For any band that operates under the wing of a major label, the release of a new album coincides with a tidal wave of interviews. These interviews serve a mutual interest: the band and label generate the desired amount of attention for their latest work, while the magazine or website in question is able to serve its audience with the latest news on the music it likes. Due to the formulaic nature of this process, interviews can often take the form of a mechanical exchange of basic questions and pre-baked answers. Obligingly, the band member responds to questions on his most-loved bands, his preferred guitar and his favourite colour.
That my talk with Dark Fortress vocalist Morean would not tread the path of your typical checklist interview became apparent instantly. After only a few seconds I discovered that Morean, while of German origin, speaks perfect Dutch – my mother tongue. This facilitated the conversation that followed: at no point did it feel like a standard interview rather than a profound dialogue. Naturally, we explored the story behind Dark Fortress’ latest release – Venereal Dawn – but the occasion was also used to exchange ideas on the state of metal music, the dangers of experimentation and the peculiarities of Dutch culture. The result can be read below.
*This interview was conducted for Atmosfear magazine (UA) and it will appear in the November issue in Russian. The English version was published here on Lurker’s Path with kind permission of the magazine.*
J: So, you’re having a busy night I presume?
M: Yes, but this is the last interview for tonight, so we have all the time we need.
That’s good to hear. I promise I won’t keep you awake for another 2 hours! But let’s talk about Dark Fortress. We’re now talking to each other in the Netherlands, where you also live, but the last time I checked Dark Fortress was a German band.
True, I’ve been living here for the past 20 years due to educational and professional reasons, but I’m originally from the same Bavarian village as the rest of the band. V. Santura, the guitarist and main composer of the band, has been a friend of mine since before we were even teenagers. I have known him since before he had even touched a guitar, so he is like family to me. He was also responsible for pulling me back into black metal by introducing me to the new wave of bands in the mid-nineties.
As for Dark Fortress, I had always been aware of what they were doing due to my cooperation with some of their members in our other project Noneuclid. So when the old singer of Dark Fortress left in 2007, there suddenly was the possibility of me replacing him. It wasn’t even completely serious in the beginning, as I had never even been on a stage without a guitar. But I gave it a shot, and everyone was so satisfied that we decided to continue working together.
Those who paid attention during geography class in high school will realise that the Netherlands and Bavaria aren’t exactly close. It’s a good 8 hours by train to get from the windmills to the Lederhosen, so how do you cope with this distance as a band that plays live shows?
Yeah, the distance between us can be pretty brutal, as I am about 1000 kilometres away from the band’s hometown. And it’s not just me: our drummer also lives in the Netherlands. This means that, whenever we do a show, at least a few of us will have to travel for hundreds of kilometres. These logistic difficulties make it impossible to just say spontaneously, “Hey, let’s play at this festival”. Adding to that, all of us are in other bands, and as a professional musician you are always working on many different projects, so our busy schedules can be as problematic as the distance when we are trying to decide on tour dates. Fortunately, though, the fun we derive from playing gigs is worth the trouble.
Dark Fortress recently put out a new album called Venereal Dawn. Before its release, two songs were released: the title track and “Chrysalis”. Are these songs representative for the final product?
Our band has always had a broad scope in terms of influences. This is why we chose to publish the title track first: it is a long song that incorporates the many different aspects of our style. There’s something in there for everyone, and that is a statement that also applies to the album at large. We chose to approach things in a more ambitious, epic way than ever before. Of course there’s a ton of blastbeats in there, but also long interludes and a good amount of unusual, surprising moments. Adding to that, each song is different, so we’ve really gone all the way in terms of variety on this one. The title track is this big, epic monster that has a ton of things going on, whereas “Chrysalis” is a smaller, more focused song that came forth from our love for bands such as Tiamat and Anathema. And of course there are also songs on there that are straight-up, dirty black metal. We really made sure that, as a listener, you never get the feeling that you’re just hearing the same song 6 times in a row. So to answer your question, I think people who have heard these two songs will have a good idea of what Venereal Dawn is about, but there’s still a lot on that album they haven’t heard yet.
The title track indeed contains a plethora of musical elements, and not even just black metal. I’m never the best at interpreting influences and saying “this riff can be traced back to that band”, but I did get somewhat of a classic metal vibe when listening to the song. Am I on to something here?
You might well be! We made sure on this album to keep everything as real as possible. For instance, the drums are produced by an actual drummer on a real drum kit, and not just a drum computer with the same two samples looped infinitely. That alone makes a huge difference, because Seraph has become an amazing drummer over the years and we’d be downright stupid not to use his skills to the fullest. The same applies to the other instruments, and the vocals, which are all genuine and not heavily manipulated by computer technology. Even the album cover is a real painting, and the drawings inside the booklets are also hand-drawn instead of computer-generated. We put a lot of effort in making people realise this so they could appreciate the artisan quality of our work. In that sense it is indeed a very ‘classic’ album.
As for your other point, even before I joined Dark Fortress I thought of it primarily as a metal band. Granted, our image, style and sound are all rooted mainly in black metal, but at the same time our bands has traits that are not typically black metal. To name an example, we are a very extrovert live band in the sense that we go into each show full guns blazing. However, I’ve seen so many black metal live shows where the musicians would just stare at their own nails during the entire concert. As lovers of music, we have always listened to much more music than just black metal, and I think this is something you can hear in our own music.
That reminds me of the words of Famine of Peste Noire, who said that the problem with most modern black metal bands is that their only influences are other black metal bands, while a classic band such as Emperor was influenced by Mercyful Fate and King Diamond, projects that are not necessarily black metal from a musical point of view.
There is at least some truth to that, because let’s not forget that Emperor helped create the modern black metal sound, and as far as I’m concerned there still is nothing that tops their work. They would never have achieved what they did if their main incentive would have been to just ape other bands.
It happens too often that bands just lack the courage to try and innovate, but I’d prefer a failed experiment over a boring, unambitious record any day. Opeth and Morbid Angel got a lot of shit for their more recent albums, but at least they tried.
I assume you’re referring to Morbid Angel and that “Too Extreme” disaster?
Yeah, that record (Illud Divinum Insanus – ed.) contained some songs that should never have been released, but, you know, I don’t blame them. At the end of the day they’re one of my favourite bands, and they made an effort to do something new. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out too well, which was a shame, and I definitely would not have wanted to be at the centre of that shitstorm. But I’m still glad they didn’t settle for trying to emulate their classic albums.
Just take a look at Slayer: really, they are sacred to me, but their last two albums might as well not have been released. It was just like, “Hey guys, we tried to re-record Reign in Blood, but it didn’t work out too well”. Still, even they tried to innovate with Diabolus in Musica. Honestly, I thought it was an interesting approach they had going on. But sometimes I get the idea that metalheads will crucify you as soon as you move away even an inch from the genre’s traditional sound.
Recording music really is a shit-ton of work.
However, with such a mentality, metal itself would have never been able to flourish as a style of music. In the ’80s, you had just one metal scene, and every 2 years or so someone out there was doing something new and radically different from anything that had come before it. Back then, people were more open to new ideas, and it was normal to listen to a band a few times before deciding whether you liked them. Bands at the time did not care at all about whether people called them thrash metal, speed metal, or power metal. Compare that to the present day, where you have people arguing over whether something is True Swedish Second Wave Black Metal or Norwegian Post-Power Metalcore. It may be a fun way to pass the time for journalists, but when you are actually writing music, this should be the last thing you have on your mind.
What would you say about the differences between releasing an album in the old days opposed to now? I can imagine the mentality we just described has seeped into the way people judge music, as well.
Logically, the biggest game-changer has been technology. I don’t want to sound like an old fart, but it is sad that this magical process of anticipating an album for months and putting it in your CD player for the first time is mostly gone. Now you can hear tracks from a new album before it is even released. This can be good because it gives listeners an idea of what they can expect, but the flipside is that some people will have formed an opinion on a song before the first minute has even passed. And even worse, they’ll assume the entire album is exactly like the first song you make available. I’m convinced an album is appreciated more if the listener takes his time to let the listening experience sink in. I would recommend to everyone who is interested in our album to just buy a physical copy and take some time to process the whole experience, instead of listening to it on a phone while commuting to work.
Let’s talk about you. You’re a relatively new member of the band, so what do you think your influence on the band has been so far? Have you left your mark already?
I hope so! Part of this comes naturally. I’m responsible for the vocals and the lyrics, and I also have the biggest influence on shaping an album’s concept. So naturally, our last three albums would’ve sounded a bit different had they been recorded with the previous singer.
So you have helped progress the band’s sound?
Yeah, but that would have happened either way, as an objective of Dark Fortress has always been to make a step forward with each album. The band was started 20 years ago by a bunch of teenagers, so it is only logical that we keep expanding our horizon. Some of us became professional musicians, so we learned to look at music in different ways, and our standards still become higher each day. If we’d just come up with a lazy imitation of everything that’s already been done before, we would need to ask ourselves why we’d burden ourselves with recording music in the first place, because it really is a shit-ton of work.
Have you noticed that, despite joining the band later than the other members, you are being viewed as the “face” of the band? Is such a fate even avoidable for a vocalist?
It is hard to avoid, because the human voice does more in the way of establishing a direct connection with the listener than, say, a guitar. But even then, it is not wholly illogical that I, along with V. Santura take care of most of the interviews and function as a sort of liaison for the band. I’m responsible for the album’s lyrics and concept, so obviously I like to talk about that.
Are the tasks of each band member divided equally?
We try to divide our tasks, but I can’t say that it is equal. I mean, I put a lot of work into a record, but that still pales in comparison to the labour of V. Santura. For starters, he composes 80% of the music. So he writes the first riffs, and from that moment until the release of the album, he is present at every step. He records the music, produces it, engineers it, and records a large chunk of the riffs, and he has to record everyone else’s work, so no one is as closely involved as he is. Sure, every member contributes to Dark Fortress, but at the end of the day there is no doubt that he is the captain of this ship.
Focusing more on one of your main task – lyrics – how much value do you think lyrics have in metal, or music in general? There are some who can dismiss entire bands based on lyrical content alone, but many others refuse to care, claiming it is all about the music. How do you feel about this as someone who invests a lot of time in the lyrical content of Dark Fortress?
Naturally, it depends on the person. When I joined the band and also got the responsibility over the lyrics, our bass player walked up to me and said, “Oh by the way, nobody gives a shit about the lyrics”. As a listener, I can understand where that sentiment comes from. There are enough bands I listen to despite their lyrics not being all that impressive. Still, an exceptionally bad set of lyrics does have the ability to ruin a song for me, even when the music itself is good.
As such, I have always been someone who values good lyrics, primarily because I see them as keys to certain deeper thoughts. Why not use lyrics to fortify music’s inherent poeticism, and to express and explore ideas or contemplations in a way that music notes could never do? This may just be the result of my work as a composer, which forces me to think extensively on what music does, but I do think that good lyrics can make a composition stronger and more profound.
Music comes across better if you are dedicated, and that is easier when you can connect to the words that you sing.
Sadly, this opportunity is often missed. There is this game we sometimes play where we improvise typical metal lyrics in real-time, and it is hilarious to see how similar some of the things we come up with are to lyrics that are actually used by bands. So many artists insist that black metal is an ideological and spiritual phenomenon, and they keep wailing on about their ‘message’, but when you then look at what they have to say in their lyrics, you all too often notice that there is not a single worthwhile thought contained within them.
And how do you avoid this trap when writing for Dark Fortress?
We take a more poetic approach, because when something has more layers, it forces you to think about it more deeply. That’s the thing with all these political bands. They just deliver a message and then that’s that. Not to mention said message often holds zero relation to the music.With Dark Fortress, we really try to create our own world around music. And the stronger that world is represented, the more satisfied we are. You shouldn’t forget that I have to sing these lyrics about 50 times on stage, so if they just contained boring thoughts that I don’t really stand behind, it would affect my performance as a singer. Music comes across better if you are dedicated, and that is easier when you can connect to the words that you sing.
Ultimately, my ambition is to make the lyrics and the music intertwine. They might be two separate elements, but we work on them with the same attention to detail and style. If I were to write lyrics that do not flow well rhythmically or contradict the overall atmosphere of a song, that has a direct backlash on how you experience the music.
What about the writing process itself? How did you go about writing the lyrics? Did you pour them into the mold of a concept album?
Yes, Venereal Dawn is a concept album. For me, this approach works well because there’s this overarching context which helps me focus. When you write lyrics, you have a large influence on the overall feel and character of an album, so a concept helps draw lines between each song in the same way that the compositions themselves all relate to each other.
The writing process itself takes place on two levels. Firstly, I focus on the content: how does the music make me feel and what do I want to express? Secondly, I focus on the technical aspect: after deciding what to express, I still need to figure out how to express it. I spend a lot of time on finding the right words and “building” them into the music. If one part of a song is quiet and mystical, you need to keep that intact by writing lyrics to go along with that atmosphere. And then there’s of course things such as metre and rhyme that you have to take into account. It is like a big puzzle that you have to put together. But while it is complicated, I enjoy it a lot.
All this effort to create sensible lyrics that are compatible with the music. Now I’m curious what they are about.
The basic scenario of Venereal Dawn is that the Earth is struck by a curse that is transmitted through sunlight. So the order of nature is disrupted because everything that comes into contact with this sunlight becomes sick, rotten, burned or mutated.
Within this apocalyptic scenario, civilisation is doomed, as the environment has turned hostile. There is a way to temporarily protect yourself against the effects of the light, but you have to smear fresh blood all over your body. You can imagine how this spawns utter chaos, with people killing each other, and sacrificing each other to this force of nature – all to be able to live another day. This drives a wedge between humans, dividing them into small pockets of survivors lusting after each other’s blood.
The story is told through the eyes of a protagonist who is kidnapped and destined to be sacrificed. At the beginning of this story, he is in a cave at dawn, where he is approached by a being that might at one point have been a human, but has since mutated into a perverted lifeform that now acts as a messenger of these evil forces from outer space. The being kidnaps him and takes him to a sacrificial site, where he is to be slaughtered that same night. Before the slaughter, the people there hold a ritual and summon a being that has a body made out of light. It’s a manifestation of sentient light, if you will.
It’s not about the suffering or the destruction, but about how you cope with it.
During the sacrifice, the protagonist is stripped like an onion: one by one, a part of his humanity is taken from him. He realises that his situation is hopeless and that he is about to die. But in accepting his fate, he contemplates whether there might still be something positive that can emerge from this situation. He retreats into his mind to the point where he is no longer human, and exists only as a last remaining spark of conscience.
This is the premise for the second half of the album: accepting all the terrible things that are happening to you, but still finding a way out by defining yourself in a different way. Concretely, the protagonist’s body dies, his mind dies, his soul dies, and he is reduced to the smallest possible manifestation of awareness. And in this state, these creatures of light start talking to him and make him see the other side of the horror that goes on in the physical world. In a sense, he is reborn.
That seems like a positivist message.
Maybe. The basic idea was to explore what you can do when you are in a hopeless situation. Can you still derive power from your mind to help you live through things that would otherwise be impossible to survive? It’s not about the suffering or the destruction, but about how you cope with it. I don’t know if you can call it outright ‘positive’, but I did want to offer a bit of perspective this time. Ylem was an utterly nihilistic record that looked at suffering from a distance, so with Venereal Dawn I wanted to offer a more personal perspective.
And to be honest, I’ve personally had it a bit with all the complaining in black metal. I have nothing against people talking about their misery, but as an artist, at one point you have to offer a bit more than just whining all the time. When someone’s 40 years old and still offers nothing but depressing lyrics talking about how much everything sucks, I just lose interest. This also applies to my own work, as I came to a point where I wanted to express a broader range of emotions.
Is language a factor in your lyrics? You’re in a German band, you also speak Dutch, but you choose to sing in English. Does English just work better for black metal?
I think it does. In English you can say the same things as in German or Dutch, but with less syllables. This makes it an easier language to fit into the rhythm and melody of a metal song. It’s a compact language, which makes it ideal for growls in the same way that Italian, with its open, smooth sound is perfect for opera (and melodramatic, overly sentimental speeches).
Not to mention that a language also has cultural connotations that come into play. I’ve personally always found Dutch lyrics in black metal odd. My own theory is that black metal needs a bit of pretence to sound right, and if the Dutch hate one thing, it is pretence. The ideology of John Calvin, which has dominated our culture for as long as this country exists, dictates puritanism and soberness to an extreme degree. You’re expected to behave like a normal citizen, and putting on corpsepaint and screaming your lungs out are not usually classified as such.
Judging by my experience living here, I can confirm that. Of course I appreciate your culture and your language, but really, at times I get the idea that people here are afraid of poetry or something! You can notice this in the simplest things. If a new restaurant opens, odds are it will just be named ‘Food ‘n’ stuff’, and a new store will simply be called ‘Store’. This absolutely baffles me. Does it all have to be so… ugly? *laughs*
Art is about creating other worlds, and that is something that requires a good dose of imagination. I notice that Dutch people do appreciate it when I try out new things, but when they have to come up with something themselves, it’s like they think they are not special enough to allow themselves to think outside of the box.
In that regard, I think I know why Urfaust is the most successful Dutch black metal band. They are mysterious and poetic, as black metal requires, but they manage to balance it out by presenting themselves as two normal, funny guys (albeit with a slightly alarming interest in alcoholic beverages).
And that’s the way it should be. All things said and done about the mentality of the Dutch, I do like their tendency to just be normal and not walk around acting like they’re better than everyone else. I think you should always make a distinction between the poetic “I” – the persona you establish in your art – and the person you are in private. Nothing bothers me more than someone who tries to awaken the impression that he already puts on his corpsepaint before getting coffee in the morning. It’s ridiculous that some artists cling so desperately to the myth they created around themselves. Really, life’s too short to dedicate yourself to some amateuristic theatrical act 24/7.
Besides, it makes you more vulnerable when you pretend to be serious and angry all the time. Just compare it to church, where no one can crack a joke, lest it ruin the entire mysticism that surrounds it.
I always did wonder how, back in the early days of black metal, people like Euronymous and Varg Vikernes behaved in real life, because in their interviews they would always act aggressive and obnoxious in an effort to enhance the mystique of their music.
Well, eventually we did find out how they behaved in real life. *laughs*
But seriously, quite a few of them turned out to be, well, looneys. At least, I wouldn’t consider it an act of chivalry to stab someone to death in a park. I’ll never understand how someone can choose to spend his life behind bars for media attention or the approval of his satanic guru.
We are approaching the 2-hour mark, and I wouldn’t want to break my promise. Anything urgent you still wish to share?
My greetings to Ukrainian metalheads! I hope the situation in your country will turn back to normal soon, so people can feel safe again and go on with their lives.
And so ends our session with Morean. We express our deepest gratitude for his levelheaded comments and his sharp analysis of Dutch culture. And of course we apologise for keeping him awake for so long.
Header photo credit: found on Wikimedia Commons, taken by user Vassil.