This interview was originally published by (the now defunct) Arctic Drones on September 15, 2016. In light of the importance of these kind of interviews for reference and the legacy of underground bands, we have decided to republish it with permission of the original publisher.
In the wake of the release of their debut album Obelisk, Black Table have become the darlings of big metal media outlets. With singles streaming on MetalSucks and Revolver, you wouldn’t expect this band to be serenading four guys and a cat in a greasy room, but that’s exactly what happened in Antwerp. So I guess that’s what you get when you play your first European tour as an American band. Even though their sound is hard to pin down, the band were excited to do an interview with us and they were very forthcoming about their ideas as well as the upcoming record.
Black Table originate from the rich soil of the New York black metal scene, where they first appeared in 2012 with their EP Sentinel. Later this year, on the 14th of October, the band will release their first full-length called Obelisk, which is again, mainly written by the band’s primary songwriters, Mers Sumida (guitar/vox) and Ryan Fleming (guitar).
Mers, who also writes the band’s lyrics, elaborates on the album title, “Obelisk is an architectural monument or a structure carved from stone and erected by humans to immortalize political conquests, gods, graves.” Where Sentinel was a bleak opus about the decline of western civilisation and its hypocrisy, Obelisk features a more elaborate theme that draws from mythology and early human history. “For this album, the term ‘obelisk’ is intended to be a structure inside the mind, a destination hopefully the music creates.” Mers finds inspiration in various human narratives, ranging from Greek mythology to accounts of Aztec creation stories and Mohawk coming of age-rituals. Despite the vast number of specific stories and themes present, Mers remains elusive about the album’s unifying theme. “The musical intent [of Obelisk] is esoteric, you want me to tell you what it all means and where it goes, and what you’re supposed to see and think and feel, but I think that’s for you to decide. Art should be free to all forms of interpretation.”
For Obelisk, the band wanted a cover art that would convey the richness and narrative of its content visually, so they visited Last Rites Gallery in New York, where friend and fellow-musician Casey Gleghorn (Black Water) works as a director. Upon being confronted with the work of French artist Eric LaCombe, the band felt they had found the right person. “We all had a very emotional reaction to the artwork,” Mers explains. “The skull is being worn as a mask, which brings up concepts of ritual and myth. Besides how the image seems to look into you, the texture and richness of the calming blues and greens in the paint are tranquil and full of depth.”
All of this however, has very little to do with the way the record sounds, and even though the concept of the album isn’t altogether harrowing, both singles Obtuse and Gargantua sound more dark and otherworldly than any of the songs from Sentinel. Responsible for this shift in change is the advent of Billy Anderson (who produced Neurosis’ Through Silver in Blood among others) handling production duties alongside the band. Traditionally, bands start out recording their records with producers and later on they learn to produce records by themselves, but nowadays, with bedroom/home recording equipment becoming more readily available, bands like Black Table go through a more evident, inverse trajectory (from self-produced to having a producer). Guitarist Ryan Fleming comments, “I think [the advent of] mini home studios, enabling musicians to create recordings that rival legitimate recording studios, has changed how people think about making albums and starting bands. Bands can have a respectable album up online almost overnight, and get a band off the ground in record time.” Even though producing an album now comes with an intricate learning curve – “We didn’t know anything when we started [recording Sentinel],” says Ryan – it also allows bands to come up with a more natural and fluid way of recording.
“In Black Table we write and demo everything within Ableton Live. We track all the guitars, bass with an AxeFx II and write midi drums using Superior Drummer for the tones. […] Digital tracking allows us to arrange, edit and move ideas so fast that we often end up creating new things out of the composition process and then re-learning the newly created performances after. Also, it allows us to all try things as we work, I’ll often write sketchy drum concepts to share with Michael (Kadnar, drums) when we are just starting a new song because I have an idea about where I think the song should go. Then we head into the studio with fully arranged song demos and go from there. It helps whoever we’re working with to get a big picture of what we want to aim for.” This new process is what sets Obelisk apart from Sentinel, giving it a deeper, more focused sound. Ryan recounts the recording process of Sentinel, “For Sentinel we steered the direction a lot. We had a small budget and not a ton of time so we went into the studio and hustled at light speed to get everything done. We actually used AxeFx direct for the guitars to save time, not ideal. We learned a lot about our sound and what we should do differently for Obelisk. […] Obelisk was going to be done exactly how we wanted it.”
But it was not only this new way of producing that brought the record’s sound up to par. Much of that is also thanks to the work of producer Billy Anderson. “We wanted to work with Billy Anderson because we felt he had a creative vibe and artistic way of bringing the best out in the bands he worked with. We wanted someone to collaborate with to elevate our ideas. We knew we could only take our sound so far, and Billy helped us find the missing elements within our songs we didn’t even know we had.” Ryan continues, “I think the main advantage to having a good producer is the ability to have a fresh perspective and the creative wisdom that can elevate a band’s concepts beyond what they would have been able to accomplish otherwise. Someone who gets how to balance instruments, textures and dynamics in a way that maintains the integrity of the music is invaluable. Billy was the right guy to get us where we needed, and Obelisk wouldn’t be what it is without that. We’re extremely proud of what we made together.”
Indeed, there is no doubt that Obelisk is going to be a great record. All four members of Black table, including Michael and DJ Skully (bass), are incredible musicians, but especially Mers as a front woman with an incredible voice and vision. Her voice on Gargantua sounds terrifyingly extraterrestrial, which is all thanks to her ability to “inhale scream”. Inhale screaming? Yes. Mers explains, “You use the diaphragm to control the airflow, while using the throat opening to provide texture and polyphonics. Inhale [screaming] takes a long time to train. At least for me, at first it’s weak and quiet, but over time, it can become layered and thick with texture, lower and loud, not as loud as an outward screamer, but decently loud. With this method I can hold out notes for insanely long periods of time. It’s very cool and I encourage other people to try it.” Mers continues, “In ‘Gargantua’ there is a really long scream held out that even overlaps with a vocal part coming in. Billy Anderson was really surprised at the duration of what I could do in the studio and it’s one of my proudest moments.”
Obelisk is not only a terrific sonic accomplishment, also the above mentioned themes and concepts are worked out to the tiniest detail. Earlier this year, Mers created a limited run of 20 miniature books called Constellations of the Obelisk, containing all lyrics of the upcoming album, as well as hand-painted symbols, prints and explanatory text. I managed to get hold of one at their Antwerp show, and the little book blew my mind. The attention to detail, as well as the depth of the research is incredible and I have been reading it multiple times.
Coming across the lyrics to a song called ‘Helm’ I’m suddenly taken back to the show in Antwerp last June. I remember talking to Michael after the show, and in the meantime I was looking around to find Mers. I didn’t see her anywhere in the mass of people scurrying around the stage, and slightly worried I ask Michael where she is. He tells me it’s alright and that Mers often needs some time for herself after the show. I can imagine that a show can be emotionally heavy for a musician – especially a singer – but the material of Black Table touches Mers’ life in more than an artistic manner.
“I was alone, I told no one where I’d gone // I took my small boat to the ocean.” reads the first line of ‘Helm’. This song talks about the shame that is experienced while feeling depressed and how it empowers a sense of self worthlessness. Mers is gracious enough to elaborate on her experiences with depression, “Sentinel was bleak and Obelisk carries with it a feeling of hope and renewal. It’s definitely personal and it’s a huge part of who I am. It can hinder me in many ways, the isolation and imploding of self is a painful ordeal. However, I think it makes the colors in my life more vibrant and my passion more exuberant sometimes overwhelming. It’s a strange bedfellow, and though it’s not something other people will agree with how I deal with it, which is I can withstand it, but my goal is to try and understand it. Thinking of the depression in the form of mythology, as an archetype, say the albatross in ‘Helm’ for example, I think it offers some outside perspective, where I can view it as its own thing, and not as myself, just some object I carry, that many people carry, that we as a species carry.” While reading the lyrics to ‘Helm‘, I imagine this boat journey in the context of the poem of another great American lyricist, Anne Sexton. In her poem ‘The Rowing Endeth’ the protagonist also sets out on a tedious journey, but upon arriving at their destination, finds resolve in the absurd, but strangely liberating act of playing a game of poker with… God. She wins, but he cheats, while both end up laughing at their silly game. My hopes and dreams are readily disappointed when I ask Mers whether she thinks she can overcome her depression. “I’ll never be able to escape my depression because it’s chemical. It’s more about manoeuvring. However, I know that the depression isn’t ‘me’, that took a very long time to realise and accept. I can separate it from me and that helps me maintain some level of control. It’s a wild beast with a primal nature and it’s tied to me, so I allow it to bite and scratch and I just wait it out, essentially. I’m alright with this.”
As of May 1, 2018 Black Table are on an indefinite hiatus, leaving Obelisk to be their first and last full-length recording to date. Mers Sumida is currently publishing reviews of horror books on her Youtube channel Harpies in the Trees. Michael Kadnar is still active as a drummer for among others The Number Twelve Looks Like You (along with DJ Scully), Downfall of Gaia, and Brannthorde.