Germany’s Helrunar have been known for making black metal inspired compositions that recall the ways and mysticism of the Old Norse, but not so much on their brand new album, Niederkunfft. This new record focuses on a very dark time in history, where witch trials and crusades were rampant, death and plague were right outside the door, and people were literally waiting for the world to end in a solar eclipse! I spoke with Marcel “Skald Draugir” Dreckmann (Vocals) about this truly fascinating historical concept, as well as the band’s decision to record some of their songs in English for the first time. We also talked about inspirations, the commercialization of the heavy metal scene, some tour stories and Game Of Thrones!
From the very start, it’s immediate that Niederkunfft is a completely different approach lyrically than your last double-disc release, Sol. It seems to be based more on demons and Satan, than Norse beliefs. Can you tell me a little bit about the record and why you decided on this theme?
It is actually not just about demons and Satan, but a historical topic that occurs somewhere between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. The setting is a medieval one, which occurs just before the enlightenment. The minds of people were torn between religion, superstition and upcoming science and it was a time of great crises and disasters. There were religious wars and conflicts as well as witch-hunts and of course, the great plague. We tried to discover the mental changes and the psychological effects that these circumstances may have had on the population, and how these times helped to shape the face and mind of modern Europe. We chose this topic because it fit so well with the compositions, which are much darker, heavier and more doomy this time.
Tell me a little bit about the band and how it originally formed. How do you think that your sound has evolved since you first started playing heavy metal?
When we founded Helrunar in ‘01, we were clearly influenced by the Norwegian Black Metal of the nineties. Well, we still are, but over the years we’ve included more and more influences from other metal genres I guess. Especially now, on Niederkunfft, we’ve included Swedish old school death metal and doom. This evolvement came naturally. There is so much in metal music that we like and we don´t want to be limited regarding our sound. What counts is the atmosphere and expression. The same can be said for the lyrics. For many years they were mainly influenced by Old Norse mythology, but Niederkunfft needed something new. As for the music, we don´t want to be limited or reduced to a “Pagan Black Metal” band. Creativity and the will and freedom to break borders and to evolve further are very important to us… But it must always stay metal!
Let’s talk about the writing process for Niederkunfft. This record sounds exceptionally dark and it’s easily one of the most evil sounding records that I’ve heard in years. The mix of doom and eerie melodies really seem to induce fear, which you just don’t really get with a lot of black metal discs these days.
Glad that you have that impression! The music was almost entirely written by Sebastian and it took him quite a while. When he had composed enough material, we sat down together with some beers to listen to it carefully. And aye, you´re right; the music really smelled like death, pestilence and burning stakes. So it was easy to find the topic for the lyrics. Later we also decided that this record needed a different sound than the others we’ve made before. It needed to be heavier and more brutal to support the heavy, doomy riffs. But it was this old school death metal sound that was our choice. It was a heavy and brutal, yet organic production. We don´t really like the clinical sound that modern technical death metal often has.
Where did you record Niederkunfft and how long did it take? What was the atmosphere like in the studio?
We recorded it together with our producer Markus Stock at Klangschmiede Studio E in Mellrichstadt, Germany. We have been working with Markus for many years now and have always been very satisfied. Apart from that, we became really good friends over the years, so we always have a good time together with him. The recordings were done within two weeks. In the beginning we told him about our ideas for the sound and mentioned some examples like old Swedish death metal, Entombed, Dismember and the like, but also Asphyx and stuff like that. He quickly understood what we wanted and what the album needed and said: “Yeah, let´s do an old school sound!” and that´s what we did! The recordings went quick and without incidents. We had a good, relaxed time there with beers n´ barbeque. Unfortunately our residence wasn´t very comfortable this time, because all we had was a very narrow apartment in a very small village nearby. But at least there were some houses there dating back to the seventeenth century, which figured in with the album concept.
The lyrics here are mostly in German, so it’s difficult for me to make them out (even though I loved the English vocals on “Devils, Devils Everywhere!” and “The Hiebner Prophecy” respectively). What inspired the lyrics here on the record, and what are the topics of some of the German songs?
As mentioned above, it´s historical. It is about the reformation and the religious conflicts provoked by it and it´s about the images of hell people had at the time. It is about the great plague and its consequences, about witch-hunts and religious superstition. The thirty year war that devastated Germany between 1618 and 1648 gets all in all three songs and “The Hiebner Prophecy” is about a guy who spread the idea that an eclipse of the sun in the year 1654 was a sure sign for doomsday to come. It is no wonder as to why people were inclined to believe it, after all the disasters that had happened before.
Furthermore, why did you decide to record two tracks in English on the record?
There were two reasons behind this. The first was because my main historical source for “Devils, Devils Everywhere” was an English one. It´s the manual The Discovery Of Witches, written by the witch hunter Matthew Hopkins. So I decided to leave the lyrics in English. The second reason is because we wanted to give our fans outside of Germany a chance to understand some of the lyrics this time around.
From what I’ve observed in “The Hiebner Prophecy” it seems to reference some sort of profound world ending theory. Can you tell us a little more about it? I’ve not heard of it before.
Israel Hiebner is not very known. Actually, this incident has nearly been forgotten. Prophecies and forecasts that announced the end of the world were quite frequent and popular at that time, however. People suffered for many reasons, their future became more and more uncertain and because of the reformation and its effect on religion, even God wasn´t sure anymore. If you didn’t have the “right” religious denomination, then you would go to hell. That´s what people believed. No wonder that in combination with all these crises, people believed that doomsday was near, and some announced it by interpretations of the bible, prophecies they “received from God” or astrological observations. Hiebner was an astrologist, but he also combined his prediction with reference to the Bible, etc. He first published his prophecy in 1647 and repeated it again and again in his almanacs, which led to quarrels with other astrologists that were less superstitious. He probably even republished his prediction under the fake name of a distinguished Italian astrologist, to give it a greater credibility.
When the day of the eclipse came closer, the population became obsessed by a mass panic, especially those who were under-educated. All rational arguments by scholars and priests did not help. Perhaps it was one of the first cases of collective panic caused by print media ever. But when the eclipse finally did come to pass, nothing ever happened. It wasn´t even a total eclipse! Just a few days later the eclipse was no longer mentioned in the sources and the people felt ashamed and angry. Hiebner was even attacked by some outraged students in Leipzig. In the end he escaped to Sibiu in Romania, where he went on with his astrological calculations until he died.
What are some of your main inspirations in Helrunar? Why are they an inspiration to your sound?
It is still black metal, regarding the sound. Mainly the old Norwegian black metal from the nineties, but also other sorts of death, thrash and doom, as well as traditional heavy metal. I can´t really say why they are such an inspiration. We are simply metalheads that like this sort of music. It goes along with this certain spirit, to be an outsider more or less, and to regard mankind and society in a critical way. During the last few years, the metal scene has gotten more and more commercialized and has lost a lot of that spirit. It´s a pity! I guess Niederkunfft is also a kind of statement, although it was not made fully conscious. It is a statement against all this mindless “happy-party-people-shit” that is slowly trickling into the metal scene. Metal has to be dark, critical and definitely not mainstream. Another source of inspiration for us is classical or orchestral soundtrack-music. This mainly regards the creation of tension and atmosphere.
What do you do when you’re not playing music and what sorts of hobbies do you enjoy? What are some things that you would recommend to readers?
I am working in a theatre, but sometimes far too much. It drains time and energy that I would far more like to spend in music. I also read a lot of fiction, but also historical and philosophical stuff. Currently I am reading the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin (Really!) It´s good if you want some more background than you see in the Game of Thrones television series. (I also recommend them over the series.) I would also recommend the science fiction novels by William Gibson. They are quite interesting and enlightening regarding our modern and virtual existence. For Niederkunfft a book from a French historian by the name of Jean Delumeau was a great inspiration, besides the many historical sources I used. The original title is La Peur En Occident. Apart from that, I am into the arts generally and I like to write, paint, etc., but I also find great joy in simple-hearted activities like pen and paper roleplaying or tabletop games.
What can you tell us about your experiences on the road? What are some of your greatest moments on tour? What are some of your least memorable moments on tour?
I guess the greatest moments nearly always have to do with girls, good food or making new friends. Sometimes it is also an interesting place that you visit. It is always nice to see other countries, hear other languages and communicate with people to see how they react. The worst moments on tour deal with having a dirty shower or no shower at all, bad catering, sickness, technical issues and other maladies.
So what’s next for Helrunar after this album? Is there anything else in the works, or are you getting ready for another round of touring?
Sadly, there are no planned tours this year. We have to work too much to make a living, so we have no time and no certainty to plan touring. It’s sad but true. Instead, we will concentrate on writing new material.
Thanks for a really evil fucking record gentlemen, it’s just what I wanted to hear this year and just how black metal should sound in my opinion. This is very dark and my ears applaud it. (Eric May)
Thank you very much for your kind words! (Smiles) We are happy that you appreciate it!
To stream or purchase Helrunar’s Niederkunfft, click the album cover below: