Don’t call John McEntee a legend. A simple “true fan” will do. The man may have been onboard the Starship Death Metal since day one and has survived to tell the tale, releasing few mighty classics along the way; but despite being in his 40s he still can rave on about his favourite metal albums or bands as if he first heard them yesterday, and he can still act the fanboy, giggling like a teenager when he reveals that last July, when Incantation played with Immolation in Belo Horizonte, he went straight up to former Sarcofago leader Wagner Antichrist who “was attempting to stay incognito at the show” so he could have his picture taken with him. And even over the phone you can still sense his excitement when mentioning “life-changing shows”, such as when Voivod and Kreator toured the US for the first time. Or when, in the fall of 1988, he did two shows in New York with Immolation and Morbid Angel. “Morbid had such a strong vibe… I mean, they were out for blood! Pete Sandoval had joined two months prior and their sound guy back then was Jon DePlachett from Necrovore so being able to pick those guys’ brains was very inspiring.” By that time, John was already well-versed in the underground, having had his big break two years prior, thanks to the overlooked thrash band Revenant. “I met them at the record store I was working. It was my first proper job. They used to come in and check the import section looking for Celtic Frost and Voivod. There wasn’t a lot of us looking for underground stuff in that area back then, New Jersey was mostly synonymous with poser music like Bon Jovi so we immediately bonded. I knew nothing about playing in a ‘real’ band and tape-trading so those guys opened me up to a whole new world, even if the closest thing happening where we lived was Ripping Corpse. So when they asked me to join Revenant, I jumped on the opportunity and immediately left my former band Hex, with whom I was doing mostly Sodom and Slayer covers. Revenant has always been [guitarist and vocalist] Henry Veggian and original bass player Paul Pratscher. As a matter of fact, I think Paul came up with the band’s name and Henry joined afterwards. Revenant’s music was 100 percent definable by one style at the same time: there was a little bit of hardcore, some speed and thrash elements to it but heavier, even if it wasn’t exactly death metal yet. We were mostly doing shows with hardcore, punk or thrash bands as we knew we were in a position where most of the people had never heard anything like that before. The first 18 months were really tough. We were booking concerts ourselves and sometimes nobody would show up! But in the second part of ’89, while things were really starting to take off, I realised we wanted different things. ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ had just come out and I was getting heavily into Necrophagia and Sarcofago so I was leaning towards a more extreme style of metal, but the rest of the guys wanted it to be more sophisticated and technical. Everybody thought I was crazy to leave, because we had just put out a 7” through Thrash records and Nuclear Blast wanted to sign the band, but I wasn’t feeling comfortable anymore and when Paul Ledney entered the picture; he briefly played drums for Revenant for about a month, we had such chemistry right away that it kind of urged me to do my own thing. This being said, Revenant still used four tracks of mine for their debut album and I’m still in touch with Henry and even asked him to let me record an exclusive cover of ‘Degeneration’ recently so we’re cool.”
Paul Ledney didn’t stick around very long though (“He stayed for about six months and then left because he was already into black metal and wanted to play that style of music, wear corpsepaint, do pictures nude with blood all over him and I wasn’t into that.”), but before leaving to form Profanatica, he stayed long enough to build the basis on which Incantation still stands today. Initially written for Revenant with the working title of ‘Isolated’ (“they deemed it as too dark but those words weren’t, and still aren’t, part of my vocabulary!”) ‘Unholy Massacre’ became the very first Incantation track; a guideline for things to come. Still, to this day, the band is mostly remembered for their debut album, ‘Onward To Golgotha’. Up to the point that in 2007 and 2008, John asked former vocalist Craig Pillard and drummer Jim Roe to briefly rejoin the band in order to perform it in its entirety for selected shows in the US. “If you read the magazines and don’t know shit about us, yeah, maybe you could think this is the only album worth hearing; but when I talk to fans at shows, I get a different vibe as we have a long history and now a vast discography to pick from. The two albums that get the most props are usually ‘…Golgotha’ and ‘Diabolical Conquest’ but I know that some people like the straight-forwardness of ‘Blasphemy’ for instance. Even my least favourite album, ‘Infernal Storm’, is revered by some. Also, you’ve got to remember that three of the songs off ‘…Golgotha’ were written with Paul Ledney. I mean, I don’t want to undervalue anybody’s contribution but truth be told, the ‘…Golgotha’ line-up is revered because of the way they performed those songs but not because they wrote it. Will Rahmer from Mortician deserves some credit in a way, as he briefly helped us on vocals in our early days and even did some shows with us. I even returned the favour by replacing Mortician’s very first guitar player who was having substance abuse problems until they found Roger Beaujard.
“Anyway, I already had my eyes set on Craig Pillard since he was playing guitar for Putrefact, I knew he also had a brutal voice and I knew it would fit us perfectly. But he was so worried about following Will that in retrospect I think it pushed him to go over the top for the recording of our debut. Anyway, back to those anniversary shows, to be honest at that time, I never thought there would be another Incantation album. I was tired doing everything by myself. Plus our long-term drummer Kyle Severn, with whom I’ve had a fantastic relationship since he first joined in ’94 after I stole him from Escalation Anger, had personal issues and couldn’t play anymore. So it felt like an occasion to end the band on a high note, and it was fun to play songs off the first two albums with those guys and recapture that feeling we had back then; but when it comes down to it, I guess it just wasn’t as important to Craig and to Jim as it was to me. I respect the fact that Craig simply doesn’t like death metal anymore but if you do something only because somebody asked you and not because your heart is fully into it, it ends up being half-assed.
“In January 2008, the day before we were supposed to leave for the Central Illinois Metalshow where we were due to play ‘…Golgotha’ in its entirety, he simply decided he didn’t want to go, so I had to learn all the lyrics on my way there and replace him at the eleventh hour. It made us realise that we wanted to stay on good terms with all those guys and that we needed to close that chapter and move on, for good. Nowadays, you’ve got Craig doing his thing in Disma and I’m doing mine in Incantation, despite similarities. Don’t get wrong, I like Disma, it’s a great band and Craig is a great vocalist. But I just don’t want to work with him anymore.”
Here we touch upon one the most crazy topics about the band, that insane line-up turnover they’ve been suffering from since day one, which even led a reference website like Metal-Archives to stop trying to list them all. This being said, Incantation’s 20-year-plus history reads like a who’s who of the US death metal scene, with as varied musicians as Daniel Corchado (Cenotaph, The Chasm), Rob Yench (Morpheus Descends, Mausoleum), Dave Culross (Suffocation, Malevolent Creation), Richard Christy (Death) or Reyash (Vader) having leant their talents at one point or another, for sometimes brief periods of time. You can feel John grinning when asked about the second part of the ’90s, where the genre seemed, excuse the pun, dead in the US and when it felt like he was fighting a lost cause. Even Craig Pillard briefly rejoined in 1997, despite the massive fallout he had with John when he and Jim Roe first left Incantation three years before. They nevertheless agreed with their then label Relapse to remix the band’s second album while messing with its tracklist to eventually re-release it as ‘Upon The Throne Of Apocalypse’ without John’s consent. “I never got into death metal to be popular but yeah, those times were tough,” he recalls. “But call me stubborn, I still had a lot of ambition at the time. After we did ‘…Golgotha’, we had a good following but soon after the release of ‘Mortal Throne Of Nazarene’ crowds at shows started to dwindle a little bit. More and more people got into black metal and it discouraged me because even if I liked some of those bands, I couldn’t understand why our fans were turning their backs on us. I guess it made me realise that not everybody who bought our first two albums were into the band but did so because it was a trend to listen to death metal in the early ’90s. I did what I had to do to go through those difficult times but truth be told it was becoming even hard to find musicians willing to play death metal as too many had jumped on the bandwagon and declared death metal as passé. Around ’95 we even had members pushing us to change our style and follow the cattle. Luckily, I had Kyle by my side and we stuck to each other and said ‘fuck the trends’. Daniel Corchado wasn’t like that. He was friend of the band and jumped onboard midway of a Mexican tour where we shared the bill with Rottrevore, with whom he was playing at the time as session member. We even became roommates for about a year in Cleveland and the one album we did with him [‘Diabolical Conquest’] turned out to be one of our best, but his heart was with The Chasm and he eventually moved to Chicago to relaunch the band from there.”
Eventually, John finally switched to vocals “kicking and screaming” in 2002 after then frontman Mike Saez got stabbed at a show in New York right before the release of ‘Blasphemy’. “That totally blew the wind out of his sails and he quit music soon after. I then understood that I had to do vocals or the ever-revolving door would never stop. But it took me about a year to fully feel comfortable about it”. Still, deterred by those obstacles, John started to drift away from Incantation. Since 2001, he’s been playing guitar in Funerus with his wife Jill (“It’s fun, I love it!”). In between 2007 and 2008, he also served a brief stint with longtime friends Goreaphobia with whom he co-wrote the song ‘Primal Nothingness’ that appeared on their debut ‘Mortal Repulsion’. All this while trying to set up his own imprint, Ibex Moon Records, named after one of Incantation’s most popular song. Alas, as we speak, after being active since 2004 and after two dozen releases, the label had to be put “on hiatus” since it became, according to John, “a casualty of illegal downloading: no matter how cheap I was selling stuff, I couldn’t beat free! After almost eight years, I just couldn’t allow myself to keep losing money”.
Yet, lurking in the shadows, the beast won’t die and slowly but surely, Incantation got back on their feet for this month’s release of ‘Vanquish In Vengeance’, their first album in over six years. “It got back together almost by accident. Initially, Chuck Sherwood (bass, also in Bloodstorm) and Alex Bouks (guitar, also in Goreaphobia) came in just to help me finish all the touring in 2008 but I really enjoyed jamming with them, and after about a year later Kyle said he was ready to rejoin. We instantly had the kind of chemistry that totally renewed my interest in the band, and the proof is in the pudding; that new album almost came together on its own. It was a total band effort and that’s something I hadn’t had in a long time as Alex is very opinionated and can stand up if he feels I haven’t come up with a good enough riff, while Chuck came up with a lot of lyrics inspired by different historical massacres as he’s a history nut.
“You know, I like straight-forward death metal but with Incantation I always knew it had to be a little bit more twisted and dark, expected but unexpected. We were very fortunate to have the time to forge our own brand of death metal yet I believe every album of ours has its own distinct personality. As a matter of fact we had too many songs to choose from for ‘Vanquish In Vengeance’ so we’ve already composed a good chunk of its follow-up. It hasn’t felt so good to be in Incantation in a long time.”
A version of this interview was printed in Iron Fist #2 available from our online store
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