Man's curse of consciousness — with its nagging questions of, Who are we and why are we here? — has haunted humanity since the days when we scrawled primitive images on the walls of caves. These are the same timeless questions that Belgium's Amenra have been addressing in their music ever since vocalist Colin H. van Eeckhout and guitarist Mathieu Vandekerckhove manifested the band into existence back in 1999.
According to Van Eeckhout, Amenra started out in the straight-edge hardcore and early metalcore scene in Europe, drawing from influences such as Integrity, Ringworm and late-Nineties screamo. Eventually, the guys discovered genre-bending bands like Neurosis and Converge, which opened the door to experimentation. With 2005's Mass III, the band established the Church of Ra, a loose collective of bands and like-minded artists including Oathbreaker, Black Heart Rebellion, contemporary dancer Natalia Pieczuro, poet Sofie Verdoodt, photographer Stefaan Temmerman and videographer Tine Guns.
Amenra's most recent offering, Mass VI, available through Neurot Recordings, continues the journey set by their earlier records — refining their dynamic, emotionally crushing, light-and-shade doom and deepening their unique philosophy.
We caught up with Van Eeckhout to discuss harnessing the power of religious symbols for independent thought and discovery, and the rituals of doom.
IN PAST INTERVIEWS, YOU SEEM TO HAVE A DEPRECATING VIEW ON YOUR RECORDS ONCE THEY ARE RELEASED. DO YOU FEEL THE SAME WAY ABOUT MASS VI?
COLIN H. VAN EECKHOUT Either the record is better or I am getting older and lowering the bar. In the past, it was never good enough and as soon as the record was mastered we would start making a huge mental list of what was good enough and what should be better. With this record, I was relieved that we succeeded in writing yet another album. I ended up with a more positive feeling. I'm not saying that it's better than the older ones, it was different. I wasn't bummed; for the other albums, it took me a year to listen to them again to realize that they weren't total shit. It can always be better, but I believe we did a good job on the new album.
EACH AMENRA ALBUM RECEIVES THE NAME MASS. WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS DESIGNATION?
We started off calling them Mass because when people go to church they have questions, and the sermons that are part of the mass help them to form their own answers. That's the comparison we make to our music. Every mass, or every album, is a moment in time for us that bundles all the shit that was happening to us in the last years; everything that brought us to our knees. Those albums are moments of introspection, moments where we look within ourselves for those answers. It's the inner process that is happening in your mind or in your heart. We're trying to give it form in a certain space where you can channel that energy. It's a box where you put everything in and when the concert is over you close the box and it stays there until the next show. That was the idea for why we called it a mass.
RELIGION, PARTICULARLY CHRISTIANITY, PLAYS A ROLE IN THE BAND'S AESTHETIC. WERE YOU RAISED WITH RELIGION?
I was raised with the total opposite. In schools here in Belgium, you get Godsdienst, literally God's Service, for an hour a week or more. You talk about Jesus Christ and whatever. It's more or less the morals attached to the whole thing. I was raised atheist, Vrijzinnig, which means free spirit, which is probably why I don't have a total aversion to it. I think a lot of kids who were confronted with having to go to mass every week, probably saw it as something not cool.
The morals behind the stories interested me. I saw the symbols and I saw the big church in our small village; I saw my friends having ceremonies when they were six and twelve years old, and I didn't have that. I think it kept my vision clear so when I approached it when I was older I saw it for what it was: a moral guideline which every religion is at its base but dogma and the written word kind of fucks it up.
I claimed it back. I was interested in ritual, which is something that we lack in modern society. Ritual has been important since the early days of humanity, and still exists in certain tribes. I try to claim everything back and make it valuable again, to attach a certain gravity. I wanted to study the importance of ritual and look into the beauty of it. I'm drawn to the symbols and metaphors taken most from Christianity, because that's what we were confronted with when we were younger.
Symbols like the cross are a super powerful symbol for pain, for sacrifice — I just claimed it back. Sacrifice is important in human life. Pain and acknowledging pain in life is important and necessary. It became a part of our visual world blended with our music.
DO YOU HAVE A BELIEF IN A FORMAL DEITY OR IS IT JUST AN ENERGY?
I think it is indeed a sort of energy and I don't think it should be given a name and certainly not a face. I am an agnostic, I believe what I see, but I also believe in what I feel. You can summon something untouchable with music, be it by giving goosebumps or a shiver down your spine or bringing tears to someone's eyes. For me that is already a spiritual or religious experience. I do believe there is a higher power you can summon, that you can put your trust in.
SYMBOLS AND ANCIENT WRITING PLAY AN IMPORTANT PART IN YOUR VISUAL EXPRESSION. HOW DO YOU FEEL SYMBOLS PLAY OUT IN OUR EXPERIENCES AS HUMANS?
Symbols and strong visual imagery bring you to a halt. It stops you, it takes you by the throat and demands your attention. Then, you go further into the symbols and if you're smart enough, you get into the meaning. The symbols that we use, three crow claws — the tripod — that's where we try to get the idea across that life is short and that death is eminent and waiting behind every corner you turn. That's why we beg everybody to be as good a person as they can be, and live this life with respect; inspire people to live with an energy that is closer to love.
We have a dove, that symbolizes love or the Holy Spirit or whatever you want to call it. It stands for a martyr. What if your almighty being that you believe in isn't up there, that you are alone and that you only have yourself to rely on? That is where the true strength and force lies. You can only rely on yourself … to find your force … to find your strength to live life.
YOU PLAY AN UNDERSTATED ROLE ONSTAGE, OFTEN PERFORMING WITH YOUR BACK TOWARD THE AUDIENCE. ARE YOU UNCOMFORTABLE WITH THE ROLE OF FRONTMAN?
I try to hide myself as much as possible onstage. Mostly because I never really liked the frontman with the cliché lines about how great the audience is. It makes me tired. I didn't want to be one of those guys. I'm more the person who wants to get the information out there, but wants the people to reach for it. If they want to dig in, I want it to be there. If they don't want to, I want to be able to leave them alone.
The important part is that it is a group effort. When you're a band the vocalist is nothing without the musicians and the musicians are nothing without the vocalist; everybody ties into each other for the greater good. I also don't think that the singers deserve the attention they get in live shows, so that's why it's good to keep the attention on the whole and not just one specific element onstage.