Ill Literature June 1999


Formed in 1989, Ancient Rites are well known in Europe and immensely popular there. They have successfully toured there seven times, opening for the likes of Morbid Angel and Deicide. Ancient Rites' current members, Gunther Theys [bass/vocals], Erik Sprooten [guitar], Jan Yrlund [guitar] and Walter Van Cortenberg [drums], draw their influences from a long and varied line of metal. They combine 80's metal music with thrash/death/black metal and mix it with medieval music. Add lyrics rich in history and dark in nature, and you have a band that really lives up to their name. I recently got to spend five days on the road with them in Europe. As the tour bus rolled out of London towards the white cliffs of Dover and the ferry to the continent, Gunther, Jan, and Walter got all medieval with me, and gave me the "Ancient Rites"

What sets Ancient Rites apart from every other black metal band coming out of Europe? With the exception of America, Ancient Rites has a big worldwide following, especially in Europe.

Gunther: One of our advantages is that we've been around for a very long time. We've always followed our own path regardless of anyone or anything; we never jumped on any bandwagon. We've always done things our own way, without the backing of a big label.
Walter: The main thing for us is that our music is different from everybody else's. We're doing something original. Nowadays ninety percent of bands are playing the same stuff. We always thought from the beginning that we would do it in a totally different way.
Gunther: We've been together since 1989, but each member was active in the underground scene before that. We built ourselves up from day one with underground contacts. We have contacts from Malaysia, Russia, Japan. It is all due to our own effort. We've sacrificed a lot for it also.

I imagine all the touring you've done is the reason you're so popular in Europe.

Walter: Because we've been around so long, and have done so many tours, people always ask us to come on tour with them. That's how we have done seven tours of Europe.
Gunther: Even when we're not on tour, we do a lot of shows around Europe.
Walter: We did the first black metal tour of Europe, along with Impaled Nazarene.

You've mentioned black metal. Do you really want to be pegged as a black metal band? I think you have much more to offer.

Gunther: Well, we do have a different concept. But the essence is black and dark. It depends on your view. We are from the older generation.
Walter: We have always said we are a black metal band. We play black metal, see it and feel it like black metal, but we do it in our own way. We never sounded like all the other black metal bands though.

Do you feel black metal has gotten a bit trendy lately?

All three in harmony: Yes! Of Course! It's a joke! It's a circus! It's ridiculous!
Walter: Why do you think the older black metal bands have dropped using the corpse paint? Because they don't want to be associated with all the bands that are playing and saying bullshit, and making fools of them selves.
Gunther: You have so many groups who discovered the scene like a year ago, and they only care about corpse paint, and the music is not so important.

Your music is quite difficult to describe. I would like you to try to help me with that. It seems people need a label, something to compare with.
Gunther: It's not a master plan, each one of us has our own influences, background and tastes. We have all been into different styles of music for a long time.

Tell me how your backgrounds and tastes came together to create your unique music. I hear all kinds of styles blended together.

Walter: For example, when people get together and form a band, they already have an idea in their head that they want to sound like a certain band. It was something we never ever did. We said ok, we're going to create something that's just us, and play what we feel. What comes out is what we feel, what we believe in. We don't want to be the fastest band, or the most brutal, or the most melodic. We just do what we feel is good.
Gunther: That's what we tried to do, create something unique. We appreciate classical and medieval music. It fits with our concept, our lyrical approach to ancient medieval history and themes from the dark-side. But we try to avoid cliches' in our lyrics. We try to reach people who are into different kinds of metal.

I wanted to ask you about the lyrics. With your earlier material the lyrics leaned towards satanic themes. Although still dark, your lyrical approach nowadays has historical, medieval, and pagan themes. What attributed to this shift?

Gunther: The essence is the same, but you always try to grow. I travel a lot. That's where I get my inspiration from these days. When I travel I always visit museums and ancient places. We try to give it a more in-depth quality, use thousands of years of history as our inspiration. My life has been a constant quest for historical knowledge. And the dark-side fascinates me also. I don't want to write lyrics like "fuck the holy mother Mary." It's too easy.
It can be fun sometimes, but after a while it gets to be hilarious. Just like with the music, I write what I feel. These are things I have been interested in since my childhood. I grew up with books, and dreaming of ancient times.
Walter: Even in the past, when our lyrics where more satanic, we always did it in a more mature way than others did. We tried not to use the same old cliches'. Gunter's lyrics were always based in history, and even reality. Sometimes real events that have happened in history can be more evil than anything you make up can.
Gunther: Yes, quite dark events have happened throughout history, so why invent demons? For instance, I was in the Sahara desert once, and visited the remains of an ancient Phoenician civilization. They used to do sacrifices to their horned god. It was quite fascinating. So we wrote about it. So you dig deeper, and visit places you've learned about as a kid, and you see these ancient and medieval places and it inspires you. When you get to a certain age, you want to look back and say you did it in an intelligent and mature way. This music style, many people are against it. It's easy to slag our scene because unfortunately, many give those who are opposed to our style a reason to laugh about us. Because they do it in an infantile way. Like making mistakes. There is a band, I won't mention their name, but they say things in their songs like, "Fuck the ancient Romans, because we are Vikings and the Vikings beat the Romans!" Well first of all, they are centuries wrong! They are a Belgian band, and they say, "We are Vikings." We never were Vikings. We were part of the Germanic tribe. The Vikings were kicked out of Belgium. We were invaded by the Romans, and fought to the last man. But it wasn't the same time as the Vikings. So they're mixing centuries. They don't even know what actually happened. That's also what we try to do, restore everyone's pride without being opposed to anyone else's culture and background.

I really liked the way you included all the different cultures in the song "Fatherland". It seems you tried very hard to include everyone.

Gunther: That was to avoid misunderstandings. It's a strange concept, a "Fatherland", and quite new in a way. But most people understood it. It's a small place, but we tried to make it universal.
Jan: It might be a small place, but it's a big world.
Gunther: Also, in our band we have people from different countries. Jan is from Finland, Eric is from Holland, and Walter and I are from Flanders (Belgium). We are often on the road, and far away from home, and we like it! But at the same time you keep your memories and your country in your heart.

This international line-up you have now, is it the one that is going to stick?

Gunther: Surely it's the one that seems to be appealing to many people. From a musical point of view, absolutely. It is of course difficult for us because we live in different countries, so it's not easy, but difficult can work out as well.

How do you write music when you live in different countries?

Walter: We all come up with parts of songs and put the best on tapes. Everybody comes up with his own ideas, and we figure out how to fit them together the best way.
Jan: Mostly we collect different kinds of riffs, and build little parts that musically say something to us. Sometimes we see things happening we don't like, but Walter puts them together.

You do the arrangements Walter?

Walter: Yes, and I write riffs also! I guess it's because I've been in this band so long, I have the best feeling how it should sound. I like everything that they do. Sometimes they come up with riffs that they think will fit in our music, but I don't think so. I do have the last decision on it, but the music is built together, it's from the band.
Jan: It's quite a complicated process, putting riffs together. Actually, for 'Fatherland' we did it in the studio. Just the last touches, all the melodies, we did in the studio. Gunther contributes the lyrics last, after the music is done. He likes to get his influence from the music before he writes the lyrics.
Gunther: Feeling is important in this band, so I let the music take over. Sometimes I have a few lyrics written out beforehand, but other times I wait for the music. For instance, in the song "13th of October, 1307", Jan wrote a really beautiful, medieval sounding guitar part in the middle of the song. At first I had lyrics on top of it. But I told the producer to cut it out. That part of the song didn't need my vocals; the music said it all. We try to achieve a harmony. When you have medieval influences in your music, you also write about those times. It fits with the concept.

You guys are playing this year's Dynamo festival!

Walter: Yes! We are really proud of that. After working so hard for ten years, it is like a reward. We can walk onstage there and know that we did it all by our hard work, not a label, not management, just us.

Interview by AnneMarie Bowman, 1999