PHASE 1: 15 Years Of Blazing Swords, Crimson Rain And Majestic Vistas.
Story online since: 04.03.2008 / 16:43:26
There is bombast, and then there is bombast. Epic, majestic, call it whatever - many try, most fail. From the British Isles comes BAL-SAGOTH, for a decade and a half over and over again setting even higher standards in narrative conceptuality and the aforementioned adjectives. "Too many trumpets". "Sounds like a comic book". The taunts have been many, yet none that may touch these infamous warrior kings. You may worship them, you may detest them, but one truth is constant - over their 15 years of existence, they have trodden their own singular path, fearlessly looking forward into the unknown, granting blissful wonders to those who dare to follow. In my search for illumination, I conjured up a spiritual connection to the ultimate driving force behind Bal-Sagoth, Lord Byron Roberts, and one of the masterminds behind the music, Jonny Maudling. (Additional queries phrased by Trident.)
PREFACE: RECOLLECTIONS AND FOREBODINGS
It has now been about 1½ years since The Chthonic Chronicles was released, and it has received great acclaim from many magazines (including this). It feels though as a sort of summary, gathering different aspects from its five predecessors, and at the end returning to Hatheg-Kla where A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria once began. What is happening in Bal-Sagoth these days? Are you blissfully dreaming of the splendours of youth, or gathering forces to strike again when the stars are right?
BYRON: Well there are currently no firm plans to release a seventh album. That doesn't mean that it will never happen, it's just that we're not planning on it at any point in the immediately foreseeable future. There's certainly no shortage of inspiration or material, it's just that at this point in the legend of Bal-Sagoth (15 years old in 2008!) I feel that if there are ever to be any further albums, then a number of conditions simply MUST be right. One of them is that a really dedicated and suitable label must be ready and willing to release the work. I will never allow Bal-Sagoth to go down the "self-released" road, as that would clearly be a backward step, and would tarnish the mystique and reputation of the band. Sure, that method might work fine for some bands, and good luck to them, but it's not for Bal-Sagoth. Any theoretical future deal that we sign would have to be tailored very specifically to the band before I even think of licensing any further material. At this stage, we can make our own schedule, our own plan of attack, our own strategy. We've proved that we're not some flash-in-the-pan band with a sell-by date. We're an enduring force in extreme metal, and we could potentially leave it another 10 years before we released another album, and we'd still find an audience for it. We will not bow to the pressures of the music industry or play exclusively by its rules. That's one of the prime Bal-Sagoth mandates.
Another factor would be that the material would have to be 100% perfect and suitable before it's even considered for release. This band is an extreme metal band, I always envisioned it as such, and any future output would accordingly be extreme. Over the years, in certain respects, we may have lost sight of that directive somewhat regarding the music. There won't be any such compromise for any theoretical future material. Rest assured, we are watching... and waiting.
If and when the time is right, we will let the world know accordingly.
I'm also working on various short stories and graphic novels based on my lyrics, which are being illustrated by the artist Martin Hanford. There are plans to publish those. And of course, in the meantime you may well hear new stuff from Jonny (keyboards) or Chris (guitar) not under the Bal-Sagoth name. They're not exclusively chained to Bal-Sagoth after all, so they could easily release side projects until such time as we think about the possibility of another album. Another plan is to do some shows in 2008 around Europe and the rest of the world. We're certainly open to any offers from promoters who may be interested in booking Bal-Sagoth, so anyone can submit a proposal and it will be considered. So, basically we're currently not under any pressure to do anything and are ruling our vast empire unopposed.
Yes, you seem to have had some problems with record labels - your first three albums were released by Cacophonous (of whom no band seem to have anything nice to say), and the latter trilogy through Nuclear Blast, whom I believed you attacked pretty fiercely in a statement on your website a few years ago. What have the exact problems been (if you are willing to enlighten us)? You don't seem to be the only band having issues with these two labels.
B: I can't remember attacking NB on the site at all... I might have been drunk! There were never really any major problems with NB. They left us alone to do our thing, which is always important. No, for the most part the labels did pretty much the best they could do (or were prepared to do) for us. The problems we've had with labels has been pretty much the standard stuff which most bands experience. Nothing new or out of the ordinary. Cacophonous was a small label with limited resources, who didn't like parting with money. I remember they made us use the same tape reels and record over the first album when we were in the studio for the second one, instead of just buying new reels! And NB was a big label with limited time to devote to us. I think that NB could have done a lot more to promote the sixth album, particularly after it got such good reviews around the world. And the promotion in USA for it was practically zero. Also they didn't do anything at all to help us when Armageddon Music fucked up the Bal-Sagoth tracks on the Wacken 2004 CD. But whatever. This is all par for the course in the music industry.
You say that you have in certain respects lost sight of the extremity in your music. Would you have wished the albums you released at the end of the century to have been more extreme?
B: Perhaps, but only in certain respects. I think maybe the third, fourth and fifth albums would have benefited from having a more extreme essence in the compositions and a more brutal, nasty edge to the music overall.
You use, among others, the term "avant-garde" to describe Bal-Sagoth's music. In the sphere of metal, how do you think this term should be used? What does it mean to you? How long have you used it? And the silly question for which the answer is apparent - what makes Bal-Sagoth avant-garde?
B: That was just one of many adjectives that has been employed to describe our material over the years. In truth, it's probably no more or less appropriate than any number of other descriptors or superlatives. I would suppose that the thing which makes us in any way avant-garde is that we have always striven to push the boundaries, take risks, and experiment boldly with our art. We never looked at what anyone else was doing, rather we always thought it was important to carve our own original and innovative niche. The passing of time and the judgement of history will ultimately decide whether or not we were successful.
Bal-Sagoth seems for some to be quite hard to get into. What advice do you have for those interested? Where is the proper place to begin exploring Bal-Sagoth? For many the Battle Magic album seems like an introduction (especially A Tale From The Deep Woods, which was the first song I heard).
B: Well I would recommend starting with the first album and moving to the sixth. Progress in a chronological fashion. Although the stories certainly aren't presented chronologically over the course of the six albums, it's still best to listen to them in the order they were released, so that you can see the musical journey of the band.
OF MYTHOS & A GATHERING OF THE STRANGELY MALEFIC
Your canon of writings encompassing all lyrics of Bal-Sagoth and much more is a truly immense creation, rather hard to summarize in a few sentences for someone who is not the creator of it. Fortunately, you are the creator of it. Tell us, or at least tell those ignorant of Bal-Sagoth; what are your creations, this epic (to say the least) body of work? A brief overview?
B: Well, the world of the lyrics is a vast place, complete with its own history, cosmology, theology, evolutionary record, etc. It spans countless millennia, and the stories are roughly divided into several eras, including the antediluvian period in which all the "sword & sorcery" stories are set, the historical period which chronicles various ages of mankind up to and including the present day, and the future era, during which all the "science-fiction" oriented lyrics take place. All the stories are connected, all are different chapters of the same overall saga. The lyrical world is in essence built upon a foundation of denied primacy, and the underlying theme of the stories is at heart quite nihilistic. Certain ancient cosmic deities are recurring characters in all the Bal-Sagoth albums, and the six albums constitute a condensed history of this alternate universe, albeit being but a small part of a much larger body of work. I've written a newly expanded A-Z glossary of all the primary elements of the lyrics, which will make everything much clearer for both the dedicated and casual reader alike.
Yes, when will that updated glossary be published? I've been waiting for it since 2001!
B: Yeah, sorry for the long wait! I'm just waiting for all the accompanying illustrations to be finished, and then I'll start deciding what format in which to make it available. Thanks to everyone for their continued patience!
The graphic novels you mentioned above has indeed been long awaited by the Bal-Sagoth supporters. Have you ever though about publishing your works in standard book format, as a collection of short stories like the Silmarillion, covering all you have written?
B: Yes indeed, that's one of the projects I'm working on even now. It will be illustrated with a series of fantastic character illustrations by Martin Hanford, and will also feature some stuff from the artist Samuel Santos. Getting it all together is a slow process, which is why things have taken so long.
Let's move back a decade. The biggest step for Bal-Sagoth lyric-wise seem to have been from the first to the second album, from a more standard metal lyric layout to the vast sagas of the Obsidian Crown for example. What happened in between? Were the stories already there or did your creativity explode in 1995?
B: Well, really it was just a case of finding out how much I could get away with regarding pushing the boundaries of structure and presentation. No other band had really done that "extra content" aspect of the lyrics in that way before, or at least not to that degree, and I wasn't sure if people would embrace it or not. (Some people still complain that they can't easily read along to the songs because there's so much additional prose in the booklets!) I wasn't even sure if the label would go for it. But they did. The stories already existed, but there's still a limit to how much you can fit into a 20 page lyric booklet, and I still had to cut out a lot of content from all the albums. I just figured that if I was going to tell these stories, I might as well do it in a way that was interesting and even challenging.
You are, apparently, extremely gifted in the using of words. For how long have you written? Do you only write things connected to the Bal-Sagoth universe?
B: I first started writing my own stuff when I was a kid, inspired by Marvel comics and similar things. Over the years I created a lot of my own fantasy worlds which were all linked to some degree by a common narrative thread. At university I continued with a lot of creative writing and just added to the whole mythos. What appears in the lyric booklets of the albums is only a very small percentage of the overall body of work. Everything I write tends to be set within the same alternate reality universe, albeit dealing with varying eras and periods of history.
Do you perceive any truth behind your fantastic ideas - antediluvian (pre)human civilisations interfering with evolution (as in Clarke), stellar beings superior to man (as in Lovecraft), etc? Or are you as Lovecraft, a completely atheistic materialist channelling "ordinary" feelings and dreams into fantastic writing? Are there any underlying "political" values, beside the apparent anti- monotheistic ones?
B: Yes indeed, a great deal of my writings are inspired by my own beliefs concerning the true origin of mankind and the nature of the universe. There are countless great mysteries waiting to be solved, countless secrets waiting to be uncovered... we need only be wary of those who guard such ancient knowledge! Yes, certain political concepts are explored in the lyrics too, albeit in a very allegorical and veiled manner.
As a writer and as a vocalist, what inspires your specific outlets? I'm thinking more of the poetic side of your texts (such as Of Carnage & A Gathering Of Wolves) rather than the larger constructions of the Bal-Sagoth multiverse.
B: All my inspirations are summoned more or less from the same sources, regardless of the ultimate form or style which the work takes. Pulp sci-fi, fantasy and horror stories are primary influences, as are comic books and fantastic & imaginative media in general. Mythology, history, the occult, and science also provide me with a large amount of inspiration.
How and when did you start to read weird fiction? When did you began to write your own? And the natural following question, how and when did you get into extreme metal? What was it in these two (not too dissimilar) worlds that got you hooked?
B: I guess I first started reading weird fiction in the comic book format as a young child, and then graduated to prose stories from there. Comic books actually helped me to learn to read. If I came across a word in a comic I didn't understand, I'd look it up and learn it! Going from comics to the prose stories was the next step in the education. I got into metal much later, during my early teenage years. My favourite kinds of metal bands were those that had fantastic and weird lyrical topics and themes, so certainly the connection was embodied in that way. Imagination, dynamism, excitement, power, horror... all these things should be present in both the best weird fiction and the best metal.
Please, tell us which are your favourite works of the weird and wonderful (any medium; short stories, novels, videogames, graphic novels etc). A completely arbitrary choice which one should not have lived without experiencing.
B: For literature (both prose and comic format), these are essential authors: Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Kirby, J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Clark Ashton Smith, David Gemmell, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Arthur C. Clarke. Any fan of fantasy, sci-fi and horror should have books by these masters on their bookshelf! Sure, you can read new stuff by contemporary authors, but you should always check out the legendary masters of the genre and experience the genius of the true innovators and craftsmen.
What do you feel about the underlying Christianity in a lot of mainstream fantasy? Both CS Lewis and George Lucas are/were open Christians, and I've seen horrifyingly messianic interpretations of both Aragorn and that little British wizard brat. The struggle between good and evil is of course older than Jesus Christ, but I at least feel that it has been slightly tainted by those who yield to the cruciform phallic symbol. How do you feel about that? Which side prevails in your Multiverse?
B: It's just an inevitable result of our monotheistic society that great works of literature should be in parts inspired by and interpreted from such a theological standpoint. However, the LOTR can just as easily be read and enjoyed from a heathen perspective as it can from monotheistic one. Tolkien summoned the vast majority of his inspiration from Northern European mythology, drawing particularly heavily from the rich wellspring of Anglo-Saxon heathen myth, which has a great deal in common with both Germanic and Norse mythology. Lewis also filled his Narnia books with iconic pagan creatures and suchlike. Similarly, Lucas deliberately made the concept behind The Force a very vague one, incorporating elements from many strands of world myth and polytheistic belief into his saga. Lucas infused the SW saga with elements as diverse as Zen Buddhism, European shamanism, Native American beliefs, Shintoism, the Oriental belief in the Chi, and much more.
I can't comment on Harry Potter because I've never read any of those books.
In my own multiverse, the gods and cosmic entities are many in number, and the malefic ones invariably prevail. Many of the stories are told from the point of view of the villains, because after all a villain is just a hero with different motivations.
How do you incorporate other's creations into your own mythos? I'm referring to Stan Lee's Silver Surfer in The Scourge Of The Fourth Celestial Host on Power Cosmic and most recently Lovecraft's Cthulhu in Shackled To The Trilithon Of Kutulu on The Chthonic Chronicles.
B: The Silver Surfer song is a standalone piece, and is not considered to be part of the overall lyrical mythos. It's just a tribute to the creative genius of Lee and Kirby. Same with the Cthulhu song, as Lovecraft's work is such a great inspiration to me.
T: The theme of war is really strong in your lyrics. Would you consider yourself a war enthusiast, or is it the values like bravery and brotherhood, that seems to have been lost in today’s world, that fascinates you about the whole theme of war?
B: I'm not a war enthusiast as such, but I've always been captivated by tales of wars, battles, campaigns, et al. The grand theatre of battle is such a rich and varied backdrop of adventure and excitement, replete with all the best and worst elements of humanity such as heroism, idealism, genius, brutality, betrayal, etc. The rise and fall of nations and empires is to me a fascinating subject, as is the impetus behind conflict and the mindsets of those involved. The skill of great strategists and leaders is compelling, as are the political and cultural elements which underpin war and the causes of war. For good or ill, humanity's history has always been shaped by conflict.
T: To what extent does the multiverse of Bal-Sagoth collude with our world? Is it completely external? I ask since you implement events and cites of our world into your lyrics like Angkor Wat or the fire of 1666 that destroyed most of London back then.
B: The period of the lyrical universe which deals with the events of recorded human history is intended to be a sort of mirror universe to our own, an alternate reality which resembles ours in almost every respect. The idea is that it's a reality very close to ours, almost indistinguishably close, except for a few pivotal details throughout history. Many of the changes are minor, which a dimensional traveller familiar with the "real" course of history probably wouldn't even notice if he/she were to visit the lyrical universe, whereas some other changes/variations are considerably more pivotal. For all intents and purposes, the historical epochs of the lyrical universe are designed to be integrated seamlessly with the more blatantly fictional eras to form one contiguous timeline. When I write about real world events and places in the lyrics, they are essentially intended to represent the genuine articles, albeit existing in the alternate universe of the lyrical world.
There's been an upswing of mainstream fantasy and comic book related movies the last couple of years - Tolkien, Lewis, Stan Lee, Potter, Beo- wulf etc. Being a vehicle for quite elaborate fantasy/weird fiction writ- ings, has this affected Bal- Sagoth in any way, and if so, how? Why do you think this has happened just in the last ten-or-so years?
B: Things tend to go in cycles in the movie world, and right now it looks like we're in the closing phases of the latest fantasy resurgence in cinema. Back in the early to mid 80's there was a similar fantasy boom, when the world was still basking in the afterglow of the revolutionary Star Wars event. Certainly the advent of CGI in the movie world in the last 15 years or so has allowed filmmakers to create fantastic worlds to a much more expansive degree than was ever previously possible, and many creators have taken advantage of this to present truly epic and immersive fantasy experiences.
This is all good, as it means that some of the world's best loved fantasy and sci-fi literary properties can finally be adapted to cinema on the grand scale which they require. Whether it's movie versions of fantasy novels, comic books or game adaptations, the current wave of genre releases is certainly a glorious spectacle. The only danger is that the market will become saturated with a succession of poorly made projects which fail at the box office, which will ultimately mean studios will stop funding such pictures again. One thing that really bugs me is the current trend of remaking classic sci-fi and horror movies. I hope that's a trend that will soon cease.
To spare the sanity of the frail minds of our esteemed readers, the chronicles are here abandoned... But do not despair, for soon the conclusion will come, with diabolic revelations and horrendous foreseeings of the dim future, as THE KEYMASTER RETURNS!
Live photos (hooded Byron) taken in Helsinki, Finland, courtesy of Anna, moremetal.org. Thank you!