Setting water to flame: An interview with Menace Ruine

The only constant thing, for Menace Ruine at least, is change. Within the short span of five years, the band has certainly managed to pull off a unique sound and a consistent run of successful releases, but thematically speaking, each album has pushed its own concept, all firmly rooted in esoteric tradition. No other record has exemplified  change, departure and cleansing in the band as Alight In Ashes does, however, and it’s evident from the cover alone: the falling raven representing death and rupture with the past, while the salamander, representing fire and rebirth, rises from the bottom over a crimson background. Each of these symbols outline the breaking point between this release and the one right before it, Union of Reconcilables (the lyrics of which were precisely about clash and rupture), while getting the listener into the right mindset to approach it. Brilliantly composed, Alight In Ashes could be considered their best album to date, representing a new high point in their discography.

Right off the bat, Menace Ruine pulls the listener into a maelstrom of deranged, dissonant melodies with the opener, ‘Set Water To Flames’, its name hinting directly at the unifying theme of the album: fire, combustion, and ultimately, transition to red. From the beginning it’s evident the shift in tone of this album in comparison to Union of Reconcilables. It’s less aggressive, fractured and “tragic” (as it were) than its predecessor, while retaining a menacing edge, contrasted by Geneviève’s seasoned vocals, driving the song with a melody of her own not too unlike a candle flicking in the raging wind. Beats remain buried in the background for most of the album, reaching a higher prominence in the second song entitled ‘Salamandra’ (also the shortest), which bears some similarities with the band’s previous works in The Die Is Cast with its notoriously hypnotic vibe, focussing mostly on monotonous percussion and acrid synths, corrupted into noise.

The third track, ‘Burnt Offerings’, strays away from this dreamy pace and returns to the main motif established in the opening, with a slow instrumental piece evoking vessels bursting into flames, shipwrecked in a bay at twilight. The melancholic vibe of this piece is suddenly broken by the warped, layered vocals awash with the dissonant accords of ‘Arsenikon (Faded In Discord)’, intertwined with hushed sections to create a tension that goes at hand with the noisy, metallic outbursts the duo channels in the second half of the song, carving a path towards what I consider the best track of the whole album, ‘Disease In Fear’. Starting with high, hanging notes, the opening arrangements weave the unsettling atmosphere that will later dominate the rest of the piece, shifting moods before finding a comfort zone for Geneviève’s intonations, conjuring a cacophony unheard of on previous albums, and bringing forth a stunning quasi-ritualistic chant, tying the whole concept of the album together. The closing song, ‘Cup of Oblivion’, balances the shrill notes of the previous track and transforms into a moody piece, reminding us of the tragic nature of Menace Ruine with its sorrowful vocals and martial drumming crashing in the background in a funereal tone.

While some of the elements that gave Menace Ruine a place among the finest martial neofolk acts (from a distance) aren’t as prominent as they were in the beginning, the beat-less, synth-driven approach only highlights the most relevant musical aspects of the duo, while incorporating new elements that gives a new dimension to the atmosphere they’re known to create, honing their craft in the process. Alight In Ashes can be purchased via Profound Lore Records on CD here, and stay tuned for a vinyl version, which is being planned for release via SIGE Records soon. LURKER catches up with Geneviève below…

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It’s been two years since your last LP, and since then you’ve been pretty busy with other projects, including Roadburn 2011, touring across Europe, etc. How do you perceive Menace Ruine as a project right now, and what can we expect for the near future?

In the near future the only thing on the agenda for Menace Ruine right now is the tour in Europe with Mamiffer, which begins next week. We just finished a short West Coast tour with Ash Borer and Servile Sect. Because of the way we work, we cannot predict anything specific for the future, but we hope our music can generate enough energy to inspire us to continue. We are happy with our new album, and we hope it will speak to other people as well. I think that MR will remain an organic project that follows our inspiration, in the sense that we will continue to make new albums when we feel we have something that’s worth sharing. AIA has rekindled the fire, so to speak, and I have the impression that the next one will not be too far in the future, but it’s impossible to say exactly when, or what it will be like.

One of the first things I noticed while listening to the album was how the drumming seems way less prominent than the previous releases, to the point of them being barely noticeable, buried beneath the bass lines. What motivated this change of style?

It is not really a change of style in the sense that we don’t consider percussion a fundamental element of our music. It was used mostly on The Die Is Cast, and one or two songs on Union of Irreconcilables, and most of the time, they are like kind of slowed-down and almost subliminal, in the sense we feel the beat more than hearing it. Live it is different, since it is very hard to control how the sound will project in the room, but it adds some force.

I love deep and powerful percussion, like the timpani, and think they fit our sound pretty well, but sometimes they are not even needed because of the rhythm already present or suggested in the synth lines. We like to stay as close as possible to the primal core of the music, and keep it minimal, adding elements only when it is necessary to reinforce the general movement, or to add some tension or nervousness, or just for rhythmic drive, as in ‘Salamandra’, for example. It is the opposite of wanting big orchestration, or playing in a band with many people and trying to justify the presence of everybody by adding multiple parts or layers. We are only two, and even then there are pieces that I play alone from beginning to end. The initial source, that which calls us and fuels the rest of the work, has to be in evidence. It’s more powerful that way.

The melodies in this album remind me a lot to some of vocal orchestrations you were doing with Preterite, even though there’s an obvious difference in terms of instrumentation. Would you say there’s some of that side-project in the new album?

Of course there is something of Preterite in MR, and it is me… Both Menace Ruine and Preterite are very close to my heart and indispensable. Preterite allows me to compose without the constraints of MR, and not only to compose on guitar, which is more natural for me, but also to work at home without having to plan a trip to our rehearsal space. I see my musical activities globally, and my two projects certainly nourish each other. I never say to myself, here I’m going to sing with my “Menace Ruine style”, and there with my “Preterite style”, the music itself dictates everything, and it’s the same voice singing. I evolve along with both projects, and both are very inspiring means of expression for me

Lyrics are a big part of what makes Menace Ruine a unique band, and it’s something I always look forward to read while listening to it. What are the themes you’re exploring in this album with your lyrics?

Thanks for your comment! It makes me happy when people are interested in this aspect of our work, since words are very important to me. They’re not always easy to deal with but always a fascinating task to finish. I have continued my “alchemical” explorations, if I can put it like that, as through much reading and reflection I’ve come to translate this imagery a little better and in a fruitful way, to express some unconscious content, intuitions, chaotic thoughts or feelings that need a certain grandeur to put into words, and also to tame some destructive ones.

The subconscious is infinitely helpful, in the sense that it reconnects us to our own profound nature, and at the same time to something universal and infinite, like a sort of interior sky, full of stars. I was principally guided for this album by my readings of Paracelsus, the doctor, alchemist, botanist and astronomer, among other things, of the 16th century. I am truly inspired by people with a large, holistic vision of life, considering that everything functions as a whole, and also people who have a great reverence for nature.

I’m fascinated by the way Paracelsus practiced his profession, using his many skills to re-establish the equilibrium of the body, and considering himself to be healing by the hand of God, that is to say reading the signs of God in nature itself, that light that is to be revealed and which brings a better knowledge of existence and our place in it. In order to share some of this light I felt, I decided AIA would  be a healing album and I’ve attempted to charge it with this intention, or energy. Evidently, it is what it is, you’ll say, hehe, but I believe that music can function as a magical act when reinforced with a conscious, powerful will, or powerful emotions, and that it can become the vehicle of this wish, desire or energy. It if doesn’t heal, at least be assured that this album is charged with benevolent energy.

It’s also an album made under the sign of fire, the undying fire of the alchemists, which purifies, dissolves matter and lifts our spirit toward the light, but which also burns and which we must become hardened to.

Additionally, what’s the concept behind the cover? Union of Irreconcilables had a pretty self-explanatory cover (the ‘hermaphrodite’ from the Aurora consurgens), but this one has a salamander rising and a crow falling from above. How does this relate to Alight In Ashes?

The bird is more like a dirty seagull crashing into the ocean (setting water to flames?) and the salamander, in a reverse movement of ascension, is the creature unharmed by fire, and from which we must learn constance and resistance to the flames of “passion”. It’s a sort of image of transformation, of elevation by fire, being reborn from our own ashes and rejoining the light.

There’s a chilling melody at the beginning of ‘Disease of Fear’ (perhaps the best song of the album), which reminds me of the first section in ‘Toccata & Fugue in D Minor’ composed by Bach. While they aren’t exactly the same, it makes me wonder if you’ve been inspired by classical compositions for this album, seeing as the distorted synths even sound like bowed string instruments during some parts to me.

It is always the sounds themselves that inspire the songs, so I guess that subconsciously they brought out more “classical” melodies, a resurgence of music I have heard throughout my life,  because, yes, they remind me also of bowed string instruments, cello especially or viola de gamba, organs, or sometimes even woodwinds or brass. It just came out like this, nothing was  premeditated. I work in a very intuitive way, so I just followed this new path with interest, until arriving at a satisfying cohesion of sounds and style.

At 62 minutes, this is your longest album to date and also the one with more instrumental sections going on. How long did it take you to conceptualise and compose it?

The songs, with the synth and voice in their more-or-less final structure, were composed quite quickly in a sort of rush of inspiration in the two months preceding our European tour with the formidable French band Aluk Todolo in April 2011. I had the feeling that something would happen if I went to the rehearsal space, and this time I wanted to use visuals to stimulate my creativity and help me focus on what I was doing. I chose seven monster illustrations by Aldrovandi (one song did not end up on the album) and pinned them up on the wall in front of my setup one by one, and each of them guided me to a sound that led very naturally to a song. It was kind of magical. I love using this notion of play in creative acts, and also to work with non-musical elements, mostly visual, to reinforce the music and exalt my creative energy. It was very rewarding and fun to return home with new music every week. We let the pieces sleep for over a year, being busy with other projects and our personal lives, and we came back to them last spring after they worked subconsciously in us quite a bit. I wrote all the lyrics in this period, and we recorded and finalized all that was missing.

How do you perceive the responses of the album so far?

Very positive response so far. We are touched by the fact that people still seem to be interested in our music. It’s heartwarming.

S. has S/V\R and you have Preterite, but I would like to know if you’ve ever considered working as Menace Ruine with another band together in a collaborative effort; or even a new, entirely different project.

It’s strange that you ask, because just today a band we love proposed that we collaborate on a song together, and I will be very happy to do it. It’s also interesting because I was about to answer that Menace Ruine collaborating with other bands was unlikely to happen because of the way we work together, which is sometimes tricky because of the fundamental differences between us. We are also very complementary, but the context has to demand this complementarity, and not the other way around. And also the fact that we’ve never really been very interested in collaborations.

Individual collaborations are more likely to happen, like Preterite with James Hamilton for me, and S. with S.Viel for S/V\R, which give very different results… I’m open to collaborations if there is a spark, a true respect for the work of the potential collaborator and  curiosity about what could result from a new equation. Also, there has to be the idea that there is something interesting to bring out – it goes without saying – and not to do it just for the sake of it, or to create some sort of hype. S. and I have made music together since 1995, through different projects, Menace Ruine being the most accomplished. Who knows, maybe someday Menace Ruine will cease to exist and will lead to something else, but for the moment, this project completely satisfies our desire to work together.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

First, I would like to thank you for your questions!

Also, as I mentioned, we’ll be on tour in Europe with Mamiffer very soon, so for those who would like to come see us live, here are the dates, and we’ll be happy to play music for you!

14/10 – Vienna, Austria –Arena
15/10 – Zagreb, Croatia – Nkc Park
16/10 – Velenje, Slovenia – eMCe plac
17/10 – Bologna, Italy – Teatro Degli Illusi
18/10 – Milan, Italy – Ligera
19/10 – Neuchâtel, Switzerland – Queen Kong Club
20/10 – Bern, Switzerland – Dachstock
21/10 – Paris, France – Espace B
22/10 – Besançon, France – Les Passagers Du Zinc
23/10 – Brussels, Belgium – Magasin 4
24/10 – Liege, Belgium – La Zone
25/10 – Amsterdam, Netherlands – Winston
26/10 – Bochum, Germany – Christuskirche
27/10 – Karlsruhe, Germany – Die Stadtmitte
28/10 – Berlin, Germany – HBC
30/10 – Wroclaw, Poland – Firlej Club
31/10 – Warsaw, Poland – Powiększenie
02/11 – Riga, Latvia – Artelis
03/11 – Tallinn, Estonia – Von Krahl
04/11 – Helsinki, Finland – Korjaamo

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