Switzerland has always been a real laboratory for black and extreme metal. In recent times the Helvetic Underground Committee has been gaining momentum thanks to a plethora of interesting bands such as Dakhma and Tardigrada, while Bølzer made quite a name for themselves despite releasing only one studio album. Going further back, the likes of Darkspace, Samael and Celtic Frost took care of putting the small alpine country on the extreme music map on a regular basis. In the last few years a new name emerged from the land of clocks and chocolate: to me, Aara is one of the most interesting bands to have surfaced in the black metal scene not only because of their peculiar musical output both in terms of songwriting and vocal approach, but also due to the unbelievable consistency in quality. With five albums and a couple EPs in little more than four years, one could think the trio is guilty of overdoing, yet the Bern-based band hasn’t failed a single release yet. We met composer and multi-instrumentalist Berg and vocalist Fluss to discuss literature, anonymity and Aara‘s next move, and here’s what came out of it.
For a start, in case someone is not familiar with Aara, would you please introduce the band in your own words? I remember from an old interview that the name is related to a Swiss river and the word “ara”, the altar for Latin…
Fluss: Yes, exactly, the band name was created from this combination. The river Aare shapes many landscapes in Switzerland and also places where we have lived. Since the bandname Ara is already present in the scene, we came up with the idea of connecting the river. So, one could translate the name freely after “altar of nature”. Berg and I started the project in 2018. The first album was more for fun and to see how the co-operation would work. After that, when we got an offer from our current label, Debemur Morti Productions, we wanted to improve the production and brought J. on board, who has been taking care of the drums and music production ever since.
How did your collaboration with Phil and Debemur Morti start out, and are you satisfied with your relationship? In addition to that, in an era where basically every band has the chance to self-produce and release their records, what do you believe are the benefits of having a label to back you up?
Berg: Phil contacted us and made an offer, and that’s how the collaboration began. We are very satisfied with the work of the entire Debemur Morti team, and I also maintain contact with Phil talking about things outside of the music projects. It is important to have a personal foundation and to trust and rely on each other. Self-promotion for Aara would simply not be feasible in terms of time. Managing a label and a shop is a full-time job if one wants to make a decent living from it. The production of music is already time-consuming enough, so I don’t need to add all the organizational aspects to it.
You’ve been releasing one album every year since 2019, meaning that Triade III: Nyx, in 2023, marks the fifth full-length in five years, this excluding several other tracks you released as EPs. Do you intend to keep such a fast pace, recording a new album every year?
Berg: That remains to be seen, to the extent that circumstances permit. We don’t have a lot of time for Aara, but work well together so that such regularity has worked well so far. The next album after the trilogy is already taken care of, so we are quite confident to be able to release another album in 2024. What happens after that? We do not know.
That will be the sixth album in six years. I cannot even begin to imagine if you had a lot of time for Aara, what you could be doing. But how does an Aara album come to life, how do you create music? Do you follow a specific pattern, or do you have different songwriting approaches?
Berg: First, we need a concept that we want to explore over a longer period of time. Then, it’s basically just plugging in the guitar and trying to turn the ideas into music. If a riff convinces us, we keep it, otherwise, we delete it. We don’t think twice about what to incorporate or not, but rather decide in the moment if it fits. This allows us to quickly create a song, which is then re-recorded in the studio and complemented by the work of J. and Fluss.
The last three albums are a single concept-trilogy based on the novel Melmoth The Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin. Why did you choose to turn this specific XIX century gothic novel into a black metal opus? What does it mean to you?
Fluss: Originally, we came across the novel rather by chance. But we were interested in the fact that this novel is a very early work of the Schauerroman genre, that had a significant influence on horror literature and art. Maturin’s gothic novel Melmoth The Wanderer is full of dark atmosphere and strong images, which are wonderfully suited to capture them in literary and musical form. In Melmoth many big themes like death, betrayal, faith and love were united. Furthermore, Maturin criticises Catholicism and various religions, as well as the unbeliever in the person of Melmoth, who has made a pact with the Devil. And these dark themes surely fit very well for music within the black metal scene, whereby we did not want to glorify Maturin’s opinion or make a political statement. For us it was particularly exciting to deal with the book as a contemporary witness of the 19th century zeitgeist. We simply enjoy the possibility to take a closer look at certain themes and, by incorporating them into the music and the design concept, creating our own and a new work of art and also growing our own knowledge and understanding of certain historical events through such projects.
Sorry, I should have asked this question before but it completely slipped my mind: the album before the trilogy, En Ergô Einai, borrowed its title from Aristotle and dealt with the Enlightenment, during the XVIII century. What drew you towards that specific period of time?
Fluss: It was simply a period in which we were strongly involved with the Enlightenment period, which gave us the inspiration to do a concept album. Also, this album was — in retrospect you could consider it as the first “real” Aara album — a step in the direction of what we really wanted to do, which is to deal intensively with a theme on each album. Writing emotionally driven lyrics doesn’t work so well for me, and I think Berg also likes to work out the melodies with an image or goal in mind. On En Ergô Einai he also deliberately uses elements of classical music from the 17th and 18th centuries, the epoch of the Enlightenment suited the lyrical concept well.
At this point, after the eighteenth and the nineteenth, shall we expect the next album, which you mentioned is done already, to deal with the twentieth century?
Fluss: In fact, with the future album, which is currently in the works, we are following this chronology. But this actually came about rather by chance and was not consciously planned this way. Moreover, it will be less literary and philosophically inspired, but will deal with real events, which will make it very different from the previous albums.
All your lyrics are in German, have you ever thought about translating your lyrics, to make them understandable to English speakers? And why the choice of keeping your native language?
Fluss: Actually, our mother tongue is Swiss German, which is a very strong dialect of German. It was therefore more of a consideration to write lyrics in this dialect, which I have also done for other projects and which is great fun, than to consider writing English texts. In fact, I really enjoy writing in German because it is so diverse and allows you to write poetic texts in a much more in-depth way, thanks to all the wonderful adjectives that exist in German. We could imagine translating the lyrics into English and printing them, but that’s up to the label.
I am aware this may be a bit of a generic yet endless question, but would you spend some words discussing each of your albums? As a listener, I find them all very consistent, and yet each has its own peculiarities. How would you describe them?
Berg: That is difficult to answer. So Fallen Alle Tempel was the first, perhaps somewhat naive attempt to express what Aara should be, namely a project guided by concepts and ideas, which does not want to write the songs according to genre-specific characteristics, but how one would want to transfer these concepts into music. At that time it was not clear at all what Aara was going to be. EPs like Anthropozän and Phthonos gave us the opportunity to try things out and see if they fit Aara or not. Especially Anthropozän was the beginning of using more classical elements with many guitar layers on top of each other to create this wall of music and melodies, which can be found especially on En Ergô Einai. This album was also the one with which we first got more attention and ended up with Debemur Morti Productions. We chose the Triade trilogy as our own challenge, to stretch a theme over several albums and thus have more space for the musical and lyrical narrative. The Triade breaks with En Ergô Einai, which almost sounds cheerful in some parts, and incorporates more somber, darker and faster parts. Triade II: Hemera is much wilder and more chaotic than Triade I: Eos, but uses similar elements. Triade III: Nyx tries to be simpler, but at the same time takes elements from the first two parts of the Triade and even from En Ergô Einai.
You talk about concepts and ideas underlying So Fallen Alle Tempel, would you elaborate on those? What was your original intent when creating Aara, and is that still what drives the band today, or have your goals and directions shifted in these five years?
Fluss: I think the first album was an experiment for us to see if a collaboration could work. There wasn’t really a fixed concept but rather a bunch of different ideas and directions that we tried out to see what would work. Berg wanted to try something new and I had the idea to write something about destructive forces of nature, and wrote about the earthquake of Basel in 1356 or a rockfall in the Italian part of Switzerland. But this was not a real concept and we lacked a common thread running through this work. So on the following album we turned to a defined framework through a specific theme. With Triade, we took it to the extreme, because the template of a novel creates a very narrow framework, from which we now want to free ourselves again. So there was never an original vision of how or what Aara should be or become. It is still a dynamic search for new inspiration and new forms of musical and lyrical development. Aara is a river.
What kind of bands and musicians do you see as your main influences, regardless of their genre? I remember for example that J. is a jazz-trained drummer at the University of Bern and that he looks up to the likes of Tony Williams and Nick Barker. What about Berg and Fluss?
Berg: My taste is pretty diverse, constantly changing influences and inspirations, especially between classical music, ambient, black metal of the early 2000s and electronic producers. It is important that it has a certain atmosphere, but I don’t have any heroes or role models.
Fluss: I also listen to very different music, and I couldn’t name who directly inspires me for the project. For the vocals, I’ve always just looked for the ways that worked for me personally, without wanting to sound like X or Y… I still like to listen to atmospheric and repetitive black metal, classical music and operas, especially from the Czech romantics. And sometimes I like to listen to specific indie or post-rock, when the atmosphere gives me this feeling of being on a journey.
How tied are you to the Swiss black metal scene? The Helvetic Underground Committee rose to critical acclaim these last few years, and Metal Archives says J. was a guest in Lykhaeon. Do you have any other links to the “collective”?
Berg: Fluss and I tend to stay out of the “scene”, if it exists here at all. In Switzerland there are rather close local groups that make music together and support each other, there is no nationwide scene. J. is involved in many different projects, as he is the best drummer for black metal here, sometimes as a member, sometimes only as a session musician. Of course, we know some people of the Helvetic Underground Committee, but we exchange information only sporadically. We are more closely connected with the circle around Chotzä (Bern) and Malphas (Geneva), as well as a few bands from Germany, France and Norway.
Do you think a nationwide scene could be helpful, in some ways? What would you say are the biggest difficulties a band from Switzerland needs to overcome?
Berg: Personally, I don’t really need a scene, but I do have respect for people like J., for example, who provide a space for events and support bands. Switzerland is certainly not the worst country for black metal, especially in recent years, as many new projects and events have emerged. However, a big problem is the costs in Switzerland. It hardly makes sense for a band to sell their releases themselves because they can’t compete with international prices and shipping costs. At the same time, when going on an international tour, one earns relatively little considering the high prices at home.
How did your relationship with German painter Michael Handt come to be?
Fluss: We are very lucky to have this collaboration with Michael. He is an incredibly talented young artist and we found his style very suitable for our music. By chance we found Michael’s website and after asking him we were allowed to use an already existing painting of him for En Ergô Einai. We now have the privilege to have Michael realise our ideas for the covers, which gives us completely new possibilities to design our works. The first two covers of the Triade were painted by Michael based on scenes from the novel Melmoth The Wanderer, the last one we chose from his existing works because it fitted so well. The upcoming album will again feature an oil painting by Michael, which he painted after a historical photograph.
In several older interviews you said you are not particularly interested in bringing Aara on a stage, yet you never excluded the chance. What would be the “conditions” that would make it possible to see the band live?
Berg: There are no specific framework conditions. Aara is quite challenging to implement live in terms of songwriting, as we work with a lot of tracks that run over and against each other. There are no plans at all, but I don’t explicitly rule out anything so that it cannot be held against us if we do so.
You refuse to discuss your previous musical experiences, choose to keep the band anonymous, yet with a very specific aesthetic style. Why robes and trickster masks, and why anonymity?
Berg: The focus of Aara is not necessarily on anonymity and secrecy. It simply makes sense to separate things from each other. Aara is not about us as individuals who need to stage ourselves, but rather about the concepts and music we want to express. Therefore, we handle it very freely. For example, one cannot say that J. is an unknown personality in the current black metal scene. He knows many people, is involved in many projects, organizes concerts, and so on, and he freely embraces that. On the other hand, for me, it is more important to simply make music, be it in Aara or other projects. I have never been a “public person” that needs to be known everywhere in the scene, and I won’t be one.
I don’t know whether it was Fluss or Berg who wrote this, but I found this comment extremely on point: «Most of the black metal philosophy is too unreflected and too simple-minded for that. I have the feeling that many people do not take the trouble to inform and educate themselves to develop their critical thinking about religions and humanity. To me, pure anti-religion and anti-society are too simple to answer the complicated things that have developed culturally and historically over thousands of years.»
Too many people often forget that black metal was born from angry teenagers in the ‘80s. Yet, the whole genre has come a long way from its early days, and the mere fact that black metal musicians give this kind of thoughtful opinions is proof that this music can still be fresh and offer different takes and angles on a wide range of topics. So, what does black metal mean to you?
Berg: Honestly, it’s often precisely the bands with more classic and perhaps more straightforward lyrics that I personally enjoy the most. I also understand the desire to carry on these ideas; it’s almost like a tradition. Black metal is one of the most diverse genres, offering a lot of freedom while still being bound by strict boundaries that are drawn not so much by musical elements but by feelings and atmosphere. As a result, black metal is heavily driven by emotions, which, combined with its diversity, creates an exciting combination. It has been a constant presence for a long time, remaining a part of me despite any changes or developments in life.