Death Metal, from my point of view, is far from easy times as it was in the 90s, when the almost every album was a jewel. Today it is quite difficult to create something truly unique and original in this genre, while still being wrapped in the old school spawn with creepy and discomfort feelings. This is precisely what the Irish VIRCOLAC worshipers of the deceased did. Their “Masque” debut, preceded by the “Codex Perfida” ´14 and “Feraliminal” ´16 demos, but also the “The Cursed Travails of the Demeter” ´16 EP, is simply a macabre ride in a wooden coffin through the lands of death and blood. VIRCOLAC was formed in 2013 in Dublin and decided to avoid the Death Metal conventions right from the start, but sought to enrich music with the cadaverous and grotesque atmosphere. Although the band was called VIRCOLAC, which means Werewolf in Romanian, their lyrics are more based on the theme of death, dead people, burial rituals, all in a ghostly spirit. I have to take advantage of this and ask many interesting topics related to this. The band signed to the Dark Descent label, which also released their debut. An interview with three members, Darragh (vox), Brendan (guit), NH (drums), is definitely one of the most successful of this issue, so let's open the lids of coffins and look inside...
Greetings to the gloomy VIRCOLAC band in Ireland. To begin with, I would like to thank you sincerely for creating the "Masque" artwork, which, in my view, is one of the most original Death Metal recordings I've ever heard so far in long time. Personally, I think many Death Metal bands sound just like a clone of legends and these bands often lock themselves in their own cans, but that's not your case
Darragh: Thank you for the compliment! Glad you appreciate our album. To get straight into it, while we all wear our influences literally on our sleeves, we were always determined to make our own mark, however small and not have our music as a list of riff references that people can relate directly to other bands. Creatively it's important to make your own impact irrespective of your influences. This was the only approach we had but we don't construct music on a basis of whether it references our influences. Given our broad range of individual influences anyway, there's a warped distilling process that mutates into what we know as Vircolac.
Is originality important and intentional for you, or you have simply linked elements that sound more unconventional than other Death Metal bands do? Is the term "experiment" profitable for you?
Darragh: I think Death Metal, as a style and genre is so long established now that attempting to approach what you do with notions of originality is facile and ignorant. If you manage to bring a stylistic element to the table that is refreshing, great. It might give the song or riff a whole new essence and feel, which can perhaps be a mask for originality. We were adamant from the outset that we wanted to write music with a feel, with atmosphere and music that went through peaks and troughs in terms of its overall approach.
An important aspect of your music is clearly the sound. In fact when I first heard "Masque" I was amazed, finally someone came up with something interesting, creative and fascinating at the same time. The sound gives your music an incredible atmosphere. How did you think about sound before recording?
Darragh: Going into this record, we were absolutely set on stripping everything way back and making it as clear as possible. The EP before suffered from a somewhat muddy, smothered sound, which we did not want to repeat again. The album we referenced the most in pre production was Slayer's South of Heaven. That then kind of became the "production template" for the album. This approach also fed into the album concept, title and in the end the album cover as well. Everything unmasked, exposed there for all to see.
You used a rather flat or dull guitar sound, which give large space to bass guitar, drums, but also vocals, while the whole sound space is balanced, hard but also dynamic. Is this sound something you have found yourselves in, or you will try to come up with something different in the future?
Brendan - I wouldn’t really call the guitar sound flat but it is quite heavy in the low mid frequency range. We wanted the overall sound to be a lot clearer and sharper this time so we really focused on giving every instrument its own space without losing the impact of the overall band sound. I think we touched on something that we can expand on going forward. We will be taking all the lessons learned from all passed recordings and expand on them going forward. I think that exploration is really a big part of the sound of Vircolac.
Your music reaches quite good technical parameters, but it does not follow the technique primarily as eg. Atheist, or Cynic. Rather, your work reminds me of some more bizarre forms of Death Metal, albums such as "Not To Be Undimensional Conscious", "Prodigal Sun", or "Todessehnsucht", to exploit the atmosphere of technique...
Brendan - I think the technical aspect of our sound comes from how we approach the writing. We really do not limit ourselves at all. We would never intentionally try to write in odd time signatures as it would sound too forced that way. But if we like a riff or drum pattern that happens to be in an odd time signature then fine. The other technical aspects such as the unconventional song structure occur for the same reason. It is what happens to flow out of us at the time of writing. We have a broad range of influences as a band which would include bands of a more progressive nature whether that is the prog bands of the 70s or the classic Death Metal of the early 90s so their influence will also be felt through the music.
Do you take your music also as a form of entertainment, or you think such a term has nothing to do with VIRCOLAC? Personally, I do not feel something like that, rather seriousness, morbidity, but maybe I would also use the term grotesque in a spooky notion... how do you see it?
Darragh: All forms of music, no matter how deep, sincere or abstract are entertainment. Any band that plays live does so to entertain an audience. Entertainment is only a controversial word when bands overestimate their sense of purpose and mission, We are deathly serious about what we do and the topics we sing about however when we play live, we want people to engage with us in what we do and we want to reach the audience directly. There's no static, standing around looking glum bullshit. It's up front, in your face, aggressive and unmasked! We hide behind nothing. When you play the record, our hope is that the listener gets lost in their own thoughts prompted by the music. That they feel something. Some urge, some motivation because of the music.
Where everywhere you find inspiration besides music? It is obvious from your cover art and photos you like to visit the reverent places and you seem obsessed with the dead, the death itself. Do these last resting places have a strong impact on your creation?
Darragh: The majority of the themes on all our recorded material is influenced by Ireland. Of the 14 songs we've written, only 3 do not have immediate or direct influences from here. This land is as old as time itself and it contains a history and pre history unique in the world. We are surrounded by it every day. Three of us in the band are from rural Ireland so we would have grown up around many ancient sites from megalithic era through to medieval castles. It is simply inescapable. This has permeated my thinking and my approach to writing lyrics as well.
For the EP, I was influenced primarily by Bram Stoker's Dracula but rather than have another generic vampire theme, I took the voyage of the count from Varna to Whiby as a tale to tell. The photos for the EP were all taken by our drummer's wife in a crypt here in Dublin called St Michan's, where folklore has it that Bram Stoker was influenced by the mummies there when writing his novel. As he has family on his mother's side buried in the vaults there, it is certain he visited the crypt somewhat regularly. So, this all tied in with the concept. A uniquely Irish heritage element that to the naked eye would be missed entirely.
The landscape is dotted with ancient cemeteries here as well and some of them, like the one we got the picture for Masque from, have a fascinating history. In Ireland, there is a strong link between the past and present and these old cemeteries remind of of those who came before us and some of their stories are fascinating.
The image for the album is symbolically meant to represent the ultimate unmasking, regardless of whether you're rich or poor. Once the mask of flesh is peeled back, we are all left with them same cold bone. It's a stark truth and reality whether we want to admit it or not. The most opulent grave can only mask the truth of decay.
You are certainly inspired by Irish traditions, folklore, mentality, customs, all obscured of course by a veil of gloom. Do you think your funerary habits are so specific they are quite different from those of other nationalities and cultures? What is very specific to you?
NH: I cannot say with certainty that our funerary habits are so different from other cultures as I haven't experienced these but certainly from speaking to people from other lands we do seem to have our own way of celebrating this important aspect of life. The Wake, which is a theme that formed the concept behind the album photos in particular seems to be quite unique to the Celtic lands and its diaspora across the globe. This is the time between the passing of a person and the burial or bremation. The body is brought back to the family home to repose for a night or two before being laid to rest.
There are certain traditions and protocols that are still adhered to in Ireland for this period of time, Clocks are stopped at the time of death to symbolize that time has stopped for this person and also that time and ordinary life should stand still for those mourning during the wake, A black cloth or ribbon is hung outside the house to warn passers by that it is a house of mourning. Mirrors in the house are sometimes turned backwards or covered with cloth to stop the soul becoming trapped and a window is often left open to allow the soul to depart. Women would often sit and “keen” at the coffin (keening being a type of crying and lamenting which has its origins in the Bean Sidhe from Irish Mythology.
People will come and visit the house to pay respects, sometimes bringing food and drink and spend some time with the deceased. Drinking would be common, particularly whiskey, which in Gaelic is called “uisce beatha”, which literally translated means “the water of life”. Toasts are raised and stories told of the person's life and deeds. Songs will also sometimes be sung, usually laments. Tradition also states that someone should watch or guard over the body at all times until the burial.
Personally I think it is a very important time in life. A time for reflection and remembering but also a time of duty for the family members who mourn to ensure they pay the person the appropriate respect as well as honour their life and give them a good send off.
When it comes to the time for the body to leave the house an “Honour Guard” is sometimes formed by friends or comrades etc particularly if the person has served in some way in the community, military, police, sport etc and the coffin is carried by family members and friends usually on their shoulders which I feel is an important symbolic act in itself.
It is still common in parts of Ireland for family members to dig the grave and often songs will be sung at the graveside also and gifts and symbols of the persons life are often placed with the coffin while they repose in the house, in the hearse or at the graveside. Family members will often lower the coffin down also at the burial. These are some of the aspects of Irish Funerary Customs and many are quite unique to us.
How do you perceive death personally, is it rather a mystery to you, or just the end of the road? Different civilizations perceive death differently; The Sumerians did not believe too much in the afterlife (although in some myths, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, they searched for immortality), but the Egyptians founded the whole religion on the immortality of the soul. Interesting are also religions of India or Asia, where many deities of death are still worshipped...
Darragh: To me, death is the end of an epic struggle of survival called life. If you manage to get to a good, old age, you have beaten so many swipes of the reaper's blade. Sadly, for those who die young due to illness or tragedy, they will never get to see out their final days and look back on a life well lived. As for what death means in a spiritual sense, I am still searching for meaning in that. I firmly believe that once we are gone, the only part of us that lives on is in the memory of those who remain after you're gone. If you have children, you live on in and through them, in part of course.
Brendan - It is the physical end. We have a small window of opportunity that presents itself to us if we are extremely lucky giving the probability of existing at all and that is it. I don’t believe we live on in any spiritual form. However, I could be wrong. I would like to be wrong as it would make things a lot more interesting but why would we be “special” enough to deserve an afterlife just because we have consciousness and a sense of self. It is a story we have told ourselves which is why the question has lingered and so much art has come from it since we could form a thought. Humans have come from millions of years of evolution so at what point did we develop a soul that could traverse the afterlife?
What do you think of necromancy? Have you heard of any cases in Ireland? Do you think it is possible to connect with the consciousness of the dead at the grave or directly at the corpse by magic? Is this a topic that could be discussed in the VIRCOLAC lyrics in the future?
Darragh: The song Charonic Journey (Stygian Revelation) somewhat, in a broad sense, touches on this very topic. The theme of the song is a shaman communing with the "other" on a celestial voyage and was massively influenced by the 5,000 year old tomb of Loughcrew in Co Meath here. Loughcrew is aligned with spring and autumn equinox, which are known as cross quarter days in the calender between the major solstice events of June and December 21st. In these sacred tombs, bones of ancestors were placed and worshipped. We can only speculate as to how they were venerated and by whom but it is, in my opinion, that these bones were used for divination and as you say, necromancy. Ancestor cults are an integral part of our ancient societies and the veneration of ancestors is something that continues today, albeit in a somewhat different form.
I would like to ask about your name, which comes from Romanian. Why VIRCOLAC and who ever thought of it? What is the connection between the werewolf and the band concept? Also, the logo looks amazing, who is the author?
Darragh: the name Vircolac was chosen from a book called The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Folkore. A cursory glance at Metal Archives indicated that no one had chosen the name so we seized it immediately for our use. In the most basic sense, the werewolf concept applies perfectly to the band as when we create and make this music as well as play live, we are going through a state of change or transformation. On stage we become transformed because of the energy we feel from performing as well as the energy surrounding what it is we are doing at that time. So, as a werewolf is emblematic of "transformation", this concept worked perfectly for us. In a more esoteric sense, I believe that transformation is a constant throughout life and that nothing is static, even if some people remain static in their thinking. Change and transformation is to be embraced and is empowering when once seeks truth, knowledge and wisdom. If you do not shed the skin of ignorance and instead maintain positions, perspectives and views out of fear of change then you are as good as dead inside.
On a more simplistic level, death metal should be a feral form of music. Violent, aggressive, sinister so symbolically, a werewolf is a good representation of that.
I noticed that in November you will have a smaller tour with our Malokarpatan, Goatcraft and Sacrilegia. Will this tour be something special to you? Who actually contacted whom and how did you meet these Slovak bands?
Darragh: well, this one was on me cos I also run Invictus Productions and as we wanted to do a mini tour and cover a different area rather than the usual continental countries, I suggested the idea to Adam from Malokarpatan and he was into it from the word go. We also share members with Sacrilegia so it made sense for them to play with us too.
Yes, this tour will definitely be something special as it's our first time doing something like this despite the band being together for 6 years. We've played quite a few shows but due to events outside of our control, we've not been able to tour as such. Playing such wonderful and fascinating eastern European countries will be great as well. In Ireland, November is a month for remembering the dead so we will bring our deathly gasp to eastern Europe. After the tour we plan on visiting Orava and Čachtice Castles, where Nosferatu was partly filmed in 1921 and also where cold walls entombed the secrets of Bathory's alleged crimes and where she died.
Darragh, Brendan, NH 8.8. 2019 Mortuary
So I Hang from a Wretched Tree