The Madison metal outfit celebrates its first album, Lost Ages, with a December 6 show at the Dragonfly.
Lost Ages, the recently released debut album from Madison band Bereft, is a piece of stormy, fraught metal with a lot of vulnerability at its core. Guitarists/vocalists Zach Johnson and Alex Linden began writing Bereft’s first songs in 2011, but the band’s mix of doom, post-rock, and black-metal influences really began to cohere in early 2013, when the lineup solidified around bassist Cade Gentry and drummer Neil Weiss. That lineup wrote most of the album’s material together and recorded it with friend Austin Seymer. Though it was Seymer’s first time engineering an album from start to finish, Lost Ages is a remarkably confident and full-sounding record, deftly balancing melodic and ponderous moments like “Unwelcome” with more charging and overtly black-metal-influenced ones like “Loss.” The band will be celebrating the album, and debuting one new song, at a December 6 show at the Dragonfly. Ahead of that, Linden and Johnson met up to talk with us about the challenges of creating the album and the themes behind their excoriating yet thoughtful songs.
Tone Madison: How has the band evolved since you started it?
Zach Johnson: I feel the most obvious change, and without question the best change, is that it’s not just the two of us sitting in an apartment drinking, writing riff after riff.
Alex Linden: I think everything flows a lot better once you actually have other musicians writing with you.
Tone Madison: Has the writing become more collaborative along with that?
Zach Johnson: When I think back on the first stuff that we did, a lot of the riffs that were used as bolts of songs were riffs that I had been sitting on for well over five years. I basically have wanted to do this band forever, so a lot of those first songs, I’d just go to his place and go, “Look, I have these 80 riffs, and we need to use all of them,” and because of that mentality—”we need to write this”—you end up with a lot of bullshit. We just were desperately trying to make these songs happen, and I think that desperation field a sense that, “We can definitely do better than this, because a lot of this is just not that good.”
Alex Linden: Initially, Zach did most of the writing, but now all four of us are writing together, so things just make more sense, and it’s easier for one of us to come to practice with a part, and even if the other three are like, “this isn’t that good,” that’s three against one, and it’s easier than it is one-on-one to weed the crap out.
Zach Johnson: “Hey man, you’re my best friend, but that riff sucks.” You can’t really do that. It’s very uncomfortable.
Alex Linden: I think it was 2011, but there was an initial year of trying to come up with concepts for songs and trying to find people to play with. Our lineup now, it feels like to me when everything really got started, because the flow of us writing together and getting along made a difference.
Zach Johnson: The beginning really was just Alex and I writing riffs on shitty practice amps, and milking it dry and trying so hard to get anything out of anything. Finding a bassist, who was initially a friend of ours who did it reluctantly as a friend, and we had a drummer before Neil, and all those things were little things that I think really drove Alex and me further into, “We have to find people who want to do this.” We wanted to get Neil when we first started writing stuff.
Alex Linden: Finally we wore him down enough that he decided to do it.
Tone Madison: So the current lineup is actually pretty new, and most of the album was written after the new lineup came together.
Alex Linden: The last song on the record, “For Nothing,” is the only one that’s a little older.
Zach Johnson: We had that song done and then we started to write “Loss.” Right away when we started to write that song, I said, “I don’t really like that other song anymore.” That’s when we made a lot of changes to it.
Alex Linden: Yeah, we rewrote that entire song, essentially.
Tone Madison: What were some of the things you wanted to accomplish with this album?
Zach Johnson: We were just trying to accomplish it. Just trying to finish it
Alex Linden: It had been so long since either of us had been in a band that produced a tangible, physical thing. One of the things I wanted to accomplish was to make an album on vinyl. That wasn’t the only thing, but with this one, as far as what we want to talk about, we throw in a lot of our ideas about atheism through the lyrics, and that was my main concept of what I wanted to display on this album. We might have different lyrical themes on different albums, but for this one, that was my main focus. We collaborated a little bit with lyrics and all that stuff.
Zach Johnson: Once we got Cade, I just desperately wanted to have a physical thing
Tone Madison: When you play in Madison it’s almost always at the Dragonfly, which is small and tends to make everything bleed together, so it’s interesting to hear it with a lot more instrument separation on the album.
Alex Linden: That’s one thing our drummer mentioned when we were recording. He said, “Wow, these parts are much clearer now and I get a much better idea of how this is supposed to sound,” and that’s a cool feeling too. We put countless hours into that thing, but [Austin Seymer, who engineered the album] put in so much time. Collectively, we probably put over 100 hours into that just recording.
Zach Johnson: We were the first full band that Austin had done, the first project the did front-to-back himself.
Alex Linden: He cares a lot about how everything sounds and is very meticulous. He literally converted a big chunk of his basement into a studio.
Zach Johnson: He was very hands-on but when we had an idea would just sit with us for hours and tweak things with us there. And he was very helpful in giving advice, even just small things, where we never got a grasp of it, because practicing where we do, it’s the size of a bathroom and it’s so loud that little things get lost.
Tone Madison: Did working through all that for the album give you a better sense of how you want to sound generally?
Alex Linden: Yeah, I took away a lot of that from when we recorded. I know what I want to do and what I think works well for us, especially after hearing things recorded, and the things we’re not quite as good at. It also makes it more of a challenge for the next album.
Zach Johnson: Recording, too, it brings out your strong points but it also really highlights your weaknesses in the process. It’s just nightmarish at times. There were parts I hate so much.
Tone Madison: What were some of the things you ended up having to struggle with?
Zach Johnson: On my end, this is the first heavy-ish band that I’ve ever played guitar in, so just tremolo picking. Recording helps you get better at things, because you have to. When we first got in there, I had several segments of songs that I was dreading so terribly, like, “This is gonna go awful,” and sure enough it did. But then, just sitting there, having to do it forever, because it’s not something that I’d ever done. Even our demo that we did, I had no parts like what we have on our new record. So that for me was very troubling, but in the end resulted very satisfyingly, and I kind of overcame these little things that I thought were impossible.
Tone Madison: Were any aspects of the vocals challenging? You both do a lot of screamed vocals, but occasionally you have these clean vocals with lots effects on them, almost like something off a Cynic record.
Alex Linden: That was a challenge for [Zach], was singing, because it’s the first album he’s ever sang on.
Zach Johnson: Yeah, I sang on the demo but I basically just held a monotone “uuuuhhh” for the first portion of that one song. I’ve been screaming in bands since I was 15, so that doesn’t really freak me out, but singing, that was very scary. Part of it, too, is just getting over yourself, knowing that you’re gonna fuck up, and that everybody in that little room is gonna hear it. But [Alex] had never done vocals of any sort.
Alex Linden: It’s another challenge, and it’s good. It makes you better, in my opinion.
Tone Madison: The track “The Secret Fate Of All Life” samples some True Detective dialogue. What made you want to do that?
Alex Linden: I was a big fan of that show, and I thought that whole line was very fitting to just everything that I believe. It fit very well and I just thought it would sound cool with just some ambient noise in between it. It’s going to begin side B on the record, and I thought it would flow very well into that next song. We wanted to have a little interlude part on the album just to kind of break it up a bit.
Tone Madison: You mentioned atheism as a theme, but are there other themes you’re trying to explore on the album?
Zach Johnson: “Unwelcome,” which is the second track, and “For Nothing,” I wrote the lyrics for both of those, and both of those were very personal to me, and I’m very happy with them, but there are definitely elements of both of those songs that I think when taken out of their context could be perceived as being inflammatory or very negative. That’s not really what my intention is, it’s just that sometimes if you’re digging into you and you’re writing something down, this really negative things just sort of slip out. Both those songs are definitely about the fact that my entire life I was raised to be a good Christian boy, and that carried well into my teens and early 20s. Not to deride anything, but really, I thought, I’m trying to be brimming with positivity, but deep down inside of me, there’s something weird here. When I did make that decision that, “This isn’t me anymore. This served me OK for a while, but it isn’t what I actually believe and know to be the truth anymore,” those two songs really do touch on that, especially “Unwelcome.” This record has a lot to do with an atheistic idea and ideology, but maybe the next one won’t as much. It’s not really anything that either of us intended to be a complete focus. I don’t think that these days anybody’s striving to be that Vital Remains, absurd, over-the-top, “We hate God!” shit. Not only is it played, it’s just so un-genuine and stupid. I hope it doesn’t come off as being like that, because we’re both just trying to pour it out.
Alex Linden: That’s the way I look at it too. “Loss,” that’s a personal one for me, that’s about my mom passing away, so we try to incorporate things that are personal to us.
Tone Madison: The first song, “Lost Ages,” has this really slow building introduction. Where did that come from?
Alex Linden: This didn’t come to fruition until we were recording, but I said, “I want to have a big, ambient, horrifying intro to this song and just have it be very spooky,” I don’t know—just a big buildup to the record. I like when bands have a big opening like that. That was the newest song we wrote for the album. Other than that, I wanted to incorporate a little more black metal into our music, and that’s what we came up with for it. It was going to be a little longer, and we kind of had some other ideas after the part that it ends with, but every time we did it, we were just like, “It’s perfect to end it right here,” and that’s the way it turned out.
Tone Madison: And you have a lot of elements in common with bands that write long, epic metal songs, but generally you keep the songs pretty brief. It’s got that post-metal feeling to it, but it ends up being pretty compact.
Zach Johnson: We’ve all tried to push each other and ourselves to try and write a longer song, and each time that we’ve tried to, it’s like, there’s no point in trying to write a long fucking song. If you’re writing a song and you’re really happy with it and want to keep adding, cool. But it’s really a bad idea to set out like, “I’m gonna write a 12-minute song.” I’ve heard a ton of bands that have written that 12-minute song, and the last nine minutes of it are unlistenable. I will say, at the same time, it’s always been a dream of mine—this sounds so stupid—to fill one side of an LP with one song. It’s a little-kid dream of mine, and someday, maybe.