It’s been nearly 12 years since former Fear Factory vocalist and songwriter Burton C. Bell last released music as Ascension of the Watchers. Originally a “side project,” the band is now his full time gig. On Friday (October 9, 2020), the band is set to release their latest album, Apocrypha. Joined by long-time collaborator John Bechdel (Ministry, ex-Killing Joke, ex-Prong) and introducing Welsh musician Jayce Lewis to the fold, Bell follows up 2008’s Numinosum with an album that takes the project to new heights. If you’ve been out of the loop on Ascension of the Watchers, it’s fair to say that it’s the antithesis of what you’ve come to expect from the singers more aggressive work with Fear Factory or his collaborations with legends like Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath), Max Cavalera (Soulfly), or Al Jourgensen (Ministry).
Ascension of the Watchers deals with the space within the soundscape. Instead of filling it with loud guitars and pummeling drums, atmosphere and melody take the lead as instruments move nimbly around each song and across the album as a whole. Owing more to post-punk than metal, the project not only highlights Bell’s diversity as a songwriter, but also his capabilities as a vocalist. If you thought you had him all figured out, Ascension of the Watchers will surely change your perspective.
We caught up with Burton to learn more about the album and its creation, as well as plans for promoting the album in the Covid world. You can pre-order physical copies via Dissonance Productions and digital copies from Abstract Distribution. Keep up with the bands news, including a planned streaming concert later this year, by following their Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Going back to the first Ascension of the Watchers album, the project has been described as exploring spirituality or at least dealing with spiritual concepts. Musically, a lot of it is built around atmosphere and ambient sound. From your perspective, do you think that there’s something inherently spiritual about ambient music?
Burton Bell: No, for me it’s more of the narrative and the lyrical concepts and my intent of what the song is about. But, when it comes to ambience I don’t feel that ambience or the effect of ethereal sound creates a spiritual vibe. But, I do believe that it’s the context that provides that type of atmosphere and that will maybe help the listener engage into that mode of thought.
So, for me the atmosphere, the ambience, it’s more of that cinematic effect to where you could close your eyes and really place yourself, or replace yourself, into another environment mentally…almost as meditation.
So, you wouldn’t necessarily say that ambient sound is better suited to expressing spiritual concepts than let’s say, louder, more aggressive music?
Burton Bell: No, I wouldn’t. Because one of the most famous spiritual pieces ever written is “Ode to Joy.” There’s nothing ambient about that song or that piece of music. That’s a spiritual song. It’s spiritual, but it’s also uplifting. So, I guess it depends on the mood, really. For me, ambience can contribute to this sound of a spiritual nature. I think it really comes from the perspective of who’s listening to it.
On that note, let me ask you about title track. Is an actual spirit captured on the album?
Burton Bell: Well, what we captured we cannot explain…and Jayce didn’t do it and I didn’t do it. It’s one of those things we couldn’t explain. Jayce and I…we feel we’re very logical people and there’s things that did happen during the session that we could explain away easily. But, there’s things we couldn’t explain, for instance this capturing of this voice or whatever it was.
This was captured after the track was finished. I was doing vocal takes and I wasn’t singing or saying anything after the take was done. It was a point where I was taking a break from vocals and to take that moment to clean up the tracks and the team to make some arrangements. Jayce asked me, “What did you say at the end of this? I listened to it, but I can’t understand what you’re saying.” I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why would I say anything at all? Why would you even record?“
The first time we both heard it…man, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. And sometimes I still get chills thinking about it. I don’t know what it said. I don’t know what language it’s in. It’s not English. I don’t know Latin. Is it Latin? Is it ancient Gaelic? I don’t know. There’s a lot of energy in these walls.
I believe in physical science and I understand…I believe in the fact that energy is a constant. Energy can never be eliminated and it just flows. So, the studio was built and connected to a 350 year old manor. The manor stands on the grounds of an ancient monastery. The studio was built with stones from that ancient monastery. There’s things I couldn’t explain. That was just very odd. Whatever it was it happened at the end and right there in that moment I decided that was going to be the intro to the song.
Can you shed some light on the creative process for this album? I was wondering how much was written or created in the studio or are you working on things and then passing them on to your collaborators?
Burton Bell: After Numinosum was released in 2008, I started writing new songs. Up until this point of Ascension of the Watchers, I have been the primary songwriter. So the creative journey…I would sit down if I was experiencing something poignant or something is impacting my life quite powerfully then I would just sit down and I would start. Play with the guitar, sit at the piano, and start writing chords and create arrangements for what I was feeling at that particular moment. I would come up with the idea and then I would execute an arrangement. I would record the demo with John (Bechdel), demo the idea down, and starting there, depending on the song, we would build upon it from there. I’d add drums, add bass, keys, and just start building upon it.
During the mixing, that’s when the magic would happen. Jayce (Lewis) would make some edits here or just slightly change an arrangement, but not change the arrangements too much where it would take away from the original idea. The mixing was an incredible process, but the entire creative process was over 10 years of writing.
John Bechdel was a key collaborator on the first album, but on this one Jayce Lewis is also in the mix. When did he enter the picture and what did he add to the process?
Burton Bell: I didn’t meet Jayce until 2005 and we only met online through MySpace, actually. I met him in person at a Fear Factory tour back in 2009 or 2010 where he came backstage to actually meet me after the show. After that we just became better friends and more acquainted. Kept communicating, and over time he’s building a studio and he kept saying, “We should collaborate, we should collaborate.” I’m like, “Sure, I’d love to, but you’re in Wales, I’m in Pennsylvania.”
I was in Europe for certain amount of time and while I was there Jayce invited me to Wales, “I just finished my studio. Let’s put it to some good use.” So, I happened to have my guitar with me and I had two ideas that I wanted to demo. One I had demoed previously, but was wanting to redo it because I wanted it to sound better. And two, I had an idea for “Ghost Heart,” but I had not demoed it at all, but I had a rudimentary arrangement for it. And we demoed the two songs fully, from guitars all the way to drums and vocals. So in two weeks we did those two and after those two weeks we had the two pieces. It was so easy working with Jayce. He is meticulous. He has a very sheer tenacity for getting things done, and the way he works, it’s just so articulated that I really enjoyed working with him.
When we recorded the record and started mixing it, I actually decided to step back and let Jayce handle it because I felt that the Watchers needed another look. And after many discussions with Jayce, both during the recording process and through the years, Jayce understood what I wanted to do.
What I wanted to capture was a live experience. A more sonically exciting sound. Because after we released Numinosum, we did some live shows and it was those live shows that we did that those songs became much more exciting and much more interesting to me. I wanted to capture that live essence and Jayce understood. I think he did it. Jayce brought so much to the table and he exceeded my expectations.
I think you succeeded in that, because the album…I didn’t really think about it as sounding “live,” but talking to you now, I definitely pick up on that. It doesn’t sound like a bunch of chopped up Pro Tools, and I think it easily could have…
Burton Bell: My goal is I wanted it to sound like a really intense production. I didn’t want it to sound cut and paste. I still wanted it to sound organic and I think he managed to make that happen.
When the album was first announced, it was called Stormcrow, but then to it changed to Apocrypha. Does that represent any kind of conceptual shift as you were working on the album?
Burton Bell: Oh, absolutely. When we started the campaign for Pledgemusic, I had an idea, we knew what we wanted, we wanted to record this record. The first song I wrote for this album was “Stormcrow” and I’ve always wanted it to be a really lively instrumental. Stormcrow is a harbinger or a messenger from beyond the universe, beyond the cosmos. “Stormcrow” was the one that was delivering these messages…or all the other songs to me over time. Obviously, we had a very successful campaign. We reached 124% of our goal. So we started making plans. We bought my ticket to go to Wales so we could start recording and while we were recording, two weeks into it, that’s when we got the news that Pledgemusic was going under, entered bankruptcy, and that we will never see any of that money to come towards our production. It was devastating. Never the less we persisted and said, “We are not going to let this set us back. We are going to finish that album.”
As it was moving along the depth of the album, not just musically, but conceptually became deeper than I expected and I felt that the title Stormcrow was not the best representation. Not musically, but I didn’t feel it was the best representation anymore for what we were creating. And the title track, the song that ended up becoming the title track, “Apocrypha,” to me represented a concept that was more related to the entire concept of the Ascension of the Watchers and this album. The word “Apocrypha” just created a mystery that I feel “Stormcrow” could not have done.
COVID is devastating artists and venues and who knows when we’re ever going to be able to tour and enjoy live music again. What are your plans for promoting the album under these circumstances?
Burton Bell: We are speaking to an agent about touring next year. We’re talking August, September. All the agents feel that late summer’s going to be the best time. So yes, this pandemic has been a complete headache for the entire industry. Another way we’re going to promote the album is that we’re planning a special streaming event for December. That announcement will be made pretty soon.
Everyone’s biting at their skin just to go out again and hear live music. I mean, as cool as a streaming concerts is…shit, we all know it’ll never take the place of live music. The music industry, I believe is essential. More essential than Wall Street because everyone loves music. Everyone loves live music. To me, it’s not just an economic essential, but something that’s also therapeutically essential for everyone who loves music.