Go behind one of the strongest death metal records of this year so far.
If you've kept up with our social media in the last few days, then you've probably been exposed to the likes of Irish horde VIRCOLAC and their debut death metal juggernaut Masque, which is set to arrive this week via Dark Descent Records and Sepulchral Voice Records. The band's follow up to their Cursed Trails of the Demeter (2016) EP is worthy of all incoming praise, given its ability to incorporate dreadful subject matters into an equally heavy sonic experience.
We talk to VIRCOLAC guitarist Brendan McConnell about what went into the making of the band's latest effort Masque:
Almost three years now since the Cursed Trails of the Demeter EP and Vircolac's debut LP Masque is about to arrive. How do you feel and where do you see yourselves as musicians now in comparison to 2016 when you were just putting the EP together?
Brendan: We are all very proud of what we have achieved with Masque. It is a culmination of a lot of hard work from each individual member and of course as a group. It felt like the writing and rehearsing for the album was all completed in one block of time with relatively few interruptions which I think is partly how we achieved a cohesive tone throughout the album even though the songs are all completely different to each other.
Musicianship has definitely improved for each member since Demeter more so because of the time between the releases but also because there were a few member changes within the band so by the time the album came around everybody was much more comfortable within their role. An important factor when it comes down to writing is consideration for other members of the band and knowing how their input can affect something that you have written. Constantly learning about each other's musical approach will in turn help you to produce something more true to the band.
Coming into this debut, was there anything you wanted to establish as a band being that this is your first album?
Brendan: We wanted the album to be something different to the previous releases but still maintain the Vircolac sound. The album had to be direct, heavy, interesting and atmospheric in places. Most importantly we want to establish ourselves as a Death Metal band that can write proper songs, so we steered away from the smothering reverb approach and bass heavy guitar tone to a sharper tone and clearer production. Every instrument had to be heard and Darragh's vocals had to cut through clearly to really show intention behind the fast aggressive riffs and pummeling drums. This was really achieved by outstanding work by Ola (Engineer) and Phil (Mastering) and a fantastic performance by the guys in the studio. Once a band has a unified clear idea of what they want, it really pushes things forward.
More specifically, is there anything you want audiences to feel when they first get a taste of Vircolac?
Brendan: With Masque, there is enough variation to prove to the listener that we aren't a one trick pony type of band, so it should add a level of excitement and interest on first listen. If the music is engaging in that sense, then it is easier to draw the listener through a kind of musical arc and dip in and out of different feelings in each song. The music we write makes us feel a certain way and we can't guarantee what anybody else will feel throughout but as long as they are engrossed they will feel something.
At first glance, one comes face to face with death through the cover and promo photos that Lea took, perfectly representing the somber aspects of Masque. How was it like working with her and what guided this artistic decision?
Brendan: Lea is an incredibly talented photographer and she understood exactly what we wanted from the very beginning. It was not a difficult decision to involve her with Masque as we had worked together before on the Demeter EP, where again she captured the exact look and style we wanted at that time. The photograph used for the front cover is really quite striking. Once the final mask is removed, it is all we are. The way Lea shot the photo really gives it emotion and expression which again fits in with the musical themes.
The record kicks off with Titan, a track that serves as a proper welcome to the death metal delivery that follows. Powerful chorus, eclectic fret and drum work, and just an overall excellent display of what the band is capable of. Was the goal to bombard listeners from the start?
Brendan: Titan was definitely meant to be the punch in the face opener. The listener is dealing with a different yet familiar Vircolac from the very start. That song was selected as the opener for that reason, but also it sums up the new approach we are taking to the album, the new elements to the sound and also everything that we are already. We didn't want to overcomplicate things from the offset, so we decided to open with the most simple song on the album and probably the heaviest. Just one of the many nods to the old school death metal legends through the album.
Lyrically, you take on very dreary subject matters, including European war efforts, government, and the reality of dealing with non-genuine people as heard in, as heard in Snake Among Man. Was there a turning point in your lives or a moment in particular that guided the theme for the record?
Brendan: I wouldn't say there was one event. It's really the day to day exposure to the themes you mention. The performance that people put on to drag themselves through life is such a bleak reality that it is encountered daily and in a lot of cases, people expect this cover up performance otherwise they themselves become uncomfortable. It's pathetic and depressing and a great lyrical subject. However, it isn't the entire theme of the album.
Side A is more about strength and standing up against the opposition, which in some ways you could argue is another type of performance. Darragh wrote every word on the record and developing a theme really is one of his strong points.
The production on the record is superb, highlighting every single instrument with precision but still holding onto a cavernous sound, similar to that of Dead Congregation or Incantation. What was it like working with the producer for Masque?
Brendan: We worked with Ola Ersfjord on Masque. Ola also did the Demeter EP and the codex demo with us, so involving him again was another easy decision. As we know Ola for years, we were able to work together pretty fluently. We discussed with him weeks in advance the type of thing we wanted so he came into the studio with some great ideas and a deep understanding of the band. Ola has a great ear for layering and mixing the right textures of tone together. He is also quite good at keeping his cool and working through any high tension situation so you can be sure he will always produce a strong output.
Talking more about the production, I can't help but appreciate the resounding bass work by Jason Keane throughout the record, which is often overlooked because of production choices. Tether & Wane is a perfect example of this, placing the bass at the forefront. Coming into the record, did you feel this was a critical component that you wanted to highlight?
Brendan: The bass was always a very crucial element for Vircolac. Jason played with some real aggressive heart on the album, he does not hold back at all. Tether & Wane is the most intricate song on Masque and it was recorded in one take live after we had a necessary pint break. We walked into the studio and bang, that was it. Keane's playing style, Ola's production and the intricacies of the song are what let the bass sing through on Tether & Wane in particular.
You'll be playing an album release show in April with Senzar and Sacrilegia. Any tracks in particular that you feel will be a hit with the live crowd?
Brendan: Definitely Titan, mainly due to the chorus and end section. I think Tether & Wane and So I Hang From a Wretched Tree will also make their way into the regular set list.
We're living in what seems to be a death metal renaissance of sorts with quality releases being put out every other week. Where do you see the genre in 2019 and what would you like to see from it in the future?
Brendan: The bands that have put out quality releases will definitely be reaping the benefits through touring with bigger and bigger bands I think. Going forward, I hope death metal continues to evolve in the underground but keep its sensibilities. This is largely the reason for so many great releases recently I believe.
With that said, are there any recent releases that you've been enjoying? Your own labels Sepulchral Voice and Dark Descent have been dropping killer releases as of late.
Brendan: I can only speak for myself here but I have been enjoying Malthusian, Sacrilegia, Taphos, Superstition, Obliteration, Tomb Mold, Chthe'ilist, Spectral Voice, Necrot and there are probably several more that I am forgetting about. But I absolutely agree that we are living in a special time for Death Metal.
Congratulations on an excellent debut release. We wish you all the best and look forward to catching you in Los Angeles sometime in the future.
Brendan: Thank you very much for your kind words and support. We are very proud of what we have achieved and we look forward to playing as far and wide as possible!
Masque is out Friday, March 8th via Dark Descent Records in the US and Sepulchral Voice in Europe. Check out our review and read why you should pre-order your copy.