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The end times could be anytime. Whether it's from war or disease, climate chaos or total moral collapse, singer Colin H. van Eeckhout has long sensed an accelerating decay in the world. It can be heard in the bleak emotional roar of his post-metal band Amenra and now on the debut album of his newest project, Absent in Body. Much of it sounds like doom.
"Humanity is out of line … we forgot what's actually important. Every genius invention we've had in the past hundred decades is blowing up in our face right now," Van Eeckhout says, speaking via Zoom from a shadowy corner of his home in Ghent, Belgium. The threat of COVID-19 also remains: One of his sons just tested positive for the coronavirus this morning. "There's daily buckets of shit being dropped on our heads. It doesn't stop anymore."
Amenra guitarist Mathieu J. Vandekerckhove is also on the call, and — despite the signs of a world falling apart — both are in good spirits. They've come to talk about Absent in Body, their collaboration with Neurosis vocalist-guitarist Scott Kelly and former Sepultura drummer Iggor Cavalera. Their debut LP, Plague God, reveals an industrial-sludge supergroup that's far less about the fame and influence of its members than the sounds of pure force and catharsis they create together. "We really tried to make an album that stands for life today on this globe," says Van Eeckhout.
Absent in Body began as a collaboration between guitarists Kelly and Vandekerckhove. Van Eeckhout soon joined on vocals and bass, and they recorded a 19-minute track for Hypertension Records' The Abyss Stares Back series of limited-edition EPs. That first piece of music, which dropped in 2017, was initially called "Absent." Kelly eventually expanded that title, which provided the new band's name: Absent in Body. It comes from a Biblical reference ("absent from the body and … present with the Lord"), but the words are evocative of the music in other ways.
"The blueprint is almost five years old," says Vandekerckhove of the Absent in Body sound he started refining while touring with Amenra. "I had my laptop with me … making music with a drum computer and synths. I wanted to think out of the box — to have space and freedom to make music in a different way. It's more industrial … a crossover of all kinds of genres."
Work on the full-length began four years ago, and the long process of recording slowly unfolded at Amenra bassist Tim De Gieter's studio in Belgium. Kelly, based in Oregon, would visit the studio whenever he was touring through Europe. The stretched-out timeline also left an opening for London-based Cavalera to join the project, adding the tribal beats that are now an essential part of its character. All recording was done in person.
The vocals were finished during the pandemic lockdown in Europe that kept Amenra at home, unable to tour. Van Eeckhout's approach to writing the intensely emotional lyrics reflected the new collaboration. "I had talks with each member of the band — about life … parenthood and losing parents — to find a common ground. I tried to write the lyrics so it made sense for each one of us, so it's still our story that we tell."
Much of the grim subject matter is reality-based. The first song completed was "Sarin," a driving, hypnotic indictment of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult's 1995 nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Van Eeckhout was still a teenager when the story reached him in Belgium, and it left a mark. "It was the first time it fully sunk in how bad humanity could be, and then it came closer and closer," he says.
Like Neurosis before them, Amenra began as a hardcore punk band, and evolved into something heavier and atmospheric. Not surprisingly, there was a meeting of the minds when the two groups finally met. Van Eeckhout was introduced to Kelly by Integrity's Dwid Hellion, and they often spent quality time together on the road. Amenra's Mass V and Mass VI albums were later released on Neurosis' Neurot Recordings label.
"We're all kind of telling the same story in a different way, from our own world," van Eeckhout says of the kin-ship between Absent in Body's members. "For Mathieu and me to be able to work with people whom we once considered our idols ... it's quite mind-blowing."
Much like how ancient classical music was uniquely suited to deal with monumental human tragedies, expansive modern heavy-music artists like Absent in Body, Neurosis and Amenra are fully prepared and committed to descend into that darkness. And van Eeckhout expects they'll have an endless supply of painful material to work with. "We're telling a very old story again," he says, "of humanity destroying itself at a very slow pace."