After a short hiatus, I am thrilled that my first new Girls Don’t Like Metal interview subject is Alia O’Brien of Toronto-based occult rock phenomenon Blood Ceremony. Part psychedelic inner journey, part dark ritual and all heavy metal, Blood Ceremony have a retro-inspired sound that is nonetheless consistently fresh and engaging. Inspired by Victorian and neo-gothic horror, their music is dark and smoky, with a deep well of mystical inspiration. A great deal of what makes Blood Ceremony such an incredible band is Alia’s contribution. An always captivating mistress of ceremonies, in addition to serving as the vocalist and frontwoman, Alia also plays the flute and organ, which are core components to all of Blood Ceremony‘s compositions. They have just released a killer new record, The Eldritch Dark, via Metal Blade, and are currently on tour supporting sludge monsters Kylesa. Despite that ridiculous schedule, Alia found the time to thoughtfully and thoroughly answer my questions.
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Blood Ceremony is named after a classic horror movie about the Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Do you feel that her legend still imbues your band with some residual spookiness?
Definitely, although not overtly! Although none of our songs have actually explored this subject matter, the tale of Countess Bathory embodies much of what we’re all about; namely the macabre, the horrific and the bloody.
Blood Ceremony have been called “Toronto’s most original band” for your fusion of occult rock, heavy metal and your uncommon instrumentation. How do you constantly push yourself to innovate musically.
Our musical curiosity is unquenchable. We constantly seek out new music to listen to and work on new modes of playing. With each album we release, we strive to reach a greater depth of expression than the last.
While most aggressive bands are guitar-based, in Blood Ceremony the flute and organ are also keystones to the songs and at the core of all your compositions. What is your composition strategy? Is songwriting for Blood Ceremony a collaborative process?
[Guitarist] Sean [Kennedy] is the primary songwriter in the group, so for his tunes, he usually approaches us with a foundation that we then build upon collectively. Ample room is usually given for flute and organ solos, often appearing where a guitar solo might otherwise take place. For a couple of tracks, I even tried my hand at working in some rhythm flute and organ parts to underpin Sean’s guitar work. In the pieces that I’ve written (“Night of Augury” and “Drawing Down the Moon”), I used the organ to develop the songs, and so I ended up doing a lot of the rhythm work in those tracks. In these cases, the guitar took on much of the lead work, and [bassist] Lucas [Gadke] wrote some very melodic bass lines which became integral to the piece. Our process has become quite collaborative!
What are your primarily musical and lyrical inspirations?
Lyrically and aesthetically, we feed off of witch movies, the works of authors like Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith, and our own imagination! Musically, the collision of our idiomatic modes of playing has come to define our sound, but we wouldn’t be where we are without steeping ourselves in doom metal, ’70s hard rock, Italian prog, folk rock and gritty garage rock. Beyond the obvious groups that inform our sound, we also listen to some more peripherally-related styles of music that influence our playing in unexpected ways. For example, Lucas and [drummer] Mike [Carrillo] both have degrees in jazz performance, and I did several years of intensive classical performance studies.
Many of your songs draw upon gothic literature, classic horror, and occult texts for inspiration. What is it about these subjects and stories that interest you?
We are captivated by pockets of knowledge that exist outside of the realm of the mainstream.
Your performance style is extremely intense, almost possessed. How did you develop your stage presence?
There’s a definite exchange of energy between the performer and the crowd in front of them. Being able to read and engage with various sorts of audiences takes a lot of trial and error, and so months of touring really helped me to figure out how to lead an audience into the depths of our music. And, yes, I do feel a bit possessed at times during our performances, and I hope our audiences do, too!
Do you ever find it challenging/boring/tough to constantly be asked “what is it like to be a girl in a heavy metal band?”
It gets exhausting at times, but I think that it’s always important to discuss gender dynamics in any given situation–and power dynamics in general, for that matter.
Doom and occult rock seem to have a lot more women singing and performing in prominent roles than other aggressive subgenres. Do you think that they are more welcoming to women somehow?
It might have something to do with the fact that the sources of lyrical inspiration in these genres are riddled with female archetypes, like the old crone, the high priestess, but I would hate to jump to conclusions. A friend of mine who is based out of Calgary, Sarah Kitteringham [editor: and GDLM alumna!], is working on a thesis that focuses on women’s involvement in extreme music. She’d probably have a much more well-researched take on why doom and occult rock are hubs of activity for awesome women musicians!
You are currently touring with Kylesa. Do you find that there is a different dynamic performing shows with other women in the line-up?
It is totally refreshing! Laura [Pleasants] from Kylesa and Lynnea from White Hills are both such amazing performers and musicians, and they serve as sources of inspiration to me every single night.
Do you have any advice for anyone, especially young women, who would like to follow a similar career path?
There are still barriers that women face in our culture, but hard work and dedication to your craft will get you far.
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Alia O’Brien is the vocalist, organist and flautist for Toronto-based occult metal band Blood Ceremony. Their record, The Eldritch Dark, is currently available via Metal Blade.