Wannes Gubbels about Pentacle’s brand new album Sceptre of the Eight Ropes – Part I
The categorization of Dutch Doom/Death Metal is a landmark within the heavy metal scene. It embodies everything what a metal fan can expect from a metal record from that style. In 2019 Pentacle returned with their awesome new album titled Sceptre of the Eight Ropes and bandleader Wannes Gubbels was so kind to answer my questions.
Wannes, thanks a lot for accepting my interview request! Since 2002 you have a fixed line up, does it mean that there is a good chemistry among the band members? Are you on the same wavelength, both musically and personally?
Musical wise, most time we are. With a band like Pentacle, the concept of its music is obvious and leaves little room for discussion. The direction is set and we keep it that way. No need for any experimentation from our side, hehehe… Sure, when composing new material we discuss what beats fits the riff best or this arrangement fits the song better than the other one, but this is on a creative and constructive level. To make sure the song comes out best. There are no big struggles or ego clashes. On a personal level, outside band activities we very seldom meet. Everyone has his own life and there’s almost no contact. When the band doesn’t rehearse/record nor does gigs, we don’t see each other for months. This has been a bit different in the past, but when grower older, every member walks his own path in life.
Guitarist Mike Verhoeven took a break from Pentacle in 2005 due to an injury to his right arm. The band continued as a 3-piece and Mike started playing with the band again a few years later. What happened with him?
Correct, Mike suffered from an injury in his right lower arm due to overstretched muscles attachment. In fact, it never healed a full 100%, so it has become chronic. During recording “Under the Black Cross” it became obvious that Mike had troubles with laying down his guitar parts. First I thought maybe he was under rehearsed, but later it turned out he suffered from this injury. After the release of the album, Mike did three shows with us and then he told us, he wasn’t able to pull it through anymore, so we continued without him.
After several years of absence, he gave it a try again. He picked up his guitar at home and started rehearsing again. We played several gigs where Mike joined us at the second part of the set and it worked out fine. The gig at Kill Town was the first one he performed a full set with us. To this day, he has to be careful not to overstretch, so gigs and rehearsing has to be dosed in the right amount. Unfortunately, he will never reach his former level of guitar performance again, which is really too bad, but we are very glad to have him around!
I think that you didn’t want to find any replacement instead of him, did you?
Not entirely true. We tried out several guitarists, but none of them worked out, which was rather remarkable to me. I mean, our music isn’t very technical or complicated and these guitarists were accomplished, but they weren’t able to handle our songs. It seems we developed a certain style through the years which is rather unconventional, so in the end it didn’t work out with any of these guys. We carried on as a three piece which was a rather unsatisfactory solution as the record we released („Under the Black Cross”) has guitars all over the place, but live we were limited to only one, so it didn’t make the same impact. It always felt as a big compromise and I didn’t feel comfortable to me, but there was no other solution at that time. I did think about cancelling all gigs or not to accept any new offers, but that was a shitty option, too. And yes, it felt weird to perform live without Mike as we both started the band back in 1989 and lived through all the ups and downs together. It wasn’t the same without him around and I missed him on stage.
Is still Alex Verhoeven involving in Lucifericon? Are all of you involved in other side projects/bands or are you concentrating 100% on Pentacle?
Yes, Alex is still doing Lucifericon, without a doubt. No, I have been asked for other bands/projects several times, but declined them all. I want to concentrate on Pentacle only and nothing else. One can serve only one master and in my case, Pentacle’s call it is. I don’t feel the urge to create other music with different band members. Time is short and even for Pentacle there’s not enough valuable time left, so adding another project/band wouldn’t make any sense. Plus, I really tend to think more people should concentrate on one band. Everybody is complaining about the amount of bands/releases and the oversight has been lost years ago, but when you notice how many bands are sharing members… Those amounts are huge these days.
I do understand the need to create different music or to enter another creative entity. I’ve done it myself as well with Soulburn and Asphyx, but it waters down the vision of the original band and less energy is been spent where it should have been directed to. Of course, this is my personal opinion. I know a lot of guys who are able to pull it through with different bands and are really successful with putting the right amount of energy in each project, so it’s a matter of time management, I guess. Or not to forget more skilled to make it happen, haha!
Before the releasing of your brand new record this year, you released two split EP’s (one with Sadistic Intent in 2016 and one with Sabbat in 2018). Can you tell us more about those materials?
The split 12” w/Sadistic Intent („Invocation of the Death Ridden”) was a very old idea from around 2001 or something like that. Both bands had the idea to create a split release, but it never happened until the actual 12” came into being. It took a lot of effort to make this piece of vinyl to be released as Sadistic Intent suffered from many delays through all kind of setbacks, but they made it happen! They also recorded two new songs and they shred! The two Pentacle songs featured were the last remaining songs to be released on vinyl. We recorded them together with three other songs (featured on the splits w/Eternal Solstice and Mortem). The full session was released as the „Five Candles Burning Red” MCD through Iron Pegasus Records. Originally, this MCD was meant to be released after the three vinyl releases, but as we needed a release to promote the US tour, plus added the delay from Sadistic Intent it was decided to change the schedule and to release the MCD before the split 12”.
I wasn’t too happy about it, as it meant both songs weren’t exclusive anymore (one could already check them out on the MCD), but as there are lots of people who buy vinyl exclusive only, the damage was limited. Lyrical wise, it meant closure of the concept for „Under the Black Cross”. Originally, the artwork for the Sadistic side was meant to be the cover for both bands, but I felt it didn’t fit our concept, so I went for a different direction. The magnificent cover by Manuel Tinnemans was the end result and that says enough! That’s a personal fave of mine as its expression is marvelous. I am very glad with the outcome of this release and it closes a long personal quest to release an item with our long time allies Sadistic Intent.
The split EP w/Sabbat features a live recording from both bands. Our release was the last one of the trilogy of Sabbat releasing split live EP’s with a Dutch band (the others are Countess and Heretic). We had a cool recording from an old song of ours lying around („Deepness of the Depths”), which felt appropriate for such a release as I didn’t want to use a more recent song. Sabbat is about tradition, so I wanted to include a classic Pentacle song and luckily this recording was very suitable for this release. Our live releases are pretty rare (except for this split we did release a professional live tape on After Life Productions a couple of years ago), so it wasn’t an overkill of live stuff floating around which made the idea pretty cool for us.
Although the other items all feature the same artwork, I didn’t feel this would suit us, so I asked Manuel to come up with a fitting drawing again. We did some brainstorming and in the end, Manuel came up with this drawing which fits the lyrical content of the song very well. Additionally, the layout was created in line with the other two releases, so there’s a strong unity to be seen. Overall, the release came out really nice and classy. It’s no substantial Pentacle release, more like a goodie for those who enjoy our output. And not to forget, it was a format we haven’t used before, so in order to fulfill this quest as well, it was a cool idea to release the split. Ah, and Sabbat is an awesome band and it was an honor to share a vinyl with these Japanese maniacs!
You have/had several splits, you were featured on several compilation appearances, were those tracks recorded exclusively to those materials? I mean, they never made on any Pentacle albums…
Indeed, these songs were initially meant for this purpose. We were asked to record exclusive songs for compilation albums (like the DSFA compilation CD part 6 or the tribute to Possessed although originally this was meant to be another Possessed tribute) or to add a couple of tracks to a split release. I always enjoyed these ideas very much as it is really a part of the „underground infrastructure”. I understand the impact of such releases is less than a full length album or even a MLP, but they definite have their charm. Especially when one is able to share the vinyl with kindred spirits and looking at the ones we did, we definite managed to gather the right bands around us.
Did you never think about to gather those tracks and to release them on a full length?
Well, all five songs of above mentioned splits with Eternal Solstice, Mortem and Sadistic Intent are released on one MCD. The Possessed cover which was featured on the split w/Repugnant can be found on „Seven Gates of Horror” tribute to Possessed compilation CD. The Necrovore song featured on the „Vestibule of Hell” compilation LP is also to be found on the US edition of „Under the Black Cross”. „Soul’s Blood” (originally to be found on the split 10” with Desaster) was used as a bonus track for the Dark Realm/Vic Records edition of „Ancient Death”. The exclusive DSFA track „A Dance Beyond” was re-released on „The Fifth Moon…Beyond and Back” DCD.
If my memory serves me right, that leaves only the Desaster cover. Better to keep that one for the 10” as it was meant to be. I see no purpose in compiling these tracks together. I know it’s more practical to press these tracks together on one LP, but it messes up the concept of the original releases and I like to keep it (somehow) as exclusive as possible. Furthermore, I always feel somehow cheated when certain bands pile their exclusive tracks together on one release. Sure, not everyone was probably able to get hold of the original items, but that’s the sport of it, hehehe…
When did you start working on the new album? How did the songwriting process go? Is there a main songwriter or do you work as a team?
The first material was written a couple of years ago, mainly composing riffs and compiling them. „Bound by Death’s Ropes” is the oldest song on the album, though it received an update when we started getting into the album mode. Originally, it was composed by Alex and me, just on guitar and it stayed a long while in this embryonic state. The same for „I Christen thee Doom” and „Now Spit forth Death”. Only when I booked the studio, we got into the album mode. Three mentioned songs were written and we needed additional five ones by the end of the year. Such a time schedule for Pentacle is very heavy as we need our time to create new songs, but I took the challenge on a personal level and laid down a strict working schedule.
Every month I wanted to create a new track: two weeks to come up with the riffs and to arrange them and two weeks to rehearse them with the band. Then the same schedule over and over again until we had eight new songs composed and rehearsed. I wrote the last five songs single handed without any input from the rest. „Behold…” even features a riff from 1994 I always kept in mind for a special occasion and it came out great. We worked on the fine tuning of the arrangements as a band. After finishing the songs, I had two months to come up with a decent lyrical concept and to write the actual lyrics, not to forget to rehearse them, which was an improvement towards the previous session as I sang all songs in the studio for the very first time. I managed to finish everything on time and I was very proud of this personal achievement.
This time you worked at the Toneshed Studios. What about the recording sessions? Were you prepared to record the material?
Yes, we were prepared, but in hind sight, a couple of months extra rehearsal time would have been beneficial for the tightness of the material as we barely made it in time. I feel it was close and felt we weren’t fully rehearsed as we should have been. But then, we never really are, to be honest. On the other hand one can say it adds an additional vibe to the album. The material isn’t rehearsed to death and sounds fresh which is definite a very big plus in my ears. We needed the studio time hard as not everything went as planned as the songs are demanding for musicians like us and this took its time.
As a result, I had to record the vocals for seven songs in one day, while the remaining ones were recorded the next day. I had in mind to spread them more during the recording days, but that didn’t work out. So, it was hard work, but then again, it never has been any different. We book the studio with little extra time, so we need to keep it going, which is cool as well because you stay in this particular recording mode. Just pushing the boundaries, you know. In for the kill. But yes, it is revealing, too. One thinks everything sounds cool in the rehearsal room, but a studio suffers no fools, leaves no room for mistakes or performances of less quality. It’s all under a microscope…
It was our first time recording at Toneshed Recordings. I decided to use this studio because I was really into the production values of both last Dead Head and Inquisitor albums, plus I know the owner/engineer Erwin a long time as he was the guitarist of Mangled. A band we often shared stages with back in our demo days, so we knew what to expect. To a certain degree, of course, because we never worked together this way. We first visited Erwin at his studio to have a talk about what we had in mind. To play him records we enjoy, showing him some of the songs we had written etc. He visited us during a rehearsal and he received all the songs before we entered the studio, so he would know what to expect.
Working with Erwin was very intense (in a positive way). He knows his stuff thoroughly and he really helped us wherever he could. As always, it was hard work, but the cooperation with Erwin was very positive and I am really satisfied with the outcome of this studio session. The album offers a great sound and it suits our material very well. A big improvement from the “Five Candles…” session, too, which lacked punch in my ears.
What does the title of the album refer to?
The title refers to the eight (original) songs featured on the album. While all songs feature a different chapter of the Siege of Malta, they are all linked through one theme: death. The artwork reflects this subject as well. On the cover there are eight ropes to be seen, each linked to a person with a different background: Commonwealth, German, Italian and Maltese. They all have to suffer and pay the ultimate price to the god of war. The spectre itself is Death.
Where do you find the differences and the similarities between the new record and “Under the Black Cross”?
Pfff, that’s a good question, though hard to answer as I am not really objective. I haven’t analyzed these two records or compared them back to back at all. I don’t find that really interesting to do, as analyzing music has a big tendency to kill its spontaneous character. To me, music is about a gut feeling. It creates a certain mood/atmosphere/vibe and I am not really into dissecting it. Let’s see… The most obvious one would be the use of more slow songs/parts this time, although I intended to use the same elements for our previous record, but I didn’t have any inspiration to come up with that kind of material. Only the slow part of “A Devil’s Shooting Gallery” made it to the record, but that was about it. I intended to include two slow songs, but it never happened to a lack of inspiration. With “Blessed by Fire” and “Mesmerizing Depths of the Abyss” I created two songs which are heavier than fast and add a good amount of diversity to the new album, which is necessary for the overall vibe of the album. With these two songs the album offers a very natural flow in my ears.
For the rest… I have little clue. Some people tend to think the album points more into the direction of “…Rides the Moonstorm”, but I don’t feel the same. For me, the material is a very natural development from the “Five Candles…” session. Except for the two songs I mentioned before for which I had a specific direction in mind, all songs written are composed rather spontaneous with no particular big scheme. So, a return to our first album was not intended at all, I can tell you that. Maybe the new album is more diverse? I don’t know. “Under the Black Cross” offered a lots of moods as well, but retrospective maybe this wasn’t as evident as it shows on “Spectre…”.
Both albums (well, some versions) do feature a cover track of an US cult Death Metal band being very influential for Pentacle: Necrovore and Necrophagia. Military combat history of WW2 was the lyrical concept to be found on each record. Manuel Tinnemans did craft the artwork again. I do feel the new album sounds production wise more organic than “Under the Black Cross”, though that one has guitars all over the place. As a bass player, I think “Spectre…” is by far a superior release as it shows way more low frequencies. From what I remember, recording “Under…” as a band went smoother than the new one. Recording the songs was easier or we achieved better results through the first initial sessions. It was a bit more difficult this time. It’s an age thing, I guess, haha!
(to be continued)