Chthonic Megaport Festival 2021: (L to R) Dani Wang (Drums), Doris Yeh (Bass), CJ Kao (Keyboards/Synths), Jesse Liu (Guitar), Freddy Lim (Vocals)
Background: Special Guest Audrey Tang
All Photos Courtesy of Freddy Lim & Chthonic
The success story of the Taiwanese black metal band Chthonic (pronounced “Thon-ik”) and its frontman Freddy Lim could only be described as inexplicable. There are musicians who have become notable politicians, and there are heavy metal musicians who have achieved some degree of mainstream notoriety. But not only has Chthonic become a part of Taiwanese mainstream pop culture, but Lim is now a twice-elected legislator in parliament.
Let’s start with how a black metal band has become the most influential and beloved act of an entire nation. Chthonic found local success in the late 90s – early 00s. Their blend of black metal with Taiwanese historical themes, and use of the erhu (two-string violin), resonated immediately with a varied audience. When Chthonic won “Best Band” at the Golden Melody Awards (the Taiwanese equivalent of a Juno or Grammy) in 2003, it was regarded as an upset. That was arguably the beginning of their national artistic invasion. By the time the band started to gain significant attention outside Taiwan, Lim had already starred in a historical drama film, met with the Dalai Lama, and become the chair of Amnesty International Taiwan. As of today, Chthonic, a black metal band, has established itself as a Taiwanese cultural watershed, with complete penetration across all musical genres and artistic mediums.
“We played a remarkable show in the square in front of the President Hall in 2019,” says Lim when I reach him around 9am Taiwan time.
“We called it the Taiwan Victory Concert. It (attracted) 50,000 people. I think most of them, they sing along with some of our songs, even though they’re not ordinary metal fans. Even some pop artists, they cannot achieve that level. There are some pop artists in Taiwan they say they’re inspired by Chthonic, even (covering) our songs. We have gone some places we didn’t expect.”
The Victory Concert takes on an even greater significance when you realize that Lim was already an elected official at the time. Take a moment to think about that. Not just a heavy metal politician, but a black metal one at that. Lim was even encouraged by his staff during his first election run to not cut his hair, as the public was used to his heavy metal image. It sounds a bit mad, really. Like a some metalized version of an American comedy movie where the protagonist randomly becomes U.S. President. The unlikeliness of the situation is not lost on Lim.
“Yes, I think was it was quite dramatic,” he says laughing.
“Especially when I decided to run, there were a lot of people who (weren’t) serious about (it). They (thought) it might be a joke and I didn’t really mean it, but I meant it! So I carefully managed to win, and also try to expand the impact. That’s why I decided to form the new party. I was the representative of the new party in the beginning. The whole visual idea of the party, the logo and how we ran the campaign in the first year, it mostly was my idea. Also the art team for the party, those were (also) the art team for Chthonic. So in the beginning there were a lot of things going on with the Chthonic team.”
Freddy Lim speaking in the Legislative Yuan
The party that Lim is referring to is the New Power Party (NPP), which he founded in 2015 (he’s no longer a member, but we’ll get to that). Lim was already known for political activism, and he was often asked if he would ever consider running for office. It was assumed by many, including myself, that Chthonic’s use of Taiwanese history and mythology in their lyrics and image were tied to that activism. But to Lim, the 2 were always separate in his mind. Only now in his new position can he see why many took it the other way.
“Most of our lyrics are about history or mythology, so before I took the job I sang them with imagination mostly,” he says.
“But in recent years it’s kind of put 2 things together, imagination and the facts – the true world. In the old days when the fans would look between the lines to reflect (on) some of the meaning of the lyrics (and associate them with) the true world, I would always say ‘I respect your feelings, I respect your explanation, but for me it’s just imagination. For me it’s mythology and history.’ But in recent years when I sing all those songs, I can see why they see the reflection of the true world (laughs), because I’m in the true world, I’m trying to make the true world better. So I can see that some of the lyrics have the power to trigger the ear of the people (who want) to change Taiwan and make it a better country.”
"I can do more things, not just to win the seat but to prove to Taiwan that my way of fighting, my way of doing things works."
Lim was inspired by the wave of young people running in the 2016 election, and despite some initial concern about his chances, he was able to defeat the 5-term ultra-conservative incumbent in the Zhongzheng–Wanhua constituency. The Legislative Yuan is Taiwan’s parliament/congress, and like many countries, it’s dominated by 2 parties. The centre-left Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is currently in power, while the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) sits in opposition. Aside from winning his own seat, Lim managed to lead the NPP to third-party status in the Legislature, with the goal of using their new position to influence DPP policy. But in 2019, once Lim was no longer party chair, the NPP considered nominating a presidential candidate for the 2020 election. It was this discussion that would lead to Lim leaving the party he founded.
“The day I decided to leave the party… it was kind of difficult for me,” he says solemnly.
“At the press conference, a journalist asked me ‘How do you feel?’ I stopped. For almost 30 seconds I can’t say anything. My tears almost dropped. (laughs nervously) But I collected my emotions. I put myself together in a short time. It was difficult because my district is a very conservative district, and according to the polls I was behind my opponent who was the (same as the first election). According to the polls I was quite a huge distance behind him. I knew the only thing I should focus on is (being) re-elected in my district. That’s the most important thing. I can do more things, not just to win the seat but to prove to Taiwan that my way of fighting, my way of doing things works. (The) idea to nominate a presidential candidate, I was pissed by that. We don’t even have enough staff to run the party, how are we going to run the country?! I had 3-4 jobs in the party. We should take things seriously. It’s not a joke! You can’t do things this way or you will lose people’s trust because all the citizens know that you are a small party, (that) you’ll run out of hands. So I decided to leave. I told them the only way is to support President Tsai (Ing-Wen), especially when (her) opponent, which was the KMT candidate, was very pro-China. The Chinese government (have) tried their best to infiltrate Taiwan, and the only way we can stop the infiltration is to stop the KMT candidate. Which means supporting President Tsai.”
Freddy Lim Resigning From The NPP (2019)
A number of key NPP party members followed Lim and left the party, and he was re-elected as an independent in his district in 2020. As an independent, Lim can only receive a limited amount of political contributions, but the upside is that he is able to move more freely and establish bi-partisan organizations within parliament. After his re-election he was visited by pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong, who urged him to form a caucus in support of their movement. He now chairs that caucus which includes representatives from 4 parties.
“The Chinese communists, they always say that the Hong Kong democratic activities were supported by the DPP, (and) it’s not true!” he says emphatically.
“It’s excuses always used by the Chinese communists. So as an independent, it’s much easier for me. The 2 major parties, they have strong conflicts. They confront each other hard. Sometimes we need to be neutral and need to show the united power of Taiwan with (bi-partisanship). That’s what I should do in this phase right now.”
"I think for people like the Hong Kongers, they got oppressed by the Chinese government much more than me. So I just have to take care of my own safety, that’s not that difficult."
Lim has never been quiet about his opinions of the Chinese government, and it does seem that the feeling is mutual. In 2018 Chthonic was denied a visa to perform in Hong Kong with singer and activist Denise Ho, who duets with Lim on the track “Millennia's Faith Undone.” Lim was also physically attacked in parliament by a KMT legislator who wanted to disrupt the confirmation of committee members nominated by President Tsai. On his way to vote Lim was assaulted as the KMT member attempted to grab the vote from his pocket. There are of course, larger safety concerns. Lim rarely speaks about his family or relationships publicly, and has become even more cautious after entering politics for fear of pro-China extremists, whom he says are backed by both organized crime and Chinese governmental agents. Despite this knowledge, Lim shows little fear when speaking about any potential threats.
“Yes, my friends always ask me to hire more bodyguards, (laughs) for me and my family,” he says casually.
“With the infiltration of China now in Taiwan, some Hong Kong activists (when) they travel in Taiwan they are attacked by some… I don’t want to say they’re spies, but they’re hired hands. Definitely, sometimes I’m concerned with my own safety as well. But I think for people like the Hong Kongers, they got oppressed by the Chinese government much more than me. So I just have to take care of my own safety, that’s not that difficult. They have to get exiled, or arrested if they are in Hong Kong. So yeah, I think I’m fine. I’m concerned about my safety a bit, my family too. But yeah, we’ll be fine.”
Freddy Lim performs at Roar Now! Bankgah (2020)
With the hopes of so many on his shoulders this begs the question, when do Lim and Chthonic find the time for metal activities? Their most recent album, 2018’s Golden Melody-winning Battlefields of Asura, was arranged by Lim and guitarist Jesse Liu from material written in 2013. The band doesn’t play more than once a year, and the shows are posted in their entirety on YouTube and Facebook. With the pandemic largely under control in Taiwan, their next performance is this Saturday, March 27th, at a masked and socially-distanced Megaport Music Festival.
“Chthonic will play just to support, because don’t have international artists for the festival this year,” says Lim.
“Most of the local artists will play and we will headline. Our rock and dance music festivals are still being put on, and our traditional ceremonies and feasts are still being put on. Religious rituals are still going. Department stores, shopping malls are open. People go sightseeing like usual, but just with masks and social distancing. I think we are very lucky, because we are so close to China. We implemented pandemic prevention mechanisms very fast and early. The pandemic didn’t affect Taiwan too much. The local cases (as of March 3rd, 2021), we have only 9 deaths, and 77 local cases. We are one of the countries that have contained the pandemic best. We kind of continued daily life, the ordinary way, but of course with masks and social distancing.”
Aside from posting it online, the band plans to release a live album of their set at Megaport, including a physical edition with a special Chthonic “Made In Taiwan” mask, since Lim feels masks are now part of our fashion culture. He also hopes he can encourage other metal bands to have their masks made in Taiwan as well.
"Although Taiwan seems far away from you, please understand that Taiwan is the frontline against the Chinese tyrant authoritarian regime."
It's a lot to take in. Lim and Chthonic have managed to achieve symbiosis between extreme metal music, mainstream culture, and national politics, all while under the eye of an authoritarian power. I first met Lim on the road about 13 years ago, and although he spoke passionately about his beliefs and causes, there is a distinct difference now. When Lim speaks now there is a grim determination and a sharpened focus that shows his passion has become intent, because change is actually within his reach.
If Chthonic does ever play outside of Taiwan again, it won’t be for many years. As such, I wanted to know what Lim would say to foreign fans of his music, who might feel detached from his current job and political efforts.
“First of all I hope you will still enjoy all the songs and videos that we post online, (because) we don’t have time to tour around the world anymore,” he says.
“Although Taiwan seems far away from you, please understand that Taiwan is the frontline against the Chinese tyrant authoritarian regime. (There are) a lot of infiltrations that you might find in your own country. I know in Canada, in the United States, or in Europe you can see a lot of different Chinese agencies in schools and in communities. They’ve been seen in different industries. Even in Hollywood, you can see that a lot of movies have been made to obey the Chinese government’s standards. They have to change the storyline of the movie just to follow the rules of Chinese communists. You might (think) that Taiwan is very far away and threats from China is something that you might not need to care about. But actually things have got a bit different in your own country too. It makes your life different. It changes your freedom, your free way of living. So try to know more about what happens in this region, in this so-called ‘Far East.’ (Not just) because you want to care more about the people under oppression, but also (because you) want to protect what you have in the free world right now. I do believe if the people in the free world, if we work together, if we are united, we can make the world better, and we can find a better way to deal with the biggest authoritarian government in human history, and to change them.”
Chthonic will play the Megaport Music Festival this Saturday, March 27th. You can watch the full 2019 Taiwan Victory Concert below, or you can listen to it via Spotify. The band also has tons more content on their YouTube page.
Goatwhore 2021: (L to R) Zack Simmons (Drums), Robert "TA" Coleman (Bass), Louis B. Falgoust II (Vocals), Sammy Duet (Guitars, Vocals)
Photo by Peter Beste
With COVID-19 vaccinations now underway, there unfortunately remains a small but vocal minority who generate skepticism of the vaccine with extreme conspiracy theories. However I’m sure they weren’t counting on people like Goatwhore guitarist Sammy Duet, taking their message a bit differently.
“It’s supposed to have a microchip in it, and the mark of the beast,” he says.
“I’ve been waiting for this!”
Duet has also been patiently waiting for the return of live music, both as a musician and a fan, and tomorrow (Saturday, January 9th) Goatwhore finally returns to the stage for a special livestream performance. Streaming from an undisclosed location in Florida, Duet promises more than just a jamspace set, with professional lighting and multiple cameras. But I had to make sure that he was going to strap on his trademark spikes for the occasion.
“Of course, man!” he exclaims.
“You think we’re gettin’ lazy in our old age?!”
Goatwhore has been steadily working on a new album since 2019. Their most recent release was 2017’s Vengeful Ascension, and it was around that time that Duet (also a veteran of acclaimed bands Acid Bath and Crowbar) really started to notice the band’s increased popularity. For over 2 decades the New Orleans outfit gigged hard and spread their signature black/death/thrash blend city by city, town by town, and they now find themselves regularly in the headline slot.
“It only took us 25 years!” says Duet laughing loudly.
“Especially after Vengeful Ascension came out I started realizing, looking back on when we first started, how far the band has come. If you would have told me when we first started doing Goatwhore that I would be where I’m at right now as far as the fanbase and the touring, I would have told you (that) you were fucking insane.”
The band won’t be playing any new material during tomorrow's show, as Duet thinks it’s possible the songs may not sound the same once they get into the studio. Recording sessions for the new album are set to begin February 15th, with the band looking to pick around 10 of the 16 songs they’ve written. In the meantime Duet has been busy hanging out with fans on his Instagram livestream. Although Duet has always been friendly with fans, regularly chatting with them before and after sets, I was a bit surprised as to how much he's embraced social media.
“I was just basically gonna post pictures of my guitars and my cats, I wasn’t gonna do anything beyond that,” he says.
“It kinda blew up from there (laughs). It got a lot bigger than I thought it would. I thought it would only be a bunch of guitar nerds. I have to do a livestream every Sunday. People wanna hang out and talk, just bullshit, and listen to tunes. It’s a good thing for me to have because I love our fans, and I love communicating with our fans, and meeting (them) as much as I possibly can. I’m not on tour and hanging out with everybody, so this is the best I can do for now.”
"These 2 certain things that make my life very amazing, it was either keep them or keep the alcohol."
Before the pandemic began Duet was already a homebody, so with the exception of not being able to attend the occasional show, his routine hasn’t changed much. The biggest event for him in recent memory is celebrating 1 year being completely clean and sober. Not being on tour during a crucial time in his sobriety ended up being helpful, and he’s ready for the challenge of returning to the road.
“I feel that (because) I wasn’t able to be around that temptation, it actually worked out (in) that I’m becoming a lot stronger within my willpower, rather than if I’d been on tour 6 months ago,” he says thoughtfully.
“I might not have been able to resist. (When) I’m playing a show, people are offering me drugs and alcohol, and there’s a bar right there. The temptations when playing a live show if you’re an alcoholic or a drug addict are tremendous. I feel pretty strong and pretty confident that I can do this without having to get fucked, y’know! (laughs). It’s all about what I can do besides drinking to kill time. You can get really creative if you want to, or, you can do what you’re supposed to and practice your instrument. You only… how can I say this?.. You’re only as good as you think you are. There’s always room for improvement. That’s my plan. Right now, where I stand, I’m completely infatuated with my instrument again. Completely, 100%. I have a new found love for it, you might say. Not that I ever didn’t, but I feel like my love for the guitar has come back to where I was like 14 years old again. That’s all I think about now!” (laughs)
I mentioned to Duet that I’d noticed that many people I know had given up alcohol during quarantine, with my own intake dropping drastically. So when I first heard of his sobriety I made the assumption that the downtime was his catalyst as well, when in fact he got sober a few months earlier.
“(There are) a couple of things that are very dear to me, that I came very close to losing because of my drinking,” he says carefully.
“So it was time to kick myself in the ass. These 2 certain things that make my life very amazing, it was either keep them or keep the alcohol. I’m not gonna go in detail about what these 2 things were. Let’s just say I didn’t choose the alcohol.”
"I tend to lean more towards the devil worshipping side of things."
While Sammy’s life is more of an open book these days, he’s always kept his more personal beliefs shrouded in mystery. In one of our earliest interviews, I recalled asking Duet about the Satanic elements in the band’s music and artwork. His response at the time was to say that he didn’t talk about those things, because of the way he believes in them. Since then I had always wanted to know if he was being sincere when he said that, or if perhaps he was playing things up for a then-bright-eyed baby journalist.
“Yes, that’s absolute truth!” he says with a hint of enthusiasm.
“What I do with my spirituality behind closed doors, is my business. I have a very different outlook on the way people perceive… worship of the devil. I keep that very, very private, and it’s a very personal thing to me as far as going into the details. There is to me a difference between being a Satanist, and being a devil worshipper. I tend to lean more towards the devil worshipping side of things. I was into (Satanism) for a while, and it’s still cool. I would definitely take that over Christianity any day of the week. That was almost like a gateway to what brought me to where I am now as far as my spirituality goes. What I believe in and what I practice is very, very different from that. But we all love that Satan guy! It’s all in how you show him how much you love him!” (audibly smiling)
Sammy Duet's "Circle of Evocation"
This response, mixed with Goatwhore’s malevolent lyrical content and artwork, would make one think that Duet’s beliefs run throughout his creative work. But in fact, he keeps the majority of them out of it. While he approves of bands like Watain who put the spiritual aspect of their music front-and-center in their lyrics and live shows, it’s not something he’s interested in doing.
“I don’t want people to understand,” he says.
“This is my thing that I fuckin’ developed. It’s a mishmash of different ideas and philosophies. It’s for me, it’s not for everyone else. Very, very little of that stuff creeps into the lyrics. The way I kind of word it, it’s extremely abstract. You have to kind of know what I’m talking about to find it. When I’m writing lyrics I like to keep it a little weird and not straightforward. You can definitely see the difference between the lyrics that I write, and the lyrics that (vocalist) Ben (Falgoust) writes. Where Ben’s are almost like tongue in cheek, fuckin’ straight up, and I like to make it more clouded, where it kind of doesn’t make sense but it does make sense.”
This duality has always been the most intriguing aspect of Duet’s character. He’s incredibly friendly and warm, with a wicked old-school sense of humour. You always feel like you’re speaking to the real Sammy. While the music of Goatwhore is dark, seeing them play has always been about having a good time with a big smile on your face. So although Duet isn’t up for sharing the deeper aspects of his spirituality, he did share one insight into his practices that only served to cement the dualistic image of him in my mind.
“Something, gave me an idea for some of the artwork that was in (the 2014 album) Constricting Rage of the Merciless,” he says carefully.
“There are certain pieces of artwork (where) something was speaking through me that wasn’t me, that came up with the idea for this piece of artwork that’s on that record. It’s almost like a circle of evocation. I wrote those phrases inside the circle, I have no recollection of that. It’s like when you’re half asleep and but you’re half awake, almost like sleepwalking. Something that I was calling at that period of time, was definitely answering. That piece of artwork was some of the answer that this thing gave me.”
Goatwhore’s livestream concert airs tomorrow, Saturday January 9th, at 6PM EST. Tickets are $12 USD, and you’ll be able to watch the show for 48 hours after the broadcast. You can also stream the Vengeful Ascension album in full below.
Fuck The Facts 2020: (L to R) Melanie Mongeon (vocals), Mathieu Vilandre (drums), Topon Das (guitar)
Photo by Anndy Negative
Ottawa’s Fuck The Facts have recently returned after a 5 year absence with a new album, Pleine Noirceur. What began as a basement tape project with an unmarketable name from guitarist/founder Topon Das, has since gone on to grab 2 Juno nominations and international recognition. All the while playing an avant-garde form of grindcore, arguably extreme metal’s most inaccessible subgenre. What sets Fuck The Facts apart sonically from many of their peers, is their ability to craft extreme metal music that effectively conveys heartfelt emotion, even if the listener doesn’t necessarily know it.
"We’re definitely not a grindcore band."
“Emotion’s a big part of the writing, I love emotional music,” says Das.
“I grew up listening to (the 1992) Paradise Lost (album) Shades of God, early Katatonia, a lot of early doom stuff that’s not grindcore at all. But that’s where I get a lot of my melodic ideas, that I even use in some of our grindy-er stuff. We’re definitely not a grindcore band. The influence is there, but I know someone’s like ‘Oh, grindcore!’ and they click on our stuff, they’re gonna be like ‘What the fuck, (laughs) this doesn’t sound like Wormrot or Rotten Sound!’ They’re gonna be very confused. We’re always kind of attached (to) that tag. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but musically we have so many different influences. We’d be cheating ourselves if we didn’t embrace all these different ideas and make the music that we really wanna make. This album, if feels like a Fuck The Facts album to me because it has all those hills and valleys, and it has all the dynamics, and has different ideas. There’s definitely periods with the band where I kinda felt a little bit stifled, or constrained artistically. I was like, ‘Oh can we do this, cause we’re that Canadian grindcore band?’ I always hated that feeling because it’s not in my personality. My mind goes a million miles an hour when I sit down and I start to think about ideas, it goes everywhere. That’s (the kind of music) I’d like the band to put out. I just feel like we’re open to doing anything, and I feel like we’ve got back to that. We’re not like an amazing death metal band, or an amazing grindcore band, but we grab all these influences and we manage to make it our own thing. I think we do that really well.”
Their previous album, 2015’s self-released Desire Will Rot, was responsible for their 2nd Juno nomination and they promoted it with touring in Canada, the U.S, and Europe. But then things seemed to go quiet for some time. I knew that Das was busy with his recording studio, Apartment 2, not to mention raising 2 kids with vocalist Melanie Mongeon. But I hadn’t realized that despite their enthusiastic performances on that tour, the album title was more personal than they let on.
“When we did Desire Will Rot, it’s (called that) because of what was going on,” says Das frankly.
“Really whenever we do anything we’re talking about our own lives and the way we feel. When we went and did all those tours and we put out that album, we knew that that might be it. It’s nothing that we wanted to make public. But we did all that stuff knowing it was just gonna stop and we were all gonna go about doing our own thing, and whatever happens, happens. It was a much needed change. I kept busy the whole time, I was recording other peoples’ bands, I worked at a venue doing live sound. I haven’t been away from music. (When) we got back together it was me reaching out to Vil (drummer Mathieu Vilandre) to see if we just wanted to start jamming, and see what came of it. I think the last 2-3 years that we toured and did stuff heavily, I wasn’t really enjoying it. I kept doing it because I was so used to doing it and going through those motions. But it was just becoming a job and it wasn’t enjoyable like it was before. Some of the situations that we were in, some of the shows that we were doing, you get to this point where you’re like ‘Why am I here? Why am I on the other side of the world playing to 10 people?’ That stuff’s a lot of fun but it makes more sense when you’re 25 than when you’re 35 and then 40. It’s like, I should be at home with my kids at this point in my life”
Although what Das describes seems a natural part of life as an underground musician who starts a family, it did come as a little bit of a surprise to me. Their personal lives always seemed inextricably linked to the band. There are of course memories of the videos that circulated through the underground of Mongeon performing while she was very pregnant. But in general, having a family didn’t seem to affect Fuck The Facts as band. But that’s not what was going on beneath the surface.
“Before, it was always like the band comes first, everything else comes second,” says Das.
“If you have a job, then fuck it, you have to quit that job so we can go on tour. Now, Mel had the opportunity to take a full-time position at her job that she loves. We bought a house. Vil bought a house. Everyone has real-life responsibilities, we can’t just jump on the road and do a grindcore tour like we used it. When my first daughter was born we did shows in L.A. and Mel was pregnant and she gave birth (10 days later). Then we were back on the road (for) a 5 week tour and then we went to Europe. It didn’t really slow us down. It’s a good thing but it’s also a complication that both Mel and I are in the band. Both the parents are leaving and the kids (are) staying at the grandparents for a couple months. I definitely miss my kids and I know for Mel it was even more difficult to be away. When I started the band I was like ‘I’m gonna tour until I die. I’m gonna do all this stuff until I die.’ Then I got older and things just kinda changed.”
"When I started in my dad’s basement with a 4-track, this shit didn’t even exist, I just kinda like, did it."
So the band began their unannounced hiatus. With no plans to jam, record, or tour in the near future, they settled into life without Fuck The Facts for the first time in 15 years. Das spent his days recording and mixing bands at Apartment 2, and nights working at the venue. But the door never closed on restarting the band. So after some time apart they began to drift back together. But this time it was on their terms, and the album that would become Pleine Noirceur developed slowly.
“There was a year or so where (the band) didn’t do anything at all,” he says.
“This album we’ve kinda been working on behind the scenes for a while. Mel and I first talked about jamming, and (then) I talked to Vil. At this point I’ve been jamming with Vil for like 15 years, so it’s really easy chemistry. We just started (jamming) like once a week. When we were at our peak, when we were busy like crazy, we’d jam like 4 times a week. But this time there wasn’t any intention of like ‘We’re gonna work on an album.’ When the band stopped, I put all this shit in the rearview mirror. I’m totally out of the loop of what new band is out or what (they’ve released). I didn’t check any of the gossipy metal sites or read anything about anyone because I (was) tired of all this and (didn’t) want to pay attention. I feel like it could be the least ‘tainted’ album and the most ‘pure’ in the way of us really just doing what we wanted to do. When I started in my dad’s basement with a 4-track, this shit didn’t even exist, I just kinda like, did it. That’s kind of the same thing, and I think that’s a really fun thing that came out of it. We could have just jammed and like 6 months later been like ‘Ah, I’m not feeling this, alright see ya,’ and everything would have been cool. We’ve put something together that we’re actually really proud of and felt like it was worth releasing. It wasn’t for a tour or a label. We made a pressing, and we’ll sell the pressing and everyone kind of moves on and we’ll see what’s next.”
“What’s next?” is a very good question at this point. At the end of 2019 Das left his job at the venue to spend more time with his kids. He also wants to work on more music, as the band hasn’t had a chance to jam since the pandemic started. In the meantime they’ve been putting together ideas on their own in the hopes that it won’t be another 5 years before they release their next album. But even taking on Fuck The Facts on a limited basis can rub up against family, triggering memories of life before their hiatus.
“Mel and I, we were working on packing all the pre-orders for this album and going kinda nuts because we both have jobs during the day,” Das says laughing.
“Then we spent all our evenings packing orders. We sent our kids to the grandparents just so we could spend the weekend packing orders, and we had that moment like ‘Fuck this is crazy! It’s awesome, but this is crazy!’ Mel was like, ‘Sometimes I just feel like quitting the band but I know I’m just gonna end up back here anyway!’ (laughs) Those moments, just a little flashback to when you’re like ‘This is so crazy that we’re doing this!’ I definitely would love to play more shows. Ideally if we didn’t have this pandemic we would be playing some album release shows. We were supposed to play Maryland Deathfest in May, and then that all shit the bed. That would have been fun. We just gotta play it by ear and see what happens and do what feels right.”
Mongeon working on album pre-orders
Ultimately it seems like Das has achieved his goal of having a good work/life balance, with Fuck The Facts still a part of both, but not the dominant factor. The shutdown from the pandemic actually gave Das time to finish the album and be with his family, and he recognizes the good position he’s in. Despite the aforementioned “hills and valleys” of Fuck The Facts’ music, Das himself never seems quite as complicated.
“We’re actually in a pretty lucky situation,” he says.
“My oldest is back in school. My youngest is at daycare. Mel works from home. I’m able to do a lot of my work from home as well. I’ve slowly starting doing some recording sessions at the studio. I’m sure it sucks worse for a lot of other people. Especially people who are living on their own, and especially younger people. But we have a family and everything, and all our jobs are intact. We’ve managed to cope pretty well. The studio, that’s my job, my main source of income. I balance it fairly well, that I still have free time and that I can still do things that I enjoy and I’m not gonna feel like life is just passing me by. Luckily I keep a pretty lowkey lifestyle, so I don’t need a lot in my life to make me happy.”
Fuck The Facts’ new self-released album Pleine Noirceur is available now. Buy a hard copy from the band, a digital copy from Bandcamp, and stream it on Spotify or YouTube. You can watch the videos for the title track, and “Ailleurs” below.
Enslaved 2020: (L to R) Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal (guitar), Håkon Vinje (keyboards, clean vocals), Grutle Kjellson (vocals, bass), Ivar Bjørnson (guitars), Iver Sandøy (Drums)
Photo by Roy Bjørge
It had been nearly 3 years since I’d seen or spoken to Enslaved guitarist Ivar Bjørnson when I reached him late one Norwegian evening. The band had just released their 15th(!) album Utgard, and I realized that it had also been 15 years since I began listening to them. Their blend of psychedelic progressive rock and black metal was an immediate hit with my senses. Admittedly I caught on to Enslaved about half-way through their ascent to becoming international heavy metal headliners, and an award-winning band at home in Norway. When I got into the band their music had already undergone a transformation from its more raw black metal beginnings, to the signature blended sound they’re known for. But Enslaved has never been a band to ignore their early days, and the old albums are performed live and re-released on a regular basis to show appreciation to the old-school fans, and that’s something that has informed their latest album.
“I think we came to terms with our own history without letting ourselves lie down and die,” says Bjørnson.
“The whole exercise of going back and playing old albums and relating to (them), is a bit of a risky one. That’s my experience, because you have to balance that with being relevant. I do think we did it in a way that left us with the best of both worlds. I think we allow the fans to romanticize and have a nostalgic relationship through (the 1994 album) Frost and all that stuff, without that being the opposite of being a fan of the music. I think we have an open dialogue there. If you wanna be a fan of Enslaved you’re welcome to come and go as you want, because we have been on a more-or-less steady path. Sometimes I’ve been a little bit confused myself, but I have to say on this one, on album number 15… a lot of the things done getting here make more sense now.”
Utgard again finds Enslaved seeped in Norse mythology and runic languages. It’s a concept album that continues where 2017’s E left off. That album dealt with the intertwined events of the creation of Odins’ 8-legged horse Sleipnir, and the gods building a great wall around Asgard, which Bjørnson describes as a “watershed” moment in the mythology.
“For this album we’re looking outwards, ‘What did they build a wall against? ‘What is this outside?’” he says.
“It’s also quite inspired by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, (and) his use of Norse mythology. It also (refers to) runosophy, the philosophy around rune magic and rune mysticism, as a metaphor for the unconscious. Both the pre-programmed software so-to-speak that Jung mentioned called the ‘common unconscious,’ (where) we are born with a set of archetypes to make the universe understandable to us, but also the individual part which is created as we go along. That’s what the album is about, the need for a unification, a two-way acceptance of the other. You can put it on a mythological scale. You can put it on the universal forces of chaos and order that we so much like to dabble (with) in metal. Even on a societal scale also, by oppressing all these things that once were natural to us, death and decay and love, all that stuff that’s been swept under the carpet is now coming back to bite us in the ass, to say it in an very un-Carl Jung-ish sort of way.”
“The more we learn about our own local variation of that history, which is mythology, I think we learn more about what being human is.”
My initial attraction to Enslaved’s music was their sound. Norse mythology had always been of interest since I was young, but then again there are plenty of bands who write about it. Over time I’ve come to appreciate some of the deeper implications of Enslaved’s lyrics and how the concepts raised within the mythology can relate to how we live today, but it was my passion for their music that got me there. So I was curious to know what Bjørnson would like someone like myself, who doesn’t have Norse mythology in their background, to take away from Enslaved’s lyrics.
“We’re obsessed with ‘Who migrated here and there, and where did those ancestors come from?’” he says thoughtfully.
“But that’s a lot of physical history and of course that’s interesting, but it’s missing one part and that’s the psychological story of humans. Mythology is the language of that, the very powerful unconscious that is driving development, and that’s creativity. Mythology is a common human trait. It’s been messed up quite heavily by these monotheistic religions, which all coincidentally also started out quite agnostic, or mythological. When it makes the transition from encouraging personal interpretation and introspection, into absolute dogmas, that’s when it becomes a religion (chuckles). So it’s not very different from the first religions that are discovered 10,000 years before, hmm… ‘The Carpenter.’ The Norse mythology is one of the later ones actually, and I guess that’s also the reason why it’s so popular in mainstream culture now is because it was allowed to exist for a long time quite far into the Middle Ages. There’s connections to Greek mythology, (and) pre-Judean, the Kabballah systems like the Tree of Life, which appears later in Norse mythology as Yggdrasil. The concepts are quite similar, and then they have these variations. If the people were living in deserts, the sun could be portrayed as the enemy. Up north, the sun was like the most popular guest ever to appear, when it did once a year. Those are just geographical variations on the same thing I think. It shouldn’t be alien. The more we learn about our own local variation of that history, which is mythology, I think we learn more about what being human is.”
Bjørnson at his home workstation.
Naturally talk turns to the pandemic. Enslaved has maintained quite an active relationship with their fanbase during the shutdown, including streaming live shows. But for Bjørnson, someone who travels most of the year to make a living, being at home is a chance to spend more time with his wife and kids. But that doesn’t mean that the band is any less a part of his life these days.
“I haven’t been at home this much since I was 18 I think,” he says happily.
“That’s been a great thing. It’s taken a little bit of effort to get used to, but I realized that it’s also been extremely healthy. I have 2 daughters, and I’ve felt that I’ve already been away way too much. But it’s also what I do. There will always be sailors, truck drivers, military, people who are away for a long time. I happen to be a musician. But I’m really grateful that this time became a really good thing. It shows that we’re pretty good at adapting. Also the band has really come through. This is really a central thing in our lives. The touring has just been replaced by old-fashioned rehearsing, which has been very rewarding! I think Norway has been a fortunate place to be. It’s a big country, not too many people, and the concept of social distancing isn’t that far from what people do to begin with. The most heard joke this spring was like, ‘Well, I’m pretty glad all this hugging stuff is out the picture, finally.’ That was a half-joke, I’m also thinking there might some seriousness in it too.”
When I first reached Bjørnson that evening, I was ready to open with questions and comments about Utgard, but like many conversations these days, we immediately began talking about politics, the return of populism, and the proliferation of false conspiracy theories.
“That kind of stuff it used to be like, fringe. But now it’s really weird how front and center the whole thing is,” he says.
“These things go so slowly, because we go from the 80s and 90s where it’s unimaginable, where it’s really just historical. Now, (during) the so-called (Presidential) ‘debate,’ that the whole world was focusing on, there was a statement (by U.S. President Donald Trump) to a particular political group (extreme right wing group the Proud Boys), who were told to ‘stand by’ or whatever weird things. That’s pretty much Europe 1935-36. The parallels are just, it’s the same. Now you see people on Facebook going, ‘Yeah, well, he does get people employed and that’s a good thing,’ and that’s also the same thing. It’s the worst. People are now, they’re dissatisfied, they’re pissed off because globalization has sort of created a common ideal for everyone. From the biggest cities in Europe and the U.S, to the most remote countryside in Asia or in Northern Europe, everyone’s in the same race, using the same measurement for success and happiness, and nobody’s obviously achieving it! Then you get all these populists pouring into politics now, and they’re giving people something to be pissed at. Low and behold, it’s the same thing again.”
“(Euryonymous) was quite clear about that, that fascism, Naziism, is a cowardly way of trying to avoid the one true fact that every human being is a piece of shit.”
Heavy metal is certainly not immune to these issues, and unfortunately black metal still provides the most documented examples of Naziism in the genre, including the most well-known Nazi musician, Varg Vikernes and his one-man band Burzum. But for me the bigger issue has always been one of ambivalence by the metal community at large, especially concerning Vikernes who is embraced musically by many. Most of his fans will come up with the most acrobatic of explanations for why publicly praising Nazi-metal is ok, as long as they don’t share the violent beliefs of it’s creators. In metal, “separating the art from the artist” is often taken laughably too far. Nazi-metal even has its own sub-genre, tactfully named “National Socialist Black Metal” (NSBM) to avoid scrutiny. Bjørnson notes that there was a schism early on in the Norwegian black metal scene, between those who embraced Naziism and those who didn’t.
“NSBM (became) a thing of its own, which is a very good thing,” he says audibly smirking.
“Not that I’m concerned about those people having leisure time activities, but it’s better that they’re ‘over there.’ That was a result of some pretty strange resistance. (It) was the most ironic thing ever to begin with, as the 2nd Wave of Black Metal was initiated by (Mayhem guitarist) Euronymous who was a die-hard Communist. He was quite clear about that, that fascism, Naziism, is a cowardly way of trying to avoid the one true fact that every human being is a piece of shit.”
In 2009 Vikernes was released from prison after 15 years for the shocking murder of Euryonmous and his participation in church arsons, both of which have become eternally associated with the 90’s Norwegian black metal narrative, and he wasn’t shy about disparaging Enslaved in the media. Like myself, Bjørnson is also quite puzzled as to why there are metal fans of varying backgrounds who are comfortable listening to Burzum, as he doesn’t see Vikernes’ belief system and metal as being compatible on a cultural level.
“I remember when Mr. Burzum got out and started talking to the press again, first thing he did was complain about how black metal musicians were looking like hobos and Africans and gay and all that stuff,” he says.
“It kind of blows my mind that people will read that and then just… yeah, keep nodding off to their Burzum albums. That’s you he’s talking about! How he wants you to be exterminated and how you’re useless. He’s not joking. I can see that, as a culture that’s it’s sort of way of not having to engage in a sense. Obviously metal was not around the last time. But the populist, the fascist system is basically a nihilistic world view, it’s nothing because it’s all about power and money grabbing, and some weird uniform fetish. (It’s) the abandonment of anything, and especially, things having to do with culture. In the metal scene, we can sort of remove ourselves from thinking that we’re culture. ‘Ah culture’s for wimps! This is all about drinking beer and stuff!’ After they’ve gone a few rounds with the undesirables, they’re gonna be coming for the musicians and I promise you, metal is not gonna be on a list of things they wanna keep.”
Photo by Roy Bjørge
Despite this disparity, Bjørnson is also quick to note that metal’s influence in these areas is not nearly as impactful as what we have seen creep into mainstream culture. While the metal scene could certainly do more when it comes to these problems, Bjørnson feels that there has also been a lot of misspent energy, like when metal bands who use Pagan runes or World War II imagery are falsely accused of Naziism.
“The NSBM stuff is as obviously as bad as the marching Neo-Nazis, (but) I don’t think that (bands like) Motörhead or Marduk, whatever these characters have been using - World War II imagery, is what has turned the world into what it is today,” he says.
“(These bands) force people to face it in a sense. It’s a bad thing, and it’s a part of the modern mythology of society. I’m afraid that it has to be… you have to see those horrible photos and those things, because when there’s nothing to remind us of it, that’s when the deniers get a free minute. So I think it’s a drawback of human nature that we have to be reminded of that, and I think that popular culture portraying it is part of that. There’s been a discussion, there’s been a back-and-forth about that in the scene, to some extent. But of course it’s not good enough, but it’s still better than the mainstream, because that’s the problem. I’m not gonna mention band names, but even the dumbest and least sensitive, fetishized use of (Nazi) uniforms and stuff is nowhere near what is happening in the mainstream.”
The music of Enslaved exists to me on multiple levels, and no matter which one you choose to engage with, it’s always a memorable experience. There are blissed-out moments like the most transcendental parts of Dark Side of the Moon, balanced by savage landscapes of tremolo-drenched shredding. Beneath that lies a mythology that you can compare to your own, or enjoy from afar. Ultimately there’s as much or as little to unpack as you care to. But that’s not how I felt about speaking with Bjørnson that night, because there was absolutely a lot to unpack, whether you focus on Enslaved’s musical journey, or how they (and black metal as a whole) factor into a changing and divided world. After examining these ideas with Bjørnson, he had one final piece of advice.
“I would say to people… I’m not gonna say what they should do, but I would really advise people to remain vigilant, to actually take things at face value, and stop this whole stupid child game of ‘We’re fed up of being told the truth, so now we’re deciding the truth’” he says earnestly.
“Let that go. It’s not gonna get you anywhere if you have 5 million individual truths, because now we have people rebelling against natural law and science. It’s not gonna stop shitty weather by you declaring that you’ve decided that it’s different. If you go outside and it gets you wet, you can write whatever you want on Facebook about it, it’s still gonna be raining (laughs).”
You can find every way to stream and purchase Utgard here, and you can watch the video for the track "Jettegryta" below.