** Neo-classical outfit Amber Asylum have never been an easy sell. From debut Frozen in Amber to new album Sin Eater, the Californians, helmed by instrumentalist Kris Force, have composed and released music for darker minds and uneasy souls. There’s tradition at hand, but there’s also exploration, in tone, in repetition, in atmosphere, in tolerance, in chaos. The result is an undulating set of emotions that conflict and blend to their music. To wit, Amber Asylum is music of dreams and nightmares, spun wistfully and painfully by Force and company to the delight of the other. Music of this quality was never meant for the masses anyway. Read on as Decibel and Kris find our inner sin eater.
Bitter River came out in 2009. Why the long gap between Bitter River and Sin Eater?
Kris Force: Around the time of Bitter River‘s release I was suffering some heavy losses, life and death stuff. Sarah Brady and I joined forces with drummer, Becky Hawk (Laudanum), and Fern Lee Alberts (DeathgraVe) on Bass. We also wanted to do things a little differently with the next release resulting in signing with Prophecy. Negotiations took some time. The production for Sin Eater was a relatively normal duration, about a year and ½ from beginning to end. It was remixing, mastering the other 93 tracks for the anthology that took another year and the design for everything. It was a monumental effort involving many people.
What was the songwriting process like this time around?
Kris Force: Other than a couple of collaborations, “Beast Star” with Sarah Brady and “Sin Eater” with r. Loren, I wrote most of the basic material for Sin Eater. A couple more of the pieces were radically transformed through the arrangement process, so much so that the end result was written collaboratively. For example, on “Paean” Jackie Perez Gratz wrote a really strong cello melody that rides above everything and has become what you identify as the song even though it was the last part to be written and recorded. The song “Harvester” is so richly orchestrated that the orchestration itself become the signature of the song rather than any singular melody thus the entire band is credited. I have a lot of tools at my disposal for song writing. I write quickly on piano where I can see all of the parts. Sometimes I will start with a violin or vocal melody, a bass line, a guitar chord progression, a synth atmosphere or a loop. Sin Eater was written using all of them. We arranged everything together in the rehearsal studio. We recorded basic tracks with Greg Wilkinson at Earhammer in Oakland. I took the basic tracks and recorded all of the overdubs, vocal and string parts of which there were many, upwards of 20-30 string parts on some of the recordings. I did this all in my home project studio where I work in pro tools. I have some nice front end pre amps, RME converters and genelec monitoring. A large portion of writing, all vocal and string harmonies, took place at this stage.
You’ve been making music as Amber Asylum for the better part of 20 years. How have things changed for you artistically? The approach is the same?
Kris Force: Well, I’m better at it now. The tools have transformed. Frozen In Amber, most of The Natural Philosophy of Love and Songs of Sex and Death were all recorded on reel tape and much of Frozen In Amber is live to stereo and 4-track cassette. I’ve always done my own production. I’ve had to stay up with current technologies. I’ve learned that I have a knack for learning these quickly. Since the line up has changed the treatment for each recording has had to be adaptable. Historically, I’ve taken delicate tracks that have no masking such as classical guitar or piano and conversely large session that are too big for my studio with bass and drum to a studio to track and then I do everything else in my home studio. Many entire works are made there. Over the past 20 years I’ve learned a lot about audio and production. I’ve come into my own as a producer. As a writer I have matured quite a bit. I look back on my early song structures and lyrics and cringe a little. To be an artist is to continually investigate so reflecting on past work is would be looking at something that you have finished learning from and have moved beyond. It seems natural that one might not be able to relate to it anymore. I’ve never understood the formulaic approach to music. I’ve always viewed it as profoundly dissatisfying from the artists perspective. It might be why so many formula bands rise and fade quickly. The issues I am interested in have transcended personal aims. I used to use music as a coping mechanism, a way to process difficult emotions non verbally, but now I drawn toward the extramundane.
Musically, what makes your hair stand up? Amber Asylum has always had that dark, ominous quality.
Kris Force: I like pure offerings, beauty, the sublime and extreme and long form compositions these days. My day job is in music and sound. I don’t have a lot of time available for background listening. When others might like to put on an album, I often choose silence because I have been critically listening all day. The cool thing about working on in sound and music is that I might create a sound or musical phrase for a client that will become a point of departure for an Amber Asylum work. Or I might put something in a delay hold for hours and it will inspire something previously unknown to me. I started drawing and one thing I noticed immediately that it was an opportunity for listening. My latest playlist includes: Ben Frost, Black Swan, Wreckmeister Harmonies, Black Boned Angel, Sunn O))), Sinoia Caves, Cliff Martinez, Disemballerina, Haxan Cloak, Tim Hecker and Loscil.
You picked an interested Candlemass cover. Not many people mine From the 13th Sun for Candlemass covers. What prompted you to interpret ‘Tot’?
Kris Force: It was suggested by our violist, Sarah Brady. It is the slow and brooding lyrical sections that we were drawn toward. Our original interpretation was way more out there then the one that ended up on the record. We learned the piece prior to joining forces with Becky Hawk (drums) and Fern Lee Alberts (Bass). It was a neoclassical interpretation reminiscent of a Michael Nyman piece. The early version is on the Live In Wroclaw LP. The piece is well suited to my voice. The lyrics paint very evocative and powerfully bleak imagery of a cold a barren place where everything is… dead. It is definitely the darkest song on the album lyrically and awful wicked fun to play. I always look forward to it when it comes up in our set live or in rehearsal.
What do you think is the greatest thing you’ve learned about yourself as an artist since the formation of Amber Asylum?
Kris Force: To honor the process. It’s the journey not the destination that matters. To never force an idea, pardon the pun. If it’s not working I put it aside for another day and trust that there is more where that came from. Fallow periods are like waves, they ebb and flow and inspiration always returns if you let it. Not to fight with my tools. If they are not working use something else, sometimes a No. 2 pencil is all you need. I’ve come to disallow scarcity. That deep place in the psyche where the ideas come from is an infinite source. All one need to be able to do is be patient or find the ON switch. To be respectful to every one you encounter along your way even when they are not.
The sin eater concept is an interesting one. How did it manifest as a topic against which you’d write music?
Kris Force: I listened to the audience. From the beginning of the project the audience has said the same thing over and over. Our music made them cry, made them release emotions. Music is emotion. I liked the sin eating concept because it is a type of healing by a healer who can reach beyond the veil of life and death. The sin eater is a inter-dimensional healer. In American folk cultures the sin eater is considered unsavory, a last resort for the dead who is Atheist or heathen, where sin eating may be their last hope for peaceful rest. In truth, how much of a death ritual is about the dead and how much is for the survivors? We can’t really say until we make the trip ourselves and not many seem to report back.
What of the sin-eater him/herself? From a spiritual level, the sins accumulate with the sin eater and are passed down.
Kris Force: Sin eating is an allegory for transmutation. Theoretically, the sin eater is digesting the sins and turning them into, well… something else. There is an asIt is this transmutation that I believe is one of the powers of music. The power to release suffering or release emotions that we cannot verbalize or that we do not yet understand. When we listen our pains are eaten away and we come away changed. The album theme is most prominently represented in the song “Executioner”. The lyrics of “Executioner” tell a story of being and doing anything to liberate someone you love from suffering. A lyric in the song is, “I will eat away your pain.” You are the executioner for their ego death.
Do you identify with the sin eater?
Kris Force: Yes, of course. I think unless someone is a sociopath and incapable of empathy we all can identify with the sin eater. Can you say there has been no time in your life you have wanted to help someone suffer less, friend, family or stranger? I identify with the sin eater in a subtle body or tantric sense. I will often practice visualization in meditation or what is called “mindstream”. It is a good way of clearing the bullshit out of your life. The Tonlin Purification visualization goes like this: you inhale negativity from your immediate environment and then mentally visualize that expanding to a larger space and then to the entire world. Your subtle body becomes a black hole for this negativity. You hold your breath while holding the negative energy thereby transforming the energy and then release it slowly in a controlled outward breath as a beam of light. It was this practice that I feel has an affinity with sin eating.
Going back to Sin Eater, do you think today’s audience is any different from the one you had (likely the same) in 1996?
Kris Force: We have a lot of devoted followers and some have been there since the very beginning. I think some people may forget about us and then we appear somewhere in their life and they are reminded. I think that happens with projects that have been around as long as we have. Our audience continues to grow slowly. With this said one difference in our audience is that it is larger and worldwide when it was once regional to the San Francisco bay area and the US. It was a desire to expand the audience that attracted us signing on with Prophecy. Now we have a much larger European presence and I think our music is well suited toward this audience.
There are a lot of labels on Amber Asylum’s music. What do you make of our attempts to define Amber Asylum?
Kris Force: I think our ability to defy categorization has become a defining characteristic. I try not to get too caught up in the terminology because I don’t want preconceived notions looming over my head while I am creating new works. Also, one of the mission statements I made, privately to myself, when I started this project was to create a sound that transcended temporality, to create a sound that I wouldn’t be embarrassed playing when I became an old crone, if my fingers let me. Most genre designations are essentially putting a date stamp on any project or band. I had been studying classical works that had been around for hundreds of years and people were still performing these works with great enthusiasm. Why not bring these ideas into the present tense? In this context we are definitely neoclassic. But we are more, we are harder, darker and weirder. With this said, I have resisted using the word doom because it is a genre with all the temporal markings I hope to avoid. But here it is: “Amber Asylum is chamber doom with gothic and romantic overtones featuring female voice and classical strings.” I like to include the instrumentation in my description because it is one feature that makes us unique and a thread of continuity from the beginning to the present day. “Rhythms have intersected bass and drum, guitars and keys but the strings and voice have remained constant throughout.” Depending on who I am talking to I might go more neutral and choose, post rock and or electro-acoustic terminology.