Burton C. Bell speaks with ReGen Magazine about the creation of Apocrypha, the new album from his band Ascension of the Watchers, along with an affirmation of how essential music is in these difficult times.
An InterView with Burton C. Bell of Ascension of the Watchers
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
In 1992, a band called Fear Factory ushered in a new realm of industrial/metal with Soul of a New Machine, introducing audiences to a sound that was as lyrically vicious as the mechanized brutality of the music, delivered by vocalist Burton C. Bell. Over the course of a career that’s lasted more than three decades, Bell has honed his craft as a lyricist, vocalist, and songwriter, presenting a heartfelt storytelling style that has seen him become one of modern music’s most distinct and celebrated voices. Forming Ascension of the Watchers in 2005 with longtime associate and band mate John Bechdel, he began to focus more on these abilities in a perhaps less aggressive though no less intense musical setting; full of spectral dreamlike atmospheres and an almost literary quality inherent in the words, the Watchers’ music is darkly harmonious and poignant, as evidenced by the band’s 2008 Numinosum debut. After more than a decade of writing and recording, the group at last unveils a new album, Apocrypha, released on October 9 via Dissonance Productions. With U.K. based solo artist Jayce Lewis joining Bell and Bechdel, the new album was recorded in Lewis’ Northstone Studios in the South Wales countryside, making for a haunting and ethereal surrounding that contributed to the emotive sonic journey that Apocrypha takes listeners on, with some of Bell’s most melodic vocal work yet. Having now officially announced his departure from Fear Factory, Ascension of the Watchers is not only the “Soul without the Machine” – Bell makes clear that the soul no longer needs the machine, as ReGen Magazine is thrilled to have had the opportunity to speak with him about the creation of this new record, along with a bit of waxing nostalgic about resurgent musical genres, the band’s bounce back from the PledgeMusic debacle, and an affirmation of the essential therapeutic need for music during the most difficult of times.
Since the release of the last album, Numinosum, you’ve been busy with numerous other collaborations and bands. What would you say were the major differences in terms of the songwriting and the themes you’ve explored between that album and Apocrypha?
Bell: When it came to the new material, I did not change my mode of writing at all. I kept writing the way I’ve always written music, by picking up the guitar or sitting down at the piano, and just writing out ideas and arrangements, chords that were resonating with however I was feeling at that moment. So, there wasn’t really a change in that mode, but the one aspect that I really did want to focus on was that after Numinosum came out and we were playing the music live, I realized that the live versions of the songs sounded so much bigger, sonically. I’d say, ‘Oh, I wish the album sounded like this!’ The songs would be written the way they’ve always been written, following the content and the type of emotional material that I wanted to get across – that didn’t change, but sonically, that’s what I wanted to change was adding more of a live feel to it. That was the main goal of this album, to make the sound big, live drums, make the guitars more present, and not to take away keyboards, but to really balance the keyboards so that it was a good mesh of keyboards, guitar, and vocals. The keyboards are still there to add countermelody, but not to make it too confusing; a little bit simplified in a way, but I really wanted to get it huge and live sounding, and I think we really made that happen.
I certainly did notice the bigger sound when I saw your performance in 2017 at ColdWaves in Los Angeles.
Bell: That show was the first time we introduced an early version of ‘Ghost Heart,’ which is the first song on the album.
Jayce Lewis features very prominently on the new album in the recording and production. What was the contrast between his approach and John Bechdel’s in those terms, and what would you say you really resonated with in Jayce’s style and way of doing things?
Bell: First of all, Jayce built a studio that would be able to accommodate what I wanted to achieve. John’s is still completely digital, which is fine, but Jayce’s studio is a much more modern analog studio. He has all different kinds of analog equipment that he would use to go into and out of ProTools, so it’s not digital and there is a lot more depth to it. Also, I really wanted to add something new to it, and I kind of wanted to let go of the reigns of production and let Jayce do what he does well. He’s a very talented and multifaceted producer and musician that’s coming up and he’s making a name for himself, and I could see that talent in what he’s done in the past. I was like, ‘Okay, I trust you and I’m going to let you do what you do.’ I let him have the freedom, and we would go over things together. We discussed music in-depth. I told him about all the records I love and the kind of music I love, and I wanted to roll all that into one for this album to sound like everything that I love. With his talent and his studio, he exceeded my expectations, but I really needed to let go of it to make it something completely different. I’m glad I did that, and my trust was validated. He made this happen, and in a lot of ways, this record would not have happened if Jayce were not involved. If I had not gone to over to Wales in 2016 or 2015 and recorded demos of ‘Ghost Heart’ and ‘The End is Always the Beginning’ at his studio – he’d just built it, just completed it, and I think I was the first person outside of himself to come and record some music. I got that chance to work with Jayce for the first time, get to know the man, learn about his studio… not just the beautiful studio he built, but the whole surrounding area that its in, the old Court Colman Manor is on top of a hill in a pastoral setting in South Wales – green, trees, beautiful, quiet – it was the perfect setting. There were a lot of points that really came into the process.
I was going to ask about the locale, because it does sound rather idyllic, and even having built the studio with the stones of the old monastery… I wanted to ask if there was any point where the original vision for the songs changed because of that. What sort of effect did it have to you in that regard?
Bell: It did not change the songs that I’d written, but what it did was enhance everything that I wanted to do. It inspired and enhanced what we were already doing. The fact that it was a pastoral setting was perfect, because I love to get away when I record. We sequestered the setting to get what we wanted to achieve, and the fact that there was no cell service enhanced it even more. If I wanted to make a call or send or receive e-mails, I had to go into the Manor to get wi-fi. But in the studio, there’s no wi-fi, there’s no cell service at all. I think we benefitted from that aspect. It was so inspiring… the places where I was writing these songs on guitar and piano, creating them at John’s studio in Pennsylvania, or Edu’s apartment in Brooklyn, and then Jayce’s studio… it was all the perfect setting and it was really fortunate that we came together.
I was going to ask if Edu Mussi was still involved in Ascension of the Watchers.
Bell: Edu did help to write some songs – in fact, he wrote one song on Apocrypha – but he’s just decided to step away from music and focus on his own business.
The album was originally titled Stormcrow with its themes revolving around the Book of Enoch in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Why the change in title to Apocrypha?
Bell: ‘Stormcrow,’ which is the instrumental… it was always meant to be an instrumental, and it was the first track actually written and recorded and demoed for this album years ago. And I loved the title and thought it would be a good title for the album, and when we did the PledgeMusic campaign, we were using the title of Stormcrow; we had artwork created for it, and it was working out. When we finally got to the studio to start recording the album properly, as we were recording – two weeks into it, PledgeMusic failed (everyone), but we continued to record – it seemed that the whole story, the whole feeling of the album was calling for a lot more. It felt a lot deeper than a title like Stormcrow. Being the first one, ‘Stormcrow’ started to feel like a harbinger that has brought these messages across from the universe to be recorded, so that was my initial thinking. As we were recording and mixing, I just kept thinking, ‘Stormcrow… hmm.’ The title just wasn’t sitting as well with me. The title of Apocrypha, the title of the song ‘Apocrypha,’ just resonated more within me. This whole album felt like it was a much deeper statement than just Stormcrow – these are texts and thoughts and messages that have come across to me and have been lost, and Apocrypha is the result of unearthing these feelings from deep within myself to share with the world. It just felt like a deeper title, and Stormcrow did its job delivering the message with the PledgeMusic campaign in got the word out that we’re doing an album. It wasn’t written in stone, and the fact that the campaign did fail, I felt it was perfect to reboot the concept of the album.
I’d like to hope that everyone knows you as an excellent vocalist, but one thing that struck me seeing you perform these songs live was your guitar playing, and you’ve talked a little about writing these songs on guitar and piano. You played a 12-string electric at the ColdWaves show, and I always associate that with a very crystalline, rich, resonant sound that puts me in mind of the likes of Swans, and I even hear elements of early Killing Joke in your writing. What about that sound do you feel defines the atmosphere of Ascension of the Watchers?
Bell: I’ll start off by saying that I’m not a guitar player. I’m not classically trained. I do have guitars and I play guitar, but I only play songs that I create. If I can learn a different song, I can, but I just play songs that I create, so I start there. You mentioned Swans and Killing Joke, and of course, they are huge influences on me and have always been since I was a teenager. Geordie Walker’s style is just loose but it has an angsty kind of vibe, which I love – there’s a lot of feel and movement in it. For Swans and especially the early stuff with Norman Westberg, I just love his style. He has a form, but it’s just an avant-garde voice, which I love. He’s quite an efficient guitarist, of course, but his style is very unique. But these sounds that I’m looking for in Ascension of the Watchers are what I’m attracted to and always have been. It’s no secret that I’m not a big metal fan and never have been; I do like some metal, but when people say ‘stay metal,’ come on. On the whole, it’s not my thing. This style really truly reflects my personality, and this is the kind of music that I’m attracted to and inspired by.
If I may digress about the ‘stay metal’ thing, that does remind me of many of the comments I’ve seen in response to the news that Rob Halford is working on a solo album that will be blues music, and the amount of people who are responding negatively and saying he should stick to metal, I just want to say, ‘You all don’t know your history!’
Bell: They do not know their history. Blues is a big part of rock, and Black Sabbath was a blues band. It’s strange that for a scene, and even a society that really wants to hold onto its past, nobody remembers it, nobody reflects upon it, and nobody bothers to go back and research what’s actually happened. That’s true for a lot of things.
We do live in an age of nostalgia now, and there are bands bringing back old sounds of synthwave and post-punk revivalism. What are your thoughts on how these trends are being received by newer audiences? Does it inspire or enable a deeper dig into the past, or is it just a fad?
Bell: I won’t say that it’s a fad, but everything does move in cycles. Something that was popular and goes out will eventually come back with a new generation, and that’s the generation that finally appreciates their parents’ music, some might say. They’re getting more familiar with it, and they find something that they really like and connect with, so they want to do the same thing. Look at Greta Van Fleet; whether they want to deny it or not, they are a Led Zeppelin band. For instance, I really liked that band from the early ’00s who had the album Turn On the Bright Lights… Interpol.
The funny thing is when I first heard Interpol, I said, ‘So, this is Radiohead-meets-Joy Division.’
Bell: Absolutely! For me, that album was totally Joy Division, which I liked, but they did it in a way that pays homage without ripping them off. That’s the key; there are bands that will pay homage to a band and rip them off completely, and that’s not really doing yourself a service – that just focuses on the band you’re trying to be like. Interpol reminded me of Joy Division, but it wasn’t Joy Division. If you can take the past and have it morph, almost like osmosis, then you can become a new identity. But it comes in cycles. Grunge is coming back. Who would’ve thought? Nü-metal is going to come back whether we like it or not. God, I hope it doesn’t. There have been a lot better music genres that should return that haven’t yet, but I guess not all music comes back around. Nobody’s doing doo-wop music at all.
I’m sure we can find some if we look for it. There will be a band in the middle of Wisconsin or somewhere really obscure.
Bell: Maybe I’ll do a doo-wop song on the next Watchers record. (Laughter) Or barbershop quartet.
You’ve signed with Dissonance Productions for the release of Apocrypha and you’ve had an unfortunately bad experience with crowdfunding. What are your thoughts on the traditional models of releasing music and how it applies to Ascension of the Watchers? Moving forward, will we still be bound to record labels?
Bell: Yeah. I think record labels aren’t going away, and it’s still the best way for a young band to get their name out there. Facebook and social media and whatever will only go so far, and the people who are on Facebook and Instagram looking at music don’t really pay attention; they just want to see what’s happening as a news source. I do think that as someone who is seasoned with 30 years in the music industry, I’ve learned what I can get out of a label, so I am smarter when it comes to the contract and what I would to get out of it. And that’s what everyone has to do – to get smart, and know that you are signing a deal, but what can you get out of it? Dissonance Productions was very happy to release Apocrypha because one of our main criteria, if not the main criteria, was that they had to honor the CDs and vinyl for the pledgers. We did not want that to be lost. If it weren’t for the pledgers, we never would have gotten this far to begin with, so we wanted to honor that for them and get the pledgers the new album. They’ll all get the digital download, but anyone who contributed for the CD and vinyl, they’ll get that as well. We are very grateful and are going to make this happen despite the failure of PledgeMusic, and in the long run, hey, that makes us look like heroes. That was the biggest criteria for us with Dissonance Productions. And as labels go, there are a lot of labels who prefer a certain type of band or genre, and that’s all well and good. I was looking at the history of Dissonance, and I thought, ‘Well, they kind of do a little bit of everything,’ and as long as they back us and are willing to put the record out and support and market it, that’s all I ask for.
Live music is in a great deal of turmoil due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Ascension of the Watchers has played live and puts on a great show. What possibilities do you foresee for live music to survive or evolve in the wake of this situation… at the very least as it applies to the Watchers? Will you be putting on any live shows?
Bell: Yes, we definitely plan to play live. We are speaking with agents, and of course, all the agents say nothing is happening until after spring, and some have said that maybe even at the end of summer. Nothing new is going to be booked until then. This will all subside, and everything is moving slowly; music was the first to close, and it will be the last to open, and unfortunately that’s the case because everyone loves music and lives with music. To call it non-essential is a crime! Music is an essential part of society – not just for the economy, but for sanity, for humanity! Music is therapy for so many people, so it is essential… more essential than Wall Street, for goodness sake! But the Watchers are planning something for summer, and once this album gains traction from its release, I think there will be a lot more opportunity for playing live, because that is something that we definitely want to do. We want to put this on the road and get that sound live so that people can really enjoy live music. As effective as streaming can be to accommodate the lack of concerts, it is still not the same, nor will it be. Maybe for the people who stand at concerts with their phones on all the time, maybe they like it a lot. But for me, it’s not the same. That being said, the Watchers are planning to do a streaming show later this year. Once we have all the details together, we’re going to start a campaign to pre-sell tickets.
You recently did a vocal for Brian E. Carter’s REVillusion on the track ‘Anti-Viral’ on his latest album, HEART(less): Revisions & Additions.
Bell: Oh yeah! He contacted me through my website, and we just went off from there.
The title track to his first album, New Extinction, reminded me very much of what you were writing in Fear Factory. Did Brian write the lyrics for you on ‘Anti-Viral,’ or did you have any input into that?
Bell: Yes, he had lyrics for it, but I edited it to fit my vocal style. I had changed a word or two, but for the most part, he wrote the lyrics.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add regarding Apocrypha?
Bell: We released the second single from the album, ‘The End is Always the Beginning’ on October 2, and the record comes out on October 9. We are working on this streaming show, and that’s what we’re going to be working on for the next couple of months until we can all start working again. I’m working on a story that will be like an extension of Apocrypha – I’m taking the lyrics and the concepts of each song and writing them into text that reflects or follows the form of the Book of Enoch.
Will this be a longform book like a traditional novel, or will it be a comic or graphic novel like what you did with The Industrialist?
Bell: Oh no, this will not be a novel. It will be more like a novella – just a collection of manuscripts, that kind of thing. It will be called Apocrypha: Stormcrow. I do have a lot of things in the works at the same time. I have the follow-up to The Industrialist, which I’ve been working on. There’s a lot of story I’ve written for it, and I think it’s gotten away from me for a while; like, ‘What the fuck did I just write?’ It got a little weird and fantastical, but it is a sci-fi story, so fuck it. But just follow me on my website, Instagram, Facebook, or the Ascension of the Watchers website, and all of this information will be available.
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