In many ways drawing an imposing and riveting link between their past and future, US metallers Agiel recently released an exciting tempestuous fury drenched in heavy invention and rapacious exploration. It came in the shape of the enthralling EP Dark Pantheons, a startling tempest of brutal death and symphonic black metal. Feeling like a new stage in the evolution of the Philadelphia quartet, we had to find out more and seized with both hands the opportunity to chat with vocalist/keyboardist and founding member James Taylor. Sharing his time with us we looked at the first breath of the band, the dark and band threatening moment in James’ life, the new EP and plenty more…
Hi James and thanks for sparing time to talk with us.
Can we start by talking about the beginnings of the band and the driving intent behind its founding?
It’s my pleasure. AGIEL has always been driven by one specific intent which is the musical expression of occult ideals and an exploration of our internal reality of the mind through occult methods. That has been the singular driving purpose of AGIEL from the moment of its inception through to the present day. Our songs are both a musical interpretation of our own personal experiences with this hidden reality as well as an expression of more universally experienced truths. We create this music to share at least in a small way the immense wonder, inspiration and transcendent effect that these experiences create.
Your sound at first was a more blackened death metal driven encounter but even then hinting at a wider expanse. Was the emergence of the diversity and varied flavouring which enthrals on your new EP Dark Pantheons, nagging away back then too?
I think this is true of every artist, that is to say that they always have at least a shadowy impression of what the ultimate expression of what your art could be. It’s barely visible, obscured through layers of their own imperfection, but they know that it is there and that they’ll reach it if they can just keep pushing forward. Sometimes there’s a sliver of clarity and the full splendour of that ideal comes flooding into the mind; an experience we often call inspiration. Clumsily, they try and try again to recreate that experience for others to hear. Outwardly it seems like a progression, but to them it is a series of finer revisions toward that same idyllic form.
How would you describe the evolution of your music and ideas over the past fifteen years or so?
The simplest way to describe the evolution of our musical growth would be that we are trying to capture more of the unearthly qualities that have been present in AGIEL’s music from the start. I’ve always loved the unsettling aspect of our sound created by chromaticism, atonality, and the use of exotic sounding scales. It’s in our nature to want to push the boundaries of our musical abilities. In our future work, the genesis of which you can hear on the new EP, we are pushing the limits of our compositional skills as well. Where as in the past it’s been all about breaking through the limitations of our skill with individual instruments it is now something that is being applied to AGIEL as a whole.
You have released many well-received releases with Dark Pantheons Again Will Reign of 2002 especially acclaimed. You were on a potent and hungrily followed ascent it is fair to say at that point and beyond but Agiel decided to go on a hiatus in 2007. What brought about that decision?
There were a lot of factors that went into that decision, but I think that a lot of it has to do with where my own spiritual journey had taken me at that point. I was trying to make sense of some of the powerful experiences that I’d had in the preceding years, but failing to do so. I was at a very dangerous point psychologically in that the interpretations I was reaching about what I had been through had brought me to a place of agnostic despair. I believed nothing and there was no validity to anything, including my own sense of self-being. Everything was overshadowed by a sense of fundamental doubt.
In a very gradual fashion my life became a series of meaningless, automated motions meant to conceal my indifference toward everyone and everything. But somehow I managed to ascribe enough meaning to my own inner voice that I began to listen to my intuitions again. I had a sense that an act of spiritual immolation might allow a renewed spirit to rise from the ashes of my shattered psyche.
Was it always going to be just a break or was there the danger it might become a permanent situation for the band?
At the time the way that I had to approach the whole situation was to allow for the possibility that this could have been a permanent act. I felt that if I had any inclination that this was simply a delay and not an irrevocable decision, that I’d never be willing to do make the hard decisions required of me. It needed to be a sacrifice in the truest sense of the word
So what sparked or inspired the end of 2012 to be the return of Agiel?
The end of 2012 was a very synchronous time and a lot of separate and seemingly unrelated events came together to drive us to this new release. I suppose that the very beginning was a spontaneous performance that we gave near the end of December. It just so happened that a few of our former band members were all going to be in town on the same day and had all planned, unbeknownst to each other, to be at the same metal show playing that night. With a bit of convincing we decided to play a single song just for a bit of fun.
After that night though, the feeling that I experienced playing this music again had stuck with me, which I was not expecting in the least. I suppose that you could say I heard the call of it inviting me back and my intuition told me that the time was right for AGIEL’s return. And I really believe that because all of the people that needed to come together to make this possible did so effortlessly. I let my subconscious awareness guide me and got out of my own way so that I could follow the true path.
You have as we said earlier just released the outstanding Dark Pantheons EP. It is a release which though it consists of reworked songs originally frequenting Dark Pantheons Again Will Reign, feels like a brand new chapter for Agiel. Is that how it feels for you?
It most definitely does. AGIEL has a tradition of reimagining itself and reinventing its identity while retaining that original spirit that makes us who we are. This has been a constant process and a necessary one I think. If you embrace the tenants of occultism as we have then self-evolution and the idea of transcending what you are to become more is a core part of your identity. Each of our releases is the embodiment of that struggle. I’d be loath to release something that was substantially the same as what came before.
Why revisit and re-imagine those older songs though rather than wait to unleash brand new ones? Is there an element of correcting ‘wrongs’ or just that the tracks have extra meaning to the band?
It’s definitely not a matter of righting wrongs or correcting some part of the past. On the contrary, I’m very proud of all our past efforts and the music that we created. But you hit it very close to the mark by suggesting that these songs have extra meaning to them. They absolutely do. When these songs were originally created they provided a means of discovering the meaning of AGIEL. Through the writing process we were brought closer to a true understanding of what it meant to be a part of this music. Each of the songs on the EP was originally conceived through a uniquely powerful occult experience. Those experiences were transmuted into music and now again back into a type of transcendent experience.
As the remaining original member I felt that it was absolutely necessary for everyone involved to share those original experiences. By reimagining that music we were able to come to a mutual understanding about the nature of AGIEL; an element that I deemed critical at that time and still do.
How did you approach the songs involved with the new EP and begin sculpting their new guises?
It’s interesting because while that process was so focused and vivid at the time it has become one great blur now that it is done. It feels almost like they have always existed, you know? I think though that the basic approach was that we’d take these songs in their original form as inspiration and then let our minds lead us the rest of the way. No preconceptions about what they should sound like. No restraints on style or any other aspect of our creativity. We took the time to really establish a deep understanding of their meaning and then let the AGIEL spirit take over, so to speak.
Though very much the same songs they all come with a distinctively new presence, how would you describe the journey and evolution of these particular tracks to your new adventure of sound?
I suppose that in a sense you could look at these tracks as a glimpse into the future of our sound, but that view would be distorted through the prism of the first Pantheons album and the spirit of that earlier sound. You might say it’s like the ability to observe distant objects in the universe through the effect of gravitational lensing. We’re catching a glimpse of something far off, but only through the influence of something else that separates us in the expanse. So while this is definitely our future, it will also sound very different than what is presented on Dark Pantheons.
One of the projects that we are in the process of right now is cleaning up some of our older material and cataloguing on the houseofagiel.com site. The goal behind this is to give everyone an idea of how the music has shifted, changed and evolved over the years. It’s interesting to look at from that perspective because you start to see that these changes are not linear and that they oscillate through differing sets of musical influences.
The elevated presence and focus on the symphonic and keys bred aspect of your sound is in many ways as much a look back to the keyboard rich sound of the band’s first release as it is a new direction is it fair to say?
I’m not sure that I’d say that this is a look backwards, but in a sense I suppose that you are right in that we are re-establishing the keyboards as a major factor in the band’s sound. In fact, through the whole arc of AGIEL’s music it is Dark Pantheons Again Will Reign (DPAWR) that stands out as an aberration to an otherwise keyboard rich sound. As I said before, we embrace the idea of stylistic progression and at that time the sound we were trying to create was less focused on those types of elements. I will say though that the final mix for DPAWR was balanced in a way that caused the existing keyboard elements to be pushed into the background of the soundscape; more so than they would have been otherwise.
So the EP gives a potent indication of your creative horizons or is it just a hint to an even deeper evolution to come?
This release has just scratched the surface of where we are headed musically. On the EP there was obviously some constraints placed on what we were going to do in terms of the song structures, stylistic choices with the instrumentation and so forth. Now though, we’re free to delve as deeply as we want into new ideas for all of those things and more. I think what you’ll see on this next release is a deep integration of all the separate elements that make up our sound. Conceptually what we want to convey is a greater sense of unity between the orchestral and modern instrumentation so they sound as one integrated symphonic mass.
Did re-visiting the tracks upon the EP bring up any obstacles or issues you were not expecting?
From the outset I expected that there would be significant challenges to realizing this release. There was the indoctrination of a new line-up, the fact that we’d be working on this over long distances with only a few opportunities to rehearse, getting everyone up to speed on the source material, and lastly the actual production of the recording itself. I knew that there was a lot to be accomplished from the beginning, but we managed to meet each one of them in turn.
Lyrically did you have to change anything to suit the new voices of the songs at all?
There were some lyrical changes, but I approached them in the same manner and with the same spirit as was taken toward the music. It made sense to me that the reimagining would not be segregated to just the music, but would extend through to the lyrics as well. There were a few tracks such as The Awakening for which the lyrics were written almost half a lifetime ago – literally! Some adjustments were made to better fit the flow and context of the new arrangements, but the content remained largely unaltered.
I’ve been pretty open with my feelings of disappointment about the vocal production on DPAWR. To be honest I’m not sure what happened, but it sounded like several separate vocal takes were layered on top of each other which was not intentional. So it was important to me that the vocals on the new release were clear and intelligible.
Have your lyrical inspirations and themes moved on as strongly as your music or do the same sparks still just as potently trigger your thoughts and vocal narratives?
Yes, significantly in fact. It’s been a natural progression that reflects the changes in my views and the recent experiences I’ve had in my spiritual practice. My earliest lyrics were mostly focused on acts of rebellion and blasphemy. Later on as my understanding of the occult matured there was a shift in the content of the lyrics to reflect those insights. During the DPAWR era the lyrics described the raw unconscious power that the gods of ancient religions represented. In the next release you’ll get to see where things have evolved to.
What comes next for Agiel, when will we be able to devour brand new material?
We’ve got a ton of things lined up for the future, but the main focus of the whole band right now is on writing material for the next release. That’s our top focus at the moment. I don’t want to place too firm a date on when that will be ready, but we are aiming for another early release in 2015. In the meantime though we’ve captured a bunch of liver performance material that will be released later this year. There are a few new tracks that were not included on the EP which will be included in the releases later this year, so you’ll get to hear a bit more of our musical progression before the new full length.
Again James, thank you for taking time to talk with us. Would you like to add any last words or thoughts?
First I’d like to say thank you for posing all of these really great questions! I really appreciate your interest in AGIEL’s music and the meaning behind it. My primary motivation for creating this music is to share the inspiration, peril and sheer astonishment I’ve experienced struggling to reach my potential as a spiritual being. AGIEL’s music is very raw in that way. I’ve tried to hide nothing and everything is exposed; every triumph and each failure equally evident and represented in our music. I feel truly honoured to share that journey with anyone willing to listen.
Read the review of Dark Pantheons @ https://ringmasterreviewintroduces.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/agiel-dark-pantheons/
The Ringmaster Review 08/05/2014
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