Bal-Sagoth are legends; their fantasy inspired symphonic black metal has not only stood the test of time, but has influenced many bands. Fronting the band is the great Byron A. Roberts, a man as talented with a sword as he is with the microphone. As a man who is known for crafting epic tales and going the extra mile to create backstories for the album concepts, I was thrilled to interview a fellow fantasy enthusiast. With the band’s discography being reissued by the resurrected Cacophonous Records, a new generation of fans has the chance to discover for the work of Bal-Sagoth. But now let’s turn the attention to the great man himself, Mr Byron A Roberts.
Jack: Good morning, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. How are you doing?
Byron: Hail! Thanks for the interview.
Jack: Your first three albums released on Cacophonous have been re-released and are back in circulation – how does it make you feel knowing they’re back in stores?
Byron: I’m delighted. Reissuing the early chapters is a project I’d had in mind for years, and as the 20th anniversary of those albums approached, I really wanted to put the plan into action even more. But obviously it would depend on whether Cacophonous would be willing to do it, as they retain the rights for the first three albums. Many labels had contacted me over the past few years asking if they could license the rights to produce vinyl editions of the early albums, and I always put them in contact with Cacophonous so they could try and work out a deal. But nothing was ever agreed upon. And then one day Frater Nihil, the founder of Cacophonous Records, telephoned me and said that the label was going to be resurrected and that they were going to be signing new bands as well as reissuing some of their old roster. He asked me if I would be interested in reissuing the First Trilogy. At last! The perfect opportunity to re-release the old albums had arisen! Not only that, but I got the chance to commission new artwork for two of the three albums. The original cover for our first album (A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria), was a cleverly manipulated photograph, which although very cool, did not really sit comfortably alongside the fully painted covers which the other five Bal-Sagoth albums sported. Cacophonous agreed to let me commission the artist Martin Hanford to paint a brand new cover for the album. I didn’t want to change the classic cover for our second album (Starfire Burning Upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule), so that fantastic artwork was retained. As for the third chapter (Battle Magic), I felt the time was right for a new cover to mark the approaching 20th anniversary of the opus. So I asked Martin to paint a new cover for that epic album too. Additionally, all three albums have been remastered, and I’ve prepared expanded lyric booklets and new sleeve notes for them. There are also some new interior illustrations. And as well as the CD versions, the albums will also be released as double vinyl gatefold editions over the coming months.
Jack: Do you have a favourite album from the Cacophonous trilogy?
Byron: I like them all equally, although the first two were particularly potent in terms of the impact they had.
Jack: I want to talk about Battle Magic which has just been re-released, but before you recorded the album you came back from a tour with Emperor. Do you have fond memories of that tour?
Byron: Yes, that was a great tour. I was already a fan of Emperor… I saw them when they toured with Cradle of Filth back around ’93. Then in June of 1997 we played a show with them in London. Following that, they asked us to join them on their European tour in October 1997, which was a fantastic opportunity. They’re great guys.
Jack: Emperor will be reuniting to perform Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, are you a fan of this album?
Byron: Sure, although my favourite Emperor album will always be In the Nightside Eclipse. Nightside was a true masterwork and in my opinion remains their greatest ever release.
Jack: Did playing with Emperor influence Battle Magic at all?
Byron: No, we had already begun conceiving and preparing the material for Battle Magic well in advance of that tour, so there was no influence on the work.
Jack: Do you have fond memories of recording and writing Battle Magic?
Byron: Yes, absolutely. Battle Magic was recorded at Academy Music Studio in Yorkshire. This album was so intricate and compositionally elaborate that it pushed the facilities at Academy to their absolute limit, and almost gave the sound engineer Mags a nervous breakdown (but he loved every minute of it).
Jack: The keyboards took six days alone, what was the reason for this length?
Byron: A different approach to the keyboards for Battle Magic arguably sacrificed much of the dark ambiance of the previous two releases in favour of a more symphonic brass-oriented sound, which although not to everyone’s liking nevertheless gave the third album its own unmistakable audial identity. It took that long to record the keyboards because they were so complex and multi-layered.
Jack: Why does the re-release feature new artwork?
Byron: After almost twenty years, I wanted to commemorate the re-release of Battle Magic by commissioning a new cover from my long-time collaborator Martin Hanford. I sent Martin a very detailed synopsis and conceptual outline regarding what I wanted the new cover to represent, and it turned out exceptionally well. We put quite a few hidden “Easter eggs” in that image for fans to discover, too. Fans of the original cover artwork need not worry, because the old painting is also included in the CD re-issue.
Jack: How does it feel knowing your music is being discussed and analysed by fans online, and that new fans are discovering your work because of the internet?
Byron: It’s very gratifying to know that people out there are so interested in the works of Bal-Sagoth that they are still discussing our discography over two decades after the band’s inception. When I first came up with the idea for Bal-Sagoth all those years ago, I never dared hope that people would still be enjoying the albums more than 20 years after the first one was recorded. I’m glad that our work seems to have withstood the test of time and that it has retained its vibrancy and dynamism for successive generations of metal fans.
Jack: How does it feel to be considered an influence and a key band in extreme metal?
Byron: Well, if we are a key band and an influence, it’s very humbling and gratifying. In the beginning, we were just an unknown band who set forth on a quest to create our own vision of extreme symphonic metal, and if people now consider us influential in any way then that’s certainly an unexpected bonus.
Jack: What bands influenced Bal-Sagoth?
Byron: Well, the various members of Bal-Sagoth are influenced by very different kinds of bands. When I first came up with the Bal-Sagoth concept, my primary inspirations were bands like Celtic Frost, Bathory, Sabbat and the first two Morbid Angel albums. Then bands like Emperor emerged and that also became a great inspiration to me in terms of stylistic approach, particularly regarding the extent to which keyboards could be implemented effectively into the fabric of the music overall. However, our keyboard player Jonny [Maudling]‘s primary inspirations are almost entirely non-metal bands. His favourite acts are things like The Police, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, which people can surely detect in his keyboard playing. He loved all the ’80s pop stuff. But having such diverse inspirations within the band has certainly contributed to our unique and original sound, I would hope.
Jack: Do you think heavy metal and fantasy are a perfect fit for each other? Is metal primarily a fantasy genre?
Byron: Yes, I believe metal is ideal for exploring high concept fantasy topics. There are many who disagree and maintain that metal should deal only with real-world content such as socio-political standpoints, but in truth there’s room for everything in the wide world of metal. I guess there will always be a vibrant fan base for fantasy metal bands. Fantasy literature in general has certainly enjoyed something of a resurgence during the past ten years or so and has been afforded a lot more mainstream media coverage than ever before. It’s very encouraging to see people reading fantasy and becoming genuinely enthusiastic about the genre again. Traditionally, the one genre of music that has consistently proven to be best suited to exploring fantasy topics is metal. There is undeniably a powerful connection between the fantasy genre and heavy metal.
Jack: Why do heavy metal and graphic novels and comics go hand in hand?
Byron: For many of the same reasons I mentioned in the previous answer. Metal is a genre of music largely characterised by imagination and escapism, and as a result of that all expressions of those qualities have an intrinsic conceptual connection to each other. Those concepts can be articulated in many different mediums, such as books, films, comics, paintings, and metal is just one of the platforms upon which imagination can be given free reign. Art by its very nature is all about creativity, regardless of the medium chosen to express it.
Jack: What other plans are in store for Bal-Sagoth? Any live dates or new music on the horizon?
Byron: No live dates for the immediately foreseeable future, and no new albums for the moment. But I do have the Third Trilogy all mapped out, including lyrics, titles and cover artwork, so at some point in the future Bal-Sagoth will return with chapters 7, 8 and 9.
Jack: Finally, would you be interested in being involved with a film based on the characters from the Bal-Sagoth literary canon?
Byron: That would indeed be an epic undertaking. The Bal-Sagoth lyrics and the stories I’ve published recently would make great movies. Maybe one day!
Jack: Thank you so much for your time and have a good day!
Byron: Many thanks for the interview. Check out the various Bal-Sagoth sites for all the band news and features. “Blodu Ok Jarna!”