by Niklas Göransson
Of mandrake root and phantoms of the night – Slovakian black metal band Malokarpatan sing of the foulest abominations and filthiest excesses, lending a voice to the confessed servants of the Enemy of Mankind.
– The general idea was to make a gloomy, autumnal-sounding record that evokes the glow of a late-October sun setting over auburn hillsides. A lot of time was spent visiting castles, watching old Technicolor costume drama movies, and listening to records such as ”Music from ’The Elder’” by KISS, or Rick Wakeman’s ”The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table” – all this merged to create the specific atmosphere of “Krupinské ohne”, a kind of blend between the pompous and the melancholic. This is, after all, the feeling I get from baroque music, which is the period when our story takes place. I loathe this complete lack of mystery in the modern world and always look for the outlandish and impractical, I’ve drawn much of my influence from things that are today considered cheesy or dated. Black metal and 70s progressive rock share a lot of common ground; the allure of the unknown, envisioning fantastical worlds, and our longing for a pre-industrial past now lost to the mists of time. Meanwhile, your current reality requires you to answer phone-calls in an open office box hell with soulless furniture.
MALOKARPATAN’s third album, “Krupinské ohne”, is due for release on March 21 by Invictus Productions in Europe and The Ajna Offensive in North America. Vocal duties have been assumed by former guitarist HV and the music sounds more epic and theatrical than its predecessor, but this is unmistakably the same band that made the 2017 “Nordkarpatenland”.
– It’s hard for me to speak of musical evolution when it comes to our albums; I set out to make records that are different from its predecessors, not better or worse. I completely understand people who only have one particular favourite from MALOKARPATAN. The debut album was a filthy and very underground-sounding recording, “Nordkarpatenland” focused on catchy song-writing influenced by classic metal, and “Krupinské ohne” is complex and theatrical – creating sort of a maze for listeners to lose themselves in. Luckily, as the composer, all these different directions come naturally to me and are coloured only by what I’m presently immersed in. I’ve always loved concept albums, which, unsurprisingly, makes me a huge fan of KING DIAMOND and 70s progressive rock. Another important influence was the old Czechoslovakian scene from the 80s and very early 90s – especially TUDOR’s “Bloody Mary”, again a concept album.
Reading the promo text for “Krupinské ohne”, I was somewhat aghast to find Adam referring to MALOKARPATAN as ’black/heavy metal’. I thought they were unapologetically black metal – in the fine tradition of bands such as MASTER’S HAMMER and TORMENTOR – the way it sounded before becoming synonymous with the Scandinavian sound.
– Ah, no, I completely agree with your sentiment there. As long as the concept remains the same, we’ll always be a black metal band; I’ve only used that description to differentiate us from what is today commonly understood as black metal. We have very little to do with that and would rather seek inspiration from classic heavy metal. It’s tragic that so many people simply don’t understand this music, where it came from, and how diverse it was before poor copies of the Norwegian sound became the McDonalds of the genre, driving out local cuisines to the fringes. I like the 90s Scandinavian scene as much as anyone else, that’s the music I grew up with. I just hate how bands worldwide took the lazy route of imitating this specific sound without adding any personality of their own. The Norwegians themselves hated this, as any Nordic Vision review would reveal.
Nordic Vision was one of the premiere underground publications of the mid-90s. The editor, known only as Melankol X, upheld a delightfully elitist and fiercely patronising tone and would be especially merciless when it came to non-Scandinavian bands he felt were appropriating the Norwegian sound.
– I actually have an album’s worth of material, old as well as new, more influenced by the 90s that I might record as a side project at some point. I never stopped enjoying this scene, but the problem is how oversaturated that sound became over the years. So, I’d only ever dabble in it again if I was sure I could add a strong enough personal touch – just like all new bands were expected to do back then, which maintained the diversity that was eventually lost with the emergence of too many clueless copycats. For me, there’s a direct continuum between the darkness of early BLACK SABBATH going all the way to the real black metal bands of today, such as CULTES DES GHOULES, and this is the genuine black metal feeling; not shrieking vocals, infinite blastbeats, and other trivial aspects.
I really do sympathise with the likes of NIFELHEIM and UNPURE, who started out as black metal bands in ’90 and ’91, respectively, but are no longer regarded as such despite both dressing and sounding the same as when they formed. Hellbutcher commented, ’I’ve spoken to youngsters – eighteen-year-olds and such – who don’t think NIFELHEIM is black metal since we don’t have non-stop blastbeats. So, we’ve suddenly started drifting from the genre because it itself is changing, we don’t fit in anymore.’ Kolgrim from UNPURE was seething with annoyance about having been repeatedly called ‘blackened thrash’; especially seeing as how he doesn’t even like thrash, much less plays it. UNPURE are still labelled ‘black/thrash/speed metal’ on Metal-Archives, despite attempting to get this rectified. Clearly, the administrators know better than the band. As it happens, MALOKARPATAN found themselves in a similar predicament over the last few years, but with lyrical themes.
– Ah yes… when we released the debut back in 2015, there was a writing in the booklet informing that, “Stridžie Dni” is a celebration of the countryside in Western Slovakia, with all its grotesque myths and lore. All lyrics are written in local dialect and they mostly deal with folklore legends based on rural witchcraft, drunkenness and also national pride.’ If only I could’ve foreseen how badly some individuals would misconstrue this! The last song on the album tells this classic Slovakian folktale about a typical heroic warrior character, and in the final parts I use him as a metaphor for some sort of lost sense of pride in Slovak people. After all, apathetic self-loathing is one of our national features. So, overall, it is about as nationalistic as “Tales from the Thousand Lakes” by AMORPHIS, yet someone lazily copied ’national pride’ as a lyrical theme on Metal-Archives and this has given me endless headaches ever since. Despite my attempts, they refused to change it for the longest time. At least by now, most people seem to have grasped that we have nothing to do with NSBM.
Also listed as a lyrical theme was ’drunkenness’, which Adam found even more infuriating since it makes them sound like something comparable to ALESTORM. Furthermore, alcoholism is a complex matter in Slovakian culture; much of the nation’s classic literature and cinema deals with this subject.
– Since I take influence directly from local folklore, the topic found its way into our lyrics somewhat naturally. The important part is HOW you portray it. Most of our concepts are based on the grotesque, this thin line between the humorous and dark and frightening; themes often used by surrealism. This is a major element of Slovak folklore and the drunkenness themes are a part of it. For example, one of our songs is about an outsider loner living on the border of a village and a forest – the woods being this magical gateway into the world of wild and unseen forces – who in a drunken fit of madness beats his livestock to death. Another is about an adventurer who gets so inebriated that villagers lock him up in the pigsty, a tale inspired by paintings of both the Elder and Younger Brueghel. This is the sort of drunkenness I’m influenced by but, of course, the average guy will think of TANKARD or something. What really makes my blood boil the most are the idiots who consider us some sort of fun rock’n’roll band that doesn’t take things seriously… although, I guess this speaks more about themselves than anything else. There are often small hints of humour present in our material, but it seems to get lost on a lot of people that you can joke about something despite being entirely serious. “The Jilemnice Occultist” (MASTER’S HAMMER) contains some absolutely hilarious parts in the lyrics, yet, as a complete work, it’s entirely serious and has a strong, dark aura. It’s all about the subtle differences…
One lyric that particularly caught my eye was “Ze semena viselcuov čarovný koren povstáva”, which translates to ‘from the semen of the hanged, a magical root arises’ – a well-researched and eloquently worded homage to the notorious mandrake. The root, which has both hallucinogenic and narcotic properties, is best known for its eerie resemblance to a human being, with two closely related mandragora species bearing male and female attributes. It has a long and rich history as both a medicinal and magical plant; mandrake is mentioned in the Old Testament and was used in both the Greece and Rome of old. In the context of Adam’s lyrics, the root is described from a perspective of European witchcraft.
– The history and colourful lore surrounding the plant always appealed to me. This was triggered when I, in early childhood, saw a classic Czechoslovakian movie called The Emperor and The Golem, which deals with Emperor Rudolf II – a figure I’m strongly fascinated by. He’s probably the most prominent patron of occult arts among the European aristocracy, famous for taking more interest in otherworldly matters than his mundane political duties. In accordance to the time and ideology the movie was made in, the 1950s Iron Curtain, Rudolf is portrayed as somewhat of a ridiculous fool; however, it still managed to capture a very magical atmosphere. I included a short sample in the beginning of the song, from a scene where the Emperor sets out to pick the mandrake root on a gallows hill. As for the lyrics, they were mostly derived from remarks in a medieval tome on herblore and a book about the history of magic, I just added some local specifics to fit the overarching Krupina story.
The Krupina story is something Adam came across whilst reading about local witch trials in the 17th century. Historians believe the European witch-hunting craze was largely sparked by the Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull issued by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. According to the document, witches ‘blasphemously renounce that Faith which is theirs by the Sacrament of Baptism, and at the instigation of the Enemy of Mankind they do not shrink from committing and perpetrating the foulest abominations and filthiest excesses to the deadly peril of their own souls.’ It gave approval for the Inquisition to proceed ‘correcting, imprisoning, punishing, and chastising’ such persons after their own judgement, which essentially meant a lift of the ban on torture in church investigations. From 1620 to 1741, the Inquisition of Krupina – a small town in south-central Slovakia – kept up an industrious pace. No less than thirty-four women were burned and an additional six were beheaded after having been found guilty of witchcraft; Adam used transcripts from their confessions in the first, third, and fifth songs of the album.
– The story about the Krupina witches was chosen simply because it’s local. I could find weirder tales – the Isobel Gowdie case from Scotland is my personal favourite because of how much heathen folklore is preserved there, but MALOKARPATAN deals with local inspirations so I used our own. I was reading a more general article on the history of witch-trials in what is modern-day Slovakia and the Krupina trials stood out in sheer numbers of people involved, so there was obviously something special about this area. Soon thereafter I began my search for Krupinské prísne právo, a book which came out in only one edition during the late 70s and contains direct transcripts from these trials. Finally, around six months later, I managed to track down a second-hand copy and so used it as the basis for most of the album’s lyrics. Much of it is true story but I also added my own bits of fiction, mostly the introspective parts where the witches speak of their worldview as well as all the stuff about the Štangarígel Rocks.
Deep in the woods of the Krupina region stand the Štangarígel Rocks, a strange rock formation which has given rise to many local legends. Besides its peculiar shape, it also has what appears to be very old writing in an unknown language.
– The carvings seem to be a mix of Celtic and Slavic, although other theories propose it as purely a work of nature. We did our photo session for the album out there, which required a car trip through steep serpentine mountain roads and then getting somewhat lost walking through autumn woods where bears are never far away – but, in the end, it was certainly worth the trouble. It made the album a more complex experience in general, visiting the actual places and soaking up the atmosphere.
I also noted that Slovakia has kept the spirit of the Krupina Inquisition alive even into modern times. In 2001, domestic news outlets began reporting that an alleged witch had been slain in Krajné, a small farming community in the Carpathian Mountains. When the two-year-old granddaughter of local villager Milan Mramuch suddenly became stricken with epileptic seizures, he immediately suspected foul play. After consulting a soothsayer, Mramuch‘s hunch about witchcraft and Satanic worship was confirmed; not only that, the seer told him the child would die unless someone put a stop to it. Sensing there was little time to waste, he concluded it must be his neighbour – an eighty-year-old retired cleaning lady – and so went to her home, advised the old woman to swiftly make her peace with God, and then beat her to death with a cane. In an interesting plot twist, his granddaughter’s seizures reportedly subsided entirely after the murder.
– Slovakia still has a few wonderfully ’ backward’ places, usually those stereotypical remote mountain villages one would automatically imagine. I’ll leave out the details, as they are too personal, but there was as instance even in my own family where a person was accused of hexing someone and thereby causing the victim an ill fate. In this case, I can safely say it was just your typical good-old-fashioned superstition but it shows how many of these ideas survived to the 20th century, at least. My grandparents were all born during the 1920s, in mostly rural areas, which I suppose explains some of the cultural background. Due to their isolation from the outside world, the Catholicism there would often be a very frail surface veil over what was essentially surviving pagan lore. As it evolved, today, these people would proudly regard themselves as pious Christians, unaware that much of their traditions come from more ancient times and were just appropriated by the church. So, if one was about to study what remains from the spiritual heritage of our ancestors, the best option is to go among the most hardcore rural Catholic communities rather than some New Age paganism LARPers dressing up in costumes.
One downside to the Inquisition’s very hands-on interview technique is that if any actual witches were ever apprehended, we probably wouldn’t even know since they’re likely to have been tortured into the same type of black cats and sex-with-Satan confessions as the rest.
– Of course, those witch trial confessions should always be viewed in light of Christian distortion. We can never fully know how much was coerced and how much is genuine but, in general, I do believe there was a real phenomenon behind this and not just irrational Church hysteria, as it’s widely understood today. Given how widespread the witch phenomenon appears to have been, especially in the Early Modern period, it would be arrogant and outright foolish to believe that all these confessions were nothing but either psychotic delusions or nonsense forced upon the prisoners by their interrogators. I think many of them were experiencing genuine spiritual encounters, but the general framework was distorted by the Christian views of the judges. I leave out my responsibility from this though, because, in the end, our work is still just a music album and not any form of historical or religious study. What’s important to me is the eerie feeling evoked by all this – the black metal feeling. If this can also stir the imagination of people and make them investigate the subject closer, our job has been done.
Adam will no doubt be pleased to know I did exactly this; prior to the interview, I read up on a few topics he’d mentioned as relevant to the album. In the last decades, the notion that many reports of experiences such as witches sabbaths and animal familiars stem from pre-Christian traditions of European shamanism has taken root in the scholarly community – although there’s still lively debate about to which extent. One interesting case is that of Chonrad Stoecklin, a 16th century herdsman and locally renowned folk-healer in the alpine town of Oberstdorf, Bavaria. German historian Wolfgang Behringer wrote a book about him, the 1998 Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night.
– Stoeckhlin made a deal with his friend that whoever of them died first would visit the other post-mortem, to tell him about what life after death was like. He claimed to have indeed been visited by his late friend numerous times, and that this soon evolved to apparitions of an entity he viewed as an angel – clad in white and with a red cross appearing on his face – who took him on nocturnal rides with the ’night phantoms’. Here he had visions of souls in the afterlife and could also consult his angelic guide about various matters, using this to heal the people of Oberstdorf and help them when they believed someone in their family had been bewitched.
This consultation service is what would ultimately become his downfall. After Stoeckhlin had helped to identify an alleged witch, who immediately fled town, he was himself interviewed by authorities. They were curious how he discovered the enchantress in the first place and were none too impressed upon learning he’d consulted the ‘night phantoms’ during his nocturnal spirit flight. Stoeckhlin was arrested, prosecuted for witchcraft, and subsequently executed.
– According to his confession, there were three different types of these soul journeys. Firstly, the one he was taking part of, then something he called ‘the righteous ride’ – which he claimed was the journey of the dead towards their final rest – and the third one was the ride of witches who travel by air. He firmly denied ever having taken part of the witch ride, but this didn’t satisfy his interrogators who considered his guiding angel a demonic female lover sent by the Devil. The author of the book then brings up the possible links to shamanism, comparing the Stoeckhlin case to similar practices in Turkmenistan where all this was part of the local Islamic belief; the Turkmen shamans would invoke Allah as part of their rituals. This just goes to show that we’re dealing with a widespread phenomenon influenced by local cultural beliefs but still remains the same at its core. The story of Chonrad Stoeckhlin also provides support for our perspective when it comes to sleep paralysis as a gateway to travelling through unknown planes. He clearly describes being physically motionless, in some state of trance and his soul travelling independently of the body.
In essentially all cultures with written records, there are descriptions of terrifying nightmares in which the afflicted wakes up, seemingly paralysed with fear, often with a malevolent presence pinning them down so hard they can’t breathe. Equally common are intensely vivid out of body experiences, which is potentially what happened to Stoeckhlin. These phenomena are today known as sleep paralysis. It’s when we enter the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep our dreams tend to become the most intense. Our muscles relax to the extent where the body is immobilised, an occurrence which scientists believe designed to prevent us from thrashing about and enacting our dreams. At some point in life, up to fifty percent of all humans somehow slip over into normal consciousness whilst still in REM, thus waking up to a hybrid reality – dreaming whilst entirely lucid, unable to move anything but their eyes. Since this is often accompanied by heavily convincing sensory, auditory, and visual hallucinations, most find the experience absolutely terrifying whereas others learn to control and even enjoy it. About eight percent of all people undergo this frequently. As regular Bardo Methodology readers will have noticed, this condition is exceptionally common among metal musicians with esoteric interests; many claiming such experiences to have birthed their existential curiosity. Adam is one of them.
– I think this is all part of the same whole, going all the way up to the modern UFO abduction phenomenon. Despite the most popular views attributing this to visitors from other planets, there are people coming from completely opposite backgrounds – such as the computer scientist and astronomer Jacques Vallée and the Orthodox monk Seraphim Rose – who both came to the conclusion that these are non-material entities who are able to manipulate human consciousness, and have been doing so since recorded history. The only thing that changed is the way we interpret them, since we’ve moved from a religion-centred outlook to the materialistic viewpoint rooted in modern science. One can just look at one of the most notorious cases: American author Whitley Strieber, who in his book Communion describes being deeply paralysed whilst receiving his nightly visitor wearing a strange hat. Instantly, the so-called Hat Man comes to mind.
The ‘Hat Man’ is a figure from contemporary sleep paralysis folklore, where people from all across the world and different cultural backgrounds report waking up to see the dark outline of a hat-clad figure standing over them, literally radiating malice. The phenomenon is so widespread that it’s spawned several documentaries and books; there have also been online initiatives to collect and compare as many of these observations as possible.
– Then there are of course the manipulations with space and time, the inflictions of pain made by these beings, the odd obsession with sexuality present in much of the abduction reports and even sensing a sulphurous smell is a frequent feature. Once we connect the dots, we get the full picture of how humans throughout history are encountering the same creatures who often seem to prey on us and our fears.