The following interview with INCANTATION founder John McEntee almost exclusively deals with the band’s classic debut album "Onward To Golgotha". Many INCANTATION fans still consider it the best album in the history of the band, and ever since its original release way back in 1992 it undoubtedly had (and still has!) a massive influence on today’s old school Death Metal scene! So, Stefan’s idea to honour the album with an in-depth feature certainly makes a lot of sense. The result was originally published in Necromaniac Zine # 10, but we luckily got the permission to use it as well (thanks!!)… Enjoy!
How do you think about the "Onward To Golgotha" record nowadays? What do you think makes it so classic?
"It was our first album, so obviously it was something very important to me. But to be honest we never really expected people to like the album in the first place. We just wanted to play Death Metal in our own way with our own feeling. We never thought it would be anything too big, we were just happy to do an album. It’s an honor that people really enjoyed it. We just really like to do what we feel is right and let the chips fall where they may. I think the album is good. I have to say that I’m happy with it. I mean there are obvious flaws but overall I think we did a good album and I think for the time it was where we were at that time with the band and it’s great to get a capture on a recording, definitely something to look back on and be proud of. But for me each album is very important and good in its own way."
The impact "Onward To Golgotha" had on Death Metal can hardly be overlooked nowadays since bands like DEAD CONGREGATION, the Chilean underground (e.g. MELEKTAUS, DEMONIC RAGE, MAGNANIMUS), U.S. acts ENCOFFINATION, VAESELETH are obviously influenced by that record. Are you aware of that influence and impact the album had?
"I think it’s great that bands are influenced by us. Again it is a great honor. All bands have influences and after being around for so many years, it’s great to know other bands are talking what we started and doing their own thing with it. I haven’t heard all the bands you listed but I know DEAD CONGREGATION and I think they are very good. And cool underground guys."
What do you love / hate about "Onward To Golgotha"? Don’t you think it’s at times almost an obstacle for you since many people consider your debut your strongest album? Isn’t it somewhat frustrating to see your other albums struggle in the shadow of a "giant", so to speak?
"Haha… that is funny. It would be shallow of us if we felt that our first album was an obstacle. That thought never even crossed my mind. We do what we want and don’t worry about what other people think or say. We like "Onward To Golgotha" but that’s not the only album that has made an impact on numerous people. At the end of the day as long as we feel we have something to express with our music we will keep doing albums. "Onward To Golgotha" is a good album but we have no intentions on re-creating that album. Each album has to be its own thing and as long as we are happy with it, that is all that is important to us. We are not doing this to please the masses."
What makes "Onward To Golgotha" so special in comparison to many other Death Metal albums of the early 90s is its extremity sound-wise as well regarding its strongly blasphemous and satanic content. Where other bands headed for gore you headed for ultimate darkness and evil? Who was responsible for shaping this lyrical direction and why was it important to you to have "evilness" instead of bloodsoaked, horror movie-inspired brutality?
"Well, the band was influenced by bands like POSSESSED, NECROVORE, BLASPHEMY, NECROPHAGIA, CELTIC FROST, DEATH, AUTOPSY, stuff like that and it just seemed to me that with making dark and twisted Death Meal that blasphemous lyrics would just naturally fit. For me it just seemed like a perfect fit. Plus that is a topic that I have knowledge in over all I think it was the right thing for us."
Especially when listening to the remastered version Relapse released the album hasn’t aged a bit and still sounds stunningly fresh and powerful. What do you think about the production of the album in general?
"I think the production is pretty good. It has an original sound. We wanted a production that was totally heavy dark. It was pretty much the best we could have done at the time. I think Relapse did a good job with the remastering."
When I take a closer look at your demo and EP releases prior to the album’s release I get the impression that you guys were struggling to find the right sound for your barbaric music since back then producers / engineers did not really realize how this kind of Death Metal is supposed to sound. It was all new and hardly done before, so how did the studios you approached react and when did you realise you found the right one?
"We had a basic idea on what sound we were looking for but it was very difficult to explain it so the engineers would understand. The demos came close, but we really found our sound recording-wise when we went to do the split LP with AMORPHIS. I feel "Onward To Golgotha" was just a little more refined. We did have to remix "Onward To Golgotha" after the first mix, because us and Relapse were not happy with the first mix. The 2nd is what we went with. I think it was hard for the engineer to understand what we were looking for. But he did a good job. On "Mortal Throne Of Nazarene" we went to a different studio but they were just not on the same page as us and that recording turned into a mess. We wasted a lot of money and ended up with something that none of us was happy with."
The "Blasphemous Cremation" EP also allows interesting insights into the early steps of INCANTATION since the songs partially feature riffs that never made it onto the "Onward To Golgotha" album and tempo-wise were also a bit slower, especially drumming-wise. What do you think of this release and how important were these recordings for the preparation of "Onward To Golgotha"?
"Well, at the time that was our recording for the split LP with AMORPHIS. But we ended up scraping it and using 2 tracks for the "Deliverance Of Horrific Prophecies" 7" EP. I think the recording was good for us. It ended up being more of a demo for us so we can hear a good recording of some of our newer songs at the time. It was good preparation for "Onward To Golgotha". We realized we played the songs slower in the studio than we did at shows or rehearsals. Also we were about to tell if the song structures were good and if the riff sounded good together in that order. It also helps to make sure all the vocal patterns are working good with the music. I think it helped make the "Onward To Golgotha" recording better having done the split first. I always like recording demos of all our new songs, it’s always great to hear a good recording of the songs before doing an album."
How did the line-up for "Onward To Golgotha" shape up? How did you meet Craig Pillard and when did you realise you wanna stick with him as vocalist? He has a pretty unique low and guttural style and his voice improved even from the "Deliverance Of Horrific Prophecies" EP to the album. How important was the consistency of the line-up back then and how was the general band chemistry?
"The line-up back then came together over time. Ronnie found a flyer I put up in a NYC record store called Bleecker Bobs. I pretty much had to find a whole new line-up after the Paul, Aragon and Brett line-up fell apart, due to them wanting to play more Black Metal (they went on in PROFANATICA – Frank). Then about 6 months later Jim replied to an advertisement I put in a local music paper. Our former drummer Peter had to leave because his visa ran out (he was from Sweden). Jim ended up being a great fit. He really took what Paul and Peter did and expanded greatly on it. Craig joined the band as 2nd guitarist (at the time Will was doing vocals), I was good friends with his previous band PUTREFACT’s drummer Omar. Craig was a fan of our demo and was unhappy in PUTREFACT so we decided to try him out. He was very underground and I just felt that he had the right musical mind set that would fit for INCANTATION. And I must say he did a great job indeed. Overall I was very happy with the line-up but I was maybe a little over-demanding at that time. I was very hungry as a song writer and musician and I took the band very seriously. I think it was a good thing and a bad thing. Because they (the other members) started to look at me as the boss of the band instead of a band member. We all got along musically for a few years but I didn’t have much in common with them outside of music. And in the long run things just fell apart. It’s a bummer. But this line-up ended up being a good platform for all of our future endeavors. As everyone knows I kept the band going. But the other guys also did some really great things musically after they left the band, as I’m sure your readers already know."
What memories do you have of the song-writing process back then? Were you rehearsing a lot and where? Creatively you were always the driving force behind INCANTATION but how much influences / ideas originated from the other band members?
"There were many people that had a part in writing the songs for "Onward To Golgotha". ‘Unholy Massacre’ was written by myself with Paul Ledney back when we both played in REVENANT. It was rejected by REVENANT for being too brutal so we took it and rewrote it for INCANTATION. Songs like ‘Profanation’ and early versions of ‘Devoured Death’ were written also by Paul and myself. I think Ronny added a riff to ‘Devoured Death’ if I remember correctly. The song ‘Eternal Torture’ was mostly written by Sal with some riffs by me. Also ‘Entrantment Of Evil’ was also written by Sal and myself. For pretty much all of those songs Sal wrote the lyrics were then revised by Craig when he joined. ‘Christening The Afterbirth’ was mostly written by me but Bill Venner added two riffs that really helped bring that song alive. Riff-wise most of the other songs were written myself with help from Craig. The songs ‘Golgotha’ and ‘Immortal Cessation’ were the tracks that Craig and I had the most riff calibration on. All the latter lyrics were written by Craig pretty much. Pretty much all the songs were jammed a lot as a band and everyone had a part in making the songs the way they were. The vibe in the rehearsal room was very productive and as a band we were firing on all cylinders. I have many great memories of those days."
What memories do you have of the tours / shows supporting "Onward To Golgotha"? Were there shows you will never forget and if so, why?
"We played a lot of really cool shows back in the days. Of course one of our favorites was opening up for AUTOPSY in Mexico City. That was our first time in Mexico City and our first time playing with AUTOPSY. So that is very hard to beat. But we also did a US tour with ENTOMBED and DEAD HORSE and that was a really great experience for us, it really helped put our name on the map across the USA. There was just such a great scene back in the days and lots of people coming out to shows, so it’s very hard to pin down any one show in particular. I pretty much just feel fortunate enough to have gotten the opportunity to have done as much stuff as we have done with the band and with that line-up."
Which bands influenced you most back then? You covered NECROPHAGIA quite regularly back then live, so how much impact did they have on you? I think "Season Of The Dead" is one of the most evil Death Metal albums ever and probably as influential for you as AUTOPSY’s early stuff, right?
"Yes, of course NECROPHAGIA and AUTOPSY were big influences along with MORBID ANGEL, POSSESSED, NECROVORE, BATHORY, CELTIC FROST, DEATH, MASSACRE, SARCOFAGO, SACRIFICE, DARK ANGEL, pretty much all the greats of the 80s. Yes, we did play some covers back in the days, before the "Golgotha" line-up we would play covers of BATHORY, SARCOFAGO, HELLHAMMER and what not, with the "Golgotha" line-up I remember playing ‘Dethroned Emperor’ and ‘Bleeding Torment’. We might have played something else but I can’t remember at this time. I have always had a deep respect for the bands that have come before me and have helped shape our sound. It’s very important to respect your influences and use them to create something of your own."
What was it like living in New Jersey at that time and how did your environment affect / effect the band’s creation and direction?
"At the time being a teenager and in my early 20s it was very cool to be in the New York / New Jersey area. There were always a lot of shows going on, and if overseas bands came to the US to play only one show it would almost always be in New York. So it was very good for a young Metalhead. It wasn’t necessarily that easy as a band though. We had to deal with tons of traffic, expensive rehearsal rooms, and a lot of competition to get on shows. But at the same time with a good scene there was a vast well of people to choose from to play with. Overall I can’t complain about growing up in New Jersey. But now that I’m a lot older I really prefer living in the small town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania."
The strong dark atmosphere of the record is particularly outstanding when one compares it to releases from your peers back then, what was driving you personally to create such gloomy, brutal music? What feeling did you want to transport with the record and where did it come from?
"I think for the most part as a band everybody pretty much was on a similar page. I wanted the vibe that our influences had but at the same time I wanted to express myself my own personal way. I’ve always felt that the feeling you get when you hear music is more important than what is actually played or notes are played. I feel that we were able to express ourselves with music as ourselves and not just a copy of other bands. I know that was the goal that I was shooting for when I started the band."
An important trademark of INCANTATION was always your style of guitar playing. How did you develop this style and decided to tune your guitars lower? When did you actually start to play guitar?
"Talking about my guitar playing is sometimes very difficult. It’s sometimes easier for other people that I play with to explain it. Because for me the way I play is normal and very natural to me. I did take guitar lessons from a few different people, one of them teaching me a jazzier style of playing, and others more of the Metal and Rock style. Pretty much all I do is try to express myself with a guitar in my own way. I don’t try to follow any rules, I just know what feels right and I go with it. I think sometimes bands are just too caught up in theory and technique and don’t necessarily know how to let go and just follow their soul. I played with down tuning for a while before "Onward To Golgotha", but I think we found a comfortable spot in the key of C. It just seemed like we were able to get the girth that we needed and still be able to play some of the more intricate parts without losing too much. I would say I really started taking guitar seriously around 84 or 85-ish. It’s hard to remember exactly, it’s been so long ago."
Can you please do a commented track-listing for the entire "Onward To Golgotha" album including information on when the songs were written, any anecdotes or unknown details regarding the tracks’ creation / recording and what you think about these songs today!
"This was one of the last songs written for the album. After hearing all the other songs we were about to record we decided we needed a few more aggressive tracks. I personally think it’s a really good song. I like the style of riffing and I really feel that it shows the great collaboration that we had in the band at that time. The music was written by me and Craig with input from the other guys like it was on all INCANTATION songs. We like to jam the songs as a band and get input from everyone. The lyrics are written by Craig."
"This was one of the first songs that we had as a band. I started writing it when I was still jamming with Paul Ledney. But with Paul the song never really fully developed. Then with the demo line-up the song started to come together very similar to the way it was recorded on "Onward To Golgotha". It was kept short so we would be able to fit two songs on the "Entrapment Of Evil" 7" EP. I just thought it would be better to have one longer song and one shorter song on each side of the 7" to give people a little more for their money than just two songs on one 7" EP. The music was written by me and some help from Ronnie. The lyrics were written by Sal Seijo. This song always goes over really well live."
"We started working on this one towards the end of the demo line-up. It went through many changes until we came up with a version of the song like it was on the album. I’m very happy that we took the time to jam it with many line-ups. It really helped bring out the best in the song. The music was written by me along with Sal originally, then by the time we recorded it for "Onward To Golgotha" Craig contributed to the final version along with the rest of the band at the time. Just to make it clear, everyone in the band had a say in the writing of the songs, even if Craig or I might have come up with a majority of the riffs. The lyrics were written by Craig. This is another song I really enjoy playing life, still to this day."
‘Rotting Spiritual Embodiment’
"This was one of the first songs we wrote around the time Craig joined the band. This was a really great song to work on with the band at that time. I felt that we were firing on all cylinders and everybody felt really creative. The music was written by me along with some help from Craig riff-wise. But the real vibe came when the whole band added there input. The lyrics were written by Craig. For me this is one of my favorite of the album."
"This is one of the first songs ever written for INCANTATION. Actually, an early version of the song I submitted to my old band REVENANT, but they didn’t seem to like it, so I used it for my next band which was to be INCANTATION. It has a very interesting history because it was really the song that made me realize that REVENANT was not the right band for me. I remember jamming this song out with Ross and Bob from IMMOLATION a few times when I didn’t have a full line-up for INCANTATION yet. The song has gone through many different stages and structures. But by the time I was jamming with the "Onward To Golgotha" line-up the only structure change was cutting down some of the verses to shorten the song somewhat. The music was written by me for the most part but Paul Ledney really helped me make the most of the riffs that I came up with. The lyrics were written by Sal, then later edited by Craig. I enjoy the song like I do most others but it’s not a fun song to play live anymore, it seems like it drags a little bit. But on the album it’s enjoyable."
‘Entrantment Of Evil’
"This was one of the first songs we wrote with the demo line-up. This was another song we made short so it would fit on a 7" EP, so we would have two songs a side, just like we did with ‘Devoured Death’. I really think it’s a cool song, very brutally twisted and straight to the point. It was written by me and Sal and the lyrics were written by Sal. I think this song was one of the highlights of the demo line-up."
‘Christening The Afterbirth’
"This song was written around August 1990 before Craig was in the band but after Sal left. This was the first song that we wrote after Jim joined the band on drums. It was my first attempt at writing a slower Doom track, written by me and Bill Venner and as far as I can remember this was the only track that Bill contributed any riffs to and Craig wrote the lyrics to this song. It seems to hold up pretty well over time, people seem to really enjoy it."
"This song along with ‘Golgotha’ were the final two songs written for the album. Just like ‘Golgotha’ we wanted it to be very extreme and brutal to contrast some of the other songs on the album. This was one of the true collaborations between Craig and myself musically and of course with great input from the rest of the band. Craig also wrote the lyrics for this song. I feel that this song really expressed the aggression that we felt at that time and the hunger we had to kick people’s ass with our music."
"This was the first song we wrote officially as the band INCANTATION. This was a true collaboration between Paul Ledney and myself. It will always mean a lot to me because it was like a gateway into the future of everything to come for me musically. It’s still one of those songs the old school fans really enjoy. The music was written by me and Paul and the original lyrics were written by Paul but then rewritten by Sal and then I think edited by Craig."
‘Deliverance Of Horrific Prophecies’
"This song was another cool song written pretty much with the "Onward To Golgotha" line-up. I don’t really know what to say about this one. I think it’s a really great song and it really gelled well with everybody in the band. It was written by me and Craig and lyrics written by Craig. This song went through numerous changes also before recording it for the album, but I think it came out pretty darn good."
After "Onward To Golgotha" you started to have more conflicts production-wise and I still wonder how many different mixes there actually are of "Mortal Throne Of Nazarene", since tracks I heard on e.g. the "Corporate Death" sampler or "Death… Is Just Beginning 3" sounded different than the album itself? Where did all this trouble come from? I think having "Mortal Throne Of Nazarene" with the same production as "Onward To Golgotha" it would be equally classic. I still love the obscurity of the record, but think it does not sound as good as it should…
"You are correct in your observation of the "Mortal Throne Of Nazarene" album. I think that album represents all the conflicts that we had in the band at the time. Unlike to "Onward To Golgotha" the band was very unstable at the time. We didn’t have a full line-up, for the most part it was just Craig and I and we couldn’t agree on hardly anything. Jim came in on the last minute after being out of the band for quite some time to do drums on the album, he did a good job of course, but at the end everything with the band was just a mess. We were also having problems with our record company. I know personally I felt very overwhelmed and very uncomfortable about the situation and knew things had to change. Even though I’m very proud of that album, but without a doubt we let the conflicts and pressure cloud art better judgment and in the end the production suffered. This album would’ve come out better if we all would have left our egos to the side and just worked together to make the album the best it could be. The version of ‘Emaciated Holy Figure’ that was on the samplers was also recorded at Excello Studio. It was a test recording for the "Mortal Throne Of Nazarene" album. The reason why that recording came out better in my opinion was because we were all on the same page and there was a lot less drama in the band at the time. When we were all on the same page we were able to accomplish great things, but unfortunately with the "Onward To Golgotha" line-up it was short-lived."
Would you consider remastering, reworking the "Mortal Throne Of Nazarene" album? I think it’s a damn strong record – song-wise – yet the production leaves room for complaints…
"This was a thought a few years ago, but I really don’t think it’s worth it. In the end I feel that the album the way it is represents where we were at the time. There is a part of me that would like to mix it the right way, but part of me that thinks I need to just let it be what it is."
When I compare "Onward To Golgotha" to "Primordial Domination", INCANTATION sounds clearer, more structured and less bassy nowadays – did you purposely leave elements that were synonymous with your first album behind throughout the years? How would you comment the changes in your sound over the last two decades?
"For me I think each album has to be its own thing. It represents a time and era of the band. It also represents the musicians that have played on the album and everybody’s input is a little bit different. To try to copy what we did over 20 years ago would just be trendy and being a poser. With INCANTATION people get a band being true to ourselves, not trying to conform with any trends. "Onward To Golgotha" and "Primordial Domination" are two totally different kinds of albums but still true to the INCANTATION fundamentals. The "Primordial Domination" songs were written to be played live with one guitar player, like we were for many years at that time. I didn’t want to make the album too complex or too layered being that we were a three-piece. After that album both Kyle and I agreed that there was no rush to do another album. At the time we conquered all the goals we wanted to and we felt like if we were going to write another album we needed to have the right second guitar player to make the dynamics work right. We’re absolutely 100% happy with the way "Primordial Domination" came out. It really came out the way we planned it to, which was something that we never achieved before. INCANTATION is a band that has always stayed true to ourselves throughout all the different trends in the metal scene. I feel we have stayed consistent for the most part over the years. There are too many bands that only surface with the trends. We play Death Metal the way we want whenever we want. Not to sound conceited, but INCANTATION were around before the Death Metal trends and we will be around after the Death Metal trends, till we feel we have nothing else to contribute to the style of music we are true to."
If you could change something in retrospect on "Onward To Golgotha" – what would you do?
"I don’t know. I really don’t have any major complaints with the album (me neither – so consider this a trick question – Stefan). Overall we were happy with the way it came out and it seems like other people really enjoy it as well. So I see no real reason to want to change anything."
Alright, John, I think I have tortured you long enough, I hope you enjoyed this journey back through time and I will always remain a faithful INCANTATION maniac for eternity! All the best!
"Thank you very much for the support, you are a trooper till death. I would just like to take a moment to thank all of our friends, supporters, fans and whatnot across the world and over the years. It’s awesome to have such die-hard fans that support us, we are just a Death Metal band that has been true to ourselves, what better honor. Look out for our next album!"
Interview: Stefan Franke
Intro and editing: Frank