by Niklas Göransson
BLK – drummer and vocalist of Finnish black metal duo Phlegein – talks about the music that upended his entire existence, as well as the nature mysticism inherent in it.
– For the most part, “Labyrinth of Wonder” stays on the path we first staked out. All the basics are there, as is the case with every PHLEGEIN release. Of course, each album has qualities of its own; none of them are copies of one another. Just compare “Devotion” to “Labyrinth of Wonder” – it’s easy to spot the differences. The basis might be similar, but the atmosphere is totally different. Our latest release fits well in this lineage: there are no leaps towards avantgarde gimmicks, yet it sounds fresh.
“Labyrinth of Wonder” – the first sign of life from PHLEGEIN since the 2018 album “Devotion” – was released by Northern Heritage in April 2021.
– There is no focus on technicalities; we prefer to harness the songwriting, riffs, and sounds into something which can be both heard and experienced. Most listeners probably won’t even notice, but there are some who are able to grasp what PHLEGEIN is all about. As for thematic content, my lyrics are always determined by the feeling I get from the music. Consequently, the concept of “Labyrinth of Wonder” is a bit different – in the sense that topics such as nature mysticism are not present this time.
One of the few things I know about my interviewee, both from reading past interviews and asking around, is that the natural world is a significant part of his life. Judging by the one PHLEGEIN lyric I’ve read – “White Top”, which was published in The Sinister Flame V – this interest spills over into BLK’s black metal pursuits.
– I spend quite a lot of time in nature, yes – be it skiing in the forest during wintertime or something else. I’m a rather active person in general and am into endurance sports mainly: running, walking, cycling, and skiing. I like to focus mainly on stamina and regularly take long routes in a far higher tempo than any personal trainer would ever recommend, haha! But it’s all for my own benefit, I have no competitive ambitions at all. Also, at summertime I sometimes go on one-hundred-kilometre hiking trips in Lapland. For example, our debut album has a song titled “Silver Veins of Kaldoaivi”, which was purely inspired by a multi-day-hiking trip to the Kaldoaivi wilderness area.
How do you think your inclination towards the natural world ties into black metal?
– I have to say that they developed alongside each other. I don’t recall being as focused on nature before I got cut in with black metal. Back in the 90s, I always admired the take on wilderness the Norwegian bands had; it was something truly mystical and they really did it properly. This affected me very much and the nature aspects have only grown on me as I’ve gotten older.
BLK is from a rural part of the Finnish province of Northern Savonia. Since the mid-80s, he’s lived at various locations in and around a town called Varkaus.
– Unsurprisingly, there was nothing metal-related happening in Varkaus; I was pretty much stuck here with a few friends. In 1990, we started learning what to do with our instruments. At first, we didn’t even have a real rehearsal place; we put the drums and one small guitar amplifier in the living room of our apartment and started playing there. It went on like this into the following year, when we got our own practise space. This allowed us to become more focused on forming a real band.
The band in question – which shall not be mentioned by name, since BLK wants to keep it separate from PHLEGEIN – went on to release two demos before splitting up. I was previously unfamiliar with Varkaus but noticed that it’s close to the city of Kuopio – which I am most certainly aware of. I’ve heard numerous times that this is, or at least was in the 90s, the wildest place in Finland for underground metal.
– At that age, it was no simple matter to attend shows in other towns. Also, it was very difficult to find out about gigs if you didn’t receive a flyer about it, so I have no first-hand experience from that era of Kuopio events. From the old days, Demonos Sova of BARATHRUM lived there, as did Holocausto of BEHERIT. Sova and I were in touch back then and he even moved to Varkaus for a short period of time. I was also very active with tape-trading, correspondence with band members, reading ‘zines, and ordering from distros. In my opinion, letter-writing was the very heart of the underground; you didn’t get any news or info from within the scene without it. Since I didn’t have much money to spend as a youngster, new music primarily came from tape-trading. And the only way to mail massive amounts of letters worldwide was to re-use stamps and collect IRCs whenever possible.
An IRC is a coupon which can be exchanged for stamps at the local post office. Back in the days before the underground turned digital, the buyer would include them when ordering demos, ‘zines, and so forth. Before sending their parcels, experienced tape-traders would cover the stamps with a thin layer of water-soluble glue to absorb the ink from the postmark. The recipient then sent them back in his next letter, ready to be used again.
– Unfortunately, I had been on the post office’s radar for a long time. One day, I got a letter stating that they knew I’d been fraudulently handling stamps for long time – which is a crime. They urged me to get in touch by phone, which I did and was told that if I stopped immediately there would be no legal action taken against me. Sadly, this spelled the end of the stamp era for me; it really affected my tape-trading negatively as I could no longer send many parcels abroad. Later on, written snail-mail correspondence faded out entirely.
Once your band ceased operations, did you remain active in the underground?
– For a long time, I was mainly listening to records – almost completely cut off from the scene. I only maintained some communication with the distros I ordered from and a handful of fellow musicians who were still active. I think it was a positive thing for me to get some distance from the whole thing – because the 2000s era of black metal that was ushered in did not appeal to me at all. Many bands took worrying steps with their plastic sounds and shitty songs. I pretty much stuck to the old releases and only occasionally, when something worthy came out, bought new albums. I’m actually very happy with the 90s black metal records I own and don’t really need much else. In the big picture, it was the best era of black metal; I don’t think that’s ever going to change.
PHLEGEIN was formed in 2009, following a conversation at a local bar during which BLK learned not only of VnoM’s budding guitar skills but also his interest for satanism and the occult.
– Mentally, I always felt ready to continue doing music, but I wasn’t actively looking for band members. In fact, I felt certain that I wouldn’t be playing black metal again. I’m very cautious about the people I work with – and from this kind of town, it’s nearly impossible to find suitable members. It’s not quite as simple as when a random guy agrees, ‘Let’s play black metal.’ It was sheer coincidence that my discussion with VnoM took the right turn. For me, the outcome is truly unbelievable.
The very next day, BLK found himself back in a rehearsal place for the first time in fifteen years.
– I was extremely excited but also had some concerns about how the hell I’d manage with the drums. VnoM was an active drummer back then – and a rather skilled one at that – so it was a bit embarrassing to sit behind his kit when I hadn’t so much as touched one for so many years. Luckily, he’d just started learning guitar, so we were pretty much on the same level; it felt like a good starting point. It’s a strange feeling when the brain knows what to do, yet your limbs won’t execute it properly! But we soon got comfortable, just playing some random shit made up on the fly and then recording it. Both of us were on fire after that first session and we started going to their rehearsal place on a regular basis.
Once it became clear that PHLEGEIN was a serious band in the making, BLK bought a drum set and set it up in his house. To get back the basic skills and stamina, he began practising every day.
– We started building songs immediately and recorded them every rehearsal, mainly so we wouldn’t forget the riffs. The earliest material didn’t hold up very well, so we ditched it. Our first real song was “Chaos Marching Onwards”, and I believe I still have some very early rehearsal version, which of course isn’t the exact same as on the release since it got some riff changes and so on. Things evolved rapidly from there. We started playing in the summer of 2009, completely from zero, and had the “Ancient Battlegrounds” EP ready by 2010.
“Ancient Battlegrounds” was initially meant to be a demo. However, correspondence with Northern Heritage – one of the distros BLK ordered his records from – paved the way for a collaboration which stands strong to this day.
– For me, the effects of getting a serious band running were mostly felt on the mental side. I’ve always had time to do the things I wanted, so I could focus on PHLEGEIN as much as needed without sacrificing other elements in my life. The efforts required for the songwriting, lyrics, etcetera are different – because this is something I really want to do. It’s the same thing generally for everything that enables one to act on free will. If PHLEGEIN starts to feel like a task to perform instead of something we do without hesitation, that would mean it’s time to stop.
In the fall of 2011, PHLEGEIN made their live debut at Finnish festival Black Flames of Blasphemy. I’ve only found one song from their set, but it appears to have gone reasonably well. However, they have not played since – which I suspect has to do with VnoM no longer living anywhere near Varkaus.
– The gig we did in 2011 went fairly decent. There were some playing mistakes and so on, but that’s fine – it belongs to the live performance in my opinion. We have mistakes on our records also; when talking about black metal, I think it’s quite petty and stupid to fix everything and make it sound like a machine. VnoM’s move to Helsinki was not behind this decision, but rather one of several contributing factors. Since the beginning, PHLEGEIN was never meant to be an active live band.
Have you received any offers since that show?
– We’ve been asked to perform numerous times, and I doubt many bands would’ve said no to some of these offers as they included gigs with ‘big-name’ headliners. But I must say that I don’t care at all who we share the stage with – I have zero fanboy attitude in me. Perhaps you remember how gigs used to be back in the day when death, black, thrash bands were on the same bill. It was all good, everyone was happy and no complaints at all. Today, the events are more focused on one genre and every other band does a ‘shit gig’ and keyboard warriors complain about everything. In general, the black metal underground is lacking that certain early-days feel, heart, drive, or whatever you want to call it.
These days, the creative process of PHLEGEIN takes place remotely. They don’t perform live, have no social media presence, and do not appear to interact with the scene to any greater extent – besides the occasional interview and an album every three years or so. This makes me curious what BLK’s motivations are, thirty years into this journey, for performing black metal.
– Heh. When getting to a certain age, you don’t really care about many things – I don’t give a shit about attaining a certain status or such. I don’t need anyone to pat me on the back. Of course, people got their own opinion and if someone dislikes PHLEGEIN, that’s fine for me. I’m confident enough to know my abilities and devotion. I grew up with this music and it has certainly shaped me extensively. This long period of time has given me certain perspective and drive to do black metal in what I feel is the proper way.