Diving into tech-death's awe-inspiring feat via the fantasy artwork it builds a narrative on.
Words by Luis (@heaviestofart):
Kokabiel, Angel of the Stars (2015), which exists among Peter Mohrbacher's Angelarium (The Encyclopedia of Angels), now plays a new role, one that'll narrate a tale of ascension through treacherous waves symbolic for life's circumstances. The tale, Fallujah's Empyrean, arrives this Friday, September 9th via Nuclear Blast Records and stands tall as a multi-faceted tech-death metal offering — a culmination of the band's sonic exploration and years of admirable work ethic. Despite a separate timeline of inception, the sights and sounds we present here today exist as one, seamlessly building off one another as one cohesive entity. It's through Peter's description below that Scott finds an entry point to completing the empty canvas that resulted in Empyrean:
The silent field of swaying grass waved at the ocean above
The giants march past us by the thousand
By the thousand thousand and many more
Infinite upon infinite
They don't look back
We stare on
We go Behind the Cover of Empyrean with Fallujah's guitar virtuoso Scott Carstairs and fantasy artist Peter Mohrbacher to explore the ethereal qualities of the band's most grandiose release with Kokabiel as our guide:
As you’ve noted in the build up to its arrival, ‘Empyrean’ is representative of the growth you've made as a band over the years, which has been quite astounding to say the least. In what mindset were you all in as you approached the album’s development process?
Scott: I feel like we needed a fresh start for the band and it needed to be an aggressive, energetic fresh start. We went through an entire journey. We started this band when we were like 16 and I think we even played our first show at 16. Our first record, ‘The Harvest Wombs’ (2011), came out when we were like 18 and we had worked on it for the two years prior. From there, we went on to release two more records and by the time we got to ‘Undying Light’ (2019), we had lineup changes. The direction of the band was up in the air. I wanted to do something that challenged me as a writer and I wanted to kind of step away from the sound we had become accustomed to. It’s weird to do, but I needed a fresh start and I needed something that challenged me in a different way. It was almost like I was on autopilot for years, but ‘Undying Light’ had us try to execute ideas that we never really had done before. We put that record out, felt really good about it, toured on it, and then the pandemic happened. At this point, I had already started thinking about the next record.
The whole pandemic kind of forced us into this new era that we’re in. I was like, “Alright, this is gonna happen. I'm just gonna put all of my energy and everything I have into making a new record.” I set out to not just have this be another record, but an entirely new record for me as a songwriter. It involves goals that we had earlier in the band when we were younger and it brings progressions and atmospheres that we've developed in the later records as well. From beginning to end, there was just this really aggressive energy towards making a record that was better than anything we've ever done before. When the fans hear it, I want it to fucking melt their face off and have it be unlike anything they heard before. We set out to make something very complex, very intense, very aggressive, dazzling, and mesmerizing through our guitar work and overall musicianship. That was the goal. It's kind of cool because this wasn’t one of those records where you say, “Alright, we're home from tour so it’s time to start writing music.” It was super clear what we wanted. I could almost hear the music in my head before writing it, so I’d say this is truly the most driven we've ever been.
Every obstacle we’ve had, like finding new members, we just aggressively pushed through it. We were really tedious with everything, especially auditioning people. We didn’t want to have somebody who could just do the job for us. We want somebody who's going to take it to the next level and challenge us, and that's why we brought in Kyle (Schaefer, vocalist). The guy is an immense talent. If you really look into what he's done, like in the amount of writing he's done, he’s a pretty insane musician. Then of course you have Evan Brewer (bassist). We had to have somebody of his caliber to replace Rob (Morey).From the songwriting to finding new members to the artwork, everything had to be top notch. If we had to stay up all night for weeks at a time to get it done, we were going to do it. That's just the best way I can say it.
This response alone speaks to how enthusiastic you are about this entire new album rollout, and rightfully so. I've sat through ‘Empyrean’ a few times and you’ve got something special here. It's more than just a display of musicianship and instead builds a world introduced through the art of Peter Mohrbacher, which is complemented by your dedicated approach to lyricism and atmospheric songwriting. Would you say that, in some sense, the release and completion of this record was cathartic?
Scott: Very much so. As we get closer to it, I just feel so much better. People are hearing the songs and where we're at as musicians. It makes me feel so much better because I want people to be excited and inspired and stoked. It's a little hard to have people wait a long period of time to really hear where we’re at musically, and you kind of have to keep it in a bubble. There's a lot of anxiety that goes into this, but getting to the finish line was the cathartic experience. I finally got that off my chest and I can move on with my life. You know what I mean?
Just a comment on the point you mentioned about world building. That's what helps me write music. I can't just pull anything from nothing. I have to visualize it and I've always been a huge fan of sci-fi movies like Interstellar, Blade Runner, and the recent Dune movie. Man, that shit was so sick! I become obsessed with things like that and Peter Morbacher’s art is so in line, especially with the ideas that we had. The record is called ‘Empyrean’, which is supposed to be a higher plane where man and Gods will meet. It's supposed to be like this heavenly kind of plane that you're supposed to get to. I wanted this record to sound as if you’re taking a journey to that higher plane, which is why the later songs are very atmospheric and huge sounding. They’re really big and kind of spacey. It kind of gives you the imagery that you're up in space at the highest tier, the highest plane of existence. This happens towards the end because I wanted the album to start at the bottom and make you feel like you're in the deep depths of pain and despair. The song, ‘The Bitter Taste of Clarity’, is the realization.
The artwork is perfect because it centers on this being, a kind of androgynous being, that is walking through water. It's in the ocean reaching out to the heavens, wanting to be at that higher plane. It just works so perfectly for the lyrical content. You look at an image first before you listen to an album, so I feel that the image needs to be at the beginning of a journey, introducing listeners to where they’ll be starting at. You then let your imagination take you to the rest of it.
It just reminds me of crazy death metal. The character is in somewhat of a desperate state within a desperate storm, waves crashing around. Looking at the atmosphere there, we just ran with it and were totally influenced by it. I remember wanting the album to be a metaphor for a journey out of despair and into a higher plane. The challenges that come with that are mostly psychological. We're our own worst enemy. Three or four of the songs discuss that, like ‘Soul Breaker’, ‘Duality of Intent’, and ‘Embrace Oblivion’. It’s just like what we’re talking about now – the pain of realizing that things need to change and the pain of finally moving forward. I don't want to explain lyrics to people because it’s made so that they come to their own conclusions through their own pathway. We’re taking audiences on a journey to a higher plane with a psychedelic atmosphere that they can complete uniquely. I'm looking at the artwork right now and it’s just perfect with it.
That’s a perfect segue into one of my following points. The commission process is the norm for bands looking for a particular illustration that comes together with the album’s theme. For ‘Empyrean’, ‘Kokabiel’ already existed. It wasn’t created as a result of your lyrics and yet you build off of what Peter was already doing to create one cohesive composition. What drew you to ‘Kokabiel’ in particular and where did you find that commonality?
Scott: We didn't have the lyrics done before we found the art. The art was super important for this record, so we started really early on that. There were a bunch of people that we were checking out, like Beksiński and Mariusz Lewandowski, but Lorna Shore came out with their EP and beat us to Lewandowski, who just recently passed. When we found that Morbacher piece, we were just blown away. It was so sick and it worked so well. I didn't even know if it was available, but I really hoped it was and it ended up working out.
‘Kokabiel’ gave us a world. We already had concepts, emotional concepts, that we wanted to talk about, but we had not written any lyrics and we didn't really know how we were going to metaphorically represent them. It kind of all came together and definitely influenced the record’s development.
Interesting, especially considering that the norm is that the music and lyrics inform the artwork and not the other way around.
Scott: For our last record, ‘Undying Light’, we commissioned that cover with Nick Keller. We provided our creative ideas to the artist and he did his best to bring it to life through his work.
I don't know if I like that process anymore. It feels really egotistical of us because that's already what our music is. It’s like our egos are on paper in a weird way. When you make an artist do something that comes from your brain, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It's kind of like seeing your own ideas through another person’s filter. I'm cool with the art that we had last time, but I think that when you have something that came naturally out of an artist, it's so amazing. I'd rather just do that. I think I'd rather find a piece that was raw and came from that person and not influenced by us and our visions. That's why I knew that I didn't want to commission a piece for this record. We just spent a long time searching for pieces and we ended up back where we were with ‘Dreamless’ (2016). Luckily, that piece was available too.
Great perspective! Though I’m a sucker for seeing new and unique pieces to accompany a record, I can see it your way as well. Peter, what does it mean to you, as an artist, to have your work live and breathe through different mediums it wasn't originally intended for? Kokabiel will now become synonymous with this album cycle and era of Fallujah despite not being created specifically for the band. Scott of course has his own unique interpretation.
Peter: My highest aspiration as an artist is to be part of the great chain of inspiration that has been passed down to me from the beginnings of art itself. To know that my work has been received well enough to hop between mediums is a huge honor. The work I put into building the cosmology of Angelarium is only in service of helping the work find its way into the hands of other creative people. Whatever pieces of it survive the transmission from person to person will ultimately become the true canon of the work.
Definitely, and it really speaks to the power of art. Looking back at Kokabiel's creation, what did you look to envision and what informed its creative process?
Peter: Kokabiel has always had a connection to music. I intended to capture the feeling of being lost in the cosmic expanse. My closest connection to that feeling is with a pair of headphones on.
The earliest inspiration for the painting visually was a trip to Burning Man. On my way into Blackrock City, I wandered off the road to catch my first glimpse of unpolluted starlight. My memory of that moment was crashing waves of light splashing downward on the dark horizon of the desert. From that moment forward, I couldn't imagine the night sky as anything as simple as a series of dots in the sky. It took on a larger and more mysterious quality.
Interesting that it was musically driven considering that it now represents a record. It all came back full circle. Continuing on that point, was there anything you wished for it to capture? It certainly has grandiose qualities and radiates strength, a strength that drew Scott's interest.
Peter: One of the big themes for me with Kokabiel was one of resignation. Even though the figure is clothed in this intense light, they are also being drawn into an endless ocean of dark waves. It feels to me that there is a need to relinquish a certain amount of control to come close to the power that Kokabiel is connected with.
This is now the second time that you've collaborated with Fallujah with each time bringing fresh eyes to your work through music. Does it provide you with a new outlook or perspective on your work to have a new audience dissect it in their own respective ways?
Peter: I was really excited that Fallujah wanted to continue our relationship. When 'Dreamless' came out, it was the most prominent use of my art in the music world. It feels that my work is better known in this space, especially in metal. Now that I have a foothold here, I definitely would be interested in sticking around.
For any bands reading this, let this be your sign to work with Peter! Blind Guardian is another band you've partnered with too, but music illustration is of course nowhere near your typical line of work. However, the ability of Scott and Fallujah to find an affinity with Kokabiel speaks volumes of your work. It's truly an unconventional selection for a technical death metal record cover, but it works seamlessly. What do you take from this entire experience?
Peter: I'm a believer that art speaks to a common human experience. Finding connective tissue that's buried under the surface is perfectly in line with my interests. I think Scott is smart for choosing artwork that sets Fallujah's music apart from their peers visually.
It'll set 'Empyrean' apart among the shelves at any record store. Thanks for your thoughts, Peter. Fallujah is always very intentional about every aspect of the visuals and the lyrics. Everything has an interconnectivity to it and it is very comprehensive rather than being a disjointed mash of unrelated elements. Turning back to you, Scott, would you argue that the visual and conceptual side is as important as music itself?
Scott: Yes, I’ve learned that it is. Before, I would think it was just a cool visual representation, but now I think it really sets the stage and it could control the audience's feelings before they hit that play button. It’s the same reason why bands put so much effort into the tension building when you perform on stage. All that stuff is really important. You want to have a point of reference for what you're putting on. Depending on how you present your work, audiences can determine your demeanor. Is this a parody album? Is this a fun joke kind of album? Or is this the auditorium version of a sci-fi movie? Aesthetics are everything. We put so much into music, which is essentially just an aesthetic in a way because it's like the same 12 notes and usually the same progressions. Again, I think it's super important, almost as important as the music. That's how I felt with this. I was stressed thinking, “Damn, the music is coming out great, let's not fuck it with some art that doesn't match it.”
The fact that we’re having this discussion right now is indicative of your attention to that aspect of the music. One can say that Peter’s work is synonymous with the band, especially with ethereal artwork being a trait of Fallujah’s discography. Switching gears a bit, we referenced lineup shifts earlier and spoke on the camaraderie that you've all been able to build over the years despite different folks coming in and out of the band. You guys are also constantly touring, constantly evolving, and really letting the community aspects of the tech death genre inform your work. What role, if any, does that play on your output? Does the friendly competitiveness perhaps push you to do more?
Scott: 100%. Even though we were in a pandemic and we didn’t really know what was going to happen, in my mind, I was already visualizing making an insane record that we’d be able to take on tour with these great bands like Rivers of Nihil. It's a huge influence. You want to have energy in the music that will crossover well into the live setting. You gotta bring your A game when you’re playing with guys like Wes Hauch or Brody Uttley. We had to come into this record with the mindset of pushing it further if we can.
We always look back at the years of touring and reflect on what songs did really well and what brought the energy, but also what did something special, like create atmospheres through clear prog sections and stuff like that. If we were a band that was only putting stuff out on the internet without performing, it would have a completely different sound with a focus on progressive atmospheres, like what Wolves in the Throne Room do. They really hone in on creating a landscape through the music and immersing listeners entirely. Knowing that we're gonna go on tour, it changes everything for our approach to songwriting.
Also, there’s definitely a friendly competitiveness when you're making riffs. You want it to be top notch, you know? Especially when you're on a tour where you're literally lined up with insane players from great bands.
Those guys from Wolves in the Throne Room have really mastered the art of the immersion, especially on their latest record. Touching on the ‘Empyrean’ messaging for a bit, the track, ‘Embrace Oblivion’, is about accepting change. Being in an uncomfortable position, especially when you're a band that you know, is the norm. Fans will always have a certain expectation of you, which can sometimes lead to bands falling within their comfort level. Instead, you’ve forced yourself to try new things and welcome new faces and new perspectives, which isn't always easy. Would you attribute your ability to grow as a band to the “friction” of having to welcome new ideas and become forward-thinking as a byproduct of your own aspirations as a songwriter?
Scott: It’s cool that you grasped that from the lyrics because yes, it’s really about not fearing the chaos. When you try stuff that's new, and it's not a sure thing, it’s a kind of scary that I’m sure many musicians can relate to. As a new musician, you sometimes think about going to get a job instead or maybe working on a different career path instead. That's more of a sure thing than being a musician is. Thankfully, I can support myself because of the chaos I’ve learned to live with.
The pandemic for example just came and ruined the whole music industry all of a sudden. You might fail and it might not always turn out the way you wanted it to. It's going to be chaotic. If you try something new, people are not going to like it, some might, but the whole point is that you know what you want and you're gonna pay it forward. You're just gonna adapt to whatever the changes are and find a way to make it work. It's almost like jazz, like an improvising kind of thing. Once you kind of take that kind of approach, I feel that you can have a better mental attitude. You get to do better with whatever goals you're trying to accomplish and don’t get bogged down by all the “what ifs” and endless doubting. We're talking about music right now, but this applies to a lot of different things.
It's applicable everywhere. It's a life lesson.
Scott: Yeah, especially for creatives. I don't know, there's no right way to do anything. People are coming up with better ways and all and the current ways are becoming obsolete, so it's kind of a stressful thing for people sometimes. I just have to learn to embrace it.
You have to learn to make the chaos work for you, basically. We talked about several things today, and in closing, is there anything in particular that you wish for audiences to take from the staggering audiovisual that is 'Empyrean'? You're insular as a songwriter and are steadfast in pleasing your own creative ambitions, but Fallujah remains accessible and offers much to learn from.
Scott: Without giving away too much, we wrote this album very visually. We try to create the music after writing lyrical concepts that slowly develops and grows into the sound we intended for it. Details are slowly added until we create the full image, or a song. For example, the rhythms from the song 'The Ocean Above' from 'Undying Light' are meant to resemble the sound of waves crashing on the beach. The middle section of that song resembles the feeling of being underwater and seeing a light shine through. We did a lot of that kind of songwriting for this record. We first visualize it and rest just kind of happens naturally; the songs write themselves. Keep those details in mind when listening to this record.
Empyrean arrives September 9th via Nuclear Blast Records (Order).