Interview: Cryptic Shift (2020) / From The Bowels Of Perdition

Conversation with

Cryptic Shift

Considering that music and science fiction movies and literature are in most cases a form of escapism, what does that say about a band like Cryptic Shift, whose artistry incorporates and transcends both of those worlds? Do you stand on the ground with at least one of your feet, figuratively speaking, or are you completely immersed into the otherworldly haze of Cryptic Shift imaginarium?

Xander: My best friends are the people in Cryptic Shift. It’s my life. I’ve permanently got possible song structures and story ideas floating round my head just waiting to burst out and I’ve got to reach for a notepad to jot it down to avoid forgetting it. Cryptic Shift is certainly in that movie and literature realm of escapism, but it’s one that’s intended to make you use your head at the same time and ponder what’s really possible. A good amount of ideas for the album came from the wandering mind during repeated times of boredom in day jobs and being tired of witnessing mediocrity.

Becoming proficient at anything always entails considerable sacrifices, it almost has to be your main priority in life. Would you say that’s the case with four of you, is Cryptic Shift the most important thing you have going on in your lives?

Xander: Without a doubt, we’ve given our lives to making music. We’re addicted to it. I believe you’ve just got to do what you like doing, forget thinking that you’re trapped in by the impenetrable walls of your job or any situation really. The walls aren’t really there. Simply go and do what you’re interested in, it will strengthen your mind and the achievements that you make in your vision will spur you on. And with Visitations From Enceladus we’ve essentially achieved everything we dreamed of, to put out an album that we’re extremely proud of on a great label to showcase it to the world.

The front cover of that album portrays a man that greets or maybe tries to get someone’s attention by holding his hand high in the air. He holds something in that hand as well. Across from him, in the sea, there’s something that appears to be a huge stone, maybe even a boat? At a cursory glance, an inattentive beholder would probably feel that the image is quite clear and unambiguous, but the truth is that the whole concept seems fairly impenetrable. Would you care to deconstruct it?

Xander: The thing about science fiction and fantasy is that the events and locations aren’t really possible in our perceived three-dimensional world, so it leaves much up to the imagination of the viewer. Whatever is presented to you could invoke a flurry of curious questions like you have mentioned, this is very intentional to not explain too much and create a sense of wonder in the viewer who then wants to know more and explore what details could be within. To explain the immediate focusses of the artwork, the character is wading through the waters of an undimensional plane outside of regularly accessible spaces. It’s the time-wound of Rasskhazu and the towering black obelisk is a temple, and inside Upshukkinakku, a long-disused council chamber of ancient beings. The item he holds up could be a tracking device to help him locate the tower, his suit could be a protective layer to shield him from the unknown elements and forces at work in this outer plane. Our character is here to collect an item which will help him during a battle in the next song Planetary Hypnosis. The whole concept is borne out of an extremely active imagination that bursts with ideas, I’d say it’s similar to when you’re a kid making up scenarios with Star Wars action figures.

Did red colour end up being the most predominant one on that picture by accident or by design?

Xander: We did give the artist a couple of references such as the Paranormal Abysm artwork from The Chasm and even describing some levels from God Of War on Playstation, specifically the Hades areas. But apart from this and probably very goofy sketches by me it was largely left up to Asai Nagamasa’s fantastic abilities. When she first sent back the final image we were astounded by the palette of vibrant colours and indeed the curious questions it brought up about the location. It was then that we considered using it as the front cover piece because, we were originally intending to use the moonbase art which can be seen on posters and the compact disc.

What is the meaning behind the album title, what kind of visitation it refers to, and would you please explain how that narrative was later developed through lyrics, track by track? Is Visitations From Enceladus a concept album or is every song a story within the story, that could, but not necessarily should be considered a piece in the bigger puzzle, without which other pieces wouldn’t make much sense?

Xander: Every song from our 2017 single Cosmic Dreams, through Visitations From Enceladus and to planned future releases are all linked to this one story. The visitation is one from the Saturn planetary system, and more specifically the moon Enceladus. You can go down a massive rabbithole of fascinating information and possibilities if you read up on the scientific discoveries of this moon online. A fictional species I created escaped via the geyser plumes on its south pole and landed on Earth’s moon, an event which caused a number of them to overrun Earth’s moon and also have a great effect on Earth itself. These events will actually be covered further in a future release as a prologue. Visitations From Enceladus however is set many years in the future in the aftermath of the visitation in question. Our character’s journey is intertwined to this alien species and as he comes across them in various locations such as the abandoned moonbase explored in Moonbelt Immolator and the battle over the ruins of human civilisation in Hypogean Gaol. I would greatly encourage reading the lyrics alongside the music and artwork pieces, these three combined will allow your mind to imagine these events most accurately and enjoy the release to the maximum intended potential.

Speaking of Moonbelt Immolator, that track is a 26 minutes long opener, followed by three significantly shorter pieces. Featuring one epic track and several shorter ones was also a pretty common album structure in the landscape of the ’70s prog rock. Did you have that in mind while letting the writing process for that track, figuratively speaking, drag on into eternity?

Xander: No, personally I don’t listen to any old prog bands and wouldn’t know anything on their trackslisting, but that’s cool though that we’ve unconsciously shared some ideas. Honestly I can’t often get through those primitive ’70s style recordings. Even though the compositions may be brilliant, I just find them lacking the power and intensity I enjoy in metal. At least for now anyway, I do have a Camel LP and some Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff. It’s something that I’ll probably get into more at some point. John Riley our bassist is actually really into this type of music, so I could ask him to recommend an angle into the genre. It was clear early on probably in 2016/2017 that there was going to be a really long track, Moonbelt Immolator still had a lot of story content to assign music to compared to the other tracks, so was inevitably gonna be long. And when the idea came up about it being one whole side of an LP, we thought it was the coolest idea.

From Beyond The Celestial Realms EP to Visitations From Enceladus, in which aspects the band evolved the most? At the same time, do you feel that you were more enthusiastic back then, for it is common knowledge that enthusiasm tends to wear off with time?

Xander: I think we’re just as, if not more enthusiastic now, albeit in a more serious way. Back in 2016 we knew where we wanted to be, but had simply not achieved yet the experience in terms of understanding how things work. I think you’ve simply got to gain experience by failing and succeeding and especially to make friends, and that takes time. Our ideals have remained the same however since we formed, and how locked in we all are with each member is incomparable to a few years ago. I’d say in 2017 we underwent a massive focusing of our minds through the intense period of writing and learning of our album, which was influenced by things like Morbid Angel’s Formulas Fatal To The Flesh and Tony Robbins. We came out of the other end with strengthened beliefs and stronger determination. Our professional outlook and musicianship goals are always expanding, and as they do, the horizon gets bigger and bigger, the possibilities for us business-wise and composition-wise becomes more vast and exciting.

When it comes to where Cryptic Shift belongs stylistically, the most prevalent points of comparison are either bands of your generation like Vektor and Blood Incantation or the seasoned veterans like Atheist and Voivod. One could argue that none of those comparisons makes much sense and, at the same time, makes all the sense in the world. If you were the one to defend that ambivalent standpoint, what would you say makes those comparisons viable and what makes them wrong, misleading or at least debatable?

Xander: Every listener has had a different musical journey and will put tags on bands relating to their own tastes and experiences, as well as what is popular at the time. But for us as the people who play this album, there’s no Nocturnus here, no Atheist or Blood Incantation. Nocturnus are only similar because of the sci-fi, and even then I think they’d say themselves that they are way more occult themed. We do love Nocturnus though, especially the latest album Paradox. The same with Atheist, we totally worship Unquestionable Presence, but I think that record is a polar opposite to Visitations From Enceladus. As for each of our own personal playing styles, like anyone there’s a huge melting pot of influences from what we’ve grown up listening to and being drawn to by our own interests. John Riley on fretless bass has probably been extremely inspired by Roger Pattison bass parts, and Tony Choy’s delivery. Blood Incantation has been mentioned many times and I think it is only accurate to include all the other bands as well in the rising underground death metal scene, which we consciously wanted to veer towards, mostly in bringing more reverb to the mix and targeting that audience. I feel the mindset of our two bands is worlds apart. Blood Incantation are very rooted in death metal and have that messy but cool vibe-out Morbid Angel style approach, whereas Cryptic Shift is still thrash at its core and very focussed on accuracy and musicianship which comes from bands like Obscura and Revocation. Voivod is a big recurrence, but apart from the sci-fi vibe the only stylistic influence probably comes through Vektor’s similarity to them. Revocation play a massive role for me in inspiring my riffs and technical abilities regarding chord extensions and interesting modal soloing. Again, Vektor and the discovery of Timeghoul also played a part in bringing storytelling and atmosphere to our record. More dissonance could be attributed to the mindset from Gorguts’ Obscura album, and the avoidance of generic elements is a technique I desired and adopted massively. Power chords are banned, generic thrash riffs and build ups are banned, predictable verse-chorus structures are banned, the horrendously overused pentatonic and blues scales are banned. But you know, overall it was a mission to link the progression of our own musical journeys to the space adventure story, while making sure everything was unique, innovative and challenging to us. That said, regardless of what we may be inspired by, fans of the above bands should definitely enjoy our music too.

Speaking of Voivod, there is a notion that Piggy is one of the most underrated metal guitarists of all time. Would you subscribe to that notion? What are some of the Voivod records that had a major role in shaping your musical identity and influencing the way you think musically?

Xander: I think Piggy was a really cool guitarist and definitely had a major role in shaping some later and current bands that incorporate strange riffing and dissonance, but overall it’s very punk rock. For me punk is boring as hell, and his solos too are always blues which I’m totally tired of. No disrespect at all, because I do like them, but I prefer Dan Mongrain’s approach to soloing in Voivod. Nonetheless, their weird chords and skewed songwriting is very fascinating on Dimension Hatröss, I’m actually getting into them a lot more right now delving into Nothingface and onwards. Killing Technology is my favourite though, because of the thrash/speed elements and the bleak robotronic atmosphere.

In pretty much every piece of written material about Cryptic Shift, be it a review, a press release, or a simple forum shout-out, people feel the need to emphasize that you come from Leeds, as if saying that you come from the UK wouldn’t be sufficient enough. Is there something to it after all or is it just one of those silly things? As four guys who presumably grew up and spent their formative years in Leeds, would you say that growing up in Leeds shaped your personalities in a way that could have been significantly different had you grew up in, let’s say, London or Liverpool? Also, do you think that, if that imaginary scenario was actually the case, your music could have reflected it somehow, that you wouldn’t have been the same musicians you are today?

Ryan: Cryptic Shift originated in Leeds, UK and has contained Leeds at a homebase city for our activities. This is due to founding members, Xander and Ryan, being based in Leeds for their whole lives. Bassist John Riley is from Liverpool, however currently lives in Manchester, and Joss is from Bristol. Therefore Cryptic Shift is in actuality, a nationally spread out act. There are talks of those guys biting the bullet and moving over to Leeds though. We got a practice place here, and it’s perhaps the best city in the world. We believe the reason Leeds is being mentioned so much is that, as an export of extreme music to the worldwide, and almost national scene, Leeds doesn’t have much to show for. Our home city is more respected for grindcore and hardcore punk acts, the death metal scene here doesn’t have much at all to offer. This gives us some level of alienation to the rest of the UK scene, let alone the worldwide scene, and I think that plays to our favour. There are a lot of bands in areas such as London and Manchester, and not a lot of them are great. It’s rare for an act so adventurous as Cryptic Shift to come from anywhere, let alone the UK, let alone Leeds.

Would you say that playing progressive and technical music almost becomes a necessity for a musician once the skill level reaches a certain threshold?

Ryan: You could argue that this is true, however I don’t believe this is the case. Music performance is about expression and progression as a personal player. Whilst it is a great feeling to put together a very technical and progressive piece of art ˗ after all, all creation is a form of art, even death metal ˗ I believe it is the enjoyment of putting everything together and showcasing your creation that continues to drive serious performers in the musical field. Xander, me and John play in another act named Slimelord, which is a much more laid back traditional death metal act in comparison to Cryptic Shift. Joss has recently joined an act named Cryptworm, he also plays in an act called Seprevation. Xander even plays in a shoegaze band, LVDS. Everything is about the progression of creation and contribution to being an artist. I believe it is a journey of progression. If you’re not trying to become the most confident, talented representative in your field of work, to the best of your current abilities, then what are you trying to achieve?

Does the joy of playing music and the ability to immerse in it grow bigger as the skill level gets higher, or is it the other way around? Were you getting the most joy from playing when you were just amateurs that had the whole world ahead of them to discover?

Xander: Listen, music is endless. No matter how much you learn there’s always somewhere to progress. We understand music a lot more than we did five years ago, it’s just made us realise how much more is possible. There’s a whole multitude of daunting worlds ahead of us now filled with so many discoveries to be had which would be impossible to perceive without first reaching a certain level. This only spurs us on to want to reach new heights. When it comes to incorporating music theory and technical skill to compose, I think the more you know just means that you have a better understanding of how to make the song go where you want it to. But inversely I won’t forget to mention how essential it is to not use music theory sometimes and break the rules in places or simply vibe out and become one with the music.

Can you imagine Cryptic Shift regressing to much more basic expression at some point down the line and feel content playing that way, without pushing forward to see where the limits are, and if there are limits beyond those limits? According to your experience so far, is it even possible to reach new horizons in music without grasping completely the existing ones?

Xander: Well, in 2020 humans have no way of accurately scrying into the future so I can’t say for sure. But the current ideal we hold is to make music that we haven’t heard before and to put interesting spins on generic formats. No way will we ever be churning out the same generic album over and over like some of the older and mainstream acts. We will always push forward to create new sounds and stories. If something different and simpler is desired then we would form a different band, for example Slimelord.

Some musicians claim that oblivion is the highest form of wisdom in music, in a sense that truly outstanding musicians should ideally first learn the music theory and develop their playing skills to perfection, and then forget all of that in order to play guided exclusively by intuition, instincts and emotions. Do you feel there’s something accurate about this reasoning?

John: We feel that, when it comes to playing music, the most important aspect is feeling it, as opposed to being super accurate. There are those that never have a lesson of music and have no knowledge of theory and just play, working things out that way. There are also those that are very hung up on doing things from the other perspective of learning your theory and playing everything with perfect technique. Everyone’s musical path is different and varied which is the beauty of it really. Whatever works is cool, but we think as long as you can express yourself on your instrument, that is most important. There are certain things you can do with one approach that you can’t do without the other, but a good blend of both is the best way of being all rounded. To summarise, you can achieve whatever you set out to do with either approach. You’re not necessarily going to be able to improvise and have a clue what you’re doing if you don’t practice enough, but at the same time some people may feel limitations from following the rules strictly perhaps, in the same way someone may not be able to express certain flavours without some understanding of music theory.

As Star Wars aficionados and people generally obsessed with the sci-fi nerdery, do you have a certain appreciation for Neil deGrasse Tyson and the manner in which he makes the complex laws and discoveries of astrophysics accessible and comprehensible to the masses? Are you generally interested in deeper understanding of the universe or do you prefer to romanticize and fantasize about it through means of popular culture and literature?

Xander: Yes, Neil is cool, I find him like David Attenborough with a familiar and calm voice. I think it’s great that he is shining more light on making learning cool again. I think his third season of Cosmos is out soon, so I’ll be watching that for sure. Relating to your second question, I’m definitely heavily into both angles there. Space exploration and scientific theories fascinate me, even though I would have studied Physics if I could, the technical and mathematic side was never something I would enjoy. It’s the more direct and immediate that captivates me in films and shows like Firefly, Fifth Element, Valerian or The Mandalorian. So you could look at it like this ˗ while we play really in depth and challenging music, that doesn’t translate over to what I like to watch. I listen to some wacky and obscure bands, but I’m aware that there’s loads of wacky and obscure sci-fi films that I have never seen.

Speaking of Neil deGrasse Tyson, in one of his interviews he stressed that everything he had learned about the universe and all its inherent principles made him think and believe that, in its essence, the universe was a very hostile place, in which everything is bound to extinct, disappear or get destroyed. Have your own contemplations ever led you to similar conclusions?

Xander: I’ve looked at so many different explanations honestly, it’s something we cant comprehend. It’s a different level of perspective, we can’t understand the universe any more as a dust mite can understand a human, or a microbe understand the dust mite. However one thing I know is that change is inevitable and it’s essential for us to grow. You can’t force everything to maintain its state in your life, you will simply get trapped in a corner and probably depressed because change is needed. Be prepared for things to change constantly and embrace it, even if something disappears or is destroyed.

What are some of the most profound realisations or insights you had in all the years of dealing with the sci-fi and universe related matters? The one that comes to mind, again articulated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that the atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars, that manufactured them in their core, in the crucibles of the thermonuclear fusion inside the cores of stars. When stars explode, they scatter those elements across the galaxy, into the next generation gas clouds, that then collapse and form star systems with ingredients that make planets, and planets use that very same ingredients to make life. We are alive in the universe, and because our atoms are traceable to the universe, the universe is alive within us. People are not figuratively, but literally, stardust. Have you ever heard that one and do you feel that there is something deeply enlightening about that interpretation of life’s origin?

Xander: Yeah for sure, that’s a very grand but ultimately simple inescapable truth. I like looking to the future and imagining what could be possible with near-lightspeed travel, craft that will allow us to visit the gas giants, terraforming and eventually progressing to the next level of civilisation on the Kardashev scale. I really hope that with NASA and SpaceX aiming back towards the other planets that we will experience the modern day version of the moon landings, hopefully even the other planets like Mars and more landers on more complicated worlds like Venus, Titan, Europa and of course Enceladus. One of my favourite contemplations is the chances of other civilisations, a combination of the Drake Equation, the Great Filter and the Fermi Paradox. If life and progression to advanced civilisation is possible on other worlds in the galaxy, then surely we should have been able to detect evidence of such. With many habitable planets being billions of years older than Earth, it’s entirely probable that a colony will have progressed past space travel and beyond, leaving evidence like radio waves and light sources. But here’s where the Great Filter comes in ˗ perhaps suitable solar systems and habitable planets are quite common, even life and intelligent thought. But just maybe the progression to advanced civilization is the barrier that causes such civilization to fail. Perhaps interstellar travel is just too small of a chance to happen. Or is it that we humans don’t have the correct technology to detect such activity in more advanced cultures because it requires some technology that is currently impossible for us to comprehend?

 

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