A CONCEPT EXPLAINED
With the release of their seafaring sophomore effort ‘The Farthest Shore‘ the Minneapolis, MN-based symphonic metal band AFTERTIME takes listeners on a journey — a literal one or a metaphorical one, it’s their choice. Singer Sarah Wolf took a deep dive into many of the themes behind the songs in this email interview with Kira Schlechter — jump in feet first and enjoy!
So, as I said in the review, there’s just something about sea travel that still captures the imagination. Even though we really don’t do it anymore on a regular basis, it’s mysterious, fraught with danger and uncertainty. With that in mind, what inspired ‘The Farthest Shore‘ exactly and was it something literal or was it indeed more metaphorical?
SARAH: In the beginning, we had a handful of song ideas and as those ideas developed, we started to notice an underlying theme tying them together. For a while, I saw the theme as “Various Journeys From Point A to Point B”. It was around this time that we branded ourselves as storytellers and we knew we could tell a more cohesive story with this album. We ended up writing it in a way where you can either take each song for its literal meaning, or you can derive your own meaning through metaphor.
You’re from Minnesota, which has no oceans but a lot of lakes. Did you grow up near the water, did this have anything to do with this fascination, or if not, where do you think it came from?
SARAH: None of us grew up particularly close to the water. Rather, I think the theme of the album comes from a mutual thirst for adventure. We really felt drawn to the concept of leaving your home behind to pursue something greater and unknown. It’s a classic story, and yet we’ve managed to put our own twist on it.
Who inspires you as a singer and why?
SARAH: My greatest inspirations vocally are Floor Jansen and Amy Lee. They both have demonstrated a mastery of their instrument that I hope to one day achieve. I am particularly inspired by Floor‘s versatility when it comes to recording vs. live performance, as well as her various vocal styles. Because of this, I strive to have that same level of versatility. In ‘The Farthest Shore’ I was able to really show the spectrum of my voice — from low to high, gentle to aggressive, emotional, powerful, belting, operatic and everything in between. I still have a long ways to go though!
Talk about the writing process: because you pair with Brad many times, Brad and Chris write alone and together, AJ also writes. How does that all work, particularly when you are writing with Brad, how does that division of labor work?
SARAH: We are really lucky to have such a collaborative process for songwriting. It’s a delicate balance to have four minds creating music and have it all still flow together. Most of the time, Brad will come up with the initial idea for the song. This could be an orchestral intro, a few lines of lyrics or a series of guitar riffs. I work best when I have something to springboard off of, so this arrangement works really well. Brad and I have a great sense of being on the same brainwave when it comes to writing and we really do make a great team! One goal I have for our next release is to be the primary writer for at least one song, though.
So ‘Battle Of The Sea‘ is the piece that sets the action and it’s sort of a general almost compendium of how important sea battles are (“The war of the century / Is won by the battle of the sea / The call of our destiny /Is sung by the sirens below”). Again, was there an inspiration for this idea in particular?
SARAH: When approaching the beginning and end of the album, we knew two things: firstly, that they were going to each be big, epic pieces and secondly, that they would bookend the album with gentle ocean waves. That particular detail, and the cyclical feeling it gives to the album, is one of my favorite things about it. This track makes for the perfect opening for the story as well, since our adventurers must fight to escape those who don’t want to let them leave. From day one, our heroes’ journey is a difficult one. In the end, they defeat their foe and leave them for the sirens to claim. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ imagery playing in my mind when I sing this one!
In ‘Edge Of The Earth‘ we meet our storyteller, our observer of the action, “writing by the shore”, who longs to travel too (“Will he ever venture far from home?” you ask) and later in the song, he’s grown old (“But still the writer is standing by the shore”) and you give him some ambiguity (“Does he ever wish he’d lived his story? / Did he wander?”)… He comes up later in ‘A Journey Itself‘, where it seems he did come along (“A goal without a process / My destination far”) and wonders if he did the right thing (“My direction’s gone astray / Losing ambition, just one thing is clear / To home I know the way / Folly are those darkened thoughts /I must not be dissuaded”. So, I guess the question is: who is he, for one, and did he indeed make the trip, or is this all in his imagination, or again, metaphorical or internal (as he says, he was ”longing for the destination far and grand” and ultimately concludes that ”sometimes finding your way is a journey itself”)?
SARAH: In ‘Edge Of The Earth’ we do leave it rather open-ended as to whether the writer ever overcomes his hesitations of leaving his homeland. I love the interpretation that he may have gone along on his own journey in the end, though that wasn’t our initial intention! You could also imagine that the whole story of the album is one of the writer’s own stories, based on his regrets in life. It’s really up to what you choose. The character in ‘A Journey Itself’ is intended to be one of the adventurers who is blissfully revelling in the discovery of a new land. Every tree, creature, hill and valley (is) awe-inspiring to them. In verse two, they briefly lose their way and wonder if they were better off staying at home. These are the “darkened thoughts” that the character quickly brushes away as they continue on their journey. They haven’t reached the end goal yet, but are enjoying every step they take towards it.
‘World We’ve Lost‘ has two aspects to it, I thought. One was some sort of reflection during the journey (“The world we’re after / Is waiting for us in its doom / No hope behind us / There’s no evasion / If we revive our home / We must claim it”). Like this is what’s ahead of us, it will be work to regain this place. And that the place in question might be an ancestral home (“When eternity ends / We’ll crawl up from the depths / Reclaim our rightful cause / Into the world we lost”). Can you clarify that?
SARAH: ‘World We’ve Lost’ was the first song we had finished writing for the album, so the overall story hadn’t fully developed yet. The lyrics were purposely written to be rather abstract. The way I’ve chosen to interpret it is that some sort of upcoming “apocalypse” is inevitable, whatever form that takes in your mind. Whether humanity survives it or not will depend on how each individual chooses to respond to the situation. There’s no use looking back — time can only move forward. If we choose to show strength in the face of impending doom, we can rebuild after the dust has settled. Our destiny is ours for the making, but only if we work for it. In the context of the story, you could say that it reflects the beliefs of our adventurers as to why they left their homeland. They felt that there was nothing left there for them, so they choose to set out into the unknown to make their own way.
“In Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” model, there is a point referred to as the “rebirth” or “revelation.” It’s where Simba returns to the Pridelands to reclaim his throne; where Luke returns to face his father and restore balance to the Force; where Harry literally resurrects from the dead to face Voldemort once and for all.”
– SARAH WOLF –
So, is ‘Nìmata Moìrais‘ a part of the story, maybe perhaps the impetus for the journey, this war caused by a forbidden love (“History tells of a tragic tale / Of a war with land divided / Love separated”)? I especially liked how Brad seemed to serve as the voice of the soldier, that adds such a nice dimension to the story… Does Angel serve a similar purpose, and if so, what character does she portray? (I see you as a narrator through all of this, is that accurate?)
SARAH: In the overarching story of the album, this song takes place as the adventurers are adrift at sea. In order to help pass the time, they share epic stories of times long passed. So, in a way it’s a story-within-a-story. Angel and I serve as narrators who are also loosely tied to the Fates of Greek mythology. I wanted to write the vocal lines between us to sort of weave in and out of each other, taking on the imagery of woven threads.
What inspired that Greek or Eastern feel that ‘Sanctuary‘ has? Did that have anything to do with AJ, especially the percussion aspect of it? I see this as an interlude in the story, as the crew sits idle at night, looking forward to their destination. Was that what you intended? I think you mention the storyteller when you say “A vagrant lost in the scene / Bearing witness to the sight”. Is that true?
SARAH: The island that the adventurers arrive at in ‘Sanctuary’ is equal parts exotic and mystical. We wanted the instrumentation of the song to reflect that combination. AJ did play a large part in the writing of this song, and he definitely had fun writing all of the drum parts! When we eventually get to perform this song live, we plan to have Brad and Chris playing along to the tribal drumbeat. I do picture the adventurers arriving at this island by moonlight, with the gentle waves lapping against the shoreline. Our crew lights a large bonfire on the beach and in the distance you can see the “ivory tower” atop a hill. The characters have a sort of spiritual experience on the island, however you choose to interpret that. By morning, they are fully refreshed and ready to continue their quest.
I wanted to address ‘Survive The Storm‘ and ‘The Aftermath‘ together, if possible, because they do go together after all. Again here is a situation where there are characters, I think, where Brad serves as the survivor’s inner turmoil and you are the voice of optimism — would you agree? The choir too is luring you to just give up and give in, yes? If that’s the case, where did that idea come from? To continue that idea, you have Melissa Ferlaak as a guest vocalist on ‘The Aftermath‘. What role had you assigned to her and how did that come about?
SARAH: In ‘Survive The Storm’ I play the role of one of the adventurers trapped on the ship in the middle of a maelstrom. I feel isolated and powerless and I don’t know what to do. With the vocals, we sort of made a twist on the whole “devil and angel on your shoulder” trope, where Brad and his aggressive growls are actually the voice of encouragement and the lush choir is the voice telling me to give up. Again, this song could be taken to mean a literal storm, or you could interpret it as an inner conflict that one is trying to overcome. In ‘The Aftermath’ I am still playing the same character, as one of only a few survivors of the original crew. Melissa takes on the role of a guardian angel or inner conscience. Since she is my mentor in real life as my voice coach, it made sense to give her a similar role in the album. It made for some nice synergy between us in our recordings.
‘No Turning Back‘ is interesting, as I said in the review, as it could mean that the survivor has made this new place home (“All my choices have brought me here” and the repetition of the phrase ”Manifest destiny”) or he has vowed to return somehow (“There’s an ocean between me and my home”). How do you prefer to see it?
SARAH: ‘No Turning Back’ is the point in the story where our characters are beginning to rise up from rock bottom. They have regained their resolve to see this journey through to its conclusion. Everything they’ve endured, every trial they’ve overcome has led them to where they are. They cannot give up now. In Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” model, there is a point referred to as the “rebirth” or “revelation”. It’s where Simba returns to the Pridelands to reclaim his throne; where Luke returns to face his father and restore balance to the Force; where Harry literally resurrects from the dead to face Voldemort once and for all. This is the final rising action before the climax of the story. Our heroes take a moment to reflect on all they’ve been through and then set out once more towards the horizon.
How do you see the action in ‘A New Haven’? Is the voyage that’s beginning again going back home or to new lands? I think then in the final track, ‘Theater Of Earth‘, Brad again is the storyteller in the line “A legend that’s told through a chronicler’s word”. True?
SARAH: Our adventurers always continue onward. Though they sometimes think of their old home, they never choose to return to it. In ‘A New Haven’, the first movement of ‘The Farthest Shore’, our heroes realize that their hearts truly lie in the constant journey. They come to understand that they will always wonder what lies beyond the horizon. They resolve to set their sights “far into the dawn” to begin another journey, thus bringing the story full circle. By the time the ‘Theatre Of Earth’ movement comes along, many years have passed since our travelers left their homeland. Word of their adventures has reached far and wide (“Told through a Chronicler’s word”) and they’ve become legends of sorts. The stories of their journey inspire others to go out on their own adventures. This continues for generations as the world gradually becomes widely traveled (“Centuries unfold for this travelling theatre of Earth”). There are countless destinations and possibilities to explore and humanity embraces the opportunity to seek them out. It is all thanks to our brave adventurers that took that crucial first step that their legacy continues for ages to come.
“This year has definitely shown which bands are capable of utilizing their digital presence to stay active vs. bands who relied too much on live performances. You definitely need to find a balance.”
– SARAH WOLF –
I like how you’ve been freely exploring the songs on your Facebook page, really letting fans into the creative process. Obviously, by this point, you’d likely be touring and obviously as we know, you can’t. I kind of think doing something like this (and things like livestreams, etc.) might be a hidden blessing in some ways, because you’d likely not have time to do it if you were touring. Do you see it at all in that way, that you can make a more intimate, maybe meaningful and lasting connection with your audience that’s a good foundation for when you tour again?
SARAH: We definitely had hoped to be touring for this album by now, but we’ve done our best to adapt to the current state of the world and give our fans what we can. One of the biggest losses this year was being unable to perform a CD release concert on the release date. Instead, we opted to host a livestreamed listening party with our fans. Not only was it our most successful live video to date, but it gave us the unique experience of being able to read our fans’ reactions to the songs in real time. At a concert, you would have to wait until after the show to hear what they thought. So I didn’t mind the trade off! When it becomes safe to do so, we still plan to book a belated “release show”. We have also enjoyed releasing our Feature Fridays these last few weeks. So much diligent thought went into creating this album that we wanted to share as much “behind the scenes” info with our fans as we could. I feel like you can enjoy a song that much more when you know the story behind how it was written. I think it says a lot about a band by how they are able to adapt to things outside of their control. This year has definitely shown which bands are capable of utilizing their digital presence to stay active vs. bands who relied too much on live performances. You definitely need to find a balance. We are making the most of this time to really spread our music far and wide so that when touring does become possible again we have that many more hungry fans eager to come see us.
Just curious, do you have any plans for livestreams, speaking of which, or anything similar?
SARAH: We don’t have any plans at this time to host another livestream, but we do have some other digital content that we are working on and hope to share with you soon! For now, the only thing I’m at liberty to share is that we are about to launch our own Discord server. We feel this will be the perfect environment to get to know our fans better and interact with our community. Until then, you will just have to follow our social media to stay up-to-date on the latest news.
Sarah posts frequently on her Facebook page about the issues of the day, including racial and sexual equality. As an aside and to wrap up, I asked her where her socially-conscious views come from and why she is comfortable expressing them on social media. Her answer was as forthright as her answers about her music…
SARAH: To be honest, I haven’t been like this for very long. I grew up in a small rural town and for a long time my political leanings were in the other direction. I’ve had a series of experiences over the last several years that have opened my eyes to many different viewpoints. I slowly learned that there was a LOT of info that our teachers left out in school. I moved to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN) and I started to meet a lot of different people. As I became closer to those in the LGBTQ and minority communities, I heard their struggles and really started to understand the concept of privilege. I started to think about things I’d always taken for granted. For a long time, I was fairly aligned with Libertarianism. I love the concept of a small government and everyone being responsible for themselves and that state and local governments carry most of the importance. Unfortunately, that model relies too heavily on individual responsibility and I think we can all see how difficult that is for most people. I’ve since learned that it is human nature to be greedy and lazy. If there isn’t a law expressly forbidding a corporation from doing something, they’ll do it. It’s too easy to let something like Amazon or Wal-Mart exploit people. Ultimately, this whole transformation is due to making friends with people outside my worldview and listening to what they have to say. It’s really that simple. I do still try to keep a mix of viewpoints so my social media doesn’t become an echo chamber, though. It’s important to be challenged on your beliefs… it’s how you keep growing.