The Toronto trio present a message with a folk driven effort of ambitious musical breadth.
For as varied as bands have approached the different subgenres of doom metal, few do it quite as grand as our subject today, that being VÖLUR. With a pairing of electric violin and haunting atmospheres, the trio implement a rather tantalizing listening experience, as evident on the band's forthcoming full-length, Death Cult. Arriving on November 13th via Prophecy Productions, Death Cult finds VÖLUR at their best yet. Their signature folk and modern classical influences are on full display with song structures that vary in scope as they tell a story of human sacrifice, one inspired by the works of Roman historiographer, Tacitus. To visualize said story, VÖLUR have entrusted Marie Cherniy for a cover that speaks to the themes presented here in an eloquent manner.
We talk to bassist/vocalist Lucas Gadke about all things Death Cult as we inch closer to the album's release date:
We’re just a few weeks away now from the wondrous ‘Death Cult’ and we must say that you’ve crafted a magnificent outing that so eloquently captures the breadth of where metal can go. One could categorize the record as post-doom or doom in general, but it would be doing a disservice to what you’ve put together here. Where you are all as a band now compared to when this all began with 2015’s ‘Breaker of Oaths’?
Gadke: Well, in the past five years there’s been quite a few changes. Aside from the fact that we’re all currently locked in hyperbaric chambers patiently awaiting the end of the pandemic, we’ve also got a new drummer. Justin Ruppel joined the band in 2019, right before we went down to play some shows in the Northeast part of the United Staes. We parted ways with James Payment amicably as our lives were heading in different directions. Justin is able to bring the same kind of power that James was able to deliver, but he also has a jazz background which frees us up to do some more wild and weird stuff. Overall, I’d say we’re continuing on our experimental path. The problem is, albums take so long to make that by the time you’re ready to release one, you’re already on to the next thing. So we’ve changed a lot since 2017’s 'Ancestors', but we’ve changed further still since we recorded 'Death Cult' in 2019.
The variety of elements that flow seamlessly throughout ‘Death Cult’ speaks to the talent lying within your ranks. One could simply force elements into a composition for the sake of being ‘unique’ or trying something different, yet this isn’t the case for you. Musically, how do you approach the composition of the tracks so that these styles coalesce organically?
Gadke: It may be trite, but I think you have to look at all the different music elements at your disposal like a painter looks at his palette. Initially when we started the band, I was interested in exploring contrasts in heavy/loud versus soft and intimate, much like many other funeral doom bands do. But to continue the hack simile, there are different chromatic tones to be explored. You can be soft and use a free jazz sound, you can be loud and play folk. There’s a wide world of sounds at your disposal. Now of course, as you said, the key is to not throw all these elements in a blender and end up with a faceless, tasteless sludge (now we’ve moved on to food). You have to carefully consider the arc of the piece. I consider it helpful to have a theme or a concept in mind when I write. But there’s also a balance because program music can be quite restrictive. So there’s always a push and pull. When we start this record, I challenged myself to write music that incorporated so many different sounds, but to do it in an organic way, and I think I’ve achieved that.
Furthermore, finding common links between sounds can help. We’ve always enjoyed modal exploration. So in a song like 'Dead Moon', the whole piece takes place in E Phrygian (with a light jog over to A minor) but those links ease the movement between styles.
Aside from the works of Tacitus, were there any external musical elements that influenced the compositional process of the record?
Gadke: We’ve been listening to a lot of free jazz. Eric Dolphy and Abert Ayler. That was the impetus to get John David Williams to play bass clarinet on the opening of 'Freyjan Death Cult'. That song was kind of our answer. To the question, what if Sleep and Ornette Coleman tried to play black metal? Beyond this, I’d been listening to a lot of Qawwali music, hence the use of the harmonium in 'Inviolate Grove'.
As for non-musical elements, our current environmental situation was a big influence. The reference to Tacitus talks about the tribes worshipping Nerthus, or Mother Earth. I started thinking about the nature of magic as intent and how these rituals were practiced. Maybe it's a leap, but the concept of “greenwashing” has always bothered me. And it seemed like it was this same kind of ritual, coupled with intent but ultimately lacking in concrete results. Although I consider myself a spiritual and open minded person, magic and ritual is no replacement for actual action. So I imagined this little community of people, working hard for Mother Earth but in a facile, ritualistic way only, while the world still burns for the sake of profit. This is what I feel happens when we buy those carbon offsets or biodegradable k-cups. It doesn’t work to address the root cause of environmental devastation, which is an insatiable market force driven by a need for profit above all else. These little things we do are green indulgences. And we’re caught in an endless ineffective cycle.
Völur’s stories extend beyond that of the music, as evident in your visual approach. This time around, Marie Cherniy was tasked with cover art duties. Visually and conceptually, what were you looking for in working with Marie this time around?
Gadke: We got Marie to design a poster for a string of dates that we played in the North Eastern U.S. in 2018. We kind of just let her go wild with it and we absolutely loved what she did. And this time was not different. We gave her the passage from Tacitus and some of the demos we were working on. She sent us four pencil sketch concepts, we picked one and she produced this beautiful image. It was quite simple. We wanted something that highlighted Nerthus, the earth herself and I think she captured that perfectly.
As you mention, this is not the first time you’ve worked with her, but seeing as the partnership continues, it would seem that you’ve struck something special. How would you characterize your working relationship with Marie?
Gadke: I would characterize our relationship as easy. She’s so talented, so we just kind of have to step back and let her do her thing. Honestly, I’m not much of a visual person and I don’t think the rest of the band is either. We fall into the “I know what I like” category of art consumers. I love her art so I was ready to just let her do her thing.
From a looming moon overshadowing the earth goddess of Nerthus to the wildlife and trees growing from her fingers, there’s plenty to analyze in the ‘Death Cult’ cover. Was Marie allowed complete creative control with respect to the concepts presented or was the cover particularly guided to fit an idea you envisioned?
Gadke: Aside from the four concepts she delivered where we picked one, she had complete control. She really exceeded our expectations. We went back and forth between a photo cover and an illustration. I’m always afraid of photography, especially since I’m decidedly not photogenic, so I’m glad we settled on this after all. I believe in giving visual artists almost complete control. I mean, obviously I think it should be bit of a collaboration, but I don’t want to micro-manage anyone’s creative output.
The cover is really an extension of the hymns embodied within the record. It’s not just an extra or a complement to the release, but a significant part of the story you’re telling here. How important is it for you to have the visual components match that of your lyrical themes?
Gadke: Yes, definitely we wanted to highlight the role of the idol and of the rising full moon and the place of the ritual. My goal with the album was to make it feel like four repeating variations of the same night of sacrifice, each maybe in a different time and place, but each doing the same thing. To have the setting so exquisitely illustrated and with such rich earth tones makes a huge difference to the experience.
For many, myself included, your visual and conceptual approach is what brings you in to Völur prior to even listening to the music. That said, do you recall a time when an album cover had that same effect on you and made you pick up a record?
Gadke: A little known band from, I believe, Idaho called Aelter had a big impression on me visually. I’ll not hesitate to say the cover of the 'Disir' (2016) was very inspired by that. I bought that record on a whim just from the cover ('Aelter IV: Love Eternal'). They’re a very interesting and atmospheric group that I admire greatly but know almost nothing about.
Also, that Bo Hansson 'Lord of the Rings' was bought on cover alone. I’m a big fan of illustration.
‘Death Cult’ is fast approaching and ready to offer listeners a unique listening experience driven by Roman history. Come November 13th, what do you hope audiences take from the wonder of the record?
Gadke: Thank you for your kind words. I hope that listeners will find themselves taken in by it. I think it's a pretty deep record with lots of little details to take in. It’s definitely the best sounding thing we’ve made and I’m very proud of it. Close your eyes, put on a candle and get lost in the sound.
Stream the new single Dead Moon below and pre-order your copy of Death Cult HERE.