Calgary sludge storytellers Chieftain talk barbarians and bears

Monday 27th, July 2015 / 11:16
By Gareth Watkins
Sludge act Chieftain is finally releasing their self-titled album on vinyl. Photo: Ben Painter

Sludge act Chieftain is finally releasing their self-titled album on vinyl.
Photo: Ben Painter

CALGARY — Georgia Meadows has to be coaxed into telling the ‘Bear Story.’ Onstage she’s a willowy, mystical presence in wide-brimmed Stevie Nicks hats, with a coruscating roar and a sweet croon. In person she’s funny and self-effacing, and has to have her hat wrestled off her head by Tanner Wolff, the band’s drummer, after claiming to have a bad hair day. One of two singers for Chieftain, she was recruited by singer, guitarist and high-school friend Rhys Friesen despite never having played music before and the reason, he says, is the ‘Bear Story.’

“When I was living in Canmore I went for a run and came across a grizzly bear. I couldn’t remember what you do when you come across a bear. Are you supposed to look it, curl up into a ball, punch it in the nose? So I decided to stand up on my tippy-toes and put my hands up in a claw shape above my head and I roared at it. It kind of looked at me like ‘what the fuck?’ and then it lunged at me. I roared again and it ran away. That’s my bear story.”

If the roar was terrifying enough to scare away a 600-pound apex predator, Friesen reasoned, it was right for the project he had started with Andrew Trueman, a project that would become Chieftain.

Beginning as a black metal band with inspiration from brilliant, politically questionable Ukrainian band Drudkh, Chieftain found its groove in slower, more contemplative sludge.

“It just started with me and [Trueman] jamming in my basement in Kensington,” says Friesen. “Not really knowing what we were doing. Georgia [Meadows] was in school in Victoria, we’ve known each other since high school and when I heard that she was moving back to Calgary I was like ‘come and sing in our band even though you’ve never done anything musical in your life, ever.’”

“We met Tanner (Wolff, drums) in a back alley,” notes Meadows.

“I was underage and had no idea who these people were,” Wolff says. “Our collective touch point for gathering together was the band Mares of Thrace from Calgary. They were a two piece sludge band and the drummer (Stef MacKichan) was my drumming teacher, so I went to see her band, so that’s how I wound up behind the New Black drinking mysterious whiskey with even more mysterious people.”

Friesen recruited his friend Mike Feleki to play bass and a year later they were opening for Mares’. A year ago they signed with newly formed Winnipeg label Filth Regime Records within hours of posting their self-titled full length to their Bandcamp page.

Their name comes from the dark fantasy mythos woven in to their songs. The Chieftain character is an old, broken wanderer; the man Robert E. Howard’s Conan will become after his battling days come to an end. It’s him you see on the album’s cover, created by Calgary ex-pat artist Nathan Navetto (of ATOMIS), slumped beneath a tree, his axe at his feet, covered in war-paint and blood, seemingly the only survivor of a battle that has left spears impaled in the ground behind him. The work of Howard’s frequent correspondent H.P. Lovecraft appears often, particularly on their debut album’s second song, “Rapture of the Empty Space.” The track details Lovecraft’s character the ‘Mad Arab’ Abdul Alhazred, the writer of the fictional textbook of magic dubbed the Necronomicon, succumbing to evil in Saudi Arabia’s ‘Empty Quarter,’ the largest contiguous sand desert on earth. They are looking to expand these themes into a full-fledged mythology, but their screamed vocals means that the storyline isn’t going to bother anyone just looking to hear some spectacularly well-done metal.

For a new band, Chieftain have a remarkably mature sound. With songs clocking in at a minimum of eight minutes there’s ample room for development of riffs and themes, for an atmosphere to slowly build like layers of sediment. The meditative pace serves to enhance the moments when things break down: mid way through “Rapture…” as its narrator descends into madness, the music stops and starts, passages of silence inserting themselves into what had previously been a steady progression, leading to a melody that could be ripped from avant-doom act Pallbearer. This in turn evolves into a clean guitar line with a faint hint of Middle Eastern traditional music as it builds towards the triumphant return of the band at full force, with a riff that sounds like Deafheaven at the moments when they seem to be soundtracking the climax of the greatest action movie ever made. It’s dark, sure, but it’s also epic in the original sense of the word, before it became an all-purpose synonym for ‘good’ (see also ‘awesome’).

Album closer “Cornus of Flesh” begins with two minutes of huge and indeed epic riffing, with the subsequent two minutes an audio sample from the audiobook of Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 epic western novel Blood Meridian, detailing the bloody results of an Apache attack, all spilled viscera and screaming horses. The song itself though, is about the Chieftain’s face, ravaged by the years and the things he’s seen. It’s a smart stylistic choice in two genres, metal and fantasy, that are not known for literary sophistication. A cornus, by the way, is a peaked hill, like a snowdrift; a ‘cornus of flesh’ being the character’s eyebrows, furrowed to the point that they threaten to ‘collapse and blind’ him. Like McCarthy, Chieftain doesn’t do small, quiet narratives: from their sound up they have a sense of vastness and importance.

“On “Cornus…” it just touches (on the character), and I don’t think that anyone but me would be able to tell exactly what it’s about,” says Meadows.

Friesen adds “That’s why I’m curious to see people’s reactions to the lyrics once we release the vinyl.”

“It’s not an Iron Maiden Eddie character,” Trueman says, referring to the classic heavy metal band’s ghoulish mascot. “It’s more ethereal than that.”

They’re fortunate to have started Chieftain at a time when not only are there a lot of great sludge and doom bands out there, but a vibrant scene in Calgary itself. The members of Chieftain mention Witchstone, The Weir and post black-metal act Numenorean (which Friesen recently joined) as the new crop of Calgarian metal bands that are taking up the banner of veterans like Mares of Thrace. Other similar acts include Monolith AB, Raw, Hive and more.

“It’s been super easy and fun for us, especially since we became a bit more known and we got to play with people in our own scene,” says Feleki. “When we started out we were playing with random death metal bands, just really weird line-ups.”

They are in the middle of writing new material (one song they mention goes deeper into the Chieftain mythology) and hoping to record by winter. Their schedule means that they won’t be touring extensively any time soon, but an album release show for their debut is forthcoming. If you like to get lost in sound via metal done right then you’ll be there.

Chieftain performs and will release the vinyl edition of their self-titled debut on Friday, August 7th at the Palomino Smokehouse. Chieftain will be available on tri-colour vinyl at the show for $25 and was pressed by Filth Regime Records. You can also buy it online at the label’s Bandcamp page.

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