Golden fields of wheat stretching far to the horizons, chestnut-coloured soil, willows of green, roaring rivers, and murky forests. The landscape of the nation known to many as the Breadbasket of Europe has been represented in countless songs, paintings, and poetic works, yet there is an air of unrest, a feeling of a malevolent forces at work. The Eastern sky burns with fires of war. The earth itself seems to groan as it is watered by blood of Ukraine’s sons and daughters. Either by the careless weaving of the fates or by the will of some dark force, this fairy-tale land has been the battleground of empires for hundreds of years. Perhaps this is the very fuel that ignited Ukrainian extreme metal in general and Black Metal in particular. Today This Is Black Metal Webzine sits down with Baal who is one of the songwriters, vocalist and lyricist of a fairly new Ukrainian band called Grave Circles. Formed in Vinnytsia, southwest of Kyiv, Grave Circles has released an EP titled Tome I in 2017 and followed it up with a full length titled Tome II in 2019.
This Is Black Metal: Hello, and thank you for speaking with us. Let’s get right into it. Of all the countless musical genres and branches of Metal itself why Black Metal and what does it mean to you?
Baal: I never really thought about what or how I should play. Everything stems from being inspired by my favorite genres and that doesn’t only include music. You feel and you create. I can’t say that Grave Circles is 100% Black Metal. It is music which uses Black Metal techniques and could, in time, take on other characteristics, bringing it closer to different genres or conversely become even closer to classical Black Metal.
TIBM: Can you share with us some of your biggest musical influences that inspired you and shaped your own style?
Baal: My biggest musical influences are: Ambient/Drone project Sol from Denmark, Finnish lo-fi Black Post/Punk project Circle of Ouroborus, the US Drone/Ambient The Angelic Process, fathers of Industrial Metal – Godflesh. The material of bands like Katharsis, Deathspell Omega, and Ascension bring me back to their music again and again and I discover something new every time I return to their work.
TIBM: In your opinion, how has the culture of Ukraine and the fact that it was part of the Soviet Union influenced Ukrainian Black Metal musicians and your band in particular?
Baal: Ukraine is a country that has been burdened with tremendous tragedy and misfortune throughout its history, even in current times. The oppression of the Ukrainian people, a people filled with rage, a low standard of life and culture – this inheritance of the post-Soviet years is a daily reality. The grey plattenbau boxes, spit stained stall shops made of cheap plastic panels, filth, and bland, lifeless people. These factors depress and inspire at the same time. On the other hand, many bands that play heathen metal are uplifted and inspired by the glorious history of Rus-Ukraine and this has become the face and perception of Ukraine beyond our borders. How it pertains to Grave Circles is hard to say. The temporal world that surrounds me is not reflected in the Grave Circles window.
TIBM: Religion and spirituality almost always play a part in Black Metal lyrics and aesthetics. The views on this topic differ. There are bands practising agnosticism, theistic satanism, atheism, and in the case of Un-Black bands, Christianity. What are your views on religion and spirituality and how has your personal spirituality or lack-thereof influenced your music?
Baal: I have a positive view of religion and spirituality. I make it a point to visit historical temples and churches in my travels. While there are many Black Metal fans who greatly admire the aesthetics of medieval European architecture, they often forget that the majority of these magnificent structures were built by the hands of Christians who are so thoroughly despised by many metal bands. The further one goes into the study of theosophy the more one goes to the well of Christianity for answers and I find this to be an interesting endeavor. That doesn’t mean that the principles of Christianity are close to me or represent my own views. This isn’t the case. Having said that, talking to a thinking Christian who is willing to have an intellectual discussion or debate is a much more interesting conversation than one with say a habitually drunk metal festival goer the extent of whose “intellectual” rhetoric begins and ends with “Hail Satan”. As it pertains to my personal faith – some things I have already found for myself, others I am still searching for. Perhaps eventually I will be able to answer that question more fully.
I think the thing that unites the 90s and 2000s generations of Black Metal artists is the fact that they are simple headbangers at heart and their lyrics generally do not leave the accepted norms of the genre. There are of course exceptions from the rule. There are bands like Deathspell Omega, Acherontas, Ofermod and others whose lyrics are the fruit of contemplation and experience drawn from many sources and woven into their music.
As of so called “unblack” bands, I don’t consider this a popular term. I don’t think that “Unblack”, “RABM” or “NSBM” are really sub-genres of Black Metal as many of the small number of bands who fall under these categories simply don’t play music that can be classified as “Black Metal”. Perhaps I am mistaken about this, but nevertheless, that is my opinion.
Grave Circles – Overthrow (Live)
TIBM: How about politics? There are many who feel that politics have absolutely no place in music while others insert their political ideology into their art and image. What is your view on this hot-button topic?
Baal: I think it is clear that Grave Circles is not a political project. But generally, do politics have a place in music? I think the answer to that question is yes. Historically, even in the olden days of the flowering of punk rock, politics have played a role in music. Black Metal is a genre of negativity, death, war and political disagreements almost always lead to an abundance of corpses. So it is a fitting topic indeed.
TIBM: Let’s talk a little about your new full length – Tome II. Often EP’s and following albums are a rather disjointed affair. This doesn’t seem to be the case for Grave Circles. Tome II is very aptly named as it comes across as the second part of a mystical, bleak and thoroughly terrifying, yet absolutely gripping novel. The musical, artistic and lyrical approach gives the impression of a continuous descent into the darkest recesses of the human mind. Was this something that you gave a lot of consideration to while writing the albums? Can we expect a continuation of the first two tomes or will there be a stylistic change in your forthcoming work?
Baal: Tome I and Tome II are factually one album. The tracks Thy Light Returneth and Predominance were actually written before Tome I. The plan was to include them and When Birthgivers Recognize the Atrocity with the three tracks that ended up on the Tome I EP and release a full length consisting of 6 tracks. Why did this plan never materialize? The answer to that is rather trivial. We simply did not have the funding to pay for the studio and the recording of drums. We recorded three songs because that is all we could afford at the time. This came out as our Tome I EP. From 2015 to 2018 we wrote a lot of new material but didn’t have time to finalize it all until now. In fact, we already have a demo of a new, second full length ready to go. The sound will be markedly different from our first full length, but it will retain our techniques in terms of vocals, riffs, arpeggios and songwriting. There will be some experimentation with the mixing and themes on the new album.
Grave Circles – When Birthgivers Recognize The Atrocity (Live)
TIBM: The music on Tome II is incredibly complex yet relativity easy to get into even by a newcomer to the genre and one of the greatest strengths of the album is the fact that the tracks are quite diverse musically. In other words, there is something here for everyone. You have aggressive blast beats, classical tremolo picking, and elements of experimental, progressive, and melodic Black Metal, even using trumpets. Is this something that you also planned from the very start or did it happen organically?
Baal: Hard to say… I think we did what we did and this is how it came out. There wasn’t any real planning or to even a viable workspace. We lived in an apartment that was in complete disrepair. The floor in the apartment was filthy concrete screed, there were no doors, furniture or utilities to speak of. Instead of a bed I slept on a rug, and my bandmate Yuri slept on an inflatable mattress. In short, all we had was a toilet, a shower, and a multicooker. That’s about it. We had windows with no curtains, so people walking by could look in and see what was going on in the apartment. We washed our hands and dishes in a bucket. What we did have was a computer and a Line 6 guitar port which we used to record. In short, monetary problems, substances, alcohol, conversations about the Devil, and Black Metal. This was real Rock N’ Roll and an incredible time which I am rather nostalgic about. This is the setting almost all the material for Tome I, Tome II and the majority of the material for our upcoming full length was created in.
TIBM: When one sits down to listen to a Norwegian, Swedish, or Eastern European black metal, they often expect to hear a certain style that is associated with one or another scene. Tome II subverts those expectations. Your album stands apart from most other Eastern European bands, especially musically as your approach to Black Metal seems to be much more experimental. Did you set out to carve out a niche for yourself and differentiate yourselves from other local bands?
Baal: In part, there was certainly a desire to create something different as the Ukrainian stage is drowning in bleak clones of Drudkh and Nokturnal Mortum. You create what you are able to create and what you feel, rather than conduct controlled musical experimentation. This method can give you a much needed boost and push forward but can also lead to regression.
Grave Circles – Tome I (Full EP)
Baal: Of course. The album art was painted by Alexander Held, a true master in his field and Black Metal fan. Alexander is also the designer of the logo for our first band, Goatflesh. Light and darkness. Man and woman. Good and evil. The piece depicts the ever present principle of dualism. The two opposites form a whole and one flows from the other. The one gives significance/faith to the other (key). See The Delivery of the Keys, or Christ Giving the Keys to St. Petera fresco by the Italian Renaissance painter Pietro Perugino.
There are also undertones of violence, imposing of one’s will/belief system on another.
The hands that are transferring the key are covered in symbols: the sign of mercury – reference to the gnostics, whip – reference to the Khlysts (an underground sect which splist from the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 17th century), Ouroboros (an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail), the grail and the all seeing eye.
TIBM: Your songs cover such topics as addiction, mental illness, worship, loss of faith, questioning of human values, futility of existence, and struggle with oneself. Something that comes to mind when listening to the record is a quote by the famous American writer G.R.R. Martin. “The human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about”. Would you agree with that statement? Could you tell us a little about your lyrical approach and ultimate message you are trying to convey?
Baal: I don’t really agree with that statement of Messier Martin as I understand his quote to be more applicable to the personal struggles of an individual. I can’t discuss all aspects of the lyrics mostly due to the fact that so much in the lyrics is truly my personal experience and the experience of individuals whom I have met on my path. Having said that, when the physical release comes out the lyrics will be included in a booklet and will be published on the internet. I will then explain the songs a little more. It would also be really interesting if our listeners would read the lyrics and give their own interpretations.
TIBM: What comes first. The lyrics or the music? In other words, does the lyrical content dictate the composing of the tracks, or does the music shape the lyrical content?
Baal: The music comes first as it creates images which inspire me to craft the lyrics. I certainly have some rough drafts, but more often than not the ideas come when the fundamental structure of the composition is ready.
TIBM: How do you feel about touring? Is there any country in particular you would like to play in and “conquer”?
Baal: It would be interesting and hopefully it will soon be realizable. All countries are interesting in their own way but some that come to mind specifically are Finland, Netherlands, Belgium and Austria.
TIBM: Why those countries in particular?
Baal: Finland is my favorite country and I eagerly await being able to go there again. The country has incredible support of the Black Metal genre and I’m not only speaking of Black Metal bands. Austria also left a great impression. Netherlands and Belgium have always been a dream of mine.
TIBM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What are some musical goals you would like to achieve?
Baal: The first and foremost goal is the physical release of Tome II. The contract with the label has already been signed and the announcement is forthcoming. Next, the release of our second full length. It would also be great to go on tour outside of Ukraine. After that, we shall see. Time puts everything in its place.
TIBM: Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us. Any final words for your fans or people who have just discovered you through reading this interview?
Baal: Listen to the right music and support the underground. You, the listener are its foundation.
Grave Circles – Tome II (Full Album)