Icelandic progressive metal virtuosos, Cult Of Lilith, released one of the finest debut albums of 2020. Like label mates, Igorrr and The Ocean Collective, the group are vigorous in their determination to push the boundaries of what is possible in heavy music. Yet, unusually for a prog metal outfit, Cult of Lilith operate from a solid base of extreme metal rather than incorporating the harsher elements as one of many facets in their repertoire. At times they can be as intense as the debut Dillinger Escape Plan album yet as diverse as Mr Bungle and as crushing as Meshuggah. It’s easy to see why Brian Slagel took notice at the Metal Blade head office in California.
We predicted in our glowing review that ‘Cult of Lilith will write better albums than this in the future, which is a testament to their potential’ and declared Mara ‘an impressive work of art.’ It’s a challenging listen, perhaps even more so than Voivod’s 2018 record. Behind it all is master-creator, Daniel Þór Hannesson, the multi-instrumentalist and composer of the band’s previous offering with 2016’s Arkanum EP. This time around he recruited a full band and brought in Spaniard, Mario Infantes Ávalos, to handle vocals and lyrics. It’s a decision that helped Cult of Lilith carve out a new identity, but the music remains as eclectic and experimental as ever.
With such a diverse range of influences but unrelenting brutal onslaught, these Nordics could share a stage with anyone from Converge to Cannibal Corpse. The staff at Scream Blast Repeat are agitating for a Cult of Lilith/Obsidian Kingdom tour if/when things return to a semblance of normality in 2021. For now, we can only hope they hit the road at some point to unleash the complex chaos on a live audience.
We caught up with Daniel Þór Hannesson (songwriter/ guitarist) and Mario Infantes Ávalos (vocalist) to learn more about the bizarre world of Cult of Lilith.
It’s rare to have a Spaniard fronting an Icelandic metal band, so let’s start with the answer everyone wants to know. Why did Mario Infantes Ávalos decide to emigrate from his native Spain to Iceland? Was it as a musician in search of new pastures?
Mario: I have always been very attracted to countries with extreme cold weather for some reason; I guess some of us are naturally dragged into the opposite of what we consider ordinary. I always knew I would leave Spain at some point and Iceland definitely works for me at many levels. It’s not like I hate my country or anything like that. I felt stuck in many aspects, and I just knew that I would not achieve my goals if I stayed there. I needed to completely fuck off from my comfort zone.
Question for Daniel Þór Hannesson. You started Cult of Lilith as a solo project and it is now a fully-fledged band. At what point did you think, “You know what, I’m now ready to entrust music as technical and complex as this to other musicians”? Surely, you had second thoughts at your first band rehearsal when you realised how much time you’d need to devote to teaching each musician the intricate parts to the new songs.
Daniel: The goal was always to have a full line-up for the band. It was definitely difficult to entrust the material to other musicians, and it took a very long time to find the right people for it. Naturally, I had some second thoughts through the process and the amount of work that would need to be put into this project could get overwhelming at times, but the commitment of each member was apparent to me. Somehow, we made it work!
Mara is one of the heaviest records this year. You referred to your music as ‘necromechanical baroque’ but also stated “The intention was always to write a diverse record with a lot of different influences melded together in an extreme metal package.” What are some of the best descriptions you’ve heard from people trying to categorise your music?
Daniel: People say so many different things, which is kind of cool. We are difficult to categorize so it’s fun to see how people interpret it in different ways and what influences they hear. I’ve seen us being called progressive, melodic and technical death metal, metalcore, deathcore, djent, flamenco metal, avant-garde, extreme metal, neoclassical, orchestral/symphonic metal. Man, just name it… That is ultimately the reason why we wanted to label ourselves something different and unique to us because these genre/subgenre arguments are always going to be there. At the end of the day, it’s up to the listener to decide what we are to them.
It sounds like you had no intention of shopping Mara to Metal Blade or any other famous record labels until somebody in the studio suggested it in passing. Can you tell us more about the journey that led to you signing with Metal Blade?
Daniel: We definitely wanted to get on a good label and when we had the final mix and master of the record, we put together an EPK to send out to different labels. I, for one, am a big fan of Metal Blade as a record label, so it was just so awesome to me that they contacted us and were interested in signing us.
It’s clear you all listen to a wide variety of artists. What were some of the albums that influenced the making of Mara?
Daniel: So many that the list would just be too long. It’s also a bit difficult to pin down because I think influences come from a subconscious place where you feel something works because it’s familiar to you from your vast musical listening experiences throughout life. I could name some artists that made a big impact on me like Pantera, Megadeth, Dimmu Borgir, Meshuggah, Between The Buried And Me, Spawn of Possession, Necrophagist, and the list goes on and on. Also, some OST’s and non-metal artists. If anyone is really interested in our influences, I recommend checking out our artist Spotify playlists that are at the bottom of our band page on Spotify. One for each member.
Mario’s vocal performance is spellbinding and reminiscent of Devin Townsend’s demented rage from his Strapping Young Lad days. (Give City or Alien a listen and you’ll know what we mean.) How difficult was it, Mario, to impose your personality on the music? The complexity is mind-boggling and the musicians behind you cram thousands of notes into each song. It must be difficult to sing over this type of music.
Mario: That´s a very good question! I have to be honest, sometimes I felt overwhelmed with some of the songs because I just didn’t see any space for vocals at first. Definitely, I struggled with the ones that are more in the realm of tech death, since I come from a different musical background. ‘Enter the Mancubus’ is probably the one that I found more difficult to write vocals for, but today it is one of my favourite songs on Mara.
Regarding my personality in the band, the guys have always been totally open-minded with me doing crazy stuff or adding elements to the music that normally don’t fit in the tech death sound. It was never a problem.
Also, Devin Townsend is definitely a huge influence on me as a musician. He is one of my favourite artists for so many reasons.
How often do you put your head in your hands and think, “Oh, shit. We’ve got to play this complex music for a live audience”? Surely, you can’t drink alcohol before you go on stage. Your concentration levels need to be so alert for this type of extreme metal, right?
Daniel: Ha, ha. I’ve definitely been guilty of that, and we all have joked about how comfortable it would be to just have to strum some chords for live gigs. I don’t drink in general and would definitely not drink before a gig. Concentration levels, indeed, need to be very alert. What keeps us going though, is that we’re all in it to challenge ourselves and grow as musicians and become better players.
Some of the songs on Mara explore genres you would never expect to hear, even in progressive metal. For example, the track ‘Profeta Paloma’ switches from brutal tech death to an emotive flamenco passage. How did this song come about and whose idea was it?
Mario: Well, this might come as a surprise to you, but the idea was not originally conceived by me! If I’m not wrong, Daniel was the one to mention it. While including flamenco in an extreme metal song might sound crazy, it makes a lot of sense to me for that particular song, regarding the lyrical content and the overall flow of the song.
Mario, can you tell us more about the meaning to ‘Comatose’? You said this song is a lesson in how “Overthinking can be the biggest of afflictions, leading you to self-torture and the deepest misery.” How does this relate to an experience in your life?
Mario: I wrote the lyrics of ‘Comatose’ after a very intense episode in my life, probably the toughest, hardest, heart-breaking experience I’ve ever had, which led to a deep depression. I’m very prone to overthinking on a daily basis, so you can imagine how my brain was in that particular episode of my life. My train of thought was basically like an eight-lane highway in India. I remember that I wrote some parts of the song at a very unconscious level; it felt like my pen was literally translating my brain activity at that moment.
You gave us harpsichords, moog melodies, synth arpeggiators and flamenco passages on Mara. Which other instruments did you want to include on this album but could not?
Daniel: I mainly wanted some more choral work on there, but it proved difficult. Some more symphonic instruments maybe, like brass and woodwinds. I am happy with how everything turned out though and feel there is a good balance already. Don’t want to cram too much in there; it has to fit organically with the rest.
Final question for Daniel Þór Hannesson: Can we expect the other band members to contribute to the song-writing process for the next record, and do you have some ideas for how you want the next album to sound?
Daniel: Yes, we are working towards having more input from each member to add even more variety to the mix. It’s maybe a bit early to say what I want the next album to sound like, but I would probably say more of the weird stuff, unique interludes, blending of genres, some unexplored ones, more instruments and different textures. We’ll have to see how it progresses.
*** Cult of Lilith released Mara via Metal Blade Records on 4 September 2020. You can read the original Scream Blast Repeat review here. ***