Iron men from across the sea...
by David Lee Beowulf
There is an old legend among this people - that men of iron will come out of the sea and the city of Bal-Sagoth will fall! You with your mail and helmets, will seem as iron men to these folk who know nothing of armor! ...The people will look on you as gods.
-From The Gods of Bal-Sagoth by Robert E. Howard
Consider the heavy metal bar raised several notches now that Bal-Sagoth has carved a mile-wide path through the stygian wastes of black metal to forge their own music: Battle Metal! Bal-Sagoth, the very name screams: this is serious David Lee Beowulf music! As you shall see in this interview, no matter which way you feel about heavy metal or me, the essence of Bal-Sagoth, their origins in heroic literature, their commitment to heroic traditions and symphonic musical excellence, cannot fail to impress even the most pig-ignorant anti-metal philistine.
And that would not be your parents.
Quite the contrary… What if you'd grown up reading about heavy-armed warriors and mighty kings? What if the passion for all things heroic guided your genuine academic career? And don't forget to leave out a passion for music, especially metal -- and let's not leave out that the greatest operas focus on the heroic. Consider this: those medieval history professors just happen to be people who spend most of their lives living vicariously through a history of people who hit each other with big swords. And those music profs, they too spend nearly every waking hour listening over and over again to "music dramas" that tell of, oh, say a magic hero who rides a giant swan and wears a magic hat that makes him invisible, never mind the romantic stuff that goes along with it. I'll tell you one thing, if you want to get a Ph.D. with a double-major in medieval history and music, you'd be pretty smart to include not too few personal episodes with your loins girded in chainmail, axe in hand and plenty of battle-themed symphonies in your dissertation research (though you could end up being in a band like Nile if you major in Egyptology).
Welcome to the world of Bal-Sagoth, the band whose name stems from the writings of Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, Turlogh O'Brien, et al) and by thunder, they're sponsored by a for-real sword-making company!
My introduction to Bal-Sagoth, a band with five albums to their credit, came more than a year ago when I was in Kosovo designing Ogre Mounds for the US Army. Ink 19 central sent me a package with a lot of metal, Bal-Sagoth's The Power Cosmic being included. Can you not imagine the incredible structures of war I designed listening to these sounds?! Argh! Or, "Hooah!"
I spoke with frontman Byron, a literature major headquartered in Yorkshire, England who's turned his passion for lusty battle, heroic literature, and history into a full-blown metal eruption. This is freakin' awesome, folks!
Tell me about Robert E. Howard and your band, judging from the name you chose…
Well, it's called "Bal-Sagoth" because Robert E. Howard is my favorite author. And ever since I read the story The Gods of Bal-Sagoth, that name and that story completely captured my imagination since my childhood. When I was coming up with the concept for the Bal-Sagoth project, it was always that name I wanted to use, kind of the only name I had in mind to use for the project. Because it really just completely mirrored the whole concept I had in mind; the fantasy, the science fiction, and all that kind of thing, which is why, Howard is a major influence. It was adapted as a Conan story for the comic book [Conan The Barbarian #17], this was quite an obscure character named Turlogh O'Brien and his Saxon sidekick. They get shipwrecked on the island of Bal-Sagoth and they meet the queen, just one of the most exciting stories to read. [Note: you can find it in the out-of-print The Dark Man and Others, August Derleth's collection of Robert E. Howard's battle-thirsty Viking "romance" and other stories; I found mine for a buck on the street a few years ago!]
…an unseen stroke swept Turlogh's helmet from his head and he struck back blindly, feeling his ax sink into flesh, and hearing a man howl…
-Also from The Gods of Bal-Sagoth
Robert E. Howard is just about my favorite author of all time, too, and I crank up heavy metal when I'm reading that kind of stuff! Did you see the 1996 Howard biographical movie, The Whole Wide World?
That was interesting…
What did you think, knowing Howard's work, that influenced your band, compared to what the movie had to say about his life?
I was pretty disappointed with that, especially the way they portrayed him. They kind of portrayed him almost like a socially-inept kind of guy. The actor who played him [Vincent D'Onofrio] kind of played him as almost insane.
That's a good point. I liked the film, myself, if only because of the subject. What they didn't necessarily bring out was that Howard was a really good businessman, and HP Lovecraft -- mentioned in one fleeting moment in the film, in one of his letters, indicated that Howard was the only one of the group making money off his writing, being able to sell his stories on a regular basis. [Shoot! I should've asked if "In Search Of The Lost Cities Of Antarctica" is a variation of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness!]
That film, it was weird, quite a disappointment to me.
I did like the scene where he would scream out his stories while typing them simultaneously… So anyway, tell me about your new album.
It's called Atlantis Ascendant. It's the fifth epic in the Bal-Sagoth saga, and contains continuations from the most celebrated stories we've written over the years. For instance, the Hyperborean Empire Saga reaches its third and final chapter ["The Splendour of a Thousand Swords Gleaming Beneath the Blazon of the Hyperborean Empire (Part: III)"] on that one, which a lot of the fans are looking forward to, especially. It's another kind of epic slice of bombastic, symphonic, avant-garde black metal.
Do you like being "symphonic" black metal?
Absolutely! That's our prime directive. It's what we always set out to do. When I was trying to formulate the concept for the band, I wanted to be very symphonic, using keyboards in an orchestral kind of way, pushing the envelope of the genre concerning what these kinds of bands are and what they're widely perceived as not being able to do.
You hit on an excellent point there. These bands should be capable of doing that, because a lot of the black metal and death metal to a lot of people is just noise, but if they are to hear it actually incorporate a lot of symphonic music, a lot of opera… For me, the theme of "battle metal" is enough, but well-muscled guys with swords getting babes is an added bonus… How are you received by other black metal bands/fans?
In England, we don't tend to get a great deal of acceptance from other bands. They tend to look at us as a little bit too "out there." They tend to look at us as almost a kind of novelty.
What about the Swedish and/or Norwegian bands?
They tend to look at us in the same way. We have a lot of support from the fans in Sweden… And we've toured with Emperor, Marduk, and Dark Funeral, and they're nice guys, but they're all into the Satanic side of things, and for us to be doing what we do, they tend to look at us as quite strange for doing it. You get the feeling that it's not the kind of thing that they would particularly be interested in.
I think it's important that they respect you, though.
That is important. That is the one thing we have from all the bands we tour with, their respect. For having the ability to pull it off.
Do you have a stage show?
We kind of have a stage show; we hope some day to get enough money together to mount this super-impressive stage show utilizing all kinds of stuff, elaborate lighting effects and pyrotechnics, lasers, snow machines, a cast of extras in full costume, animals…
Battles on stage!
Yeah! That would be great. Because we've had a lot of contact with re-enactment societies and they'll do it for us, they'll come on stage in full armor… At the moment, we've got a sponsorship deal with a company here in England that sells and distributes replica weaponry, Battle Orders Limited, they import a lot of stuff from Italy and Spain. They provided me with all kinds of weapons and helmets and in return we promote them.
In your promo photos, you've got some pretty big Claymore-type swords.
We've got all kinds of weapons like that. The most recent photograph has me holding what's known as the "Terminator" sword, which is a massive blade; it's taller than our drummer, actually and it's huge, really fantasy-oriented. I've got the Conan sword, what they call the Merlin sword, Excalibur, Siegfried's blade and Viking chieftain's swords, all kinds of weapons.
What about Beowulf's sword, Hrunting?
Not yet. I've seen it, it's in one of the new catalogs.
I've got to get that...
And they do all the Claymores, the Ramshead Claymore, the Claymore that was used in Braveheart. That's basically what we use in our stage show. I've got a leather gladiatorial mask and I heft these swords around. The other guys they wear war paints like the ancient Celts used to wear [Note: Byron pronounces it "kelts," the right way, you klowns!] So that's pretty much the extent of our stage show at the moment. Until we can get the funds together to be able to mount something truly amazing.
"...The Vikings would only agree to spare you on condition that you be bound to the mast. They know you of old."
-Also also from The Gods of Bal-Sagoth
[I tell of my Kosovo experience and discovering Bal-Sagoth.]
OK, that was an exhilarating weaponry sidebar… tell me more about the songs on Atlantis Ascendant.
Several of them are actually linked by being part of this mini-concept: When people have the lyric booklet in hand, they're presented in the text of the lyrics, being excerpts from the field journal from this 19th-century explorer who is relating his expeditions in search of the site of arcane power and esoteric knowledge in the world. Advanced civilizations of the earth, like Atlantis, Hyperboria, that kind of thing. And as his journey continues and he gathers the fragments to the puzzle, he discovers a certain truth of mankind and the true nature of creation and ultimately confronts these non-human forces who are at-large, trying to put an end to his quest. It comes to quite a bad end, actually, this explorer... They find his body years later in front of the great temple of Tiahuanaco in Peru. Additionally, there's other songs on there as well, that are within the same fantasy universe that I've created, like the third part of the Hyperborean saga. An allegorical story called Draconis Albionensis that tells of the final battle of the dragon lords of ancient Albion, as they face this insidious eastern foe which has invaded their realm. It's [an] allegorical tale in the sense that the deeper meaning is that the dragon lords can be seen as the pagan people of olden times and the polytheistic traditions of days gone past and the insidious foe is a veiled reference to Christianity across northern Europe. So we have quite a good mixture of stories on the new album.
It sounds to me as though you're really a novelist who's product is this music and these albums…
That's interesting, because I've written quite a few short stories.
Are you published?
Well, I've got some interest from publishers at the moment as they've noticed quite a degree of interest as far as the band goes. Maybe they'll capitalize on that and print these stories. I've also written a lot of graphic novel scripts which are going to be illustrated by a team of artists working for us, like Martin Hanford, who painted our album covers. Then there's a Portuguese artist named Samuel Santos, who studied at the Joe Kubert School of Comic Art, he's a top-notch comic book artist and I'm sure people are going to be seeing more of him in the years to come, and he's interested in illustrating some of these scripts. Although the platform I initially chose to tell these stories was a musical one, I'd like to get into prose and actually publish these things as novels and graphic novels.
What's your academic background?
I went to Sheffield-Hallem University in Yorkshire for three years and got a BA with honors in English literature.
Is that anywhere near the Jorvick (York) Viking Centre?
Exactly! York is the capital of the country, from whence the name Yorkshire comes. Jorvik is an excellent city. I've been there so many times; you walk around the history. There's ancient history, pre-Celtic, Medieval…
…Viking, everything you could want; it's there in York.
Has Bal-Sagoth played in the Viking centre, then?
We haven't actually played there.
I could imagine you playing there.
I have done quite a few re-enactment battle shows there.
Not associated with the band?
It's kind of a separate thing to the band. Medieval things like Wars of the Roses with members of the various societies; we go around the country putting on these shows. York has a Viking Festival every year and I've done some battles there.
I have plans to go there.
The Viking Festival is in the winter… I've been all over the world and York is about the finest city I've been in, I just love it.
You've been around the world, eh? What's your touring history like?
We've just come back from the No Mercy tour in Europe, and that was an interesting twelve-day package with bands like Marduk, Vader, Mortician.
Sounds like an international metalfest!
Yeah, there were bands from Finland, the USA, Germany, Sweden, all kinds of places. That was really cool because it was the first tour that we'd done in four years. The last tour we did before that was '97 with Emperor. Then we had all kinds of line-up problems in the years following that, so we weren't able to get out there on tour. So this was kind of our reintroduction to the live environment, which was excellent. There's actually talk at the moment, we've just confirmed our availability, for the tour of the USA starting in July, I think it's called the Summertime Slaughter Tour.
Yeah! Should be interesting, Vader's on the bill, Skinless, I think Decapitated. That's be about four weeks in July.
What do you think if Bal-Sagoth were to tour with some of the European symphonic bands like Rhapsody?
That would be quite interesting. We do, actually, have quite a few fans who aren't really Black Metal fans, but they like us because of our very symphonic sounds and they cite all those other bands like Rhapsody as their other interests.
I say your mix is fantastic, especially the symphonic sounds, that raise the music to another level, injecting real battle visions in my head!
Our stuff does conjure up all those images, it's very cinematical, our material. That's why if anybody ever approached us to do a soundtrack for a film or a video game…
I could see you doing a video game. Have you seen anything to do with the upcoming Lord of the Rings films?
I've seen the trailers and previews. Christopher Lee [as Saruman] is a great bit of casting. The whole band's really into video games, and we've got some of the guys who programmed Unreal Tournament and Diablo II that are really big fans of the band and are kind of really into [it]. One of the guys said to me that one day, he'll set up his own software house and one of his projects will be to program a game based on the Bal-Sagoth universe!
I could see an enhanced CD in your future with the game.
That's one of the main things I'm aiming for in the next several years. Making the jump from audio CDs into the world of interactive work.
Let's talk about lineup issues, how stable has the band been?
Over the years it's been very unstable, actually. There's a core of three people; which is myself, who does all the concepts, there's Johnny [Maudling] who does about 95% of the music, and his brother Chris, who also helps with the music. Those three are the only ones who've been in it from the beginning. We've lost drummers and keyboard players and bassists, session members, along the way.
How many ideal people make up Bal-Sagoth, the band?
That's interesting. We have only one guitarist in the band. Then we've just recruited a new bass player [Mark Greenwell] and a new drummer as well [David Mackintosh]. It think what we've got now is the ultimate lineup. These guys, their attitude is correct, their musical ability is up to standard. Ideally, if we weren't touring or we were never going to play live again, we wouldn't need anyone other than those three core members, because Johnny can also play drums as well as keyboards, and Chris can also play the bass as well as the guitar. And I also play bass. But because we like touring, we recruited the extra two guys in order to recreate the stuff live. I think five people is probably about right.
What kind of women fans are interested in Bal-Sagoth?
Most of the fan mail I get from women, they're very kind of intelligent women who think very deeply about the subjects. And they're really into the whole esoteric and mythological side of the band, which is really cool. And the ones that we get coming up to us on tour, they're always really excellent looking girls. On the last tour, there were these two Dutch girls about five-foot-eight with long blonde hair, and I was thinking, "shit, if these are the kind of girls who are into Bal-Sagoth, I'm not complaining!" Really, really nice looking girls. And there were some Italian girls in Milan that were really beautiful. They looked almost like models and everything. I think on the whole, the kind of girls that like Bal-Sagoth are pretty decent.
Well, warriors are supposed to get these kind of women.
Absolutely, the heroic warrior always ends up with the woman, like rescuing the princess, the tavern wench, or that kind of thing.
Or dead, yeah. I think they can see a little bit of veiled romanticism in our music, particularly on our earlier stuff, I'm talking about witches and sorceresses, and I tend to think our women fans see themselves in that capacity, dark, very powerful women, who are versed in the arcane arts.
I'd like to say it's cool that the people in the USA are slowly awakening to the power of Bal-Sagoth, especially since we got the Nuclear Blast deal which means that our stuff may be a bit more readily available than when we were on the previous label, Cacophonous. I just hope to be over there soon and meet a lot of the fans.
Thanks, Lord Byron!
Excellent is right! A metal band sponsored by a sword company? Well, all right! Just imagine, "the official sword of Bal-Sagoth." Of course! That's a lot flashier than some lousy beer company… Check out the band's amazing, incredible, Battle-Metal worthy Web site -- man, now those are T-shirts!