“Honor to Feasts” leads off Dallas doom-folk trio The Angelus’ latest album with an ominous build, brought on by a cannonade of drums layered with roaring guitars and the tolling of bells.
It’s loud. It’s threatening. It’s enough to make one abandon all hope. But it doesn’t stop there.
A new cycle begins. The music fades into a silence smashed by the riff of a nervous guitar and eight blasts on the drum in “Hex Born” — a song about being born into a world that promises only death and an epitaph.
As much as Why We Never Die is about death, it is also about life and what lives on after. It’s about the ultimate human drama, played out over eight tracks.
“I've changed my approach to writing this album,” says bandleader Emil Rapstine. “I wanted a thematic arc to the record that’s kind of like a movie or a TV show or something like that, where you have an intro and then things build, then it climaxes and winds down. That's what I have in mind when I'm putting a record together.”
Much of the drama on Why We Never Die is created through the layering of sounds developed over a long period of time.
Rapstine says the writing process for this album began in 2019, using SoundCloud to share ideas with bandmates.
“I've always wanted to make sure we have a big sound,” he says. “I think part of that is the way that we layer the guitar. Basically, I have the guitar split going to two separate amps and with both amps running at the same time. They have a different chain of effects going to each of them, so it kind of creates a drone underneath everything else that's going on.”
Technical as all of that may sound, Rapstine maintains that The Angelus is not a band hung up on convoluted song structures.
“I don't think our music is necessarily complex, but I've always been drawn to simple music that has lots of layers,” Rapstine says. “I'm not a super technical player. None of us really are. I think that's part of the demo-ing process and listening back and figuring out how things sit together early on. I'm kind of mixing the demos as if I were the final product. A lot of times that will give me new ideas that we'll be armed with whenever we go into the actual studio.”
The slow recording process and intricate layering of the album coincided with the album’s theme of eternal life via artifact. The level of thought put into this album from its inception to its completion challenge the digital disposability of music.
“If I'm going to put it out in the world, I want it to be a piece of art from album art, to the music, to the way it's presented,” Rapstine says. “I want it to be something that is unmistakably not just entertainment but could be considered by somebody as art. I think that's what my concern is — that it's something that you can interact with but you can also, hopefully, maybe cherish a little bit or find a special place to display it.”
Rapstine acknowledges that there is a certain level of pretentiousness in talking about his music in this way, but then again, why not have the highest hopes for your creation?
“I don't think that necessarily our music will be remembered by a lot of people, but the fact of putting it in the air and putting it in into time and space will touch some people,” Rapstine says. “I think that can translate to a live performance as well.”
“I don't think that necessarily our music will be remembered by a lot of people, but the fact of putting it in the air and putting it in into time and space will touch some people." The Angelus' Emil Rapstine
To see The Angelus live is to be entranced by droning guitars and tense vocal harmonies not unlike those of Alice in Chains.
The singer, who has a difficult time recalling dates, says that The Angelus’ last live performances were in November 2019, and while the full band is not yet ready to make a return to the stage, Rapstine will perform a couple of solo shows with an electric guitar and Moog bass pedals in Dallas in October and November.
“We kind of try to arrange the set to where it's still got that kind of thematic arc to it,” Rapstine says. “We don't ever go to a show and ask, 'What do you want us to play next?' We always know. We always have the setlist.”
As much as he might plan for a show, there are still things that are likely to go wrong. Rather than dwelling on how a performance might get messed up, Rapstine sees it as a way for a song to live on past its recording. A new cycle begins.
“Whenever we play a show and it's a little more unhinged or a little sloppier, it almost feels better to me,” he says. “It feels more authentic than trying to just recreate the record live. It's because when you encapsulate this thing, you want it to still live beyond the way it was captured. It gives it a little bit more life.”