How Ashbringer transcended their black metal origins.
If the sheer number of one-hit wonders and washed-up bands who keep incessantly plugging away despite their creativity waning decades prior shows us anything, it’s that music is one creative outlet in which maturity and experience are not always a guarantee of success.
Something about youth – be it fresh-faced exuberance, a need to prove something to the world or the plentiful inspirations that may emerge out of coming-of-age struggles – seems to conjure great art. For proof, look at Ashbringer. The band started back in 2013 as the solo project of Nick Stanger, who wrote and recorded the project’s debut album Vacant alone at the age of eighteen. The rest of the band was assembled rapidly in the rush to be able to tour with Amiensus, and yet the newly-formed quartet, fresh out of high school, jelled instantly and went on to release a second album just fourteen months after the project’s first. It was a case of striking while the iron is hot, and the music that this approach conjured proved to be a transcendent and idiosyncratic strain of atmospheric black metal.
Of course, none of this means that some time for growth can’t be fruitful. The band struck gold with their first collaborative effort Yūgen, but having taken more time over the follow-up, they’ve somehow found room to improve once again. They’re currently gearing up for an expansive US tour off the back of Absolution, an album that well and truly feels like the culmination of everything Ashbringer have achieved thus far.
Once simply definable as atmospheric black metal, the project has always made use of ethereal textures, but their continued evolution has taken this side of the band to lofty new heights on Absolution, so much so that categorisation is difficult at best. There’s shades of post-metal, sure, but it’s hard to pidgeon-hole the band in that category, and the blackened side of the band is no longer the singular driving force behind the heavier moments. The tempo is largely much slower than you’d expect from anything calling itself black metal, but that isn’t to say it’s all atmospherics either. The band’s music is certainly concerned with epic compositions – with a heavy focus on the sort of all-encompassing grandeur that draws you in and holds your attention to the very end – but instead of the more easily-defined atmospheric black metal of old, Absolution’s style sits rather loosely between morose blackgaze and fiercely progressive post-metal.
Stanger has always had grand musical ambitions for the project, but on their third album the band now feel fully equipped to deliver on those ambitions, utilising the tools they’ve acquired to craft lush yet gloomy soundscapes that fully represent the narrative concept that has always been a driving force in the band’s material.
Absolution is the final part of a conceptual trilogy, and it’s the band’s longest, grandest and most dynamic release to date. As such, it very much feels like a peak for the band, but how did its vast sound come about? How do its themes fit into the aforementioned trilogy? Why did it take so long to release? And where do the band go after such an epic, ambitious release? We got in contact with the group to find out.
Ashbringer have come a long way since your origins as a one-man atmospheric black metal project. How would you describe your music now?
Nick Stanger: We sure have! Honestly I still use the term black metal to describe us, despite the fact that it’s not particularly accurate anymore. To me it’s kind of become an umbrella term describing a particular strain of intense music. It doesn’t feel necessary to me to come up with some-long-hyphenated-amalgamation of subgenres to describe us, I’ll leave that to the YouTube commenters.
Your music has developed over time in an interesting way. When writing new material, do you strive to do something different or do you think this evolution has happened naturally?
Whenever we start the process of writing a new album, we tend to throw the mindset of the last record out the window and start from scratch, while still being informed by the sound that makes the band what it is. This album isn’t supposed to sound like Yūgen, and Yūgen wasn’t supposed to sound like Vacant, but it’s all supposed to sound like Ashbringer, if that makes sense.
You’ve spoken before about how this album took longer to make than past efforts. How come it took longer to create and release?
Nathan Wallestad [bass]: The writing process began in 2016 following the release of Yūgen when Nick and I were living in Arizona for school. The songs were mostly written by the end of the following summer and we began the recording process in Winter 2017 with drums. We recorded everything ourselves for this record, same as the last, but this time around we knew more about what we were doing from a technical perspective. This gave us the opportunity to make better decisions during the recording process but ultimately made the recording process take much longer since we were working full-time jobs.
You’ve mentioned previously that Absolution concludes a conceptual trilogy of releases. Could you expand on what the narrative behind it is and how it fits into that concept?
Stanger: To be brief, the narrative of the trilogy focuses on one character from their perspective, and their journey through a miserable life ending in a tragic death (Vacant), followed by a spiritual journey to find meaning in everything that happened (Yūgen), concluding in rebirth and a chance to live a life informed by all they have learned (Absolution).
The press release calls the album a “meditation on the juxtaposition of social anxiety and self empowerment”. Are the album’s themes entirely personal in nature? Or are there some grander metaphors to be found as well?
All of the lyrical themes are very personal, but written to fit into the narrative as a whole. Many concepts are personified, or expressed as objects, and many concepts are said as bluntly as possible in the lyrics.
Since this is the end of a trilogy of releases, does that mean you feel ready to leave those themes behind? Has exploring those themes through music proved cathartic for you?
Yes they have. Not necessarily left behind, but the next thing will be a different story within the same universe. I’m sure some themes will be similar, but we’ll have to see.
The album’s artwork is striking, and seems to continue a theme that began on Vacant. To what extent was it a collaboration between the band and artist Luciana Nedelea? What does it symbolise?
Basically I described the concept and themes of the album to Luciana, gave her a rough idea of the colour scheme I wanted, told her to make it look like it belongs with the other two albums in the trilogy and let her do her thing. I think the result speaks for itself, she’s an incredibly skilled artist and we’re all still very excited about the results. I have all three of the original paintings she did for the album framed and hanging up in my bedroom.
This is your first release on Prosthetic. Do you think signing to a bigger label changed your approach to the album? Was there more pressure going in, or did the added resources (marketing, big-name producers etc.) actually remove some of the stress?
Wallestad: Signing on with Prosthetic definitely brought about a drive for us to create something better than anything we had before, both sonically and creatively. So the pressure was there in that regard but it was a good motivator for us. As far as the marketing aspect, that has been an indescribable relief. Not having to worry about ordering copies, formatting artwork, contacting publications etc. has been such a weight off of our shoulders.
As your grandest album yet and the conclusion of a trilogy, Absolution very much feels like the culmination of everything the band has achieved thus far. Have you started to think about what’s next for the band?
Stanger: Of course I’ve thought about it a lot, but nothing is set in stone. I have some riffs here and there, and lots of scattered ideas for the concept but we all wanted there to be a good amount of time between finishing this album and starting the next. I’m sure there will be a spark of creativity that starts the process, that usually happens for me after a long tour, so we’ll see what happens. In the meantime we want to be getting out there and playing live as much as we can for the next year or so.
After something so epic, are you nervous about where to go next musically and conceptually?
Nervous isn’t the right word, more so just contemplating the future, and excited for it. Whatever nerves come about usually don’t happen until closer to a given album’s release. All of the positive press has been reassuring, so once the spark comes to work on the next record I’m sure we’ll be more inspired than ever.
Absolution is out now on Prosthetic Records. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr