An interview by Degtyarov
Isa has by now become a household name here at Black Ivory Tower. We adore the band for its esotericism, humility and integrity, all of which make their music all the more powerful. Both their previous full-lengths, Pesni myortvykh (2014) and Otkhod na zakate (2015) were among the strongest records of their respective years. Of course, we cannot forget about their three-way split record Spletenye (2014), which we have covered extensively on this website and in the second edition of Black Ivory Tower magazine.
With the release of Isa’s third album, Echo, being mere weeks away, it is time to sit down with Alexander Rastvorov once again. He is the founder of Isa, whose only other member currently is Artem Motin. Alexander tells us about the inner workings of his blend of atmospheric black metal, folk, ambient and darkwave. He also elaborates on his affection for Russian bell-ringing and the traditional gusli instrument.
Our thanks go out to Alexander for taking some time to write to us from the chilly city of Novosibirsk in South Siberia.
Degtyarov: Hello Alexander! It’s been over a year ago since we had our first interview. Since then, you’ve been working on a new Isa album, titled Echo. The album will be released at the end of October, and we have already been able to hear a few songs through the Heathen Harvest podcast and the music video you posted for “Tayna pri zhizni”.
One aspect of this album that immediately sticks out is your use of church bells on some of the tracks. Could you tell us what inspired you to practice the art of bell-ringing, and what its meaning is in relation to Isa?
Alexander: Hello Degtyarov and dear readers!
The appearance of Russian bells in the music of Isa was not planned long in advance. I am simply interested in the bells, and I learned how to play them for over a year, as well as studying the history of bells, bell foundries and technological planning. It all happened by itself. Russian bells are interesting to me in particular because they have a lot of overtones. In the European tradition, each bell has an exact note; they are sharpened, a process which gets rid of the overtones. Conversely, in the Russian tradition, the bells are not sharpened. In our culture, the sound of the bell extends beyond the idea of a musical instrument. The call of the bell encourages and inspires you.
Another thing that I noticed on Echo is that, overall, its atmosphere seems a bit ‘darker’ than on your previous album, Otkhod na zakate. I do not mean ‘dark’ as in ‘evil’, but more in the sense of it being contemplative, introvert and nostalgic; closer to what we heard previously on your debut album, Pesni myortvykh. Do you see any truth in this?
Maybe you are right! Generally speaking, Echo is intended to convey the atmosphere of early spring. That is, the type of spring that we experience here in Siberia! We have tried to make the atmosphere more distant and broad by aiming for sound that is closer to an organic, live experience, which gives the music a more lo-fi signature. We try not to use vts, and we strive towards an analog sound. We will continue to work in this direction.
In our previous interview we also talked briefly about the ‘divine’ or ‘spiritual’ connotations of Isa. Would you say that, on Echo, this religious element is more prominent than before? I suspect this not only because of the presence of bell-ringing, but also because you told me that the track “Sedoy starik. Melovaya gora” is based on a dream you experienced while visiting an old holy site. Could we say there now is a closer relation between Isa and Christianity or, even more specifically, Orthodoxy?
Maybe. It is a very interesting question, although it is difficult to answer. Right now, there are a lot of lies in the world. If Christians bomb Syria, they are not Christians. If pagans live by such norms as free love and hatred, they are not pagans. If Muslims kill in the name of God, they are not Muslims.
We need to look for God! In the woods, we need to look for God. In the churches, we need to look for God. We should not look at priests. Priests — they are just people like you and me. Do not look for heroes. Do you understand me?
If art does not make the soul purer, it is shit. It may be shocking, and attract the most public attention, but if art does not help the soul, it is void. Art is hygiene of the soul; you need to clearly remember this in order to not become a gray mass consumer. Father Alipio* said: “To join the crowd — it is a terrible thing. Today the crowd is shouting: Hosanna! Four days later the crowd will be shouting: Crucify him!“
* Father Alipio, b. Ivan Voronov, was a Russian who fought in WW2, after which he became a monk and prevented Soviet authorities from closing his monastery.
What could you tell us about the lyrical scope of the new Isa album? Previous albums seemed to rely on themes such as nature, spirituality and reclusion. Will this be continued on Echo?
Yes, of course all these themes will be explored further. We used a couple of my old poems that I created between 2007 and 2009, as well as several new, more mature ones. Above all I want to highlight the concept of “Resurrection” — with this, I refer to the most mature view of the device of life, the meaning of human life on earth. Also, I think the poems reflect a degree of anarchy; anarchy in the sense of Leo Tolstoy’s embodiment of the theme, i.e. a sober view of life and God.
Let’s talk a bit more about the musical evolution. Are there lessons you have learned from your previous two albums which you have applied during the creation of Echo?
Looking back, there are some flaws in the sound of the old albums, but at the time we achieved the maximum of what we were capable of. We did take into account these shortcomings when we were creating the new album. For instance, we processed the vocals slightly differently this time around. This has always been our approach: we reshape the sound on every album, but in a way that maintains the atmosphere of our music.
Apart from the production having advanced, I think you will also notice that the music has gained in complexity. Simply put, there is a higher amount of notes. We have always had these little triad chords, and we always want to make these chords richer.
Which is where the bells come in! I remember you stated previously that, on Pesni myortvykh, you did 90% of the work. For Otkhod na zakate, you recruited a new member, Artem Motin, who handled the bayan and clean vocals, among other duties. What has his influence/contribution been in regard to the new album? Is he a session member who helps out with instrumentation or has he also contributed to the creative process?
Yes, Artem is actively working on this project. First of all, he owns flutes and a didgeridoo. He also acquired a remarkable lamp lotion; we put it on a light bulb which we use to warm up the stompbox for the keyboards. His involvement is continuous: now Artem is soldering something else for our future records. But unfortunately, he does not have a lot of free time at the moment.
Now that we’re on the topic of instrumentation, I have always been fascinated by the way you play the drums, as it’s very recognisable and distinct from what ‘normal’ black metal bands do; it is more melodic. I even noticed some similarities between the way in which you play drums and bells on this album. Am I close to the truth with this?
This is a very true observation! The fact is that the sound of bells in the Russian tradition has a rhythmic structure. This is quite different from the European tradition of bell music, where the melody is played on the bells (like on “Jingle Bells”, for instance). Also consider musical instruments such as the carillon, where the bells are linked to a keyboard. In Russia, however, even the location of the bells in the bell tower resembles a drum set. In the end of course, when you play the bells you have to deal with completely different dynamics. Even the ambient temperature is an influence — on cold days, you can easily end up breaking the bell!
The bells are divided into three types:
- Large — blagovestnik (they convene to worship)
- Average — perebornye (they form a rhythmic pattern)
- Small — zazvonnye (they ring for decoration; they fill a pause)
The blagovestnik is controlled by the pedals while playing, much like the bass drum on a drum kit. Playing a perebornye resembles snares and other drums. And zazvonnye is a bit like a hi-hat or a ride cymbal.
I also want to note that the construction of songs has started to resemble bell-ringing for us. For example, we know that we need a perebornye bell — this is where we record the rhythm/bass section of the drums, and add the key. We also need the blagovestnik — we record the drums and wind instruments. After this, we need the zazvonnye bell, i.e. to add decorations to the music: this is where we throw in a couple of solos, add effects, and record the dynamic vocals. We must also take into account that the song ‘decoration’ — the zazvonnye — should not be louder than other instruments, but it should nevertheless be clearly audible. This is the closest I can get to describing the formula of Isa.
Since Pesni myortvykh, and even before that on the albums of your previous project Na Sever, you have made extensive use of the gusli instrument. Could you tell us a bit more about the significance of the gusli for Isa, and why you give it such a prominent role?
When I first heard the gusli, I fell in love straight away. I was struck by the depth of its sound. In addition to the basic music, the overtone echoes from the instrument. It is like a mini version of a bell tower packed into a string instrument. Unfortunately, our records do not transmit the full range of the gusli. An important role for the gusli is in the background, as I compose music for them very easily. I have no trouble using the gusli to express my feelings. Every musician has a musical instrument that he just never gets bored of, no matter how much he plays it. For me, that instrument is the gusli.
Now that Na Sever has been mentioned: is it fair to say this band was ‘proto-Isa’, or do you consider it a different project entirely?
Of course, Na Sever was “proto-Isa”. For example, I gained a lot of confidence playing the drums after I recorded the song “Probuzhdenye” with Vladimir, which appeared on the final Na Sever album, Veshiy zov. All the flaws of that project I took into account, and I tried to improve with Isa. Sometimes, I want to replay some of the old Na Sever songs in the style of Isa. Like, do a remix of sorts. Alas, I have no time for it now, and would it even be worth it? (Definitely! – ed.)
You have recently signed with the record label Shadowplay, who will release Echo a couple of weeks from now. They are known for bands who don’t necessarily have anything to do with metal, such as Moon Far Away. Does your decision to work with them rather than a black metal label reflect that you more closely identify your project with darkwave, folk, and/or ambient than metal?
Yes, exactly! It was immediately clear for me in which direction to develop the genre of atmospheric black. What we can observe now in the metal scene at large is the phenomenon of attracting attention through controversy, with artists such as Batushka, Numenorean and others — it’s all pop music tactics. We are not interested in this. We are satisfied cooperating with the same label. Also, we are interested to present our work to another audience. Let’s see the reaction!
Is it true that you are preparing some live shows? How are you planning to set up the performance? Will you make use of keyboards to include the bells and gusli, for example?
Yes, after we began to receive offers for concerts, I seriously thought about it, and finally began rehearsing. Unfortunately, it is not possible for Artem to help me with this. As long as I do not find a drummer and a guitarist, I have to act alone. I plan to play some instruments, like a soundtrack, aided with a pre-recorded tape. I will play some live instruments such as the gusli, guitar, metallophone, etc. And of course, my vocals will sound. Bells are necessary to put aside, as well as other instruments that do not tolerate relocation.