PICK OF THE WEEK: Immortal Bird’s Amitay talks fiery twists, turns on charring ‘Empress/Abscess’

Immortal BidWhen Immortal Bird swooped out of the sky in December 2013, it was a really strange revelation. Here was this really different, compelling EP “Akrasia” coming out of nowhere, almost defiant of the fact we writers want our music earlier than that so we can make our self-congratulatory end-of-year lists. How dare they burn down convention?!

No matter, “Akrasia” took hold, and as Immortal Bird played surgically targeted tours around the country, they brought people to their knees with their odd mix of death, black metal, grind and overall weirdness that really sounded like nothing else out there. There was something really special in the dark, swampy stew they were brewing, and hearing the songs played live brought an extra level of intensity to the mix. Now, with the dawning of their debut full-length “Empress/Abscess,” their story unfurls ever further. What you hear on this five-track, 31-minute album is a band—vocalist Rae Amitay, guitarist Evan Berry, bassist John Picillo, drummer Garry Naples— growing into a more dangerous machine. There are precise strikes, yes, but what’s really interesting are two things: The unique, fresh compositions that always take unexpected turns and demand your attention, and Amitay’s tortured nightmare poetics and organs-bleeding growls and screams that rupture you. Every song stands on its own and is its very own foray into emotional tumult.

Opener “Neoplastic” is a perfect track to tear the doors off this bastard, with the band mixing violence and melody, and Amitay sounding like a vicious beast, as gnarly and dangerous as she ever has before. Weekend Nachos’ John Hoffman lends his wild bark to the muck, with the band swirling like a storm. “Saprophyte” has two faces, with the first simmering and smothering with punishment, with the pace getting more raucous, teasing a bursting open. The back end blows into polar ice cap black metal, with riffs sending whipping winds that blister your lips and the vocals driving the nails. “Sycophant” has a little bit of filthy black n roll bend to it, a nice change-up for the middle of the album and a track that should blacken eyes in a live setting. “To a Watery Grave” continues to show new shades of the band, as the misery and chaos conjured goes into a quiet, serene section where Amitay plays glock (-enspiel, not, like, the weapon thing) and calm breeze sifts through your hair. But then it’s back into bustling panic, albeit with shades of atmospheric rock and prog wonder that’s super exciting to hear.

Closer “And Send Fire” is my favorite of the bunch, a 10:29 epic that just might hint at the band’s musical future. I’m not trying to stand on a hill yelling, “They’re Opeth now!” because it’s a totally different kind of journey, but they do an expert job stretching their canvas. The first part is clean, moody, and sorrowful, almost as if the music begs for singing. Yet Amitay chooses the rougher path, which turns out to be the right call, letting loose her frustration that bleeds rivers, while the band colors in all kinds of nighttime textures. Before the rousing finale, the band pulls back again, reaching into a space that, dare I say, reminds me of Rush’s calmer moments, before everything is set ablaze again, with Amitay wailing, “Burn it all down!” The band crushes and thrashes to accentuate each of her words, like they’re setting off final charges that should send jolts down your spine. The final minutes are noise-drenched crackles, hissing and sparking as you can imagine that, indeed, fire has been sent.

We sat down with Amitay over Skype and talked many things Immortal Bird, from how the record came together, to her stepping away from the drum kit for this album, to the darkness behind these songs, to how the band has grown in her time together. Thanks a ton to Rae for her time and hails to her cat Wynnie for screaming through half the goddamn interview.

Immortal Bird cover
: When did you start writing the new record “Empress/Abscess,” and how long did it take for everything to come together?

RAE AMITAY: We started writing it pretty much after we finished “Akrasia,” and we wrote “Neoplastic” and “To A Watery Grave” pretty right much off the bat, and the rest took a while. We were writing and finishing stuff up right up until we went into the studio, which was about 4 or 5 months ago … the end of February. It didn’t take too long, about a year-ish to write.

MMM: Have you played any of the songs live yet?

RA: Most of them we have. On the last tour, we played three out of the five. We’re going to add another one for the upcoming tour. We’re still figuring out how to play “And Send Fire” live, but I have a feeling we won’t be able to play all of them live.

MMM: Talk about how the songs came together musically. You and Evan primarily wrote the music, right?

RA: Business as usual. I figured out some riffs, he figured out some riffs. We arranged everything. He did more of the arranging than I do because he is actually a guitarist. Garry played drums this time just because he’d been playing so much of the material live for the last year already, it just made more sense. His chops are at a higher level than mine right now, especially in a recording situation. I probably could’ve pulled it off, but it would’ve been more time and financially more consuming than necessary.

MMM: Being that you do write much of the music, did you play any of the guitar on the record?

RA: No, but I did all the vocals this time except for that one guest spot that John from Weekend Nachos did. Whereas on “Akrasia,” Evan did some of the backing vocals, but I did everything this time.

MMM: Well, let’s get into Garry, then … was it tough for you to give up that spot? I mean, being that you’ve played the drums all your life, what did that take for you?

RA: It was really hard. But, you know, he did a phenomenal job. In the future, I think I want to get back behind the kit for a recording, but, I mean, he did a great job. I have zero regrets having him do it. It was a little tough to step away from the kit, but you have to do what’s best for the music. It’s not about being able to put your name on something, as much as it’s about being able to put out a good album.

MMM: Were you around when he was recording? I can imagine you there wringing your hands. “No, Garry!”

RA: Garry wants to do a good job. If I have any feedback, I’d just give it to him. He’s not overly sensitive. I could be like, “That part needs to not sound like that; it needs to sound like this.” And he’d be like, “Oh, OK!” That happens more in a practice; I can’t remember anything in the studio being shitty. (laughs) He did a good job.

MMM: Do you consider him to be the drummer of the band?

RA: He’s definitely the live drummer. I think that he and I are the drummers of the band. I played on the first record, he played on this. I come up with most of the drum parts. I’d say we’re both the drummers of the band, but as far as the new album is concerned, he’s the drummer.

MMM: We’ve talked off the record a little bit about the lyrics, and you mentioned these songs you consider dark and sad. Lyrically, what are some of the things you explore on this one?

RA: This one got a little bit darker. The first album, the tracks were about someone in particular that I had very strong, angry, or resentful feelings toward. This album isn’t like that. It’s a little bit more introspective except for “Sycophant” is about a specific person. But, the other songs are more reflective about things that have really affected me in my life, and that I’ve seen affect other people and their lives. It’s less of a Taylor Swift breakup record and more delving into some topics that I’ve avoided in the past.

MMM: Anything you feel like talking about?

RA: Uh, pretty much the usual. Dealing with depression and self-loathing and addiction themes, and abuse stuff that I try to talk about. There are “akratic” themes carried over from the last album. This album is angrier and sadder at the same time.

MMM: It sounds a lot like you’ve gone through a lot to write these words, and perhaps it can be something with which other people can relate. Do you hope that people can hear these things and maybe identify with some of these universal issues?

RA: I hope so, because I’ve never been someone who flatters myself into thinking that my experiences are unique to me. I think that everyone goes through the same set of universal struggles throughout their lives and that’s why it can be so easy to relate to certain songs and to hear something and think, “This song is about me!” I mean, it’s not, but sometimes the experiences are so hyper-specific but are also so applicable to so many people that it can really feel like that. There are songs I hear, and I think, “How was this song not written about what I’m dealing with right now?” It’s because other people have gone through the same exact thing you’ve gone through, and people will go through it, and you’ll get through it. We’re all on the same sinking ship.

MMM: How did the title “Empress/Abscess” come about, and what’s the meaning behind it to you?

RA: I came up with it. I was thinking about how those words are vaguely similar, but completely different in meaning. I was thinking about how you have these people in positions of power, people who are put on a pedestal who are ugly inside. I was thinking about an empress, but an abscess is such a disgusting thing. I like the duality of it. We hadn’t been able to think of an album title. We thought we were going to do a self-titled. But I mentioned it to Evan, and he is an amazing person, and a great musician, but he is very non-committal. Typically when I come to him with something, I end up talking at him and then figuring it out on my own. But I asked him about this name, and he said, “That’s fucking awesome.” and I was like, “OK, well, we got a reaction out of you. Cool. We’re going to go with that.”

MMM: The album art certainly is gripping, and maybe it’s a total coincidence, but it does sort of reflect the album title.

RA:  It was definitely semi-intentional. It shows a little girl, and she’s all sorts of fucked up. It does have a bird, which is nice. (laughs) It fits in … I don’t want to assign it more meaning than it deserves because the art, I think, functions independently of the album title. I think that I came up with the album title after we already had the art, but I think I noticed that it fit well. It was a good accident. But I don’t think I would’ve chosen a title that was completely in opposition to the artwork and vice versa.

MMM: “Akrasia” was released independently, but for “Empress/Abscess” you’re also working with Broken Limbs for the cassette and vinyl versions. Why did you decide to pursue that relationship with Broken Limbs?

RA: Well, I was fine with doing the whole thing independently. The one thing that was bothering me was that we’ve had so many people show a lot of enthusiasm about vinyl, and that was something that I wasn’t financially ready to take on. I thought it was not the best move for us when we had an EP, but I knew that if we did a full-length that we probably need to do it. And we had been talking to several labels, but it didn’t feel quite right, so I went shopping on my own. I really like Pete’s (Browne of Broken Limbs) work; I think the albums he’s helped put out are all great. I’ve never heard a bad thing about him from any of the bands who’ve worked with him. I reached out to him, and said, “Hey, I know I follow you on Instagram, and I have this shitty band if you want to maybe put out our shit.” (laughs) He’s been wonderful so far. I guess time will tell, like, if our vinyl gets out on time or whatever. (laughs) He’s very passionate about the music, which means a lot to me. He’s always around to answer questions and show support. I think it’s going to be a good thing, a cool relationship.

MMM: You mentioned “And Send Fire,” the longest song on the record. It’s the track I like the most, and I’m really curious as to how that one came to life.

RA:   Well, here’s the thing: It wasn’t 10 minutes. It was seven minutes, and it was still our longest song, and we didn’t go into thinking that it was going to be like that. So we sent it to Colin (Marston, who mastered the album), and when he sent it back, it was 10 minutes. I was like, “What the fuck happened?” and he said, “Oh, I did some shit.” I was like, “What?!” So all the weird, ambient, creepy fucking noise shit at the end? He did that. He recorded a fire, an actual, roaring fire and reversed it. He did a bunch of cool stuff all on his own. On the album credits, it says, “Additional fire, on And Send Fire, by Colin Marston.” He put his own little stamp on it, and I am so grateful that he did, because it helped our runtime. (laughs) And it also sounds really neat. It makes listening to the record more of an experience. It’s creepy, dark, and awesome. I love what he did.

MMM: It sounds like at the end of that song there’s a word repeating?

RA: I think it might be the word “burn” and repeated it a bunch of times? I’m not sure. It sounds like “burn” to me. I say, “Burn it all down” four times at the end, and then I think he just took the word “burn” and fucked it all up.

MMM: As I said, I really like that song, it sounds like there’s a huge progression upward from the EP to this. Do you feel, musically, the progression that I’m hearing as a listener?

RA: It’s a combination of playing a lot and being an actual band. With the first EP, we were like, alright, we need to sound like a band. We can’t sound like a random configuration of weird ideas. We were trying to develop a sound we could build off of. And I think that we did. But now with “Empress/Abscess,” I think that with the songwriting, we knew what we were doing a little bit more. We knew what we were going for. We got the whole grind genre tag thrown onto us after “Akrasia,” and we were like, so be it, but we’re going to do a lot more intricate songwriting this time around. That’s why we have a piano passage on one track this time, and I played live glockenspiel. That’s not midi glock. I did the glockenspiel! I want everyone to know that. I played glockenspiel.

MMM: That’s the beginning of “And Send Fire,” right?

RA: And I think it’s on “To a Watery Grave,” too. We didn’t give a fuck. We were going to make the record we want, micro-genre tags be damned.  We kind of know what we want to sound like now. It is more of a cohesive effort. Evan and I worked together even better on this one than we did on “Akrasia.” I think it’s a progression. I think all bands hope for that.

MMM: Having been around you all a bit, everyone in the band seems to genuinely enjoy each other. That or you’re all amazing liars and actors. (laughs) What are your thoughts on that, and how does it help strengthen what the band does artistically?

RA: We are all friends, and it’s fun touring with those dudes. John and I don’t really fight; Garry and I get into one fight a year. We’ve had multiple guitarists tour with us, but it’s never been a problem. Evan and I write together really well. It’s a group of people who have a lot of respect for each other musically. We all joke around, but at the end of the day, I know everyone cares about Immortal Bird and cares about each other, which is really cheesy. But they’re some of my best friends, and I get stoked to go on the road with them. I really like and respect what they’re all doing musically and personally. It’s a good group of people, and I feel really lucky, because I know that it’s hard. It’s easy to find people who can play music well, but it’s hard to find people that you want to spend time with.

MMM: It’s funny, because this afternoon, I was reading the latest shit about Van Halen, and how Eddie and David Lee Roth hate each other, and all of that. It got me thinking that, well, that’s a business. Not really a band. They get paid a ton of money to deal with each other. Considering what you have with Immortal Bird, is that something you ever could see yourself enduring?

RA: I can’t imagine being in a situation where I’m being promised a lot of money. There a lot of genres of music I enjoy playing that are less about camaraderie and brotherhood, and are more about making a dollar. I like playing pop rock and country, and I’m sure that if I’m ever in a band like that as a session player or guest musician, we’re not all going to best pals. We probably won’t speak when we’re not in a rehearsal. I’m fine with that. I get a lot of personal fulfillment out of just playing my instrument. I’m honestly not much of a team player. I’m an only child. I was a figure skater, which is a very solitary sport. With my band, yeah, we’re a team, we’re a family, but like, at my very core, I’m cool with being a hired gun. I’m cool with solo projects. I’m cool with all that stuff, just because, I don’t know, I didn’t start playing music to make friends. I just started playing music because I felt compelled to do so. I guess maybe that’s shitty attitude. (laughs)

MMM: Well, all of this being said, and all the stuff we talked about with the music and how the band has progressed, what have you learned about yourselves? What do you realize looking back on when “Akrasia” first was released, to touring, to now pitting out your first full-length?

RA: I guess I’ve learned that I don’t want it to be just a one-off thing. I thought maybe Immortal Bird would be a one-time EP sort of project, and then I would move on and figure something else out. Now, I think I would like for it to be my main creative outlet. I always knew I liked touring, but I thought that maybe I’d tour as a hired gun, and Immortal Bird could be a recording project. But now I know that I like touring with my own band. I’d like to continue doing that.

For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/immortalbirdband

To buy the album, go here (CD/digital): http://immortalbird.bandcamp.com/

Or here: http://brokenlimbsrecordings.com/shop/

For more on the label, go here: http://brokenlimbsrecordings.com/