Photo courtesy of In a Perfect World Productions

Thrawsunblat Subverts Notions of the Heavy With “Green Man of East Canada” (premiere + interview)

Veteran metal act Thrawsunblat get in touch with the quieter side of music while celebrating their native New Brunswick. Somewhere between black metal and British folk rock lies Thrawsunblat.

New Brunswick’s Thrawsunblat (featuring members of Woods of Ypres, Immortal Bird, Obsidian Tongue) arrives with IV: Great Brunswick Forest, a collection of songs that subvert expectations about heavy music. Driven by folkish instrumentation, metal rhythms and observations about the specific heart and geography of the place where the music emerged, the LP promises to be one of the most-discussed albums of the year.

“Green Man of East Canada”, culled from the record, speaks to the range of musical possibilities explored on the disc. IV: Great Brunswick Forest marks the first time that Joel Violette (guitar, vocals bass, keys), Rae Amitay (drums) and Keegan MC (fiddle) have all recorded in the same room, making for a decidedly organic affair.

Thrawsunblat’s IV: Great Brunswick Forest may be ordered via Ignifera Records. The album arrives October 19.

Violette recently spoke with PopMatters about the origins and evolution of this latest entry in the Thrawsunblat oeuvre.

IV: Great Brunswick Forest marks a new chapter in Thrawsunblat’s career. Can you talk about the move toward this new sound?

The new sound delves into what we started with in T2: Wanderer… into the acoustic songs “Goose River” and “Maritime Shores”. It asks, “what if we made a full Thrawsunblat album in this sound, including each and everything that a full Thrawsunblat album entails — the energy, the full lyric concepts, the art, the Thrawsunblat je ne sais quoi, whatever that is.” This question is the basis for the entire environment within which the album resides. For instance, “Goose” and “Maritime” are fairly somber tunes, so they have to be balanced by higher energy songs. On T2: Wanderer, these higher energy songs are in heavy form, so here we ask: what would higher energy songs sound like in “Goose River” form? Thus were born songs like “Here I Am a Fortress” and “Via Canadensis!”

I really love what you’ve done with the blending of rhythms that listeners might be accustomed to hearing in extreme metal (I’m thinking specifically of “Here I Am A Fortress”) yet it’s rendered in an acoustic setting.

Thank you! Well, you’ve hit it dead on. “Fortress” is a heavy folkened/black tune like “Once Fireveined”, but transposed to acoustic instruments, tremolo picking and all. Swap some of the instrumentation: heavy guitars for acoustic, and harsh screams for belting vocals, and you have it. The energy does flow differently with this new instrumentation set, so managing its ebb and flow in each song was an interesting puzzle to solve. Where once a blast beat might carry the full energy of a passage, now the vocals must take a lot of that weight, so it was quite a challenge vocally. I think I grew as a musician from 90 percent guitarist, 10 percent vocalist to at the very least 15 percent vocalist. I hope I didn’t have to expend guitar skills to achieve that.

New Brunswick is one of those places that, for a number of people in North America, seems remote, mysterious. What sorts of mythology or folklore from there did you explore on the album?

I think I explored the idea of folkiness itself, now, and how it pertains specifically to New Brunswick. If that makes a mote of sense. And also, taking one step back, I think I succeeded in looking at the particular thing or mystery or essence that New Brunswick has. What is it? Where did it originate? How did it take shape?

In what way do the environment, culture, and history of the Maritimes inform that folk sound, or shape it, or create it? And so, throughout the album, I ask a lot of these questions and hope to answer them, in some form. I don’t know if all are answerable verbally or textually. I think that there are some answers lurking in the depths of the album that require a calm night, a bonfire, and 40 minutes of undisturbed listening before they dare to emerge.

You’ve mentioned the Scandinavian ability to transport listeners to that place. The music on this album definitely transports listeners somewhere. Did it take you a while to figure out how to capture the essence of New Brunswick or was it more a matter of, “I’ve lived here my whole life. I think I can do this?”

That’s very kind! Glad to hear it. To transport listeners is the greatest measure of success I can imagine for this album. I’ve been fortunate enough to live at least for a few months in several places in North America, with the result that I’m able to compare and contrast these places to that of New Brunswick. New Brunswick feels much different from the boreal forest of Northern Ontario, the Eastern seaboard of the US, the heights of the Rockies, and the flowing green of the West Coast. What I find so fascinating is that all of these places are scenic and rich in their essence, but that there is a specifiable, differentiating characteristic that separates each of the essences from the others. What is that? How does that work? In order to translate that to music, it is a matter of being in that headspace and simply writing music that fits. “Song of the Summit” and “Dark Sky Sanctuary”, for example, are very Mount Carleton in their essence, as I did a hike up there not long before I wrote them.

“Green Man” and “Singer of Ageless Tides” are quite Fredericton in their essence. “Via Canadensis”, a Latin term for the Trans Canada Highway, is the incredible vistas populating the New Brunswick highways. It’s therefore just a question of identifying the essences of songs I’ve done and of grouping them into suiting albums, which have their own, larger scale of the same.

“Song of the Summit” is one of several songs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Fairport Convention album or something like it. Did that brand of folk music figure in your musical tastes in the past?

Ah, that’s very kind! I actually got into Fairport’s Liege & Lief a year or two ago. I was drawn in immediately because I’m a sucker for an album that is solid musically and that takes a person somewhere, and Liege & Lief is oozing both of these qualities. I’ve been listening to Steeleye Span and of course Jethro Tull for some time. They were, of course, influential in that they were the first wave of electric music with elements of folk. Steeleye had distorted guitars and used the power and grittiness of the instrument to bolster traditional arrangements and create new interpretations and textures from old stories. Jethro Tull even has a double kick groove on the Songs from the Wood album!

I also like that you didn’t entirely create an album filled with clichés of acoustic music. The guitar tones and drums, for instance, retain a sound that’s not entirely of that world and not entirely of the extreme music world either.

Yes, it was something I worked hard at, making sure this album not only sounded different but also contributed something of interest. I think Rae’s drumming played a huge part in that. She has a huge array of styles she can choose from, and on this record, she took heavy metal parts and brought the same energy to a pared-down less intense instrumentation. It’s a difficult balance because folky songs are sometimes quite straightforward in their structure, which sometimes means even a good quality drum performance might produce a song that sounds a little dull or overdone.

Rae’s performances are brilliant. They’re complex without drawing attention, they capture the energy of a song and enhance it, and provide a flowing complexity that retains the folk sound and even manages to create added texture and color. I also think Siegfried Meier did a stellar job of creating a sound for this album. It’s clean and heavy, and raw. It’s unlike any other album I’ve heard.

“Green Man of East Canada” is the song that we’re premiering. What do you remember about where that one came into the process?

That one actually gets into the above conversation about folkiness. This tradition of Maritime music, songs like Farewell to Nova Scotia, Rocks of Merasheen, and artists like Stan Rogers, McGinty, and Great Big Sea, they all share a particular something. There’s something about each of their music that allows them to be considered in the same sentence. You wouldn’t put Uriah Heep in that sentence, no matter how many times you wear out their records. And so, this thing/essence, whatever you’d like to call it — where did it come from? Why does the same thing not exist in, to name a place at random, Santa Fe? Many, many sources inform the sound and feel. Many of them have come from far, many are inherent in the environment, and many I feel are a certain flavor of something more universal to culture and music.

“The Great Brunswick Forest” has one of my favorite vocal performances on the album.

Ah, thank you! That song has had many versions along the way. I remember recording the vocals at the Beach Road Studios session in July 2017, and then on the trip home stumbling across an old demo of it which featured an a capella “many Joels” choir section, which I’d entirely forgotten about! Luckily we have a lot of flexibility in our process with Siegfried, so I sat down and recorded these forgotten vocal parts and sent them to him, and they turned out nicely I think.

“Singer of Ageless Times” is one of the more hair-raising moments on the album. It’s haunting, affecting.

It is the oldest of the songs on the record, from 2011. It is also one which touches on history, culture, and those who came before us, not in the context of a predecessor/successor relationship, but in the context of showing how similar we are in certain innate ways. It somehow paints a picture of this particular timelessness which we share with our predecessors, and I think that the synthesis of the now and the past has a poetic and haunting characteristic to it. It’s at once wonderful and unnerving, so foreign a sensation it is.

What was your reaction when you heard the completed album from top to bottom for the first time?

I was thrilled with how well it came together as an entity. The songs contrast one another well and fit in an order which supports good immersion. I noticed that while it is certainly eight separate songs, as an octet, they unquestionably create something outside themselves, kind of like how the letters f, o, r, e, s, and t all look quite lovely typographically on their own, but the word “forest” evokes a flurry of images. The songs as a whole, I think, serve to create a larger sonic landscape, and I hope that’s what Great Brunswick Forest is able to give listeners.