaviest of Art, Paul and Steven, we are thrilled to have you answer some questions for us today!

Aeons Abyss: It is a pleasure to be interviewed by Heaviest of Art. Your aesthetic take on extreme music correlates with our own fascination and reflects the impulse behind our creative efforts. I particularly enjoyed your recent article on CYNIC ahead of their release, 'Ascension Codes'. So thank you for considering us.

Of course, the main reason we have you here is to chat about the forthcoming album ‘Terror Manifest’ – you and the band must be keen to see it released come November 5th?

Paul: It feels like it has been a long time coming and that the songs from 'Terror Manifest' are old friends and yet at the same time it has been a busy process and Steve in particular has been a powerhouse of resistless activity preparing for the release. Our ambition in some respects has transcended just the music. There is a social message behind this album that we have tried to promote in a considered way, from diverse enterprises like The Metal Podcast and in the album’s artwork and through live performances. Of course, COVID has compromised the latter two. Nonetheless, it reflects the philosophy that rational argument is drowned by the relativity of ‘fake news’ that refuses to distinguish opinion (for which read, prejudice) from fact. This leaves art as perhaps the final bastion of persuasion but even art is ruthlessly commercialized and conforms into a commodity while the germ of subversive creativity lives on in the underground where it is broadly ignored and selectively cherished.

Fair call on the social message surrounding the new album and we will dive into the specifics of 'Terror Manifest' real soon, but at this point can we set the scene for the readers who may not be all that familiar with Aeons Abyss. Your evolution as a band is a rather interesting, unique journey I believe. Research says you formed in 2017, but the journey has been far longer! How did this all come to fruition? Who is Aeons Abyss and why does the Metal world now have the pleasure of listening to and witnessing your music?

Paul: Steve and I first formed a band in 1990 during our second last year of high school. Steve’s brothers, James and Adam were involved as well as high school friends, Michael Bush, Andrew McConville and Glenn Chuck. We wrote a series of songs that constitute the EP, Pity Eloquence and the LP Impenitent, yet coming from rural Victoria we never exploited the opportunity to play live that was the only mechanism then to perhaps win a record deal to immortalize those tracks. We were pursuing higher education and starting careers and families so that by 1995 we had stopped creating new material and without a formal end the whole enterprise faded into reminiscence. There were abortive restarts; In the 2000s, for example Michael became involved with mixing tracks from overseas bands and hinted that we should record some stuff but we were yet distracted and later when Steve prompted him he had moved on to other hobbies. But Steve and I had always had the stronger collaboration and when he approached me in 2017 about recording our old songs, I had no hesitation to try. It was clear that Steve’s ambition wouldn’t stop there and I don’t think he ever completely stopped composing. I am confident that he never will. Our original name, Cataclysm, was already famously in use. We wanted to encapsulate something monumental in our new name to reflect our ambition for eclectic tunes and ambitious narratives. An eon is an immense interval of time; an abyss is a fathomless depth. Aeons Abyss describes a fall, morally, philosophically, physically, so profound that it becomes meaningless to measure its distance, where all sensation bleeds away leaving only the disquiet of vertigo until direction and time themselves dwindle into unmade chaos.

Cover Art by Dimitris ‘satta’ Kourtzas

And musically, a description or classification of your style of heavy music – the death/thrash tag is probably one that you would agree upon. But what else would you say is going on within your compositions? What sort of heavy music fan is going to find your music appealing?

Paul: It is interesting how metal is fractured into different genres and that death metal in particular is further splintered into disparate categories so that aficionados can dispute for example whether Altars of Madness or Butchered at Birth are more thrash metal than death metal or whether The Sound of Perseverance is still death metal or is it Prog metal. We would be flattered to be considered in those arguments but truthfully, most fans tastes transcend genres, certainly ours do and that is what you are going to hear in 'Terror Manifest'. There are thrash metal, melodic death metal, grind core, black metal and doom metal influences on both the music and equally in the vocals. Further to that there are blues influences and homages to classical music including death metal/black metal vocal harmonies and counterpoint. There are two ambient tracks that are quite unique, something like ‘Impressionist death metal’ in their attempt to render a perception, incarnate. As we reach into our subconscious to evoke its story there is no boundary to the collected memories. We think that the story succeeds and that any heavy music fan might find it compelling especially as it challenges their expectations.

‘Impressionist Death Metal’ – you’ve just invented another genre! Ha! I want to dive into the new album soon, but I thought we might get there via ‘Impenitent’, your debut album from 2019. What were your expectations upon its release? Were you pleased with the response to it and what it represented for you at the time?

Paul: Releasing 'Impenitent' was a catharsis of unrealized ambition that exculpated twenty-five years of regret. The recording quality gave fidelity to Steve’s musical vision. The old lyrics were purged of their adolescent naivety to more fully realize their original narrative and I was satisfied with the vocal performance. That had been the extent of my ambition. However, its reception particularly by old school death metal fans who like us grew up through the Halcyon 90s was especially gratifying.

Steve: The release of 'Impenitent', and our debut EP, 'Pity Eloquence', was for me a really cool achievement, in that not only had we restored our music from the 90s, but we’d self-recorded and released our music to the world. To also get really positive feedback from the likes of Maor Appelbaum, who mastered Impenitent, was humbling. This in turn gave us something to start connecting with metalheads from all over the world, who started engaging with us on our music, whilst also becoming true friends of our band.

Cover Art by Ivan Radnic

And since its release, the band has evolved from yourselves (as a duo) to a 5-piece outfit. Was this a deliberate intention to go from what was essentially a studio outfit to a fully-fledged line up? When did you first realize that what you were doing had legs and opted to pursue filling vacancies in the line up? Can you give the readers a bit of background as to who the new guys are and where they may have come from?

Paul: We reconstituted ourselves initially as a recording project to capture the songs of our past and to create new ones but our other regret was not to have performed more live shows. Each live performance is a unique entity that draws as much from its audience and our effort in recruitment was specifically for live performances. James (on drums) was involved from the days of Cataclysm and had already played an advisory role during the recording process. Brett Saw (rhythm guitar) brings the broadest heavy metal background imaginable and embodies the very concept of transcending genres while Leigh Boyd (Bass) has a hardcore/punk aesthetic with its powerful and distinct voice. These guys are serious musicians and awesome to work with as listeners to The Metal Podcast co-presented by Steve, Leigh and Brett can attest. They will lend their creativity to future recordings, which is very exciting.

Steve: I know this sound a bit silly, but Brett pointed this out to me, in that 'Terror Manifest' has in of itself manifested its own story with the band, like it was meant to be. For instance, the creation of the song The Magician (original title related to fire) really helped kick along the concept of Tarot, and The Magician card in tarot suite equals creation. Then when I kicked off our recruitment campaign Leigh was the 1st to respond and then join us, and he literally lives one block away from my house and has his own music setup that works in perfectly for the unique needs of our band (with Paul living in a different state). Brett is connected in a big way to the stories we are telling through 'Terror Manifest' and Tarot. And my brother Jimmy, just happened to be able to fill in on drums for us when other plans around a drummer fell through at the last minute.

So, we get to ‘Terror Manifest’ – firstly, this is all brand new material I believe, so when was it recorded and how long have you been sitting on it for a release date?

Paul: The music for 'Terror Manifest' was completed in 2019-2020. Steve is far more prolific than I am and he was writing most of the songs while I was yet laying down vocals for Impenitent. By January 2020 we had the basic structure for the nine traditional tracks and had just improvised The Magician. Steve established the track order that worked best musically and from there I constructed the unfolding story of the fool. Each song has its own aesthetic that lends itself to a particular suit of the Tarot. We purposefully took our time to sit with preliminary recordings that allowed us to work up the collaborative pieces. I had some ambitious vocal ideas that didn’t always work straight off, for example the recitative character of death metal vocals makes counterpoint too dissonant unless it’s grounded by the lyrics, while sometimes we’d discover that we needed an extra guitar solo or Steve would suggest where there might be additional vocals. As is often the case in imaginative work, these ‘add-ons’ constitute some of the most memorable moments in the album and that back and forth was especially satisfying. We also waited because our friend Dimitris “satta” Kourtzas, the artist responsible for the cover of Impenitent, was working on oil paintings to depict each of the eleven tracks. This was to have been integral to the art of 'Terror Manifest' and we considered Satta as the third member then of Aeons Abyss. Unfortunately the Covid pandemic grew worse in Greece and we have lost contact with him. To Satta, we wish you and your family all health and happiness.

I only ask, because Iron Maiden sat on their latest for 2 years before its release. I can’t imagine being in a band, writing and recording an album – blood, sweat and tears involved and then sit around waiting for 2 years to see it come to light. It seems Covid has held so much back. Not just playing live, but the whole fucking process of recording and release…care to comment?

Paul: There is some value to sitting on creative works to diminish your personal investment, the blood, sweat and tears as you describe, that dominate immediately before fading. This might improve its revision. It is curious then, how Iron Maiden ended up with such a colossal release when finally it dropped. Perhaps they just kept writing and decided, “fuck it, we’ll include them all!” I imagine for such an iconic band that there is a reasoned marketing strategy necessitating concert tours to leverage from the release and that such management considerations can take precedence over artistic sensibilities. We underground musicians envy the opportunity had by commercial icons to earn a living from their art and without suggesting that it reflects on their output, I wonder if the pressures of making a living from it might not taint the spontaneous freedom of making music. It might be a case of take care what you wish for, lest it come true.

To my ears, 'Terror Manifest' is the absolute proper step up from your debut. The Death/Thrash tag is a little restrictive, no question. There is much more going on. Did you have a vision of what you wanted going into the album? What would you suggest as the main differences between it and Impenitent?

Paul: Lyrically, it was always my intention to create a single narrative as opposed to the songs of Impenitent that each told a separate story. But this cannot be like say chapters of a book and in the end every song also has to stand on its own. The tarot idea facilitated this particularly well and separate from the continuous story each song has its own allegorical significance.

Steve: Not initially, other than I wanted it to have an epic production sound. Also, musically, it just needed to work with Paul’s vocals.

Let’s chat music, then lyrics! – Steve, there’s a bit going on here, mate! You’ve written all but 2 tracks on 'Terror Manifest' – considering the ‘age’ of your music on the debut, has anything changed in your songwriting approach for the album?

Steve: Well, there has been almost 30 years of different music influences, from all genres, especially classical, since the music of Impenitent. Plus, having a small home studio with access to killer guitar tones and modern drumming programming helps. To be honest, since I picked up a guitar back in the day and worked out how to play, 90% of my time would just be freestyle jamming riffs. Once I make a riff that has legs, the song tends to write itself, and this normally happens quickly. Sometimes I might challenge myself to a certain style or vibe, or to work out a way to transition one riff into another. Also, being able to set up some song structures with drum patterns is a good way to approach it. But typically, once I get going, the song is in my subconscious and it emerges to the point where I know it’s done.

Influence wise, for me, there’s a ton of regulars shining through - Morbid Angel, Obituary, Carcass, Slayer, through to Megadeth and Iron Maiden. But something else I did notice was the Chuck Schuldiner vibe – not necessarily in the main riffs, but more so the melodic lead work. I mean the opening melody to ‘The Fool’ sounds like something off Human or ITP? Am I right?

Steve: No doubt, all those bands come through. And yes, I love Death, especially the James Murphy era and without really knowing all the various music nodes, I am often drawn to the more exotic scales for my lead work, and these were used by Chuck quite a lot. The Fool was an important composition for me, as I wrote it knowing it would be the opener. I remember channeling a bit of a Behemoth vibe, just in terms of tone and space, and tempo across the track.

Other examples are evident on ‘The Hierophant’ and haunting intro that begins ‘The Ace of Staves’ – sounds like My Dying Bride! Your doom elements are huge on that track.

Steve: 'The Hierophant' is so much fun to jam. The song was born from the middle riff, which has a pretty cool snake-ish vibe. Also, I remember with The Ace of Staves, I had been listening to the entire My Dying Bride discography, and I wanted to pay homage to them through some music. I had written the opening lead melody, but I also had a riff inspired by Russian composer Mussorgsky, and needed a way to combine them. For me, Paul’s lyrics are so amazing in this song and he captures the mood of deep despair that comes through in the 1st half of the song so amazingly well. Especially with the content of the lyrics about industrialized killing to feed wealthy gluttony. We had some problems with this song in the mastering literally over one note in the second solo, which ended up being squeezed a little too hard in the final mastered version, and we gave Jack Control (from Enormous Door) a hard time to recapture the original emotion, which he ultimately did perfectly.

Then there’s this underlying black metal element – some well-placed tremolo picking in the fast-paced sections of tracks. A real Scandinavian feel. Would I be on the mark here?

Steve: The stylings of black metal convey a different emotional response, and me and Paul both really like black metal. We felt that concept theme of 'Terror Manifest' gave us free reign to mix styles, and for it to still work and carry through as part of The Fool’s journey.

I have a favorite track I’d like to chat about – Track 5 - ‘The Devil’ - love that rolling riff that drops in around 1 min 30 and backed with some killer lead work – then fades out with some bluesy slide guitar. I have had the pleasure of viewing the video you have put together for said track. Is this your first foray into the visual representation of the band? Care to comment about how it came