Old Thunder: A Boozy Lockdown Chat with Ahab’s Cornelius Althammer

Right now, a global network of fans and musicians are desperately missing live music, and thus far the closest we’ve come to recapturing the unique feeling of a powerful show is through livestreams and concert recordings, which have taken on a new life during lockdown. Ahab’s brand new live album, their first ever, comes at a perfect time then, even if it does simultaneously feel long overdue. The band are one of very few from the studio-centric world of funeral doom to truly translate their sound to the live setting in a way that not only does their colossal albums justice, but actually expands and improves upon their recorded material, allowing it to build to herculean, whale-sized magnitudes.

The German outfit’s sound has grown immensely across four landmark albums, and their live show has only become tighter, not to mention more intense, as they’ve progressed – something the band were able to showcase during a recent livestreamed YouTube performance.

For some, the fact that Live Prey exclusively features songs from their 2006 debut The Call Of The Wretched Sea will be a letdown, but the new release does offer a fascinating insight into just how far the quartet have come since their first album. Though the songs first saw the light of day fourteen years ago now, Live Prey reveals subtle innovations that have been added to them over time, most notably in the percussion of Cornelius Althammer, whose work sounds absolutely massive across the five songs that comprise Live Prey.

With no hope of seeing Ahab on these shores for some time, we arranged a Skype chat with Althammer to get the lowdown. When we first call him late one evening, he explains that today is a national holiday in Germany, and in celebration of new lockdown-easing measures, he’s been drinking with friends since the early afternoon. “I’ve been spending all day outside,” he tells us. “I feel a bit like a British tourist, I look like a medium-rare lobster.”

Understandably, he’s in good spirits, surrounded by friends who drift across the background of his Skype window, but he’s nevertheless ready and willing to talk at length about the band’s career, their new live album and the legendary debut that started it all.

After The Call Of The Wretched Sea changed the landscape of funeral doom in 2006, Ahab got into the habit of consistently releasing a new album every three years – yet fans are still awaiting the follow-up to 2015’s stunning The Boats Of The Glen Carrig. In that sense, now makes sense for the band’s first live album.

“We’ve become very slow,” Althammer admits. “Which is very doomish, to compose slowly! We’re [working] on a new album, what we have jammed so far is very promising but it’s gonna take some time because other things in life have become very important for members of the band. People have become parents and everything gets slowed down. So this [live album] was like a, ‘Ah, let’s put that in between.’”

Despite working well as a stopgap whilst fans await a new album, however, the band never actually planned to release a live record. Live Prey is the result of happenstance, more than anything else. It was recorded at Death Row Fest 2017 in Jena, Germany, where Althammer currently lives.

“One day, the sound guy, who is a friend of mine, said ‘have you got a USB device? I got something for ya,’” Althammer begins. “I was like ‘what the fuck is going on with this USB device, why do you want my USB device?’, and he said ‘I recorded your show.’ He gave it to me and I was like, ‘Oh, it was a good one.’”

For Althammer, it was a chance to rectify a perceived flaw in what is perhaps the band’s most famous release. “I’ve been told by my bandmates not to mention this,” he reveals. “But I hate my drumming on the first album. It’s extremely bad, I really hate it. The songs have evolved over time. I like these songs but I hate the album. And we’re not gonna re-record the songs, that’s stupid. We’re not Manowar. But then with this live recording, nearly all the songs came out the way we’re used to playing them right now. It’s my personal way out of not rerecording but still getting the new versions of the songs out.”

It’s remarkable to think of the drummer on such a classic album being so critical of his own material, especially considering how many doom drummers have most likely modelled themselves after his work. “I think I wasn’t wise enough to record the first album when I recorded it. If you listen to it, there’s a lot of stuff on that album that is just way too much,” the drummer tells us. He imitates complex playing on an imaginary kit, before saying to his past self, “No it’s a doom album, dude. It’s not a death metal album, keep it low, don’t fumble around. Be massive.”

Despite these issues most likely stemming from excessive self-criticism, the sort any artist who puts their work into the world is susceptible to, it’s nevertheless something Althammer is glad to have the opportunity to address. “They’re good songs but they have changed so much,” he explains. “It’s a thing that comes with reflection, we can transfer the root musical ideas to our current level of playing.”

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Live Prey is a chance then for the band to show how much they’ve progressed, but it should also be an opportunity to reflect on a successful career that started on such a high. With it being almost a decade and a half since their debut album dropped, a live album featuring songs exclusively from The Call From The Wretched Sea seems fitting. Whilst live albums can also double-up as compilation of a band’s greatest hits, Live Prey is instead a celebration of one album and its huge legacy.

For Althammer, who initially got involved with the band just to replace the drum machine that had featured on the proceeding demo, it’s never stopped being weird to hear people tell him how important that album is: “If you’ve been working on your skills, all day, forever, and a musician is all you want to be in your life, to have people tell you ‘this is such a big thing, this is an album that changed things in my life’, it’s overwhelming, just overwhelming to hear people say what this album means to them. I’m thankful for everything everyone says about this album, because I don’t get it so much.”

The band’s impact on the genre is certainly huge, and it’s made all the more impressive by the knowledge that it was never really the members’ intention for Ahab to become a full-time band. Things just clicked so well that continuing seemed the only sensible option. “I forced my way into the band,” the drummer laughs, recalling the band’s “first big fight” after he and frontman Daniel Droste recorded the drums without telling guitarist Christian R. Hector. 

Now, though, it’s hard to imagine Ahab without Althammer. His distinct percussive style is present across all four of their albums, and it has developed over time alongside the band’s music. Live Prey, then, is a chance for he and his bandmates to present these songs as they perform them now, fourteen years of progression later.

No wonder it’s such a powerful, captivating release.

Live Prey is out now on Napalm Records. Order here.

Words: George Parr
Photo: Stefan Raduta (taken at Roadburn 2017)