Roman historiography and ancient rituals: Inside the mystic doom of Völur

Image: Whitney South

Orchestral strings have long been utilised by metal bands wanting to add dramatic or atmospheric depth to their music, but few have gone so far as to make them a key figure in the core band setup. In place of a guitar, Canada’s Völur have the poignant violin of Laura C. Bates, infusing the trio’s folklore-inspired compositions with an inherently rustic feel and transforming them into a ritualistic voyage through dense mythological soundscapes. Bates’ expressive strings are juxtaposed with Lucas Gadke’s thunderous bass, which keeps the band anchored in the realm of metal, whilst the duo share vocal duties, alternating between expressive cleans and blackened cries. It’s a formidable setup that has thus far yielded some truly staggering results.

The band’s ambitious album tetralogy got off to a flying start with their full-length debut Disir in 2016, with follow-up Ancestors coming just a year later, and though there were capable stopgaps in the way of a split with Amber Asylum in 2019 and a Tolkien-inspired EP (featuring Michael Eckert of improv jazz quartet Neon Eagle) earlier this year, the third instalment in the series saw the light of day just last month.

Thankfully, the wait for a new full-length was more than worth it. Death Cult is the band’s most cohesive and impactful offering to date. The band’s greatest strength has always lied in their innate ability to expertly build tension, utilising moments of respite and subtlety that accentuate the supernatural quality of the music and aid in making the heaviest moments that much more impactful. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on Death Cult. Wistful one moment and outright destructive the next, it is never anything less than enthralling. 

Though arguably less of a sonic journey than its predecessor, it is undoubtedly a more consistent and well-realised album, with the band’s disparate inspirations – be they doom, classical, folk or free jazz – all pushed further than ever and yet somehow also implemented more seamlessly than on previous records. 

But how did the trio achieve this feat? Well to that end, we spoke to Gadke about the band’s inspirations, as well as the album’s political underpinnings and the issues that stopped it from being released much sooner.

How was the writing and recording process for this record? Presumably it was written before Covid but I imagine this year’s events might have slowed down the release somewhat?

Writing and recording were all done pre-Covid so to think about it now it seems like some sort of weird dream. We were all in the same room, breathing the same air, sitting tightly together on a small couch in a basement in Midtown Toronto. We recorded at Lincoln County Social Club in the summer of 2019, the sun was bright and hot when we stepped outside for breaks.  As I sit here on a grey cold day here in East York, I’m feeling mighty nostalgic.

Unfortunately for this record, there was just one small roadblock after another. I won’t get into too many details about it but we were ready to release around May of last year but then scheduling it with the label was complex and things kept getting pushed back. This is all to say that we’re so happy to finally get it out, Covid or not. It’s just a bummer we couldn’t do a big release show.

Ancestors fed into Disir in terms of the subject matter, does Death Cult share themes/concepts with the two preceding albums as well?

I like to think it does. I love to work with concepts and narratives, but one cannot let them fully control and shape your work. Better to have them as guidelines or modes of inspiration, or perhaps, modes of channeling inspiration. Either way, all the records are in a loosely based tetralogy based on different worlds in northern mythology. Disir was about the world of women, Ancestors about the word of men. This record, as was originally planned, was supposed to be about the world of gods, and in many ways, it is. But leading up to the composition of this album, the world of Wagnerian archetypes and swinging hammers with one-eyed men in cloaks wasn’t really appealing to me as much as it did in my early 20s. I had been reading the sagas for so long that I needed to get away from the world and the, frankly, formulaic plots (I still love the sagas, but after you read like one of them they start to blur together).

I went back to The Germania, by Tacitus, which I had read in my early 20s. It’s an early ethnography by a Roman author about the tribes of Germany. Most of it is full exaggeration and hearsay. Tacitus never visited Germania and was working on reports from people who’d either been there or heard something from someone who’d been there. This kind of contemporary myth-making really attracted me to the work, especially since a lot of it is a political commentary on his own world. He picks out characteristics of the Germans that he finds lacking in his fellow Romans. Anyway, he also goes into some exoticising and shock writing. He speaks briefly of their gods and that’s the world of gods I’m coming to. The imagined other and their imagined others, it’s a bit overthought, but sometimes it’s where I have to be if I want to write a riff.

“it’s good to not litter, but is the problem really that you are dropping plastic on the ground, or is the problem that there’s a big company that produces non-decomposable oil-based products for endless profit and then wants to remove the cost of dealing with the waste by making you put it in a trash can?”

You’ve mentioned that this is probably the closest you’ll come to a political album. People often assume that bands with folkloric or historical inspirations are inherently apolitical, but it’s difficult to separate art from the world it’s created in, and of course it can be beneficial to look back with an aim to learn from the past. Can you tell us a bit about the inspirations behind Death Cult, and how these link to a political point?

Well, I think that some backward-looking bands are outwardly political! It’s definitely the sphere of the conservative. The imagined past is a great way to perpetuate an idea of decline and degeneration. But I’m decidedly on the far far left of the political spectrum so naturally, this colours my understanding of the past. I think it’s important to remember that there’s no direct analogue in the past for a modern problem. Especially because things were so complex and nuanced in their moment and all we can see is a collective interpretation of the big picture.

The passage that really got me in Germania was about a certain tribe in the far north who were said to worship an idol of the Earth goddess Nerthus, and a bizarre ritual that was practiced once a year where four slaves ritualistically wash the idol and are then drowned. I love learning about old rituals, whether they’re real or not. Regardless, this image stuck with me and became the basis for this album If Tacitus can invent a ritual whole cloth, why can’t you expand on it? Perhaps it takes place under the full moon, perhaps it has been happening for hundreds of years. Or perhaps even it feels as though it never ends, that the cycle of the ritual moves through time and space and occurs endlessly. Then, we get into a notion of futility, of appealing to the Earth and this got me thinking about things like corporate-funded anti-litter campaigns. Now it’s good to not litter, but is the problem really that you are dropping plastic on the ground, or is the problem that there’s a big company that produces non-decomposable oil-based products, for endless profit and then wants to remove the cost of dealing with the waste by making you put it in a trash can? And it feels good to do it, right? It buys some relief from the background guilt that I’m sure a lot of us feel about the overall destruction of the environment. So that’s where the politics of this album come from. Again, probably overwrought, but helps with writing lyrics.

Where do you find your folkloric and historic inspirations? Do you find yourself searching for potential inspirations when it comes time to write or do you usually approach an album with a clear vision for where it’s gonna go and what you want to talk about?

When things were normal, I used to go record shopping all the time. My favourite genres of records are the ethnological ones – Ocora, Folkways, Nonesuch Explorer, and of course all the small regional record labels. I love finding sounds from these places, and of course, going back to Tacitus, I love the way they’re presented. They aim to show a real authentic side of humanity, untouched by modernity. Nice pictures of little peasants in their local costumes playing a weird oboe or something. The way it’s presented is charming to me, as though we’re supposed to think that these people weren’t listening to the radio and watching TV in the ‘60s.

So maybe, depending on what silly “Folk Music of____Record” I’ve been spinning recently will pique my interest. This album didn’t have as much folk in it though.

The jazz and classical elements seem more prominent this time than on Ancestors. Would you agree? If so, why do you think this change occurred?

Yeah, definitely. We went in with a determination to show some love to Eric Dolphy whose music I was obsessed with between 2017-2018. He’s a real genius of modern jazz who died way too early. Also with Justin [drums] joining the group, we’ve been able to stretch out more. All of us have a solid jazz background, so we can bring all these different elements to the table.

I also thought that, at times, the way you use the classical instruments reminds me of a lot of horror film soundtracks. Was this intentional?

Oh I hadn’t thought of that. Some of what I’ve written was inspired by the second Viennese school – Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg – who had a profound influence on horror film soundtracks. The rampant atonality does of course make disquieting and tense music. On this record that wasn’t there as much.  Actually took a lot from Rachel’s which is a kind of chamber “pop” project fronted by Rachel Grimes and by just thinking modally, inspired by both early music and some of the modal jazz guys. It’s all a bit of a wish mash potpourri thing at this point. The biggest “orchestrated” passage is ‘Dead Moon’, and that emerged fully as an exploration of the Phrygian mode. Modes are a big part of the foundation of the first two songs. For example, ‘Inviolate Grove’ is an exercise in what is called Mixolydian flat 2 flat 6 (or Phrygian dominant D Eb F# G A Bb C).

One thing the press release for this album mentions is the cohesiveness of the album, and I think that’s prominent. It seems like the disparate strands of your music come together, running in tandem more frequently than before. Did you approach Death Cult with an aim to consolidate your sound a bit more?

Yes, we were definitely looking to pare down these compositions, believe it or not. I think if you approach genre textures and sounds as another colour for your band to use, you will achieve cohesiveness. If you put your soul into the music, it will sound like you. Playing live off the floor really helps that too. Everyone in the band has “musical ADD” so we’re just trying to figure out how to tie it all together.

Death Cult is out now. Order here.

Words: George Parr

Liked it? Take a second to support Astral Noize on Patreon!