Burton C. Bell is best known as the dynamic frontman of legendary industrial grindcore act Fear Factory, but with his latest project, Ascension of the Watchers, he takes a drastically different approach. Musically drawing on gothic and ethereal influences like latter-day Swans and thematically combining intensely personal reflections with mystical imagery inspired by the legends of the Nephilim in the lost Book of Enoch, the project's debut album Numinosum is an epic meditation on loneliness and hope, despair and enlightenment. Bell offers up some of his own words of enlightenment regarding his new musical and spiritual interests, not to mention the reactions of puzzled Fear Factory fans.
GRAVE CONCERNS: I kind of wanted to get the obvious question out of the way: Ascension of the Watchers is pretty drastically different from anything you've done before. I know you're not into talking about comparisons--I can't think of any comparisons to make, either--but I wanted to know if there was any particular music that influences your move in that direction.
BURTON: Well, this is pretty much the type of music I've always listened to all along. On the first Fear Factory record, if anyone ever read the "thank yous," Nick Cave was thanked for inspiration. I had some metal back when I was in high school, like AC/DC and Iron Maiden or whatever (I never got into Judas Priest). I think the most metal record I ever had was Number of the Beast, actually. But I was more into punk, and then I got into more avant-agarde, like Swans and things like that. Even before Fear Factory started, I was way into Godflesh, but I was also into Mazzy Star, The Mission UK, The Sisters of Mercy... That was the direction I came from. This is the type of music I've always been influenced by. When Fear Factory started, what I brought to the table was lyrical content and vocals, and when we first started Dino and I really liked a lot of the same thing. Dino introduced me to grindcore; some of it was cool, like Napalm Death and Carcass. Some of that was really cool, and some of it I was like, "Yeah, whatever," and it didn't really appeal to me. Then I brought to the table the dark gothic kind of side, and that's where the vocals came in. When I was doing vocals, I was trying to emulate all different types of vocalists, from Michael Gira to Carl McCoy to Justin Broadrick and even like Tad and Chris Cornell, early Soundgarden stuff. This type of music was brewing inside of me, and not really having confidence in the music I would write, everyone would just write the music and I would just deal with the vocals.
GRAVE CONCERNS: So when people are surprised by this, it's not so much that this is unexpected, it's more in character with what you've been into all along?
BURTON: If you call yourself a fan and have read any of the interviews from the very beginning, you would've known I've been listening to this type of music from the very beginning: Neubauten, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, all that stuff is the type of music I've always bought. This is the what I've always listened to. Starting in about 2000, I started really recording guitar parts in my own home and filing these things away.
GRAVE CONCERNS: Has there been a backlash from the metal community and from Fear Factory fans?
BURTON: Not a backlash, but I've had my share of hate mail. Not much, not much at all, considering. There's been a lot of positivity. One thing I've always stressed throughout Fear Factory's history is for fans to keep an open mind; there's inspiration everywhere. And I believe that a lot of Fear Factory fans have listened to what I've said and taken it to heart and do listen to all types of music.
GRAVE CONCERNS: I grew up listening to a lot of the same stuff you were into; I was a huge Swans fan in high school and a huge Sisters of Mercy fan, and when I first heard the album, I thought, "Oh my god, he's inspired by all the same stuff I'm into," and then my second reaction was, "I bet a lot of Fear Factory fans are going to be pissed."
BURTON: Well, yeah. I've definitely heard some of the things that are posted on certain boards or whatever, and some fans are talking a lot of negativity, but the percentage of that is quite small. And I knew that would happen. I totally knew that going into this. I knew that this music would not appeal to everybody. And that's fine! Even Fear Factory didn't appeal to everybody, and there are Fear Factory fans that hate Fear Factory songs. You can't please everybody, and I've accepted that and I'm fine with it, but there are fans who do have the chance to hear it, and they like it, and they get it.
GRAVE CONCERNS: I'd think a lot of people would be especially surprised by the Simon & Garfunkel cover, so I wanted to ask how you picked that particular song.
BURTON: There are a lot of songs that I want to cover. This song? I still have turntables. I'm not like a DJ, but at home I spin records, and I like to do a lot of flowing into music and play with different themes and stuff. A few years ago--sometimes I do smoke marijuana, and this was one of those times--and I have a 45 of "Sound of Silence," and just for kicks I thought, "I want to hear what this sounds like at 33." So I played it at 33, and it just blew me away. I do that frequently; I play 45s at 33 just to see how it sounds slower, or even 33s I pitch down just for effect. And when I slowed it down to 33 I thought, "Oh my god, this is the heaviest goth song ever!" If you ever have the opportunity to do that, you will see what I mean. It totally translates perfectly to that lower range, that lower octave and that slower pace.
GRAVE CONCERNS: The first time I heard that cover, I was listening to the album at work and I had to stop whatever I was doing because I was in shock. "Is he covering Simon & Garfunkel?!"
BURTON: That's Al Jourgenson playing the lap-steel guitar, and my twin brother playing lead guitar and doing the harmony vocals. Al mixed that song, and he's playing a...what are they called? I forgot what they're called. He's playing lead guitar with one of those harmonizer things, like a violin?
GRAVE CONCERNS: An e-bow?
Burton: An e-bow, exactly. We totally went for that effect, and it came out awesome. I can't even listen to the original version anymore.
GRAVE CONCERNS: It probably sounds like chipmunks singing it.
BURTON: It does! It's too fast for me! But I love that song. I've always been a fan of that song. I like Simon & Garfunkel, what am I gonna say? I have some records of theirs. They wrote classic songs, lyrically poignant, just beautiful songs, timeless. Their songs, to me, really strike a chord today. Their lyrics are timeless and I really wanted that to translate over.
GRAVE CONCERNS: It really comes through. Now, a lot of the imagery on the album is drawn from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Enoch. I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about that for fans that might not be aware of what the Book of Enoch is and the story there.
BURTON: The Book of Enoch was in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the late '30s near the Dead Sea in a cave. A boy was trying to find a sheep, and he found a cave. When he threw a rock into the cave to find the sheep, he heard something break, like a clay jar, so he went down there and found all these scrolls written by the Essenes which pretty much predate certain aspects of the Bible.
GRAVE CONCERNS: The way the story happened is almost too perfect, like the beginning of an Exorcist movie or something; you see the guy looking for the sheep, and then the creepy music changes when he finds the cave.
BURTON: Yeah, I'm surprised no one's made a movie about it yet. But I got interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls because I was reading a different book called The Origins of Satan by Elaine Pagels. Elain Pagels is a Biblical historian, so it's actual historical research about the actual term of Satan and concept of Satan and how it came about. Just one page in this book, really one paragraph, mentioned the Dead Sea Scrolls and was going over the Book of Enoch, and it mentioned The Watchers. I was like, "Wow, The Watchers! That's a really cool term." So I researched online and found a translated text version of the Book of Enoch, and I was just blown away. What the Book of Enoch describes is the band of angels, roughly 200, they think, in the early days of humanity, who looked over the humans for God: The Watchers. While watching them, they became so enamored of them that they fell in love, and they made an agreement, a pact, to abandon Heaven, go down to earth, take human form, and take human men and women as wives and husbands. In doing so, they taught them the ways of the stars and the earth, basically the knowledge of God, and they also mated with them, and their offspring became giants. These giants were consuming everything, consuming the entire earth and creating a bloodbath, and this angered God. To step back a bit, there's a discussion over whether their offspring were the Nephilim or not; they're not really sure if the Nephilim were something different or not, because they were all giants. But God looked down upon this bloodbath and became so angry that he instructed Gabriel to go down to Noah and tell him to build a boat, because he was going to wipe them all out. He banished every Watcher, cursed them to eternal damnation into every crack and crevasse in the earth, never to return to Heaven. Reading that totally inspired me. The book really describes one man's journey. A few of the Watchers beseech Enoch to go back to God to ask for them forgiveness, and that's the story of the Book of Enoch. It's a man's travel to God to ask forgiveness for The Watchers. In this point in my life, I felt a real parallel between The Watchers and humanity and my own personal life. I felt like I'd fallen from grace, so I really felt strongly about this. That's where I came from, a real personal aspect and a real spiritual aspect, not religious but spiritual. These are my thoughts of redemption, songs about love and loss of love, and loss of one's self, really, so these are songs of redemption.
GRAVE CONCERNS: Given that you're using this imagery from the Dead Sea Scrolls as a metaphor for your own personal journey, where do you see yourself fitting into the story? Do you see yourself as The Watchers? How does that all tie together?
BURTON: I'm using The Watchers as a metaphor for my life. The band is The Watchers; we are The Watchers, and hopefully this music is our way for ascension. I wanted to do something different, lyrically. With Fear Factory, there was some personal observation, but it was more of a third-person text, more like a story, but these lyrics are truly personal and directly from my journals. I keep a personal journal, and the lyrics are directly from my dreams and from my daily writings. They're passionately personal, almost agonizingly personal. There was one point where I thought, "Man, I'm being too personal," but I decided, "You know what? This is me. This is what I want to release, this is the type of music I'm into, and when I read lyrics of other writers and other artists, I like to read something that I can relate with, something that can touch me." I'm hoping to get the same effect.
GRAVE CONCERNS: It's interesting, because you take a lot of concept albums--and I don't know if you'd quite consider this a concept album or not, some people shy away from the term--but a lot of times with concept albums there's a very abstract, intellectual quality to it.
BURTON: I would call it conceptual. From the title of the band to the lyrics to the artwork to everything, it's a true concept. It was conceived through dream states and experiences, so yeah, I'd call it a concept album.
GRAVE CONCERNS: A lot of concept albums don't have the same emotional immediacy that this does, and that's what impressive, that you were able to take these esoteric ideas from ancient religious texts, and actually make something personal out of it.
BURTON: I heard a long time ago that a good artist borrows, but a great artist steals. I wanted to use those ideas for my own art. It's there for a reason. In this world, in this day and age, there's nothing original under the sun. You can take something and make it your own, and make it interesting or beautiful or all of the above, and be remembered for that.
GRAVE CONCERNS: Given the fact that your own personal spiritual journey is tied in with this story of The Watchers, where would you say you are on your spiritual path now, as compared to when you first were putting this album together?
BURTON: I've come a long way. When I started this music, I was at a very dark place. It's obvious through Fear Factory's lyrics that I was agnostic. I was always questioning, because I'd never had a true experience to make me believe. When Fear Factory initially split back in 2002, I came to Pennsylvania to work with my friend John, and I just kind of stayed here. I planted myself here and became enveloped by the beauty of Pennsylvania, and I found a lot of solace and a lot of soul-searching. At that point I was looking for answers. I didn't know who I was; I felt that I had lost touch with myself because I had been doing something I hadn't really been into for a while, and I just thought, "I don't know what I'm doing." But while I was here writing the music, I learned a lot about myself, and I had experiences that really made me believe that there's something more out there than we can explain. I've researched science, I've researched astronomy, I've researched philosophy, and everyone's looking for answers to the mystery of what this life is. Scientists are trying to find God in microbes, astronomers are trying to find God out in the universe, and philosophers are trying to find God in the mind, but the whole mystery is that they're not really looking in the right places. When I really searched in my heart, I believe that I truly found peace, and I decided through this whole course--and this just happened recently--I decided that I do believe in God. There's so many things out there that cannot be explained; if I can believe in aliens and I can believe in ghosts, why can't I believe in God? I made that peace with myself, and through the whole journey of making this record, that's what I've come to. I've written a record for redemption; whom am I calling on for redemption? You can't ask for redemption from no one; you have to ask for it for someone, and that someone is God. I'm not a Christian. I'm not religious. I don't subscribe to any major religion, but I do believe that there's something out there that no one can explain, and I'm leaving that as a mystery.
GRAVE CONCERNS: So in other words, you've given up on agnosticism, but you haven't moved into orthodoxy or anything.
BURTON: There are still some aspects to my personality that make me believe that religion is still for sheep and that God is not religion; God is in your heart. People who base their lives on religion or who strictly follow the Bible literally, it's like, you guys don't get it. I'm saying God is still a mystery, but there is a God. I'm not agnostic anymore because I believe I have had experiences that make me believe that there is something, that I have knowledge that there is something out there. Through life experience or through dreams, and it's been both, things happened where I went, "Alright, I can't explain this." Everything came together for a reason; call it fate, call it God, but here it is. I'm not the angry young man anymore that I was when I started Fear Factory. I'm 39 years old, I'm married, I have two lovely children, I have a lovely wife. It's not that I'm happy and comfortable, but I'm surrounded by beauty. I'd been going through scream therapy for 17 years, you know? There's got to be a point where it has to work. I was in Fear Factory screaming for a reason; I was truly angry, and that's where my vocals were coming from, from true passion that I felt about what I was singing about. And over the years, there's got to be a point where you've got to let it go. The anger is gone. I'm not angry anymore. Yeah, there are still things to be pissed off about, but I don't hold onto it anymore. I've learned things through my life.
GRAVE CONCERNS: It sounds like you're taking kind of a zen approach.
BURTON: I guess that's just my nature, anyway. I guess that's just how I've always been.
GRAVE CONCERNS: If there's one message that you want people to come away from with Numinosum, what would that message be?
BURTON: "Beautiful." If they can just step away after the record's done and think, "That was beautiful," that's the only message. There's really nothing more to it.
GRAVE CONCERNS: You just finished up a tour with Ministry. Are you going to be touring with Ascension of the Watchers?
BURTON: Absolutely. I'm in the process of making touring plans right now. The first tour that is being booked right now is for Europe in November and December, and I'm trying to get to Australia in October. I'm trying to get to the States either before or somewhere after, but there's definitely touring happening. The live show definitely translates; it's definitely more textured, more intense, more passionate, and it has that more textured feel when it's live, like "WHOOOOOSHH," which I love. It's like, "Bring it on!"
GRAVE CONCERNS: It's not quite a wall of sound, because it's not distortion, but it's almost like a wall of atmosphere.
BURTON: That's exactly what it is. It's a wall of atmosphere. Just like an orchestra doing some classical piece, it's just a wall of atmosphere. Every instrument, whether they're playing differentiated chords or the same notes, they're all playing the same texture to create an atmosphere, and that's what John and I set out to do.
GRAVE CONCERNS: Are you going to be doing a second album for Ascension of the Watchers?
BURTON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely!
GRAVE CONCERNS: And is that going to use the same kind of imagery?
BURTON: Well, we'll see. It's too soon. We've only written a couple of pieces. Aside from an album of all original music, I've had this plan for a while to do a covers album, even before I knew Al [Jourgenson] was going to do his. But my album will be called For Whom I Toll, and it's basically taking a bunch of '70s songs and turning them into something almost like what Nick Cave did with Kicking Against the Pricks.
GRAVE CONCERNS: Did you have anything else you'd like to share with Grave Concerns readers?
BURTON: We're definitely going to be touring later this year. It's not going to be a humongous tour; we're going to hit major spots, so if you have a chance to come see us, please do! Come support us; we're doing it punk rock style! It'll be a very intimate show, very textured, so please keep your eyes and ears open for when we're coming through.
|< Prev||Next >|