I still hadn’t quite managed to recover from the shock of listening to an album of the unique nature of "The Chthonic Chronicles", when I realised that I was given the opportunity to interview Byron, Bal Sagoth’s frontman. Now, I was quite convinced that a person who had the ability to create his own fantasy world through his lyrics, would have many interesting things to say, and this interview proves how right I was. Welcome to another dimension!
Hi Byron. I am sure you must be quite anxious to see how the band's sixth full-length album is going to be received by the metal community. Are you feeling confident enough?
Byron: Sure. Although the receptions of our albums have never really mattered a great deal to us. We create this music first and foremost to assuage our own artistic desires, and of course to please our die-hard fan base. If anyone else likes it too, that's just an added bonus.
Talking about people's reaction to your music, how important is it the opinion of the music journalists, and that of the metal community or the members of Bal Sagoth? Have you had many favourable reviews so far in your career?
Byron: Truthfully, we have never taken much notice of reviews, good or bad. We've always elicited a love/hate kind of response from the press, with some really glorious reviews, and some truly terrible ones too. It's good that this kind of extreme art evokes such extreme responses.
OK, let's concentrate on your latest musical experiment that's entitled "The Chthonic Chronicles". This album came out three years after your previous effort "Atlantis Ascendant" saw the light of day. Why took you guys such a long time, and how did you manage to keep yourselves creatively active in between those two albums?
Byron: Actually, it's a full five years between the release of "Atlantis Ascendant" and "The Chthonic Chronicles"! Since "Atlantis Ascendant", we did a couple of European tours, played two festivals, played a few one off gigs, and changed our drummer. And of course we wrote and recorded the sixth album!
Also, I have been working on some Bal-Sagoth comic books with our artist Martin Hanford, and then our keyboard player. Jonny wrote some music for an online computer role-playing game.
We also took quite a long time to create this album because we were almost waiting for recording technology to catch up to our vision of what we wanted a Bal-Sagoth album to sound like!
In the past when we recorded mainly on analogue media and equipment, we always found that we were almost running out of recording tracks, and that the medium wasn't flexible enough to incorporate all our strange ideas, subtle nuances and multi-layered audial soundcapes. With the advent of digital technology, we found that we could finally work in an almost unlimited environment, for example achieving truly organic sounding choirs and highly genuine orchestral effects, all without worrying about running out of tracks! Certain parts of "Atlantis Ascendant" were recorded digitally, but "The Chthonic Chronicles" is our first album to be created 100% in the digital realm.
Of course one of the problems was getting to grips with the technology and manipulating it to its best extent, which is one of the reasons why the album took so long. And then of course the other reason why it took such a long time is because we don't do Bal-Sagoth as a job, it's just a kind of hobby, so there were limits to how much time we could spend on things during any given day or week.
As a musician you must constantly feel the need of evolving your sound and of bringing your music to the next level. Are there any new elements introduced in "The Chthonic Chronicles"?
Byron: Yes indeed, the subtle musical evolution which has always occurred between our albums is once again evident with the new release. Although our style, sound and approach will never drastically change from album to album, there are some interesting new touches with the sixth opus. Primary amongst these is the highly genuine sounding orchestral and choral effects which we've managed to achieve with the implementation of the new digital recording procedure and apparatus. The synth effects are pretty much the most compelling and realistic we've had thus far, and we're rather pleased with them. I'm particularly fond of the male and female choral samples and effects on the new album. It's what I like to call a "synthetic symphony".
"The Chthonic Chronicles", is the last part of the trilogy which began back in 1999, with the release of "The Power Cosmic". Did you manage to bring this story to an end? Give us an idea of what the lyrical context of the album is all about.
Byron: The only reason why I divided the six albums into two trilogies is really to differentiate the three albums on Cacophonous from the three albums on Nuclear Blast. I tend to look at all the releases as one big six part album. "The Chthonic Chronicles" is in many ways the culmination of the entire hexalogy.
Although in certain respects it is a direct continuation of "Atlantis Ascendant" which fans must be at least somewhat familiar with in order to fully understand some of the thematic references, the new album also hearkens back to many of the story arcs and concepts spanning all of the albums so far.
The essence of the new album is that it is the actual embodiment of an ancient occult grimoire, which contains terrifying lore and blasphemous information concerning mankind's true origin and the true nature of various hideous and malign entities which roam the universe, primarily the deadly and sinister demon-god Khthon.
The various translations of the original manuscript have been sought by occultists and diabolists throughout history, and the album is a journey through the pages of this imaginary book and its sinister contents. Also on the album is the long awaited continuation of the "Obsidian Crown" story, which began in 1996 on the "Starfire Burning..." album! There is also a prequel to the song "The Dreamer In The Catacombs Of Ur" on the album, entitled "Unfettering The Hoary Sentinels Of Karnak", which explains the events leading to Dr. Ignatius Stone's fateful expedition to Ur.
Fans of the extensive lyrical mythos will be interested by some of the revelatory information and insights into some of the favourite characters, too. The album essentially culminates with young Xerxes experiencing a terrifying epiphany which has a serious effect on his destiny and the path he subsequently follows. The album basically has relevance to the whole saga so far.
Byron, do you believe that someone who has never listened to Bal Sagoth before, and who is not aware of this link that brings together all of the band's releases, will manage to get the same feeling and satisfaction from "The Chthonic Chronicles", as the band's long-term fans will? Is your new album capable of standing out as an autonomous release, rather than simply as part of a trilogy?
Byron: Yes, essentially the new album can be enjoyed as a stand alone entity or as part of a greater overall saga if the listener truly wishes to experience the full Bal-Sagoth effect. However, like any multi-part work, there are many references on the new album which only people familiar with the previous releases will truly appreciate.
Bal Sagoth has a very devoted fan base. Are you happy with that? Do you believe that the quite specialised album covers as well as song titles such as "And Lo, When The Imperium Marches Against..." can deprive fans of ‘easy listening’ metal to invest in the band?
Byron: Yes, that's certainly true, and it has always been part of the deliberate overall plan. We certainly don't want to be "easy listening" in any way, and our unique and specialized approach to our work has always been of the utmost importance to us. It may be very alienating to the casual listener or reader, but that's a plus point to us. We have always been very appreciative of our dedicated fan base. This music is certainly what could be called "minority appeal". We're truly a cult band with a relatively small but fanatically dedicated following, and that's something we've always been rather proud of.
OK, I have come across many different descriptions with regards to the band's style, some of which were quite funny and others quite weird. How would you describe Bal Sagoth to someone who has never listened to the band before? How would you label an album as "The Chthonic Chronicles"?
Byron: I tend to call our music "symphonic baroque fantasy black metal", or variations thereof. I came up with that term simply to describe our music, while still being somewhat vague and maintaining a veil of mystique. If someone reading or hearing that description is then compelled to check out our stuff, then that's great.
It is more than obvious that an album with the musical variety of "The Chthonic Chronicles" will require a lot of effort in its compositional process. As the founder of the band, are you the one who gets most of the credit for the work behind the band's music?
Byron: In Bal-Sagoth, I write all the lyrics and Jonny Maudling writes pretty much all of the music with his brother Chris also writing some parts. The music of Bal-Sagoth is written to reflect the conceptual nature of the lyrics, rather like a film score composer writes a movie score to reflect the events of a film. Out of the twelve tracks on this album, Jonny composed the music for eleven of them. The compositional time varies considerably. Sometimes several months can be spent on just one song, whereas sometimes a composition may be finished in a matter of weeks.
The essence of the songs always start out as stories and lyrics; the concept and thematic essence of a piece always comes first. I always have the lyrics and stories planned out or fully written well in advance of the commencement of the music writing process. I present a synopsis of the events and a detailed directive concerning the kind of musical composition which is needed to Jonny so he knows what is needed with the music. I invariably inform Jonny about the nature of the story, and what moods and atmospheres are ideally required, and what keyboard "special effects", if any, I think would be beneficial to the piece, and then he goes wawy and weaves his musical magic, for good or ill.
In order to understand better how Bal Sagoth work as a band, I would like you to pick up a couple of songs from the new album that you find more to your liking, and explain the process that you followed in order to bring them to life.
Byron: Let's start with "The Obsidian Crown Unbound". Being the second chapter of the Obsidian Crown saga, that song had some very definite thematic requirements which it was essential the music should reflect. I presented Jonny with a detailed synopsis of the story, setting out all the events of the song from start to finish. I noted where the aggressive parts should be, where the ambient parts should be, what kinds of moods were required in each particular part of the song, and so forth. Armed with this information, Jonny went ahead and composed the score.
The song "Unfettering The Hoary Sentinels Of Karnak" followed a similar conceptual and compositional process. Being a prequel to "The Dreamer In The Catacombs Of Ur", it was once again important that the music reflect accurately the events of the story, and also that it contain certain elements of the earlier song so that they both be instantly recognizable as a duology. This may seem a rather odd way of working, but it's the way that Bal-Sagoth composes. Incidentally, another snippet of info about our compositional process which people may find interesting is this: the music for our songs is always written first and foremost on the keyboard, and then the guitars are written afterwards to complement the synth parts. Most bands probably write the music on the guitar and add the keyboards afterwards.
I am really quite interested to find out how much time you had to spend in the studio for the recordings of the album. Were you provided with sufficient funding in order to cover your expenses and bring out the desirable result?
Byron: This album was actually recorded in two different studios. The music was recorded at Wayland's Forge, and the vocals were recorded at Academy Music Studio. As Wayland's Forge is essentially a home studio, there was no limit to the amount of time we had to compose and record the music... which is one of the reasons why this album took so damn long to create! To certain members of this band, the concept of "deadline" is just something that only applies to other acts.
Which was the producer that you used for the recording process? Is your knowledge in technical maters sufficient in order to allow you to get involved in that process, or do you simply fulfil your part as a musician?
Byron: The sound engineer at Academy during the vocal session was Mags, the same producer/engineer we've used for all the previous albums. At Wayland's Forge, the production, engineering and mixing duties were handled exclusively by us, the band. Over the years, Jonny has developed a strong interest in sound engineering, and he felt very strongly that the sound engineering of the music for this album should very much be a D.I.Y. project. It took a long time, and we had to rush the final mix in order to meet the absolute final deadline, but on the whole we're rather pleased with the results.
Most of the musicians that I have interviewed in the past have come up with quite a few funny stories, some of which were associated with their experiences in the studio. Do you have any funny incidents/stories to tell?
Byron: Essentially, every moment which Bal-Sagoth have spent in the studio over the years is a sublimely funny story in itself. I might write them all down someday and release them as a book! It would have to be filed in the "Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction" section of bookstores.
Do you find Nuclear Blast to be quite supportive in terms of promoting the band? Have you decided what is the best way of promoting the new album?
Byron: One of Nuclear Blast's strengths is the promotion of an album. Hell, I've done so many interviews in the past month that even I'm beginning to believe some of these answers!
Which are your plans as far as touring is concerned? Have you booked any dates yet?
Byron: Nothing finalized yet. It's often very difficult to reproduce this kind of complicated multifaceted music accurately in the live environment, and often the very act of playing live strips away some of a band's mystique and magic which exists on the albums. But still... we might play a few shows later this year.
The one time that I saw Bal Sagoth live was in the Wacken festival back in 2004, and even though I found the music and the general stage appearance quite interesting, I am afraid that I was not particularly pleased by the sound of that specific performance. Do you believe that your style of music is better presented in normal venues rather those huge festival arenas?
Byron: On the subject of Wacken; unfortunately the Wacken live CD/DVD which was released by Armageddon Music was a very erroneous debacle. We have the unaltered raw footage of the set, which shows that we played the songs in time, but when they appeared on the CD & DVD they were like totally out of synch. "The Empyreal Lexicon" suffers the worst. And also, the credit info on the inlays gets the originator info totally wrong. It has maudling down as writing the lyrics, which is just bullsh*t. And the CD spells the title of the song wrong. It's generally a fuck*ng awful f*ck up on someone's part, and to this day nobody has offered any kind of explanation or apology. Maybe they did it all deliberately, who knows? Legal action is still being considered about that. Anyway, we'll be releasing the true and correct versions of those tracks on our website soon, so at least the fans can get the right versions.
Apart from that, Wacken was a pretty cool show for us, even though our new drummer made a few mistakes because it was his first ever show with us, and we only rehearsed once before the gig. In truth, we prefer the larger festival type venues to the smaller clubs, as it just seems like more of an "event" and is more interesting for us.
Now that the second musical trilogy is over, which are your plans for the future? Will you be so brave as to commence a third trilogy, or are you going to start focusing on one-off releases?
Byron: Well, there is certainly enough material remaining to cover a further six albums and beyond! However, whether or not we ever get round to recording those albums remains to be seen. Generally, we don't really enjoy participating in the music industry, as there are too many dishonourable, pedantic and untrustworthy entities which infest it. And of course fans of the stories will be able to read additional adventures in both prose short-story and graphic novel format soon, and there is still interest from various software development companies to turn the concept into a computer game, so there should hopefully be plenty of opportunity for fans to revisit the Bal-Sagoth universe in the future. Some of the other guys in the band are desperate to continue just for the sake of carrying on, but the integrity and the quality of the artistic legacy has always meant so much more to me. It may be time to call it a day, and end on a high note before the legend is tainted. But then again, we may at some point get round to releasing more albums... if the fans demand it.
You have been one of the lucky bands that were provided with airplay time by the legendary DJ John Peel. Do you agree that the British radio has lost one of its most innovative personalities?
Byron: Yes, John Peel was a man of excellent (and varied) musical taste, and a true broadcasting legend. Being appreciated by him and getting extensive radio play on his show was one of this band's greatest moments.
What is your relationship with Battle Orders limited? Do you guys continue to enjoy their sponsorship?
Byron: I came up with the idea of a weapon endorsement many years ago. I was thinking of suitable sponsorship deals for Bal-Sagoth which would be slightly more interesting than the usual boring sponsorships, and the notion of an arms & armour endorsement seemed to be a cool and outlandish idea. I collated a list of possible candidates, and our label manager Julie Weir contacted them to see who would be interested. As it happened, the first company on the list, Battle Orders Ltd, was very enthusiastic and so they provided me with an arsenal of swords, axes, helmets, etc. This idea was seen as pretty crazy back then, even the other guys in the band just couldn't understand it, but it was just one of the many things which has made Bal-Sagoth so unique over the years. These days, the deal has run its course.
Have you ever considered writing a soundtrack for a movie, and if yes, what would the perfect story line be like?
Byron: It would have to be some kind of epic historical, mythological, fantasy or sci-fi film, ideally. Our stuff is very filmic, both musically and lyrically. Also, the way we score our material and the method by which we record it is very symphonic in nature. When recording the keyboards, we will record the various constituent orchestral instruments layer by layer, instrument by instrument, utilizing the advanced synthesizer technology available to us. Thus, we will record the brass parts, the string parts, the woodwind and the timpani, and the choirs all individually and separately, in a very symphonic manner. This is part of what gives us our powerfully and uniquely orchestral sound. So, there you go, our stuff could actually be played by The London Symphony Orchestra.
Byron, thank you for doing this interview - I wish you all the best for "The Chthonic Chronicles". Give us your best Battle Cry as an ending.
Byron: Thanks for the interview! Many thanks to all the Bal-Sagoth fans who are reading this; we greatly appreciate your support. Check out our website for news and features on the band (the site will soon be totally revamped and improved) at www.bal-sagoth.com and www.bal-sagoth.co.uk. We hope you enjoy the dark and thrilling ride which is "The Chthonic Chronicles"! Sic Itur Ad Astra!
Interview © 2006