Austin post-punk group Altar of Eden has emerged to unleash upon the world the scabrous sounds of their LP, The Grotto Screams. Their dirty death rock production is an intentional step away from the current state of the gothic genre, a subsection of music that has become unfortunately mired in the glitz and egotism of hatchling art students and indie-rock fusion catastrophes. Luckily, The Grotto finds its voice much in the style of what one might consider to be “traditional” post-punk. The release uses well-informed song-structures, pumping bass lines, and atmospheric samples to serve up a variety of eerie but danceable sounds. To all of the graying goths fighting over that last unscratched Juju CD: Try adding something fresh to your palate—a current death rock group with roots in its respective punk scene.
Altar of Eden formed sometime in 2020 from the remnants of the band Altar Duata. The lineup features Ben Redman on guitar, Jake Cloud on bass, and Albert Efraim on vocals. Both Efraim and Redman played in Altar Duata before it split. Efraim is primarily known for his work with Texas hardcore groups like the Creamers and Nosferatu. As an apparent philosophic aesthete, Efraim cites works by Jean-Pierre Duprey and Rene Daumal as conceptual inspirations. These influences slither into his lyricism, providing an unexpected byway into the esoteric absurdity of ‘pataphysics (among other things). Redman, aside from playing in Altar Duata, has also made a name for himself as a member of the Texas-based bands Residual Kid and Army. Redman’s tone on The Grotto is cold, his riffs placed in a way that shows an innate spatial awareness. At times, his guitar becomes a screeching FX machine when added melodic content isn’t needed over the bass and drum combination. This leaves room for Cloud, whose rhythmic bass-lines describe tonal form in the otherwise abrupt patterns of the drum machine.
Altar of Eden manages to provoke the listener with a well-paced intensity across the LP. Album diversity is usually a weakness in punk bands, (maybe it’s somewhat of a misunderstood necessity founded on the urge to mosh), but Altar of Eden avoids this tendency. Whether it be with dynamics, tempo, timbre, or any other device, The Grotto succeeds here because its songs are allowed to breathe. At one moment, the band is boiling with aggressive drum machine rhythms, as on “Eternity.” Just a few tracks later, on “Death in the Country,” they are moaning out slow-droning execrations on their instruments in a type of ambient fog; then the song slowly climbs back up to a danceable beat where Cloud’s eighth-note bass lines and Redman’s castle-thunder guitar tones rein. The whole release demonstrates a well-balanced match between repetition and experimentation in form—the mark of solid songwriting, and part of what makes me excited to hear future releases from the band.
Throughout The Grotto, there is an underlying adherence to punk-concept hidden by the drum machine and needling guitar riffs. For me, this inclusion is what determines whether death rock will sound authentic or not. So many bands clustered around this genre fail to capture that original life-essence that made the early names fantastic simply because they forget to include the necessary aggression in their search for a dark sound. Altar of Eden is an exception. They balance somber aesthetics with energetic assaults in a way that keeps their music from falling into a gray inconsequentiality. The contrast of their slower sections, like on the intro to “Death in the Country,” and their rhythmic ideas throughout songs (compare “Tears” to “Veil of Sanctuary”), represent a wealth of ideas looming behind the face of this single release.
Though I’ve seen many compare them to the Bauhaus, this is more due to a lack of familiarity with the genre than because of any meaningful similarities. As far as predecessors go, Altar of Eden is more in the vein of Catholic Spit or Christian Death due to its fast-paced punk influences. However, even these more accurate comparisons fail to communicate the tone that this band has crafted—it is a distinct form built on subterranean sounds, one that takes pre-established patterns and manipulates them into a new yet somehow familiar voice.
A brief interview with the band’s vocalist, Albert Efraim
Q. I know some of you guys have history in the Austin punk scene—what sparked the change in direction towards this dark post-punk style?
Efraim: I think we’ve always been into it. When I was in 6th grade, early TSOL was my introduction to ‘80s hardcore and I’d say they also sparked my liking of deathrock and postpunk early on before I even knew what it was. So, although most of the bands that I have started have been ‘80s hardcore influenced, I’d say that postpunk also has had an influence on them at times, even if it may not be evident.
Nonetheless, we’ve had other postpunk projects in the past. I used to play in Institute, and I ran a small label called Orden Julida that focused on postpunk and minimal projects. Jake currently plays in Temple of Angels, and Ben and I used to play together in Altar Duata, which Altar of Eden is pretty much the rebirth of.
Q. Between the recordings and your live performance, there seems to be a preference for low-fidelity capture. Is there a reason for that, is it just part of building an aesthetic?
Efraim: The main reason for it is that we don’t have good equipment. We don’t have money, we aren’t sound engineers, and we prefer to do things ourselves. So we end up having to work with what we’ve got. After that, yeah, we’re left to build some kind of aesthetic around it. However, we don’t necessarily decide that we want lo-fi material and seek it out. I honestly wish we could offer better recordings, but we don’t have that kind of time and money, or it could also be that we just don’t care enough. It is what it is, so we go along with it and try to make it into something we like. Nevertheless, I think mimicking the things we surround ourselves with and find attractive is a natural thing, and since all I really listen to is ‘80s punk, whether it be ‘80s hardcore or postpunk, then that stuff becomes a reference point and influences our preferences.
With that said, I do like that we’re able to offer some rough-sounding material. I think that it makes room for sustaining some kind of raw energy. I suppose I do prefer the more raw and low-fidelity sound at times, to at least try and offer something that isn’t sterile and established.
Q. What is the writing process like for Altar of Eden?
Efraim: There isn’t much to the writing process. It either starts with coming up with a bassline or programming the drum machine and then going from there. I wrote everything for the first two releases, but I’ve been encouraging Ben and Jake to help with the writing process for the new material. They’re way better musicians than I am, so it’s cool to hear the stuff they come up with. From there I’ll either direct, suggest, or add to it and then string it all together to make it into a song.
The complete writing for each release is usually done in about a week. I personally hate ruminating on things, especially when making music and art. I ruminate enough already in everyday life and it’s a disgusting thing. Overthinking most often kills the vitality of something or makes the air dreadfully stale. I’d rather just have an idea of how I want something to sound and then just see what happens next and move on with it. Songs never really turn out how you hope for them to and that’s the fun part; figuring out how to work with what you’ve got.
Q. I saw in another interview you were into ‘pataphysics and the panic movement—do those influences come out in your lyricism?
Efraim: I’m honestly not quite sure if these influences directly come forth in the lyrics. I think the work of Jean-Pierre Duprey or Roger Gilbert-Lecomte are a little more influential to my lyrics than pataphysics and the panic movement. Those movements are more influential as an attitude towards life or going about things, so they serve as a kind of reminder of how morbidly absurd existence can be and how confusion and memory play a role in it. We place too much value into culture and identity and what a big laugh this is. Culture and identity deserve to be spit on, negated, and mocked. Even then, the joke will always be on us…
Q. A lot of ‘80s/’90s bands in the gothic/deathrock genre used their music as a method to criticize aspects of Christianity. However, a lot of your lyricism on The Grotto Screams seems like a dark romanticism rather than a cultural critique of religion. Do you think that people are moving away from the topic of religion as it becomes less relevant, or do you just personally have less interest in that subject?
Efraim: I think that in the ‘80s and ‘90s it worked, especially as a way to offend and challenge your family, neighbors, and the general public. I don’t think it has that same kind of effect today as it did back then, though. I do think that religious imagery, motifs, critiques, etc. will always play some kind of a role in the gothic and deathrock genre because it has been established to be a part of its roots and romanticism. I think religion and its symbols will always be a relevant topic in general too, since it forms the basis of our societies and cultures. Its deeply rooted in us in ways that we may not even notice, so it can be powerful and useful to use its language in order to get a certain feeling across.
I am very interested in the subject of religion, though. The name Altar of Eden itself comes from a religious reference that I heard while learning about Islam. I’m actually moving to the Boston area this fall to start a master’s program at the Harvard Divinity School. So I’d say that there are religious references and influences throughout our songs, though it may not be a straight-forward critique. I think the only song about Christendom that we have so far is “Sacrilege.” The lyricism to a lot of our songs have been influenced by the things I read and learn as a scholar of religion. Having a dark postpunk band gives me room to play around with these things, just as hardcore punk gives me room to talk about how much I hate cops, bootlickers, and nationalism.
Q. Are there any current bands out there that you think are close to the musical sound you’re after?
Efraim: To be quite honest, no. But that could be because I haven’t done my homework in finding them. That’s not to say that there aren’t good current bands. There are certainly a lot of good bands. However, none that I have heard in the style and sound that I am trying to make with Altar of Eden. The more current band from the past few years that I do hold with high regard is Veil Vitric. Although their sound isn’t one that I am trying to recreate, they do a very good job in hitting the right elements of the gothic postpunk that I like and that I am after. But, like I said, there are some good current bands doing cool stuff like Burning City, El Destello, SPZkr, Deep Cavity, Claustraphobia, etc.
Q. Any solid plans for Altar of Eden moving forward?
Efraim: Drunken Sailor Records who released the vinyl version of “The Grotto Screams” is working on putting out our second tape, “Chimeras” onto vinyl. So thats currently in the works. Next, we’ll be doing a little video performance to promote some of our new material. Aside from that, I’d like to just keep writing and hopefully put out a new record or tape by the end of the year, but we’ll see how things play out and see where things go after moving to Boston.