Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Band Archives & Features


bal sagoth, byron roberts

bal sagoth, byron roberts

bal sagoth, starfire, ultima thule

bal sagoth, starfire, ultima thule

bal sagoth, atlantis

bal sagoth, power cosmic

bal sagoth, power cosmic

bal sagoth, cthulhu


In this section, I’ll strive to answer some of the most frequently asked questions which people have posed over the last 26 years or so. These questions range from old classics to very recent queries about the current state of Bal-Sagoth.

Byron Roberts

The Beginning of Bal-Sagoth

How did the band start? This question has been asked so many times over the years, so here’s the definitive version for the archives! Here you will find out about the origin of both the concept and the band itself. I came up with the idea and concept for Bal-Sagoth many years ago (around 1989), and had tried unsuccessfully to start it up with a succession of different musicians. Unfortunately, it was the era of socially aware thrash metal, and nobody was at all interested in committing to a fantasy oriented black/death metal project. I was determined to start the project however, and continued my attempts to find musicians who might be interested in the idea. Then, a guy I knew who had played guitar in a prominent local thrash band asked me if I wanted to jam with some guys he’d met. They were only playing Metallica and Napalm Death covers in their bedroom, but they were interested in starting a serious band. So, I went and met the Maudling brothers Jonny and Chris (Jonny had previously been in a thrash band called Igniter, playing the regional pubs and clubs and once supporting Xentrix), and we jammed some stuff. Unfortunately however, I really wasn’t interested in playing the kind of material that they were into, so I surmised that it probably just wasn’t going to work out. Jonny and Chris weren’t at all familiar with black metal, and also the guy who introduced us (Alistair) absolutely did not like the fantasy concept I had in mind for the band, or the name “Bal-Sagoth”, for that matter. He hated it. Alistair wanted to do a sort of thrash/death metal band with contemporary socio-political lyrical topics. He was also, at that time, somewhat horrified at the suggestion of a metal band with full keyboards. I figured I might as well keep jamming with these guys until I found someone else with whom to start Bal-Sagoth. I quickly drew up a lengthy list of alternative names for this non-serious bedroom act, and “Dusk” was the last name on that list. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was the name which was chosen. (Alistair didn’t like the name Bal-Sagoth, but he was seemingly quite fond of Dusk). So, I swiftly created a logo for Dusk, complete with a skull and an inverted cross. Truth be told, this whole Dusk thing was a compromise, and from the outset I wasn’t happy with it. I duly vowed to keep my Bal-Sagoth project on stand by, waiting for an opportunity to put it into action, should such an opportunity ever arise. Anyway, we continued to spend Sunday afternoons making a truly horrific noise. (Special mention must be made at this point of the house in which we were jamming. It was an old manor house which had once been a lunatic asylum. Yes, seriously! It was Chris and Jonny’s parents’ house, in which they all lived. Ask anyone who attended our rehearsals… they’ll tell you how cool the old Manor was). Well, this went on for a few months, but absolutely nothing came of it. I wasn’t happy that I couldn’t implement the Bal-Sagoth concept fully, and Jonny and Chris also confided in me that they too weren’t happy with the kind of material which we were playing as Dusk and that they found Alistair difficult to work with. So, to cut a long story short, we parted company with Alistair, asking him to leave the band. As he didn’t like black metal or fantasy lyrics, it was quite simply inevitable. (But, shortly after we released our second album, Alistair found his way back into the band as bassist, having seemingly had a change of heart regarding his dislike for black metal and fantasy orientated metal concepts.) After Alistair’s initial departure, I explained once again to Jonny and Chris in detail the kind of music I wanted to do, and gave them another detailed rundown of the Bal-Sagoth concept, saying that keyboards would ideally play a prominent role in such a band. Back then, I kept all the lyrics, logos, and ideas in a large black folder, which I showed them again to give them a firm idea of the whole concept behind the band. They thought it was all pretty weird, but Jonny, who was a trained pianist, was very intrigued by the idea of keyboards, and when I showed them material by black metal bands such as Emperor, they were sold. And so, Bal-Sagoth was formally implemented during the late summer of 1993. We had Jason Porter on bass guitar, and for keyboards we recruited Vincent Crabtree. Thus, we began crafting the music which would ultimately end up on our demo and then later on the debut album. And that’s how Bal-Sagoth started.

The Song Writing Process

I call the process by which Bal-Sagoth composes songs the “synergy” method, as that’s the best way to describe it. The lyrics are always written well in advance of the music being composed. However, the other members often don’t get to see the actual lyrics until well after the fact. It’s always a surprise to them to actually find out what the final lyrics are.  It was different in the early days, when I showed all the lyrics to the members from day one and often demanded certain riffs be written specifically to suit certain lyrical passages. These days I prefer not to do that. Instead, I always prepare a general conceptual synopsis concerning the narrative outline of the album which I then give to Jonny as a reference. This synopsis includes information on which stories will be included on the album, what the required themes and moods should be, the general emotional essence a piece should convey, etc. Sometimes the details I give him are very sketchy, which Jonny often prefers so as to not overtly colour his music writing, while other times the synopsis is quite detailed. An example of the synopsis being followed well is the song “The Fallen Kingdoms of the Abyssal Plain”, for which I told Jonny that I needed a piece which conveyed the feeling of a journey to the bottom of the ocean, down through the various levels of the marine depths, to the very sea floor where we would see the ruins of ancient non-human underwater cities. I was very pleased with how well that one reflected the synopsis. In the case of epic centre-piece songs such as the second chapter in the Obsidian Crown saga or the Hyperborean Empire cycle, the synopsis will include much greater information, such as a broad outline of the events in the actual story, the key occurrences, what kind of music is required for a certain event, etc. We find this method generally works best. More often than not Jonny will just write something completely unconnected to any outline and present that to me, too. This is often how it works, but it varies. The process of refining and perfecting a composition then proceeds over a period of weeks and months, with any number of different versions of a song exchanged as MP3s, until everything ultimately comes together in the recording studio. And that’s the Bal-Sagoth way of writing songs.

Wasn’t the Circus Maximus used just for chariot racing? But you have gladiatorial combat taking place there in “Blood Slakes The Sand At the Circus Maximus".

The Circus Maximus was very much an “all purpose” arena. Although it is perhaps best known for the epic chariot races, many different events were in fact held there, including parades, beast hunts, plays, recitals, athletics, religious ceremonies, gladiatorial contests and horse racing.

Isn’t “chthonic” pronounced wrong on the album “The Chthonic Chronicles”?

Well, many learned sources assert that the “ch” is technically silent, but I chose to pronounce it as “katonic” for a couple of reasons. First, I liked the alliterative qualities which the “hard c” sound afforded when paired with the word “chronicles”, which neatly paralleled the alliteration of the previous Bal-Sagoth album title “Atlantis Ascendant”. Second, I always liked the Lovecraftian connotation which the “katonic” pronunciation suggested.

As editor Simon theorizes in the fictional “Necronomicon” publication:

“The pronunciation of chthonic is “katonic”, which explains Lovecraft’s famous Miskatonic River and Miskatonic University, not to mention the chief deity of his pantheon, Cthulhu…”

So, although he is technically wrong about the pronunciation, I always rather liked that theory and the phonetic link to HPL which it afforded. So, that’s why I decided to use the “katonic” pronunciation.

Which keyboards and sound modules were used in Bal-Sagoth?

In the studio, as far as sound modules, sound cards and samplers were concerned, we primarily used Roland Sound Canvas, a Proteus 2 and also an Akai S900 during the recording of the albums.  The keyboard we used at Academy Music Studio was a Roland MIDI keyboard. For our early rehearsals we got hold of a Yamaha DX21, which we soon replaced with a Korg M1. We used the Korg M1 for all our live shows over the next few years. We then acquired a Roland XP-50, which we used alongside the Korg M1 at gigs. (The XP-50 was also used in the studio during the recording of “Battle Magic” and also on the later albums, although not to a great extent.) Later, we started using a Roland Fantom X7 for live shows.

Why doesn’t Bal-Sagoth play many gigs?

We actually played quite a few shows over the years, including several tours and many festivals and one-off shows. The truth of the matter is that it’s fairly difficult to recreate this material accurately in the live environment. The music of Bal-Sagoth is so multi-layered and intricate that there is really no way in which we can genuinely translate the songs live to a truly satisfactory extent. Some of the other guys in the band are okay with this constant compromise in their desire to continually play shows, but it has always vexed me, particularly when we attempt to play the more complex songs. Additionally, I have always felt that when a band plays live, much of the magic and the mystique which is contained on an album is generally lost. No matter how good the show might be, the very act of playing live often demystifies a band and brings them back down to a mundane and earthly level; such are the limitations of the technology and the very medium itself.

I’d also like to add that it takes a lot of preparation and logistical planning for us to undertake shows. Rehearsals have to be arranged, transport has to be coordinated and band members have to take time off from work. The comparatively low gig fees from shows often simply do not make all that expenditure worthwhile.

Additionally, we don’t have our own sound man, so we are constantly forced to rely on the sound engineers available at whatever venue we might be playing, and those sound engineers invariably have no idea as to what this band should sound like in the live environment. Even if we’re afforded a thorough sound check during which to educate the sound men as to the band’s nature, the levels and monitor mixes always end up wildly incorrect.

All in all, the live realm is certainly not the ideal platform from which to showcase the artistic vision of Bal-Sagoth. (Although the other band members would invariably disagree). At one point, there were rumours that I used to turn down a lot of the shows which we were offered. That was quite simply not the case. We accepted the vast majority of gigs which we were offered.  Whatever the case, my favourite shows were the ones where we wore our theatrical garb, such as warpaint, masks, etc. We only played a handful of shows in “normal” apparel. (Well, unless you count our very early gigs, when I was the only one donning the theatrical gear. It took a long time to convince the other members to join in with the theatrical aspect!)

Why didn’t Leon and the other guy play on any Bal-Sagoth albums?

By and large, Leon and Alistair were recruited solely to play the material live. In Leon’s case, he received an intensive crash course in keyboard playing from Chris and Jonny. It’s important to realize that Leon had never played keyboards before and in a very short time, he became proficient enough to play our material at gigs! He did an amazing job, and learning the keyboard parts of the Bal-Sagoth songs so quickly was truly a phenomenal achievement. But as far as the albums were concerned, it was always going to be Jonny who actually played the keyboards in the studio. Similarly, Chris wanted to play the bass on “Battle Magic” himself. As he had laid down all the guitar tracks, he felt it would be much more efficient and practical if he also played the bass parts. This was partially due to a desire to save time, as we only had a limited amount of time booked into Academy Music Studio and therefore it made more sense for Chris to play the bass as he was already so familiar with the riffs. Additionally, at the time Chris felt that Alistair’s playing style might be slightly too imprecise to meet the exacting standards which the recording required. So that is basically why Leon and Alistair never actually played on any of the Bal-Sagoth albums. Eventually, we recruited a new drummer and moved Jonny onto the keyboards for live shows (resulting in many bewildered looks from the audiences when they saw Jonny). That drummer was Dave Mackintosh. Shortly afterwards we recruited Mark Greenwell on bass, who did play on three of our albums. 

How many stories and books have you had published? How long have you been writing these stories?

I’ve been writing stories for many, many years. In fact, many of my Bal-Sagoth lyrics started out as prose stories which I then adapted to lyrical form. Several of the characters from the Bal-Sagoth lyrics now feature in published short stories and novellas. The Elizabethan privateer Captain Caleb Blackthorne takes centre stage in a trilogy of short stories which have been published in the “Swords of Steel” paperback anthology series from DMR Books. The stories are titled “Into the Dawn of Storms”, “A Voyage on Benighted Seas” and “The Scion at the Gate of Eternity”. All three stories (including a revised version of the first) are collected in the mighty “Swords of Steel Omnibus Edition”, available now. And the merciless vampyre hunter Joachim Blokk also features in a trilogy of short stories, the first of which, “Darkfall: Return of the Vampyre Hunter”, was published in the fantasy anthology “Devil’s Armory” from Barbwire Butterfly Books/Horrified Press. The Obsidian Crown saga which started on the second Bal-Sagoth album is also featured in a couple of published short stories, including the tale “Chronicles of the Obsidian Crown” which appears in the paperback anthology volume “Barbarian Crowns”, also from Barbwire Butterfly Books/Horrified Press. There’s also an Obsidian Crown story in my debut novel, which I’ll mention shortly. The barbarian warlord Caylen-Tor has also found his way into book form, first in the anthology paperback “Dreams of Fire and Steel” published by Nocturnicorn Books. The story was called “Caylen-Tor”, and was actually an excerpt from my full length Caylen-Tor novel. The novel itself is entitled “The Chronicles of Caylen-Tor” and consists of three linked novellas featuring the fan-favourite character. The stories are “The Siege of Gul-Azlaan”, “The Battle of Blackhelm Vale”, and “The King Beneath the Mountain of Fire”. The book was published as a classic sized paperback and a trade paperback by DMR Books. The follow-up novel “The Chronicles of Caylen-Tor: Volume II” was also published by DMR Books and contains four stories “The Trial of Blood and Steel”, “Carnage at the Crimson Stones”, “In the Hall of the Wolfborn Liege” and “The Devil Beyond the Gate of Shadow”. Both volumes also include extensive appendices sections containing much information on the characters and events of the fantasy world. I also had a poem (“When Dead Cthulhu Dreams”) published in the Lovecraftian anthology “Beyond the Cosmic Veil”, which was released by Horrified Press. Additionally, another of my poems (“The Hallowing of the Wolf-King”) was published in the second edition of “The Hyborian Gazette” from Carnelian Press. The poem also features in “The Chronicles of Caylen-Tor”. There’s also the novel “Karnov: Phantom-Clad Rider of the Cosmic Ice” which was a collaboration between myself, Matt Knight and Howie Bentley. We each took it in turns to write sections of the book. It’s also available from DMR Books. There are also many other stories and novellas in the works, which will be published over the coming months and years. Keep checking my blogs for more information, and thanks for your support!

What’s Chris and Jonny’s new project Kull all about?

Following “The Chthonic Chronicles”, I felt that the Bal-Sagoth discography was complete, at least for the immediately foreseeable future. But I also had the material prepared for a further three albums, including lyrics, stories, artwork, etc, so I certainly did not want to rule out the possibility of further Bal-Sagoth albums in the future. Anyway, we concentrated on gigging for the next few years, playing shows and festivals in places such as Norway, USA, Finland, Portugal, Czech Republic, etc. However, Jonny and Chris were increasingly keen to continue composing and releasing new music, so they ultimately decided to form Kull to continue their musical endeavours. Contrary to what has been claimed, the debut Kull album was not originally written as the seventh Bal-Sagoth album. Nor is Kull simply Bal-Sagoth under a different name. It is a new project for Jonny and Chris to showcase their compositions, exploring exciting new ground whilst maintaining a stylistic link to the celebrated style and sound (which all three of us) established over the years.

Will there be any further BAL-SAGOTH albums?

Never say never, but there are currently no firm plans for any further Bal-Sagoth albums, at least not for the immediately foreseeable future. That’s not to say there’s any shortage of inspiration or material… far from it! I have the content prepared for albums 7, 8 and 9, including lyrics, titles and even the cover artwork. That material has existed for years, and includes the final chapters to all of the stories which were left unfinished on the existing albums.) Anyway, at some point we might reunite triumphantly for a seventh Bal-Sagoth opus. But now is not the time. Perhaps one day… if the stars align.

BYRON, Winter 2022

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