VRYKOLAKAS needs no introduction to those in the know of the Asian Metal scene having been released a long, dedicated and steadfast path of demos, split eps and two full-lengths. While other bands from Singapore (such as IMPIETY) placed their homeland in the map, VRYKOLAKAS, true to their call, they embrace what they like best: a true feel of Death Metal. Many bands these days attempt to recreate the sounds of an era gone-by but give no attention to true bands from the exact period they claim to enjoy who never strayed away from their true dedication and passion to the creation of Death Metal and the energy it gives.
The following is an interview done with Kai, guitarist and vocalist for VRYKOLAKAS.
Greetings, Kai. You have been with the band since its inception. Why create Death Metal? Much more so, the probable difficulty in finding dependable band members in your area.
Greetings George! Yes, you can say I was one of the founders of the band, together with Shafiee who has totally removed himself from the scene. I wouldn’t use the word “create” when it comes to death metal. I have enjoyed death metal since the first time I heard the music. When I formed my previous band, BESTIAL COLONY, prior to VRYKOLAKAS, it was death metal that gave me the desire to write and record songs. I was greatly impacted by the sounds of POSSESSED, which sounded very different from their peers at that time, and then SARCOFAGO (during their “I.N.R.I” and “Rotting” days), GRAVE, MORBID ANGEL, MALFEITOR, EXMORTIS, FUNEBRE, ABHORRENCE, PHLEGETHON, NECROFAGO, GROTESQUE, IMMOLATION, INCANTATION and I have to mention Singapore’s very own ABHORER. To be honest, when I was in BESTIAL COLONY and VRYKOLAKAS, there was no desire to be original at all. We loved death metal as presented by those mentioned bands and others as well, and we just wanted to write songs as close to theirs as possible. The dream was always to be labelled “Singapore’s GRAVE” or “Singapore’s INCANTATION” or “Singapore’s this band” etc.
Yes, to a certain extent, it was and still is very difficult to find members who are really into death metal, let alone dependable ones. There were more metalheads who are into collecting and attending gigs than those who can and want to play the music, here in Singapore. So in the early 1990s, death metal bands, or any metal bands, had to rely on non-metal musicians, maybe a member of hardcore or rock bands, to complete the line-up. And after one demo, these non-metal musicians would usually leave the bands they helped. So there were a lot of bands which would have up to 3 same members playing around the different bands. We have more musicians nowadays who are great at their craft, but those who are totally into death metal are rare and few.
Were you in any bands before VRYKOLAKAS?
I was in BESTIAL COLONY. This band was formed by 4 teenage school students who were awed by the discovery of Singapore’s first underground scene. We got a Xeroxed copy of the Japanese Satanic Death fanzine and discovered NUCTEMERON, and the mentioned of 2 other Singapore bands. This was even before we learned about ABHORER. So BESTIAL COLONY was formed out of the mere excitement and desire to record and release a demo. We were not even discussing about our music and what we wanted to achieve as a band. The trigger phrase was, “Let’s record a demo!” And then there was BESTIAL COLONY. Only our guitarist knows how to play an instrument well. The rest of us, we picked up as we thrash out the tunes in the rehearsal studio. I remember at that first session, we spent 2 hours just vomiting sounds and somehow there were 5 different “songs”. Along the way, the guitarist will remind me to play fast or slow, and we would try again and that was how the “Universal Decay” rehearsal tape was produced.
In listening to the band’s prior works, it is discernible to hear somethings which take me back to the 1980’s 1990s. What elements from that time period would you say found themselves into the band’s writing of songs?
This is a topic of the great divide between “what we wanted” and “what we came up with”. We had really wanted to duplicate the sound of darker bands such as BLASPHEMY, IMPALED NAZARENE and SAMAEL, and the darker death metal bands such as INCANTATION and IMMOLATION. At the same time, while we start our rehearsals with BLASPHEMY’s “Ritual” and IMPALED NAZARENE’s “Condemned To Hell”, we also played SEPULTURA’s “To The Wall”, NAPALM DEATH’s “Malicious Intent” and GRAVE’s “Extremely Rotten Flesh”. But when we wrote our originals, we also wanted bits of ABHORER and THARTARUS into our songs. While the ideas are close, the technical delivery is far behind. We were very raw and immature in our recording experience, so we didn’t really know how to pull it off when we were in the studio. It didn’t help that the sound engineer had no experience with metal or heavy music.
If you listened to the demo (1992), there was only 1 guitar track, which really diluted any intent of heaviness. There was a riff which was inspired by GRAVE’s “Extremely Rotten Flesh” but we didn’t achieve the same heaviness. Initially, I was supposed to follow the vocal style of IMPALED NAZARENE’s Mika Luttinen. I had never try out that vocal style while rehearsing and it really sucked when I sang that way. It also came out softer compared to the music. So the engineer suggested a louder growl. I remember Barney Greenway’s vocal style in “Harmony Corruption” and gave it a try. In terms of balance, it worked and matched the music at that time. So we went ahead with that. In the end, with all that in place, we sounded more like CELTIC FROST! And just to let readers in on a secret, up until the time and release of that demo, we had never listened to HELLHAMMER! Thanks to that demo, when we sent it around to the zines around the world, the zine editors described our music as being influenced by HELLHAMMER. It was only then that we checked out the band, got their material from tape trading, and proudly and shamelessly accepted the comparison!
The most important element that was added to that demo is our sheer lack of shame and a strong desire to make VRYKOLAKAS do better than our previous bands (Shafiee was from DEMONIAC).
Usually, when one meets like-minded people into our type of Metal music, everyone brings their ideas or the “let’s try this”. What would you say was the adhesive that bonded the early days of VRYKOLAKAS?
The main bond I believe was our desperation to continue playing the music, realizing that BESTIAL COLONY and DEMONIAC were going nowhere. And when I say “going nowhere”, I am not even talking about record deals or tours. The band members were growing out of the whole playing music as a band mentality. For some, spending time with their girlfriends were more crucial and for others, they started changing their musical taste. So that was the main bond between me and Shafiee. We really wanted VRYKOLAKAS to happen and do things. The other possible adhesive was due to the fact the 2 of us wasn’t deeply involved in any of the existing cliques. We didn’t hang out with the other metalheads at that time. We just meet at Shafiee’s place, write our songs, go for rehearsals, go back home and wait for that brown envelopes to appear in our mailboxes. Shafiee was editing NECROPSYCHOSIS ZINE at that time, so we spent more time at home writing letters and requesting for trades from the international scene. We received a lot of support from the international scene compared to the local one. The local scene were more judgemental and since we didn’t belong to their cliques, we were abruptly labelled as “posers”. Did it affect us? Not at all, because we occupied ourselves with engaging the international metal scene.
What did it feel like to you when you first held your demo tape on your hands? What were your emotions like?
We received 2 formats – the tape and the DAT format. When we saw the DAT, we felt like real musicians, like recording artists! When we saw the tape, we felt a huge sense of achievement. But when we went home and listened to the final outcome, I remember we were disappointed. Playing our songs through the studio speakers sounded really great. But the same songs didn’t sound so good when played at our home tape players. We were affected by this actually. We had the master copy in January 1992. We only decided to release the demo in March 1992. So there were more than 2 months of deliberation. We decided to release it anyway with the motivation to release a better one.
Did you play live? Any reactions at first when the self-titled demo came out in 1992?
We didn’t plan to at that time. We didn’t have gigs as frequently as recently. In 1992, we only watched 2 gigs. And gigs in those days were of mixed genre, dominated by non-metal bands. So while it was exciting to attend a gig which had metal bands in the roster, it was quite painful waiting for them to go on stage because you had to endure the hours of non-metal music and antiques of the audiences and musicians.
There were many varied reactions. The local metalheads at that time didn’t even like our sound, except for those exceptional few who happened to support local bands. The rest, especially the zine editors had more negative things to say. We accepted those negativity because we were not competent yet. But we became confused because the international metal scene were more accepting. We were getting praises from almost everyone we sold or traded our demo with. So it was impossible to be discouraged and demotivated when we get support from the international metal scene. We built friendships over the mail and some of these were bands who were very productive back then. We got the attention of Osmose Productions and we were even offered a record deal by Warmaster Records from Colombia, managed by Bull Metal, the vocalist of MASACRE (Yes! THAT MASACRE!). But we were not ready for an album. We haven’t grown or progressed as musicians so we didn’t want to waste the money of these honest people.
What happened during the hiatus after the first demo and 1999?
I had mentioned about the main reason(s) for our brief split which forced us hiatus between 1993 to 1998. In a way, the split was particularly my fault. Things were going bad after we recruited a new drummer. I switched to bass and vocals since I had written more parts to the new songs. We happened to bond really well in the rehearsals and that got our guitarist feeling complacent and refused to rehearse regularly, making up lame excuses. That got out drummer mad and left the band abruptly. I was sessioning on bass with PROFANATION, the latest incarnation of PROFANCER and BEHEADED. After a few weeks, our guitarist asked about VRYKOLAKAS, and since I wanted to focus my time on the current project, I told him that we should put VRYKOLAKAS on indefinite hold and just become listeners of metal music. I was eventually kicked out of PROFANATION because I was too critical of our own music and was against every idea of accepting record deals at that time.
I soon myself without a band. There were attempts to get sessionists but things didn’t happen. I had 2 new songs with me at that time but no line-up to proceed with recording. It was only in 1996 when I was performing my national service that I learnt that my cousin is into metal music, is a good guitarist and has a band. He needed my help to play drums for some covers they were playing. I proposed the idea of playing guitars for VRYKOLAKAS and my cousin agreed. It took us a while to finally settle on the decision of getting Andy (our current vocalist) and Zainal (a drummer from NECREOUS, who then played in DEMISOR and BILE PUSCESS) to join us. This 4-piece line-up only happened in the beginning of 1999. It only took one rehearsal where we tried out a new original and covered INCANTATION’s “Unholy Massacre” to convince us that this was formidable line-up.
After 1999, the band returns to the scene with the “VRYKOLAKAS 2000” MCD. What were the differences between those two time periods?
There were many differences. In 1999, we had a full line-up (less a bassist, but our down-tuned guitars made up for the lack of bass). With the 2 guitars and a drummer who isn’t me, there were more dimensions to the songwriting and arrangement. We had 3 heads contributing to the final outcome of the song and 3 heads contributing to the writing of the lyrics, where a passage should go or whether those words fit the riffs. At that point of time, brutal death metal was new to the Singapore scene. There was GRAVE, DEICIDE, MORBID ANGEL and black metal. Not many Singaporean metal heads follow SUFFOCATION, CANNIBAL CORPSE and any other bands that are down-tuned, use blast beats and had 20,000 riffs in one song. With NILE dominating our playlist with their “Among The Catacombs Of Nephren-Kha” and INCANTATION conquering the world with “Diabolical Conquest”, we felt that we just had to go down that path. I’m not saying we wanted to be unique, to have our own identity, it was really more of we wanted to be just like SUFFOCATION, just like NILE, just like INCANTATION! One other difference would be the mindset of urgency to be as extreme as we can be. We had grown impatient at that time, so we hated repeating our riffs. If you listened to the “Spawned From Hellfire And Brimstones” CD, our songs were short, with many riffs squeezed into a song. It was exhilarating writing, rehearsing and recording those songs compared to our demo in 1992.
At the time of the bands early days, exposure out of your country was based upon what elements to gather attention from? Metal from Singapore during those years was not the one thing you’d expect to hear then. Please describe the feel in those days in regards to the struggle to keep it together and continue to play and record.
Back then, our only form of promotion was our flyers! We will send them out to as many people as we can. I really started my involvement in the scene in 1989 and between then to 1992, there were almost zero gigs featuring metal bands. So promotion was purely based on distribution of flyers. The next major platform for promotion were, and I believe still are, features in zine, whether be it having your flyer among the pages, a mention in the news section, or a short review of your release, or the highlight of a band’s existence at that time would be an extensive interview in a well-known zine.
Metal bands coming from Singapore had a huge advantage at that time. Historically and geographically, the metal world were not familiar with this tiny island. So any band coming out of Singapore was considered rare and wanted. Even for me, as a Singaporean, I felt the excitement when I first heard of NUCTEMERON. To find out there were also DREAD and CRUCIFUCKTOR existing at that time made the excitement greater. To learn about ABHORER, getting a dubbed copy of their demo and then corresponding with the guitarist was probably the most kvlt moment of my early days in metal.
We were young and wild and free then. So what we were doing wasn’t really considered a struggle. There wasn’t any censorship that totally stopped our activities. Everything was available via mailorder. We didn’t have tapes or vinyls confiscated. And if you remember back then, we saved a lot of money by recycling our stamps! The only minor struggles we had were: 1. getting the best sound we wanted for our recordings 2. playing gigs regularly. But things gotten better within a few years. The studios were getting better and you can listen to really good production by the bands from here. And gigs are now happening almost every 2 weeks, before Covid-19.
Some of your songs bear non-English titles. In your newest release, “Into the Shadow of Death”, “Sakaratul Maut” is one of them.
Well, the background information for that is basically our culture. All of us are of Malay ethnicity and 99% of Malays in Singapore are Muslims, brought up in an Islamic environment. We would probably be labelled Muslim posers by our parents and relatives. More importantly, as Muslims, we are exposed to the contents of the Quran because at a young age, we go for recitation classes. As we grow older, as we gain understanding of the contents of the Quran, we noticed that a lot of things are explained clearly, depending on our level of intellect and comprehension. What we liked the most is the vivid description of what happens during death, what is supposed to happen in the grave after burial, what happens during doomsday and the tortures of the inhabitants of hell. Basically, the faithful Muslims believe that whatever CANNIBAL CORPSE has been singing about in their songs will actually happen in the grave and in hell. All those apocalyptic artwork that we see on album covers, we can relate to them because we read about them in similarity to what is described in the Quran. We felt the fear of death and hell, but we felt the excitement of expressing those thoughts into songs and lyrics. We did have a discussion on how the listeners will react to our lyrics, whether we will be accused of being a “white metal” band. In the end we decided to go ahead because just because SLAYER sang “Mandatory Suicide”, it doesn’t mean they condone suicide. Similarly, we are not preaching. Death and afterlife are just such interesting topics. Those who listens to PHLEGETHON would know of their song “Those That Are Sent Forth” from their “Visio Dei Beatifica” demo on which the lyrics are based on a verse from the Quran. Anyway, in metal, lyrical themes should not be issue. We can always ignore.
“Sakaratul Maut” is the moment of death. You may remember SENTENCED’s song “When The Moment Of Death Arrives”. Sakaratul maut describes the whole process of dying, when you are on the deathbed. It is different from when die a sudden death. We are not sure whether sakaratul maut is squeezed into seconds for the person who dies a sudden death. But for the people who “die peacefully” in human eyes, death may not be that peaceful for the individual. This is a very thought provoking concept for us. I wrote the lyrics for this song and it is based on my curiosity with the death of my close ones. My father passed on when I was very young. He died in his sleep, so I didn’t realize the existence of sakaratul maut. However, when my grandmother passed away during the months just after VRYKOLAKAS’ return from the hiatus, I noticed that she was in that dying state for up to 3 days. I get to see her dying moments, until she finally breathed her last breath. What we see is the person looking dead, the breathing is slow and struggling, and then finally the last breath. What we don’t see is the sakaratul maut. To put it briefly, the angel of death actually pulls out the soul from the body from the top of head. It is described in the Quran that pulling out of the soul from the body is the most painful experience a person can experience in his or her life, and it happens just before death! And that person can’t even live to tell the tale. Hard to believe, yes. But definitely interesting to put that into a song.
During the existence of VRYKOLAKAS’ recording career, the scene must have had ups and downs, bands come and go, little amount of shows, general life’s frustration…
For me as a musician and songwriter, the biggest frustration is when I “miss the point”. I influenced the band to give up on live shows because we find it very painful to rehearse and rehearse, only to be disappointed with bad sound at the show. And we have the friends and audience coming out to support us, but had to leave with the unpleasant experience of a lousy show. So we chose to be a studio band and spend time and effort into our recordings. Having said that, we are not full-time musicians who can carve out a career out of this music, or any music for that matter as a Singaporean band, so we limited by time and budget. Whenever we are working on a release, we always have a vision of how the final product will turn out. When we rehearse the songs, we sounded like NILE on tour. But the recording process usually reveals our flaws. Suddenly we noticed that the guitar pickings doesn’t sync with the blast beats or the kicks. Suddenly we realize that sentence in the lyrics did not really match the riff arrangement. So we spend time trying to make things as perfect as we want it to be. Then, when it is done, we shelf it aside and go, “Okay, guys, for the next release, the first song will start like this…” This is the reason why, we released “Unleashing Vrykolakas Upon Mankind” in 2011, 5 years after its completion. And in limited copies. Now 14 years later, that album will finally be released properly.
The Singapore scene were not so kind to VRYKOLAKAS when we first started. Some people put us down because of the mere fact that we were formed by former BESTIAL COLONY and DEMONIAC members. These were 2 bands that were mocked by the local scene back then. Then in 1993, we were labelled posers by the black metal scene here. We were accused of jumping on the bandwagon of darkness. We were accused of “playing black metal because everyone else is playing black metal.” We did promote our music “brutal black death metal” back then. We even used satanic artwork on bio sheets and flyers. Although our music is closer to death metal, but in terms of the integrity to the labelling, we are damn sure that we were black metal enough way before those who scorned us. I have this sarcastic idea of making a t-shirt with the words: “VRYKOLAKAS: We were black metal before DARKTHRONE was!” But that would be a total waste of cotton. This was frustrating for us at one point because we couldn’t get members to expand the band continue our works. All because of the negative reputation that was smashed into our faces.
What mark do you feel should it be that VRYKOLAKAS has left in the Singaporean Metal scene?
This would be an abstract mark. We did a few things that were not done by Singaporean bands back then. We had returned with a fuller line-up but without a bassist. We played our first gig in 1999 without a bassist. We continued to play shows without a bassist. This was a big talking point whenever the Singaporean scene talked about us. People actually come up to us to ask why we didn’t have a bassist. We down-tuned our guitars and increased the bass setting on the effects pedal and amplifiers, so we don’t feel the need to have a bassist. It took a while for people to accept that bass-less approach in our music. At that point of time, we were the most brutal band in Singapore. I don’t think we triggered the birth of brutal death metal in Singapore, but a number of bands told us that they were inspired by our “bravery” in playing brutal death metal. I think people forget that before us, DOXOMEDON was belting out KATAKLYSM songs, although DOXOMEDON did sound more like the technically-inclined Floridan bands. But we were happy with the fact that at least a few people acknowledged what we were doing. We were also the first band to courageously pressed our release on pro-pressed CDs without a label. We acknowledged the efficiency of CDs for storage and collection at that time and surprised people with our label-less release. Other bands were surprised with our risk-taking approach of doing that ourselves. There were many other abstract dents that we left in the scene in terms of some mindset, attitude and approaches that were not common in 1999. I think one thing that most people would remember us by is the worship of busty women in our thanks list!
Recording facilities in Singapore and their accessibility to you.
We already had recording artistes in other musical genres here in Singapore. So there were already many recording facilities. I am not sure whether this has been mentioned anywhere before: NUCTEMERON’s first demo was recorded at a very popular recording studio which was frequently used by rock and pop bands and artists. There was a recording studio in the northern side of Singapore which we renamed to Studio Sandlight, similar to Sweden’s Studio Sunlight. Why sand? Because no matter what you do, the sound production sounds like you are in a sandstorm! There is a recording studio which is still in existence and which is frequently used by metal bands which is TNT Studios. Many metal and punk albums and demos were recorded here. VRYKOLAKAS recorded “Supreme Brutal Legions” split, “Spawned From Hellfire And Brimstones” album and the latest “Into The Shadow Of Death” tape at this studio. We like the demo atmosphere in the production, so we kept to this studio. We also know the engineer well and we have become friends for a while so things are convenient when it comes pushing the studio time.
The amount of releases you have do show a determination and desire to play heavy music. How did you manage to keep it going despite the mandatory national/civil duty all men are expected to do in your country?
There are 2 main reasons for this “determination”. The first one is the simplest one: lack of ideas to create other genres of music. I reached a point where I find guitars riffs and drum patterns interesting because I ventured into other music genres when I was doing my national service. These national service units are usually where musicians end up together for 2 or more years. So I met a member of an indie band, a guy who dreams to be a rapper and I was surrounded by people who listen to BEYOND, a rock band from Hong Kong who sang in Cantonese. I was introduced to the band SUEDE and I thought the guitarist had interesting ideas in their songs. I also helped out a band which played ska music and realized how different the drum patterns are. So I tried to write non-metal songs but I just couldn’t. I decided to focus on metal music when it comes to writing originals.
As a band, we have a goal in terms of our output. We intended to release a total of 5 albums initially. We released the first album, recorded the second and started the recording process of the third. In the meantime, we were already writing our fourth. But as you know, plans don’t always materialize. Plans change as the years go by. Now we are facing the coming of 2021 and we suddenly remembered this is going to be our 30th year as a band. We decided to revise the 5 album plan since we are now stuck at the unfinished third album. We decided to record 30 songs and release them in parts, as demos, Eps (hopefully on vinyl this time!), splits and we even considered giving songs exclusive for compilation releases. Let’s see how things go. So individually for me, writing songs keep me going in this music. Listening to the songs when it is finally mixed and mastered gives me the satisfaction other things in life cannot offer. For the band, the support from the metal universe thus far kept us going.
From your viewpoint, what are your favorite recorded songs?
I am assuming you are referring to our songs. I enjoyed “Nuthfah” because I enjoyed the songwriting process with Iman. That was first song we actually physically wrote together, expanding the riffs, rearranging the song and then writing the lyrics to tell the story of the song title. Deciding on the guitar sound from then on. Directing the drummer on patterns and fills and pauses. And I remembered feeling a great sense of achievement when we listened to the final product, especially for Iman and myself, because we saw the song developing from the first riff onwards. I also find myself keep going back to “Desecrating The Ancient Ones”. This is a song with many riffs that we enjoy playing, especially the solos and the riffs that support the solos. There were many things going on in this song for the guitars, drums and vocals, and made us look busy like a market. In terms of releases, I would recommend the “Fire Death Chaos” split release. The 3 songs in this release, “Dajjal Al Masih”, “Fasad Fil Ard” and “Of Jinn”, totally deviate from our usual style. We attempted to emulate INCUBUS (both), MASSACRA, INSANITY, MX and “Morbid Visions”-era SEPULTURA. A lot of listeners were surprised with this deviation and were asking whether VRYKOLAKAS is changing our style. We decided to take the opportunity to write songs which are close to the band that proposed this split, BEAST PETRIFY. We thought that this is one chance we have to pay a tribute to the old bands that infested our cassette players when we were younger. There were many old school riffs in those songs.
In listening to VRYKOLAKAS’ “Nocturnal Demons of Death” demo compilation (2008), there are times where one can absorb that HELLHAMMER bass fuzz type sound, sometimes a feel of early XYSMA. Compared with the changes in the more technical Death Metal grip you now have, how do you define that transition?
I dare say that the HELLHAMMER sound was purely coincidental and absolutely accidental! When we recorded the demo, we have never listened to any HELLHAMMER songs. CELTIC FROST, yes, but not HELLHAMMER. I believe the main cause of the transition is the people responsible for writing the songs. When we returned in 1999, Iman and me had chosen the brutal death metal way of writing songs. We were both drummer-wannabes, so when we write riffs for a song, we already had the drum patterns in mind. That proved to be a serious problem for our drummer because we could play drums to a certain degree of proficiency. So it was very difficult for our drummer(s) to say that the riff cannot go with this or that drum pattern. We also listened to a lot of brutal death metal bands at that time, so the ideas come from such bands.
Death Metal songwriting can be tricky at times for most bands regardless of genre. One writes a song and then subconsciously, sounds like something you wanted to get pass by. What’s the VRYKOLAKAS song recording process?
That is exactly what happens for VRYKOLAKAS! Once every instrument and vocals has been tracked, we began to be consumed by 2 thoughts: 1. It is finally done! 2. Let’s move on to the next one! We usually have songs ready for any recording. So if it is going to be an album, there would be 8-9 complete songs. If it is going to be an EP, then 3-4 songs. The only time we were writing along the recording process was when we were doing the “Buried In Filthy Vomits” recording. We only finished the songs sequentially as we were recording the previous songs. The recording process always start with a guitar guide with metronome. There were times when the metronome speed that we set just doesn’t go with the flow of the song as confirmed during the rehearsals. So we had to record the songs with a live guitar guide.
We had personal problems with this approach of recording. Between 2000 and 2008, we were still playing gigs. We didn’t enjoy playing the songs live especially when we know at the back of our heads that we have better songs that we are going to record soon. But we can’t play those new songs because there were songs which we haven’t completed the vocal melodies and lyrics. So it became an internal conflict for each of us. We were invited to play a gig and we would have a hard time deciding on the set for that gig. There were songs that we felt we had played too often. We also stopped playing covers, so there were those problems for us.
Please comment on the songwriting differences between “Spawned from Hellfire and Brimstone” (2004), “Unleashing Vrykolakas Upon the Mankind” (2011) and your newest release this year, “Into the Shadow of Death”.
We could split the song writing pattern into 2 eras. For “Spawned From Hellfire And Brimstones”, we had this idea of making the songs addictive. We had good riffs which we didn’t repeat much. For that album, we totally ignored the usual song writing template of having verses, chorus and bridges. It was blast, blast, blast and suddenly the songs ends. We realized that we took great efforts to arrange such songs, record them properly only for us having to press the “rewind” button to listen to it because we missed that important riff at 1 minute 27 seconds point of the song. We asked ourselves, if we enjoyed all these riffs, why do we let them disappear past us so easily. So after that album, we decided to dwell on some riffs longer, especially if the riff is good. We also learnt to write good riffs and avoid fillers. We used to have this habit of keeping the weaker riffs in this song and use the better riff for a new song. A weak riff can sound good with strong drum patterns, solos or even very brutal vocal melodies. With the 30 songs plan that I mentioned previously, we are considering writing songs in groups of 2-3 to pay tribute to our many influences throughout our existence as a band. We have songs that emulate the many bands that conquered the scene in the 1990s.
Obviously, today’s technology have helped bond our scene and bands not heard of before are now having an opportunity to shine once again.
Yes, and I believe especially with YouTube, we now have access to old those rare demos from rare bands coming from countries we didn’t know exist! I was religiously following blogspots a decade back and downloaded many demos that I could only read on the trading lists of my circle of tape traders. I admire those labels who put in their heart and soul to reissue old demos and try to keep the reissued versions as close to the original versions as possible, in tape formats. The “Nocturnal Demons Of Death” compilation is just one of the thousands of discography releases labels reissue. What I like the most about these reissues is that now you can listen to the original sound quality compared to the sound quality you get from the many generations of dubbing standard when you get such releases from tape trading. You also get to see the original artwork and band photos of that time. It is like a time travelling experience when you look at the elaborate sleeves in these reissues.
You are spot on about technology helping the scene to bond and rediscover friendships. I did reunite with my penpals. Of course there is a difference. I think with the speed of the internet, we tend to cut short our conversation as compared to back in the days of writing letters where we tried to write as much as we can at every correspondence.
In terms of the efforts made to release your songs, what labels did you try to contact and which ones did? Any good /bad stories?
The search for label collaborations only began when we reformed in 1999 and learnt that it has become a normal process for bands to rely on labels to spread their releases. I remembered the effort taken by a band which needed a label to release their EP. It was a long process for them, but the results were worthwhile.
When we returned to releasing material, we were in the transition era where bands were either releasing tapes or CDs if they were under a label. We made new friends really fast, and some of these friends run labels. We felt we needed the help of these labels to spread our music. We were really fortunate that time because the same 4 songs that were recorded then were released by 3 different labels – MANGLED MAGGOT STEW, MAELSTROM666 and MUZIK BOX – all in tape format. We were also trading with labels and learnt that labels at that time preferred to trade CDs rather than tapes. So as a band we made the decision to release the 4 songs together with the “Nuthfah” promo track in one CD EP titled “Vrykolakas 2000”. To signify the return of the band with a slightly new sound. Also we found that adding the year into the title rather cool, in line with names such as Foundation 2000, Nirvana 2002, etc… We then learnt that labels prefer to trade with releases which are under labels. Our “Vrykolakas 2000” CD did not have a label representation, so there were labels which hesitated trading with us. That was when we decided to start VRYKOBLAST PRODUCTIONS, with the intention to release VRYKOLAKAS material only. But like I said, plans never stay the same, so we signed a few bands as the years go by.
After the “Spawned From Hellfire And Brimstones” album, from the reception to the album, we thought that we should get a label to help us spread our music wider and faster. It was rather slow for us spreading our own music, with managing releases of the bands under VRYKOBLAST PRODUCTIONS and ensuring VRYKOLAKAS is following our 5 album plan. It really makes us wonder how DEEDS OF FLESH are able to do it with UNIQUE LEADER and all. We decided to look for other labels to release our second album “Unleashing Vrykolakas…”. We were foolishly exclusive at that time. We really wanted to be under IBEX MOON (John McEntee’s label) but things didn’t happen because by the time the album was ready, the label had a full roster, John was already busy with INCANTATION and FUNERUS. And we didn’t consider offers from other labels. We were already starting work on the 3rd album at that time. I am not sure why, but we didn’t feel the pressure or need to quickly release that album because we were already looking forward to what we want to do in the studio for the 3rd album. When we realized it, a few years went by before we asked ourselves, “When are we releasing “Unleashing…”?
Eventually, ATOMIK NUCLEAR DESOLATION from Chile decided to release that album in limited tapes, I think it was 60 copies. Earlier this year, ZZOOOUHH RECORDS reissued our 1992 demo on pro-pressed tapes. I got in touch with EAST GOTHIC PRODUCTIONS mainly because I wanted to get back all the old Malaysian fanzines which I remember the label distributed in the 1990s. The label talked about re-releasing the demo, so I counter-proposed with releasing “Unleashing…” with a bonus track. So we will get to see the reissue in tapes and CDs very soon.
I don’t really have bad stories to tell. Of course, there are the near misses where the labels promised us the moon and the stars, only for us to find out in time that the labels were bogus. We also have those labels who started showing interest in the beginning only to pull out because we took too long to come up with the final recording songs. We also learnt along the way that we can’t expect everyone to like our music enough to invest time, effort and money to have us under their labels. So we start to appreciate all those who have done their bits and parts to help spread our music. This is why you will notice that VRYKOLAKAS always mention in our thanks list the various people whom has helped us since 2000. You will notice these names appear regularly: BILE PUSCESS (band), MANGLED MAGGOT STEW, MAELSTROM666 and MUZIK BOX.
In the topics chosen for songs, do they differ in content or do you aim at a certain concept?
Behind the music, we are actually nerds – we go into the details of the topics we are into. When we recorded the 1992 demo, we wanted to talk about Satanism and occultism in great detail, not just the “Hail Satan here, Hail Satan there…” phrases. So the lyrics back then described the rituals, the character of the demons, which we found in a book of demonology. Interesting to note that we purchased this book at a major mainstream bookstore in Singapore. To make it even more interesting, we used discount coupons to purchase it off the shelf. We desecrated Satanism without even realizing it!
But with the rise of black metal in 1993, we found a lot of absurdity in such topics that doesn’t land well in our minds. We can still accept the gore lyrics of CANNIBAL CORPSE and other brutal death metal and gore grind bands because we see those things happening and we prefer to accept the perversity of the human mind in that aspect. But black metal themes do not stimulate our minds so much. I do enjoy the mythology and cultural aspects of the lyrics but the devotion part is too personal, and if it is too personal, we prefer not to get involved in that aspect. That was why we stopped writing lyrics on Satanism and occultism, because of the devotion aspect.
We chose to write about death, the afterlife and hell. Living in a Muslim environment, we hear about these concepts frequently. We tend to join funerals whenever friends or relatives pass on, even those whom we are not close to. And we get to see the full process all the way to the lowering of the body into the grave until the last heap of soil is placed over the grave. There will be a short sermon given by the person-in-charge and sometimes we feel the shiver running down our spine, especially the mention of Munkar and Nakir, the 2 angels who will meet the dead person in the soul realm and question his faith. We thought it would be great to turn this, and other death-related concepts into songs. Since we have a Quran at home, it is a matter of flipping the pages and you get ideas because such things are described vividly. There were also interesting tales in the Quran which makes you wonder what actually happened back then in that part of the world.
So when I mentioned that we are nerds, we research in great detail and chose the most impactful phrases and statements to craft them into lyrics. Sometimes a song is written starting from a song title. If the song is about burial, then we will write riffs to match the number of processes that occur in a burial. Sometimes, a song title is chosen for a song according to the feeling we get from the various riffs. So if the song is outright brutal, then the title and then the lyrics will be about the tortures of hell.
I nearly choked in my vomit when I heard Babymetal (Japan). I feel this is totally horrible of calling a bunch of Hello Kitty bitches “Metal”. What are your thoughts on labels that dilute the best elements of metal and make them into a parody of itself thinking it is creativity?
This will be an interesting discussion. I am trying to understand the Japanese culture as a whole. It is a very interesting culture, if you also consider perversity as interesting. So I am concluding that Babymetal is a perversion of metal music. I researched on this particular group and found out that they are not actually a band. There are more like a musical entourage, with all the imageries and conceptual story lines, supported by a band of talented musicians who seems to hide behind the 3 young girls. I also discovered that Japanese bands are very diverse in their musical presentation, mixing genres of various kinds and some even identify themselves with their image before their music. You have all these visual kei bands who dresses up like comic characters and most of them play power metal music! The band themselves do not identify themselves belonging in the metal scene, and will play in whatever kind of shows.
As for identifying Babymetal as a “metal band”, I believe it is our fault in a way. We are the ones who get excited watching little girls dancing to metal music (people may disagree) and invite to major metal festivals. Personally, I will not go down the path of being judgemental towards them and condemn them corroding our metal music. I have listened to some of their songs and watched their videos and come to the decision of not following them faithfully.
Singapore’s government banned WATAIN from playing there in 2019 citing disruption of “social harmony” plus fear of religious dislikes. Generally, in Metal, there is a sense of camaraderie and friendship. Is Metal a disruptive influence in Singapore according to them in general? Much more so, would it impact VRYKOLAKAS at some point now or in the future?
It didn’t start out that way. When I first started listening to metal music, I could buy cassette versions of metal releases in the nearby record store. There were more record stores in town for us to buy vinyl. There were no real censorship regardless of the cover artwork and lyrical content. We didn’t have many gigs mainly because organizing one is considered a new concept at that time, not because gigs were considered disruptive influence. You really have to rely on studios which are equipped with the necessary instruments and soundboards to organize one, compared to recent times where we have gig promoters in Singapore who could bring in the major label bands.
In Singapore, majority of the metal heads back then are of Malay ethnicity and majority come from Muslim families. Once in a while, our parents will raise their eyebrows, but when they noticed how focussed their children were on this endeavour, even managing to avoid the usual social ills, they began to take many steps back. We have never mixed metal and religion in Singapore. We expressed our religious (or anti-religious) beliefs at exclusive platforms, such as gigs or on our release covers. We were influenced by the Norwegian black metal circle and square movement in 1993 and that was the first time there was disruption WITHIN the metal community. But these issues were kept within the community. Our metal lifestyle is generally confined to the rehearsal and recording studios or if and when there is a gig. On other days, we have the liberty to walk around the country in our metal t-shirts without a frown from the society. At the same time, we probably commit ourselves to 2 different worlds – the metal community and the ones outside of it.
I don’t agree with the notion that metal is socially disruptive. We have co-existed with religions and politics, minding our business. The issue with WATAIN’s show was the oversensitivity of a group of Christians here in Singapore. If we really want to compare beliefs, then the Christians should demand the closure of mosques simply because Muslims do not believe that Jesus is the son of God. Muslims should complain against the Christians for accusing God to have a son. Therefore, we can conclude that this is NOT an issue of religious differences, but an issue about self-entitlement among that group of Christians. I say a group because I know many Christians who do not step into this grey area of faiths and accuse metal heads of blasphemy (although some of us do it blatantly!). This particular group of Christians decided to harass the WATAIN show organizers because the organizers are a group of powerless people, not connected politically or financially. Why are they okay with other concerts by pop artists who also portray ideals and images which are not in line with the Christian faith? It’s a case of “we demand the cancellation of the WATAIN show because we can!”
What’s next for you and VRYKOLAKAS?
We are writing and recording 30 songs. At the time of this interview, we are past the halfway mark in the song writing aspect. We will be busy in the studio from December 2020 onwards until July 2021 when we will have the first batch of songs released. We are now promoting our “Unleashing Vrykolakas Upon Mankind” official reissue on East Gothic Productions. The label worked hard to make this a release with interesting bundle items. We are also working hard to collaborate with as many labels as we can to release the 30 songs and are still pestering zines for a feature. We would probably go back to achieving the 5 album ambition after the songs are all released. If all these plans fail, we will release single tracks twice yearly and look for features in compilation releases.
Kai, I am thankful to you for having taken the time for this interview (last comment here for interview).
Thank you, George, for this interview. As a band which seldom play shows (and now may never play shows again due to the current situation), interviews in zines really help to bring the band, readers and listeners together. I hope the answers fulfilled the requirements of the questions. Those who reading this, do contact us. Thank you for your support!
VRYKOLAKAS can be evoked via: email@example.com
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