Of Empires Past is out now.
In 2014, the German city of Mannheim was ranked the 11th most inventive city in the world. According to Forbes magazine, the city itself is known for its exceptional inventive power. This phrase could equally describe the city’s namesake, Dutch experimental instrumental rock outfit MNHM.
Combining undulating and epic song structures with distinctly ‘un-rock’ instruments (the saxophone), the group craft an epic and confrontational sound on their latest album Of Empires Past. A nine song treatise of cathartic emotion, the effort sees the band build and improve on the template they laid down with their debut album Super-Empowered.
We spoke to Mark (guitar) about the conception and creation of the record.
Of Empires Past.
This album is a radical shift from MNHM’s debut album Super-Empowered. After the release of that album, I (Mark) almost immediately started writing a new album – it was supposed to be Super-Empowered but bigger, better and crazier. At one point I had around 7 tracks ‘done’; we started rehearsing them and playing some of the songs live but when we lined them up as an album it just didn’t really connect with any of us. The music was very dynamic, loud and unique (not always in a good way) but it also relied on a lot of tricks to keep it interesting – an issue (I felt) our debut album also suffered from.
So halfway done with a new album, I felt like I had to start over. I wanted to work with stricter boundaries and focus on invoking feelings that I often look for in music myself. I like music that’s dark and powerful but has a positive undertone that makes you want to move forward. As your thoughts and feelings can bring you to dark places, this album had to be something that allows you to explore those places but also makes sure you can get out of them feeling empowered.
For me, this was a change in my approach to music writing; I let go of all the crazy riffs, jumpy dynamics etc. that I used before. Instead, I and Otto started working on one specific sound and playing style that we would use throughout the album. Both the guitar and saxophone use a sharp pitched up echoey sound that, when combined, almost sounds like one instrument. Having figured out the base sound of the album, it was a liberating experience for me to be able to write simple and effective melodies and make them work in such a powerful way. I have a lot of emotions connected with this album, but I want none of that imposed on anyone, so I won’t go into that too much. It’s all up to you, the listener, to figure out what it represents for you.
We recorded/produced the album in Belfast together with producer Rocky O’Reilly.
1A Show of Might
This is one of the lasts tracks written for the album. The first 40 seconds came from a little jam with just guitar and bass. We already scheduled the recording of the album but felt that we needed one more track. When Roy added this powerful drum part, I felt that this could be something. After that rehearsal, I finished up the whole track that same night. Interesting enough, the drums in the second heavy/slow part of the track is a slowed down version of an old song we never recorded. It was a bit rushed but the way this track kicks in made it the perfect opener for the album.
2Equals of Gods
This song thrives on simplicity. Because there is little progression in the first part, it gives room for the repeating groove to grow on you. Originally, the drums were a bit more experimental, starting on an offbeat. This was ‘fixed’ when we started rehearsing it. I am proud of how this song balances out repetition and progression while building up to its ecstatic ending. Every progression is a slightly more intense variation of the part before it. For the ending part of the track, I originally intended a more black metal blast beat style feel but when Roy added his own drum flavour to it, I was happy to leave that behind.
The first half of this track is essentially a remixed version of one of the old tracks I did. As we already incorporated this track in our live set for almost 2 years, we felt it had to be on the album. The original track was very dynamic and full of fast guitar riffs. We managed to make the ‘verses’ fit with the new style of this album, but the rest of the song was a big struggle. We decided to do complete turnaround halfway through the song replacing everything we had with a long (and a bit challenging) atmospheric melody. I think me and Otto wrote the whole melody in one hour and the end result is one of my favourite parts on the album. Looking at how much we were struggling with this track, it was proof that sticking to this bounded way of writing worked wonders for us.
We had some fun recording this when Rocky pulled out four floor toms and made us all play the last measures of the song together. Also, hearing the chorus, I always somehow heard a choir singing in the background. So when we were recording it, I managed to find this free boy choir sample which we added on the album version.
4Of Empires Past
This is a small piece I initially wrote a long time ago. We tried using it in a few tracks before, but it never ended up fitting in any of the songs. When recording the songs, we needed something to break up the album a bit and I remembered I still had the arrangement on my computer. We tried to make it work but the orchestral sound wasn’t really in line with the feel of the album. Rocky had run the whole thing through an old tape echo device and we were trying to mix it. I remember at one point he muted the dry track and we looked at each other incredulously, sharing this eureka moment. We didn’t change anything anymore and it went straight to the album. By the way, that same tape echo is present on almost all the saxophone you hear on the record.
5How Things End
This is probably my favourite track on the album. It’s divided into two separate parts but unlike ‘Equals of Gods’ this one is way more relentless. I feel it offers the biggest challenge and the highest reward. Its intensity resembles some of the stuff you can hear on Liturgy’s ‘Aesthethica’. Originally, this was also supposed to have a black metal style feel to it, but we also figured that Roy is just not that kind of drummer. The drum fills you hear in the chorus easily make up for that though. 😊
We had a lot of fun recording this song. The second part is full of layered synths and little sound effects that might require a good pair of earphones to notice.
6Rule of Law
This is also one of the older songs. The original version was longer and slower. It’s also one of the few songs that are based around a riff. I originally had in mind that it would be this slow shoegaze-style song but that didn’t last long. Basically, it just goes over different variations of the same melody. Technically, there is not much to say, the riff is simple but effective. On the recording, during the bridge when the saxophone doing this (what I call) Colin Stetson-style thing you can hear a few high-pitched squeaks. Most of them are saxophone, one of them is Henry screaming.
This one mostly came from Otto. I remember I added the melody of the bridge part when we were doing pre-production. It’s interesting to hear how his style contrasts mine. For me, this is the darkest song of the album. My favourite part is probably the explosive ending of this track where Roy pulls off one of the craziest drum parts on the album.
This track is also one I wrote a few years prior while working on a new album. Like ‘Rule of Law’, this one is also mainly based on one repeating guitar riff. I came across the riff by experimenting with different (or rather random) guitar tunings. This is something I like to do to get free from conventional shapes and typical muscle memory intervals. Not much has changed from the original version, except there is a bit more focus on the melodic part during the second half of the song.
This one is based on this ostinato Otto come up with. The chords are a basic progression in C. Before the record came out, we used this one as an intro for a while. I think the ostinato works really well, it’s very hypnotizing. Since it’s not really a complete song, we took the liberty to add a ton of layers in the studio. I even remember writing a second melody that you can faintly hear in the background.
This track has a bit of a timing issue. You will notice this when you try to follow the chord progression. The timing is just off. The original version had a drum track as well, but because of this issue we chose to remove the drums completely and to be honest, I like it better without. 😊