by Niklas Göransson
Formed in 1992, Xibalba Itzaes were one of Mexico’s very first black metal bands. In preparation for their long-anticipated second album, guitarist and vocalist Marco Ek Balam discusses both early beginnings and Mayan gateways to the stars.
– The new album, “Ah Tza Xibalba Itzaes”, was recorded with the help of a friend of ours. It took us about four or five weekends in total to finish everything, all songs were already written and we knew the material well. The sound you hear is precisely what we wanted. The album retains the feel we’ve had ever since starting out – music and lyrics are equally important for the final result so both our artistic influences and cultural roots can be found in every single song.
“Ah Tza Xibalba Itzaes” is the second album of XIBALBA ITZAES, previously known only as XIBALBA, and is scheduled for release on October 31 via Nuclear War Now! Productions. Their debut, the 1994 “Ah Dzam Poop Ek”, featured the same line-up as now – the very one they’d started out with two years earlier, only with the addition of Vic Ehxibchac on bass guitar.
– One reason could be that XIBALBA never did much touring so we don’t see each other all the time. We also share the same background and roots which I guess has contributed to things lasting until today. I should point out that all three of us are brothers and so go way back before the band even formed, to a period when we were discovering the good old rock and roll, hard rock, and heavy music from the late 70s and early 80s. An older brother of ours introduced us to the likes of KISS, LED ZEPPELIN, BLACK SABBATH, JUDAS PRIEST, and so on. Suddenly, we were drawn into a constant search for new bands and increasingly obscurer sounds. This was great because it was a whole new world opening up to us and, besides, we were all young kids back then – especially me.
Marco says the Mexico City of the 80s offered very little in terms of a metal underground. The first fast and aggressive acts were actually punk bands, influenced by the then-new English sounds of DISCHARGE, GBH and THE EXPLOITED.
– A more evolved thrash scene began emerging around ‘86 or 87. Before the explosion of thrash, black, and death metal we had nothing except for a few bands trying to make heavy metal ala JUDAS PRIEST, SABBATH or DEF LEPPARD. There weren’t many places supporting metal bands at all, nor any proper promotion and management for anyone. Not many of the bigger foreign bands would play in Mexico but those who did were highly praised, seeing them live was like a dream come true.
As the brothers grew into their teens, they became increasingly entrenched in the local scene. Building up a contact network of metalheads was essentially the only way for them to stay up to date with what was going on.
– Due to the fact that there was nothing else happening in our country, we embraced this tiny scene and made it our own. We evolved with the music as fans, witnessing first-hand how the hardest of heavy music went from SABBATH and PRIEST into unbelievable sounds such as VENOM or the incredibly crushing guitars of METALLICA – no one had heard anything like it before. That was the first time I was totally blown away, it had a massive impact on me. The second time was with NAPALM DEATH’s “Scum”; how music could’ve gotten to that point was absolutely insane. I found some old influences in their music which made me revisit old CELTIC FROST, which in turn led me back to BATHORY again. This was the period that gave us the idea to form our own band.
When Marco founded XIBALBA with his brother, Jorge Ah Ektenel, there were very few Mexican black metal bands around. As such, they were regarded as fringe oddities in an already outcast scene.
– Our visual presentation caught quite some attention, but it was only later they realised what we were all about. At that point, the scene was pretty much divided between death metal, punk and hardcore music, and those who were still into classic heavy metal. Since there was very little backing from labels and no big places to spread the word, bands struggled for survival in a scene where there was little to no support except from some fans and local independent people who tried to organise gigs and release records. XIBALBA didn’t really get much attention in the early beginning, only from old friends – our mephitic cult. I must say we were far more involved in the underground before forming the band. I remember attending all the local shows, meeting with musicians and even visiting some of their rehearsal places, writing to bands for demos, shirts, etcetera… and of course constantly reading magazines and fanzines. I also recall writing an article for a Greek ‘zine about underground metal in Mexico City, trying in some way to promote our local scene.
Marco says that following the formation of XIBALBA, they essentially isolated themselves from the local scene and would engage with it only in conjunction with the five or six shows they performed.
– I remember this one gig in Monterrey when SHUB NIGGURATH were supposed to headline but for some reason couldn’t make it, so in the midst of promoter panic we got the call to fill their place. The only problem was we didn’t have enough time to stay at the venue and be the closing band; we had to be the opening-act in order to catch our flight back home to Mexico City. And since everybody was expecting SHUB NIGGURATH, no one had any idea what they were looking at. Most in attendance stood outside during the whole set, it was only later they realised who we were and invited us for another show. On another occasion, we were supposed to play here with BLASPHEMY – there was even a big flyer announcing the show but for some reason it never happened. I still have the flyer though.
What did you think of all the black metal related drama in Norway?
– All those rumours were unbelievable – the murders, the violence surrounding the shows, the church burnings. Surely, their living conditions were totally different compared to what you’d find in countries like ours. Burning churches around here wouldn’t have been a very smart move, besides the fact that most of them aren’t even made of wood. Those events were physical projections of what the older bands started in the early 80s, the Scandinavians just took it to another level; right or wrong, it shaped what black metal has become today so you’re free to judge that for yourself. I liked the first bands to emerge from Norway, especially DARKTHRONE who we followed back since they played death metal. Witnessing the changes and how everything turned black was great; the music was fresh and interesting again after being immersed in a kind of standard and generic death metal that sometimes became boring. To me, back in the day, black metal was an at least temporary injection of vitality into a music scene that was literally dead.
I’m curious how nineties black metal gigs were in Mexico City. As has been discussed on Bardo Methodology before, underground concerts in many European cities were often quite rowdy and featured highly intolerant policies towards suspected ‘posers’.
– Yes, I remember hearing rumours about that; stories about people trying to prevent bands from playing because they weren’t true to the real black metal cause and how violent the environment was. I didn’t really know how truthful any of that was either. I must say, in Mexico City things were very different. From what I can recall, punk gigs were nearer to that chaos environment because of the tough attitude of the people involved and the ideals behind them – though it was also fuelled by alcohol, drugs, and the usual troublemakers. I remember not being allowed to attend any of those clubs for the same reason combined with my young age.
Ever since the 1992 “In Lucescitae Tristis Hiei” demo, XIBALBA’s primary conceptual focus has been on Mayan cosmology. The Maya first appeared around 1800 B.C. and reached their peak around the sixth century, settling the entire Yucatán Peninsula as well as current-day Guatemala and Belize, along with parts of Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador. Independent Maya society existed until 1697 when the Spanish conquered its final remaining sovereign city-state, Nojpetén. Millions of their descendants still reside around the Yucatán today. The Mayans are known for complex hieroglyphs, highly accurate calendars, and advanced mathematics but perhaps more so for their incredible feats in structure and art. Following events which are still unclear, in the ninth century the Maya of the southern lowlands abandoned their great stone cities – with long histories of strong dynasties, monumental architecture, strong infrastructure, and sophisticated water control systems – ultimately leading to full civilizational collapse in the region.
– As you may have noticed, our lyrics are always somehow in reference to an ending of the Mayan calendar and, in extension, the world through deluge or earthly implosion. Viking-era BATHORY was a very important influence in the decision to embrace our heritage. All lyrics have been attempts to promote our archaic past; I consider them poems in which we always try to touch the lines of the skies and get as close as possible to the hands of the gods. Together with the music we’re attempting to raise some level of spirituality because, since the past is entwined with present and future, it’ll be your own ancestral connections that set you free from the modern world. To accomplish this, the musical foundation we grew up with – all the hard rock, heavy metal, thrash, black or whatever you wanna call it – has been merged together with our cultural background. These ancient roots have come to define who we are today.
Mayan culture survived the downfall of the southern lowlands and its power centre shifted northwards. However, anthropological records show a notable change in architectural and artistic style as well as far less use of hieroglyphs. In the wake of the collapse, the Mayan state of Chichén Itzá forged an empire that at least temporarily united the region. This is a period repeatedly referenced in the lyrics of “Ah Tza Xibalba Itzaes”, the new album. Today, Chichén Itzá is primarily known for archaeological marvels such as El Castillo – a spectacular temple pyramid dedicated to Kukulkan, the god who takes the shape of a feathered serpent. The pyramid also has plenty of impressive cosmological symbology incorporated. For example, each of the four sides have staircases of ninety-one steps; added together and with the temple platform included it boasts the neat number of 365 steps in total. The northern balustrade, which contains the entrance to its inner sanctum, features several sculptures of plumed snakes. Come autumn and spring equinox they are joined by additional serpentry by way of triangular shadows cast by the afternoon sun striking the northwest corner, creating a visual illusion of Kukulkan himself slithering down his pyramid.
– Oh yes, it is an incredible experience to witness, it has to do with the way it was built. I can only recommend people to visit Mexico without the blindfolds of the modern world and immerse themselves in the landscapes and spirituality of these lands.
While the pyramid’s exterior is impressive in its own right, it almost pales by what lies beneath. In 2015, researchers, using a technique called electrical resistance survey, discovered that the pyramid was built on an enormous sinkhole; a so-called cenote. In a land where droughts are frightfully common, the life-giving cenotes – natural pits formed by groundwater pouring out from the limestone bedrock – were considered sacred and often revered by way of sacrificial offerings. The watery abyss discovered under the pyramid is 25 by 35 metres (82 by 114 ft) wide, located twenty metres below the pyramid and covered by an approximately five-metre thick limestone slab upon which the temple stands. Two years later, November 2017, archaeologists working with sophisticated radar equipment were able to determine that there’s an as-of-yet unexplored tunnel leading from within the Tomb of the High Priest, a smaller pyramid on the site, to the sinkhole under El Castillo. Then, in January of this year, researchers from the Underwater Exploration Group of the Great Maya Aquifer Project announced their discovery that the cenote under the structure is part of what’s been shown to be the world’s largest underwater cave system, running to a length of 346 kilometres (215 miles). It was already known that the Temple of Kukulkan had been erected exactly in the middle of four other cenotes; to the north, south, east, and west. As such, it’s long been believed that it was meant to represent the axis mundi, or cosmic axis, centre of the world where heaven and earth collide to lay bare passages into the underworld. Adding a hitherto undiscovered subterranean entryway to the equation does indeed put an interesting spin on that theory.
– As some people may know, these four squares were the main idea behind the creation of the cosmos and the place in which we all live so no wonder the Mayans used it to build the structures and temples and no wonder about the cenotes in Chichén Itzá as well. Still, it’s both unbelievable and odd in some ways how they managed to build a temple above one of them. Our cosmic heritage is undeniable!
Do you think it would be best to leave such sites undisturbed, or should they be properly excavated in the interest of furthering human knowledge?
– I think such places should be respected far beyond the idea of turning them into the next tourist attraction. Sadly in the end it’s all about money. There’s much wisdom entrenched in Mayan mythology and many profound places to visit. I guess everybody is welcome to dig into our past and learn a little about it, wisdom is vast and widely available for those with real interest.