In a Brooklyn music scene crusted shut with black metal char, Mountain God are something of a throwback—a lead-fisted sludge band lumbering along in the hoof prints of Unearthly Trance and Serpentine Path before them. But while the trio’s new record Bread Solstice (Artificial Head Records) certainly warrants such comparisons, it also cuts a new path forward, blending elements of psych, noise, and doom into a rare metal relic: An album as dynamic as it is destructive.
But while Bread Solstice is as hypnotic and uncompromising a vision as you’ll find in the local hesh scene, it is also a cryptic one, laden with historical context, political overtures, and, of course, that damn title. Thus we decided to sit down with frontman and chief songwriter Ben Ianuzzi for a deeper dig—a glimpse at not only Solstice‘s blood-stained altars, but what it means to be a metal musician in Brooklyn 2017. As you’ll see, it’s a brutal, thankless job, but thank your (mountain?) god that we have dudes like Ben, Nikhil, and Ryan out there doing it.
THIS ONE GOES TO ELEVEN: Let’s start at the start. In 2013 you guys dropped the first Mountain God demo, two years later you released the Forest of the Lost EP, and now Bread Solstice has finally arrived. What was your initial reaction when you got the masters: Were you hyped? Terrified? A little of both?
BEN IANUZZI: I’ve always been really happy with how our recordings sound, of which enormous credit needs to go to Nikhil (keyboardist/noise guru Nikhil Kamineni), a masterful engineer in his own right. I can’t really say I was ever terrified about what the listening experience might be like (though listening live recordings, that is another story). I can remember clear as day listening to Experimentation on the Unwilling for the first time in my car and being over the moon. When we released Forest of the Lost, I felt like the band had continued to evolve and the music became more expansive and challenging. It’s a much harsher record, and vocally, I feel like I started to really find myself as a screamer so to speak.
At that juncture, we transformed from being a doom band into a more experimental, risk taking type of group, willing to go where the music took us. Bread Solstice is really the epitome of this path we’ve been on [Ed. — check out the full stream via New Noise Magazine]. Like I’ve said in other interviews, whereas many bands see a record as a beginning of things, I sort of see this record as a culmination of a long process. Not to say that Mountain God is somehow dead or anything, but I do feel like we are searching for the next pathway in the woods. But I’ve been ecstatic about how everything sounds on our records, and Bread Solstice is no exception. It sounds massive, spacious, and—dare I say—frightening, all at the same time.
TOGTE: Start to finish, how long did it take you to write this thing and what does that writing process look like for Mountain God?
BI: It is hard to remember specifically, but I’d call Bread Solstice an 18-month process from beginning to end. Everything got drawn out for a variety of reasons, including a move of studios, our varying schedules, and because we put a lot of time into the quality of what we were recording.
Generally speaking, my responsibility in the band has been to bring in the basic riffs, lyrical ideas, and song structures and present them to the group. From there, we twist things around, add synths/keys/noise, and sometimes dramatically alter what was originally conceived.
With Bread Solstice, there was a ton of collaboration and writing in the room together compared with previous records. I’m kind of a meat and potatoes type of player, so I purposely tried to get myself out of that comfort zone in order to find new territory, a new palate from which to paint. Nik and Ryan (drummer Ryan Smith) are both pretty accomplished musicians, and we pushed each other to write the most genuine songs we could.
TOGTE: In a recent interview with No Clean Singing, you mentioned Bread Solstice tackles “the notion of what it means to sacrifice oneself for the cause, and the potential danger when political and religious forces involve themselves in such a situation.” Was that message a direct response to current events and, if so, does Bread Solstice reach any conclusions on the matter?
BI: Everything we’ve written about in Mountain God is somehow tied to political, religious, occult, and/or socio-economic history. As a band, we can’t seem to get away from it, nor do we want to. Speaking for myself, writing music is another means with which I try to understand the world, develop thoughts, and share those thoughts with others.
Given that, I wouldn’t go as far as to say the record is about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton specifically, but I would certainly say that my frustrations with our society inspired the story. At the moment, our country disgusts me, though at the same time, I’m not surprised by what’s happened and I’m appalled by those who are.
Anyone who is shocked by the fact that Trump was elected should pick up a book or two, get off Facebook, and do some reading. He reminds me of the kinds of buboes plague victims would get during the 14th century. Buboes seem like they are a symptom of the Black Death, when in actuality, y-pestis has been in the body for weeks, making buboes a sign of death rather than the beginning of anything.
TOGTE: Bread Solstice has a pronounced anthropological undercurrent—from tracks like “Nazca Lines” right down to the hieroglyphic album art. Are you a history buff or am I just imagining things?
BI: You are certainly not imagining things! I am a pretty massive history buff. Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in history. I’ve been an independent school teacher since 2004. Academics are a huge part of my life, and yes, my academic training, particularly in research and writing, has had a direct impact on how I write riffs and put together songs.
TOGTE: Metal has a long lineage of weirdos (not that you’re one) in corpse paint with ordinary 9-5s (Nergal anyone?), and in many cases one eventually becomes inextricable from the other. How do you balance those two halves of yourself and do they ever crossover and influence each other?
BI: Yeah, the line I walk is pretty fine, and on one hand, it’s sort of fun to lead the double life. Most of my colleagues know about Mountain God, and are generally pretty supportive. A few have even come out to shows in the past (though a lot of the times they don’t know what they’re getting into). My students know that I’m in a band, but for a variety of reasons, I keep a very low profile with them—can’t have 13 and 14 year olds trolling Mountain God on the internet! When they ask me, I try to explain that the music I play is a distinct side of me that I like to keep private from my professional life. They respect that, for the most part.
The other side of the coin is that having a musical career and a day job make things very, very difficult to coordinate and schedule. It’s basically like working two full time gigs on top of having a wife and other responsibilities. I’ve had plenty of days where I’m up at 5:30, teach till 4 or 5, and then sit in 90 minutes of traffic to make it to the rehearsal space in Brooklyn.
And yes, there have definitely been moments where the worlds I exist in combine. A few years ago, I was helping a very bright student with an activity I call the “Dark Ages Creative Writing Assignment”. When we study the Middle Ages, we talk a lot about the characteristics and traits of the period. Students then have to choose one, and write a creative story reflecting what they’ve learned. This one particular student decided to write hers about a witch, in an attempt to reflect how people often made stories up when they lacked the knowledge to understand the world around them. As we talked, I helped her get to the conclusion that it would be cool to tell the story of a child who went missing, taken by the witch that lived by the wooded area outside the village. This moment was a huge inspiration for Forest of the Lost.
TOGTE: One of the most striking things about Bread Solstice are your vocals, which deviate from the typical sludge template thanks to a cavernous reverb hiss that wouldn’t sound out of place on a harsh noise or power electronics record. Were you consciously trying to distance yourself from the traditional sludge growl? How did you go about achieving this sound in the studio?
BI: That’s a really good question. First and foremost, I think there are a bunch of factors that come together for the vocals on Bread Solstice. In a lot of cases, Ryan and I are harmonizing vocal parts. Sometimes, I covered the low parts, like on “Nazca Lines”, and he covered the higher register bits. The coupling of our voices definitely adds uniqueness to how everything sounds.
Nik is also really good about how he records vocals. With me in particular, we used a few different mic combinations, including my Copperphone, which gets this scathing, gritty, nasty sound when laden with some reverb. We both look at vocals as another instrument all together, and much like a guitar or bass, we don’t shirk away from manipulating the sound with effects and other textures. Nik tends to combine vocal tracks and loves to get creative when mixing the finished product.
While my singing has come a long way since 2011, I really don’t feel like I have a traditional metal voice at all. When I started the band, I had no intention of ever singing, but got roped into it because no one else at the time wanted to. However, somewhere along the line, I developed this sort of screech that sounds a little like Dixie from Weedeater, Abbath, and Chuch Schuldiner from Death—at least, that’s what people tell me [YES! – Ed.]. Nik was really into it, so we started to develop the sound on the Forest record. I’ve been improving, which has been a real confidence builder. These days, I’m actually more interested in developing my singing voice than the guitar.
TOGTE: From an instrumentation standpoint, Bread Solstice has more breathing than a lot of other sludge and doom records, which—in addition to the keyboards/electronics—lends the record, for lack of a better term, a “psychedelic” dynamic. Do you have any particular psych bands or non-metal touchstones that influenced the album?
BI: Definitely. I’m really into a lot of 70s progressive rock, like King Crimson, Genesis, and Rush. Roger Waters is a personal musical hero for me, and as such, Pink Floyd is up there as one of my favorite bands—period. Animals is an awesome record. I also love the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and some of the early Doors records. Finally, I love Swans and Ufomammut, two bands I think we have a lot in common with.
Nikhil played a big role in the atmosphere on the record. He handles all the synth work and what he’d call sound manipulation, or texturing. Growing up, funeral doom and other gothic types of music was big for him, and those bands have tons of keys on their songs. But interestingly enough, I think our mutual love of Type O-Negative is what got us initially talking about keyboards. We both knew that those types of sounds would be the binding agent for all of the riffs, vocals, and drums.
TOGTE: On a more macro level, the Brooklyn metal scene has changed a lot since the last time you guys had a record out. The Acheron is gone, The Grand Victory is closed, and Saint Vitus is doing just about all they can to pick up the slack. I know you guys played a few shows at both The Acheron and The Grand Victory in their heydays—do you have a favorite memory or from either of those venues?
BI: We loved playing both those spots, particularly the Acheron. Bill Dozer, of Trenchgrinder fame, booked us from the very beginning of our band’s existence. We played our first show with Savagist and Godstopper back in April of 2013. That show definitely stands out. I had never played live before—like, ever. Ian destroyed his bass drum on the first song, I broke a string on the second song. It was pretty wild and nerve inducing, in a good way.
Another show at the Acheron that really stands out was the Forest of the Lost record release show, which was promoted by Signature Riff. Man, that show ruled. We played with Imperial Triumphant and Hercyn, both of which are amazingly talented bands. There were tons of people. I was in a foul mood, probably because playing Forest always brings that out in me. I also tend to not like crowds (go figure) and having to wait around for hours before playing was pretty surreal.
Doug, guitarist in Hasj and one of the real great sound guys in Brooklyn, turned the fog machines on full blast and cooked the place by the time we got on stage. The set ripped, everyone was drunk, and people were headbanging and generally going nuts. Pretty sure I broke my old SG’s headstock that night. All in all, good times man, good times.
TOGTE: Finally, exactly what the hell is a Bread Solstice?
BI: The name of the record started out as a joke. We were all talking about the current state of affairs, and the Roman notion of Bread and Circuses, which was a tactic used by Roman emperors dating to the days of Julius Caesar. It was the idea that people are more easily controlled when they are focused on minutia as opposed to real issues—hence the gladiator games, festivals, chariot races, parades, etc.
So when we were talking about the record one day, I think “Red Solstice” came up, given that the red star plays a lyrical role in one of our songs. I can’t remember who it was in the band- but someone was like, “No Ben, it’s a Bread Solstice”. So it started out totally as a joke. Not only did it stick, but we really liked the idea of combining the concept of Bread and Circuses with that of traditional animist feelings on the solstice, both of which are present on the record.
Bread Solstice is out 3/24 on Artificial Head Records.