Dread Sovereign: Celebrating the vernacular of heavy metal

Dread Sovereign

I first heard the distinctive Nemtheanga vocal assault in 2002 (yeah, I know, I was late to the party), when Primordial mesmerized me, in a pummelling sort of way, within the first blistering seconds of Storm Before Calm. The next year I was thrilled to discover that Primordial were set to play Summer Breeze, my first European metal fest, and I successfully made arrangements for an onsite interview with Nemtheanga himself. Well, successful, that is, until the band had to cancel. And though I always meant to follow up by long distance, the moment never came…until now.

This time, more than a decade later, I chat with Primordial’s frontman not about his main gig, but about the latest in his growing collection of side projects, in this case the throwback doom act Dread Sovereign. I somehow missed out on the three-song introductory record last year, but was quickly captivated (all over again) by the band’s full-length release All Hell’s Martyrs from earlier this year (I found myself chanting the line “burn, burn at the stake” on every available occasion). And when I had the chance to finally speak with Nemtheanga, AKA Alan Averill, about his music, I found he was never at a loss for what to say.

How did Dread Sovereign come to be? I read that this has been dwelling in your subconscious for a long time, and I was wondering what was the initial seed that got you thinking about this material. 

Dubh Sol

Dubh Sol (drums)

My subconscious… (The things press people write…) Well, I’ve been a bad guitar player for years and years, and I’ve always been messing around with bits and pieces, but in the last couple of years, as everyone has got older in Primordial, we rehearse less and less. Basically me and the drummer started to jam together — just me playing the guitar and singing and just him on the drums. We tried a few people out here and there, with me just playing guitar, and it was okay… It was more or less something to do, because we weren’t rehearsing very much. Then I found this little skinny punk fella, played the guitar, about 16 months ago, and what you hear is the sort of final steps, final putting into place of that.

It’s been in my head for ages; some of the riffs are very old. It’s just something that felt like the right time to do and finish. My subconscious… I don’t know. It’s just the product of years and years as a bit of a butcher on the guitar, and we’d finally gone, ‘Right, we have to do this now there’s some downtime between things,’ and just making it happen. That was a really convoluted answer for you, but yeah, it’s sort of like my doom metal alter ego or something.

That’s another thing I wanted to ask — if you see this project as being a reflection of some of your other musical influences, or another side of your personality.

Well, they’re all sides of your personality. There’s a fair bit of doom in Primordial as well, but the difference is, I could bore and tire everyone in Primordial by bringing my guitar in and go ‘Listen to my riffs,’ et cetera, but you know, if it’s not broken it doesn’t need fixing, and I don’t think, as much as they don’t need me bringing in the guitar, they don’t need to bring in lyrics. Primordial’s like an institution in our lives that’s over 20 years and has a certain way of working, and that’s just the way it works.

So the structures, aesthetic, music, everything, more or less comes from me, so this is kind of my project to stand or fall, in that respect. It’s quite nice just being a complete tyrant over things, not having to deal with other tyrants. I have no pretensions about it being particularly original. That didn’t enter my head; I couldn’t care less. It’s not necessarily got the same messages or the same, even attention to detail. With Primordial you’re very conscious of what it means to people and that kind of thing. This is more musically inspired by, like, Venom and Cirith Ungol and Pentagram, Saint Vitus, and I didn’t really care if it was particularly original or anything. As it turned out it sort of does sound kind of original, but that’s just by the by.

Dread Sovereign

Bones (guitars)

You said Bones (guitars) is just some skinny punk guy you found?

Yeah, pretty much. He used to play in a band back in the 2000s or something. We have this sort of strange thing happening here. The metal scene in this country was going through a bit of a fallow creative period and all of a sudden all these punk bands came up playing variations on a theme of metal. I had played with people before but got tired of people having no attitude or anything like this, but he just sort of made sense. He’s just a little skinny upstart punk guy I know.

I see that another Averill played the synth parts and intros for the album?

That’s my cousin, yeah. He made the Primordial DVD. He takes photographs of us and even played the drums on one show of Primordial, maybe about two or three years ago when we were having a drummer issue for a month or two and there were some festivals that we couldn’t cancel or would have had to pay a rather hefty cancellation fee. Yeah, he’s just a sort of all-round creative raconteur. I wanted these sort of ’70s style or Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream kind of synths underneath things. So he created the intros, strange samples of Jim Jones, that kind of stuff. And underneath it you can hear sort of tones. It’s all analogue keyboards and stuff. He helped create some of the creepy atmosphere, I guess.

That does contribute a lot to the overall atmosphere of the album…

Yeah, he’s just my younger cousin — a talented little motherfucker.

The album is described as being recorded in the dead of winter. Was that a deliberate choice?

No — fuck no. If I could record in a tiki bar on a beach in Hawaii by now I’d do it, but it doesn’t work out like that. Every Primordial album seems to have been done in either fuckin’ frost or flood. I mean, some people would say it contributes to the atmosphere, which I suppose is fair enough, but yeah, it just so happened that it was in the middle of a fucking wretched, windy, rainy, Irish winter. There’s nothing too much to read into that. By now I’m so used to doing it like that, I expect to just go outside and have the weather the way it is. But there’s nothing Irish people love complaining about more than the lack of weather.

Winter in Dublin is particularly cold and rainy and windy then?

There’s colder places, for fucking sure; you probably live in one. But it’s the wind and the lashing, relentless rain that just get fucking tiring. You know, I would take minus 10 in Oslo, which is still and crisp, over 6 degrees in Dublin with lashing sideways rain and stuff. It just sucks. At this stage I’m ready to move to California.

So the album — it’s three songs from last year’s twelve inch plus seven new tracks?

Yeah. And that’s it, really. Some people moan and complain, ‘Oh why have you put the songs from the twelve inch?’ but I don’t care. Really, the twelve inch was just an introduction. There’ll be more songs. It’s 70 minutes long as it stands, so there’s 50 odd minutes of new stuff. It’s not like we’re fuckin’ Metallica or something… It just made sense to have the album sequenced that way, so we just re-recorded the songs again.

Were you writing all that material at the same time or did the other songs on the album come after those three on the twelve inch?

Some of the songs I was writing up until three or four days before we went into the studio, and some of them have been in my head for ten years. To me it’s a bit of pressure. Working toward a deadline brings out the best in me.

Creative people can tend to be lazy. This is our nature (I’m taking liberties to count myself amongst them), so to impose some sort of deadline on yourself means that you have to work under pressure. I mean, I don’t even finish things until we’re in the studio. I like to leave 10, 20, 25 percent of stuff that is up in the air, just to know that on the day you’ll go, ‘Ah, this note makes sense,’ and you’ll just nail it. Especially singing and stuff. To me it’s… like bands from the ’70s could jam out entire songs, three or four, and the very least I can do is figure out which note goes after the other, you know?

The lyrics for the album also contribute a lot to the atmosphere. They seem to have a kind of a historical focus, almost an alternate perspective on some historical events…

Well, the very simple thing is that I’ve written a lot of lyrics, I guess over ten albums’ worth, and in every single thing, whether it was Void of Silence, Blood Revolt, whether it was Primordial or Twilight of the Gods, and now this, and other things I’ve written for other bands, you have to try to find a different voice, or else it would just be, ‘Oh, this is Averill writing the same old crap again.’ So while some people might find some of the ‘hail Satans’ a little bit odd, don’t forget that for me, I’ve never written anything like that.

So the whole point of Dread Sovereign is to place — there’s still clever lyrics, they still have some historical meaning and perspective — but to place them in the context and the structure and the framework of traditional heavy metal writing. So they’re written, I wouldn’t say deliberately, but in that early ’80s Cirith Ungol/Venom style. If people can be bothered to read them. Like I was arguing with some guy the other day. He said, ‘Oh, cornball Satanism.’ I said, ‘Dude, did you read the lyrics actually?’

It’s a kind of historical blasphemy. So some of the album has a rough theme about the Cathar rebellion — in the Languedoc region of France in the 13th century, they were the first heretics burned by the Inquisition — and it sort of looks at, just in that small framework, a period of religious upheaval and our connection to martyrdom and blasphemy, but it’s written in a sort of ‘hail Satan’ kind of way. I mean, it’s perfect for heavy metal — there was a church called the church of St. Albi that was burnt down, struck by lightning in the year 666, and this was the church where the first heretics were burned. So you’ve got the perfect chorus, ‘666 —Cathars to their doom,’ which to me just sounds great in heavy metal. Maybe it’s slightly gonzoid but written in a clever way?

DS_AHM_2014_front cover_webOr ‘The Spear of Longinus’ is about the perspective of crucifying Christ from a Roman soldier. And ‘All Hell’s Martyrs’ is about a saint called St. Bartholomew, whose statue stands by the Duomo Cathedral in Milan and he’s holding his own skin, and he was flayed alive and crucified upside down — that’s who you see on the cover. Mark Twain has a book [The Innocents Abroad (1869)], a sort of diary of a tour where he sees the same statue that I saw, and it haunts him in dreams, which it did to me as well. So I wrote the last song about the statue of St. Bartholomew, and the figure coming to Mark Twain in a dream in the first verse, and then it cuts in the second verse to the actual flaying of St. Bartholomew…

So yeah, there are rather convoluted and complicated ways to try and squeeze some actual meaning into the structure of traditional heavy metal. I don’t think I could write it any other way, to be honest. I can’t do trollwave fantasy, or meaningless frivolity. I can’t do…casual. So they have to be this way.

When you were talking about the twist of getting this historical information into that traditional heavy metal framework, it made me think of the way that ‘hail Satan’ phrase you mention, where the song ‘We Wield the Spear of Longinus’ gets particularly heavy metal, how there’s an interesting, almost irony, to that. I think that may be the most heavy metal song on the record, and it gets very powerful and almost climactic at the same moment that you’re singing out, ‘praise hail Satan,’ but almost in a celebratory way, where it’s less sinister. The record has a sinister vibe, to some extent, all the way through, and this moment seems cathartic or freeing or liberating by comparison.

Well, that’s what the metaphor of Satanism should be; at least it was for me in the 1990s. It’s a metaphorical focus for energy. And yeah, it should be celebratory because you’re celebrating the rebellious side of man, just to be serious about Satanism or Luciferianism or something like that for a moment. Because there is that Luciferian spirit which I grew up with into black metal, which still is with me and it’s portrayed in the lyrics. It’s probably different from some of the people you might talk to about black metal now, but at least for me it was a metaphorical focus for energy. You accepted that the mythological figures reflected the archetypes of man, so Lucifer was the rebellious spirit or the adversary or something. And it’s also just traditional heavy metal.

You see, the glory of it is that when you’re inside and outside of the bubble, you can celebrate both. Clichés are clichés for a reason, and I love them for that, and they’re not meant in an ironic way. When I say ‘hail Satan’ it’s just part of the vernacular of heavy metal, which is tradition, going back to 19fucking69 and 1970. So it’s not meant in any ironic way or anything like this, it’s just part of the language of heavy metal and it’s also part of the adversarial context of the record. And it also just sounds fucking cool, so…

That metaphorical element of Satanism that you mentioned seems to me to come through really strongly in ‘We Pray to the Devil in Man.’

Yeah, I mean some of this album is a throwback to a lot of ideals I would have held in the early 1990s that became a platform or stepping stone to other things but I still hold quite dear, and that is the metaphorical identification with the rebel spirit, and if it embodies the mythological figure of Lucifer, then it’s an identification with that. It’s not for a moment considering that these things are actually real.

It’s an identification with mythological figures in the same way that Satan became — I mean, if you look at the figure of Satan, he has Loki’s horns, Poseidon’s trident, he has Pan’s hooves, he’s the amalgamation of European pre-Christianity and placed as the opponent or the scapegoat, or whatever you want to call it. For me he became an amalgamation of all these pre-Christian things, whether it’s an identification with Herne, you know who has the horns, or in Irish mythology the Morrigan, or whatever. So that’s how I looked at it.

I’m sure you could speak to some of the orthodox satanic black metal people now and they would talk about the spiritual dimensions that I would never have been interested in. For me it wasn’t about spirituality in that sense because I don’t believe in that. We’re food for worms. It’s just a metaphor. But yeah, this is engendered in the spirit of the album, or at least it’s meant to be.

You’ve mentioned metal traditions and the vernacular of metal. How much do you identify with metal music, as part of your identity? 

Dread Sovereign

Nemtheanga (bass/vocals)

Well, if there was a line, it’s long since become blurred. It is what I am, it’s what I’ve been since I was… It sounds romantic, but I remember the first moment I ever heard Iron Maiden ’Prowler’ and I knew that was it. And that maybe was about 26, 27 years ago, and that was it. There’s no questions, there’s nothing like this. And the thing about it is, it’s like I said, when you’re on the inside and the outside — like for me, I can work the clichés because I’ve earned it, like earning your stripes, so I can do the dumb things in a clever way because I appreciate both sides of it, if that makes any sense.

The glory of old heavy metal is that it didn’t second guess itself. It was almost like gonzoid journalism or something like this. It wasn’t about second guessing. I was having this argument the other day about some of these modern speed/thrash metal bands and they’re trying to make their albums look dumb, like say the cover of the EXE Stricken By Might, we happened to be arguing about. And I said, you see, the difference is, the guys from the back of that record, they thought this was cool, but you are trying to make your album look like their album. It’s parody. If you second guess yourself in that respect then you’re missing the point.

The point was that this music is gloriously dumb in some respects, and that’s what makes it glorious. I mean, otherwise it wouldn’t be like a fucking hammer, like a punch in the face. It’s the difference between a punch in the face and a nasty reply in a forum. If you understand, you understand; if you’re never gonna get it, you’re never gonna get it. And so for me, the things that other people on the outside find curious and even laughable are things that I embrace, as well as being able to intellectualize about it. Because that’s the glory of it. The glory is often hidden in the fucking dumbest things. I mean, Reign in Blood, it’s not an intellectual discourse but it’s still one of the greatest records, regardless of heavy metal, ever made, because its aggression doesn’t date.

Do you have any non-metal interests or hobbies, or ever write any non-metal music or listen to it? 

Yeah, of course. I really like stuff like Woven Hand, Joy Division, The Cure, The Chameleons, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Little Richard, old rock ‘n’ roll, old Waylon Jennings and old country and western. I like ’80s synth pop like Gary Numan and old Human League, ’80s electronic… I like Tangerine Dream, Can, Klaus Schulze, lots of ’80s goth, old Sisters of Mercy, all that kind of stuff. I like soundtrack music and stuff…

I’m getting to the stage now and the age where I don’t really care, in that you need to reevaluate things and you need to be challenged every now and again, so if I want to make an old blues album with Lightning Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf covers on it, I’ll do it, and if I want to make an ’80s synth pop record with big choruses and songs about women, I’ll do that. If you like if you like it; if you don’t, I don’t care. I’m really at that sort of phase now where you realize that time is short, life goes by like that, and it’s good to challenge yourself with doing things with different people. And I’m sort of quite restless and all over the place and doing twenty different things at once, so yeah, who knows, maybe I will make a synth pop album and people can complain about it.

You guys are playing some Dread Sovereign shows, right? And you played at Roadburn last year?

Yeah, we played at Roadburn and then we played in Germany the other week and we played in Belgium a few times. Nothing too strenuous, but we’re trying take it over with a few dates here and there — Scotland, a few more in Germany, Holland, maybe London… I don’t know how drastic it will be. I’ve played lots and lots of gigs with Primordial and stuff. I did 40-odd days with Twilight of the Gods last year, more even, so it’s just what you do. We’ll see.

Probably we’ll go on tour; it’s just a question of when, where, how. I just sort of view it as another challenge to my will power, I suppose, to make these things happen. It’s a new discipline for me, playing the bass and singing. I’ll admit that I’m not a natural musician in that respect, so it’s not something I can do lightly or easily. But, you know, it works, somehow.

It would be cool to see you guys come over to North America with this stuff…

Well, it would be cool to see everything. I mean, in all the years Primordial’s been going we’ve only managed to go to North America three times. It almost becomes so difficult to tour the States and North America now that, outside of Maryland Deathfest and 70,000 Tons of Metal, things like that, it’s very rare now you’re gonna see your favourite European bands over there. It’s almost counterproductive.

It’s one thing if you’re 22 years old, but for guys like some of the other guys in Primordial with kids and stuff, you’re looking at — visas for a four- or five-man band is over four and a half thousand Euro, working visas, lights, every venue wants a commission on your merchandise, blah blah blah. So you’re looking at printing costs and export VAT on merchandise, so you’re probably looking at upwards 10000 Euro and that’s before you’ve even played a show, so playing in West Virginia on a Wednesday to 78 people and being told, ‘This isn’t bad, Vader only had 23’ — it just won’t do.

So we’re getting to the stage whereby if you want to see us you’re probably gonna have to travel to see us; we can’t travel to see you anymore. And it’s only when you travel across North America you get a great sense of how decimated the scene was by an awful lot of other forces. I mean, Rotting Christ tour North America and they’re playing, like, Portland to 8 people. Therion played in Iowa to 13 people. You hear tons of stories like this from European bands and you’re just like, there’s no point going there anymore. Unfortunately. Maybe if you’re 21 and you have no kids and no bills and stuff. Then Canada tried to bring in this artist tax as well [thankfully now cancelled].

It makes no sense, because if you’re coming as a European band and you’re playing in a venue somewhere in the States and you’re bringing 200–250 people, you’re placing money into the local economy, you’re putting money behind the bar, maybe in hotels, all this stuff. So it’s counterproductive, but yet very typical of the modern society we live in that it’s an instant smash-and-grab thing. So the local economy would probably make more from Primordial playing 30 dates in the States in context than the initial outlay of the visa, but that’s not the way the government sees it.

It would be nice to see this situation change soon.

I don’t think it will change — it will just get worse. We can see this over here. The venues now here have started to try and charge merch concessions 10, 15, 20, 30 percent. Play in any House of Blues in North America and they’ll want a great percentage of your merchandise. And take into account how much stronger the Euro is than the dollar. Take into account printing costs, take into account shipping costs, and any less than $15 and you might well be making nothing. And we always have a shirt for $10 or $12, but there actually you might as well give them away for free. Which is why kids will come up to you at shows and go, ‘Why are the shirts of some bands $30?’ and I go, well, that’s why. Then you won’t make any money with anything less than 200-250 people a show. So like I said, showing up somewhere where they say, this is pretty good, there’s 108 people here — yeah, it’s not bad, but it won’t make anybody any money.

Sorry to get all… But it’s these unfortunate boring business and economic practicalities that are behind, for example, coming and playing a show in North America that I don’t think people necessarily want to hear or they don’t really understand. I mean, it’s fine for some bands, but still, compared to what they would earn in Europe is like 10, 15, 20 percent. You can’t just waltz off a plane with your guitar, come and play a show, and not be hit with tons and tons of costs, you know.

That’s why the 70,000 Tons of Metal thing works because it’s in international waters, so you don’t need a work visa. Whether you disagree or agree with the principle of a whole lot of bands playing to people on a cruise ship, singing about rebellion, fundamentally, you are never going to see the like of many of those bands touring the States.

Anyway, there you go.

And there it was. And though I eventually did have the good fortune to see Primordial play live and now, clearly, have finally followed up on my wish to interview Nemtheanga, it looks like I’m packing my bags if I want to experience live, in all its dumb glory, the dark doomy magic that is Dread Sovereign.

Laura is associate editor of Hellbound.ca and co-host of weekly metal show Kill Eat Exploit the Weak on CFMU 93.3 FM. She loves doom, prog, cats and basketball, believes in equity and social justice and is not cool with any form of discrimination, marginalization, harassment or oppression.