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ILLUMINATI discuss their roots and brand new album

Romanian progressive death metallers ILLUMINATI have recently released the debut album titled “The Core”. Founded in 2008, the progressive metal act teamed up with a long line of worthy guests: Patrick Mameli from PESTILENCE, Mike Browning from AFTER DEATH (ex-NOCTURNUS, ex-MORBID ANGEL), Daniel Mongrain from MARTYR and VOIVOD, Kelly Shaefer and Tony Choy from ATHEIST (Tony also played in PESTILENCE and CYNIC), Tymon Kruidenier from EXIVIOUS (ex-CYNIC) and Luc Lemay from GORGUTS! The result is quite astonishing. ILLUMINATI serve a nice set of progressive and experimental compositions that create a unique atmosphere and will surely appease your metal appetite.

Andrei Popa (vocals, guitar, synthesizer), Petre Ifitimie (guitar) and Matei Tibacu-Blendea (drums, bass, percussion, vocals, other instruments) answered my set of questions regarding their new album and lots of other issues. It’s a perfect chance to meet these guys and find out a little bit about their background. Guys, thanks again for doing this at such short notice!

Before we start off, I’d like to ask you about your feelings and thoughts on Jeff Hanneman’s passing. How important is SLAYER’s legacy to you both as a musician and a listener?

Andrei:

I remember listening to Seasons In The Abyss for the first time. I always considered that Jeff Hanneman’s riffs maintained a certain balance in the band’s music. It truly is a great loss for the metal scene and the younger ones that are just getting into the genre…have lost a great example of a metal musician.

Petre:

No doubt his passing is a huge loss to the metal community. I mean, either way you look at it, SLAYER is one of the most important and vast chapters in metal history. I remember listening to Seasons in the Abyss as a kid and trying to nail those riffs and how happy I was when I managed to pull them off.

Matei:

First off, hello and thank you for having us on Idioteq. People may hate me right off the bat for this answer…I like SLAYER , but I love Dark Angel (there is this common perception within certain Thrash Metal circles that DARK ANGEL could’ve been what Slayer is today, same goes with Exhorder over Pantera…and I agree with both). Nevertheless, Slayer has influenced metal like The Beatles influenced music in general…there’s Slayer in every aggressive metal song, as subtle or obvious as it may be. But I was a shocked and am sorry to acknowledge his passing, I kept expecting them to announce his re-joining, Gary Holt going back to Exodus and everything going back to normal. My condolences to his family. But since we’re on the subject of recent passings, (appropriate since we’re a death metal band) I’d also like to send my condolences to those who were close to Poland’s very own ’Mortifier’. Our third concert ever was opening for Hate in Romania, which was quite an honor.

Yup.. and the saddest part is that life goes on and ultimately people die every day and we can do shit about it. Alright, let’s focus on ILLUMINATI, shall we? After 5 years of running your “business”, you’re finally releasing your debut album! Would you say it fits your original image and concept of a metal piece of work?

Andrei:

Well, that.s a good question. Of course, we tried to stay focused on the main aspects of the metal genre, but during all these years, we started to see music composition in a more theatrical/epic way. Me composing a song is me trying to show the people not just another perspective of my inner feelings but quite a different universe in which I might not even be involved. It’s not enough just to put your bare emotions into music and lyrics, you have to create an objective concept, a metaphor, to drive the listener into your own music.
Composing this album, we discovered lots of things that aren’t necessarily metal. We played with a little world music, a little fusion jazz, had some strange acoustic/traditional instruments, some electronic stuff.. We even have some pieces of “radio theater” performed by ourselves, as different characters. All these stirred with metal, form the epic path that you walk in when you put our album in your playlist.

Petre:

Even though the album has a solid metal foundation, the way it was put together is pretty special in my opinion. There are aspects of this record that go further than the metal realm and should provide a sort of journey for the listener.

Matei:

It does neither, for me. We were supposed to release it sometime in 2010 and I was very frustrated that it kept being postponed, but I doubt it would’ve come out like it has, were we to release it anytime sooner. So it’s different from the original image and also, only half of the tracks are metal. But even the “metal” ones are smeared with various other genres. We listen to just as much fusion, pop, punk, trip-hop as we do with metal. The fact that these seeped in is not only a natural, but also a voluntary decision.

So would it be wise to call you a progressive metal band? How would you like people to label you? Oh, and please extend the thought and include your statement regarding your general message as a band. I wonder what are these signs in your artwork. Some might say you are a satanic band :)

Andrei:

Yes. The concept came to us while composing each song. It starts with the pessimistic ‘Please Lose’. It means that you have to lose everything to gain your spirituality. Sometimes you have to be egocentric with others, just to remember who you truly are. Maybe you’ll just wander like Gulliver through many different worlds, some accepting you, some trying to bring you down. But with every layer that you add to your state of consciousness, you should be able to resume at any time to your self-defined core.

Petre:

I’m not particularly mad about labeling stuff, but I guess that from a technical perspective it’s necessary. So I guess progressive death metal is the way to go in my opinion, I am a fan of prog death metal and progressive music in general, so personally I think it’s good to be a part of that genre. As far as being satanic goes, I think an artist’s work is open to interpretation so you can’t really stop people from thinking certain things about you, although it’s not as black and white when it comes to what we are.

Matei:

I do prefer the moniker of “progressive” rather than technical, thank you for pointing that out. For me, progressive death metal contains details in instruments (especially drumming, such as ghosting, rolls with dynamics, jazzy influences) that cannot be programmed. Technical death metal refers to men whose skills can easily be mistaken for relentless machines (like drummers George Kolias of NILE, Max Colesne of KRISIUN, Derek Roddy of HATE ETERNAL, etc.). I don’t practice nearly enough to be able to pull that off, on any instrument. I prefer to be creative with drums like some of my metal drum idols (Steve Flynn of ATHEIST, Steve Shelton of CONFESSOR, Rick Colaluca of WATCHTOWER, Sean Reinart of CYNIC, etc.). I lack that precision type of technique. My blast-beats suck and I think they’re not really doing a favor to the highly-technical and complex skills that Petre and Andrei come up with. They have the ability to juggle between technical and progressive/jazzy riffs. So all-in-all, I’d like to think of ourselves as a progressive extreme metal band. It’s not always death metal. But it is extreme. We each have different “manifestos” for the band, but for me, this is my death metal output and this is what gets filtered through. As for the logo…do you mean the little penta-heart-a-gram? I think Andrei came up with that. It looks cool. It certainly hints towards Satanism, with the involvement of the Illuminati, etc. I wouldn’t say we’re a satanic band. But it’s darker, more appropriate and fun to talk about this…same reason Slayer did it! I find Crowley Satanism fascinating though. The imagery, the symbols, everything. I appreciate the creativity in that as well as the one in the Bible. But I don’t take any of them seriously.

Do you think people will take you less seriously because of the theme?

Andrei:

I don’t see this as a real problem. As long as there are people who interact with our message, that’s all that matters.

Petre:

I don’t see why that wouldn’t happen, behind that theme there is a pretty valid point to be made and a very interesting idea in my opinion. Just think about it for a second….

Matei:

But then again…are growling and grunting taken seriously? Granted it’s not a subject that changes the world, but perhaps some may find it interesting. If not, maybe they’ll at least appreciate the musicianship.

So what would you say is your general message? How much do you focus on it? What’s your mission? ;)

Andrei:

The message is more spiritual than hanging on to a base concept. We bring on an epic universe and wait to see how you interact with it. The sensation you have at the impact with our music, that is our message.

Petre:

It’s not something as concrete as having a well established general message. I get a ton of different vibes from listening to the music, it’s more of a suggestive nature when it comes down to it and I think that art is supposed to do that anyway.

Matei:

Our “manifesto” – again, I can only speak on my behalf – is to try to make interesting music from sonic, visual and atmospheric points of view that we ourselves thoroughly enjoy, firstly as fans of all things tasteful and abstract. Something to make us proud to be a part of this, to make us continue, to not grow tired of it very quickly. That goes to say, if there will be a next release, perhaps it will have another lyrical theme, perhaps it will be a sequel…So the lyrical aspect is not necessarily here to stay. Maybe not even the music style! For this album we focused on the theme and message after the main song structures and most instruments were laid down.

Do you believe the audience gets certain messages from metal acts?

Andrei:

Metal is a vast act. There are bands that are playing just for entertaining the headbangers and of course, epic bands with deep certain messages, with large worlds and ideas to explore.

Petre:

It depends on what those metal acts want to express. Some are very “in your face” about….something and some are more subtle in their expression, we all have something to extract from everyone’s music, we just have to listen carefully….or not.

Matei:

Certainly. That’s why you have people dressing differently, to display their preferred genre’s dress code, to carry out the “message”. This is how fashion was created, in a big part. Some messages are taken too seriously! Some people listen to ACHERON, PROFANATICA, MERCYFUL FATE, NIFELHEIM, and take Satanism very seriously, until KING DIAMOND has to announce that he is rather encouraging open-mindedness, not promoting Satanism. This message is partly what Tipper Gore’s PMRC (“parental advisory” stickers) targeted in the 80’s, and continued to blame unrelated deaths to this “satanic” message, like they did with the West Memphis Three, a trial which only ended recently. Another example is Varg Vikernes, who voices his dissatisfaction with black metal bands not actually promoting pure European values. Sometimes messages are taken much more seriously than the music! The delivery of strong messages is very important.

Ok. Is beauty in music important to you as songwriters? :)

Andrei:

Many shifting ideas are made around the concept of beauty. I think beauty is only a half of what you need to create a strong conceptual piece of art. So, you cannot see something that beautiful if you don’t fit in something really ugly :)

Petre:

When writing songs I view beauty, the grotesque, melody and technique as tools to aid my expression and I use them all as I see fit. They are all important, it just depends on the context.

Matei:

Almost entirely. One of my top 5 favorite bands is KING CRIMSON…their music is the perfect combination between beauty and the grotesque. This has influenced me greatly as a song-writer…displaying the two extremes, not combining them. I like when the distinction is clear, yet placed cleverly in the same context. Dissonance of artists like VIRUS, Diamanda Galás, GORGUTS or the later work of Scott Walker has the same impact on me as the lush, naïve beauty of the BEACH BOYS, Sieges Even or early work of Scott Walker.

There’s a long line of celebrated guests featured on the record. How did you mange to tap these guys for this project?

Andrei:

We emailed them, showed them the songs and then waited for the response. Matei knew some of them before so it was easier. I guess if they wouldn’t like the songs, the featurings wouldn’t be possible. But everything was ok so now I can tell my friends “waw, waw guys, I have a song with Kelly Shaefer ! !”

Petre:

All credits go to Matei on this one, he knew most of the guys from approaching them years ago at different gigs or on myspace (as a fan) and….I should let him tell you.

Matei:

Some I am very good friends with, the others I befriended after approaching them for the album.

I’ve seen a lot of bands getting a lot of criticism because of massive featurings they had decided to do for their albums. Apart from a great move in terms of promotion, what are some of other reasons for guest appearances?

Andrei:

I think it’s great to have the chance to work and share your ideas with the ones that influenced you during your formative years. Having the consent from the “Elders”, raised my self confidence for making unconventional music in the future.

Petre:

Well it’s overwhelming that it happened in the first place, but if we set that aside for the moment, their performances actually made these songs really come to life in a unique way. The guests are famous because they are incredible musicians, and that’s just what they did on the album: perform incredibly.

Matei:

Well, I for one am a music geek and huge fan of these bands, they have helped me shape my musical tastes ever since I was 11, so I always dreamed of one day being on an album with them. As a fan, such an album was and is a progressive death metal wet dream, the bands they stem from are the originators of the style we play and love! This is it, no marketing strategy. Just the fan in me/us reaching a goal that few can say they have. I always wondered if I can think of ways that the guests’ roles can be put into context of music I helped craft. I still can’t believe it happened. It’s a lot to process.

What would you consider the biggest success when it comes to this album?

Andrei:

We’re glad that we found the courage and determination to finish something, knowing that in the end no one could like it. For me, it means a lot that I had the chance to express my ideas without any compromise. I just didn’t care if people wouldn’t appreciate it. But by now, things are working fine and we received lots of good thoughts for our strange product.

Petre:

The way it all turned out, the fact that it has a concept behind it and the fact that all these awesome death metal pioneers lent their talents on these tracks. Most of all, the fact that something that started out as an experiment managed to take final form in such a way.

Matei:

Having finished it. The fact that it came out better than I envisioned it is a huge bonus, though.

Do you feel “The Core” comes closer to capturing what you’re like live on stage?

Andrei:

Yes, pretty much. All the metal songs were composed for live performing and we played all of them on stage for several times.

Petre:

It does have a good dynamic to it. Even though it is very well produced, it doesn’t take away from the energy of our performances. We will see how close it comes at some point, we haven’t played live for some time now.

Matei:

Not at all, in fact this album should now motivate us to attempt to recreate a similar mood live. It will take some work, I for one prefer to record than to play live. I’d rather spend time creating and leaving something behind for a long time, than reproducing riffs that were already laid down, only to play them under stress and have the performance just end up on someone’s cellphone with an inferior quality. Plus, I make a lot of mistakes live…even more than on the album! So I for one would like to recreate more of an album feel on stage, rather than vice-versa.

Is there something about the band now that differentiates you? How do you feel your art stands out from the rest of similar metal works?

Andrei:

For me metal is like a tool. I’m using metal because it has no borders in musical composition. It has a permissive sound for complex harmonies and beats and you can mix it with many other music styles. Our message might not seem very common for metal, sometimes. I’m not taking metal as a purpose but as a simple way to express ideas. So that gives me the liberty to transform it in any way I like.

Petre:

Aside from the aesthetic elements and the various world music moments, the album creates a unique atmosphere when listening to it from start to finish but by all means, people should listen to it and make up their own opinions, don’t take my/our word for it!

Matei:

I worked on other projects in parallel to this one. Totally different genres…then I would come back to this one, and still liked it from an extreme metal point of view. Because I haven’t heard anything like it! Sure, the influences are obvious, but I haven’t heard a mixture that came out quite like this. Or if I did, I am already a huge fan of those bands. But I think Andrei has a unique way of writing riffs, Petre’s contribution also originates from good sources, I am a music devourer…this is what you get if you get the three of us to make music. If it were any other combination (like Petre and Andrei with another drummer/bassist, or Petre and myself without Andrei), it would’ve come out differently. It’s a cliché answer, I know, but it is tested! Another more obvious element…I haven’t heard that many world music elements in other death metal bands so far. Sean Malone’s solo album certainly, or Gordian Knot…but they are only linked to the genre.

Alright.. you are using some synth programming there. What’s the role of electronics in your music?

Andrei:

We are living in the era of electronic music for some time. Why shouldn’t we use it in some unconventional ways? The synths are written to develop the atmospheric side of our project and to drive the listener into something deeper. And maybe it would have sounded out of fashion using just guitars, bass and drums :)

Petre:

Atmosphere, another side to our music, aesthetics and various reasons people have for using synths.

Matei:

They help create an atmosphere that would otherwise be emptier, without some more mellow voicing like our synth choices. They can also confuse the listener, which I thoroughly enjoy. It helps maintain that aforementioned balance between beautiful and grotesque. For example Angelo Badalamenti (who scored most of David Lynch’s movies)…you wouldn’t enjoy the Twin Peaks themes as much if they were only done on guitar, or on strings. That specific pad sound is what sets it apart and creates that aura of mystery around it. It’s dreamy. It is from dreams that the most abstract thoughts of the subconscious fall like apples from a tree in fall. Maybe through synths, we can trigger that dreamy state more easily…

Ok, guys. Now tell me.. why did it take you so long to release this full length? What have you been doing in the meantime? Do you have other musical projects besides ILLUMINATI?

Andrei:

I do have some other projects. But the real problem with us is that we’re not living in the same town anymore so it’s pretty difficult to gather in for composing new songs and ideas. The purpose of this album was to finish what we started some time ago, when we used to rehearse and have gigs. We just couldn’t leave these songs unrecorded, in this life it is best if you finish everything you once started. But I can see new perspectives now, with this job being taken care of.

Petre:

We kind of took our time but besides that there were a lot of logistics involved, basically all the classic setbacks when making a record as an independent band. After the guitars were done I went to music school and more recently I have teamed up with Romanian progressive death metal veterans, Taine which are a great band in their own right.

Matei:

I do. Illuminati is not and will not be my main project. I mostly have one-man projects. I play the instruments I need with sufficient skills to get what I want across, so I don’t need to depend on others. The album took a long time to record partly due to me moving to theUK, but also because communication within the band is shaky. It is no one’s fault, it’s just that I have a more impulsive personality. I am used to working on my own and setting my own deadlines…so I tend to impose those on others too. Other projects I am in are CYBORG (progressive thrash metal, debut album at 16 years old), LOST SOCIETY (alternative/punk with special guests from BLACK FLAG, DEAD KENNEDYS, T.S.O.L.  on the debut album), DULCEATA MORTII (the avant-garde one-man project of my favorite musician from Romania, Stefan Hancu…I play drums) and currently working on two other albums: one sunny-day power pop like THE WALKER BROTHERS, early THE WHO and THE LAST, and one occult rock project like YEAR OF THE GOAT, GRAVEYARD, WITCHCRAFT, THE DEVIL’S BLOOD.

Ok, fellas. It would be very nice to catch you live somewhere on the road. Do you guys have anything coming up soon? Are you guys just keeping it somewhat local or will you be taking it out internationally?

Andrei:

I guess by the end of this summer we will have some live gigs in our country.

Petre:

We haven’t really talked about it at this point, I would love to take this act out on the road internationally of course. We will see what the future holds, and any updates on this matter are to be posted to our Facebook page.

Matei:

So far, nothing is certain, due to us residing in different countries. Our live activity will be limited regardless of where it will take place…but who knows, maybe once we’re equipped with merch (this summer) we’ll start scheduling some dates. It would be interesting to play in other countries!

Let’s go back to the beginning and find out more about your background.

How old where you when you started making music?

Andrei:

I was 12 or 13.

Petre:

I took some classical guitar lessons for abo/spanut three months when I was about 12 or 13 and after that my parents got me an electric guitar and a distortion pedal and I haven’t stopped playing since.

Matei:

13. When I lived in the US, I started a band and 3 days before our first Battle of the Bands, two members left cause they claimed I took it too seriously. That’s when I started learning to play other instruments, and wanting to make albums rather than play live. Then I realized what they meant.

Did you have a start in music before ILLUMINATI? If so, what was it?

Andrei:

Since I first started playing guitar, I’ve always been involved in many projects and styles. Of course, I had those high schools bands. Then I got involved with NEGURA BUNGET.

Petre:

I’ve had a number of different projects in the past and played as a side musician in various bands but nothing as significant and conclusive before.

Matei:

Before joining the band, I already had CYBORG going on. Andrei and Petre both helped me out with live shows that I had to do to promote the album. This album is my most recent, I have also done LOST SOCIETY debut album since, as well as three DULCEATA MORTII albums. I’d like to do about 2 albums per year. It would be ideal. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (THE MARS VOLTA, AT THE DRIVE-IN, BOSNIAN RAINBOWS) is someone I look up to a lot in that respect. He puts out like 5 per month and he’s still young. I wanna put out more…while I’m even younger. Oh, it’s on, señor Rodriguez-Lopez!

What was it that inspired you to start ILLUMINATI?

Andrei:

By walking the streets and observing the usual people and their sorrows. There are many “crazy” people out there, products of our indulging and careless society. The normal people are the true artists of their self counsciousness, and that’s a real source of inspiration for me. They are the true Illuminati and a real powerful kind. One day, they might turn the world upsite down cause after all, they represent the majority.

Petre:

In early 2008 Andrei, whom I’ve known since highschool sent me a demo of a song called “The Core”. We met at his place and started jamming, it was one of those situations of having some musical ideas and just rolling with it.

Matei:

I didn’t start it, you see. I just picked it up where it was left off at one point. But Andrei was already my favorite guitarist from Romania (still is), and I couldn’t believe there was another equally skilled guitarist (Petre). So it was easy for me to accept to be in the company of Romania’s best!

What’s changed with how you approach the music nowadays?

Andrei:

I understand that you cannot deliver a story with a complex message by using only one musical genre. I try to create something by combining different styles, having influences from any kind of sonorities but also respecting certain rules of music aesthetics.

Petre:

From a technical perspective, I am more aware of harmony and stuff like that, from a compositional perspective, not much; the feeling has to be right, the mind frame has to be right. Composing happens spontaneously for me, at least as far as the main idea goes and that’s the way it’s been for years, later I try to arrange it and see what happens to the track.

Matei:

I used to want each project to be very genre-specific and not draw influences from outside of the sub-genre (thrash should be influenced by thrash bands, death metal by death metal bands, doom by doom, etc.). Now as you can see, I broke my own vow. Does this make me “un-trv”? Maybe. But I love music of all sorts. The more I hear it, the less I feel I know…and the more I want to find out and explore. Also, I started applying music theory as of recent years. Before, it was all by ear.

Uufff.. we’re done! :)

Thanks for your time, guys. Is there anything you’d like to say to the metal audience?

Andrei:

Rock forever, manele never :)))))

Petre:

Thank you for your interest! To the metal audience: keep an open mind, support the scene and….don’t drink and drive! Thank you!

Matei:

Mainly, this was an amazing interview. All your questions were so compelling, well thought out, and really challenging but fun to come up with answers for. Thank you so much for the time you put into this, and the readers for reading this far! I’d also like to state that I don’t trust horses. I just think all the years that we rode on them and burdened them with weights and whips…I think they will lash back at us, and rightfully so. So I don’t trust them. If you bring a horse to an Illuminati show, I will hide and avoid you! But they can get in for free at our shows, if you really want to bring them. We like to see people moshing on horses.

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