Myrkhaal (ex-Frozen Shadows, Tenebrae)
by Niklas Göransson
Serenades of the damned – Myrkhaal was the frontman and co-founder first of Montréal underground pioneers Tenebrae and then later Frozen Shadows, a band which would go on to become the lodestar for Québecois black metal.
– As far as I know, in 1993 TENEBRAE was the only black metal band from Montréal and the surrounding area. Barely anyone here knew what black metal was, even among those who were already into underground metal – and the few death-metallers who did were aggressively against it, to the point where we’d get into fistfights at local bars. This is something that’s been lost over the years, but the two styles were quite antagonistic towards each other back then and you had to choose sides. Obviously, there were no resources on the then-nascent internet, and since the more mainstream magazines didn’t talk about the genre, you had to hear about it either through tape-trading or European fanzines; pretty much all US publications focused on thrash and death metal.
I’ve gotten the impression that, among TENEBRAE members, Myrkhaal was the only one to be fully consumed by black metal; he seems to have ended up working with the rest almost out of a sheer desperation to play.
– I’m not sure I’d use the term ‘desperation’ – it was more so an eagerness to form a black metal band, as I’d been yearning to do for several years. I’d known about BATHORY since ‘87, when I traded a “Reign in Blood” (SLAYER) LP for the self-titled debut. That was definitely a revelation for me so I got the rest of the albums, plus “Blood Fire Death” when it came out, at a legendary local shop called Rock en Stock, which was actually the storefront for equally legendary Banzai Records. I was completely obsessed with the aura Quorthon could summon and, back then, BATHORY was totally out of this world; there wasn’t really anything even remotely comparable.
Three years later, a friend of Myrkhaal’s who was into tape-trading introduced him to MAYHEM and SAMAEL. Realising that an entirely new black metal scene was emerging, he started digging deeper and the idea of forming a band began taking root.
– My first attempt was with G, someone I knew from school who played a bit of guitar. He brought along two friends of his I’d never met before. This would’ve been around ‘92, probably late in the year since I remember telling G, who was more into death metal, that I wanted to do something in the vein of DARKTHRONE and IMMORTAL – so, definitely after “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” came out. I named the band NECROMANCY, but that’s pretty much as far as we ever got aside from a handful of practices and some rudimentary song parts. The other guys just weren’t serious enough, so the band soon fell apart.
Myrkhaal still really wanted to play black metal, so together with G he started scouting for members with whom they could try again.
– We had no success at first but, after a few months of searching and asking around, someone gave me the phone number of a guitar player, Dabraxas, and told me he might be what we were looking for. I called him – he knew a bit about black metal and was into the idea of starting a band in that vein, so we recruited a drummer and began jamming. I came up with the name and so TENEBRAE was born. G left the band after a short while, once we’d decided to add a keyboard player, since he realised our style wasn’t really what he wanted to play. He also admitted, very humbly, that he just wasn’t good enough of a musician; his talents lay elsewhere, as he turned out to be an incredibly talented illustrator. Incidentally, he’s the one who made the cover for both FROZEN SHADOWS albums later down the road.
In November 1994, TENEBRAE had assembled enough material to record a demo – “Serenades of the Damned”. A re-mastered version of this classic tape was released on twelve-inch EP by Tour de Garde in February 2020.
– Even though I later had a falling out with the rest of the band, I’m still extremely proud of what we achieved together. It was definitely an alien release as far as the local ‘scene’ was concerned and, I’d say, definitely a bit ahead of its time. We recorded it live in a pretty much DIY fashion, with a well-known local tape-trader called Alexis Gagnon standing in the middle of our rehearsal room holding up a Walkman-sized DAT recorder he often used to record shows for his tape-trading activities. The result was raw, obviously, but still well-balanced enough that we were satisfied with it; we weren’t aiming for a big production anyway.
The layout was done in much the same spirit, with photocopied cardboard assembled and then folded together by the band members.
– We wanted something a little better than just thin xeroxed paper but, at the same time, with a more underground look than these fancy printed layouts we were beginning to see for some demos. Upon its release, the demo had a decent impact locally and even a bit abroad. In Québec, it was definitely responsible for getting more people into black metal; I’ll let your readers decide for themselves whether that’s a good thing or not. Back then, it was always a dilemma – should we spread it more or keep it totally unknown? Obviously, times have changed now.
As the months passed, Myrkhaal realised that even though Dabraxas – who composed most of the material – was heavily into black metal, it was a bond predicated exclusively on music.
– Dabraxas was the type of guy who bought all the albums coming out because he wanted to ‘know everything’. To him, it was just this new and cool style to explore. We started butting heads on an ideological level; I was heavily into the extremism of black metal while he neither understood nor connected with any of it. To him, the church burnings were appalling while to me it came with the territory. We even had a few heated arguments over some ‘extracurricular activities’ I partook in with more liked-minded individuals. He, and the rest of the band, even though they were less vocal about it, wanted to have fun playing black metal whereas I was dead serious. So, obviously, a rift developed between us. Just as we were about to play our second live show, I told them I wanted to throw razor blades into the audience before “Mourning in the Woods”, our ‘depressive’ song, just to ‘see what happens’. The rest thought it was too extreme and that I was crazy, so we nearly ended up in a fistfight minutes before the show! They were already furious with me since I’d refused to trade demos with the opening band, telling them this would be the same as throwing one of our own demos in the garbage bin since that’s precisely where theirs would be going. I was a fairly arrogant youth back then, heh. Of course, my band mates also thought they were garbage but wanted to be more diplomatic – or hypocritical, depending on your viewpoint.
In early 1995, a few weeks after the gig, Myrkhaal was riding the subway when he found himself staring at what was essentially two mirror images of himself, sitting in the same carriage. This was a chance meeting which would prove rather significant.
– Namtar and Valaack. I thought I knew every single one of the handful of people in the city who were into black metal back then, so I was surprised to see these two – bullet-belts, leather jackets, patches and all – looking pretty much identical to me. They were as surprised as I was when they noticed me so, obviously, we started talking. For the first time, I was speaking with people who not only knew about the music but also really understood it the same way I did. We exchanged phone numbers and got together a few days later, listening to records and discussing opinions and ideas. I quickly understood that I had a lot more in common with these guys than the other TENEBRAE members.
Around the same time, Myrkhaal had composed his first complete song for TENEBRAE: “Empires of Ice”, which he describes as far harsher than the material on “Serenades of the Damned”.
– Unsurprisingly, Dabraxas didn’t like me coming up with a complete song, but the rest agreed to play it at our upcoming show supporting CRYPTOPSY – although with a few modifications, to make it more melodic. The whole still made sense to me and felt like a step in the right direction, so I accepted the compromise on the condition that I got to do whatever I wanted for our stage entrance. Well, provided it did not involve razor blades.
TENEBRAE’s third and final show took place at the Woodstock Bar in Montréal , May 1995, performing as openers for CRYPTOPSY. The predominately death metal crowd was in for quite a surprise when the corpse-paint-and-spikes adorned spectacle kicked off.
– The main reason we agreed to this was because Lord Worm – the CRYPTOPSY vocalist at the time, who was always more into black than death metal – insisted we do it. We had recently become friends, so we accepted. It turned out to be a pretty hectic night! We wanted to make a grand entrance with torches and so forth but the venue didn’t allow it, so we had to sneak in what we needed. Just before our set started, my new friends Namtar and Valaack barricaded themselves in the washroom, poured gasoline on the torches and then lit them up before we made our way to the stage. The venue staff were furious but let it happen since the torches were put out once we began to play. Later in the evening, one of the security guards nearly kicked out Lord Worm after catching him in the same bathroom, cutting himself and pouring blood on the worms he was preparing for their show. Good memories.
The final nail in the coffin was when bass player Damaroth left TENEBRAE shortly following the concert and Myrkhaal enrolled Namtar as his replacement. Note that, regardless of what Metal Archives says, these two are not the same person.
– Namtar wanted the same thing as I did, musically as well as ideologically, and composed his first TENEBRAE song as soon as I invited him to join. As he played it to us, our reactions were diametrically opposed. That was exactly what I wanted to play, but for the other three members it was ‘too fast’, ‘too harsh’, etcetera. Dabraxas demanded to change this, this, and that; to bring it more in line with the material he was composing at the time. Meaning, a cheap CRADLE OF FILTH knock-off. I also wanted to start having songs in French while the rest were unsure about it – although they ended up doing one after I left. We disagreed on pretty much everything at that point, and a split was becoming inevitable. I realised there was no going back from this: the rest of the band and I were too far apart so I pretty much told the others, ‘Fuck it, this isn’t working out anymore.’
Before departing, Myrkhaal vowed to get in touch a few days later to sort out how they’d handle the split.
– When I called Dabraxas to tell him I was leaving TENEBRAE and would be starting a new project, he revealed to me that he’d gone behind my back a couple of days earlier and trademarked the name – just in case I changed my mind. We’d never bothered securing the rights to anything since we were aware of the Finnish TENEBRAE by then and knew we might have to change name somewhere along the line. I guess we were innovators on that front as well, haha! I simply told him I didn’t want anything to do with TENEBRAE either way and that my new band would crush them into dust – which, well, we did. Last time I saw Dabraxas , around 1998 I think, was straight out of a movie: we got into a fight outside some bar, but then a bunch of douchebag jocks coming out from another place began harassing our girlfriends so we turned on them instead and got separated by police.
I had a quick listen to the album TENEBRAE produced after Myrkhaal left, “The Mist Soften My Sorrow”. From the little I heard, I can imagine there would’ve been a few surprises for people who liked the demo and were expecting something similar.
– What you have to understand is that, by the time I left, the rest were heavily into CRADLE OF FILTH and wanted to go further in this direction. They pretty much never did anything after their pathetic debut album, and last I heard about Dabraxas, ten or so years ago, is that he’s completely out of metal and ridiculed his years of playing in a band. When O. T. of Tour de Garde contacted him about re-releasing “Serenades of the Damned” on vinyl, he never even bothered replying; I think that speaks volumes.
Once TENEBRAE was behind him, Myrkhaal asked Namtar and Valaack if they’d be interested in starting a truly extreme black metal band – darker, angrier, and more violent than TENEBRAE ever was. Both of them were up for it, and that’s how FROZEN SHADOWS came to be.
– FROZEN SHADOWS was without a doubt what I’d truly been looking for all along. Everything was more sincere, and we were not just in it for the music. Namtar already had a song written, the one originally meant for TENEBRAE; it ended up as the demo track “Adrift in the Sepulchral Snow”. The main riff from the track I’d written was used to create “Forests of Perdition”. Once a drummer, Forrkas, had been found we started jamming these songs along with a few covers. After several months of rehearsing and composing, we entered a ‘studio’, – or, rather, should I say an old basement where two guys had a portable eight-tracker – and recorded the “Empires de glace” demo over a weekend.
The result is an interesting combination of vicious brutality and the majestic atmosphere of the iconic EMPEROR debut. For 1996, these drums are pretty damn fast.
– Right from the start, it was clear that speed would be a crucial part of FROZEN SHADOWS. Early EMPEROR were a big influence on my keyboard style, obviously, but we wanted to go beyond that in terms of brutality and put out the fastest and most violent music possible whilst still staying within a somewhat ‘symphonic’ framework. Everything we composed had to be dark and violent exclusively, except one song per release where we’d indulge in more melancholic and depressive moods. We were extremely angry in those days and channelled all of it straight into our music. Looking back, I often say that FROZEN SHADOWS was, in part, a product of Québec’s narrow loss in the independence referendum.
On October 30, 1995, the referendum drew the largest voter turnout in Québec’s history – 93,5 percent participated. The bid for independence was narrowly defeated, with the ‘No’ side landing at 50,5 percent.
– We were enraged beyond belief – many still think Canada cheated their way into that win by doing many ‘illegal’ manoeuvres – and just poured all this negativity into the band. As a result, it was immediately clear that we had to pay homage to Québec separatism and French culture, even though our lyrics would be purely occult and satanic. I remember how I used to label our style ‘pure, satanic black metal’ in fanzine interviews back then. So, we made it clear that we considered ourselves a band from Québec, not Canada; we had songs in French and decided that all of our releases would have French titles.
“Empires de glace” was released on the winter solstice of 1996 – ironically enough, roughly around the same time TENEBRAE released their first, and final, album.
– Locally, the demo pretty much divided people into two camps. The few who understood black metal were very impressed whereas the rest absolutely hated our guts. I mentioned earlier that I carried myself with arrogance in those days; well, the other FROZEN SHADOWS members also had it in spades. So, on our demo we wrote something along the lines of ‘Thanks to no one but ourselves … a huge fuck off to the local black metal scene!’ which was, of course, a jab towards TENEBRAE as well as a select few others who gravitated around them. But, somehow, people from the death metal scene – which we couldn’t have cared less about – who either didn’t know how to read or ‘had heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend’ got the impression that we had extended the middle finger to them as well, so we became public enemy number one. So, even though the demo was quite well-received abroad, many people here in Québec hated us for various reasons, to the point where we were often involved in bar fights. We stood out like a sore thumb locally and, in a way, we carried that status like a badge of honour.
Shortly after the demo came out, original guitarist Valaack left FROZEN SHADOWS and was replaced with Alvater. Forrkas departed the following year, whereupon Namtar – who already played bass and guitar – assumed drum duties. The trio began preparing for their debut album.
– This time around, Namtar and I decided to do more collaborative composing. The last track to be finished for the demo, “Coldest Infinity” was the first piece we created together. The remaining four were written separately, two each, but I was struggling with some ideas I had for the closing song. When I spoke to Namtar, he mentioned having a few parts laying around and they turned out to be the perfect match. So, we decided to continue working like this for our debut. Apart from “Au Seuil des Ténèbres” – a demo track I wrote that we later decided to use also for the album, since we felt it best represented what we were aiming for – pretty much all of “Dans les bras des immortels” was composed at our rehearsal place. We’d show each other riffs we were working on, exchange ideas about arrangements, or sometimes just play whatever came to our minds. It was an extremely stimulating period and as we completed more and more songs, both of us truly felt as if we were creating something special.
Whilst preparing for the debut album, Myrkhaal decided to found a label and release it himself. The result of this, Sepulchral Productions, will be thoroughly explored in the second part of our conversation. Seeking to bring their sound to the next level, FROZEN SHADOWS decided to record “Dans les bras des immortels” in a proper studio.
– I can’t exactly recall how we found Studio Révolu-Son, but I think we checked them out following a recommendation from someone. François, the owner and engineer, is a musician himself and even though black metal was totally alien to him, we had a very good working relationship. He really took on the challenge of recording something with a sound that was so peculiar and outside traditional norms. I invested enough funds so we could spend a full three or four weeks in the studio, so we were able to experiment with sounds and textures as much as we wanted. Obviously, we weren’t after a pristine-sounding record, but the fact that we could take our time to try out different guitar sounds and keyboard effects, record instruments individually, and whatnot made a huge difference. The whole process was gruelling; we spent countless hours holed up in that studio, but we were very satisfied with the end result. “Dans les bras des immortels” remains the highest point of my musical career, I feel we achieved precisely what we’d set out to do: building further on the foundation we’d laid out on the demo, all the while pushing things to the extreme. Faster, darker, and more grandiose.
The 1999 debut was received favourably and FROZEN SHADOWS became the most prolific black metal band in the Québec area. However, since they were not a live act, besides a handful of interviews the band spent the next few years in relative obscurity. Then came the 2004 album, “Hantises”, for which the line-up had been expanded with drummer Melkor. “Hantises” was released by Holy Records from France – quite an odd fit, considering their remaining roster.
– We definitely surprised a lot of people with our move to Holy Records, that’s for sure. We’d decided to record a three-song promo and send it to a few different labels, just to see what would come out of it. Of all the labels showing interest, Holy Records simply offered us the best deal. They distributed “Dans les bras des immortels” and sold a good amount of it, so I’m guessing they saw our sales potential. Plus, they had the idea of doing a limited digipack edition of the CD, including the demo, so we went ahead with them even though they were definitely known more for ‘avantgarde’ music. But we knew the album would get decent distribution and liked the idea of being the black sheep on the label.
Like the debut, “Hantises” was well-received in general. However, Myrkhaal says the more modern approach stirred some opposition among older fans.
– I think, in a way, “Hantises” was a few years ahead of its time. It had a bit of that denser sound and more dissonant progressions which became more common in the latter part of the 00s. To me, although I totally stand behind what we accomplished back then, it will probably always be a bit less special than “Empires de glace” and “Dans les bras des immortels” – mainly because of my lack of involvement in the composition process. The previous releases were pretty much all written by Namtar and myself, but I barely wrote anything for “Hantises”. I was at a period of my life where I felt so drained by the sixty to seventy hours per week of school and work that I simply had no inspiration left. So, the album was pretty much all Namtar, with some help from Alvater who’d stepped up a bit; his contribution to the debut had only been one or two riffs. So, it definitely feels less personal to me.
Following this release, FROZEN SHADOWS were never heard from again – what happened?
– For various reasons, our hearts just weren’t into it any longer. I was still pursuing my studies and work routine, to the point where I almost went into burnout, whereas Namtar grew disinterested with black metal for a long period. Melkor became somewhat of a recluse. Alvater and I tried to keep the band alive for a while after I finished university, but I didn’t particularly like the riffs he was bringing to the table – I think some of it ended up in the RAGE NUCLÉAIRE project he started with Lord Worm a few years later – and I was still too exhausted to come up with any decent ideas myself. And with Namtar gone it just didn’t feel right to me anyway, since we’d pretty much been the main members all along and I always believed it was our ability to bounce ideas off each other that made FROZEN SHADOWS so special. There was no one moment where we officially said, ‘Okay, we’re done’, but more of a slow process where everybody slowly drifted apart and none of us was in the right place to steer the boat back on its intended course.