Still Reigning: A Conversation with Martin van Drunen of ASPHYX

Talking through the art of 'Necroceros' with the renowned death metal icon.

Questions by K-Man (@kmanriffs) and Heaviest of Art, Interview by Heaviest of Art.


Contemporary death metal is truly at its prime. Seeing as we get it by the truckloads on an almost daily basis, one could say that there's a fair amount of newcomers who look to carry the torch forward, a torch lit by the pioneers of decade past. One such pioneer is none other than ASPHYX, a force of the Dutch death metal kind. With an ensemble consisting of ASPHYX, Pestilence, Gorefest, Sinister, and more, the Netherlands became a regional hotspot in the genre's early days with their impact still being felt today. For ASPHYX, the passion continues and the band continues to deliver with their newest releases, like the latest Necroceros.


Arriving today via Century Media, Necroceros stands as the band's 10th full-length recording in an otherwise iconic discography. Like many of its predecessors, this LP comes gruesomely adorned by the art of Axel Hermann who so precisely captures the venomous atmosphere living within Necroceros. This is ASPHYX at their best, erupting from the start with The Sole Cure is Death and bludgeoning listeners with their signature doom-laden death throughout. No fancy gimmicks or new tricks here, just filthy death metal the ASPHYX way.


We talk to the band's frontman Martin van Drunen about the visual ends of Necroceros, the contemporary state of death metal, and more:

Asphyx has now reached album number 10! It’s a huge milestone that has of course taken several decades of growth, adaptation, and nonetheless some struggles. In reflecting a bit, where are you now as a musician compared to where this all began?


Drunen: Many years older, that’s for sure. I’m not going to say that I’m wiser. As you grow older and continue doing this, you’re more conscious of what you are doing and truly enjoy it. When you’re younger, you just go on stage. You’re of course enjoying it too, but you’re somewhat standing still and going through the motions. It’s been a while since we hit the stage, but when I do, I have a moment where I stop and think to myself, telling myself to really enjoy this consciously. I’m a lot more grateful about what I’m doing and that I’ve actually got to this point. Along the road, I lost several of my friends. Sadly enough, they passed away and yet here I am still doing this.


There’s definitely a lot to be grateful for, especially seeing the fanbase that Aspyhx still holds decades later. Death metal in general is undergoing a sort of renaissance phase with bands both new and old still holding the fort down, including yourselves.


Drunen: Absolutely, and even with the changes in the music industry, like the takeover of streaming services. Those things weren’t there when we started. We were trading tapes and writing actual letters by hand to our friends worldwide. It was a big pleasure, but it took a lot of time. Nowadays, it takes more time if you focus on establishing a social media presence. Personally, I don’t have a social media account for myself. If I did, I’d probably be online 24/7 and I appreciate my private life. The communication with the guys, the label, and all other aspects of the band takes more time nowadays than it used to back in the bus. Back then, it was as simple as solving issues with a phone call. Now, we have to manage emails for one thing, writing statements for another, notes for this, filming a music video for that, etc. It consumes a lot more of you time.


On the other hand, you’re more in control as a band. No one can do anything without your permission. If you don’t like a statement or any other aspect, you can change it and make it fit with what you want. Despite the busy periods, there’s a lot of advancements to this modern age. You don’t have to stick in a studio for three to four weeks. The drums are recorded in studio and I also go to the studio for the vocals but the rest of the guys can easily record their guitar parts at home. Fundamentally, it’s still about delivering the goods and enjoying that you’re playing metal. The music itself doesn’t change.

Martin van Drunen at Tom Meier Studio (Photograph by Asphyx via Facebook)

To your point about the recording aspect, it’s amazing how bands have been able to craft some noteworthy compositions from the comfort of their homes, simply emailing files left and right. This is the case especially with the pandemic and the closures.


Drunen: That’s another thing. We live a bit of a distance from each other. Paul (Baayens, guitar) lives a bit farther from the rest of us. We don’t really have a real rehearsal room to ourselves anymore, which is pretty sad. It takes us longer to finish an album because once we start jamming in a practice room, things can start moving really fast. The end of this new album was basically done in two weekends because we had all the material. We were sorting the best from the rest, in terms of the riffs. That’s the real deal. It all came together when we had the guys in one room and started arranging, jamming, etc. Back in the day, that wasn’t possible. Now at least, we can send stuff to each other in preparation for the recording.


Definitely. ‘Necroceros’ arrives some 4 and ½ years after 2016’s ‘Incoming Death’ – which was 4 years after 2012’s ‘Deathhammer’. Is that 4 year cycle organic or is that something you consciously practice moving forward?


Drunen: That’s an actual process. Actually, if it wasn’t for the pandemic, we still wouldn’t have the album out. All of our shows were suddenly cancelled. We had some material, but we still hadn’t put all the bits and pieces together. When we were locked down here in the Netherlands, we asked Tom (Meier, studio engineer) if we were able to come over. We couldn’t obviously because we weren’t supposed to gather four musicians and one sound engineer. There were too many people. They let us meet with two to three people, but not five. Tom actually trusted us and let us have at it. We jammed for two weekends and got a good chunk of the album finished. If we would’ve had the shows, the album likely wouldn’t have been finished. We would maybe have the recordings, but then you still have the mixing process and the time span for label promo. Had it not been for the pandemic, we would’ve gone five full years without a release.

Cover art by Axel Hermann

Strangely, things for us go so fast. For me, it feels like ‘Incoming Death’ came out last year. I can’t believe it has been four years already. It’s definitely too long for a death metal album. If a band like Pink Floyd did it, then sure, but a death metal band like Asphyx, nah. Apparently, that’s just how it goes for us.


As you mention though, it’s just an organic process that you all follow, which of course speaks to the quality of the records. A good part of the promo cycle revolves around the visual side to the release, of which you’ve returned to Axel Hermann for another album cover. What can you comment about the working relationship with Hermann?


Drunen: Axel is basically one of the wheels in the bandwagon. After the long break where we came back with ‘Death...The Brutal Way’ (2009), we used Mick Koopman because we knew him from the stuff he did for Hail of Bullets. It was quite cool, but later on, we realized that Asphyx without Axel just isn’t Asphyx. Something was missing, so we got him back and he was of course quite pleased. It’s sort of a psychological thing. For me, if the record doesn’t have an Axel cover then it’s really not fully complete.

Cover art by Mick Koopman

The cool thing with Axel too is that he knows us really. He knows us as a band and he knows what we stand for. I’m the one who comes up with the album titles, so I have a general idea of what this shit is all about in my head. I give really short lines to Axel about what it’s all about and let his imagination run with it. I let him free in his capabilities and he always comes up with the best stuff. With ‘Necroceros’, he blew us away. Normally it’s always dark with black coloring but now, he came at us with a disgusting and poisonous green. It’s fantastic. It completely fits with the themes too. That’s what I’m happy about, that we can always rely on Axel.


You’ve built that trust over the years. Sometimes, artists prefer clear direction and very specific detail with commissions. There are others who allow for vague details and prefer to let their imagination roam free, which happens to be the case here. Visually, what were you looking for when approaching Hermann for ‘Necroceros’?


Drunen: We all had something completely different in mind. The funny thing is, that always happens. If you have an album title, everybody has their own visualization of what it should be like. I told the guys that I was busy working on the lyrics and the vocalizing, so I passed on the communication with Axel to them. There was some confusion there, because they had different ideas than I had. I told the guys to ease a bit down. If people pushed me on my lyrics, I would grow grumpy. Everybody had their own vision and here was Axel working through it all. At the end, it was all quite good. He basically knew it was about an entity and just went berserk in his own style, delivering it the way we wanted it.


In my head, I imagined something regarding an organic planet. Maybe it looks that way if you fantasize a little bit.


It’s basically all up to the viewer’s interpretation.


Drunen: Exactly! And now that we’re talking about art, there’s a lot of additional art from Misanthropic Art. For every song, he made an artwork in the booklet. Using the lyrics and the song titles, he crafted his own short interpretation of it. Every song has a different painting from him, which is all in black and white. Some of them are out there because we’ve been using them for the lyric videos and single releases. He did some magnificent stuff and it was all Paul’s idea. It’s like a bonus. Axel did the front and back cover and Misanthropic handled the inside and inlay artwork.

'Knights Templar Stand' illustration by Misanthropic Art

Misanthropic also did some t-shirt art for us when we were out there playing in the US. We were all quite enthusiastic about his work, so Paul stayed in contact with him.

Illustration by Misanthropic Art

He then asked me for a few liners to send over to Misanthropic for the record. To me, it just looked amazing. We wanted to make something really special with ‘Necroceros’. Also, the lyrics included in the release are my handwriting since Paul loved the way I wrote. They were scanned and placed next to Misanthropic’s drawings, making it all the more special. With all the streaming going on, a very small percentage of people get their hands on the cool artistic side, which is quite sad.

'The Nameless Elite' illustration by Misanthropic Art

If that’s not enough recommendation for people to pick up the physical copy of the record, then I don’t know what is. It’s good to see the investment you put into that artistic side of the release. I still remember my first time looking at Iron Maiden’s ‘The Number Of The Beast’ (1982). Once I dove into that, I fell down the rabbit hole.


Drunen: Another one would be Judas Priest’s ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ (1976). That painting was just fantastic. Let’s be honest. What would heavy metal be if you took away all the good artwork, logos, and mascots? Something would be missing. We don’t give artists enough credit, that’s for sure.


Agreed. Jumping into music videos, let’s talk about ‘Botox Implosion’. Though it may have been a joke, I recall you mentioning an interest in having that video take place on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. How would that have played out?


Drunen: That actually was a plain joke. They asked me to share a statement regarding the single and I always like to screw around with statements just to make them a bit light. We all know Los Angeles and especially Hollywood is known for all of that plastic surgery and shit.

'Botox Implosion' illustration by Misanthropic Art

Who knows, it might’ve worked! Like the art, music videos are also a key element to death metal and metal overall. Asphyx have never failed on that end. How significant a part do you feel this particular side of a record plays in conveying a message?


Drunen: It’s really about visualizing the band. If you take a record out of a shelf, you sometimes want to identify with it, hence why we always invest in good artwork. It happens with our merchandise too. We have merchandise that you can only obtain at our shows. It’s designed for the people who come to the shows so they know that there’s something special aside from having something with the usual album artwork. There are one liners on it that you can associate with us as a band. We sometimes have different artists design the shirts and pay them. That’s all really important to us. You see that every time we have a new album or set of shows coming up. We prepare a whole new range of merchandise. We won’t ask you for $30 or $40 bucks for a t-shirt either. That’s just fucking ridiculous! As far as the music videos for ‘Necroceros’, this is actually the happiest we’ve been about them.


Right on. In closing, Martin, death metal had its glory days. As mentioned earlier, the genre has seen another peak in the last few years with so many bands and labels putting out some quality records that harness from that of the past. The genre’s pioneers, like yourselves, continue to reign as well. Seeing as you’ve been in this for decades, where do you view the genre now?


Drunen: The early death metal, like when I was with Pestilence and the early Obituary albums, was later on referred to as brutal death metal. It had the blast beats and all that faster stuff, which never really had a chance to develop itself. Now, people are calling things old school death metal with a great amount of fans playing it. It seems to me now that the genre is finally able to develop in ways that it didn’t back then with a newfound appreciation for it. Originality is really hard to find, even with riffs. It’s hard to come out with a riff where someone hasn’t heard it before somewhere. If you find all the bands from every continent, you’ll hear recycled riffs all over the place. The difficult thing is coming up with good songs that people can actually recognize, songs that have a band’s signature sound. Young bands are still finding their way and it’s an ongoing process. I don’t know where this will all end because I feel we’ve reached all sorts of extremities.


In the end, we’ve gotten older but we’re still holding our position and enjoying what we’re doing. In 10 or 15 years, I’ll be 65 or 70 and maybe then I’ll call it a day. I’ll be too old for this shit, but there’ll be kids barely releasing their debut album. The good thing is that the same old vibe from back in the days of going on stage, having fun, and playing brutal music is still there. That’s what pleases me. We’ve been on tour with Bolt Thrower, Benediction, and so many more over the years and we’ve built friendships with all of those people. We did shows in the west coast recently with Skeletal Remains, who are all really cool guys in a really good band. We became friends for life. Whenever they play near us, we’ll go see them and have a beer with them. That’s the whole spirit and atmosphere of death metal. That hasn’t changed, and it’s fantastic.

Necroceros is available now via Century Media. Order your copy of the record HERE.

Cover art by Axel Hermann

Contact

Quick Links