"Somehow, I think the band have come to represent antiheroes, which I’m sort of happy with. We’ve become standard-bearers for a kind of integrity within a certain section of the scene, with an element of respect, and we’re fine being in the position we’re in.”
For nearly a quarter-century, Alan ‘AA Nemtheanga’ Averill, vocalist and lyricist of Dublin’s epic black/folk metal renegades Primordial, has presided over the sustained growth and refinement of a band that first started commanding respect when 1993’s Dark Romanticism demo presented a distinctive new voice to the global black metal underground. Many of their peers peaked in the late 90s, but with the release of their eighth album, the beautifully wrought Where Greater Men Have Fallen, Primordial find themselves in the rare position of having maintained, enlarged, and never alienated, many sections of a widespread fanbase that spans a variety of scenes, genres and tribes, while their songwriting becomes more accessible, their themes more universal. Theirs is an approach that benefits from the maturity and wisdom of experience, viewing contemporary issues through the prism of historical tragedy with ever-greater insight and sophistication, conviction unwavering but tempered with cynical pragmatism. With the continual underscoring and bolstering of their signature sound, each album still feels like an improvement.
“It’s a strange thing to observe that our biggest albums are our later albums,” ponders the frontman. “We’re not a nostalgia band that everybody comes to see hoping we’ll play our first or second album, which must be a terribly strange place to be for a band to be. We are in the ‘mainstream’, but we can play an underground black metal festival with these necrokult-with-a-K bands, and we can also play with power metal bands at Headbangers Open Air. We know we’re not going to be the biggest band in the scene, but I don’t think people necessarily want or need to be reminded how dark and grim the world is all the time.”
Although shot through with the undimmed intensity and righteous anger so crucial to the Primordial experience, Where Greater Men Have Fallen represents a new accord for these seasoned bandmates, the less fraught process developing through greater trust and confidence in each other’s abilities after years of internal tension and fraternal strife. “When you’ve been going this long, one of the most important things is to step outside the process and view it for what it is, which is why I took more of a back seat making this album,” AA reveals. “I kept myself to myself until it was time to do my parts. I wanted to view the songs very realistically and be able to ask: do they have enough energy? Do they have hunger and drive? That was more important than listening to five hours of guitar takes arguing about the tone. I’ve done the arguing before, now I just stay quiet! When I’m recording my singing, I don’t want people sitting in the control room going ‘Could you do this one this way?’ It’s not X Factor. Trite as it sounds, the most important thing is giving a fuck about the things you really should give a fuck about, not giving a fuck about the things you shouldn’t give a fuck about, and being very skilled at separating the two.”
Although we don’t hear much on the promo trail from guitarists Ciáran MacUiliam and Micheál O’Floinn, bassist Pól MacAmhlaigh or drummer Simon O’Laoghaire, you sense that these are five equally strong-willed and focused musicians. Ciáran and Pól formed the band in 1987, and this lineup has remained stable for 14 years. To what does AA attribute the band’s enviable solidity?
“We’re all very different people, but we realise that’s why the band works so well. We can still end up at a festival drunk at 2am in a fistfight, but I’m not gonna go ‘I’m leaving!’ and storm off into the sunset, because… I think that’s just what Irish people do sometimes,” he shrugs. “I’ve not held it against anyone because I’ve taken a slap in the face. We didn’t start the band because we were a gang of friends who wanted to play Slayer riffs, smoke weed and have a laugh; that was never our mode of operation. There was always more to it than that.”
And yet, without compromising their message or methods, Primordial have somehow become the perfect festival band. “I don’t know how it happened like that!” he insists. “I think it’s a combination of the music having a certain amount of depth, but also accessibility. We played a pagan metal festival to 4,000 people and I watched a load of kids leave for Enslaved and come back in when we played. I was confused, I thought Enslaved were our peers, but I watched Enslaved and it wasn’t their day, great band that they are. The message seemed too complex for some of the people there. Then I saw these kids singing along to a big fat chorus with Empire Falls, and I realised: maybe we’ve hit the difference in the middle. You’ve got to mix your depth with a bit of rabble-rousing.”
The motivational, call-to-arms fervour of AA’s live performance is a crucial factor in the impact of Primordial live, but the impassioned rabble-rouser is only one role that the charismatic frontman inhabits onstage. There is also the storyteller, bringing to life profound emotions, relating layers of tragic history to the modern world, and the showman, making this bitter intensity work as a compelling theatrical spectacle. How has Alan’s approach to live performance developed as the stages have got larger?
“Playing a huge stage at first was a bit daunting,” he admits. “A mate was doing sound for us once and he said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to stand still sometimes.’ We had never had proper lights before, but if you stand still in silhouette and just raise your arms it can be way more powerful than running around like Bruce Dickinson the whole time. I thought that was a very good point. To be able to project your personality from the front to the back of an audience – but also look the front row in the eye and make that connection as well – is much more difficult than on a small stage, where you’re relying on old-school rock’n’roll aggression. You have to have a different attitude. We’ve played gigs over three hours long in the last couple of years, and you have to bring it down for 15 minutes then bring it up again, you can’t always have the fist-in-the-air, adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere throughout, the audience need a break from being confronted as much as you do. I’m constantly learning.”
This theme of continual self-improvement extends to Alan’s role as band wordsmith, renowned for powerfully evoking the tropes of epic legend to frame barbed observations on the modern world. Redemption At The Puritan’s Hand in 2011 was, in his words, “the death album”. So where do you go from there?
“This is true, and where I went was: I decided to not let a theme overshadow the record this time,” he reasons, “I just let the songs kind of write themselves. You’ve got more personal songs, there are some very straightforward emotive themes mixed with some very complicated themes on power and economics,” he breaks off with a wry snort. “The usual grim stuff that doesn’t have much light relief, you know!”
WHERE GREATER MEN HAVE FALLEN IS RELEASED ON NOVEMBER 25 VIA METAL BLADE
FORMING THE FALLEN
Alan reveals some of the choice inspirations on Where Greater Men Have Fallen.
The Alchemist’s Head lyrics focus purely on the transformative philosophies of this visionary English poet and artist. Alan’s a big fan: “I have William Blake tattoos, I’ve always been fascinated by his character and his art, and I just wanted a song about him. So in a way, I wrote it to order!”
DEAD CAN DANCE
Alan took his cues for the album sleeve – a stark, beautiful photograph of a tomb in Bucharest – from Melbourne’s neoclassical darkwave legends. “I’ve always been a big admirer of neo-folk and industrial aesthetics, which is what influenced the last cover to be white,” he explains.
Born To Night’s beautiful melody comes from Lizzy’s Celtic epic Black Rose – albeit accidentally. “We never clicked when we were rehearsing it!” insists Alan. “One night after the recording, Mick was playing Black Rose, and Ciáran just went, ‘Holy fuck, we can’t put that song on the album!’ But I thought, this album has to have this song. We all love Thin Lizzy, and they took it from somewhere else, it’s a traditional Irish thing. A nod to Thin Lizzy’s OK by me!”