From black metal to Bliss Signal

James Kelly.

Black metal act Altar Of Plagues operated on a different level to their peers. They may have formed in Cork but they never seemed of the city. The mystique they acquired was due mostly to the astute guidance of their linchpin James Kelly, who eschewed the treadmill of regular gigging to build something more mysterious. Thanks to their grandiose and uncompromising sound, the band achieved international recognition and respect.

Not one for sitting on his laurels, after three albums Kelly disbanded Altar Of Plagues and returned with the dark and soulful electronic project WIFE. Confounding further expectations he emerged last year with Bliss Signal, the unlikely collaboration with grime artist Jack Adams aka Mumdance.

Despite being firmly rooted in the underground Kelly manages to make a living from music. The last year or two has seen him produce Hilary Woods’ album Colt, co-compose the score for the Ryan Philippe television vehicle Shooter, and work with fashion brands like Chanel, Fendie, Dior, as well as on a global campaign for Nike.

“I feel like the electronic music thing is what maybe opened the door a little bit to that world, but then when it came down to working with them it was also just my ability to deliver what they were looking for,” he reports from his studio in Berlin.

“At the end of the day I am not getting to create some sort of intense heavy metal soundtrack for fashion as much as I very wish that would be the case.”

Kelly’s obsession with music began with Nirvana, Metallica and The Prodigy, and his early teenage years were spent hanging around Cork City’s Paul Street area in the early noughties along with hoards of similarly black-clad youths. It’s an era he looks back on with a certain fondness.

“As much as people might like to laugh at or put down what that place was, I think it was very important and much needed,” he suggests. “The very existence of a hundred teenagers dressed in black clothes, wearing dog collars and nail varnish was very confrontational but very important in a country that is as conservative as Ireland.”

The dog collars may be discarded but musically Kelly is as confrontational as ever. If ever a name suited a project it’s Bliss Signal, and alongside Adams he orchestrates ominous sheets of electronic noise and militaristic beats. While Adams won’t be present for Bliss Signal’s Cork debut at Cork Sound Fair — their mutual friend Nino Pedone aka techno producer Shapednoise is his replacement — Kelly is looking forward to the event.

“It’s been a very long time since I played in Cork so I’m quite excited to get back there. It looks like a really nice festival,” he enthuses. “I’m excited to see what a cool line up they have and I’m flattered to get to be a part of it.”

Finally, when asked what the teenage James would have thought of his older self working for fashion brands his response is typically measured.

“I think I’d have been down for it because the thing I’m glad for about it is I don’t feel I’ve ever had to make any compromises that I felt would damage my artistic integrity or that did harm to what would be my ideals as a human in the world. I’ve never had to do anything that I didn’t feel good about, thankfully.

“I spent enough time waitering, working in bars, even walking dogs, just to pay the rent in order to keep a roof over my head while really my head was elsewhere and wanted to get musical ideas out of me. So I think teenage James would be very happy to see me where I’m at now and actually paying my rent and doing what I love to do.”

Cork Sound Fair runs from Thursday to Sunday. Bliss Signal play Dali (former Pav) on Carey’s Lane on Sunday.

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