From Autarky to Development por César Aguilar
20 de Febrero de 2017 2344 lecturas

Curious case of the German duo Rebel Souls: half of the band (Stefan Hielscher, vocals/bass) resides at the Costa del Sol and the other half (Thomas Plewnia, guitar) in his native country. But distance has not stopped them from recording, with the invaluable help of the great James Stewart on drums (Vader, Divine Chaos, Maschine) and a few awesome guests, their debut album "The Forces of Darkness", a precise dose of old-school Death metal straight into the vein for fanatics of the genre. In this talk, Stefan and Thomas tell us all the details of the story of their long friendship and the complicated birth of an excellent album that will finally be published today.

I think all the songs included on “The Forces of Darkness” come from a demo recorded in 2001, when you were teenagers. Many bands disown their early work, but far from this, you’ve recreated your past. Why?

Stefan: You’re right, all the songs on “The Forces of Darkness” are revisited songs from our first demo “Dark Forces” which we poorly self-produced in 2001. I guess bands disown their early material when they develop into a different direction, like Tiamat would never play anything off “Sumerian Cry” on a live gig, or Katatonia anything off “Dance of December Souls”. However, in our opinion “Dark Forces” has always been the true essence of Rebel Souls: straightforward death metal. So when we decided to reactivate the project, it was only logical to revisit these songs. Also because we felt that they had never received the production they deserved due to lack of know-how and financial resources.

So the release of this album must be some kind of a dream come true, or, at least, a relief, isn’t it?

Stefan: «A dream come true» is maybe a bit too strong an expression, but it certainly is a relief. Our old demos have always been this thorn in our side. I mean, having these songs with this admittedly quite considerable potential, but so poorly produced, has always been really annoying to us. I think we’ve settled this matter now with “The Forces of Darkness”, at least regarding the material of the first demo.

Is there any kind of nostalgia involved in the making of this album? Do you miss the times in which you were just two kids giving birth to this songs?

Thomas: Oh yes, getting together and working on the album definitely made us remember the old times. But also apart from that, we do like to remember these days and recap the events of back then, also when we meet outside our musical activities. And there is definitely some nostalgia to it. Carefree times when you met to go to a killer concert every weekend.

Stefan: Definitely, the Alarm in Zwickau or the Hellraiser in Leipzig. Killer packages there every other weekend, those were incredible times. And then getting together after high school to rehearse our shit or try out new stuff. I would definitely say we miss these times, but then again, we all have selective memory and remember only the good aspects of a certain era.

When did you meet? How did you discover your common interest in death metal?

Thomas: It started back in 9th grade in 1997 or so, when we were sat next to each other in one of the subjects we both visited. Before that, we had only known each other through common friends, but were merely acquaintances. Stefan was very much into horror and gore movies back in the days, especially the ones that were hard to get because they were censored, indexed or confiscated by the state. One day he showed me his latest acquisition, which was “The Evil Dead”, and asked me if I knew it. I had to deny that, as I didn’t really care about movies. However, I said that I knew a song with that title. Stefan was interested and asked me if I could borrow him the CD one of these days. Admittedly, I was pretty skeptical and said that it would probably be too extreme for him, but he persisted. So I brought the CD, “Aggressor” of Nocturnal Breed to school, which included a cover version of the Death classic “Evil Dead”. Against my expectations, the song and the album sparked off something in Stefan, and soon after he bought the original, “Scream Bloody Gore” of Death.

How was the scene in your hometown back in the days? Did you feel you were part of it or Rebel Souls was more of a private affair between the both of you?

Thomas: Well, since we found our way to metal music, in rather –let’s say– autarkic ways and as individuals through coincidence and family influence, one has to understand the early Rebel Souls as a rather private matter and lone passion. We didn’t know many like-minded people and didn’t have a network beyond our villages or the town where our high school was.

When we started Rebel Souls we only knew a handful of people at school who also listened to metal. But you couldn’t really consider that ‘a scene’. People only traded tapes and mainly listened to stuff that was ‘in’ at the time –Korn, Fear Factory, Machine Head or Pantera–. We had more of an underground attitude. I mean, we knew these people but our approach to music and theirs had nothing in common. I think we took the matter too serious and were too obsessed and dedicated (laughter).

And when we started looking for fellow band members, we found something like a scene in the next-biggest city. But since we didn’t find any adequate members for our band, no close connections emerged with that scene. As a matter of fact, back then we were always self-sufficient and didn’t really have the need to move within a bigger group. We did most of our stuff on our own initiative without the pressure of a scene or the need for adaptation. To be honest, we also had great respect for all the clichés and the ‘trveness’ catalogue – which we can’t even fulfill nowadays, not even close (laughter). This is probably why we were rather reserved, regarding contacts in the scene and why we preferred to start our own adventure.

Have the songs changed much from the ones you recorded for the demo? Was it especially difficult to adapt them to these ‘new times’? Did you think at any point that you betrayed their ‘primary energy’ by changing them?

Thomas: It’s actually the other way around: we betrayed their primary energy back then, with a poor production, a bad drum machine and limited capabilities on our instruments. So in comparison with today, they seemed weak and monotonous. But they’ve always had this potential, which we have been able to fully unleash now with nowadays’ possibilities. Especially the drums provided by James and his accurate patterns give the songs a massive kick. But also Stefan’s optimizations of the vocal lines or the added guitar solos have given the songs more intensity. Regarding rhythm guitars, bass lines and the basic structure of the songs we have only made minimal changes, basically some tinkering with the playing technique or the accentuation here and there.

Stefan: Except “Descent”, which is virtually a new song. The drums patterns are different and Thomas changed the main riffs. The basic structure is still the same and the riffs are still based on the original note progressions, but they have become more intricate and interesting.

Rebel Souls went on hiatus around 2003. In 2006 Stefan moved to Spain so it seemed impossible to work on a normal basis. What happened then? Did you quit making music completely?

Thomas: No, we still had the aspiration to write and publish music. But our ambitions were considerably marred by two factors: The geographical distance and our professional development. Well, and then we also had a year when our friendship was a little –let’s say– clouded. This all delayed songwriting and creative processes enormously.

Personally, I am someone who needs a lot of muse in order to get creative and reach a certain creative flow. That means specifically to isolate oneself from all external compulsions and sit down for a complete weekend without any distractions. With the outlook of producing something half-baked or do something quickly between two other appointments, I am unable to get into the mode I need to compose stuff that I like and that holds water. We had too few of these creative moments in those days. Furthermore, it was a time that was characterized by a certain melancholy, which led to music that didn’t fit Rebel Souls stylistically and content wise. When we finally had enough material we were happy with we decided to publish it under the moniker Dead Entities’ Realm.

That was the album “To Reconciled Solitude”, which you released in 2009 as Dead Entities’ Realm. It goes into a more atmospheric, progressive direction of acts such as Opeth or Disillusion. Please, tell us about the making of this record and the impulse to create it.

Stefan: By 2004 our musical interests had shifted towards more progressive kinds of music. At university, friends introduced me to Opeth. I was listening a lot to “Deliverance”, “Damnation” and especially “Blackwater Park” at the time. It was also the year when Disillusion published their fantastic “Back to Times of Splendor”.

Thomas: As a matter of fact, it was actually on a Disillusion concert when Stefan and I rekindled our friendship. After a long time without any contact I just called him and asked if he wanted to go to that small festival. He said yes without hesitating. On that festival we realized that, separately, our interests had shifted towards the same direction. We were also fascinated by technical, yet melodic and catchy acts like Necrophagist or Anata.

Stefan: As a result, our own compositions moved towards more progressive spheres. Songs became longer, the compositions more melodic, diverse, yes I would even say more intelligent with entire songs based on only one motif, or with multi-layered passages where one instrument would foreshadow coming passages, or would retake previous ones just to combine it with new ideas. We also wanted to add clean vocals, but neither of us is good enough a singer to do that (laughter).

Thomas: When we tried some stuff in the recording studio, and it only ended up in an enormous fit of laughter (continued laughter).

Stefan: Most of the stuff was ready by the end of 2005. But then again, university, jobs, living in two different cities, later my move to Spain hindered us from finding the time to record the material and it sat around for another three years. The opportunity to record this didn’t occur before autumn 2008, when Thomas was just between two jobs and I quit my job to start a Master’s degree. In those days, technical possibilities also started to improve massively. Since we still didn’t have a drummer on board, our discovery of ezDrummer was definitely a huge impulse to get the whole thing going. So once I had programmed the drums of all the songs, we recorded the string instruments at Thomas’ place in Chemnitz via Line 6 Tone Port. The vocals were recorded in the studio of Alex Pohl of Philosopher and Extinctionist. I spent the rest of 2008 mixing the album and then we gave it back to Alex for mastering. Once completed we sent it to a couple of zines and received positive feedback, but once again it didn’t really lead anywhere as our private and professional lives started to complicate things again and left us virtually no time for musical activities.

When and why did you realize it was the appropriate time to record “The Forces of Darkness”?

Stefan: Basically, as soon as we knew we’d had enough time (laughter). I was working and at the same time studying a Master’s degree between 2009 and 2013, so I had absolutely no time for anything else apart from that. In late 2013 Thomas visited me for a short vacation and, pretty drunk, we decided to record the guitars for a polished version of the song “Decay of a God” from our first demo “Dark Forces”. Shortly after, I heard of this this contest to become the opening act of Napalm Death for their gig in Málaga. Out of all the bands, Chaos Before Gea completely blew me away and I loved the production of their “Erebo”. I got in touch through their official Facebook site to ask where those ominous “DigiCat Studios” were, where they had produced the record. I think it was Adri who got back to me and said that the studio had since changed its name to “Wave Nation Recording & Mixing Studio”. This is how I got to know Mr. José María Tornay, the owner of the studio. In early 2014 I recorded bass and vocals for “Decay of a God” with him and let him mix and master the final product. The result just completely blew us away and we decided to rework the entire “Dark Forces” demo, to give it the production and release it had always deserved in our opinion.

I met Stefan in person (and also producer José María Tornay) in 2015, to be precise the 3rd of January, on Fuengirola, in a benefic show to raise funds to fight against cancer. He told me about Rebel Souls and your project to record an album of old songs. What happened since then? I’m asking you this because two years seem a long time to release an album whose songs are almost finished, if not totally...

Stefan: We’re the slowest death metal band in the world (laughter). I know this is becoming boring now, but again it was the time factor that complicated things. When I met you, we only had James’ drums in the can, which we had recorded on a weekend in November 2014. Shortly after you and I met, in that very January of 2015 I travelled to Neubrandenburg, where Thomas lives, and where we recorded the guitars. It was the first occasion when Thomas’ job allowed us to meet and record. And it was only then, while recording, when we realized that there were some technical issues with the drums of “Descent”, which we needed Tornay to sort out. But of course he was busy with other projects. I think he was producing “Khâron” with Chaos Before Gea at the time and you know how ambitious this whole beast is. By the time he found the opportunity to fix the issues, Thomas had rewritten the main riffs of “Descent”, so he wanted to re-record this song and I had to compose a new bass line (Thomas laughs).

So between one thing and another I didn’t record the bass until April 2015 I think. I then did the vocals with Tornay in May or June. As you know I had envisioned some guest appearances on “The Forces of Darkness”, so I also had to wait until these guys had the time to do their stuff. Solos, backing vocals and acoustic guitars weren’t finished until November 2015. So Tornay started to mix the album near the end of 2015. We can be a damn pain in the ass when it comes to the sound, as we have a pretty clear vision of what we want, so several mixes went back and forth between us and Tornay. Same thing with the master, we wanted something organic, not this whole pumping, compression and loudness war bullshit. I’m pretty sure that Tornay had to bite his tongue quite some times before we were all happy (laughter). But jokes aside, we couldn't be happier to have worked with Tornay. He has a very similar approach to music and he very quickly grasps the idea you are trying to get across. He achieved the best possible sound for this album, I wouldn't change a thing sound-wise. Or at least nothing he is responsible for. In my opinion he is the best choice for a rock / metal production in Southern Spain, without a doubt.

So everything was completely finalized in early 2016. And this is when we started looking for a record label. We prepared our promo packages and sent them out one by one to preselected labels which we considered as fitting for our music and that could be potentially interested in distributing it. So that took quite some time and it took some time for the labels to get back to us. After we signed with Art Gates Records, internal and administrative issues on their side delayed the release, such as the pipeline of records and artists they were obligated to release before us.

Thomas, did you travel to Spain for parts of the production of the album?

Thomas: I travelled two times, for the pre-production. The first time to record the guitars for the polished version of “Decay of a God” as Stefan has just mentioned. The second time to record the demo versions of the guitar tracks which would then serve as a guideline for James, when he recorded the drums. I also came to Spain for the actual recordings of the drums, but more like a fan than a musician. I mean, when do you get to see the drummer of a most renowned band record the drums of your own music? The rest of the production didn’t require my presence or could be discussed over Skype.

Do you see each other often?

Thomas: Apart from that, we see each other at least five times a year. I can have cheap vacations at Stefan’s place and I usually besiege him and girlfriend with my girlfriend and daughter (laughter). Apart from that, since 2013 we regularly visit the Brutal Assault festival in the Czech Republic with close friends. And of course Stefan travels to Germany to see his family, which we normally use to get together and go to a concert. In the wake of the album release I guess we will have more occasions in the future. Just like the video shoot of “Fourfold Wrath” in the summer of 2016.

“The Forces of Darkness” (2017;Art Gates Records): Is it possible to recycle songs that are more than fifteen years old and make them still sound relevant today? The answer is yes, and the proof is "The Forces of Darkness". How do you do that? Very simple: by building them on concepts that never go out of fashion: dynamic, effective and catchy songs –“Descent”, “Doomsday”, “Acrimony” or “Fourfold Wrath”, just to name a few–, a lethal production –once again courtesy of José María Tornay and his Wave Nation studios– and the dose of patience which is necessary to shape the best possible material. I am anxious to hear the original "Dark Forces" demo, which is the basis of this album, to appreciate even more what Thomas Plewnia and Stefan Hielscher have achieved with their debut. If you’re into old school death metal, you shouldn’t hesitate to give this a listen: it will destroy you.

Now, let’s get on with “The Forces of Darkness” musically speaking. I can see clearly the “Reign in Blood” effect on it: a short dose of music but just flawless, with no fat added, a plain and simple death metal (slightly blackened) aggression. Which were your goals musically when you started (re)working on the album?

Stefan: Well, exactly that: A short, but highly intense experience. Our goal with reworking the album was none other than doing these songs justice. They sound today like they should have sounded sixteen years ago. In general, I guess we aim to produce the same reactions in our listeners as the music that inspired us to create Rebel Souls produces in us. That adrenaline rush when you’re at a live gig and the band plays your favorite song, that urge to bang your head or start a mosh pit.

I can definitely feel an old-school spirit in these songs. From the vocals (I can hear Stefan’s throat perfectly) to the natural sound of the drums, to the choruses, there is no plastic on this album. Do you stick to the old school or was it only the proper way to work this record out?

Thomas: That old-school feeling may stem from the fact that we’re pretty puristic musicians: Amplifier, guitar, cable – and here we go. No unnecessary frills, we don’t make a science out of this. We don’t need an 8m2 effect board with 20 footswitches in front of us. We stand for a very direct way of making music.

When I hear the record I think of acts such as Morbid Angel, Vader, Kreator or Behemoth. Do you have your influences in mind when you write a song?

Thomas: Morbid Angel and Vader were definitely bands we listened to a lot when we wrote the original songs. And Krisiun’s “Conquerors of Armageddon”. So they undeniably had an influence on our own creative outputs. I know that early Death had a big influence on Stefan. I also remember that the original “Descent” was heavily influenced by Aura Noir, at least the (old) main riff.

Stefan: “Fourfold Wrath” was entirely inspired by “Scream Bloody Gore”. And I wrote “Doomsday” the day after we saw Morbid Angel for the first time live, not that it is a very Morbid Angel-esque song. But it’s not like we say «Hey, let’s write a Vader song», it’s just what comes out of us at a certain moment and then we just go with the flow. So if the song sounds like a certain band it’s the result of something un- or subconscious.

You work more or less strictly in the limits of the genre, but you managed to put something on the table that’s not very usual these days: songs, passion and devotion...

Stefan: Passion and devotion are our main driving forces. So if one can appreciate that while listening to our music we feel very much flattered and our mission has been accomplished.

“Doomsday” is, apart from a standout, the only song which goes further into black metal territories. Does black metal belong to Rebel Souls?

Thomas: Back in the days, yes. Half of the songs of our second demo “Estrangement. Disillusion. Frost” belonged stylistically to black metal. Black metal pretty much coined our listening habits back then, which inevitably found its way into our own music, especially mine. But nowadays I see Rebel Souls as a pure death metal outfit with only slight traces of black metal. I find a too strong blend of styles or overly different genres on a record as conceptually disruptive. This is also why we did not re-record one of the original songs of the original “Dark Forces” demo, which was too black metal. Apart from that, I no longer follow this genre with the same passion as then, it wouldn’t be authentic. We could only re-record these songs as bonus material and add to an album, I don’t know. If we felt like black metal we’d do it via a side project or with Dead Entities’ Realm, where we have more black metal influences.

Stefan: Yeah, at least the melodic, melancholic aspect of it, but not the cold or grim atmosphere.

The songs on “The Forces of Darkness” are fit for an expert, fast and precise drummer and you had James Stewart of Vader behind the kit. How was the first contact with him? Could you please share with us some anecdotes of the recording sessions? From what I’ve heard, the guy is a beast, am I wrong?

Stefan: Once more the first contact happened over Facebook. That damned thing does indeed have its advantages (laughter). I wrote James and asked if he’d be willing to do the session drums on the record. After I laid out the project to him and all the logistical details involved, he agreed. To be honest, I couldn’t believe this was happening, but it was real. And then the whole process was just an eye-opening experience. You’re not mistaken, he is definitely a beast. He recorded all the songs in one go! Not certain passages, no, the entire songs from start to finish, without any triggers or effects. In the song “Dark Forces” there is a passage of approximately one minute of straight blast beats at 240bpm, no breaks or drum rolls to loosen up. This is because James wanted to record it like that, my initial version did include some drum rolls in that section. But he wanted to blast straight through, he said it would be his personal homage to Satyricon’s Frost (laughter). And there you go, after two or three takes we usually had the final version which you can hear on the record. Absolutely amazing that man.

For what I know, there are more guests on “The Forces of Darkness”. Can you tell us who they are and how you got them involved in the making of the record?

Stefan: Yes, I think I have been able to gather three of the best musicians of the province Málaga and I am very happy and grateful they appear on our record. There is Mr. Rafael Marín Becerra of G14, he played all the acoustic parts and has contributed the fantastic acoustic outro to “Doomsday”. He is a close friend of Tornay and was recommended to us by him. When I saw him play some acoustic stuff I knew I wanted him on the record.

Then we have David García Chaves of Psycho. He actually hung out with us during the drum recording sessions with James and on one break, Tornay put on some Psycho stuff. When I heard the guitar solos I asked David if he wanted to be on the record and contribute a guitar solo to one of the songs. He didn’t hesitate very long and contributed the sick guitar solo of “The Elementar”.

And lastly, there is Will McShepard of Southwind and The Hum. I had known him since I first met Chaos Before Gea in their rehearsal room, but didn’t know what a virtuoso he is until I saw him perform live with The Hum. When I stood there in awe, seeing him sweep his fretboard, I didn’t wait very long to ask him to be on the record. He composed and recorded the two guitar solos of “Descent”.

Back in the days you recorded two more demos, so you have plenty of songs to work with. Will you record some of them for the next album or, on the contrary, you plan to start composing from zero?

Thomas: We definitely plan to revisit the death metal material of the remaining demos. Again, the emphasis will be on a much improved, professional production and the use of a real drummer. But next time we will most likely have to offer two or three new songs also.

We’re here to talk about Rebel Souls, but I can’t resist asking about Dead Entities’ Realm. Are there any plans to write a second album?

Thomas: I wouldn’t discard it. Although I think we would need to cloister ourselves for three weeks in a cabin in Norway to achieve convincing results. The material and the ideas are there, but I’m afraid they require an intensive, precisely aligned songwriting process. I just cannot see the time resources for this in the near future. However, we have been toying with the idea to remix and remaster the first album and give it a proper re-release with its corresponding promotional campaign.

And, to end, the main question: despite of the logistics problems, do you plan to go on tour, or, at least play some shows?

Stefan: Most definitely. We will try to set up some dates, maybe a short tour to defend the material live. If one of us isn’t available for certain dates he will be replaced by live musicians. We’d love to play live with James, but we will have to see if he is available as he obviously tours a lot with Vader and also has gigs with his other band Divine Chaos. We will have to look for other capable live musicians, hopefully the record will encourage some young talented drummers to get in touch with us.
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2 Comentarios

  • #2
    el 4 de Junio de 2017
    Es un grupo que he empezadoa escuchar hace poco y me esta encantado.
  • #1
    el 25 de Febrero de 2017
    Gran entrevista y gracias por el super-tardío descubrimiento de Nocturnal Breed :D cómo no le iba a gustar semejante grupo a un fan de Evil Dead...

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