by Phil Freeman
Völur are a doom trio from Toronto, Canada. Their second album, Ancestors, will be out June 2. The group includes violinist Laura Bates, bassist Lucas Gadke of Blood Ceremony, and drummer Jimmy Payment of Do Make Say Think. Violins in metal have been a thing in recent years; Völur definitely have more in common with the creeping, modern composition-inflected work of Wolvserpent than the slow-crawling art-rock of SubRosa.
Like its predecessor, 2016’s Disir, Ancestors features four long tracks that incorporate drones, mournful violin melodies, and crushingly heavy doom riffs. However, the group has expanded their sonic palette this time out, adding layered vocal harmonies and, on more than one track, fast sections reminiscent of death metal or even grindcore. The lyrics are built on ancient Norse and Germanic folklore, drawing inspiration from sagas of warrior poets, history, and more.
Stream “Breaker of Oaths”:
Gadke answered questions via email.
The arrangements on Ancestors seem more complex and elaborate than on Disir—the vocal harmonies on “Breaker of Silence” feel new, for example. What inspired that evolution?
Thanks for noticing, we worked pretty hard on them! When we were working on Disir, I was listening to a lot of repetitive music like Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Om, Earth and others. I was intrigued by trances, which dealt directly with the concept of these witchy figures we were writing about. This time around, I’d moved on to listening to a lot of very complex stuff, a lot of program music like Shostakovich and Rush. I wanted to push the boundaries of what the band could do. The first song I wrote for the new album was “Breaker of Oaths,” and it was kind of a change in direction for us. More parts, harmonized vocals, lyrics and faster tempos. We had vocal harmonies on the last record, but they weren’t as fleshed out as they are on the new album.
Most of the time, my ideas are borrowed from the things I’m listening to, as well as music concepts I get stuck on. “Silence” was written at the unlikely intersection of Swedish fiddle music, Indian classical, Earth and the Lydian scale. It might not sound intuitive, but that’s how those things play out in my head. The bass melody is a deconstructed Swedish herding song I heard on a Nonesuch Explorer record, then the opening part of the song is me trying to summon the spirit of Ustad Amir Khan, and the doomy riffs are just that, riffs.
The blasting section of “Breaker of Famine” is quite unexpected; is that something you’re going to be exploring more in the future?
Yeah, definitely! First and foremost we are a doom band, but the shape that doom takes can meander and change. We love black metal and weird death metal and we want to bring in all sorts of influences. The first thing Laura and I decided when we started this band was that there would be no rules. Nothing is out of bounds for us. Well, Laura is reluctant to include keyboards, but I’m slowly breaking her on that. She actually brought a synth to a gig we played a few weeks ago!
We like dynamic contrast and diversity, so I want to include as much in my music as possible. The difficulty becomes making it sound natural. Some bands fall into the trap of having grinding be a default, or just having doom riffs be their go-to thing. For us, the interesting stuff happens in the spaces in between sections. I want to try to make it all interesting.
Did you have any guest musicians on the record, or is it all the three of you?
It’s essentially us. Gillian Stone recorded some vocals on the beginning of “Breaker of Oaths,” reciting a line from Gísla’s Saga in Icelandic. And I think our engineer John got his voice on the chorus section of “Famine.” But yeah, for the rest of the album it’s just us. We laid down the bed tracks live in sections and then did an intense amount of overdubs. We prefer playing live off the floor to the kind of rigid piece-by-piece approach of doing the drums, then the bass, then the guitars, etc. etc. I played some piano and organ on the album, but other than that it’s pretty well just the three of us.
The drums are louder on Ancestors than on Disir—were you satisfied with the mix the last time out?
Disir was done in a big rush; we didn’t have much money, and recorded all 45 minutes in one day, and then mixed it the same day! I’m happy with it as an artifact of the band at a specific stage, when we wanted to be a trance doom band, but it’s not 100% to my satisfaction. That being said, I don’t think you can every really be happy with a mix or a piece of art. We try to avoid getting caught up in the little mix details because letting things drag can have a negative impact on the integrity of our work. My big moment of joy comes when I hear other people’s feedback. And then maybe, a couple years later I hear the album somewhere and I get to thinking, “OK, we pulled that off as best we could.” That isn’t to say that I don’t love working on music and recording. It’s just that I don’t like to walk around thinking “I’m unhappy with this mix.”
I love the mix work that Charles Spearin has done for us on Ancestors. Everything sounds really vibrant and alive. It sounds forceful, but not too terribly modern and overbearing. And he added a lot of his own personal touch to the record, making wonderful creative choices along with it. The bass and violin also sound a lot heavier. But I think that’s what happens when you walk in with more time and more cash.
What did you learn between Disir and Ancestors, and how does that new knowledge manifest itself in the music?
I learned more about what we’re capable of doing as a band. I learned more about filling space and learning to trust silence and to trust my bandmates. I think I also learned that jamming is very helpful and repetition is key to fully fleshing out a piece of music. I learned that I can present the band with increasingly complex compositions and that they’ll step up to the challenge and improve on the music.
I also just read a bunch of sagas, sometime two or three times, really ingraining myself into that world. I opened myself up to a lot of new music, new influences, and generally just learned to trust my musical instincts.
I know “Breaker of Oaths” is based on the Gísla Saga, but what are the other songs about?
Well, There’s one other song on the record, “Breaker of Skulls,” that’s based directly on a saga. This one was inspired by the story of Egil Skallagrimsson. He was the prototype for the classic warrior poet. He’s famous for being a literary character of fantastic depth and contradictions. He is very ugly and commits terrible violence, and yet he also lives a rich full life of love and produces wonderfully evocative poetry. I wanted to combine these two features in the song. I also thought a lot about Odin and the fury of poetry. that’s where the idea for the middle almost free-improv section came from. “Breaker of Famine” was inspired by tales of volcanic eruptions on Iceland that would kill all the crops and decimate the population. I think a few have happened over the past century. It takes that as its base and incorporates different scenes related to it. A man stands and watches the bodies of his kin burn, two groups of warriors meet on the beach and kill each other over the corpse of a beached whale, and then a man sits on the grave mound of his dead ancestor and asks for guidance through a troubling time. It’s not based on a specific instance, it’s kind of culled together. And then, obviously, “Breaker of Silence” is about a cosmic wizard descending from a primordial mountain at the beginning of time which is also the end of the world. I think that one’s pretty obvious.
Stream “Breaker of Skulls”:
How many languages are you singing in on this record?
Only two, actually. “Silence” has a section in German but the rest is in English, or just wordless chants. So I guess maybe that’s three. As I said before, we got Gillian to speak some Icelandic on “Oaths.” I can only really speak English and get away with a bit of German, so we’ll just leave it at that for now.
These two albums are connected, and are part of a four-album cycle: what can you say about the next two? How do they relate to what we’ve heard already, and how do they differ, musically?
The next two albums are going to deal with other actors in the worlds of old Germanic myth. The next is about gods and goddesses, and the last is about land-wights. Musically, I can’t really say, because not all the music is written yet. I work best with a guiding concept, so it was important to me to strike out with a vision. Some of the music is written and it differs widely, soft and folky or loud and grim. There will probably be more diverse instrumentation, I’m imagining banjos and flutes and brass! There’s no limit to where we can go! That’s the beauty of creating, the only limit is your own energy to create.
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