Ample Fire Within: An interview with ASCEND

Photo: Phil Petrocelli

Greg Anderson, mad scientist behind such projects as Goatsnake and SunnO))), has a history with SLUG Magazine. "I picked up a copy of the SLUG sometime in 1998 while I was on tour," says Anderson, "and the issue I got just happened to have a review of Sleep's Jerusalem release." The reviewer not only trashed the record, but caused Anderson's jealousy to flare up. "At that time, no one could get that record. It was only available as a promo through the record label, so I ended up writing to SLUG and asking if they'd sell me their copy. I can't remember if I paid for it or not, but they did send it to me." Seems like an interesting tie between Salt Lake City and one of the trailblazers of the independent doom and drone movement in the United States末but that's not Anderson's only tie to Salt Lake.

It's virtually impossible to stay on task when talking with Anderson and his partner-in-crime末Salt Lake City's own Gentry Densley末about their current project, ASCEND, without bringing up the duo's other projects. However, when one considers the core of the band are musicians who've played in such outfits as Engine Kid, Goatsnake, SunnO))), Burial Chamber Trio, Iceburn, Eagle Twin and Form of Rocket, it's almost understandable. Add some extremely interesting guest musicians in the form of local hero Andy Patterson, jazz prodigy Steve Moore, and the outright Hungarian weirdness of Atilla Cshiar to the debut release on Anderson's own Southern Lord Records, and it makes for one hell of a listen and an equally interesting conversation.

Densley and Anderson became acquainted way back in the hardcore glory days of the late 1980s. Anderson was a part of hardcore legends Brotherhood and Densley a member of Better Way and both bands played a show with the Accused. Fast-forward a few years and one finds Densley fronting the extraordinarily influential Iceburn and Anderson masterminding his own under-the-radar project, Engine Kid. Both bands were signed to California's Revelation Records, and both bands were extremely under-promoted by the same due to each band being ... well ... a bit too "weird" for the softy-hardcore masses of the early-and mid-1990s. The relationship between the bands culminated in the release of a split LP by Revelation, which was almost criminally overlooked by masses of tough guys, Hare Krishnas and punk purists.

Anderson and Densley had expressed interest in doing a project together as far back as the Revelation days, but the two just never really seemed to be in the same place at the same time, and both had their own individual musical directions to focus on. "I tried to plant the seed 5 or 6 years ago," says Andy Patterson, Salt Lake resident and guest musician on the debut ASCEND release. "I'm not taking credit for this pairing at all, but I've known Anderson and Densley for a long time, and I started bugging Densley to pair up with Anderson and see what would Photo: Phil Petrocelli come about." As it happened, it wasn't until midway through 2007末almost 20 years after their first meeting末that the two were finally able to convene in the same place at the same time and with the same directive: to make heavy, beautiful and extremely cerebral music, that most casual listeners would almost inevitably shun.

"I had a ton of different ideas for a name for the project," says Densley. "When we originally convened, the most logical name seemed to be SunnO)))Burn, or something to that affect. Eventually, Greg suggested we call it Ascension. This was a problem because I was already extremely aware of another little-known band by that name, so we ended up shortening it to 'Ascend'."

"We paid extreme attention to detail with the release we mixed the entire thing with Randall Dunn up in Seattle. We were able to take recordings from Patterson's studio here in Salt Lake as well as the studio we recorded at in Los Angeles to him and we all weeded through everything to make the best record we could."

He's not kidding

The record plays like a strange sort of doom opera. To a casual music aficionado, it could easily be described as "repellant." To the individual who ultimately seeks a deeper feeling from music than what is shoved down their throat on mass radio, it's a most welcome change of direction. The final product was put together in almost a mad-scientist type of way: it was approached as a creative process as opposed to the recording and regurgitation of pre-written tracks. Instruments on the record vary from Anderson's drone/doom guitars to Densley's almost jazz-like heaviness to trombone and Wurlitzer, adding insane layers to a recording that is as lush and beautiful as anything in the last century. "We just came back from Los Angeles, actually. We recorded some new stuff, and one of the tracks is going to be used as a bonus track on the Japanese release of the record. We did a bunch of stuff down there, and there is a lot more solid vision for the project than there was initially," says Densley. While 'solid' would not necessarily be a word I would personally use to describe a project made up of musicians that are not only up to their armpits in their own projects, let alone people who don't live in the same state (or country in Atilla's case) the end result is amazingly solidsounding. Not bad for something that essentially arose due to a well-timed vacation.

"Most people might now fully realize how influential Iceburn was to me," relays Anderson, "I had always wanted to do some recording with Gentry, and we finally ended up being able to get together when he came out to Los Angeles on vacation. The initial recording session was really loose ... we were both kind of impressed and surprised with what we came up with during the first session, so we recorded some more at Andy's studio in Salt Lake, and took it up to Seattle to mix it." Patterson expands on Anderson's thought: "The first session in Los Angeles was really interesting and resulted in some great ideas," he says. "When the second Iceburn reunion show happened here in Salt Lake, Greg flew out to see them, and we seized the opportunity to do some more recording at my studio. In the end, we had about two hours worth of material that Greg and Gentry took up to Seattle with them."

When it comes to the guest musicians featured on the record, both Densley and Anderson have only the highest praise for all involved. "I have so much respect for Gentry and Steve Moore," says Anderson, "I almost felt caveman-like when I played with those two. I know little to nothing about music theory I can't even read guitar tabs, so playing with individuals who are so insanely talented with music was not only challenging, but it added an amazing aesthetic to the recording."

"Atilla was interesting," adds Densley, speaking of guest vocalist and all-around madman Atilla Cshiar, who's vocals have graced recordings of bands such as Mayhem, Tormentor, SunnO))), and a wealth of other underground metal dogooders. "He just kind of showed up in his floor-length leather coat and read a bunch of semi-tabloid magazines that were left lying around by Adrienne [Davies; drummer for Earth.] But all in all, getting these different and excellent players together for a project is absolutely amazing."

Anderson seems extremely proud of just how new the record sounds to him. "Whether it's with SunnO))) or any other project I do, I don't want to stagnate; I want to be constantly moving, whether it's going forward or backward. Basically just doing something. With Ascend, we were able to go in a different direction than any of us had gone in before. I mean, we're not trying to do something 'different' just for being different's sake we're actually pulling influences from a lot of different places and channeling it into Ascend." It's easy to see what he's talking about when the record plays. There are definitely individual performances that are distinguishable, but it's nothing detrimental to the project in any way; quite the opposite, actually. It's a proverbial "breath of fresh air" in the seemingly bogged-down and boring doom/drone genre.

Of course, being a project released on Anderson's own Southern Lord record label is most certainly not a hindrance to the project. It not only brings a sense of immediate viability to the record, but it also brings an almost built-in audience. Anderson does his best to release and distribute music he enjoys personally, and he has US distribution deals with several smaller labels and bands. "I'm a huge fan of most of the stuff Greg releases on the label, so having an opportunity to be a part of that family is a no-brainer," says Densley. "Not only do I get to create art and sound with someone I admire and someone who's a good friend, but I get to have that art released worldwide and I hope people are as happy with the end result as I am."

According to both Densley and Anderson, there are plans to attempt a live Ascend show or two, but nothing has thus far been solidified. "We're going to keep working on the next release, and we really hope to take Ascend to that clich馘 and cheesy "next level," reveals Densley. If the debut release is any indicator, the worldwide drone crowd hasn't come close to experiencing Ascend's full creativity. In a nutshell, this is a release almost 20 years in the making and is worth every second of the wait. One can't ask for something better from these two musical savants than what they have unleashed, so put down the magazine and pick up a copy of Ascend's Ample Fire Within. Your ears may not thank you for it, but your brain will.