Ancient Rites Interview Part I: Gunther Theys Talks Band Formation, Influences & Philosophy Behind New Album, Laguz.

Ancient Rites released their latest album Laguz a couple of months back, but just because it’s September doesn’t mean that the record’s not worth checking out. Laguz still remains one of my favorite albums of 2015, so it goes without saying that we recommend it. In any case, I’ve been trying to find the best way to present this incredibly lengthy nineteen page interview with frontman Gunther Theys and have decided to go ahead and post it in it’s unedited entirety. In this portion, Gunther discusses the band’s original formation and talks a little about the concept nature of the piece, as well as some influences. If you’re a hardcore fan of Ancient Rites, then this three-part interview will certainly be one you won’t want to miss out on.

It has been quite a long time since we’ve heard a new record from you guys, even though you’ve been a band for over twenty years. For the newcomers out there, tell us a little bit about the band and how you came to this point.

ANCIENT RITES was created at the end of the 80’s. All members used to play in other bands before, rooted in early 80’s Heavy Metal but also pioneering in the first wave of Black and other extreme Metal genres. When the band was formed our music style and the entire concept of occult and historically inspired lyrics was far from being popular. It was an era when Glam and Alternative styles dominated the scene. Still, a local following was built up who called themselves the Ancient Rites Death Militia. The line-up consisted of JOHAN and PHILIP (guitars), STEFAN (drums) and myself, GUNTHER (bass/vocals). One year later the “DARK RITUAL” demo was released and spread throughout the entire underground worldwide, still by old fashioned regular mail as it was the pre-internet age. Soon after the recordings PHILIP died in a car accident, problems forced the band to replace STEFAN by drum roadie WALTER (STEFAN took his own life) and JOHAN decided to leave the Metal scene. PASCAL and BART (guitars) joined and the “EVIL PREVAILS” ep (’92) was recorded and released through our own label we created named FALLEN ANGEL RECORDS as initially no one was interested in signing a band in our style. The D.I.Y. attitude by releasing our own material and international underground contacts through tape trading spread the band name. The “Evil Prevails” sessions were released through several other record companies such as WILD RAGS (USA) and Colombian WARMASTER. PASCAL left the band when joining the Navy. As a three piece ANCIENT RITES released several split ep’s (Belgian AFTER DARK RECORDS and Greek MOLON LAVE RECORDS), a split lp and appeared on several compilation albums. 1994 The debut full length album “THE DIABOLIC SERENADES” was released through AFTER DARK (CD version) and MIDIAN CREATIONS (LP format). Licensing deals were signed to guarantee a worldwide distribution (OSMOSE, MORBID NOIZZ). AFTER DARK turned out to be a total rip off and eventually ceased to exist leaving no penny for the band that had invested its own money in the recordings, artwork and photo sessions. In 1995 a deal was signed with Dutch MASCOT RECORDS and “BLASFEMIA ETERNAL” was released January ’96. The band toured Europe and the U.K. several times and performed with acts such as DEICIDE, MOTÖRHEAD, JUDAS PRIEST, CRADLE OF FILTH, METALLICA, DISSECTION, MORBID ANGEL, S.O.D., MERCYFUL FATE, MARDUK, IMPALED NAZARENE, MANOWAR, SEPULTURA, VENOM, ROTTING CHRIST, GUNS ’N ROSES, BEHEMOTH, SAXON to mention a few. We also played the United States and Asia. Throughout the years of A.R.’s existence the band had to deal with a lot of misfortune (boycotts, bomb threats, hostile anti-B.M. audiences in an age when none of the few existing B.M. bands were touring, ripped off for large amounts of money by labels and promoters, members ending up in hospital or dying). However hardship can be turned into motivation. May ’96 BART left the band which made A.R. a duo (WALTER & GUNTHER) working with session musicians. Guitarists of bands like PENTACLE, ABSU, KATATONIA, SWORDMASTER, LUCIFERIAN volunteered to give A.R. a helping hand. Although rooted in Flanders (Belgium) ANCIENT RITES slowly turned into an international act. On the third album entitled “FATHERLAND” (recorded February/March ’98) musicians from Holland, Suomi-Finland, Germany and Belgium made their contribution consisting of ERIK (ex-INQUISITOR, guitars), JAN “ÖRKKI” (ex-PRESTIGE/TWO WITCHES/LACRIMOSA, guitars), WALTER (drums) and myself on (bass/vocals). A compilation album entitled “THE FIRST DECADE 1989-1999” was released to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the band. After a negotiation and business transaction between the labels ANCIENT RITES moved from MASCOT RECORDS to HAMMERHEART RECORDS for which a fourth full length entitled “DIM CARCOSA” was recorded in winter 2000/2001. The album entered the independent Dutch charts on the 9th position. A Line-up change took place when DOMINGO SMETS (ex-RENAISSANCE/AGATHOCLES, keyboards) was replaced by DAVY WOUTERS (ex-OBLIVION). The Live CD/DVD “AND THE HORDES STOOD AS ONE” saw the light of day in 2003. Guitarist BART VANDEREYCKEN made his unexpected return to replace JAN YRLUND. The “RUBICON” album also marked the return of two other former band members: guitarist RAF JANSEN (who played with ANCIENT RITES during the BLASFEMIA ETERNAL tour) and DOMINGO SMETS on bass guitar. I decided to concentrate on vocal duties in ANCIENT RITES. With this old/new line up combination the band released an album entitled “Rubicon” through Season of Mist. Today the band consists of WALTER VAN CORTENBERG (drums), ERIK SPROOTEN (guitars), DOMINGO SMETS (guitars) and myself (vocals). A new album for MASSACRE RECORDS entitled “LAGUZ” is recorded. The journey of ANCIENT RITES is a long one, always distanced from popular trends and often against all odds. For years A.R. fans often refer to themselves as “Ancient Hordes” or more recently as “Leg I (A) XVIII (R) in the atmosphere of the ancient historical concept which is typical for the band. There always has been a strong and spontaneous bond between the band and our public, untouched by commercialism or latest fashions in the scene, away from rock star attitudes. This was celebrated on the live cd/dvd “AND THE HORDES STOOD AS ONE”. Through “LAGUZ” ANCIENT RITES mark a new chapter in the band’s history. As always, each album sounds different from the other, yet all works are recognizably ANCIENT RITES, displaying an own style and authenticity.

Now let’s talk about Laguz. There’s really something special to the work here and it has a vibe that feels almost theatrical. Is this the kind of record you were going to make in the beginning, or did it evolve over time? (Tell me a little about the record and what we can expect.)

I think your analysis is correct, there is a filmic, almost theatrical, vibe to the album. Music, lyrics/liner notes and artwork contribute to that overall feel, all these elements are important parts of a greater whole. “LAGUZ” is an invitation to enter long forgotten worlds through the dark/historical lyrics and the music, which combines fierce Metal with classical/medieval orchestrations in order to evoke era’s buried by time and dust. Testimonies of the rise and downfall of civilizations and individuals who come to life again when the heart and mind open to echoes from the past. The character of the work is epic and as you said almost theatrical because apart from the orchestration, also the vocals are at times performed in an almost narrative way, to achieve a certain vibe, like historical events being described and set to music. Also philosophy is touched upon through a message of cultivating a positive inner strength while facing the storms in life. In A.R. tradition “Laguz” avoids lyrical and musical clichés which sometimes makes it a bit difficult to place the band for those who like to use typical terms to describe the universe of ANCIENT RITES. But we feel authenticity is important, not the sales or latest trends. We always worked with classical music, ever since the beginning. But in the early days this aspect was limited to the intro’s and outro’s and some choirs here and there in the songs. Today both musical “dialects” are combined, turned into a whole, contributing to each other throughout the entire songs. This creates a filmic character which should enable the listener to picture the past worlds we describe and wish to evoke. It was a natural musical progress. I wouldn’t want to change our earlier work as each release, from the demo’s, ep’s to our previous albums, reflect a certain era important to our band history.

From a lyrical standpoint, what are some of the major topics you wanted to explore within Laguz? If we take an album as a way to express one’s ideas in the form of art, what sort of masterpiece would you consider Laguz?

Interesting question. If I had to compare “Laguz” to a form of art in painting or architecture? Definitely Classical. Ancient. Medieval. Nothing to do with modern art/architecture. As long as I can remember, even before I could read, I am fascinated by history. Throughout my life I cultivated this interest by learning about history in its different facets: from the cultural aspects to military history, theology to philosophy, art to politics, mythology to architecture, literature to daily life. Like a neutral observer. As it contains so many facets and layers, history is a re-occurring theme in the different “art” forms through which I express my passion/interests: from writing to drawing, from painting to music. I also prefer to reflect on lesser known or darker histories. Away from Hollywood or fiction. It is a passion beyond music. All my life I travelled to historical places, visited museums, collected historical books (including original medieval parchments) in search to increase my historical knowledge. The research is therefore natural, a part of my life. Even if there had not been any plans to release a new album for which I had to write the lyrics, the studying would have continued, because of personal interest. The newly gathered “knowledge” I would have expressed by writing blogs or a novel, or drawing a graphic novel or paintings. The urge to do something creative with it is always there, no matter the artform. Of course I was content to write the liner notes and lyrics for a new album, music is a powerful form of expression. Surely not everyone will read the lyrics or liner notes but those who do for sure will understand and enjoy the album even more, all aspects contribute to each other: music, lyrics, liner notes, the booklet artwork (some of it my own)…As for inspiration on this album: thousands of years of history to get inspired by. And many histories or aspects are left untold or only locally known. For example “Von Gott Entfernt“ is about the „Bokkenrijders“ cultus that shook parts of the 18th century Lowlands. Apart from its mysterious history it also has a personal meaning to me as direct ancestors of mine were a part of it. It was a peculiar, bizarre and mysterious phenomenon. A phenomenon internationally quite unknown as it is regional history. Hundreds belonged to this Horde and most members eventually got caught, tortured and publicly executed. Many questions remain unanswered. Why was a well-respected military surgeon like Doctor Kirchhoffs leading one of the fractions, how come they used military tactics and ranks? These were times of war and soldiers of different armies roamed the lands or had deserted. Women were a part of it too which was unusual. They were a strange mix of soldiers, artists, butchers etc. The blasphemous rites in chapels at night were an unseen phenomenon back then. Some historians believe it was not about the loot which was often poor but to destabilize society, like forerunners of the Enlightenment. I used Flemish/Dutch and German languages in the song to achieve authenticity, witnesses testified that the Bokkerijders used a mix of Flemish/Dutch, German and sometimes French when communicating between each other, revealing their international character. Also I used an authentic Bokkenrijder oath in the song. I have been investigating old documents of the era, read publications concerning the trials, executions and court reports. Old books with eye witness accounts. You see, I can trace back my family roots to medieval times. Interesting is that some of them belonged to this infamous Bokkenrijders cult. They were like a Black Guild. In military fashion they robbed churches and the aristocracy, they swore loyalty towards each other and the Devil, practiced anti-christian rituals to mock the clergy. One forefather of mine called Johan Theys was suspected of belonging to the first generation of the Horde, he got caught after a church robbery but he escaped from the prison tower. His name appeared in the old files, also in the diary of a local priest who wrote about his escape and who suspects him to have formed a new Horde in another town. Interesting dark family history. Another ancestor was caught and got hanged on the local gallows’ field. Local legend tells he still haunts the fields. What historians writing about the matter don’t know and what the 18th century authorities didn’t know and are questioning in their documents I can shed a light on. They spoke of the Theys family as members of the Horde and a new family appearing on the suspect lists named Boon not knowing where they came from. Fact is that in those villages our Theys Clan was nicknamed Boon. It was the same family using different names. Over there we are still called this way. It was the ultimate proof to me they were talking about my direct ancestors apart from the locations were our family always have been living. I was introduced to this phenomenon at the age of five. I was wondering why the captain of the Horde described and pictured in a novel my family were reading to me was called Theys. Now I understand why. „Leg V Alaudae“ tells about the Rise and Fall of the sole official Roman legion consisting of…Gauls. Their path was a dramatic one with no survivors. The entire legion was wiped out while facing alone a massive enemy force. After first having built up a strong reputation starting with Caesar’s campaigns, they vanished into oblivion never to be re-formed again when they all went down in Dacia. History seldom tells their peculiar story, I felt it was time to share their interesting and tragic tale. They were trapped between two worlds because of their position, as it were. You see, Gallic tribes who had made alliances or peace pacts with Rome before, during or after the wars were obliged to deliver recruits. Some went on a voluntary basis, others did what was expected. They were offered Roman citizenship but remained also Gauls because of their roots. Consider barbarians by most Romans and considered too Romanized by many other Gauls, they were between a rock and a hard place. Which often resulted in strange situations. Whilst visiting Rome they were in constant fights with Roman citizens who looked down on them while they had fought wars for Rome and their own tribes’ pact. It was written that they were not pleased when Caesar had shown no mercy to other Gauls after battle whereas he usually pardoned defeated Romans. So one day they attacked politicians and friends of Caesar who came to watch a battle and offered no mercy to anyone but their own legion, it was said to make a statement against the double measures that Romans sometimes used depending on the origins of the defeated enemy. Their history is less known that is why I felt like writing a song about the Larks Legion (Alaudae comes from the old Celtic word for “Lark”. The Lark wings were a typical ornament for Gallic helmets. They were the only non-Romans equipped in full Roman legion military gear. The wings on their helmet referred to the Gallic roots. I like to offer different layers and meanings when writing lyrics and to reflect on less known histories.

Obviously you guys have been around for two decades, so that means your influences in the band would have changed quite a bit since the beginning. So what bands would you say inspired your early works, and what do you take inspiration from now?

I have been playing in bands since the late ‘70’s. To be honest I don’t think we took influences from bands but were influenced by the “genres” we “lived”. I grew up with Punkrock and Hardrock back in the 70’s. Saw the beginning of NWOBHM. The start of Black Metal, Death, Thrash Metal etc…Subconsciously one picks up elements of “genres” but we never were influenced by any particular bands. Bands like Sex Pistols or Ramones made me want to form my own band when I was a kid. Motörhead were an inspiration to start playing Metal. But actually none of my bands ever sounded like the bands I appreciated. Also none of my bands sounded typical in a certain style. It is important to do your own thing, be a pioneer instead of a copycat. It never seemed interesting or appealing to me to copy what has been done before. We sometimes receive critics for sounding a-typical because many people like to think in boxes. Even some of the musicians I worked together with in my life expressed their disappointment after they heard during rehearsals that I could imitate some of their favorite vocalists for fun. They hoped I would copy the style of their favorites when singing for our own bands. But they were barking up the wrong tree. I always felt like doing my own thing. Oddly enough perhaps I don’t take my inspiration from colleagues, I take my inspiration from travels, literature, films, art, music styles but not from bands. I try out different vocal styles, I consider my voice an instrument to express different emotions and thoughts or interests but I would not want to sound like anyone else, why imitating what has been done before? Inspiration can be nice, a guide line to start with perhaps but do your own thing with it. For fun we did a few covers with Ancient Rites. One was “Jumping jack Flash” of the Rolling Stones but it didn’t sound at all like the original. Same with a track of Bathory, “Sacrifice” I believe it was. It didn’t sound like Bathory. We never recorded these covers. With Lion’s Pride we recorded two covers though, “Iron Fist” of Motörhead and “Commando” of Ramones but again, it didn’t sound like the originals. It was a tribute for sure, but our own take on the original.

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