Australian Funeral Doom Masters Explain Composing "Book of Kings" & Translating Long Songs to Live Audience
For nearly twenty years, Australia-based Mournful Congregation has stamped its listeners’ mind’s eye with tales of agony and ecstasy, tragedy and harmony. While fanatics of the funeral doom fold were certainly aware of Mournful Congregation’s epic arrangements, the group hasn’t received much exposure in America. That is until now. Thanks to American distribution through 20 Buck Spin Records and a greater media presence via Earsplit PR, Mournful Congregation has gotten people talking.
2011 was a busy year for the Aussie troupe. In September, they released “Unspoken Hymns,” which consisted of material pulled from split albums, a Thergothen cover and a reworked song. Two months later, more melancholic tones found the ears and hearts of their listeners with new album “The Book of Kings.” In true funeral doom fashion, each track contains an emotional and time-wise heaviness rivaling the weight of Stonehenge’s megalithic slabs.
One can’t properly appreciate Mournful Congregation’s heaviness without experiencing their music in a live setting. I had the pleasure of witnessing their first tour in the U.S., which came a day after they closed the Rites of Darkness Festival in San Antonio. Three guitarists created a rumble that would make Zeus jealous. The group replicated this large trinity of sound through a choir of three vocalists on its ending track “Suicide Choir.” Before witnessing this tour de force, vocalist Damon Good and guitarist Justin Hartwig spoke to Metal Underground about composing such grand arrangements.
Darren Cowan (Rex_84): Tonight is the last show of the tour. How was your first tour in America?
Damon Good: Awesome! I really loved it over here. We started in Seattle and worked our way down the west coast. We’ve seen a lot of the scenery in America change, as well as the people. We have nothing bad to say about America, at all.
Cowan: Did you see anything touristy that you wanted to see?
Good: We didn’t get much time at all, a couple of hours in San Francisco. We saw Haight-Ashbury. That was pretty cool. And we saw a Redwood forest. We saw a little bit, but not as much as we would have liked to have seen.
Cowan: Did you come over by yourself and then hook up with various tours?
Good: No, it was all planned out with us, Anhedonist and Aldebaran. Tim, the drummer [Aldebaran]—who also does Parasitic Records and Anhedonist pretty much organized the whole tour for us. Also, the Rites of Darkness Festival helped bring us over here.
Cowan: How was Rites of Darkness?
Good: Generally, it went alright. There were a lot of hiccups and a lot of fucking around. It wasn’t a smoothly run festival by any means. In the end, it worked out alright. We were able to squeeze in forty-five minutes of music (laughs).
Cowan: So you got a forty-five-minute set?
Good: Yeah, because the whole day got pushed forward. We were meant to have an hour.
Cowan: I understand that the bands you toured with were doing separate days?
Good: No, we all ended up being on a Sunday, actually.
Justin Hartwig: They were supposed to be on separate days.
Good: Yeah, so we had a lot of fucking-around time.
Cowan: Why did you release two albums in two month?
Good: We were working on the new album, “The Book of Kings” for eight months or more, and we also wanted to release all the split/ extraneous material from the last ten years as an official release at some stage. This way we are totally up-to-date with our catalogue. Besides, both labels (20 Buck Spin and Osmose) were content to release more than one thing at a time from us, so it made sense.
Cowan:. One of the bands you shared a split with, Worship, was scheduled to play with you at the Rites of Darkness festival. Is this the first time you’ve shared a stage?
Good: It didn’t eventuate that Worship made it to the ROD Fest, unfortunately. It would have been the first time sharing the stage together, though, yes. Perhaps in the future the Doom titans shall clash?
Cowan: “Unspoken Hymns” includes the Thergothen cover “Elemental.” Did Thergothen influence you to form Mournful Congregation? Who was influential when you first started?
Good: No. We had already recorded our first demo when I bought a copy of Thergothon’s “Stream From the Heavens” CD. So from then on they were influential for sure. Basically when I first heard it, it was exactly what I had been looking for. It was ecstasy to a young doom fiend’s soul. It was perhaps what I had envisioned but not yet realized? Candlemass “Epicus Doomicus Metalicus” was definitely the first inspiration for me. But that was before I even played guitar. Then there was Cathedral, Anathema, Disembowelment and a horde of more underground demos etc—plus, all the heavy metal, thrash, death and black metal that I had grown up on. It wasn’t always particular bands’ styles that inspired us, but more ideas of how to construct harmony, how to construct songs and simply how to write what we wanted to hear.
Cowan: The lyrics to “A Slow March to the Burial” read like a morbid imagist poem. Death is part of life and most people have attended at least one funeral. Even though elements of a funeral procession are fairly standard, your imagery is very detailed. Did you imagine this scenario or was this something you experienced?
Good: It was imagined more than drawn from personal experience. I do remember trying to keep it basic when writing these lyrics, but somehow tapping into the ornate, traditional and ceremonial aspects of a Western funeral ceremony. The whole song has this “basic” vibe, which was sort of a relief to write after crafting some of our more vast and epic pieces.
Cowan: On your new album “Book of Kings,” the title track is over a half-hour long. How do you present this song live and other long songs from your catalogue when you only have so much time on stage?
Good: That’s a song that we haven’t performed live yet. Some of our songs are easier to get together and do as live songs. Then, there are other songs that we will probably never play live. That one we’ll probably never play live unless we do a special event like a festival because there is rarely less than four guitar parts in each riff. When we write we don’t think, “This will be a good live song.” We just write what we think sounds good in the studio because that’s what people live with—your album.
Cowan: When you wrote that song, how did you know it was going to be so long? Did you say you needed to rein it in or did it just flow?
Good: It was hard. The first fifteen minutes almost wrote itself. At that point it didn’t sound like an ending. Also, the lyrics and the concept of that song were different. It was a topic that we hadn’t approached before. Because it was such a grand concept, we had to make a grand song, so I always knew I wanted it to be a long song. The first half was written in 2005 or ’06. We had been sitting on it for years. The ending we sort of had and then we had to work backwards. There were a lot of times I went back and forth with the guys showing them parts, asking if things worked. Then, we all got into the rehearsal room and started putting it together. Then we could hear how it was going to sound, if it were going to work and we could cut out any boring moments. At over thirty minutes, we didn’t want any boring parts.
Cowan: This track reads like a short story. What story are you telling and why did it take thirty-three minutes to tell?
Good: It is a concept that we haven’t exactly explored before, and it is a vast concept to say the least. So it was natural that A LOT of lyrics poured out when pondering these concepts. It is also a concept that seemed naturally to fit better into one song rather than multiple songs. So it all flowed quite naturally into one gigantic piece. It was in fact a piece that took many years to complete, and was not an easy task. But I like doing this with Mournful. As for the story, it’s not exactly a story-line that can be explained. It’s more based on impressions from exploring certain concepts, so I really just wanted to portray those impressions in lyric form, so that the reader/ listener will gain the same impressions that I had and maybe put two and two together or be left in bewilderment and mystery like I am.
Cowan: Metal Archives lists “The Book of Kings” finding release through the Japanese label Weird Truth Productions. 20 Buck Spin released the album in North America? What is your business relationship with Weird Truth Productions?
For this album we licensed it to four different labels. Weird Truth for Asia, 20 Buck Spin for North America, Osmose for Europe and Ostra Recs for vinyl. This way we still own all the rights to our own material, and it should be easily available to all continents. We have worked with Weird Truth since 2002, and we have total respect for each other, and hope to continue working together again and again.
Cowan: Dismal tones seem embedded in every fiber of Mournful Congregation’s music. Depression is one of the most difficult things we can endure. Do you endure emotional anguish while writing? Do you find releasing this energy sets you free?
I do feel that writing music in general negates negative emotion in some way. If I don’t write, I get depressed. And if I am depressed, I don’t write. So it’s a matter of utilizing the inspiration when it strikes, which obviously isn’t always easy because I am not at home with my guitar all day every day! I guess there is some sort of ‘zone’ I am in when I write, but whether it is emotional anguish or not, I can’t really say. It is definitely not love, butter and sunflowers swaying in the summer breeze. That’s for sure!
Cowan: Do you have a ritual for conjuring the negative energies inherit in your music?
Good: I think I do actually, but I think it such a subliminal, esoteric conjuration that it is impossible to explain. And probably shouldn’t be explained anyway.
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