BAL-SAGOTH – Band of Gamers
En kort time etter at Bal-Sagoth sto på scenen under årets Brutal Assault Festival tar jeg en prat med primus motor, grunnlegger, vokalist og tekstforfatter Byron Roberts. Godt fornøyd med konserten (med god grunn) er det en pratsom Byron som legger ut om bandets historie, siste album, fremtidsutsikter, dataspill og interesser m.m. Siden det er første gang Eternal Terror har fått mannen, og bandet i prat, startes samtalen rundt bandets opprinnelse.
Please explain a bit about the origins of Bal-Sagoth. What was the initial inspiration for your unique mixture of extreme metal and symphonic elements?
Initially I came up with the idea for the band back in 1989/90. I always wanted do a kind of black/death metal band, with symphonic elements in it. Unfortunately, none of the musicians I was working with at the time were interested. They just wanted to play thrash or straight ahead death metal. So it was hard to find people who wanted to do this.
Then, by this guy called Alistair MacLatchy, who used to be in a band with Nicholas Barker, I was introduced to Jonny Maudling. Maudling and his brother Chris were thinking about starting a band as well. At the time they were playing together with MacLatchy, doing covers of Metallica. MacLatchy suggested that I should run my idea by the Maudling brothers. So I told them that I got this idea for a band. I played them some tapes of Celtic Frost, Emperor and stuff like that, and they agreed to give it a go.
Jonny was particularly interested in the keyboard aspect of it since he was a trained pianist, listening to stuff like Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. Chris wasn’t all that convinced about the whole thing in the beginning, as he was more into bands like Kreator and that stuff. So I said: "why don’t we do that stuff then, play black/death metal, and just add epic keyboards". Eventually Chris came around to the idea of the band as well.
Funnily enough, the guy who introduced us, Alistair, didn’t like the name Bal-Sagoth, nor the black metal aspects of it, so we got rid of him. But he is back in the band now, so these things seem to come full circle. That is basically how Bal-Sagoth got started.
What about your personal influences from metal at the time. What were you listening to?
My favorite bands at the time were Celtic Frost, Bathory, Morbid Angel and Deicide. Early Emperor was always a big inspiration to me. Their split with Enslaved was great. The Emperor stuff came a bit later though, around 92 93 or so, if I remember correctly. In the 80’s it was mostly the previously mentioned bands. I was always found of Deicide and their great mix of brutality and technicality.
Jonny’s favorite bands, on the other hand, is stuff like The Police. So I think that when you take these influences, mine from Celtic Frost and Bathory, and mix it with elements inspired by The Police, that is maybe where you get something like Bal-Sagoth. I don’t know…
To me personally, I was attracted to Bal-Sagoth because it reminded me of sci-fi movie scores and game related music. How has these elements influenced the band?
Science fiction is always a big inspiration for us. All aspects of sci-fi, horror and fantasy have always inspired me. Everything from books, to movies, to comics, to games, filters through into what we do, especially through the lyrics, and also in the comic books that I am working on.
For anyone unfamiliar with Bal-Sagoth, can you explain shortly, if possible, about the lyrical content of the band?
The Lyrics of Bal-Sagoth are essentially characterized by the concept that every album and every song is linked in some sort of thematic way. They all take place in the same kind of fantasy universe that I have created. With the exception of one or two songs, as for instance one about the Silver Surfer, which obviously isn’t a part of the all over thematic. I guess you could call Bal-Sagoth a concept band, since every album is a concept album, both within itself, but also in the larger picture. It’s all set in this fantasy world, spanning from prehistoric time to the far future.
Would you say that it is important to have an understanding of the lyrics to fully appreciate what Bal-Sagoth is?
I definitely think the lyrics add another layer to it. I think people can listen to the songs without even knowing what I am saying and still enjoy them. I’m perfectly okay by that. But if you take the time to read the lyrics, look at the story, and the back-story behind the story, I think it adds another element to the song that can be enjoyed. The songs and stories are very multilayered. I guess the songs can be enjoyed both casually and at a deeper level. Both ways can be rewarding, I suppose…
Your latest album, "The Chthonic Chronicles", is probably your darkest and heaviest album to date. I haven’t felt such darkness on a Bal-Sagoth album since your first release. Would you say that "The Chthonic Chronicles" makes the Bal-Sagoth discography come full circle?
Absolutely. That is why the last song on "The Chthonic Chronicles" is called "Return To Hatheg-Kla", just as the first song on our first album was called "Hatheg-Kla". I worked really closely with the musicians on this last album to make it darker and more menacing, harkening back to our earlier albums. I think that around "Battle Magic", "Power Cosmic" and to a certain extent "Atlantis Ascendant", the darkness of the band got a bit lost. I was never totally happy about this. I always wanted to recapture the darkness of "Lemuria…" and "Starfire…", something I declared to the press upon the release of the later albums as well. Lyrically it has always been dark, but sometimes the production robs the songs of their dark potentials. On our last album it was definitely a conscious decision to recapture more of the darker elements of the band.
Just after the release of "The Chthonic Chronicles" in 2006, you said in an interview that there were no immediate plans in the future for Bal-Sagoth. What are the plans for Bal-Sagoth now?
To be honest, nothing has changed. There are no firm plans for a seventh album, but there still might be one. Nothing is ruled out. When the time is right, we’ll do something. We would need a good label behind us. We don’t want to release an album ourselves. To me that would be a step backward for the band. But at the moment there are no concrete plans, nothing written musically, though I probably have enough lyrical content for another six to twelve albums. There has never been a shortage of ideas, and there is still plenty to explore as far as the universe of Bal-Sagoth goes. I still have left plenty of songs open ended. People always ask me when will we get "Circus Maximus Part II", or the further "Dungeons of the Vampire Hunter", or what happened to the king of Hyperboria. That people are interested in these things can alone be catalyst enough for us to do another album.
"The Chthonic Chronicles" probably has the best production you have had so far, can you tell a bit about how this album was done differently than previous ones?
On "Atlantis Ascendant" our sound engineer tried to combine elements from all our previous releases to come up with the ultimate combination of everything that Bal-Sagoth could achieve. I think he did an excellent job. There are so many elements in our songs that need to be put forward. The keyboards alone took weeks to record. I think the difficulty sometimes lies in the balance between keyboard and guitars. On "Atlantis…" the keyboard was maybe a bit too prominent, and the guitars could have been heavier. The spoken vocals turned out really well, though. On "The Chthonic Chronicles" we produced the music ourselves in the band’s own studio, but for the vocals I went back to our old engineer. Some people hate it, and complain about the atmosphere. Everyone has their own favorite album I think. I’ve met people who love "Battle Magic" but hate everything else. I’ve met people who love "Power Cosmic" but hate everything else. Each to their own, I suppose.
But would you consider it a good or a bad thing that the different albums are as varied as they are?
They are all different chapters of the story, so I think they should have different characteristics.
What about the cover artwork on "The Chthonic Chronicles". That is a bit different than previous albums, isn’t it?
For years I wanted to do an album cover that actually depicted the cover of a book. Over the years, however, I never found the perfect album for this idea. Finally, on "The Chthonic Chronicles", I said to the artist: "Imagine a leather-bound book, with a glowing eye in the middle of it, and the loge embarked as if it were in leather as well." When he sent me a painting of it, it was great. The idea is that the eye on the book, if it was real that is, would look inside the person holding the book, deciding whether or not he was worthy enough for the knowledge contained within the book.
There are a lot of symphonic black metal bands out there, but I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Bal-Sagoth along with these bands, even though the band consists of black metal and symphonic elements. Your unique signature seems to have remained a particular field within extreme metal that few bands have tried to copy. Why do you think that is?
I think it is partly because we have so many elements mixed in our music. There are elements of synth-pop music like Tangerine Dream to be found in our music. There are also elements of film score and straight ahead black and death metal. In addition, the scoring of the albums is immense work. Maybe that is why not so many bands try to copy us.
So how does the composing of the songs come about? Do the lyrics, music, or the orchestration come first?
The lyrics have always been written well in advance of any of the music. But I don’t show the lyrics to the other members, since I don’t want to overly influence their writing of the music. Usually I give them a broad story outline. For instance, on a song like "The Fallen Kingdoms of the Abyssal Plain", I said to the keyboard player: "Can I have a piece which reflects a journey to the very bottom of the ocean. And at the very bottom of the ocean you see these ruins of ancient cities." Other times the musicians present me things completely out of the blue. I’d say it’s about 60% 40%, me asking for stuff, them giving me stuff out of the blue. I don’t fit the lyrics to the music before the songs have been composed and finished musically. That way the musical composing won’t be colored by my writing.
Funnily enough, that is exactly how we did our first album. I wrote the lyrics, and said: "I want a riff like this, a riff like that, and a riff like this". From "Battle Magic" onwards I started just giving outlines of stories. Both ways work I think.
You mentioned earlier that games inspired you as well. What games would that be?
Some of my all time favorite games go all the way back to 8 bit systems. More recent favorite games would be a lot of Japanese RPG’s (Role Playing Games), but also American games. These days I enjoy games like "Oblivion", "Fall Out 3", "Knights of the Old Republic", "Dragon Age Origins", that kind of things. Then again, I also enjoy whimsical Japanese strategical RPG’s like "Disgaea". Also "Final Fantasy Tactics" should be mentioned.
The FPS (First Person Shooter) has always been a favorite genre for me though. Games like "Unreal Tournament", "Doom", and "Halo" I also really like. They have all got great music scores as well.
For me personally, I got attracted to Bal-Sagoth for that exact reason. The symphonic elements on "Battle Magic" remind me a lot of the score to "Final Fantasy VII".
That is interesting, since there is a correlation. Our keyboard player Jonny actually did some music for an online role playing game together with one of the musicians from the Japanese band Sigh. I think it was a good project for him, especially since he is into games as well. The whole band is into games, we’re all gamers.
What about Norway. Have you appeared there at all? Will we see Bal-Sagoth there anytime soon?
We did the Screamfest in Oslo, back in 2008. That was our one and only appearance in Norway. We always thought we would go there before that. We had been to Denmark and Finland, but only once in Norway, and never in Sweden. As for upcoming shows; we don’t tend to tour. We just tend to do one of things like the gig here at Brutal Assault. I think we might do one show in Switzerland after this, and then, maybe one in Moscow. Other than that there are no plans. Usually we do like 5 shows or so a year. This is how it works best for us at the moment.
A headlining gig in Norway is definitely due time if you ask me. You would be great for the Inferno Festival as well of course.
The Inferno Festival was actually planning on contacting us for a gig, but I guess they let it go since we did the Screamfest.
Any final words for our readers in Norway?
Absolutely. I’d like to thank all the readers. I’d like to thank the fans of the band who have supported us over the years. I still get a lot of fan mail from Norway, or emails that are. Sadly the art of writing is slowly dying out. Anyways, thanks a lot for the support.