Turbulence – Exclusive interview with Autarkh

Autarkh exploded onto the scene earlier this year with their debut album, Form in Motion, and look set to offer a new vision for extreme metal to embrace dystopian atmospherics, dissonant guitars and IDM electronics. Unlike most artists starting out, Autarkh already have a ready-made sound and aesthetic and know down to the last detail how they should present their work. It was a painstaking process that involved the scientific method of trial and error until they reached the point where they are now in their development. As we shall see, it’s a journey born from the ashes of grief and a desire to start anew with a different set of parameters.

Led by Dutch artist, Michel Nienhuis, you may know him as the former guitarist and song writer of avant-garde black metallers, Dodecahedron. When vocalist, Michiel Eikenaar, passed away in 2019, Ninehuis had two choices – abandon the third album Dodecahedron were working on or regroup and start again with a new sonic agenda under a different name. Autarkh emerged from this life-changing decision, only this time Nienhuis wanted to redraw the audio map in his head and incorporate a new approach to the music. Though the dissonant black metal remains, the new aesthetic is more angular and glitchy, with drop-tuned grooves that sound like rebellious gear shifts from a machine that enslaved its human creators and started doing its own thing. Here the chaos has a purpose and moves towards a definable end goal – self-discovery through a state of self-sufficiency. With this realisation comes the revelation that man can become his own God.

Fans of Meshuggah will recognise a similar ambient darkness underneath the naked aggression of Autarkh’s music, but the Dutch quartet operate on the same sonic spectrum as fellow labelmates, Altarage. Melody is the last thing on their mind as they carve out a bleak and claustrophobic existence among the dissonant guitar chords and heavy distortion. An intimate evening with Form in Motion streaming through your headphones promises only one thing – to show the depths of treachery and suffering we may need to endure to emerge as stronger beings. 

We spoke to Michel Nienhuis to find out more about the mind of the person who created the devastating sonic assault of Form in Motion, including the studio science behind the band’s unique sound and the lyrical themes that define their debut album.

Top right: Michel Nienhuis is the former guitarist and song writer of Dodecahedron.

Let’s start with the lyrical themes of Form in Motion. It’s rare to find the lyrics to an extreme metal album so captivating. The words read like the journal of a person who survived the extremities of a community that turned against itself and descended into a cycle of murderous insanity. How close are we with this observation?

I think you’re pretty close with that observation, at least regarding the first four tracks of the album. Form in Motion is an album about a process of development, transformation and growth, a story about breaking a cycle and moving forward from one place to another in the broadest sense. I would say it is reflecting a dystopian state of being during ‘Turbulence’ and ‘Cyclic Terror’, a confrontation with the limits of reality and everyday life in the world of matter. In order to overcome those limits, it is required to look at the internal state of being and begin a process of growth and transformation from within, which is the main theme of ‘Introspectrum’ and ‘Lost To Sight’, ultimately leading to a state of catharsis, self-government and independence in ‘Alignment.’

How important was it to honour the legacy of your former band, Dodecahedron, when writing and recording Autarkh’s debut album? 

Quite important I would say, since Autarkh is sort of a consequence or result of what we were doing with Dodecahedron. It was hard to deal with the severe illness and death of our friend and musical companion, Michiel Eikenaar (Dodecahedron vocalist). That whole period was a tough time for the members of Dodecahedron on different levels. It became apparent that the flame of Dodecahedron had burnt out, but by that time we were already way into working on a third album. A couple of demos were finished, and I thought it would be a pity to just leave that there, so I thought about what I could do with them. 

Then I remembered an idea I had years earlier; the thought of trying to combine the type of extreme metal that we were doing with Dodecahedron with electronic beats that I have been listening to for a long time, stuff like Aphex Twin and Autechre. That required me to debate who I would ask to join in on this project because there was some new territory to explore. I asked my friend and former colleague, Tijnn Verbruggen, to weigh in on this, since he has experience as an electronic music producer, and David Luiten, who has the ability to look at music from multiple perspectives (as a guitarist, as a drummer and as a producer). We started discussing and experimenting and things were moving forward in a good way, so we decided to be in this project together. 

Tijnn Verbruggen (second from the left) provides the electronic beats instead of a live drummer. David Luiten (far left) joins Michel Nienhuis on guitars.

Yes, you seem to have dropped the dissonant black metal of Dodecahedron in favour of an atonal Meshuggah style with IDM electronics, but it’s hard to define or make comparisons with other bands. What was the moment when you thought, “Hey, I’m onto something unique and original here”?

Yes, that was when we finally managed to find good solutions to the challenges we were facing regarding the production and sound of the beats – especially the sound of the blast beats. Maybe I can explain a bit of our process here, to give you some insight on how we worked our way through some of these challenges. We wanted to create a sound for the beats that was not like the typical industrial metal sound, but more like Autechre or Aphex Twin. The problem with that is it’s hard to keep all the spatial details in place that those type of beats revolve a lot around because the spectrum is filled with a lot of distortion guitars most of the time. We had to find solutions for specific problems like this one. 

The mix was quite a tricky and time-consuming process. When we had everything recorded, we needed to create some overview because we had quite a lot of tracks in the project file. David and I grouped them in categories and started making a balance of the beats first. Then we added bass, riff guitars, ambient guitars, space layers and finally vocals. By that time, we realized we needed to think carefully about which sound should be lifted where exactly in the spectrum because some layers were inaudible. So, we made a drawing where we placed all the different type of sounds in different places in the spectrum in order to create an overview again. 

Along the way we found production ideas that could make a difference in sound compared to what we already knew, for instance with the blast beats. We used heavy side chain compression on the reverb of the snare to make the sound more wobbly and less mechanical and put distorted samples of short metal sounds on top of it to re-add attack to the hits. A different idea that also works well is the use of a sub kick during fast kick drum parts to add some groove. 

You played with one of the best drummers in the world in Dodecahedron with Jasper Barendregt. Why did you not invite him into the band when you formed Autarkh?

That is mainly because I wanted to work with electronic beats in this band, not with live drums. In the beginning I was not ruling out the idea of a combination of drums and electronics – I didn’t know if it would work with only electronics. It was mostly a production journey at first, to try and make these songs work without live drums on a record. By the time we were well into it, we all grew together as a group and it became apparent that this could become a band with only electronic beats. Then we started to try it out it in the rehearsal room, and then finally we knew for sure it would work without a drummer. 

We music reviewers are terrified of missing the next Korn, Meshuggah or Dillinger Escape Plan when a unique band emerges that is so ahead of its time. How fearful are you that music reviewers and critics are jumping at the chance to hype Autarkh as the next trendsetter in extreme metal because they want to say, “I told you so!”?

I’m not fearful at all for that. I would feel flattered if someone would consider our work ahead of its time. That is an enormous compliment to me. With Form In Motion we wanted to try this specific combination of sounds – if that would be interpreted as trendsetting then that is just awesome. 

You mentioned the long process of working out how to perform your music in a rehearsal studio. How difficult will it be to replicate Autarkh’s studio sound on a live stage?

We did our first live stream performance on April 16 at Roadburn Redux, and it seemed to work, but that took some time too. We started out just playing the beats from the record in the rehearsal room and play our parts. When Tijnn Verbruggen (live electronics) had his set-up finished, he could start to influence and alter certain sections. By the time we started doing some try outs in empty venues, it turned out that the kick sound was too unstable and fluttery to function in a live situation, so we had to replace it with a more definable kick sound. Like the album production, it was a process of trial and error, until you find the situation that works. 

Dodecahedron released their last album via Season of Mist before the band split up. Tell us how easy or difficult it was to showcase Autarkh to record labels when you were shopping around for a deal this time.

It wasn’t hard at all. I have been collaborating with Season of Mist for almost a decade now with Dodecahedron, and they really had faith in what we were doing. So, the first thing I did when we had two Autarkh demos finished is approach Season of Mist CEO, Michael Berberian, to see if he would be into it. Luckily, he immediately liked Autarkh as well, so we went into the process of making a deal. Then it was just a matter of details, and the contract was signed. 

It seems to be a default reaction among extreme metal artists to delve into electronic music when ideas and inspirations are running low. Even Digby Morgan, the founder of Earache Records and original patron of grindcore, seems to think the future of extreme music lies in this domain. What do you say to those sceptics who say, “Ah, we’ve heard all this before”?

I wouldn’t necessarily conclude that would be because ideas are running low. I have inspiration for ten other bands to be honest, but Autarkh is the one I wanted to invest all my time in. I think also because of the fact that more and more people are able to create a ‘home studio’ situation for themselves, they are exploring their options in the world of digital audio and might find other solutions for a line-up rather than the classic band line-up. 

Which song would you choose as your favourite from Form in Motion if you could only pick one? What is your reasoning?

I think that would be ‘Alignment’ because to me that’s the most powerful song on the album. It feels like this is the song where all the other songs are leading towards, both lyrically and musically. It has a nice vocal harmony, groovy down tempo verses, an epic bridge section and then finally a strong riff to finish with. Together with ‘Introspectrum’, it is also my favourite song to play live. 

The last lyrical verse on your album is interesting: “To touch the absolute and align with the divine is how I leave my mark/ The balance unspoilt, true government of self, I become the autarkh.” This sounds like man discovering the eternal truth that he can be his own God. What is your intended meaning behind this lyric?

It is exactly that, to reach a state of enlightenment after a struggle and search for that state, which happens throughout Form in Motion. To become the master of yourself, to be able to live independent from external circumstances. 

Final question: Dodecahedron took five years to release the follow up to their debut album in 2012. What assurances can you give us that Autarkh will not be the same in terms of musical output?

The situation we managed to create with Autarkh on a business level and the approach we have to what we do is quite different from the situation with Dodecahedron. Back then we had a more or less reserved attitude to what we would do and what we wouldn’t do. With Autarkh that aloofness is gone, we are working very hard to get our music across. That being said: you may expect a second Autarkh album sooner than five years from now.

*** Autarkh released Form in Motion via Season of Mist on 12 April 2021. You can read the original SBR review here. ***