Guitarist and songwriter Don Anderson is best known for Agalloch, Portland cult heroes who tread expansive ground across two decades, encompassing black metal, folk metal, post-rock, doom and more. But before albums like 2002's The Mantle and 2006's Ashes Against the Grain set a high watermark for atmosphere in underground heavy music, Anderson cut his teeth in the wildly experimental Sculptured. Each Sculptured record feels like a challenge to the boundaries of the metal genre, incorporating organs, strings, flutes and seemingly any other instrument the band could get their hands on.
If Sculptured were a testing ground for Anderson's creativity, Agalloch would be where his musicianship became fully realized. His playing helped define a lot of what would come to be known as "Cascadian Black Metal," straddling the line between brutality and melodicism, and weaving in elements of folk guitar. As Agalloch continued to gain attention, Sculptured fell dormant.
Then in 2016 Agalloch announced they would be disbanding, and the band members all decided to pursue music elsewhere. Anderson re-teamed with former Agalloch mates Jason Walton and Aesop Dekker to form Khorada, and now he's bringing Sculptured to the forefront once more.
Sculptured's comeback LP, The Liminal Phase — which is due out August 27th and available for pre-order now — picks up right where its predecessor, Embodiment, left off 13 years before. It's also offers a quasi-sequel to what Anderson accomplished in Agalloch. There's plenty of black-metal riffage to satisfy any fan of his better-known band, but the album reaches back ever further. Songs like "State of Exception" lean into the classic heavy metal of yore, delivering exultant solos that sound like they could've come from Randy Rhoads' hands. Reverence for the past collides hard with newer experimentation, as Sculptured shift from riffs in one moment to a synth line in the next, each track tracing its own epic journey.
In totality, The Liminal Phase feels like a rare full-circle moment in an artist's discography. In returning to one of his earliest bands, Anderson has combined the blank canvas of ideas that Sculptured's earliest records allowed for, with the songwriting chops he honed on Agalloch's classic releases. We spoke to Anderson about his musical origins, the fallout from Agalloch, the similarities in distanced teaching and distanced songwriting, and more.
WHAT WERE YOUR BEGINNINGS AS A MUSICIAN LIKE? WHAT WAS THE FIRST INSTRUMENT YOU PICKED UP?
DON ANDERSON My family had an upright piano that my sister took lessons on. She played the standard early repertoire and I remember feeling really impacted by the large and acoustic sound of the piano. I would hang out in the room she practiced in so I could be within that sound. So, I did bang around on the piano as a very young kid. But I very soon transferred to air guitar the moment I saw Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" video on late-night TV. However, it was Yngwie Malmsteen who turned me onto the guitar. I really just wanted to be him.
WAS MUSIC A MAJOR PART OF YOUR HOUSEHOLD?
Not really. Aside from my sister playing piano for a couple of years and my parents listening to classic country music, there really wasn't much music in the household. Once I got into Malmsteen, I eventually began listening to Bach, Beethoven and Vivaldi, and the house very quickly became filled with music. Today we always have music playing and so my daughter is never without it.
WHAT WERE THE FIRST METAL ACTS THAT STUCK WITH YOU?
In the early-mid-Eighties, it was the hair-metal groups like Poison, Mötley Crüe, Stryper, but also more traditional metal like Ozzy and Priest. I also had some Loudness tapes because we often hosted Japanese foreign exchange students — which is also how I first heard Malmsteen. Once I saw Iron Maiden's Powerslave concert video, I was definitely hooked onto heavy metal and especially the more melodic and epic-sounding metal.
I WATCHED THIS TALK YOU GAVE ON THE EVOLUTION OF HEAVY METAL THROUGH THE YEARS. I'M CURIOUS FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE: I'D SAY YOU WERE A PART OF A REALLY EXCITING TIME IN BLACK METAL IN AMERICA, WITH AGALLOCH AND A LOT OF CONTEMPORARIES CREATING EXCITING RECORDS. WHAT'S YOUR VIEW OF THAT SCENE AND WORLD IN RETROSPECT?
This is a good question because I've just finished reading Daniel Lake's book on USBM. I'm honored to be part of a "scene" that now has some recognition in the way Tampa death metal did, Swedish Gothenburg metal and, of course, Norwegian black metal. But it didn't start that way at all. We were very alone here in Oregon, and the people who heard our demo and first album didn't believe we were from the U.S., let alone a relatively unknown state like Oregon. It seemed an odd place for a band like us. I do think that what became the USBM scene, or more specifically the "Cascadian" scene around the Northwest, did offer original sounds and influences different from Europe. The environmental themes, for example, were specific to this area. I think a lot of us weren't afraid to mix different influences into black metal. Agalloch, early on, wanted to really diversify the sound of black metal — we didn't even consider ourselves, or call ourselves, black metal. But it was the foundation.
IT'S BEEN FIVE YEARS SINCE THE BREAKUP OF AGALLOCH. WHAT'S YOUR PERSPECTIVE NOW ON WHAT YOU DID WITH THE BAND, AND WHAT'S YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE GUYS NOW?
I'm very proud of what we did and I feel very lucky. I have no idea why we got as popular as we did. It really wasn't supposed to happen. I mean, we were an obscure band from Oregon recording European-sounding metal in the late Nineties and we weren't playing live. I think the time and place was right, and by 2006 things really started to happen once Ashes came out. So, we were very lucky. I'm proud of all the records and shows we did, and I'm humbled by the fans' support of us then and now.
My relationship with the guys is actually better than it's been in a very long time. The band was obviously a huge stressor between all of us during the last four-to-five years. What ultimately happened wasn't anything special — it was straight out of Spinal Tap and Some Kind of Monster — a total rock & roll cliché, really. So, in that sense, it's almost part of the whole story of being in a band. It's really all water under the bridge at this point. I don't even think about the rough times anymore. John, Jason and I are best friends, and we've all hung out and spoken, texted, emailed over the last few years. Aesop and John are not friends, but they are on OK terms. But, Jason, John and I are like we were in the late Nineties when we were just friends talking about music and eventually making it. It's super relaxed and we're just drinking beer and debating music like we always did.
ONE OF THE THINGS THAT ALWAYS STOOD OUT TO ME IN YOUR BANDS IS THE USE OF INSTRUMENTS NOT TYPICALLY HEARD IN METAL. I THINK THERE'S SAXOPHONE ON EARLY SCULPTURED RECORDS, AND WHAT I THINK IS SYNTHESIZER ON THE LATEST. IS IT IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO INCORPORATE INSTRUMENTS YOU USUALLY DON'T HEAR IN THIS GENRE?
That was actually a trumpet. The impetus for that was a couple of things. I was tired of "here's another guitar solo" whenever there seemed a place for a solo in a song. The owner of the studio was a trumpet player and would play on records recorded there for free. I really loved hearing soprano saxophone on Dream Theater's "Another Day" and thought something like that would work with Sculptured. So, I asked and he obliged.
WAS ANYTHING ON THE NEW ALBUM ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE MATERIAL FOR AGALLOCH?
"At the Margins of Light" has riffs going back to 2009 — right after Embodiment. I think some riffs for "The Ordeal of Undecidability" were tagged as being either for Agalloch or Sculptured. "Only Shame Can Save Us" was written for Agalloch, specifically. But, even then, I knew in the back of my mind that I could guide it into a more Sculptured direction if I wanted. This sort of thing has happened before. "To Drown" from Marrow of the Spirit was originally written by me for Embodiment as a closer for that record. But it just didn't fit. So John had his way with it and we used it for Agalloch. I don't really imbue anything I do with a sort of "aura" or "vibe" — writing music is simply a craft for me. I don't wait for, or require, inspiration. I write as a kind of regular practice. So, to me, anything can be anything. There's nothing inherently this or that about anything I write.
IN ADDITION TO PLAYING IN BANDS, YOU'RE ALSO A PROFESSOR. WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING IN A DISTANCED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT AND THEN, I'M ASSUMING, A DISTANCED SONGWRITING ONE?
I guess I eased into it in a way because most of my work in bands has been distanced. Agalloch was apart for most of its career, so was Khorada and Sculptured, too. So, I'm used to that. But, like distance learning, I didn't necessarily get into doing this to sit in a room alone and have a one-way experience. I love the classroom and the unpredictability and spontaneity of teaching. When I walk into a classroom, I have a very general idea of what I'd like to happen, but if the class is moving in a different direction — discussing a specific idea or following a line of thought — I go with it. It's like playing live. I'm not a very metaphysical or spiritual person, but I do believe in letting things emerge on their own terms and not getting in the way. I've learned so much from letting things happen on their own because I'm not imposing what I think I "want." And quite often it's the students who teach me and it's the musicians I work with who make me a better musician. Unfortunately, this doesn't really happen in a distance learning environment, and I think we're all seeing that now. So many were like, "Thank God for online learning. It saved the day." Yeah, it's a great option for students who can't make it to campus, have childcare or health obstacles, but it also has its limits. Students now regularly express how much they miss the classroom environment. There's nothing like it, just like there's nothing like jamming in the rehearsal space or playing live.
YOU MOVED FROM THE NORTHWEST TO NEW YORK FOR A WHILE. DID THAT INFLUENCE YOUR SONGWRITING AND OUTLOOK AT ALL?
Not my songwriting, but yes, definitely my outlook. My time in New York was one of the best times of my life. I know people may not associate living in Manhattan with living simply — but it was the most simple life I've lived. We were in a small apartment, no car, and everything we wanted or needed was in walking distance. I loved the people, the energy, and the cultural intensity. We decided, however, it was amazing in the short term, but we didn't see it working in the long term financially. It's one of the most expensive places to live. I'm happy back in the Northwest where we can afford a home and a family. I missed the Northwest a lot. Of course, now I miss New York a lot, too! Maybe we'll return and retire there. I really feel it's a second home for me.
IT FEELS LIKE SCULPTURED'S VOCALS WENT THROUGH KIND OF A HUGE SHIFT FROM EMBODIMENT. ON THE NEW ALBUM, I'M REMINDED A LOT OF HUM AND SLINT. DID YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR IDEA GOING INTO THE RECORD ABOUT HOW YOU WOULD APPROACH THE VOCALS?
Not at all, but I'm pleased with your Slint comparison! Embodiment was going to have the original clean vocalist, Brian Yager on it. But he sort of dragged his feet with working with the demos, and once he read the lyrics he felt he couldn't sing them. He's always been a Christian, which is cool of course, but he said he couldn't sing these lyrics. I don't see those lyrics as anti-Christian or anti-God — we're not Deicide or something. But those lyrics were definitely fueled by both an anger at and confusion with God. My father had passed in 2006 and I continue to find it impossible to reconcile the suffering in the world with the possibility of God. So, for me, the record was about placing God on trial and keeping him there in a kind of indefinite detention so that all my questions about existence, love and death may be finally laid out and confronted. So, Brian decided to pull out at the last minute and I rang up my friend Tom who sang in my first "real" band. But Tom isn't my ideal Sculptured singer. He did a great job, but I didn't want to have him on the next record. I wanted a more melancholic and less "metal" vocalist. And Marius was perfect for the job. Once I heard his vocals, I decided to just keep this record free of "growl" vocals. But I may bring those back on the next record
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THAT, THERE ARE A LOT OF PARTS ON THIS RECORD THAT I FEEL LIKE SORT OF TOUCH ON METAL'S HISTORY. "STATE OF EXCEPTION" HAS ALL OF THESE SWEEPING, INSANE SOLOS THAT FEEL LIKE A THROWBACK TO HEAVY METAL OF THE PAST. IS PRESENTING THESE DIFFERENT SIDES OF METAL'S HISTORY A CONSCIOUS THING?
That was. I originally wanted a keyboard/guitar solo back and forth like Malmsteen and Jens Johansson did on those early records. But, when that didn't work out, I decided to have a guest join me and I was definitely channeling Slayer for that part. Kevin Hufnagel was a perfect complement to my solos and I'm really proud of that part of the record. I'm so glad you mentioned it!
I FIND A LOT OF UPLIFTING FEELINGS AND SOUNDS ON THIS RECORD, AS WELL AS IN A LOT OF YOUR PRIOR WORK IN AGALLOCH. IS IT A CONSCIOUS DECISION TO WORK IN THESE MOMENTS OF BEAUTY? I FIND THAT THEY'RE A CONSISTENT BREATH OF FRESH AIR IN THE GENRE.
Yes, they are. Metalheads shouldn't be afraid of major keys. And we shouldn't be afraid of light and hope in even the darkest depths of despair. It's easy to be miserable. It's harder, much, much harder to have even a glimmer of hope.
THIS IS A CLICHÉ SENTIMENT GENERALLY, BUT THE LIMINAL PHASE REALLY DOES FEEL LIKE A CULMINATION OF YOUR OUTPUT THROUGH THE YEARS. DO YOU FEEL THAT WAY?
I can say I'm very happy with this record and feel it's some of my best work. I don't know if it sums up my history, but then again, I'm way too close to it to make that judgement. I'm pleased you feel that way and, really, I'm just happy anyone cares about what I do musically.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS NEXT FOR HEAVY METAL?
I think metal has shown itself to be incredibly absorbent. I think we'll continue to see bands incorporate all sorts of outside styles, influences, genres and approaches. Within 50 years the genre has transformed so much and at such a quick pace. I think that says a lot about the form.