Photo: Jeroen Mylle
Despite being a band who have often eschewed musical norms, the process in which Amenra creates their art is perhaps more simple than it may on the surface seem. The Belgian post-doom experimentalists, who have now been performing together for over two decades, have always been known as an act who push the envelope, exploring the limits of what can be done in heavy music and the ways in which it can resonate profoundly within the listener.
Ever since forming back in 1999, Amenra have always done things their own way, and they have never wavered from this path, though it has evolved and grown in some shape. The band’s latest offering, and their first to be released on Relapse Records, De Doorn is a step away from the norm once again for the band, who have created a musical identity through their six-part collection of Mass albums. But even though it marks a departure from what people have come to expect from Amenra, De Doorn gives the band space to breathe, at once feeling more intimate and open than they ever have been.
But what marks the biggest change for this record is that the band themselves never really intended it to be a record, things just progressed naturally to the point that this new beast was created. “With us everything evolves naturally,” explains vocalist Colin H. van Eeckhout. “There is never any real concrete plan. Everything just develops along the way, despite reason or logic.”
De Doorn is the apex of this freeform approach – an album that was totally unplanned. “It was weird how this album came to be, as it was the first time we wrote an album without the intention of writing an album. We were writing in the mindset of these ceremonies and fire rituals that we have been doing recently and that was the headspace that we were in. So we never really thought that this has to fit with this. It was all gradual and free.”
Four years out from the release of Mass VI, van Eeckhout insists that the band weren’t consciously thinking about when they needed to release a new record, or for that matter what that record would sound like. De Doorn marks a bold step away from the gradually constructed Mass series and its focus on reaching catharsis from personal trauma in the band and those close to them, with the new record originally having been conceived to accompany their performance at the SMAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent’s 19th century Citadelpark in May 2019. For this show, audience members were invited to place personal notes of acknowledgement which would later be set alight in an act of purification and release. The name De Doorn, meaning ‘The Thorn’, suggests pain but also a kind of purge – a bloodletting of sorts. Coming after six instalments in the Mass series, it is an album that stands as its own distinct work of art.
Van Eeckhout explains that the band never thought of any of the material for this record as the next instalment in the Mass series, meaning they were able to approach the album with a totally fresh and free perspective. “We didn’t feel the pressure of having to write a follow up album, because that is a killer for a band,” he tells us. “The bigger your audience gets the more pressure there can be and the more you don’t want to let anyone down. You write what you want to feel but you don’t want to let the people down who have invested in your band up until that point. But with this record we were able to let it go and write more freely.
“We know we have a very loyal and free-thinking following and they are open to new and different things, but still you don’t want to get comfortable in thinking ‘oh it will be okay, it will work out’. And once you get to a certain level there is no way of not disappointing some people along the way.”
As well as this record feeling more spacious and giving the band time to experiment with softer tones, one of the most notable shifts is the fact that throughout van Eeckhout is singing in his native tongue. It is something that could alienate some listeners, but it was an element that the band felt incredibly passionate about and, for van Eeckhout, it was an opportunity to articulate himself more clearly and thus express more vividly exactly what he wanted to say on this record.
“Our generation of Belgian people don’t really have music in our own language,” says the vocalist. “We had to look back into the ‘70s and earlier to find people singing in Flemish. So we grew up with a natural aversion to our own language and that is why I always leaned towards languages that weren’t my natural voice. But as I grew up and started writing poetry in my own language, I started to have this affinity with it and the potential of using it in our music.
“It is the most refined and direct line that we have in that it is our mother language. One of the first things that I mastered in my life was how to speak in my mother tongue. So it just felt like an obvious thing for us to do. And it gave me the opportunity to have wordplay in these songs that is more intense, as I didn’t really need to think about it, whereas when I write in English or French I can still get the message I want across, but I can only go so far as it is not my first language.”
For Flemish-speaking Belgian fans, this record may mean something different than it does to those of us unfamiliar with the language, and for us English-speaking fans so spoilt by hearing most of the music we consume in our own language, perhaps it can give us a new perspective. “For me it is interesting that we now have different groups of listeners,” van Eeckhout observes. “You have those who speak our language and embrace it even more, and then you have the not native speakers who connect with the exotic sounds of the language and the grander sound of the music.”
Though changing the language in some sense removes a line of connectivity with some of their fanbase, it strengthens it for others, and the vocalist believes that this has helped people connect to the deeper musical and emotional tones driving De Doorn. “I feel like we have taken something away in terms of the context of the songs in that it is sung in a foreign language for many people,” he admits. “But on the other hand we have given something else, for people to take in sounds freely without words.”
When you look at all the elements that go into Amenra’s music, and particularly with the way that De Doorn shifts the dynamic between softer moments and the weighty punch of their music’s heavier sections, it would be easy to assume that every part is meticulously planned out – songs crafted piece-by-piece as if they were working from a blueprint. But in reality things are a lot simpler for the band. They prefer to just let things flow naturally, with no one member being the driving force behind the writing process. Even if their style shifts somewhat from album to album, that open-minded approach that makes Amenra so special will always be at the heart of their music. “The essence of what we make in Amenra, whether that be acoustic or heavy, will always be the same,” van Eeckhout tells us. “The feelings that the music awakes within the listener and the world we draw you into will always be the same. It is just the way in which we do that and how it shifts around that we will change and keep people guessing.
“We didn’t really aim to shift around with the sound on this record. We see music as a document in time as to where we are as a band, so this shift this time around just felt like the natural thing to do. We never really sit down and talk about the theory of the album until the record is recorded, especially with this record as we didn’t really know what it was going to be until it was written. For this one there was no real trauma for any of the parties involved, so there are more major chords and there is a sense of rest in the music. It isn’t the full-time full volume bashing your head in.”
Music, and perhaps metal in particular, is like all art often inspired by and concerned with the ills of the world and the issues the musicians are facing, and Amenra’s work has always followed in this pattern. But De Doorn is devoid of the tension that propelled earlier works. The quieter moments are more content to stay quiet, and the heavier sections are there to thrill. But instead of ambling into mundanity, it thrives in the relative calm. “There is time for self-reflection and that is what we wanted to do in our story,” says van Eeckhout.
De Doorn is out now on Relapse Records. Order here.
Words: Tim Birkbeck