Incantation's John McEntee Describes the Band's "Organic" Death Metal

Death metal bands that have been able to permeate the metal industry up from the core of the underground scene are few between. But a band that has been able to do that consistently for a quarter of a century, and still not view their artistry as a "job," well -- that's Incantation.

The American extreme metal band, formed by John McEntee and Paul Ledney in 1989, was one of the pioneers in the New York death metal scene alongside such acts as Suffocation and Immolation. And much like the definition of its name, Incantation has been conjuring up heavy doses of unique metal over the course of nine full-length albums. And while the band has had more than 30 lineup changes over the years, it has somehow kept its ritualistic style of tempos that aptly leap from down-tuned and sludgy to rapid and suspenseful.

It's hard to imagine that the band's sound and style wouldn't have evolved with all the fresh blood infused into the mix, however, as sole original member McEntee admitted in our interview, Incantation is about evolving the sound so much as tightening it's original style that helped pioneer the underground death metal scene. The name only becomes more fitting. The band's newest album, 2014's Dirges of Elysium, only confirms that the band has not lost its power.

Incantation will be playing January 15 at the Nile Theater, along with Funerus (a band rooted in old-school '90s Scandinavian death metal that McEntee founded with his wife Jill), and local acts Six Million Dead and Mortem Dei.

Up On The Sun talked with guitarist/vocalist John McEntee about death metal's current direction, his love for Akitas, and how the band already has enough songs for a 2016 album.

So how do you perceive Incantation's music as opposed to 25 years ago?

It's pretty crazy that something we just did more or less because we were just asshole extreme kids trying to play music and push the boundaries, it's really amazing that we're still doing it now. What's even more crazy is that people still really enjoy what we do and support us throughout the year. It's mind-boggling that now we're even bigger than we were. During the last couple years it seems like people are appreciating our more organic rural death metal style -- we're more meat and potatoes -- rather than some of the more technical, over-produced, machine-like death metal that's been popular.

As far as evolution... What's really amazing is that... as far as myself goes, and probably for the other guys, I'm just really comfortable expressing myself musically now, more than I was when I was younger. Since I've been doing it for so long it becomes second nature. Instead of playing guitar and coming up with riffs at this point, I can think of ideas I have and just put them right into music. I use my imagination more to write stuff more than I as early on. It cuts out an extra step, so it makes it easier to get our ideas across. Our early stuff is good and people enjoy it, but we really had less control over how things sounded. We didn't know our way around the studio or know about the recording process, so all those aspects really affected the way it came out. Now I understand how things should sound.

Yeah, so not changing the style, but making the current style sound better.

Exactly, and throw in new things on each album but make sure its in the context of what the band is; maybe go into darker areas, more exaggerated doom stuff, or just rip-your-face off aggression.

Dirges of Elysium definitely shows that you guys have only grown stronger in your death metal prowess.

We're really happy with the way it came out. It captured the quality of our production but keep some of the rural vibe. And the feeling that can sometimes be hard to capture on a recording. Our producer did an awesome job.

It was only two years after 2012's Vanquish in Vengeance, which is faster then you guys have released albums in the past. Are there any ideas for an album in 2016?

What happened was once we started really focusing in and being inspired was probably around 2010 we started getting back into writing and it happened naturally. By the time we recorded Vanquish in Vengeance we had almost enough songs for Dirges of Elysium so we just kept them. Between playing shows we worked on those songs and worked more. So now we have enough songs for another album already again. We're just kind waiting for the word from the record company. It's been a very influential time.

Before hand, the people I came out with we didn't get along really well, now these people I don't have to worry about drama and everyone is really focused. When things are positive and enjoyable, it makes it so much easier to come up with stuff because you spend more time writing rather than with band drama.

That makes sense --with so many lineup changes over the years do, you ever feel like the lineup of Incantation is where it envision it to be?

The vibe is great now. You never know what's going to happen with people and that's one of the reasons why we've had a ton of lineup changes. I think part of the problem is that I'm a really easy-going guy, and unfortunately I gave too many people opportunities to play in the band when they actually weren't musically capable. We rushed on a lot of people actually for touring, and we never had time to get to know them or see if they were capable and jam. Then you go out, and realize you don't get along. Plus I was a lot younger and when you're younger... well I didn't deal with situations like I do now. As a person I'm more mature and I understand how to handle situations.

I have learned over the years that when you have good people to work with and enjoy it, it makes sense to go above and beyond to make sure it works. I'm a visionary with music. Which that's important for me; I have to know I'm expressing myself with the band, and if the members can't feel that way, it's best that they move on to something where they can express themselves.

You have any side projects going on now? I saw on your website a "coming soon" Acheron, and of course there is Funerus, which is also on the tour.

There's a couple minor things music-wise on the back burner, but right now I'm concentrating on Incantation stuff and Funerus stuff. Both bands are in a really positive mode of being productive. I'm a enjoying it while I can!

Touching back to how you've seen more support for Incantation in the past few years, what are your thoughts about the death metal scene today? Strong or weak?

Yeah, I would say it's been stronger than it has been for quite some time. It's really been growing in the last five years. Music in general will always go in trends of course; we've witnessed that before. But right now it seems to be going a good direction. What's even better is that our style of death metal and bands we've influenced are doing really good now too. So for us it's a good thing to have.

It's true that metal is becoming more accepted around the world. What are your thoughts about death metal overseas, in spots like the Middle East where metalheads can actually be persecuted for music that's seen as "breaking the law"?

We've never played in the Middle East; we've played in Europe and been pretty far east in Europe, like in Russia, and in Asia, Australia and South America. But the Middle East... it's really difficult to get stuff in the Middle East. I know certain bands like Behemoth and Carcass might've played in Israel or some place, but there are so many countries that aren't equipped to have music like that come into play.

You've said over the years that you see Incantation as something you do for fun, not a job. What else do you do for fun besides this?

Pretty much my life revolves around my music and wife to have a good relationship, so that's good. Besides that, really just I have a love for the Akita breed dog. We adopt them from rescues and we raise them and give them a stable life. That's my other major love besides music and my wife.

How many Akitas do you have right now?

Right now we have one, the most we've ever had has been three. You can't really have more than that because they get big, like close to 100 pounds. I think they're a misunderstood dog; they are big and have the potential to be aggressive if they are brought up in the wrong situation, but the ones we've had have been really great dogs and calm.

However, the type of dog owner they need is an alpha. You have to stand up to them or they will walk all over you. That's what people don't realize and then they get them and don't raise them properly and then they get rid of them. But then if they are brought to the shelter they are more likely to get put down right away because they are so big. Bigger dogs can actually be more mellow, though! Once they know their place in the pack.

Incantation is scheduled to play Nile Theater on Thursday, January 15.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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Lauren Wise has worked as a rock/heavy metal journalist for 15 years. She contributes to Noisey and LA Weekly, edits books, and drinks whiskey.
Contact: Lauren Wise