Interview with Bruno A. of Vertigo Steps

One of the most striking, enterprising and formidable releases to come out so far this year is the stunning Surface/Light from Vertigo Steps. The third album from the Portuguese / Finnish project consisting of Bruno A., Niko Mankinen, as well as Daniel Cardoso, is a deeply mesmeric and empowering album full of immersive thick expansive atmospheres, a melancholic breath, and close emotive enveloping sounds. Most of all it is an album of and real songwriting and expressively well crafted songs. Wanting to know more about the band and music we had the opportunity and pleasure at The RingMaster Review of asking Bruno A. all about Vertigo Steps and the album.

Hello and thank you for taking time to talk with us

Firstly would you just introduce the band to those not yet aware of your great sounds?

VS is pretty much the best band in the world you still haven’t listened to or heard about :) A wee bit more seriously now, it’s a project based in Portugal, but featuring several foreign guest musicians, mostly Scandinavian. The soundscape is a tad hard to pin down and the best is to have a few good listens, but could perhaps be loosely described as highly atmospheric and melancholic Heavy Rock, with several Metal touches and Progressive and Post-rock leanings. We will use any colour from the palette to enhance the global canvas. Strongly emotional and cinematic, but also oddly infectious.

How and when did Vertigo Steps begin?

September 2007, my bedroom. With little more than a guitar, programming software and an internet connection.

Was there an aim or main idea behind the band or the music it was set up to create?

Well, not a very specific, closed concept or grand design backing it all. But surely a very powerful will to come up with a new, refreshing and musically rich sound and vision – with no boundaries save for a high quality standard in all aspects of the band’s output.

You set up the band initially as a solo venture or was there always the intention of having contributing musicians?

Contributions were always intended, yes. Even though I came up with all music, words and concept, I knew I needed some gifted and unique musicians taking part in the action. Another reason would be I can’t play drums as good as Daniel or sing at Niko’s harmonic power and emotional delivery :). Might come out something akin to Tom Waits strung out on opium.

The band now has a core of Bruno, Niko Mankinen, and also Daniel Cardoso? I can imagine the acquaintance with Daniel being also Portuguese and having fingers in most things great from the country haha, but how did the link up with Finn Niko occur?

Yep, that’s pretty much the main core these days. Daniel has always been our producer and drummer, occasional backing singer and also bass player (except for the debut). I actually met and became friends with him around ’99 or so, long before he was producing all those bands. At the time being he played in Sirius and I was starting out Arcane Wisdom, my first “solo” project – for which he kindly offered his drumming skills. Nowadays he’s enjoying the international success he’s entitled to (Anathema, Anneke, etc,). As for Niko, I was an appreciator of his work with Misery Inc. and contacted him through email, sent him a couple of samples and he was interested from day one. Looking back now and watching his evolution and immersion in the VS sound, lyrics and philosophy, it all makes perfect sense. His work is miles away from what he was doing back then and his growing role as lyricist is also glove fitting. We have pretty much worked as a duo for some years now, even given the geographical distance. Apart from the 3 recordings in Portugal, we’ve also met in Helsinki and will do so again next July, in Berlin.

What are your major influences as a musician that has inspired you and the music?

The tangent universe and all that’s real enough to make me feel. If you mean exclusively musical influences, I have always listened to a lot of music and a lot of different styles and bands. Probably too many to mention here, stuff I pick everywhere from metal and rock to post-rock /ambient, soundtracks, electronic music, even classical and ethnic. But none of them ever worked specifically as basis for VS: our sound comes from everything that surrounds us, not just sound and definitely not any band/musician in particular. If you ask me, that’s the way it should more often be, music evolves with one’s own vision – however filtered through particular music tastes and life experiences – and not mere idol rehashing. And I think it shows – people are endorsing the fact we actually write songs, something sadly increasingly absent from heavier realms of music.

Your debut self titled  album came out in 2008 and was a striking album to say the least, how much of its impactful songs, sounds and ideas came as the album was created and how much was elements that has been imagined, thought up and stored in the years before the band even existed?

Good question, probably 50-50! I recall the songs on the debut ranged from 2004 until around the recording date – March 2008. I used to call it intentionally incoherent, because of the major differences in style, but that’s where my mind was at and how I envisioned such a debut album. Since the compositions and lyrics all came from the same place, some kind of cohesiveness would always be present. I still hold it dear as a pretty interesting release, full of energy and strength, an emotional rollercoaster, and am thankful for its warm reception. It did take a lot of people by surprise.

You have just released your exceptional third album Surface/Light. How has your sound changed from that initial release and though second album The Melancholy Hour to this new album?

Thank you! Well as I just mentioned the debut was ostensibly diverse but the idea for the following releases was always to raise the sound cohesion a bit, whilst maintaining the VS sound identity which is always a highly versatile one – never a band to write an album with 10 or 12 songs sounding exactly the same! But with The Melancholy Hour (which also saw great reactions) and, specially, Surface/Light, the songwriting comprised a more specific time period and thus the songs are more focused and sheltered under its albums’ abode. There is a considerable sound difference between Surface/Light and the debut or parts of it, even though you can also tell it’s the exact same band, something I think is natural and expected. It would be impossible to forge what is today Surface/Light back in 2008, for the album is also the product of our experiences and progression as humans and songwriters. Fortunately, and though the new release is the crowning achievement, all albums stand strongly on their own merits.

Has your song writing process changed distinctly over the years and albums too?

Hopefully, otherwise wouldn’t be doing the job right :) I guess 10 years ago I was somewhat over-creative and would insert 10 riffs in 7min songs. The riffs themselves were quite alright, but I evolved as a songwriter into making songs which I want to be memorable and timeless (at least for some!). Therefore I haven’t since long been interested in instrumental show-off or overly complex song structures. What I most enjoy listening to and creating are strong, emotional songs, with impact and that hit you on quite a deeper level than the flashing solo or überfast blastbeat – and I’m sure you know what I mean here. For instance, I always appreciated how acts like Katatonia, Green Carnation or even Anathema gradually emerged amidst the metal scene to become much more interesting prospects on their own and crave their particular niche, still rooted in metal but going far beyond its scope and boundaries.

Are you a songwriter who works relentlessly at a song from its seed until it has a breath of its own or one that takes their time, stepping back from it time to time?

There is really no rule here, it all depends on the mood and how the song appears and builds-up. But usually the main structure and primal grounds are set soon and fairly swift; afterwards I deal more with details, add-ons, atmospheres, whatever I think suits the song in order to enhance it, to grant it wings. Sometimes a specific background ambience or piano note can be as important to me as a riff or clean guitar melody.

With Surface/Light there is not so much a theme but there does seem a kind of connection that flows throughout each track on the album?

I have been told about this seamless connection – and agree. The album is probably best experienced as a whole, creating a mesmerizing, immersive experience, sorrowful but also rewarding and offering several glimpses of light from within the generally darker pathos. I feel the album title and artwork – as well as the lyrics – all offer fine clues to this pervasive undercurrent.

What do the songs deal with and take as inspiration?

Just things that somehow affect us in life. Observations on how to struggle amidst all the madness that surrounds us in modern-day extra-fast society and the extreme complexity of humankind, up to everyday emotions and reactions.

The songs vary from pure expansive atmospheres to at times sturdy aggression and all carrying a melancholic and dark essence, but it is also full of warmth and beauty. How much attention, time, and emotion goes into your music to craft such a full and emotive experience within piece of music?

Your description is I believe quite accurate. It takes the time enough for us to be happy with it. Sometimes not that much actually – I’m guessing because nothing is forced and it’s just the natural way in which the songs come out. This time the songs were all written over a 6 month period – between October 2010 and March 2011.

Does the music and the qualities we just mentioned reflect you personally and emotionally too?

I am sure of it, even though I’m probably not the best person to be discussing that.

Surface/Light is your first release on a label, Ethereal Sound Works. Has this had a big impact on recording and releasing the album?

None on the recording, cause it was done without any label behind. When it became ready we sent it to a couple and ESW presented the most interesting proposal. They also came up with the idea for the “sublight” EP and the very beautiful special digipak edition with the full discography – something I always thought should happen once a label would pick us up, because the first two albums had only seen digital release. Everything is working rather smoothly, we just arranged a release party which was filmed for a small video-edit and will have some merchandise soon, as well.

We mentioned him earlier and the album like your previous ones includes production from Daniel Cardoso as well as his musical skills. The man seems to be in everything good coming out of Portugal musically, what are his qualities that stand out for you and enhance your music?

I’m fond of Daniel both as a person and musician and he was always the obvious option to work with. As a musician and producer, he brings professionalism, instrumental proficiency and a good taste that suits VS rather well. His playing is something I truly enjoy and as producer he’s also cool to work with, especially because we need a strong cooperation, being myself pretty involved in this area. I like intelligent input, and with all the ideas I have on the VS sound and all the pre-production work and programming that I carry along into the recording, I would hardly match as well with a more close-minded producer who would take everything according to his own views and tastes. So forget Bob Rock.

Like in your previous releases Surface/Light contains many guests. Could you tell us a few, why you brought them in, and what they particularly gave extra to your compositions?

Jan Transit from In The Woods… I think needs no further introduction. Stein R Sordal and Sophie are usual guests and both shine with vocal radiance. Patrik Karlsson from This Haven is a first time guest, singing in two songs – incredibly talented vocalist.  All of them brought something very special and unique to their songs.

The way you record your albums with guests and forth, is Vertigo Steps able to be an active live band or likely to be at some point?

Not at the moment. At some point in the future… only time will yell!

What comes next after the Surface/Light? Ideas already forming for future songs?

Yes, even if I try to steer a bit clear of composing for a while after each album, there are always new, refreshing things popping out here and there. Some ideas for new songs and mostly acoustic parts. Exploring quite magical clean melodies, over dynamic, strong backing riffs. Anyway, I’ll relocate to Germany in June so I’ll probably keep playing acoustic guitar but won’t worry too much for now with a future pre-production. All in due time :)

Once more many thanks for sharing your time.

Would you like to leave with some words for those enjoying and about to experience the impressive creativity of Surface/Light?

First of all I’d like to thank you for the excellent review and interview as well. As for future listeners, I’ll strongly advise them to check our profiles – Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, BandCamp – to see for themselves what we’re about and hopefully if they enjoy our work and vision, feel free to order the albums and spread the word around. It would definitely be rewarding and fair to finally get a bit more worldwide exposure.

And lastly we thought the melody within Someone (Like You) was a shoe-in for a Bond movie soundtrack, if there was any movie series that you could soundtrack what would it be?

Not a particular Bond-freak myself but actually quite the cinephile, so your remark is wise and amusing! I have thought of making movie or short-movie soundtracks, given the highly cinematic and ambient nature of my music – both with VS and other. Perhaps an Aronofsky or Lynch movie, or a show like Carnivàle… maybe just an indie road movie. Something moody, eerie, psychological or even epic – and surely edgy!

Read the review of  Surface/Light @

The RingMaster Review 03/05/2012

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