Interview with Aether Realm about the second full-length “Tarot”
Finally our long waited time is coming to an end.
ÆTHER REALM the super talented DIY folk metal band from North Carolina has finished preparing for the second-full length “Tarot” and I luckily joined the first listening party for crowdfunding backers. It was absolutely exciting moment with full of mind-blowing tunes! I’m still in love with their first full-length “One Chosen By The Gods” but “Tarot” actually showed me much wider range of their musical universe with various amazing tracks than I experienced with the debuted album. “Tarot” is a prime candidate for the best metal album in 2017 for sure.
So I quickly decided to send a couple of questions to Jake about the album.
It was in 2013 that I had an interview with you for the first time, Jake. Time flied so quickly, the upcoming album “Tarot” already showed me a huge development of your band, congrats!
First of all, could you explain the reason why you guys took such a long time to finalize the album after the successful crowdfunding campaign?
Jake: Well I think there are a lot of factors here, but I’ll try to cover the big ones. For one, despite having much more success with our crowdfunding campaign than I envisioned, compared to bands signed to big labels, our budget was really really small. What that means when it comes to working with other talented people to try to achieve our “musical vision”, is that if we want really good work, we have to be okay with being pushed back when bigger budget projects come along for them. Kile Odell (the talented producer/engineer we worked with) has projects that are significantly easier than ours on a regular basis, and they usually pay more. He did us a huge favor with all the time he put towards making Tarot sound the way we envisioned it sounding. A related factor is that Aether Realm is a fun project that we’re all passionate about (shit, it’s basically my life), but it doesn’t make us any money. Anything coming in through merch or digital sales or anything, just goes directly to help offset the cost of trying to make cool art. We all have full time jobs, so we have do a lot of work to make sure we can take the time off required to do things like tour or spend time in the studio. In my case, when we were deep in the mixing process, I was working days as a pharmacy tech at Walgreens, then driving ~3 hours to Greensboro, working on the mix all night with Kile, then coming back to work in the morning. Rinse. Repeat. It didn’t work out very well, I eventually had a pretty bad car accident where I fell asleep driving and totaled my 4runner (Our normal touring vehicle actually. I’ve got a replacement vehicle, but it’s not exactly suitable for tour, so I’ve still got to figure out how we’re gonna take care of that. One thing at a time I guess). The work situation wasn’t great, we were understaffed and I ended up with more responsibility and less pay than I wanted-ended up quitting and spending 2 weeks just basically living with Kile at the studio to finish the mix.
All this was after some pretty significant delays (originally we had hoped to get everything by October 2016, the Alestorm, Nekrogoblikon tour…what a wild thought!)
TL;DR - There’s a old saying that everyone wants work to be good, cheap, and fast-but you can only ever pick two. We’re not wealthy, but we don’t want to compromise the quality of the music, so fast was the option that was sacrificed.
I noticed “The Magician” has no place in the new album. Originally, the song was written for the album, right? Why did you do that?
Jake: It was a tough call-if we could have figured out a way to include it and still get the album out when we wanted to, we would have. The first hurdle was that the stem files for the recording have been lost to time-a side effect of recording related songs years apart I guess. We could take the original master file and try to EQ match it to the rest of the stuff (and that’s likely how we’ll do it for the vinyl release), but then we run into a second hurdle. We wrote about 80 minutes of music within the Tarot theme, and I don’t know if it’s a quirk of the replication process (when you just burn a CD at home, that’s called duplication, and generally you can have up to 80 minutes per cd, but you end up with a CD that doesn’t consistently work with all players. Professionally, you generally go with replication-a process that involves some kind of glass master disc? I don’t know a lot about it other than it results in a more consistent product) but the company we work with for CD production has a limit of 74 minutes per disc. We could have done a double album, but again, that’s more money, and we just don’t have a lot to waste there. After discussing it a whole lot, we decided that if something had to go, it had to be The Magician. It’s still one of my favorite songs I’ve written, and it hurt not being able to include it. In my mind it’s part of the album, and if I could compress down all 80 minutes of music do a single bite sized song, it would either be The Magician or Tarot. We just didn’t want to deny anyone the ability to listen to new music for the sake of something fans had already heard.
To be honest, tarot cards are kind of mumbo jumbo fantasies for me like any other fortune-telling tools and I’m not familiar with meanings behind those cards. So, could you specify the album cover art? I like the mysterious art anyway!
Jake: Well for the CD cover, we worked with KolaHari . Tyler found his work first (he and Heinrich follow a lot of really talented artists on social media, and tend to introduce me to artists that I realize I’d like to work with in the context of band commissions). We didn’t give him much direction actually - he’s a tattoo artist based in *I think* London? He’s done tarot themes in his work before, and we just told him about the theme of the album, talked about some elements he’s used in his work that we like (he’s used that phases of the moon motif a few times and I think that looks really cool, and I think his style of clouds is nice) and mentioned maybe just having some kind of character doing a reading would work well. He took that and ran with it, and we were very pleased with the result. He presented us with a few options (his art photoshopped with different backgrounds) but ultimately we took the black and white version, and tyler worked some of his own graphic design magic on it, made it grungier, and did some manipulation to the text for the album title and the Aether Realm rune at the top, as well as modifying the dimensions of the entire piece to make it fit both a square (for digital purposes) and a slightly wide rectangle (for the digipak).
For some of the other art in the CD package (manly the insert) we used photography from Randy Edwards some tiled textures from Adrian Baxter and by the way, Adrian did the art for the vinyl edition of the album whenever we finish with that, it’s AMAZING) and a piece by Michael Meadors.
Sorry for the wall of text-just so many people have provided us with really fantastic art for this whole project and I want to make sure everyone gets acknowledged.
As far as the theme for the album itself, it all started with The Golden Tarot (authored by Liz Dean, illustrated by Melissa Launay). My friend Casey had bought the deck in 2012 or 2013 maybe? It became a regular activity when our group got together-play games, maybe go out and hike the railroad tracks, and at night light some candles and read each other’s fortunes. I’ve always been a skeptic with any sort of supernatural stuff, but I think there’s a kind of magic in allowing yourself to believe something that you rationally know is just powered by suggestion. Sparked by Melissa’s magical renditions of the major arcana (check them out here, still my favorite tarot art to date https://www.melissalaunay.com/gallery/books/the-golden-tarot/ ) I presented Heinrich with the idea to do a themed album one night while driving back from a late cookout run. I liked the idea because I’m absolutely terrible at thinking of things to write lyrics about, and this gave me a framework to build on. Heinrich seemed to agree this was cool, and so everything we worked on from then on was with that theme in mind. Initially my interest in tarot cards was pretty shallow, but 5 years of writing about them has granted me at least a little bit of relevant knowledge. We hadn’t started any sort of focused effort on planning a new album yet, though we were still writing riffs and coming up with ideas. We’d I think done 2 or 3 DIY tours at this point, and were all still living in Greenville, NC. Jack Rodriguez-Dougherty (then still unmarried and just Jack Dougherty) was still in the band.
I remember The Magician starting out as a Guitar Pro file, and later a Logic file, called Wish. Strength was mostly written around the same time and we debated which we would record, and there were ideas that made it into TSTMTS that were already in existence in Guitar Pro or just as piano ideas. Later came The Chariot, though at that point most of the songs had been started, with some ideas for songs that never made the final cut (I’ve still got a guitar pro file somewhere for a song called “the lovers” that was a RIPPER, but just never got fleshed out. Will probably re-use).
Okay, let’s move on to the track by track insight. Could you add your interpretation to the following track list?
Track01 - The Fool (7:54)
The dramatic opening track discloses you a lot of new aspects of the band already and leads you to their brand new musical journey.
Jake: So the Fool, the card itself, depicts a carefree traveller taking the first step on their journey. Face turned the sky, head in the clouds, they don’t realize that their step will lead them tumbling down a cliff. There’s a dog tugging at The Fool’s leg, representing reason and realism, trying to stop them from hurting themselves.
I’ve seen aspects of myself in different cards over the years of working on this (I saw myself in the Magician for a long time when things were going well and I was a little more, uh…full of myself). Now though, I see myself most in The Fool-head in the clouds, very gung ho about going on new adventures (like big tours with Alestorm, or grandiose musical ideas), and perhaps the most apt parallel, hopelessly disorganized, forgetful, and prone to wanting to do “big things” despite being a broke ass 24 yr old in a band, haha.
So that manifests lyrically in this song as a bit of self reflection. During some of the darker times during the creation of this one, I felt like attempting to continue to create music was pretty hopeless, and I hated everything I was making, and led me to feel like I was continuing to live in the shadow of what we had done in 2012 with OCBTG. I (kind of cryptically I guess) describe attempts by others to bring me out of that state, and how facing your own flaws and shining a light on your own personal problems can hurt a lot (…the light she shined on me, it burned me deep down to my bones…) despite the fact that that’s probably the healthiest thing for a person in that situation (…but the flesh that sloughed from the bone was blackened and diseased. That flesh was not my flesh…), and kind of punctuated at the end by an attempt to command myself to try to do the shit I want to do, because we have a finite amount of time to do it. Not intended as a lecture towards anyone that finds themselves deep in the grip of depression, but just a personal coping mechanism.
Musically, I was being influenced a lot by Mike Low’s writing style in my old band Oubliette, Wilderun, Opeth, and Insomnium. Heinrich did some sick sound design in this one as well, and really fleshed out a lot of the guitar parts to include some good harmonies.
Track02 - Tarot (4:23)
I’m sure the title track immediately blows you away. It’s just intensive and easy to make you into the song!
Jake: Heinrich took this melody/chord progression I had written for the chorus and made this insane rhythm guitar part for it. That kind of set the stage for the writing of the whole thing-fast, riffy, but anchored by a catchy chorus melody, and polished with 2 great guitar solos (first Taylor Washington of Paladin did a guest solo, followed by Heinrich), a really fun breakdown section by Donny, and overall some of my favorite orchestral work by Dan Müller of Wilderun (who, by the way, did all of the big orchestral arranging for the entire album. Thanks Dan!) I think this song kind of encompasses most of the elements of what we want to be as a band.
Track03 – The Tower (2:56)
Short but there are full of tasty guitar melodies in this track.
Jake:Yeah, this is one of the ones we started a long time ago. The hook in this song has been written since 2012, and we figured we wanted to kind of test ourselves in a way-could we do a song without any synth elements? I guess people that listen are gonna decide, but I’m at least glad to have a song we can faithfully re-create live even if my computer explodes mid concert and we lose all our orchestral tracks.
Track04 – King of Cups (4:59)
Great party piece and has some similar vibe with “The Chariot”. It would be a lot of fun if you experience the song at them live!
Jake: I can describe all the shorter, fun ones more or less the same way. We take a melody and chord progression, Heinrich fleshes it out into interesting guitar parts, tyler takes my boring programmed drums and plays them in a fun way, and (at least for this album), Donny throws in cool ideas for breakdowns or leads or solo sections (this one is the same way. Heinrich and Donny have back to back solos, and Donny wrote this fun like, 80s hair metal riff/solo-I think it’s cool juxtaposed against Heinrich’s more like, Jeff Loomis style approach here). Oh and Chris Bowes from Alestorm did a guest verse. We got drunk at his house one night and wrote some ridiculous lyrics!
Track05 – Death (4:28)
It has some impressive combination between killer blasts and guitar harmonies right before the beautiful chorus part.
Jake: The musical inspiration on this one ranged from Bodom & Hypocrisy (the “theme riff” in this song reminds me a lot of Eraser, and I hope (perhaps unrealistically) that it can be even a fraction as beloved by the metal community) to Dragon Warrior Monsters 2 (go play the Ice World, you may hear some similarities in the chord progression).
There’s a combination of my own layered voice and Philip Reed’s choir arrangement going on in the chorus, and it’s probably the first time I’ve heard my own singing voice in a song and not really had any problems with it. I think it came out well!
Lyrically, this is one of the songs describing more personal issues as opposed to being a fun short fantasy story. Working on the same thing for so long and not really having much to show for it put me in a bad spot emotionally multiple times. Like with most of my lyrical stuff, there isn’t really some big point I’m trying to make, more just doing my best to describe the feelings and emotions that I have experience with.
Feeling so bad that you want to die is something I think a lot of people have dealt with, certainly more people that admit to having dealt with it, and I guess I hope if anyone that likes this is in that state, they can listen to songs like this and maybe feel less alone.
Track06 – The Chariot (6:24)
The song became their flagship tune since it was released as a new single in 2015. You may know the song as their first music video as well.
Jake: Not much to say. You’ve heard it, it’s a fun bouncy banger about overcoming the obstacles that life throws at you!
Track07 – The Devil (8:45)
Black, symphonic and melancholic but absolutely punchy piece! You can see obvious new aspects of their music through the song. One of my favorites.
Jake: This was a really neat one I think, because it’s one of the ones we stepped out of our comfort zone on the most. Kind of a spiritual successor to the title track from One Chosen I think. Big evil sounding riffs and chord progressions, amazing orchestrations by Dan, Tyler pushed to complete exhaustion from the speed we’re making him blast (sorry dude!), Heinrich facing the same issue from the speed of the string skipping verse riff, Donny with a flamenco influenced acoustic interlude out of nowhere (he originally wrote it as a joke, but I told him we had to keep it)-it goes all over the place. We didn’t do it like that on purpose, it’s just where the music happened to go, you know? Shout out to Escher (NC) for being the primary influence on the big staccato diminished riff just before the outro.
Track08 – The Emperor (2:48)
The shortest track in the album has some tasty Bodom vibe in its melodies.
Jake: Not too much to say on this one-just a fun track. I was listening to a lot of Kalmah at the time, haha.
Track09 – Strength (6:17)
Simply soak into the groove and you may encounter with some nice surprise by the guitar solo somewhere in the second half.
Jake: One of the earliest ones we started working on within the Tarot theme, I’ve been off and on worried that it wouldn’t really “fit”. I think with Kile’s consistent production style, the way Heinrich altered the chorus riff in the second half for a more “metal” chuggy feel, and tyler’s use of like, uh, double kick flams? (I’m not sure what the actual term is, but whenever he leads into a beat with a quick one or two kicks), it ends up working and feeling like Aether Realm-whatever that means, haha. Donny’s solo on this one is one of my favorites too-you can hear jazz background I think!
Track10 – Temperance (5:27)
You can feel the band’s musical growth and depth with this track. And you may find Jake can manage not only killer shouts but also gorgeous clean vocals.
Jake: Donny wrote the whole acoustic part up until before the vocals, and I think it serves well to bring the listener out of Strength and into the kind of repetitive prayer/chant in Temperance. Philip and his choir knocked the choir vocals out of the park, Dan did fantastically on the orchestrations, and Heinrich’s guitar work when it gets heavy has got a lot of nuance (like it always does)
Lyrically it’s just kind of a self reminder that sometimes you need to slow down, find your quiet place, and take a breath. I’m guilty of judging my self worth based around my artistic output often, and that means that when I take breaks I feel pretty guilty, but people definitely can’t just go all out all of the time.
Track11 – The Sun, The Moon, The Star (19:09)
Needless to say, this is the longest track in their entire releases. The colorful hymn should spread into your body and soul. It’s appropriate to close their new musical journey.
Jake: I’ve already written such a wall of text in here already, I wouldn’t really be able to cover this one in depth without making it unreadable I think, haha. Heinrich and I shared the writing here, and everyone involved did a great job. It’s a story about what it means to leave the comfort of home, go on an adventure, and a reflection of what you’re giving up when you decide to do that. I hope people can listen all the way through, it’s a doozy of a song, and we hid some of our favorite parts on the whole album near the end.
There was a replacement of a guitarist after the previous interview with you, right? Could you introduce Donny Burbage to your fans?
Jake: Hey fans, this is DONNY!
Donny, this is fans!
I’ve find you’re going to have a big European Tour with Alestorm this year, woohoo. Could you show us the tour dates so far?
28.9 - Bochum, DE @ Zeche
29.9 - Berlin, DE @ Festsaal Kreuzberg
30.9 - Munich, DE @ Backstage
1.10 - Budapest, HU @ Barba Negra
2.10 - Zwickau, DE @ Break Out Festival
3.10 - Frankfurt, DE @ Batschkapp
4.10 - Hamburg, DE @ Grünspann
5.10 - Hannover, DE @ Faust
6.10 - Vienna, AT @ Simm City
7.10 - Cologne, DE @ Essigfabrik
8.10 - Bern, CH @ Gaskessel
9.10 - Toulouse, FR @ Bikini
10.10 - Rennes, FR @ L’etage
11.10 - Rouen, FR @ Le 106
13.10 - Amsterdam, NL @ Melkweg
14.10 - Nijmegen, NL @ Doornroosje
15.10 - Pratteln, CH @ Z7
16.10 - Nuremberg, DE @ Hirsch
17.10 - Stutgart, DE @ Club Universum
18.10 - Lyon, FR @ Transbordeur
19.10 - Sion, CH @ Le Pont Franc
20.10 - Selestat, FR @ Rock Your Brain Fest
21.10 - Paris, FR @ Elysee Montmarte
22.10 - Antwerpen, BE @ Trix"
How about Asian tour or any other countries?
Jake: We’d love to do it, and I hope we have enough money one day (touring is expensive when you’re a little band!)
Do you have any information/thoughts about “Tarot” you want to share with your fans?
Jake: I think we covered it all here. I’m really just excited that anyone at all wants to hear music that we’ve made. Thank you for enjoying it!
ÆTHER REALM - "Tarot"
Available on June 7th, 2017
ÆTHER REALM are:
Vincent "Jake" Jones – bass, vocals
Heinrich Arnold – guitar, vocals
Tyler Gresham – drums
Donny Burbage — guitar
Band photos by Randy Edwards