For some reason, I’ve always liked the idea of musical collectives – groups of likeminded musicians working together to further a specific ideology or achieve a goal. Some of my favorite black metal right now is being produced by certain collectives: Portugal’s Black Circle and Aldebaran Circle; Mystískaos, Vrasubatlat, and the loose Red River Family collective around Black Vice here in the US; and Switzerland’s Helvetic Underground Committee.
The H.U.C. might not be as familiar a name as the rest to our loyal Vault Hunters, but they have arguably the highest profile band out of any of those collectives in their ranks in Ungfell, whose sophomore full-length Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz is likely to feature prominently on many year-end best of lists. Death. Void. Terror., whose To The Great Monolith I we streamed along with an interview back in May, are also part of the H.U.C. So is Dakhma, whose mastermind Kerberos also plays in H.U.C. affiliate Lykhaeon. The now-duo’s first full-length Hamkar Atonement is due out this Friday, September 28 from Iron Bonehead Productions (find their webstore here), and it’s a truly rich, remarkable work. The 70+ minute excursion into ‘Zoroastrian Death Music’ tells the story of the fall of Ohrmazd, the main deity in the Zoroastrian tradition, and the rise of the Daevas, the personifications of every evil imaginable.
Musically, Hamkar Atonement is a mix of cavernous blackened death metal, Iranian folk music, and other ritualistic-sounding elements. It’s as engaging as it is outré, and really should be experienced in a single sitting – preferably via earbuds, so you don’t miss any of its nuances – and we’re thrilled to be streaming it in full here today at the Vault. I also had the chance to chat with Kerboros about the album, his interest in Zoroastrianism, and the H.U.C. Give it a read while you check Hamkar Atonement out below.
Indy Metal Vault: So first off, thanks for the interview. Before we talk about Hamkar Atonement, though, Dakhma is aligned with the Helvetic Underground Committee. I’ll admit that even though I’ve been into Ungfell for a while, I was unaware of the H.U.C. until Death. Void. Terror. mentioned it when I interviewed them earlier this year. What I find most intriguing about the H.U.C. is that most ‘collectives’ I’m aware of—like Portugal’s Aldebaran Circle, or the Icelandic/American Mystískaos collective—have some sort of central musical identity, or at least a few common musical threads. I don’t hear that at all with the H.U.C. I’d have guessed that Ungfell are either Russian or Ukrainian, that D.V.T. are Portuguese, and that Dakhma…maybe Finnish because of the cavernous black/death riffing and gutturals, but there’s a lot happening on Hamkar Atonement. However, you’re all actually from Switzerland. I’m only familiar with a couple of other Swiss black metal bands (Euphrasia and Woeful Silence) and I’d have guessed they were both French. So here (finally) is my question: is there any kind of ‘Swiss sound’ like there is with most other regional or national black metal scenes? Or is the thing that defines Swiss black metal basically its lack of those sorts of defining characteristics?
Kerberos: I honestly couldn’t tell you if there is a distinct ‘Swiss sound,’ as I’m not familiar with enough bands from Switzerland to make such a statement with any authority whatsoever. From what I do know, however, I can tell you there is a plethora of more traditionally minded (read: generic and forgettable) bands alongside a few individual projects that actually offer up something original, distinct and memorable. But I imagine such is the case in most countries. What interests me more than a specific national sound is whether the individuals creating music are passionate about what they do, whether they believe in the strength of their material, and whether I can hear true devotion in the music. I feel you can sense pretty quickly whether someone is creating music as an authentic expression (and therefore mostly creating quality music), or as an excuse to play live shows in shitty local venues and have a pseudo celebrity existence in a scene plagued by uninspired and uninspiring pretenders.
As pertains to H.U.C. specifically, I definitely agree that none of the projects follow any sort of common musical or thematic identity. What distinguishes H.U.C. affiliated projects is that they all have a very distinct, individual sound forged by the individuals involved in the projects.
IMV: Okay…I’ll try to ask less wordy questions from here on out. There’s so much I want to ask about Hamkar Atonement that I’m not sure where to start: music or themes, especially since they seem to be closely intertwined. Thematically, you seem to draw heavily from Zoroastrianism: a Dakhma is a raised structure upon which dead bodies are placed so that carrion birds can pick away the flesh and organs before burial. ‘Hamkar’ translates as ‘co-worker,’ but according to the PR notes it’s meant as a reference to Angra Mainyu, an omnimalevolent/adversarial figure in Zoroastrianism that seems a bit like a Satan figure. Near as I can tell, there’s not much of a Zoroastrian tradition in Switzerland – where did your interest in the subject come from?
K: Indeed, Switzerland as a country has nothing to do with Zoroastrianism. My interest in the religion and its history was initially formed when I was a child visiting relatives in Iran (I have a Persian heritage), and I saw a Zoroastrian temple. Revisiting the country in later years allowed me further exposure to Zoroastrianism and ancient Persian culture, something I eventually wished to explore in more depth through music. I was drawn to many aspects of the religion from the outset; the strict rituals that accompany a Zoroastrian’s life, the complex cosmogony as well as traditional Persian mysticism. What I found particularly fascinating and – significantly – absolutely true, is how certain Zoroastrian texts treat evil in the world and the spirits who cause it as utterly real physical manifestations, aiming at the destruction and corruption of man.
Regarding the album title, as you state correctly, ‘Hamkar’ means co-worker or helper and is in reference to the helpers of the omnimalevolent Angra Mainyu, also referred to as daeva. I think that the more interesting element of the album’s title is the ‘Atonement’ part, but I believe the lyrics allow a reasonable interpretation as to what ‘Hamkar Atonement’ actually is (or, rather, what I meant to describe by it).
IMV: To draw again from the PR notes, it would seem that Hamkar Atonement is…if not a full-blown concept album, then there’s at least a narrative running through its seven songs. I’ve tried to piece that narrative together myself, with limited success – the Ohrmazad referenced in opening track “The Glorious Fall of Ohrmazad (Hail Death, Triumphant)” is the main deity in Zoroastrianism, “Spendarmad (Holy Devotion)” references the final month of the Zoroastrian calendar, and there are multiple references to the Daeva, which the Gathas call gods that should be “rejected.” Are you willing to expand on the narrative of the album at all?
K: Indeed, there is a narrative that runs through the songs, but I imagine it’s difficult to appreciate without having the lyrics. I’ll try to summarize what I can that comes close to a narrative without going into exhaustive detail, as I’d rather listeners explore for themselves within the context of the music.
The album begins with a great treachery resulting in the eventual demise of Ohrmazd, a horrific act that causes hideous corruption to envelop the earth, led by (according to the extinct, heretical teachings of Zurvanism) Ohrmazd’s twin brother, here named Akhoman but synonymous with Ahriman i.e. Angra Mainyu, whose origins are explored in the second track, “Akhoman (Spill the Blood),” partially written as a sort of dialogue between the divine manifestations of good (Ohrmazd) and evil (Akhoman) and their father, Zurvan (equivalent to “time”).
Akhoman’s eventual ascent allows his helpers (Hamkar) to attain previously unfathomable power and eventually flood the earth in a black sea of filth, finally undoing all of Ohrmazd’s righteous creation when the monstrous, decaying pile of living, rotten flesh, Gannag Menog, is free to roam the black sea of horror that has become the earth. While “Spendarmad” is the name of the final month in the Zoroastrian calendar, it is also the name of one of the seven Amesha Spentas (holy immortals – basically the “Hamkar” of Ohrmazd). Spendarmad is the creator of the earth and patron of piety and holy devotion. Before Gannag Menog is unleashed, there is a brief respite, reflected musically in the track “Spendarmad (Holy Devotion),” where the final corruption of the earth is deemed to be unavoidable by the Amesha Spentas and specifically Spendarmad, who witness the total blackness consuming the lands they had so mercifully and carefully tended to and, eventually, fall victim to the monstrous filth Gannag Menog. All that remains after the ultimate destruction of Ormazd and the Amesha Spentas are the Great Prophets, finally liberated by the most unholy spirit.
IMV: From a musical perspective, Hamkar Atonement really seems to push in some different directions than anything else Dakhma has done before. I’m not sure what to call them, but the bestial black metal of your earlier work is balanced out with these more shamanistic/ritualistic sounding elements. What prompted you to expand your musical palette for this album? Is this something you’d wanted to do all along?
K: I can’t point to anything specific really that prompted us to do anything; I think it’s more of a natural evolution in our sound. This is just how these songs shaped up from the outset. That is to say, the compositions were formed with more ritualistic/traditional folk parts from the beginning. Our music is aimed to immerse the listener in it fully, alongside the visual and lyrical elements, which together form a whole work. Having a diverse sound palette further enhances the narrative element of the album you touched upon earlier, but I wouldn’t say it was a result of it. Rather, this is the only form these songs can exist in. Certain, should we say, not purely “extreme metal” elements have always been present in our sound, but I think that we achieved an effective balance on Hamkar Atonement where the compositions truly work as a whole, and the album itself is meant to be experienced as a whole, lest a lot of aspects of the work are lost on the listener. Now, it’s not for me to say how people have to listen to our music or any music for that matter, it’s merely how the album is intended to be experienced.
IMV: To follow up on that – given the new sounds and textures on the album, how different was your songwriting process on Hamkar Atonement than your previous releases? Between the two of you, did you play all of the instruments on Hamkar Atonement, or did you need to account for the contributions of guest musicians when composing the record?
K: The songwriting process was different due to the mere fact that Hamkar Atonement is the first release to feature H.A.T.T. Other than that, however, the actual process has always been the same. We work on ideas until we are satisfied that something is worthwhile. The songs themselves were composed over a period of nearly two years, some right after the Astiwihad-Zohr EP, which is certainly a difference when compared to the composition process of the aforementioned EP and the demo, which were both composed and recorded in a matter of days. Even though the time between compositions on Hamkar Atonement is longer than that, I feel that all the songs on the album had enough time to “breathe,” and that they all are very cohesive as a whole, partially as a result of the musical and narrative cohesion inherent to the album.
We played all instruments on the album ourselves; H.A.T.T. performed all drums and most percussion in a truly devoted manner. I performed all vocals, guitars, bass, acoustic guitars, certain folk instruments and various forms of percussion such as meditation bowls, bells, and strings on cymbals, among others. Other than that, throughout the album, there are a few parts audible in the background (samples, if you will) containing warped performances of Persian folk music that I recorded on my travels in Iran, as well as the guest performance of a high priest incantation at the end of “Gannag Menog (Foul Death, Triumphant)” by Menetekel of Ungfell.
IMV: Given the complexity of the music on Hamkar Atonement, having the right sort of production elements seemed pretty critical. Fortunately, the album sound fantastic – every instrument comes through clearly in the mix without the sort of slickness or sterility that will often accompany a clear production job. I’ve not seen any recording credits for the album – where did you record Hamkar Atonement, and what was that process like? Did you record everything in the same place?
K: Appreciate the comments on the sound of the album; there is nothing I despise more than the modern, sterile, and plastic production jobs so prevalent in metal music these days. We recorded the album in the Crypt, a shared rehearsal space among all H.U.C. affiliated projects that also serves as a sort of minimalist studio. Pretty much everything was recorded there and mixed by myself.
The recording process was pretty straightforward and efficient, actually. The mixing is what took a large but necessary bulk of time to get right. I’m a firm believer in seeking a sound out for yourself and not just trying to make your record sound like some other band you like. I think most bands don’t have the interest or willingness to actually learn how to record and mix their music and work on how it sounds tirelessly until it fits their specific vision for how it should sound, and I get it. It takes enough time to actually compose music, and people are busy. Therefore, many rely on an external sound engineer and a studio to hone in on that sound for them, or at least help them approximate it. I have nothing against that approach, it’s just not something that works for me during the recording and mixing process, as I have a very specific vision for how the material needs to sound and cannot rest until I have reached that sound to the best of my abilities. Mastering was handled by VK, who understood very well how the material needed to sound.
IMV: Since the subject fascinates me, what did your studio setups look like when you recorded Hamkar Atonement? I’m particularly curious about how you dialed in the guitar tone, but I’m interested in all of your instrument setups. Are you the sort of band that really cares about gear?
K: As mentioned, the Crypt isn’t really a studio and more of a rehearsal space with minimal recording equipment. We care about gear to a certain degree; like, I’m very into something that helps me achieve the specific sound I’m going for. But gear for gear’s sake, not so much. I feel like too often musicians want to have the best gear and the most expensive recording equipment without stopping to think first, do I really need this amp or this guitar? Does it help me hone in on the sound I wish to achieve? For us, gear is a means to an end, and I like to keep it minimal but useful, or purposeful.
Regarding the guitar tone specifically: I had a pretty clear idea on how I wanted the guitars to sound and knew that the tuning would require something special. Since I really dislike playing 7-string and 8-string guitars, which are commonly used by bands who play in very deep tunings unsuitable for standard 6-string guitars, I thought that using a baritone guitar to record the album may lead to the result I wanted for the sound, as baritones tend to have a very distinct sound wholly different from a 7 or 8-string guitar. Looking back, I’m still satisfied with the tone we achieved for the guitars. Specifically, since you’re interested in gear, the baritone I used is an Ibanez RGIB6, and this is also the guitar that will be used on all future Dakhma recordings until I find an instrument that I think is even closer to the guitar sound I envision.
IMV: I almost always ask about cover art, but even if I didn’t – the cover for Hamkar Atonement is really striking. Who did the cover art? How closely did you work with the artist? Are you willing to unpack the imagery there at all? I’m guessing the figure on the cover is one of the Daeva.
K: The cover art and all visual aspects of the album layout were conceived with frequent collaborator Menetekel of Ungfell, who has done excellent work in bringing the visual aspects of Dakhma to life. We worked very closely together on the cover artwork and designs for Hamkar Atonement. It is inspired primarily by artwork I captured throughout travels in Iran, and consists partially of photos I made of holy Zoroastrian sites. I would rather not disclose any specifics on the cover artwork of the album itself, as I think it is visually strong enough so that any listener can make up their own mind as to what is depicted with regard to the album and its themes.
IMV: I’ve seen that Dakhma has played one ‘atonement’ in support of Hamkar Atonement already. Do you intend to do much more gigging behind it? How much do the live arrangements of the songs on Hamkar Atonement differ from the studio versions?
K: Once the album is released, we do indeed plan to perform more live atonements, as long as it feels right and can take place in an appropriate setting. Playing live isn’t our primary concern, although I feel that when done with the appropriate devotion, these songs gain a new energy in a live setting.
The live arrangements are as close to the album versions as possible, although certain changes may be necessary in some parts in order to avoid having 20 people on stage. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t feel comfortable straying from the original compositions in any significant way.
IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – anything else you want to add?
K: Thanks for your questions and interest in Zoroastrian Death Music.