Blood Ceremony, looking appropriately evil.
Considering how they wear their influences on their sleeves (or ritual cloaks), it may seem a bit counterintuitive to hail Blood Ceremony as Toronto’s most original band. But we’re doing exactly that.
Formed in Toronto in 2006, Blood Ceremony’s sound invokes the heavy riffs of contemporaries (and UK label mates) like Ghost and Electric Wizard (whom Blood Ceremony just toured Europe and the UK alongside), as well as early proto-metal acts like Black Widow (whose “Come to the Sabbat” still stands as the definitive anthem of ecstatic occultism), and Renaissance Faire-ish psych-folk. If the descriptor “Pentagram meets Pentangle” means anything to you, then you’d probably really like Blood Ceremony.
But it’s more than just impeccable taste that makes the band exceptional. In a local music scene suffused with marginally distinguishable indie and punk bands, Blood Ceremony brings something fresh to the fold. They stand out. Which, as is often the case, also means they don’t fit in. They’ve drawn scads of enthusiasm in the metal-crazy UK, as well as in Europe, but have a harder time booking dates in North America, where the scene still seems a bit of a macho, headbanging boys club.
Their sophomore album, Living With the Ancients, may change this, though. Like their self-titled release, Ancients sees Blood Ceremony dabbling with hard-rock riffage (laid down by guitarist Sean Kennedy), prog (courtesy of singer/flautist/keyboardist/front-person Alia O’Brien), and all things occult. But their new record seems more serious. You won’t hear any toad sound effects or lyrics about witches flying into a “Quaalude eye” (whatever that means). It is a fine companion piece, though, with the flute line of Blood Ceremony’s last track, “Hymn to Pan,” bleeding into the heavier strains of Ancients’s opener, “The Great God Pan.” (Pan, for those of you who slept through Intro to Neopaganism, was the Greek god widely worshipped by Wiccans and witch cults.) It’s an outstanding album. And made all the more so given how unlike anything else it sounds.
In anticipation of their record-release show at the Garrison on April 2, we spoke with O’Brien about the band, their musical and occult influences, and how European metalheads may be just a bit savvier than their North American progeny.
Torontoist: The kind of music you guys play, you can ostensibly call it “metal,” but it sounds so different from other trends in metal in Toronto, or anywhere else. Where do you guys draw your influences from?
Alia O’Brien:The obvious comparisons that people cite are Black Sabbath or Jethro Tull. Obviously we love those bands. There’s another band that we’re pretty much obsessed with, Pentagram. They were contemporaries of Black Sabbath and they had a huge influence on us. They’re still gigging, but they formed in the early ’70s. Apart from that, we’re really huge fans of Uriah Heep, that organ-drenched heavy rock, and Italian prog from the late ’60s and early ’70s. And then obviously Black Widow. A lot of bands from that time have influenced us, and in turn, influenced our sound. Not intentionally. It’s just an organic process.
See this is the thing. A lot of people think metal just started on a dime with the first Black Sabbath album or something, and don’t necessarily understand the history or what the genre grew out of. So some people may think that having flute in a metal band, or a female singer, is not of the mould of the genre. Do you ever run up against resistance to these aspects when you’re playing or touring?
I think it’s something people like to draw attention to. There are a couple of other bands people like to lump us in with. Journalists suggest there’s some trendy wave of female-fronted occult rock, because there’s Devil’s Blood and Jex Thoth. And I really like them, but we sound nothing like them. But people lump us in together because we have women singers and our lyrics deal with occult matters. It’s a strange thing where the vocals being sung by a woman become a trait in-and-of themselves. I think it’s strange, but I guess it’s inescapable.
How come it’s so hard to find the vinyl of the first album over here?
Well, it sold out. You can still find it on eBay. One of these days I’m going to buy a copy on eBay so I have more than one. Rise Above doesn’t press a lot of records. For one because it’s an independent label. But, also, the records then become collector’s items. They pop up on eBay from time to time and it’s an exciting thing. It’s kind of cool.
Speaking of Rise Above, you just did a huge UK and European tour with Electric Wizard, which is kind of the flagship band for that label and another band that’s huge over there but will probably never tour over here again. How was that?
It was an awesome tour. We got along really well. They treated us amazingly. You hear a lot of horror stories of bands going out on the road. And this was our first tour. But we played to a lot of awesome audiences, and it was a good bill because Electric Wizard is super-heavy and we play more progressive rock–tinged music. The reception was great. Audiences in Europe are wild.
Some people in Toronto gripe that the metal scene here still kind of exists in this hangover of the early-2000s hardcore scene. Is it hard to find a place in Toronto, or even Canada, to play your kind of music? Did you find the crowds in Europe more responsive than hometown crowds?
I think so…There seems to be, for example, in Sweden, a huge movement resurrecting their progressive rock history. And lots of bands have latched onto that. Lots of bands are mining their rock history, so there’s this taste over there for things that sound older.
We’ve had really good responses in Toronto before. But it’s always a mix. We get people who would go to metal shows, people who would go to indie rock shows, and people who would go to neither but heard about us on the internet or something.
Speaking of the live show, you guys really bring in some theatrics, with the fog machines and cloaks and that. Like the music, it kind of suggests paganism or occultism or light Satanism. How much of that is aesthetics and how much, well, legit?
None of us are practising occultists. That’s a question some people have on their minds. But we are all interested in different facets of the occult. First of all, the aesthetics of occult rock definitely come into play in our live show. Something I loved about bands in the early ’70s is that they were really dedicated to cultivating a specific vibe. A band like Black Widow put a lot of effort into creating this great live show.
In terms of practising the occult? Nah. Sean has a massive collection of rare books on Western occultism. And I did my Master’s degree in Sufi mysticism, focusing on this one particular ritual that involved using music to create an altered state of mind. We’re dedicated to learning about mysticism and occultism. But we don’t practise it.
The one thing that seems like it would obviously come up when you’re looking to bands like this, and other proto-metal acts, is how to balance being a nostalgia act with trying to do something new. How do you build on these existent traditions?
Well, our interest in that music comes from such a genuine place that I hope it would never seem shtick-y. It’s not like we stood back and said, “Ah, let us craft this early-’70s sound that will be interesting!” It comes so naturally to us. It’s music I’ve listened to since I was eleven, and it’s stuck with me. We put a lot of ourselves into it, and in that sense it is original. It’s our take on this music that we love.
Band photos courtesy Metal Blade Records.
Blood Ceremony plays the Garrison (1197 Dundas Street West) Saturday, April 2, with Bizarro and Holy Mount. Tickets are $8. Doors at 9 p.m. Living With the Ancients is now available on CD via Metal Blade Records. Rise Above Records is releasing the vinyl, but by the time you click this, it’ll probably be long sold out.