Canada’s Cholera, with their debut full length album Prophecies of Annihilation, have displayed their flair in creating complex yet entertaining music at the same time. The band has also added a unique touch to their music through the incorporation of middle-eastern influences, and this is obvious throughout the album. We talk to the band to find out more.
Raph: Cholera is a progressive death metal project from Ottawa, Canada. The band currently consists of myself on guitars, drums, vocals, keyboards, piano, cello, oud, and Matthew Buller on fretted and fretless basses, and additional vocals. This incarnation of the band began in late 2007 with the goal of conceiving a synthesis of technical death metal with middle-eastern melodies, progressive flourishes, and dark string orchestration. The band’s first record, the Enslaved Humanity EP, was recorded in 2008 and released in late 2009. Cholera’s debut full-length, Prophecies of Annihilation, was recorded in 2009-2010 and released for press in early 2011.
How did the name of the band come about, and what is the significance of the band’s name to the band’s music?
R: Cholera as a concept seems to tie in closely with the band’s lyrical content. We are commenting on the diseased state of the world, how it is plagued by enslavement to capitalism, religious dogma, fear of the other, etc., but in a more general sense, that mankind constitutes a sprawling parasite which is choking the planet and its resources. Moreover, Cholera resonates with the French “la colère,” which also describes the band’s harsh, aggressive approach to progressive metal.
When the band wrote the debut EP, Enslaved Humanity, both you and Matt were only 16 years old. What is the musical background of each of you? How did the interest in progressive death metal come about?
R: My musical background is quite varied. I grew up listening to music from many parts of the non-Western world as well as medieval and other early forms of Western music. These styles play an important role in my writing as they influence the way I compose metal music. I began listening to bands such as Tool and Metallica around the age of 9 and soon after began to explore more obscure metal bands. My musical education in classical cello as well as in flamenco guitar (among other things) are also key factors in my development as a musician.
Matt: I grew up listening mostly to prog rock and metal, such as Rush and Metallica, but also basically every other kind of music as well. I started playing bass when I was 13 and I joined Cholera shortly after, so I had to learn how to play pretty quickly. I’ve been in Cholera for around 6 years now so most of what I have learned has come from being in the band.
I really got into progressive death metal when I met Raph, but I’ve always loved long songs and crazy arrangements so it seemed like the perfect fit to join Cholera. My love of all music, especially metal and prog rock, made it extremely easy to fall in love with the Cholera style.
R: In 2007, at the beginning of the writing process for the album, prog-death was a relatively young genre and to a certain extent, it still is today. As with most metalheads, our interests grew from the classic metal bands and we delved deeper into heavier and more cerebral forms of metal. The early Cholera ideas emerged from a more thrash-based middle-eastern approach, but quickly evolved into technical prog-death with a prominent oriental vibe as well as frequent symphonic elements. As a composer, I did not consciously choose to write progressive death metal. At a certain point, I felt that my style had matured enough to be worth capturing in a full-length album. The categorization came later, upon trying to succinctly describe Cholera’s sound.
Now let’s talk a bit about the band’s new album, Prophecies of Annihilation. When I first listened to the album, I was surprised by the amount of middle-eastern influences incorporated in the music, sounding like a more technical version of Melechesh. How did the interest and idea of fusing middle-eastern influences into the band’s music come about?
R: I was heavily exposed to Arabic, Persian, and Indian classical music while growing up. The oriental, modal sound that permeates Cholera’s style is a musical language that comes to me more instinctively than Western scales and chord progressions. I was always interested in fusing this middle-eastern style with metal, even before I had heard of bands such as Nile and Melechesh.
The production quality was another thing that caught my attention. Unlike the polished quality that many progressive/technical death metal bands utilize, Prophecies of Annihilation feature a pretty raw production quality. Was this done intentionally, and if so, what was the reason behind it?
R: Actually, the “raw” production was not an intentional choice on my part; a number of factors contributed to this. The first and last tracks (Road into the Fire, Prophecies of Annihilation) were recorded initially, on a very low budget in a relatively short time span (the drums for Road were done in one take). We were working with an engineer who had never recorded as a heavy a band as Cholera, and was unfamiliar with the modern technical death metal sound. On the EP, I feel that the guitar tones were inferior to those we achieved on the three middle tracks (recorded later), Enslaved Humanity, The Lost Traveler, and Reminiscence. In general, because we took more time to record and refine our sound on these three more recent tracks, the resulting sound was much cleaner and tighter. Nonetheless, when I listen to the record now, with a more objective viewpoint, I notice that there is an ancient or archaic vibe that emanates from all the tracks. Some people have mentioned that the newer tracks sound as though they were recorded with analog technology. This record could only have been done using digital software, due to the insane number of layers in some of the songs (at least 70 tracks in The Lost Traveler), but the performances are much more natural than on some metal records; we did comparatively little editing, resulting in a very live sound. Although this may put us at a disadvantage, as we might not be seen as being legitimate due to the production style, I think that the record has an energy and unique sound that distinguishes it from other albums.
The album contains the 2 tracks taken from the band’s Enslaved Humanity, along with 3 brand new tracks. What was the reason behind including these 2 tracks on the album?
R: I had conceived the structure of the full-length album long in advance; however, Road into the Fire and Prophecies of Annihilation were completed before any of the rest of the material. I wanted to enter the studio and record these tracks first since they were still fresh and new. We finished mixing these songs in fall 2008, with the aim of making an EP as a taste of what was to come, but due to artwork delays, we were only able to release them the following year. The full-length album was always meant to be a single composition as opposed to a collection of songs. The two songs from the EP serve as the bookends of the full-length album. They play an important role lyrically, as well as musically, in creating a framework for the concept of Prophecies of Annihilation.
How would you say you and Matt have grown as musicians between the recording of the Enslaved Humanity EP and Prophecies of Annihilation album?
R: From a technical standpoint, both of us developed in our proficiency as instrumentalists and were thus able to better execute the parts on the three new tracks (Enslaved Humanity, The Lost Traveler, Reminiscence). I think that these more recent performances exhibit greater precision and confidence. The vocals improved dramatically as well. As a composer, I felt more inclined to experiment with new sounds and to stray out of the metal realm in order to deepen the album as a musical experience. The cello overture to Reminiscence was the result of my desire to showcase the cello in a way that would demonstrate its capabilities as an instrument as well as complement the mood of the song. My interest in complex and subtle arrangements developed over the course of the recording, as well as a greater awareness of the write in function of a “sound world” as opposed to a series of riffs.
M: The Prophecies sessions were much more focused than the EP sessions just from the few years that were in between. We knew what we wanted and coming back with fresh ears and fresh fingers definitely helped. Also in that time both Raph and I worked on some other projects, which brought in some new ideas and techniques.
With such vast influences that are present in the music of Cholera, what is the songwriting process like?
R: When I compose, I conceive a blueprint of each song, as well as the structure of the album as a whole, a kind of general scheme. Prophecies is constructed like a five movement symphony, and each “movement” is made up of smaller movements, usually three (Road into the Fire, Enslaved Humanity, Reminiscence), although Prophecies of Annihilation is really in two movements and The Lost Traveler in about five. I flesh out the skeleton of the songs more and more until I reach the fine details, such as guitar harmony parts and chord voicings on keyboards. I usually write the heavier, more straightforward songs first, to establish a metal base, and as the album progresses, the material becomes increasingly experimental and less metal oriented. I scored out about 95% of the music on Finale (computer notation program) and used this as a reference for the recording, although many of the individual parts were altered slightly from their original notated form. Matt (Buller, bassist) would transcribe the bass parts that I had written, learn them, and often adapt them to his playing style.
I had a very defined vision of how the album should be before it had been recorded. All of the lyrics were finished before the music had been fully composed. I use the lyrics to provide a structure, sometimes a narrative, to the songs and I usually write them with a general musical idea in mind. I also usually know when writing lyrics whether they will be sung cleanly or growled.
One of the greatest challenges in writing the album was making sure that all the transitions would work smoothly. The Lost Traveler, for example, has multiple tempo changes and key modulations that enable it to “travel” through several musical landscapes. Many sections were reworked so that transitions would not only establish dramatic mood shifts, but sound natural and flowing.
There are moments on Prophecies of Annihilation where I feel almost like I’m listening to Dream Theater, yet other moments it is just straightforward death metal, with a slightly blackened feel at times. What are the influences that the band includes in the songwriting process that might surprise listeners?
R: I think that the magnitude of our non-metal influences and their impact on the music would be most surprising to listeners, particularly those mostly versed in metal. Such influences are present in both the metal and non-metal passages of our songs. Some examples include Kayhan Kalhor, Ardavan Kamkar, L’ham de foc, Arvo Part, and Dmitri Shostakovich.
I really believe that as metalheads, heavy music is so much a part of us that we need to listen to other genres in order to either express a metal mindset through unusual instrumentation and sounds, and/or to do the reverse, to use metal instruments to express musical ideas that fall outside the realms of conventional metal.
I don’t feel as though I was trying to emulate other metal bands while writing for this album. I don’t consciously choose influences but rather attempt to create an appropriate atmosphere for each piece. Inevitably, certain passages will reflect to varying degrees the artists that have inspired me.
What about the lyrical themes of Prophecies of Annihilation? It seems that the band’s lyrical contents deal a lot with the annihilation of mankind and the apocalypse. Where and how does the band draw inspiration for writing the lyrics for the music on the album?
R: My lyrics are inspired by reality, the world around us, the crises of the present day and how they could escalate to unprecedented disasters if we are unable to change the direction in which human civilization is traveling. The atmosphere that my lyrics evoke is directly reflected in the vibe of the music.
The lyrics deal with very global issues pertaining to mankind’s future as a species as well as future of the earth. It seems that, in our pursuit of progress, in our striving to develop our civilization, we are designing an artificial, man-made world that alienates us from nature, which is more conducive to the machines we create than to ourselves.
We have created religions to pacify people, to quell their fear of death, and to control populations through indoctrination. We have divided ourselves meticulously into races, social classes, and followers of religious beliefs, and have developed fear and animosity of those who are different.
I feel that the balance of power is currently in the hands of individuals who will do nothing to reverse the direction in which we are going. If we continue down this path, we will suffer the consequences as a result of diminishing natural resources, severe climate change, possible nuclear war, or technology that we can no longer control. My lyrics project future scenarios in which such disasters could occur, as warning that we should seriously rethink our mode of existence if we wish to preserve our species as well as the rest of the planet.
I think that the message and ideas of Cholera’s lyrics are very clear. If we are able to sign with a label, we will do a physical pressing of the album with lyrics included. The ideas therein are communicated very directly and poignantly, because I felt that the album needed to exhibit a sense of urgency.
The album was also mastered by Alan Douches, known for working with bands like Nile and Jeff Loomis. How did the collaboration come about, and what was it like working with him?
R: Many sessions were spent during the later part of the recording refining the performances as well as fine-tuning the mix. This was an extremely complex album to put together, with multiple styles, each requiring a specific approach, but which ultimately needed to be linked in a cohesive manner. After all the work done to get the album to sound right, I knew that we needed to work with an experienced mastering engineer with great project credentials, specifically in metal. Alan Douches has mastered a large number of albums in my CD collection, and is highly in demand for his work. I did not attend the mastering session; we communicated by email. The overall process went very smoothly, although the track transition between The Lost Traveler and Reminiscence was quite a delicate one and we worked over it a few times before I was fully satisfied. Alan and his assistant Sean Hansen did a great job taking the record to the next level, and I will most likely choose to work with them on the next Cholera record.
For fans of Cholera’s work on Enslaved Humanity, what is the main difference between the songs on Enslaved Humanity and Prophecies of Annihilation? What can fans expect?
R: The two songs on the Enslaved Humanity EP were always meant to feature on the full-length album, serving as the bookends of the record. They appear in virtually the same form on Prophecies of Annihilation, however, I re-recorded all the death growls and whole album was mastered (see above), giving Road into the Fire and Prophecies of Annihilation, the two tracks from the EP, a much fuller and more defined sound. These songs feature the more straightforward, metal side of Cholera, while the three middle tracks on the full-length (Enslaved Humanity, The Lost Traveler, Reminiscence) are longer and more experimental. The Lost Traveler integrates nearly the full spectrum of our influences within its 18:23 time span, while the goal of Reminiscence was to evoke the emotional weight of metal with only cellos, piano, and clean vocals, until around the 8:30 mark, where the song takes a full-on metal direction, culminating with blast beats and “symphonic” riffs.
Raph, with yourself handling so many instruments on the album, will there ever come a time when fans of such progressive and technical music see Cholera perform live?
R: It has always been our goal to perform Cholera material in a live situation. I want to form a band that will not only execute the songs well in concert, but also work well as a unit. At the moment I am still debating the best strategy for the live setup. I am also heavily involved in many other musical projects at the moment, both metal and non-metal, and am halfway through a university degree in music. It is for these reasons in part that Cholera is not always active as a band.
For those who are curious and want to own the album, what are the avenues to acquire it?
R: Since we are currently unsigned, we do not have the budget to mass-produce physical copies. We will, however, be selling the album online in the near future. As soon as the album is ready to be sold over the internet, we will post an announcement on our facebook page (www.facebook.com/cholerametal) where we post band-related news on a fairly regular basis.