by Niklas Göransson
Slovakian black metal band Malokarpatan seeks to permeate their music with folkloric superstition. Founder and creative force, Adam, discusses the Devil’s huntsmen, oracular botany, and the terror that comes in the night.
– Atmosphere is everything. Our lyrics aren’t just some last-minute addition out of necessity, they are what give the songs their identity and turn them into soundtracks for particular stories. Basically, all of our thematic influences are from Slovakian folklore. People have recently started using the term ’folk horror’, mostly for films like The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The VVitch, or books like The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen. I think MALOKARPATAN can be considered part of this phenomenon as well, but with a decidedly regional flavour.
This provincial flair is highly represented not only in the lyrics of their new album, “Nordkarpatenland”, but also its aesthetic representation. It was actually upon coming across the artwork online that I immediately decided an interview had to be administered – assuming the actual music wasn’t shit. Fortunately, this turned out to not be the case and so here we are.
– The praise belongs to the highly talented artist, David Glomba. He’s also from Slovakia, which makes our collaboration so much easier compared to working with someone from a different cultural background. The artwork was inspired by classic folktale illustrators from Slovakia and Czech Republic; Martin Benka, Josef Lada, Ľudovit Fulla and my personal favourite, Jaroslav Vodražka.
The cover art is essentially a fusion of different Slovakian cultural references. For instance, the motif’s main character is based on a seventies musical called Na skle maľovane.
– It tells the story of Juraj Janošik, an 18th century Slovak highwayman who became sort of a mythical hero after he was executed for banditry. To me, he signifies rebellion against the establishment, but also has one foot in the world of fairy-tale and legend – his hideouts were in wide-open woods and mountains, which gave birth to mythical stories.
At 23 years, Jánošík was chosen to lead a band of brigands who operated in what’s now known as Slovakia, Poland, and Moravia. The group primarily targeted wealthy merchants, though were mindful of not killing anyone and are even said to have shared their accumulated loot with the impoverished. Jánošík was apprehended in early 1713, tried in a court of law and sentenced to die. He was hung from the gallows, but with a hook attached to the torso instead of a noose around his neck.
– The general theme of the “Nordkarpatenland” artwork deals with various states of intoxication that lead to violence and madness. The highwayman runs furiously with a bottle of spirits in one hand and his bloodstained weapon in the other. He’s surrounded by malicious female figures from Slavic folklore; Morena – goddess of death and winter, the Noon Witch, and two water nymphs who lure and drown young men. There are plenty of additional characters and symbols present, but I’d prefer it if people search for their own meanings instead of having everything explained to them in detail.
Another centrepiece is the Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric mushroom – a fungus well-steeped in folklore and mysticism. It’s believed to have a history as intoxicant and religious sacrament in both Eastern and Northern Europe, and has been confirmed as such among indigenous tribes of Siberia as well as the Scandinavian Sami.
– My fascination with the fly agaric is largely aesthetic. In this context, it signifies crossing boundaries into magical worlds and folk tales; the ’land beyond’. I’ve also read a book about mushrooms which had a chapter about this species and its use in shamanism, as well as the possible connection to Soma from Vedic culture.
Soma was a psychoactive concoction used as entheogen in ancient India – known to us from reverent mentions in the sacred texts of both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism; the Rg Veda and Avesta respectively. Alas, which plant was used for extraction has somehow been forgotten along the way, and its identity has been subject to scholarly debate for hundreds of years. Some researchers have nominated the fly agaric, others suggest cannabis or opium. An interesting development took place in 2009, when Russian researchers excavated a burial chamber in Mongolia and found a tapestry that was embroidered in north-western India more than two millennia ago. Once restored, it revealed a rather startling scene. Surrounded by unmistakable Zoroastrian religious elements stands either a king or priest, holding aloft what has been identified as Psilocybe cubensis – the proverbial ’magic mushroom’. The findings were published in a 2010 scientific paper entitled We Drank Soma, We Became Immortal…, which is a quote from the Vedas. The author, Dr. Natalia V. Polosmak – a Russian archaeologist best known for discovering the Ice Maiden mummy – argues that this essentially solves the riddle of Soma. If Dr. Polosmak is right, this could also explain the old Hindu custom of regarding cows as sacred, since the holy fungus grows in their droppings.
– This is extremely interesting and had somehow eluded me entirely. I don’t think it can be considered one hundred percent proof based on a single find, but that would certainly make sense. I doubt any modern man could get even remotely close to the Vedic-era mindset, so I can only judge from my own limited personal experience with cubensis. I know a few people who had pretty ugly ‘bad trips’ – tree branches snapping at them, a pit with green light opening up in the forest ground, stuff like that.
How about yourself?
– Mine was a highly enjoyable experience. I felt as if I entered the world of the Hidden folk, as you call them in Scandinavia. ’Whimsical’ would be the ideal word to describe it. I thought of Tolkien‘s Tom Bombadil character, as this state of mind reminded me so much about him… an urge to dance rather than walk, speaking in poetry instead of normal sentences. Despite the intoxication’s jovial character, it also had a very mystical atmosphere. Sort of like floating on a misty dragon’s breath, as depicted in the cult movie Excalibur.
I spotted additional oracular botany on the cover artwork of MALOKARPATAN’s re-released debut album, “Stridžie dni”, from 2015. I was able to identify several mind-warping representatives of the nightshade plant family – as discussed in last week’s MORDSKOG feature; angel’s trumpet, jimsonweed and belladonna. I’m not sure about the red flower though.
– The red flowers are poppies, I’m sure you understand the symbolism easily. These were all Mr. Glomba‘s ideas – I just asked him to recreate the grim atmosphere of Slovakian folk tales. The nightshades are definitely tempting, but I’d only trust someone with years of experience and the few people I know locally who came in contact with such plants are more sketchy than shamanic. I’d also best be careful with the more powerful hallucinogens, since I suffer from very unpleasant and realistic night terrors; feelings of sinister presences, hearing growls, or being attacked… so the backdoor of my mind probably hides some nasty inhabitants.
That sounds exactly like sleep paralysis, are you familiar with the term?
– Yes. I was actually made aware of this condition after googling my symptoms, and was shocked to discover how widespread the phenomenon is. My case is a bit strange though, because I get those night terrors beyond actual paralysis – they feel like a lucid dream, but I’m not frozen and it usually only lasts a few seconds. When I’m physically paralysed, it’s just a mild version where my body takes some time to connect with the mind while waking up, it’s never accompanied by any apparitions.
Sleep paralysis is by all accounts a frightfully disagreeable indisposition. It’s described as a state in which one is fully conscious but unable to move, and usually occurs during the transition between wakefulness and sleep. Whereas losing bodily function might be unpleasant in and of itself, the sensation tends to be accompanied by strong feelings of malicious and threatening presences, unseen forces pinning one’s body down, as well as both visual and audible hallucinations.
– Most often, it´s just the feeling of a terrifying presence waking me up. I’ve never had any visions, but a few years ago I heard something like a tiger or lion growling next to my ear. Afterwards, I checked online and noticed that many others report hearing this too. And some months ago, I felt something like an impish presence – a small but evil leprechaun-like creature pushing me down onto my bed.
Hunting culture is another rather unusual concept that’s featured heavily in MALOKARPATAN’s’s lyrical themes. Adam mentions that in Slovakian and Czech folklore, devils are said to occasionally assume human shape in the guise of hunters.
– According to legend, huntsmen were believed to have acquired supernatural powers due to the amount of time spent in the woods by themselves. They were also thought to possess extensive knowledge of magical herbs and even be able to understand the language of wild beasts. There are also reports of several rituals, including animal sacrifices, meant to bring luck for the hunt. All of this in an already Christianised world, combined with the fear of forests as the untamed, unknown and wild places they were, contributed to huntsmen being assigned diabolical connotations by superstitious peasants. I find this an enormously poetic theme to use in music.
Adam says these concepts have special significance to him, stemming from early teenage summer holidays spent on the countryside with his uncle, who is a former huntsman.
– My uncle had all these old, stuffed animals in his house and I was fascinated by their strange smell and slightly menacing but empty gaze. He once took me to see a village play about the čerti – devils in Slavic folklore – performed in a revolving wooden theatre under the open night sky. This magic feeling left a profound impression on me, to the extent where I two decades later had to recreate through music what I felt that evening.
When you speak of devils, do they have any association with the Hebrew adversary?
– The Abrahamic Satan for sure has no place in our concept. Not that I reject the figure itself, it just has no relevancy to the universe MALOKARPATAN operates in. Our patron is the horned god – a symbol of pre-Christian Europe; Veles being the closest deity to us culturally. As challenger of the celestial order, Veles is the dark counterbalance to Perun – they clash in a spiritual power struggle as part of an eternal recurrence. This conflict is of course present in many other cultures too, not only European.
Veles and Perun are deities from pre-Christian Slavic heathendom – of which the former is a trickster god, comparable to Loki in Scandinavian mythology. Remaining in the same nomenclature, Perun would be the equivalent of Thor. Much like their Celtic, Germanic and Norse counterparts, these beliefs were largely wiped from history – leaving us with little more than fragments to piece together.
– Veles is also a chthonic god connected to the earth; master of underworld and wilderness – patron of wandering shepherds and magicians. Most, if not all, of what we cover thematically has a direct connection to this archetype and if he represents evil from a Christian perspective, then so be it… I think the gods of our forefathers dwell beyond these alien notions of dualistic morality. To me, they represent the original mysticism of ancient Europe – the one that still exists as much in our souls as it does in our music.
Adam says that ever since the nineties, there’s been an ideological conflict within black metal – contested between bands literally addressing Satan and the wave of mostly Norwegian bands focusing more on the magic of nature through a framework of national-romanticism.
– I don’t think they’re necessarily polar opposites that negate each other, but rather regard them as different interpretations of the same fundamentals. ULVER‘s “Bergtatt” is as satanic to me as “Don’t Break the Oath” (MERCYFUL FATE), “Fallen Angel of Doom” (BLASPHEMY), or “Thy Mighty Contract” (ROTTING CHRIST). The wonderful diversity in how those albums approach the genre’s spiritual foundation is what makes black metal, when done right, so exciting and special. I think bands should form their identity based on where they come from, and draw inspiration from the dark corners of their own culture. XIBALBA from Mexico is a great example, as is the “Karisma” album by SABBAT.
Is there a metaphysical aspect to MALOKARPATAN beyond folkloric tales?
– Seeing as how I’m the main creator behind the band, it can definitely be said to have a metaphysical aspect. I firmly believe in forces higher than myself and have zero understanding for atheism, I see it as the ultimate narcissism of modern man. And by modern man, I don’t mean specifically contemporary humankind – this line of reasoning has roots which stretch back far deeper into our past. Placing oneself as the centre of everything; how can anybody be so shallow-brained and self-congratulatory? But I prefer to not be literal or in-your-face with this element – so many bands are doing that today and often with dubious, spastic results. I think writing lyrics as if you’re some kind of an all-knowing evil wizard is tiresome, and can easily end up cheesy if done insincerely.
He points to the lyrical simplicity of BLACK SABBATH’s legendary eponymous song, which is written from the perspective of a petrified protagonist witnessing various devilry and darkness.
– It makes the song feel more powerful and sinister. Singing about how much you want to hail Satan and summon demons can get boring and uninspiring. This has become norm in the genre and only ever turns out good if coming from a place of authenticity. But don’t get me wrong, diabolical content can still can be brilliant and powerful – “Toteslaut” by NÅSTROND for example, or Attila on “De Mysteriis dom Sathanas” (MAYHEM). Silenius vocal contributions to ABIGOR‘s “Apokalypse” is another obvious one – listen closely to the final parts of “Tu Es Diaboli Juna”. But I like doing things differently, so most of my lyrics are written as if conveyed by a simple villager who’s terrified of malevolent beings. Fear as inspiration is a rather unique approach to lyrics in metal nowadays.
The emotion in question could be said to play a large role in the life of any species. Fear of starvation is what drives the lion to hunt, fear of losing the roof over our heads is what makes us get out of bed on a weekday morning, and fear of failure is what drives the artist to keep toiling. And, obviously, without fear there is no need for courage.
– I agree wholeheartedly. Fear also inspires hate, and hatred is nothing but a logical counterpart to love. Whoever or whatever you love, you’ll also hate anything that seeks to harm or destroy it. The sickening social justice warrior culture nowadays is obsessed with inventing new and increasingly more absurd ’phobias’ – it’s nothing but a battle against natural instincts which have driven humans since the dawn of time.
Another cited source of influence for MALOKARPATAN is a variety of cultural legacies from Czechoslovakia, as it was known at the time. Following massive street demonstrations in 1989, and after forty-one years under a Soviet-governed one-party system, the ruling communist party was ousted peacefully in what came to be known as the Velvet Revolution. In 1993, the country split into two sovereign nations – the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
– “Nordkarpatenland” is filled with fascination for all things old and dusty. While I’m no fan of the ideology, this era of Slovakian history is a huge inspiration for me – both its cinematic legacy from the 50s up to the 80s, and the classic metal created during its final period. For political reasons, most bands from that era only came to prominence in the early nineties. Besides the obvious black metal classics, the “Metal Celebration” album by TITANIC and some songs by TUBLATANKA have sentimental value to me and were part of my journey into metal music.
Are you old enough to remember anything from this time?
– No, I was born in 1987. However, the society I grew up in was heavily moulded by those four decades. I don’t want to get too political as it’s not interesting in a heavy metal context, but all I can say is that life didn’t get all that much better after the transition of power from one group of assholes to a new bunch. Some never even had the decency to step down from the political stage, they just changed their colours.
Adam adds how there are at least some positive aspects of residing in a country which spent forty years behind the iron curtain; that so-called modern and progressive Western values have yet to fully assert themselves among the populace.
– As a Swede, you surely know their consequences better than I do. Alas, I doubt this will last for very long since our political leaders are just as subservient to the official ideology of the West as they were to the East decades earlier. Anyway, for as many negatives one could list from that period – and there surely were many – you can hardly deny that it was a golden age for Czechoslovakian cinema, despite the omnipresent ideological control and censorship.
Is that where all the intro samples are from?
– Many of them, but sometimes we create our own – trying to emulate the spirit of that era. There was a lot of soul in those films, especially the folktale genre, one that nobody today is able to fully capture. That´s something I really want to infuse in both music and lyrics; soul. This influences the way our artwork is designed, same with sound production and song themes – numerous aspects. They have a specific magical atmosphere straight out of ancient European myths, and the symbols in them speak a language we all subconsciously understand. I try to revive those archetypes in MALOKARPATAN. Of course, given the genre we’re working in, focus is on the dark-side.