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If a Funeral Doom trip through a fictional "new dark ages" alternative world, partly inspired by the freezing Canadian weather, sounds appealing, join Comrade Aleks in exploring Atramentus' soundscapes with band founder Phil and keyboardist François.

Interview with Atramentus.
"One of Quebec-based Death Metal sect Chthe'ilist's members, Philippe Tougas, chose a new way to rechannel inner negativity drawn from extreme Doom with Ambient touches. Back in 2012 he started to work on songs for his new creature Atramentus, but put that on hold for few years. Two other members of Chthe'ilist joined him - Claude Leduc and Antoine Daigneault - and the line-up was completed by François Bilodeau and Xavier Berthiaume. All of them played different sorts of Metal during their underground careers, and these skills were useful during the recording of 'Stygian', the full-length work released on 21st August by 20 Buck Spin. Let the funeral begin, with Phil Tougas and François Bilodeau."

Atramentus: François Bilodeau (synths, piano), Antoine Daigneault (bass), Claude Leduc (guitar), Phil Tougas (vocals, guitar), Xavier Berthiaume (drums).

Hail Atramentus! How are you? What's going on in the band's lair?

François: I'm fine, thanks. The album release weirdly coincides with some personal issues. I have this strange feeling, proud of the work we've done, of the reception so far. But I'm also living through some of the emotions that the album conveys. I'll leave it at that.

Phil: I'm not really doing okay but thanks. Time heals nothing but despite this, I still feel a great sense of accomplishment with how our debut album "Stygian" was received in the doom metal community and this motivates me to remain productive with everything else I have going on. It seems that a lot of people can relate to this record in these times of debilitating isolation, loss and general social anxiety.

It's said that Atramentus was formed back in 2012, but 'Stygian' is your first official recording, what held you down all this time?

Phil: Not having a full line-up, mostly. I wasn't interested in Atramentus being yet another bedroom Funeral Doom band with drum VSTs and I wanted us to be taken seriously IE : Not a side-project. I also wanted to prove that true extreme doom exists in Quebec so the wait was worth it. Atramentus was formed in 2012 and the record was composed in 2012-2013 save for François' contributions. It took 6 years to complete the band's line-up. First came Claude Leduc (also guitarist of Chthe'ilist), then François Bilodeau (keyboards) & Antoine Daigneault (Bass). Xavier Berthiaume (drummer) was the last addition to the band in 2018, which was the same year we began recording the album. Finding a drummer to play this genre in the province of Quebec was an especially difficult task because most musicians here are interested in playing anything BUT funeral doom, let alone doom metal in general. It also took us quite a bit to record because I would often get too busy doing tours with other bands or working tirelessly on other recordings. When the album was finished, we also took a lot of time putting the final touches on the concept while Mariusz Lewandowski painted our artwork. It was an arduous task that really paid off in the end.

All of Atramentus' members play in other extreme metal bands and projects, what does this band give you that you couldn't express through others?

François: I've done some dark ambient work on another doom album for the band Suffer Yourself, more in the vein of contemplative space horror if that makes any sense. But in Atramentus, particularly for Stygian II: In Ageless Slumber, I went for something very personal and nightmarish, probably the darkest piece of music I've ever produced. It's a liberation, almost.

Phil: Yeah I think the word "liberation" is quite spot-on. Stygian as an album is a big emotional release that I can't really replicate with my other bands, whether they're playing death metal, prog or power metal/speed metal. It is a personal album that makes you contemplate your own mortality and face your deepest fears and sorrows, and many of our listeners felt they have identified with the character throughout the album's concept and story for this reason amongst many others.

The promo sheet says 'Stygian' is "thematically tied, on different timelines, to the themes on Chthe'ilist's latest EP and forthcoming album". Three of you play in Chthe'ilist, that's okay, but why didn't you record this material in a Death Metal vein to create a stronger connection between these works?

Phil: That's a valid question but it wouldn't make sense to me because. First : the emotions expressed throughout the record cannot be properly portrayed and projected into death metal music. I wanted to create music to make others feel what I felt at the time I wrote the music, and make the listeners feel cold and at the same time crushed by the weight of anxiety, dread. heartache and loss like it crushed me. Death metal is not emotionally crushing enough to convey these feelings. Second : there is no way I'd want to create an entirely different record under the same moniker. Just because Darkthrone, Sentenced and Afflicted did it, doesn't mean we should. I respect these bands but I have a different mentality when it comes to creating music. I also don't really feel like creating another death metal band. I've had plenty at this point. I see Atramentus as an expansion of the same world and lore that Chthe'ilist & Eternity's End established but through a different musical lens to express a different palette of emotions throughout the same fictional universe and through a concept that is approached differently than what these two bands would do. Upon seeing the map presented in the album's booklet, one can see direct references to the other two bands's shared universes with the names of certain places that are recurrent in these other band's lyrics. But the stories involving these places have a completely different tone to them, and are painted with different musical colors depending on the band in question.

Well, and so I need to ask what's this concept all about?

Phil: The concept revolves around a man known as "The Guardian of Atros Kairn". Little information is given about this character's origins in the album's prologue, and it is done intentionally to make the listeners identify with what he goes through in the course of the album. What can be said about his moniker and what it implies is that he is the last son of a warrior-clan and last inhabitant to reside in Atros Kairn : An ancient, impregnable fortress in the middle of the central continent of The Perpetual Planes, a fortress that once housed several members of many generations in his now forgotten bloodline. Most of the emotions this character endures and experiences are somewhat of a projection of things I have experienced in my personal life : mentally and physically excruciating anxiety, terrifying sleep paralysis episodes, nightmares, loss, heartache. There is also the fact that this record was essentially born on a night around eight years ago after I walked through an extremely cold winter storm for hours on end before coming home and writing "Perennial Voyage", the third song on our record. This real-life occurrence makes a direct tie to some of the events that take place on the album, why it develops from side "Autumn" to side "Winter" and how winter and coldness are two of the album's key themes. It explains why the album sounds so "cold" sonically, too. I was going through emotional turmoil at that same time and thought to myself "I wonder how it would be like to walk through a storm like this with this same emotional state but for eternity" and the concept was born from this one though. The fact that this album was recording the winter, and mixed on the winter of the following year, also ties things down further with these underlying themes. With that said, I think what this character goes through can be interpreted in many other ways as I left some of it open to interpretation. It must be why others were able to identify with this character.

The saga of The Guardian of Atros Kairn takes place in "The Perpetual Planes", a fictional earth with an alternate geological composition, set in a futuristic time-line where mankind has fallen back to the dark ages. The Perpetual Planes has endured many extinction events throughout the course of its existence, hence why mankind has seemingly regressed into a medieval, feudal society living in the constant fear of terrifying deities, living under the law of the sword.

The Story is told much like a fairy tale of old, but with a much darker undertone. It tells about The Guardian's quest to obtain a fabled, but forbidden god-sword known as "The Screaming God-Sword Atra Eas" It is a sword bound to the goddess of the sun herself, Heeos. One of the sword's fabled characteristics is that it would grant its mortal wielder the life of a thousand suns, and so it remained sought after by many who wished to escape the fear of death. After a long and perilous ascent into a fearsome mountain called The Aaegian that lasted over 2 years, he is greeted on the mountain topside by the lesser gods. Two of which, Carcophanex and Sharos respectively, would offer him the sword in exchange of a blood-pact, in which The Guardian of Atros Kairn would be forever bound to the sword, unable to rid himself of it. As such pacts are often deceitful, the screaming god-sword Atra Eas would turn out to be bound to immortal life-essence of the sun-goddess Heeos and as mortal hands would seize its power, her light would flow in the veins of whoever wielding her life essence and she would die out. As it turns out, the lesser gods, though physically unable to seize the power of the god-sword themselves, profitered on the mind of a mortal man and his fear of mortality, to exact their wrath upon a defenseless and swordless Heeos (metaphorically) and mankind. The three songs on the record describe the events following the death of the sun, inspired by Greek mythology and Christian eschatology/theology.

The first song "Stygian I : From Tumultuous Heavens (Descended Forth The Ceaseless Darkness)" is about the wrath of the gods descending upon the Perpetual Planes following the dramatic death of the sun. It tells specifically about the unending darkness falling upon the lands, and the horrific death of all life itself seen through the eyes of a once fearless immortal warrior. Because he is bound to the immortal god-sword of Heeos, he is forced to watch everything and everyone he ever knew slowly drown under colossal waves of water as earthquakes ravage the land and the howling black winds of Aeolian-god Atramentus, raised by Carcophanex and Sharos, sweep away men and beast alike. It is also when Autumn would slowly transition to endless winter under an endless pour of icy rain. This song metaphorically makes reference to the fact that this song was composed during an autumnal day and written during a time of intense anxiety, dejection, disassociation and mental anguish.

The second song "Stygian II: In Ageless Slumber (As I Dream in the Doleful Embrace of the Howling Black Winds)" is about The Guardian retreating deep into the vaults of Atros Kairn, terrified by the wrath of the gods and the thought of having to endure such horrific events for sunless eternity due to a pact he has come to deeply regret. Paralyzed by grief and torment, he falls into a deep, immortal slumber to sleep through the ages in an attempt to escape the terrors of the outside world. However, the trauma he endured in the real world, and the anxiety and fear he has experienced when seeing these events unfold, causes him to experience terrifying sleep paralysis, sleep apnea and nightmares. He even experiences astral projection at one point, making him able to perceive the outside world and the incoming icy waves of water destroying the last remnants of humanity to make their way towards the fortress. You can even hear it in the song itself, and the terrifying deafening sound it makes. These metaphorical occurrences are things I have experienced myself in my own sleep during times of intense anxiety and so the song and its story reflects that. This is an instrumental dark ambient song of course, but there are texts written in the album booklet that are meant to be read along as the song progresses.

The third song "Stygian III: Perennial Voyage (Across the Perpetual Planes of Crying Frost & Steel-Eroding Blizzards)" is about The Guardian of Atros Kairn waking up from after what seems like a thousand eternities, to a world that is covered and ice. The waters that had swept away all life on earth had frozen over and the world became nothing but a desolated desert of ice, empty stone citadels and snow-covered mountains under sunless skies. The song follows The Guardian through his awakening inside the barren halls of Atros Kairn and his immortal, endless journey through the frozen Perpetual Planes in a quest to find lingering signs of life. The song is also about the grief he experiences for those he has lost, his crushing sense of solitude, and eventually, intense physical pain due to endless blizzard winds scorching his flesh. Eventually he feels the weight of existential dread after realizing that eternity cannot be fathomed as he is unable to die and join his kin, followed by a deep sense of regret and a profound sense of despair after realizing he had been going in circles for countless years in an endless desert of ice after seemingly walking for an eternity across the frozen globe. The song ends with him breaking down in sorrow for a thousand eternities in the endless cold as the gods continue to consume life and feed on his pain under the echoing screams of the god-sword Atra Eas...

Atramentus - 'Stygian' (Album stream, 2020):

Some of your other, "main" bands have strong technical elements in their music while Atramentus is rather focused on creating a feeling of grim atmosphere, and there's noticeable ambient presence as well. Was it natural to switch to this way of composing and performing?

Phil: In the case of our other bands, we approach them with an entirely different mindset and intent that goes along with whatever genre we find ourselves to play, be it power, death, black or prog metal. Therefore, the content inside the music will obviously vary from one band to another, whether it's Funebrarum, Gevurah, Chthe'ilist, Sutrah or First Fragment. Atramentus is no exception. The purpose behind writing these songs was to envelop the listener in an otherworldly, cold atmosphere that is inescapable and like I said above, to metaphorically convey the same feelings I went through as well as my mindset at the time I wrote the songs.

Having Dark Ambient elements in our funeral doom sound was not something I entirely anticipated when I first wrote the songs. It sort of came naturally to us along the road, with François' arrival in the band especially. It made sense because it reinforced the aforementioned approach and our desire to create an immersive experience. The addition of dark ambient elements was a natural yet logical artistic decision that further enhanced the experience and the album's dark roots and to me it isn't forced because I think Funeral Doom at its core should offer moments of calm, brooding tension as a way to build into emotional releases in the form of riffs. Having full-blown Dark Ambient sections with no guitars/bass/drums all combined with field recordings takes that approach to another level completely.

One thing I'm glad to have achieved was making an album that was as dark and grim as it is eclectic, and it is not *just* because of the inclusion of dark ambient elements, but also other metal genres. See, our sound is based on mostly European extreme doom bands (Funeral, Skepticism, Thergothon, Worship, Esoteric, etc) and a few american ones, but we also draw inspiration from many epic doom bands like Scald, Solitude Aeturnus or heavy metal bands like Manowar, Lordian Guard & Warlord for spirit, note choice, aesthetic and lyrical approach. We're also into Bathory (though I draw more from Hammerheart and Twilight of The Gods myself) and bands like The Ruins of Beverast, Unholy, Ulver, Emperor, etc. It is not for nothing that there are a few black metal screams of anguish here and there throughout the record, and it is not for nothing there is an aura of coldness on Stygian as a whole, though that can be also attributed to our drummer Xavier as he is the one who mixed the record. Some people attributed this to Greg Chandler of Esoteric but Greg handled the mastering only and we self-produced our record - I'm sure Xavier will take it as a compliment though. He works with mostly black metal bands so that's where that vibe comes from. It was never a conscious thing but a natural one. Antoine, Claude and I are also deeply into 90s finnish death metal and some old school brutal death like Infester, so it isn't for nothing some of my vocals on the album are extremely guttural vocals, though that is Atramentus' only connection with death metal musically speaking. Claude and I are also big fans of 80s shredders like Tony MacAlpine, Jason Becker, Joey Tafolla, etc so there's a huge emphasis on whammy-bar guitar solos towards the end of the record.

As a result of all these different inspirations, I have seen many people call us "Epic Funeral Doom", "Blackened Funeral Doom", "Ambient Funeral Doom". The different classifications never end. We have ourselves dubbed our style "Funeral Steel" somewhat ironically at first, but it has stuck with others. Dave of our label 20 Buck Spin especially liked that so he actually had Decibel Magazine call us that and suggested the idea that we put this inside the album booklet. It seems to be the fusion of majestic Funeral Doom but with elements of ambient, black metal coldness, guttural vocals, trad/epic doom and shred guitar all slowed down to a morbid crawl.

Do you have a mastermind behind Atramentus? Or is it a common effort?

François: Phil wrote the main two pieces of music, including most of the arrangements and orchestrations. He is a very open-minded person, and so the sound design for the keyboards was very much a collaborative effort between him and me. The conceptual themes for the dark ambient sections of the album were discussed with him as well, and so I went and wrote the pieces accordingly.

The Canadian scene hasn't many Doom-focused bands, why do you think the situation with Doom is so… low?

François: We have a few doom bands like Towards Darkness and Longing for Dawn that are worth listening to but there aren't many active ones indeed, especially in the funeral doom scene. I don't have much explanation for it, apart from the fact that a lot of North American metal bands are mainly focused on technicality and riffs, and less on atmosphere compared to our European brothers. I can see it change in the coming years though.

Phil: I don't really have an explanation either. On top of the bands François just mentioned, there's a few traditional / epic doom bands in the rest of Canada that are definitely worth listening to like Cauchemar, Cromlech, Funeral Circle & Smoulder. Our bassist Antoine Daigneault also plays session bass for a Candlemass-styled band called Palmistry. We have a notable doom-oriented label known as Hypnotic Dirge based in central Canada too. So yeah, Doom metal does exist here, it just doesn't have the same reach as the more technical bands or the black metal scene especially in Quebec. Funeral Doom is even more underground here but I also can see this changing in the coming years, much like it happened in the US scene.

Atramentus' music has this ceremonial vibe common to Funeral Doom music, do you see it as a ritual of some kind? How does it influence you on a spiritual level?

François: Certainly. At least personally, I feel like doom metal (and dark ambient) are some of the best vehicles for introspection and self-reflection. I think the slow pace allows for more accent on certain emotions, a more gradual evolution of themes, etc. Hard to say if my spirituality has been influenced by the music I write and listen to, or if the opposite is true.

Phil: I think François pretty much nailed it with his answer. I also think of this genre as one of the most effective ways to express emotions and thoughts that most people would "run away" from or avoid. It is why this genre isn't for everyone. Not everyone is ready to enter this mindset and face their own grief, whatever it may be. It is totally a ritual. If we're gonna talk about spirituality though, I would say this aspect definitely did inspire me, personally. It depends of what you are referring to when it comes to "Spirituality" however. Many of the recurring themes throughout my lyrics be it in Atramentus or certain of my other bands like Chthe'ilist or Eternity's End often delve in theology in a way or the other. In the case of Atramentus, the concept behind this album after all is influenced by many different spiritual beliefs throughout the world and ages, and also revolves around the wrath of the gods themselves and the actions of a man that rebelled against them in an attempt to become a god himself and escape loss and death, ultimately dooming everyone around him due to his fear and egotistical nature. It was a deceitful ruse from deities born of an innately evil nature in the end, but it reflects our relationship with a higher consciousness (if there is one), and how so many of us are terrified of them as well as death and eternity. It also reflects how so many of us possess a desire to either become a god, or rebel against the god(s), life & existence themselves for putting us through seemingly endless hardships with no apparent purpose and outcome other than an inevitable demise. As I said in another interview, we must all accept that we all must die one day. It is up to us to go through these hardships, and not see it as a punishment from life or a higher consciousness, but as a way to learn something from them and pass it on and help others while we can during this short presence in this strange plane of existence.

How would you sum up the aims you set before yourself when you write this kind of music?

François: Negative music (sad, dark, creepy, etc.) has always felt like some kind of relief to me. As if it understood me. My aim as a musician is to evoke emotions, positive or negative. In the case of Stygian, we also had a story to tell, which added another layer to the songwriting. We wanted to produce an emotionally powerful album that recounted the dire destiny of our protagonist. You decide if it worked as intended.

What are your further plans for Atramentus, or your other bands, for the rest of 2020?

François: A dark ambient project may be in the works or not. Time will tell.

Phil: For Atramentus, what I can say is that our next album will likely be a conceptual continuation of "Stygian" although in another timeline. Musically, it will be the same, but with a different "colour" and emotional impact. We may do an EP before this next record, too.

As for 2021 releases and beyond, a new Funebrarum album is coming in the next few months. It is pure crushing death metal savagery, but its atmosphere alone will be worthy of the darkest and grimmest doom metal bands out there.

I am otherwise writing new material for Chthe'ilist, which will see a complete conceptual refocus and a more eclectic musical direction than the past releases. Death Metal with nightmarish doom parts, some progressive elements, weird fusion-jazz undertones, even some slight black metal and thrashy parts. All coated under layers of filth (we will return to our rawer roots aesthetically speaking). Overall Pure nightmare fodder. I can't confirm whether it will be a 2021 or 2022 release though. New Cosmic Atrophy material is also being written by Cory, the band's mastermind. Maybe it'll be ready for 2021. Who knows. I am also recording the next First Fragment record which will also be a 2021 release and likely one of the most over the top neoclassical/technical death metal albums ever conceived. I'm also writing new Eternity's End material and further exploring European power metal.

Speaking of Power Metal, I have started writing material for a more american-sounding band and am considering starting a more traditional/epic doom band in the coming years to expand upon the shared Chthe'ilist/Atramentus/Eternity's End lore in yet another way. It will depend on my ability to find a suitable vocalist for this task. It will be either that or a black metal project that expands this lore. I know, it sounds random, but I wouldn't be able to do these 2 bands at the same time because conceiving yet another concept album and world-building through music takes a lot of time and these are the two genres that make the most sense in the next evolutionary step of this lore not to mention both have a connection to Atramentus. I have also joined 2 new bands I am excited to reveal sometime in 2021. That's about it!

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Interviewed on 2020-10-26 by Comrade Aleks Evdokimov.
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