How Two Black Metal Masterminds Learned to Dominate the Stage
The Ruins of Beverast and Tchornobog discuss how they shepherded their solo studio projects into thunderous live incarnations at this year's Covenant Festival in Montreal.
L: Photo courtesy of Tchornobog
R: Photo courtesy of The Ruins of Beverast
Germany’s Alex Meilenwald is something of a revered figure in the metal underground, with his solo project, The Ruins of Beverast, having released five hugely ambitious albums since 2004. Like a slow-moving avalanche in some dark mountain range, the project has been steadily attracting fans and glowing critical praise over the years. Meilenwald has succeeded in making a transition from a rawer, more traditional black metal sound on 2004 debut Unlock the Shrine to the more expansive, dynamic sounds on recent records. For example, last year’s Exuvia, which topped many best-of-year lists, featured a number of samples of North American indigenous singing, with Meilenwald describing the record as being focused on “abasement to nature”.
Crucially, Meilenwald made the fateful decision to transition to a full live band in 2013, expressing his satisfaction in ‘re-animating’ the band’s music as a collective entity. It’s a move that’s always fraught with danger for a studio project, but he hasn’t looked back since. The five-member live version of The Ruins of Beverast embraced a full European tour last year with King Dude, and have just made their Canadian debut at Covenant Montreal. They now played some of the biggest metal festivals in the world, including Maryland Deathfest in Baltimore, Roadburn in the Netherlands, and Hellfest in France.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Markov Soroka’s Tchornobog project released one of 2017’s bolts from the blue. The project’s self-titled, hugely impressive first effort plotted a course between dissonant death metal, black metal, and twisted progressive rock. Originally from Ukraine, Soroka put forward a searing statement of intent with Tchornobog, which featured a plethora of contributors from across the metal underground, including Greg Chandler of UK doom titans Esoteric, and Magnus Skúlason of Icelandic black metallers Svartidauði. Now residing in Portland, Oregon, Soroka and a hand-picked backing band decided to make the project’s live debut at Covenant Montreal last year.
Set to tour for the first time this May with Swiss outfit Bölzer, Tchornobog has taken its fair share of musical influences from The Ruins of Beverast’s towering albums. Now, Soroka is making a similar jump, to regularly inhabiting the live stage.
Covenant Montreal 2018 seemed like the ideal place to quiz both on making that hazardous transition from the studio, with all the challenges of extended physical performances, sound issues, and getting into the headspace of this unique music while onstage.
Noisey: Since Ruins of Beverast now regularly performing live, do you find it easier to get into the headspace of the music while performing at a festival?
Alex Meilenwald: I really find that our performance is not affected by the number of shows that we’ve played, but more if it’s a better organized festival. There will be horrible [live] situations that we’ll encounter, even 25 years from now, I’m sure. If a festival is organized badly, we’ll have problems, and we can’t summon up the spirit to really get into the music.
You’re just too busying worrying about the practicalities.
Meilenwald: Yeah, we’re more thinking about profanities! The tour we did in November absolutely did help us build up more confidence. Actually, the shows on the tour served as daily rehearsals, so we were getting better and better.
Soroka: [Until the band’s live debut in 2017] Tchornobog had never played live before, and there had been no members except myself. I only had a month to organize the performance. The record is seen as a solo project, but it’s the least “solo” project ever. So I thought we could have the same approach to the live stuff. We had Sean from Death Fortress, Gia Hoi (of Délétère and Eos) play live, and another friend who had never even performed live before, and he knocked it out of the park. In my musical career, I haven’t really gone on tour yet, so [as a prospect] that is pretty intimidating.
In contrast with studio work, there’s a relative lack of control in the live area.
Meilenwald: I don’t really miss the control of the studio. I think it’s totally ok to let go and not really have any control live. I actually really like it. It’s much more of an adventure to simply play live without any of that.
Soroka: A lot of bands do play live with a click track in their ear, but I noticed yesterday that Ruins of Beverast weren’t, and were pulling off some very slow parts, like ‘On I Raised this Stone…’. Playing to a click track is kind of inhuman to me.
Meilenwald: I think so too, it’s horrible. We could never really do that. [Pauses to hail Chelsea Wolfe coming out of the cafe speakers]. When we played here yesterday, we had a substitute guitarist, and our drummer had to manage those strikes on the right cymbal to keep the timing. Of course that’s a move we’ve picked up since we started playing live.
How do you find the whirling social aspect of the modern metal festival?
Soroka: Well as long as you don’t give your favorite band an impression that you’re some crazy fan, you’re doing good I think! As a musician, I think people can come with an image of you based on the music, and if you don’t fulfil that, it can be little intimidating. I find the behind-the-scenes people who make fests happen are particularly interesting. Meeting people at fests is one of the reasons I’ve been able to play live in the first place.
Meilenwald:. If I really think about it, my life has totally changed since we started to play live. I had quite an isolated life, with my close friends, based in my home area. Now I have contacts all over the world—but those contacts have to be kept. Most of the time, it’s brilliant, sometimes it gets a bit like daily work. It’s not always easy, but still, I love it. When people approach me, they can have expectations for sure, that I can’t always fulfill. Like right now, come on, I’m totally hungover. Sometimes, I’m drunk!
I did meet someone who was super into the material yesterday. There was a guy who wrote an essay about the song, "The Restless Mills," and he gave it to me. I haven’t had a chance to read it completely yet, but I plan to do so on the plane. That’s fucking impressive.
Have you been able to use experiences on the road to inform the creative process?
Meilenwald: It really depends on the people you’re on the bus with. Before our first nightliner tour, I was thinking, wow, I’m going to see Ljubljana! But then we got on the bus, and just started drinking like hell. We slept until 4pm the next day, soundchecked, played, got back on the bus, started the whole process again. That’s due to the [Ruins of Beverast personnel], they’re really just monsters!
I met one of them for the first time last night, and 5 seconds later he was showing me a video of a dude whistling a super out-of-tune cover of ‘Winds of Change’.
Meilenwald: Yes, that would be our keyboardist! We would like to do some cultural things when we go to cities. I haven’t really met anyone while traveling for music that I’ve collaborated with yet. If I had met Chelsea Wolfe, maybe it would be different. I think it would be really good for me to meet people from completely different genres.
I would not push for the inclusion of other genres [in my music], it must happen naturally. Exuvia was a very personal album, which helped it sound different from what came before, but I don’t actively plan to push it any particular direction.
Soroka: I really am into a lot of the dark jazz stuff that’s been circulating around. For instance, when I visited Iceland, I was able to work with a dark ambient band called NYIÞ. They play a lot in the Black Metal circles, but it’s quite theatrical, dark ambient stuff. It’s not straying too far from metal, but I absolutely love experimenting with sounds from different genres.
One thing I can say about the new album is that I’m planning to use a lot of bodily sounds. Very personal sort of stuff. It will depend on how it all comes together, but it will fit the concept.
Black metal is a genre that embraced shocking or confrontational stage tactics. Is that something you’d ever see having a place in your live shows?
Soroka: It depends really. If my mind has something controversial in it, it’s not because it’s controversial for its own sake, it’s only because it’s seen that way in society. We have a range of opinions that are either troubling or not troubling in black metal, but so far as the controversial theatrics of black metal in the beginning, if you’ve been into the scene for years, you’ve been exposed to that for so long. But I think people getting into the genre now might find that shocking or scary, but for me it’s more so about exploring the psychological or emotional content of the music rather than trying to be controversial.
I think black metal has always been a psychological evaluation of why and how we do or don’t fit into society. It’s always been a very existential process. For Tchornobog, it’s very much that—an abstract evaluation of events that have taken place in my life, and events I’ve seen in other people’s lives. In fact, most of the record has been dedicated to people I’ve worked with. It was an empathetic way to talk to them without talking.
Meilenwald: For me, it’s very important to keep the personalities behind this music as anonymous as possible. I don’t mean wearing masks and stuff, but rather the opposite. These days, I feel people are doing things onstage that draw the attention away from the music, and towards the figures onstage. I don’t really like that.
I like low light, and fog on stage, so that you don’t see us too well, and hear all the more—just the music. That’s the most important thing to do. I never think about drawing attention towards us, and away from the music. That’s why we look quite normal onstage.
Having progressed from a studio project to a live show, Alex, what’s the one piece of advice you would pass on to Markov?
Meilenwald: Well, just don’t drink too much.
Soroka: I was literally just thinking that!
Has the experience of playing live in any way seeped into, or affected the creative process that you go through in the studio?
Meilenwald: I don’t really think so. I have caught myself sometimes thinking “How could we possibly transfer this riff into the live performance?”. This has happened, but I’ve taught myself not to think this way. It’s not productive.
Soroka: I really dislike the idea of that. It’s getting too close to the idea of writing songs to make them easier to play live.
Meilenwald: Absolutely, that’s it.
Soroka: For me, that would ruin the whole process. It’s doesn’t flow well at all. For me, studio work is the project, and then we can try to transfer it over the live stage. It just provides a different angle from which to experience the songs.
Note: This article consists of a number of different individual and collective interviews, carried out across March 2018 and at Covenant Montreal.
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