Bal-Sagoth - Interview
Formed in the early nineties, Yorkshire-based Bal-Sagoth legend was originally born as an idea of vocalist Byron Roberts. He’s vision and unique writing talents spurred the idea of creating one of the most singular and enigmatic black metal bands ever. If you are a fan of dark fantasy, ancient legends and mysterious tales of wonder wrapped around the avant-garde image with powerful and magical atmosphere "Atlantis Ascendant" as well as Bal-Sagoth’s previous releases are definitely something you need to check out. The founder of this enigmatic band tells me about their history and what’s in the future...
Let’s start with a little bit of history of the band. I’m sure a lot of people are curious about the unusual name. From what I know it comes from one of the Robert E. Howard stories. Could you tell us about the meaning of this name and the Howard work in connection to the band?
Yeah, the actual name comes from the story that he wrote called "Gods of Bal-Sagoth" which was first published in 1931 in a pulp-fiction magazine called "Wired Tales". The actual story, Bal-Sagoth itself, it’s a very mysterious and shrouded Ireland kingdom ruled over by this warrior-queen. Ever since I’ve first read the name Bal-Sagoth, when I first read the story when I was a kid, it just kind of stuck in my memory and I really just loved the name. When I was coming up with the whole concept of Bal-Sagoth that name was really still in my head and it just seemed to completely mirror the whole lyrical concept that I had in mind perfectly. So, when I was coming up with the idea for the band, that was the only name I really had in mind to use, so that’s why we are Bal-Sagoth essentially.
Certainly Robert E. Howard had a big influence on me, kind of a big inspiration, but all the stories across all five albums they are all my own stuff. Occasionally, I use one of his place names but basically all stories are my own stuff, just kind of my own imagination. Certainly I’m inspired by him and writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Tolkien.
Your first three CDs were presented as a Trilogy. "The Power Cosmic" was supposed to start a new one. Is "Atlantis Ascendant" a logical continuation of "The Power Cosmic" or did you drop that idea and it’s a story in itself?
Actually all the Bal-Sagoth albums are connected by being a part of this same grand overall saga. The first three albums, I label those as the first trilogy, more for ease of reference than as an actual tool for a divining the stories on them. On the new album we actually have continuations of songs which we began on the first three albums. So, it’s really an ongoing thing, all the songs on all albums are pretty much connected by a big overall story.
If I remember right, you once said that it would be a six-part saga? If so, there’s only one CD left. What’s next… the end of Bal-Sagoth, or will you start a new trilogy?
It’s interesting. Back in the early days when I was kind of looking ahead, wondering how many albums it might take to complete the whole story, six was the number I had in mind. As things have progressed I’ve come to realize that should we choose to go on after the sixth album, we certainly do have a lot more stories to tell and a lot of music to write. If we decide to go for that long we have enough stuff for maybe 12 albums. I mean, I’m not even going to have a chance to actually finish all the stories that we began on the previous albums by the time the sixth one comes around. I think maybe if the conditions are right, if we get a good deal from a record label and if things will work as planed we’ll probably continue after the sixth one.
"The Power Cosmic" ended the era of icy caves, dragons and demons and moved into outer space. Where do you go next?
All the way from the beginning of the Bal-Sagoth story there’s been like a fusion of science fiction and fantasy stuff in the lyrics. For instance, on the "Starfire..." album we had songs like 'Vortex' and some things regarding the astral gate, which were very, very kind of science fiction inspired. When I moved to the more science fiction elements on "The Power Cosmic" it was still a lot of fantasy mixed in there but the science fiction kind of icon overview was more prevalent. There’s always been a science fiction element in the Bal-Sagoth stuff and I think "Atlantis Ascendant" bones in that fusion once again. You have fantasy stories mixed with the science fiction. I think next I’m definitely going to continue and conclude a lot of the stories which I begun on the previous albums mixing fantasy, science fiction and also exploring some historical elements from the stories.
One more question from your previous album... Why in the world you didn’t include lyrics for "The Power Cosmic"?
That was kind of experiment which I was interested in doing. There were two parts to it, one of the parts was I wanted to do a web site only thing, cause at the time our web site was just taking of and we were getting a lot of hits and people were getting really into it. So, I figured if I make the lyrics almost exclusive to the web site that could draw more people to the site and in turn they could see more the features associated to the band but of course there are a quite few people that don’t have an access to the internet and that caused a few problems which is why at some point in the future I’m thinking of approaching Nuclear Blast to reprint the booklet with a full version of the lyrics. And another reason that lyrics were not printed in "The Power Cosmic" was because Nuclear Blast were having a little bit of a problem understanding and being able to translate and reprint all the arcane terms from the English that I use. And when they sent me the stuff back for proofreading there were all kinds of spelling mistakes and it was becoming evident that it would take a lot of time to sort this out, but that wasn’t really the main reason. It was simply the idea I had to make the lyrics website exclusive and by doing so I could add certain chapters on ongoing basis, expand the lyrics and make them truly an ongoing kind of concept.
If you had to choose the best story you have ever written which one would it be?
That’s difficult. One of the stories closest to me in terms of the cultural way is the ‘Tale From the Deep Woods’, which is actually set during the time of Anglo-Saxon England where we have this warrior who has been wounded in the battle. He’s pretty much dead so he slumps beneath the great oak tree in the middle of the forest and he reflects on his past achievements and reflects upon the nature of the Gods, what kind of significance the old tree has to his particular situation in his own kind of theological mindset. I think that would probably be one of my favorites as well as ‘Circus Maximus’ and ‘Behind the Born Empire’ trilogy.
"The Power Cosmic" also ended your relation with Cacophonous Records and started a new long-term deal with Nuclear Blast. Are you satisfied with those changes and why did you leave Cacophonous?
Initially we decided not to resign with Cacophonous because they are such a small label, they have very limited distribution and they couldn’t really publicized or promote the albums sufficiently. I used to get letter from people all the time saying that they can’t find our records in the stores and they couldn’t find them because Cacophonous distribution network was so very very limited. So when Nuclear Blast approached us and said we can offer you this pretty much worldwide distribution, big publicity and you don’t have to be worry about people being pissed off because they can’t find your albums, we decided it was time for a change and we went with Nuclear Blast for a few albums. We are very satisfied with them so far, they have promoted the album quite well. They’ve given us a lot of publicity in magazines worldwide and all that kind of thing. They could maybe do with giving us a little more tour support, which would help, but apart from that we are pretty satisfied with what they’ve done.
I’ve heard that there were plans to release a book or even a video game based on your lyrics. Can we expect either one of those in the future?
Yeah. The book idea is something we should certainly go ahead. I’ve written all kinds of short stories and there are several publishers that are quite interested in releasing them at some point. Also I’ve written quite a few scripto-graphic novels which are set in this same universe as the lyrics which will be illustrated by a various team of artist including Martin Hanford who does our covers these days. As for the video game idea that’s something I’d really like to do. We have contact with programmers of games like "Unreal Tournament" or "Diablo II" who are big fans of the band. They are really into the whole Bal-Sagoth thing that we are doing and one of the guys who used to work on one of those games wants to set up his own software house and one of the things he said would love to do an RPG based on Bal-Sagoth world. So, hopefully at some point in the future that might become a reality.
As usual with promo versions I don’t have any lyrics… Can you shine some light and tell me what are the stories about?
Several of the songs on the album, including the title track itself, are presented in the text of the lyric booklet as actual mini-concept. They are linked by being the excerpts from the field journal of a nineteenth century explorer who was discovering all kinds of arcane power and the evidence of advanced civilizations which ones existed on the earth, such as Atlantis. He studied and he’s excavated places all over the world and he discovered all kinds of evidence about the existence of these ancient empires like Hyperborea, Atlantis and Lemuria. As his journey continues he continues to piece together the puzzle and he discovers certain truths about the origin of mankind and the true nature of creation. He also confronts not human forces, which put the end to his quest. So, that’s kind of summing up the mini-concept which is presented on the album in addition to all other songs which although they take place within this same kind of fantasy universe they are not part of the concept such as "Hyperborean Empire Part III." So we have a good mixture of different stories on the new album.
You write very complicated and unusual stories, other than books where do you get inspiration for your lyrics?
Pretty much my main inspiration comes from writers like Howard, Lovecraft and Tolkien and basically all that kind of fantasy and science fiction fare from over the past several decades. I’m also very much inspired by things like ancient myths and legends. I’m particularly interested in ideas of lost civilizations like Atlantis and all that sort of thing. Also anything that kind of kept my mind in imagination from comic books to video games to movies... It’s quite a wide range of inspirations for me.
Don’t you think that because of those complex, out of this world lyrics they are pretty hard for general public to understand?
Yeah, that’s interesting... but one of the prime directives for me when we were creating the band was to make things very complex, very intrigue and actually force people to read between the lines. It’s not something you can just pick up and get immediately like if the band was writing about, I don’t know, having trouble with the girlfriend or all that kind of street topics, which people can instantly identify. For us I just wanted to avoid the common place and to make things pretty much a journey into the imagination for the reader. Maybe we are the band that you actually have to work hard to get into but once you unlock the gates to the whole Bal-Sagoth concept and you’re in there it’s quite rewarding. It just takes a while...
Now we know what inspires you lyrically but what about the music?
Music wise we have a very wide range of inspirations. All the way from extreme metal and traditional heavy metal to very weird stuff. The guy who writes majority of our music, Johnny (Maudling), his favorite band is The Police and he also likes stuff like A-Ha. He’s really into stuff like Tangerine Dream, Vangelis and all that kind of thing. We also have members of the band that are into Rush, Dream Theatre. Dave Mackintosh’s favorite bands are Metallica, Slayer... My favorites are Bathory, Celtic Frost, Morbid Angel... Of course classical music as well, that’s a big influence for us. Composers like Wagner, Holst, Berlioz and Borodin and all those classic composer from years past.
If I had to describe you music style the closest thing that comes to my mind is symphonic-black-metal. What’s your view on it? How would you describe your style?
From our basis and our core we are definitely black metal. Black and death metal were our initial blocks when we were developing our sound. So, certainly we are a black metal band and there is no denying that. We also dress it up in this symphonic regalia and we are trying to push the boundaries. Actually I’m the only one in the band who really kind of hails to the whole extreme metal scene which is for a lot of people quite surprising. But yeah, at the core of the band we are black metal, very symphonic, very avant-garde but deep down it’s black metal at its core.
What’s your writing process look like, do the lyrics always come first and then you write music to it, or is it a more a spontaneous process?
The lyrics always come first. I always write the lyrics well in advance before the music is being composed. And then what happens is I go to Jonny and give him kind of directives of what kind of moods I need. For instance, this song on our new album called 'The Dreamer In The Catacombs Of Ur', which is very eastern and has very kind of exotic sound to it, I went to him and I said ‘OK, here is the location of the story, here is what happens, here is what kind of mood, feeling and atmospheres I require.’ Basically, he will go away with that knowledge and come back to me with drafts of various possibilities of the song and then we will work together and we will come up with the final product. The final versions of the songs really come together when we are in the studio. That’s when the lyrics are finally put on into the music. That’s basically the writing style, the formula we use these days.
You just finished a first part of the European Tour with Marduk, Vader and Amon Amarth just to name a few. If I’m not mistaken you haven’t toured too much lately, are you satisfied with your performance?
Yeah, pretty much. We don’t tend to tour very often in fact this tour we’ve just done was the first one since ’97. We were quite happy to get back out there onto live circuit and kind of reintroduce ourselves to the live environment. We are pretty much satisfied with our performance. In the past, when we had session members in the band, who weren’t particularly very good at their instruments we had trouble recreating a lot of part of the music live. These days we have really well skilled musicians in the band so we can really go a long way towards recapturing much of the album live. We don’t tend to play live very often but hopefully we are gonna get beck into the whole live environment again in a big way in coming moths.
What’s your favorite track to play live and why?
One of my favorite tracks, I think, it has to be 'A Tale From The Deep Woods' from the "Battle Magic". It just lends itself so well into the live environment. Also 'The Hyperborean Empire Part II' from "Battle Magic" also. Those two songs really do translate well into the live performance. Of course they have all kinds of parts in them when the crowds can jump up and down, they can sing along with the words and all that kind of thing. So, probably those are two of my favorite ones to play live.
I’ve heard that there are plans to visit this side of Atlantic. Any specific dates?
Yeah, there are ongoing negotiations; we’ve confirmed our interest in a US tour, which if everything goes as planned, will start in July – "Summertime Slaughter Tour" with Vader and quite a few other bands. Nothing is absolutely definite yet, we haven’t gotten a list of dates or anything but hopefully if everything works out that should start some time in July for about four weeks.
Last question… Do you feel like you achieved your goals you once set creating Bal-Sagoth?
I tend to take the whole goal thing step by step. So, when we first started the band, the whole goals, as I set them up, were very much in stages. Our first goal was to make a demo, than we made a demo and the second one was to get sign, than we got sign... Basically we take everything as it comes. We’ve done five albums, which is certainly a fulfillment of a goal, definitely. We’ve toured Europe several times with bands with quite respect like Emperor and all that kind of thing... I guess the next goal for me would be to expand the whole Bal-Sagoth concept from CDs and musical form into other areas of the media like the comic books, video games, get action figures on the market based on the characters and all that kind of thing. So, I think that’s the next big goal we can probably be looking at. That’s pretty weird and a lot of people think it’s very unlikely and they think I’m crazy but that’s just something I’d like to do.
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