by Niklas Göransson
Irish death metal defiance – Dublin-based Vircolac draw inspiration from a national history rife with bereavement and rebellion. Drummer NH explains the funerary rites of a people having been granted plenty of practice.
– We had a clear vision for how we wanted this album to sound. A few months prior to recording I started going through my vinyl collection, looking for reference points, pulling out albums I felt had particularly great-sounding productions. It’s always irked me that while there are currently many great underground death metal bands out there, I’m not a huge fan of how some of their records sound. Going back to the 80s and early 90s, there are some incredible-sounding LPs which still sound as fresh and vibrant as the day they were recorded; that craft seems to have been lost somewhere along the lines, be it with the evolution of equipment along with the move from analogue to digital and changes in recording methods. Many bands have a tendency to drown everything in effects and reverb – seeking to create atmosphere through this caustic, dense, and muddy sound that often does the music no justice. This was never the case with the originators. Other bands go the opposite way with this overproduced robotic quantised digital production that strips the music of its soul. Ever since the start of VIRCOLAC, our aim has been to avoid both of these pitfalls. In the immortal words of our friend Rob from VOMITOR: ‘Death to digital death metal!’
Whilst tearing through his record collection, NH brought out SLAYER’s 1988 album “South of Heaven” – one of the band’s albums he believes himself to probably have spun the least.
– I was struck by how great it sounds, really dry and in-your-face with lots of clarity but still heavy and aggressive. I thought this was the perfect reference point and definitely feel as if our vision was achieved. It was hard work and got heated a few times along the way but, I must say, Ola really delivered on what we were looking for. From my understanding, the key was completely stripping back all the reverb and allowing the instruments to sit in their own frequencies and range – this creates space and allows for everything to shine through properly, all the while maintaining fierceness and acuity. First and foremost, this could only be accomplished through securing the best possible raw recording by using a skilled engineer in an excellent studio with a solid set-up.
Besides solos, effects, and vocals, “Masque” – VIRCOLAC’s debut album – was recorded entirely live in studio.
– We’ve always messed around with additional percussion and keys while recording – Ola has had us do some interesting things in the past, such as smashing chains off music-stands which we recorded and used to boost the snare sound on one of our demo tracks. Or dragging drumsticks and various implements across guitar strings while using effects pedals, or playing around with an old piano in unconventional ways. This time there was a gong in the studio and we decided to use it on a track so I got my son, Torin, to play it while he was visiting. We put on some headphones to protect his ears – I then lifted him up, handed over the mallet, and let him have at it. He actually did a better job of hitting it than I did so I’m proud to say his take is what can be heard on the record. Not bad, having your first album credit when you’re not even two years of age.
The cover artwork, is this intended to convey some manner of memento mori sentiments?
– It’s meant to be symbolic of stripping back the veil and seeing things for what they truly are, exposing the horror of those who seek to influence and control us. King or pauper, we’ll all end up the same way – food for worms. To quote MARDUK, a ‘hopeless pile of hopeless bones’. It’s also the finality laid bare and a glimpse at the actual face of death. The overarching theme behind the album is the idea of life portrayed as a masque, one that’s finally stripped away once you depart. Ultimately, all that’s left is decaying, rotting flesh and bone. Our cover also signifies a desire to reveal and tear the vizard off the powers that be, those who control and make decisions for us in order to further their own agenda. A lot of bands these days go for this attempted mystique through use of imagery and aesthetics, but this was never the case for us; we’ve never been ones for stage costumes, cloaks, candles, or rituals. I’m not saying the intentions of these artists are any less pure per se, it’s just not for us so portraying ourselves in any other way would be insincere. In that way, aesthetically, I’d see us having more in common with a band like BOLT THROWER or classic-day METALLICA.
Since the very beginning, VIRCOLAC have been determined to use influences both from the city and country they call home. For instance, Irish author Bram Stoker – known mostly for his 1897 Gothic horror novel, Dracula – was from Dublin and had a weighted influence on their 2016 EP, “The Cursed Travails of the Demeter”.
– It’s important to us that we use our own cultural reference points for what we do. This theme of the wake was something I’d been thinking about for a long time. The idea for the album photo came to me during a night out in an old Dublin pub famous for Irish traditional music. The walls are adorned with portraits of famous musicians who’ve performed there over the decades and I spotted a rare photo of THE DUBLINERS I’d never come across before; they’re in what looks like a jail cell, sitting around a coffin, drinking pints. It was such a powerful and evocative image, and one quite unique to the Irish mentality towards paying homage to the dead. This is was what initially influenced the idea of the album photos. I cannot speak for the funeral rites of other countries as I’m not well versed in these but, from the little I do know, the wake in this form seems to be quite specific to Celtic nations – particularly Ireland. Its roots lie in old pagan traditions.
What’s known as the Irish Wake is still a common practice, predominantly in the rural parts of the country. Before the funeral takes place, the deceased is brought back home to the family to be laid out either in bed or, most commonly, in a coffin.
– All the clocks in the house are stopped at the time the person departed and often any mirrors are either covered with cloth or turned backwards. Candles are lit. A black cloth hangs on the front door or gate to warn people that it’s a house of mourning. The body will then repose for a night or two until the burial, allowing time for family and friends to visit and pay their respects. According to tradition, someone must watch over the body at all times so families often takes turns sitting up. Some claim this custom started because old drinking vessels or Pewter mugs used to contain high levels of lead, known to cause poisoning resulting in a death-like catatonic state that the afflicted would awaken from over the course of the next day or so – though this is probably a myth.
NH says family members gather around to remember and mourn the departed by telling stories and singing songs. Alcohol and food would be commonplace – particularly whisky.
– It’s not a strictly sombre affair, but rather a celebration of the deceased’s life as well as a mourning of their passing. Keeping with tradition the women would be the keeners, crying and lamenting for the dead; a custom with origins in Irish mythology where the Bean Sidhe, or banshee, would appear wailing and shrieking before the death of a family member. For me, spending time watching over the deceased until they’re finally laid to rest is a mark of respect. This is something myself and other members of the band have personally experienced, it’s a powerful moment in time and one that’s helped forge even stronger bonds between us.
In some parts of Ireland, he explains, it’s still customary for family members to dig the grave themselves.
– A cousin of mine recently told me about how he experienced this many years ago. He was born in Ireland but moved to America with his family while still very young and ended up in a rough Bronx neighbourhood. He worked extremely hard, grew quite successful in business and, I suppose, became a living embodiment of the American Dream. When a relative of his died, he decided to return to Ireland for the funeral. After arriving by plane and heading down the countryside, he arrived at the door of the mourning family. Hoping to make a good impression, he turned up dressed in his best two-thousand-dollar Armani suit, expensive shoes, overcoat, and fancy watch – but the relative who opened the door just looked him up and down and announced that this wouldn’t do, he wasn’t dressed for the occasion. The relative then went back inside before returning to hand my cousin a shovel; he’d been assigned grave-digging duty, haha. Needless to say, all his finery was destroyed during the gruelling morning’s work and he vowed to never make the same mistake when returning for a funeral again.
NH adds that there have also been stories and rumours about people bringing the body of their dead friend along to the pub for a final drink.
– Also, before the burial, if the deceased has dedicated his or her life to service in a particular field it’s quite common that friends, comrades, or colleagues hold an honour guard as the body is removed from the home or place of worship on its way to be laid to rest. So, I feel the imagery of our album is quite powerful, fitting and relevant. They sit perfectly within our concept of the record: death metal and our cultural history, all the while being a subtle tip of the hat to some fine Irish musicians, poets, and bards. All of the EP and album artwork are comprised of photographs taken by my wife at various Dublin locations of historical importance. The “Masque” cover photo is from a crypt in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin and fits the theme of our album perfectly.
What is it that makes the Irish excel so at funerals, I wonder? One would certainly have to conclude that the past centuries have given them ample opportunity to hone the craft.
– To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why. I guess we know how to throw a good party and this doesn’t just stop once someone leaves the building. The celebration, however futile, goes on. Some people I know have often commented on how they actually prefer funerals to weddings. I think this might be because the moment encourages a great deal of reflection and allows all the senses to be exposed. Sorrow and joy come together as one – people are stripped bare emotionally, which I feel has a certain purity and honesty about it. Of course, this also depends on how close you are to the deceased and the circumstances surrounding the departure. It’s a time capable of bringing out the best in people, creating a real sense of kin and unity among the group. Ireland has always had great reverence for its dead; go visit Glasnevin Cemetery on any given day and there’s the possibility you’ll find an untouched pint of Guinness left on the grave of Irish novelist Brendan Behan, for instance, or fresh flowers at the resting place of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins.
After moving to London to take up employment as a bank clerk in 1906, Michael Collins became affiliated with various movements seeking to liberate Ireland from British rule. In the Easter Rising of April 1916 Collins, along with other members of an organisation called the Irish Volunteers, seized a number of key locations in Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic. The British Empire – already heavily engaged in World War I – descended on Dublin town with artillery and thousands of military reinforcements. Despite offering fierce resistance, the Irish were heavily outnumbered and outgunned and ultimately forced to surrender after six days of fighting. Collins spent several months in an interment camp as a prisoner of war. After his release, he rose quickly through the cadres of the Irish Volunteers and was appointed Adjutant General and Director of Organisation when the War of Independence broke out in 1919. It was during this conflict he made a name for himself as a skilled guerrilla warfare strategist, orchestrating both attacks on British forces as well as assassinations of key intelligence agents. Michael Collins would go on to serve as commander-in-chief of the National Army during the subsequent Irish Civil War of 1922, in which capacity he was killed in an ambush.
– People also flock to the tomb of political leader Daniel O’Connell; his coffin is displayed inside a stone vault with a few openings where you can look in and even touch it. You’ll also find a lot of of our most important Irish revolutionaries buried here along with many other cultural icons from our past and history. It’s also a rather beautiful graveyard, very big and a place you can just wander around in for hours. There are plenty of impressive stonework and carvings to be seen and when your trip is done you have a famous pub known as The Gravediggers at the back gate. The pub dates back to 1833 and looks like it hasn’t been done up since, well worth a visit and serves a great pint also. The cemetery also has an interesting history of grave robbers where bodies would be dug up and sold on. They’d dig at the back of the headstone, ensuring that no one noticed it had been disturbed for as long as possible the next day.
NH adds how another thematic focal point, besides that of the Great Leveller and the various customs following in his wake, is that of defiance – an integral trait of Irish mentality. To illustrate his point, I suggest typing ‘Irish rebellion’ in a search engine and then observing the torrent of auto-suggestions.
– I think our history has led to an air of defiance and this is still instilled in some people today. This has been brought about by a colonial past as well as our history of constantly seeking to break those chains. For instance, as a result of its citizens role in leading the Rising of 1916, Dublin is sometimes known as the City that Defied an Empire. There’s also an Irish folk song called “Young Ned of the Hill”, which is about Cromwell’s attempted conquest of Ireland, that I think sums it up perfectly; ‘You tried to break our spirit but you will never understand.’
Oliver Cromwell – once Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland – is still an intensely hated figure in Ireland, primarily for his prominent role in the Cromwellian war of 1649 to ’53. The Irish Rebellion of October 1641 saw an ethnically and religiously divided country plunged into chaos and bloodshed and, a few months later, large parts of the island found itself under control of the Catholic Confederation. British retribution was temporarily unavailable due to the English Civil War which began in 1642, pitting Parliamentarians against Royalists; the former of which emerged victorious and put an end to monarchic rule in England. The ensuing Parliamentarian reconquest of Ireland took four years and is regarded as having been especially brutal, with population decrease estimates ranging between fifteen to eighty-three percent.
– Our song “And So I Hang from a Wretched Tree” was partly influenced by Norse mythology and the tale of Odin hanging himself from the world tree to gain knowledge. It was also partly influenced by a story Darragh (vocals) heard from a friend of ours, how ancestors of his were executed by Cromwell’s forces – hung from a tree near the front door of their home. The song represents the idea of death not spelling the end, that the name lives on for those with the will to see and make it so. “Titan” is about the power to overcome adversity, harnessing the force within, and the strife to prevail and prosper in a world determined to destroy you. And, also, the power to overcome the personal hardship we all face in life at some point. “Tether and Wane” was influenced by the story of Cú Chulainn who, upon being mortally wounded by a spear, is said to have tied himself to a rock in order to die on his feet facing the enemy. It was only when a raven landed on his shoulder they dared approach his body, knowing he was dead. It’s a last symbolic stand of defiance to signify that the fight goes on, even in death.