BLACK ON WHITE.
THE EVER-DELIBERATE A HILL TO DIE UPON ARE DESPERATE. HEAVEN’S METAL’S CHRIS GATTO FINDS OUT WHY.
[Enjoy this digital reprint from the March 2014 issue of HM Magazine]
They say too many cooks in the kitchen will spoil the soup. So how many Cooks
does it take to make soup fit for a true headbanger? Just the two: Adam and
Michael Cook, brothers and masterminds behind U.S. blackened death metal outfit
A Hill to Die Upon, the band they started a decade ago. Consummate musicians
and all around great guys, the Cooks have unleashed metal fire on the unsuspecting
world twice already with the albums Infinite Titanic Immortal and Omens. After many delays and setbacks, the band is ready to ignite again with their newest project, Holy Despair. Join
me as I catch up with Adam (vocals) and Michael (drums) to get the latest on their latest.
HM: Schonest Winter Wetter,
nicht wahr? The East coast has
had more snow and ice storms
this winter than we’ve had in
decades. How has the Midwest
fared this winter?
Adam: This winter has been
pretty nuts. And now here in the
Midwest all of our snow and ice is
melting, so it’s muddy and wet everywhere.
I am so ready for winter to be
over. Screw black metal and grimness,
I’m ready for spring.
It seems it was just a while ago
we were talking to you about the
release of Omens, but I guess it’s
really been three-to-four years,
right? And now we are here to
discuss A Hill To Die Upon’s
next work of art, Holy Despair.
You started the recording of
this album with a crowd funding
campaign and the record will
ultimately see release (in late
March). Has the process taken
longer than usual for you guys?
Adam: Man, time has flown by
(laughs). On one side, it feels like
just yesterday, and on the other, it
feels like 10 years since Omens came
out. Working on Omens was pretty
intense, and I think we recorded it in
about eight days or so; we never had
any real demos of the songs before
going into the studio. This time, with
Holy Despair, we had full demos of
each song several months before the
recording started. Mix that with the
Indiegogo campaign and you have
one long project. We had originally
hoped to release the album closer to
the beginning of January, but it just
didn’t work out. We are so grateful to
our friends and fans that have been
so patient through this whole project.
I know what it’s like to donate to a
band and then to have to wait for so
I saw a picture on your
Facebook of a triangle with a
skull in it. Is that the cover art
for Holy Despair? Looked pretty
Adam: Yeah, the triangle skull
design is the image that will go into
the final design. As of my writing
this, it is still in the final stages, but
I’m hoping to see the cover soon. We
are really excited about the skull
design, though, and when putting
out music, the imagery is really
important for us.
Didn’t a flood destroy your
studio and equipment last year?
How did that situation work out?
Adam: Yeah, I have a small studio
in the basement of my house, and one
morning I woke up to some floating
guitars and drowned drums. I must
have caught it pretty quickly, though,
because most of it could be salvaged
and only a few things were totally
ruined. The biggest problem was that
we were preparing to start working
on demos for the new album, and
the flood set us back at least three or
four months. It all worked out well
in the end, I suppose, because I was
able to spend some more time with
the songs and we changed quite a few
things before we ended up with the
Let’s talk about the new album
itself. Omens had such memorable
themes, with “I am the black
space between the stars” and that
catchy little number “Satan, Your
Kingdom Must Come Down.”
What does the title Holy Despair
imply and what kind of themes
run through the album?
Michael: The theme is despair.
This started with our first album,
Infinite Titanic Immortal, and continued
into Omens. I think it has
taken a new turn in Holy Despair,
but also a less subtle one. Despair
is becoming more central and more
necessary with every album. With
2014 being the centennial of World
War I, we felt it was the perfect metaphor
for this idea. There are a lot
of references in the lyrics to the war
and to books (of that era), like Erich
Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the
Western Front,” Stephen Crane’s
“War is Kind.” The influence of the
pre-war poetry of W.B. Yeats plays
is also present. If you were to read
English poetry in 1913, you will find
the pride and arrogance typical of
a great empire. However, a poem
from 1919 will inevitably be written
by a broken spirit. WWI broke the
pride and destroyed the hope of the
Western world and resulted in the
bizarre, irregular art of cubism, etc.
Holy Despair is the despair, the first,
necessary step in understanding our
place in the universe and beginning
to commune with YHWH.
By now, AHTDU has something
of a trademark sound. A
deadly hybrid of death, thrash
and black metal. I’ve always
enjoyed the guitars and the
over-the-top drumming style of
Michael. Did you shoot for the
same sound this time, or stray
into new territory?
Michael: We actually approached
this album differently than our
previous two. First, it must be said
that we’ve been growing tired of
the constant “breaking boundaries”
that bands claim. Usually it is the
same music over and over. Nothing
new. Then, when I came across
J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea that there is
only one story ever told and that
every story is merely a variation of
this story, it made me view art in
a whole new way. Art that tries to
break the boundaries for its own
sake will probably not accomplish
much. However, if someone tried
to be the best artist at what they
know (painting, country, jazz),
innovation will happen. Longinus
discusses this in his work, “On the
Sublime.” And, of course, the question
arises: Would we rather be
known for innovation or quality? It
is not always a choice you get, but
we would rather create quality art
than innovative art that is lacking.
Of course, “breaking boundaries”
is common, now, so why not rebel
and keep them intact?
With that said, this album has a
lot of the same blasting, black/death
style. It is the meat of the art that we
are working with. However, we listen
to a lot of music that isn’t so extreme:
mewithoutYou, Eric Church, Empire
of the Sun. The first half of the
album is mostly fast and aggressive,
while the second half is the music
that happened on its own. This is the
new territory for us.
Adam: I’d say each album has
had some unique musical influences
through each (iteration of the)
writing process, but I think Holy
Despair has to be the most mature
and unique, for me at least. I feel like
we’ve just been finding more who
we are as musicians and performers
and trying to focus on that. Also, for
me, I have been trying to convey the
(range of) emotions better, trying
not to just be the standard “METAL”
musician – but trying to think of it as
an artist’s perspective who happens
to write using metal.
The band is, of course, the
Cook brothers, but who joined
you for the recording process?
Will that be the same band that
plays shows with you?
Adam: We recorded the album
with our really good friend Drew
Webster, who recorded our single,
“Manden Med Leen,” and also used
to play guitar in AHTDU several
years ago. We have a really great
relationship with him, and working
with him is really smooth and great.
Erik Tordsson is another great
guy to work with. He has done the
mixing and mastering on all three of
our records, and he is very professional
and always has a way of bringing
out the life in a record.
Nolan Osmond wrote and recorded
guitar solos for “Cloven Hoof
Hava Nagila,” “Unyielding Anguish”
and “Nekyia.” He plays live with us,
and we were blown away by what he
brought to the table.
The album also features many
amazing musicians who added little
bits here and there. The amazing and
beautiful harpist Timbre preformed
and sang on a cover of “O Death,” an
old bluegrass tune.
Where have you been playing,
and what’s in store for this year
for the band?
Adam: Not too sure about what
the future has in store for us right
now. The last couple years have been
pretty hard, and this album has
taken a lot out of us. We love what we
do with all our hearts and we have
already started writing for another
possible release, but we’re not really
sure what the future holds as of right
What are the band members’
occupations? I know one of you
is a teacher’s assistant at a university.
Michael: I have actually left the
university to become a full-time
drummer. After I got my B.A. in
English and Classical Languages,
I did one semester in the Classics
department at (the University of
Missouri). Right now, I am working
part time for my father’s construction
business and trying to get gigs. I
am currently, cough, available. Adam
also works for our dad doing construction.
(Laughs) You and Michael
have always written music from
a highly educated background.
Other metal bands may brand
themselves “thinking man’s
metal,” but the literary references
in your albums alone read
like a bibliography. Do you find
yourself fighting against the
stereotype that metalheads are
burnouts or that metal music is
kid stuff? The ’80s are touted
as the golden age of metal, but it
was generally sex, drugs and partying.
Is metal as a genre moving
away from the dumbed down
themes of those days?
Michael: I think that depends on
how hard you look and how optimistic
you are. Black and death metal
have definitely moved away from the
ever-repetitive sex, drugs and rock
and roll mantra, but I’m not sure that
Satan, freedom and anti-religion is
necessarily less shallow. (Or Jesus,
love and the apocalypse.)
We all want hear songs about who
we like to think we are. Whatever
we tell ourselves, much of our music
consumption is about making ourselves
feel validated. Rednecks want
to hear songs that make them feel
that it’s cool to drive trucks, shoot
guns and be a Christian. Metalheads
want to hear songs that say it’s OK
to not believe in a god. Christian
metalheads want to hear metal songs
that say it’s OK to be a Christian. It
all sounds really negative when you
say it like this, but it’s true, though it
isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Folks in the ’80s were really into
sex, drugs and rock and roll. They
wanted to hear songs about those elements
in their lives and feel validated.
I listen to Waylon Jennings to feel
validated about one thing, Nolan listens
to Extol for another and Adam
listens to mewithoutYou for another.
I’ve always been interested in
the sociological aspects of what
draws kids to heavy metal. There
are two common denominators
for metalheads, whether you’re
the burnout (the kid who’s always
been picked on) or the genius
(alienation and escapism). What
draws kids especially to death
metal and black metal specifically?
Is it a greater degree of the
things I mentioned, or is there
just more shock value in extreme
Michael: I think you’ve hit the nail
on the head, though there are probably
always other factors we don’t see.
Our culture values underdogs and
outcasts right now: different is best;
unique is imperative. Fifty years ago
it was fit in or die, now it is be unique
or die. We feel wrong fitting in. It
has gone a little, too, but I think that
is why Behemoth can be No. 1 on the
Polish charts and still have to pretend
to be the underdogs.
Corpse paint. Just wondering:
Is it always black on white, and
do the designs matter?
Adam: I sometimes think of
corpse paint as more like taking off a
mask, and it’s become a bit of a ritual
that helps me prepare for a show
and focus. Playing without it is now
almost like playing without a guitar.
Michael: From Arthur Brown,
KISS and Alice Cooper to Dimmu
Borgir, Behemoth and Marduk it has
always been black on white. I saw
one friend do white on black and it
just looked like Spawn. It initially
started as Arthur Brown trying to
look dead when he performed, so
I think it will always have black
around the eyes. For us, it is about
the overall aesthetic live. We want
to engage as many of the senses as
possible. That is also why we burn
incense at the front of the stage.
We are big Alice Cooper fans, and
we understand his desire to shock.
It isn’t spiritual, but I know a lot
of people see it differently. I know
Antestor doesn’t wear it anymore
because they don’t have a spiritual
motivation to wear it. That is fine,
but I think we approach our music
from a very secular way. We play
music because we want to, we play it
fast because we want to and we paint
ourselves because we want to.
I don’t want to destroy anyone’s
hope that we are a ministry or
anything, but it isn’t why we do it.
There is always that element, but we
don’t want to lie and say “we paint
ourselves for Jesus,” but yo u asked
Hey, I listen to the music you
guys play because I want to, and
I always play it loud because I
want to. Last time, all the talk
about space and the universe got
me thinking about sci-fi. I’m hoping
to hear AHTDU do a song for
the legendary Doctor Who series.
Actually, licensing songs for scifi
movies just might be lucrative.
Michael: Oh, now you got me
thinking. We’ve been thinking about
redoing the Stargate SG-1 theme as a
Dimmu-style bonus track.
Gatto is a Contributing Writer for
HM. He loves fishing and Philadelphia.