Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Markov Soroka

This is the 24th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]

Artist: Markov Soroka

Album: Tchornobog, Tchornobog (2017); Slow, Unsleep (2014); Aureole, Aurora Borealis ‎(2016); Krukh, Безглуздість! (2018).

Label: Fallen Empire Records, Black Plague Records, Prophecy Productions, Vigor Deconstruct

Favorite Song: Tchornobog, "II: Hallucinatory Black Breath Of Possession (Mountain-Eye Amalgamation)"

The Bare Bones: Markov Soroka is a Portland-based musician and multi-instrumentalist that has been at the helm of an impressive stream of releases ever since beginning to upload his music to Bandcamp sometime around the middle of the decade. His main artistic vehicles have, thus far, been: Tchornobog (death metal); Drown (formerly know as Slow) (doom metal); Aureole (atmospheric black metal); and Krukh (black metal).

The Beating Heart: I think it's safe to say that this interview series has been, for the most part, invested in a backward-looking mode of reflection, albeit of the kind that is, at least in artistic terms, forward-lunging. That is not the case with this special and most recent episode that has its mountain-eye firmly pressed to the future. I stumbled onto Markov Soroka's prolific and otherworldly Bandcamp page some time in late 2016, and remember thinking mostly in terms of disbelief. Here was this wizard man, who I at the time was sure was Ukrainian and whose name I could only gather from the url to the page itself, switching genres with reckless abandon, and performing/writing incredibly within each. It would not be hyperbole to say that Tchornobog is one of my favorite death metal releases of the decade and that Aurora Borealis ‎is probably my favorite atmospheric black metal album of the decade. So, yeah, I was in. Since that chance encounter with Soroka's work his name has slowly risen to become one of underground metal's leading lights, most prominently via Tchornobog's recent incarnation as a "real" touring band, the reissue of his projects via Prophecy Productions, and his formation of a new label, Vigor Deconstruct that already features some of my own personal Bandcamp highlights of recent years, such as An Isolated Mind and Kaatayra (both of which feature in our Best of 2019 list]. But, all of that is, of course, the past, albeit of a more recent kind. The truth of the matter is that Soroka is only getting started. Not only has he been one of the more original and creative voices in this waning decade, but he is sure to be one of the more prominent ones in the decade to come. Proof positive that the so-called "Bandcamp artists" of the last few years, including some of the artists I have mentioned already, and also artists such as Stroda of the black metal project Decoherence, as well as many others, are shaping the present and the future of the metal underground. And more power to them.

Before proceeding to my lengthy correspondence with Markov, spanning a period of, on and off, about seven months, I would like to encourage you to read the rest of this ongoing interview project, which will be running until the end of the year (and probably spilling into the beginning of 2020), with a lot more exciting conversations to be published. You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (FacebookInstagramSpotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. My aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, focusing on the art and life of that art, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local black metal, death metal, grindcore, folk, and more. To the interview. Enjoy!

I usually ask people off the bat if they had a moment with a song or album that changed the way they thought about music or made them pick up an instrument. But, seeing that you take as much pride into the visual aspect of your work, I thought I would attach a second question, which is which are some of the visually influential moments, artists, works for you, and in general, how important is it for you that your work has a strong visual message?

For me, it feels that the impetus for this whole mess originated in three parts. The first is an over-exposure to computer games. I vividly remember being in the dark in my father's office in Ukraine playing Age of Empires II and Doom II, or rather some Russian/Ukrainian CD-ROM DISK bootleg versions of these. I moved to America around when I was five, so I must have been figuring out how to become a "traveler" in both medieval times and a sci-fi space station as a doomed space marine from a very early age. The soundtrack and sound design to these games, among others, felt to me like they were molded into the screen, part of the experience and inseparable. This feeling – the sounds either setting the stage or being an integral part of a world – stuck with me forever, and I seem to have worshiped it my entire life. Later on I discovered the original Deus Ex game, which remains, to me, a magical template as to what an interactive story should make one feel, and I have been chasing this feeling and wanting it to share with others in the way that I felt it since I had figured out the premise of it. Coincidentally, there's an interview with Warren Specter, lead director of the game, who mentions a D&D campaign with Bruce Sterling, a cyberpunk knowledge-head, that lasted for many years. This game, once it finished, was so incredibly moving that he chased the feeling of it and ended up making the original Deus Ex with it. Not that the cycle continues with me, but I am sure this particular one did similar things for others. Inspiration is truly a wonderful thing!

Back to the expose about my immigration's path, my mother wins a green card lottery that takes us to America which eventually leads to my naturalization and citizenship there. I feel many pictures from this part of my life to be blurred out, but my relationship with color and sound seems to have played an integral role as a coping mechanism for virtually anything unpleasant. Sounds would be colored, colors would be textures, tunnels of color and sound would be worlds. This phenomenon, synesthesia, involves certain pathways in the head to be mixed up, for a lack of a better term, which essentially means that people can get the sensation of smelling color, or seeing sounds. In my case, I can picture worlds in small slivers of color, and an ultimate amalgamation when this color is portrayed in sound or otherwise. In my early ages I felt that I could see "aura" surrounding people, and while I do associate certain colors with certain people, I learned that this is nothing but myself associating my feelings in either projection or idealization. Nevertheless, color, and all of its' types, plays an integral role into what I do now. I used to think synesthesia was a bunch of pseudoscience, and the possibility of this isn't necessarily ruled out (further reading acquired) but it's a good way to explain the sensation, especially to others that might experience it.

Another moment I remember is being very young, perhaps half a decade before evolving into what most of society fears as "the teenager," when I heard Cruelty And The Beast by British band Cradle of Filth. Thanks to their massive marketing campaigns, as I understand it, this album reached far and wide to people all over the world. I had stolen some CD-R that my brother (sorry dude) made containing a compilation of their songs as well as some other Hot Topic-core stuff that, not interesting to me, was practically devouring the psyche of the estranged teenage mind in America at the time. I remember listening to a song from Cruelty, not sure which, that made me want to hear the whole album. In it, a particular detail that stood out to me is that the "voice actor(s)" for Elizabeth, while narrating what was going chronologically on the album, actually seemed to sound like she aged. Either a form of pitch shifting and voice warping or just a different vocalist entirely, when you listen to the later tracks, I actually notice that she has aged. This was incredible to me! It really changed how I perceived music at the time, because it felt like it was interacting with you, much like the aforementioned Deus Ex game above.

Every album I write always begins with a color and a vision. The front cover is the "gateway" for me, or the integral summary of what is to be happening in the story of each and every album. There is no album without the visual artwork for me. In fact, the music is almost entirely secondary to anyone who isn't in my head, because the music is meant to reflect the color and visions I have. Of course as a literary work being a guide for this, The Death of The Author as well as all of us being mirrors that cannot reflect themselves, the music often is more or less a crude variance of what the vision was/is, but it has its purpose as the soundtrack for the sight. The art, most notably in painting format, is meant to be stared at while listening to learn the deeper truth, and this takes up a lot of the effort, sometimes even more than the music. (Minus recording…. I've spent more time pressing Ctrl+Z than anything…) Words matter even less, and can be seen as the explanation of what is going on, the synopsis, if you will. I've played around with the idea of writing books or anything that expands the story, but abstract, broad-brush stroke lyrics and modding for video games will do for now. We'll see!

If the art plays such a significant role in your music is it then important for you to yourself create that art or does it also allow for collaboration with other artists?

I invite collaboration with artists as long as they are curious and are able to deliver on my highly specific barks and requests. Particularly, the work with Adam Burke [who also created the cover for another Albums of the Decade entry, Artificial Brain's Infrared Horizon] has been nothing short of a god-send as one may notice on the Tchornobog, Aureole, and Drown covers. I think he pretty much gets it at this point so thankfully my e-mails have gotten shorter with him as time goes on, hah.

Image result for tchornobog artwork

Above all, I feel myself as an artistic director and performer on the stage. I am nothing more than adequate for both music and visualization, which is why I cherish collaboration, and fellow artists have stomached me thus far. I feel like when I work with people, they understand that this work is highly significant to me, which allows for a great palette of creativity. So basically, I plan everything out (similar to a play), write it, and then compose the music, all the while taking notes on how I do such things. This order of course isn't set in stone, sometimes I even commission the artwork before recording a single note just so I can stare at it while I do it. To get the best out of someone, you must also understand how and why they work, and with people like Adam or Karmazid for visualization, or Stephen Lockhart and Studio Emissary, I feel that we can strike a great union between each other due to simple curiosity. All of us have an exploratory gene, I feel, based on everything I've learned. It's been nothing but a pleasure working with the unique and lovely individuals in this world and I hope for nothing more than many more years of this.

Do you understand the multiplicity of projects and styles (Tchornobog, Drown, Aurora, Krukh, etc) through that visual prism as well? The need, say, to add moods or scenes?

Absolutely. In fact, I've never written or recorded anything that didn't have some kind of conceptual impetus based on color. Krukh was probably the closest thing I worked on that didn't originally start off in such a fashion, but eventually that turned into a bit of an abstract story about immigration, existentialism as well as other things. The color for Krukh for us is definitely a sort of "white" and grey, but not reflective – a harsh, metallic or wooden texture of some sort, at least for me. You'll have to ask N. if he shares the sentiment. For Drown and Aureole, these are a lot more fantastical and "far away" and generally try to capture either an environmental or atmospheric place in space and time. I feel like I am attracted to vast landscapes of emptiness with only a few things going on, so often my head feels quite empty when I work on music. Hold your laughter, please.

I will dive into an example: Aureole's Alunar is not so monochromatic and generally requires a lot of thought and projection, which is why a new album has been such a large undertaking. The story of Alunar, the main "protagonist" (which is a sentient, floating castle in space, or ambiguously, a bell which forms a castle around it) for instance has inhabited many different factions and they have all had their various ways of decorating as well as dying within the walls. This large expanse and virtually unlimited platform would be liberating to some, but to be honest, it's been incredibly difficult to try to focus on a vision that expands the story for Aureole, and has resulted in around three or four unreleased albums (or chapters) in this mythos as a result of minor identity crises, but I think I've figured it out slowly…

You mentioned that what drew you to Cruelty and the Beast was the sense that is was interacting with you, and that, in a way, that’s also in a way why you enjoy collaborating with other artists. Are there ways in which you try to collaborate, so to speak, with your audience? Say, with the Vomiting Choir, but perhaps otherwise? 

Interactivity, on a certain scale, is the most important thing in the world to me. The way it can feel that music is a gateway that can speak to you when words fall short is not unlike playing a protagonist or overseer in a game. I feel it's an entirely different beast to try to show that gateway to someone sitting next to you and convince them that the vision is just as important to them, and this complex communication is something that I struggle with. Occasionally, with the right and magical (incredibly patient) individuals, it's not so much that we gaze into the same doorway, but rather that we create our own in the physical world. It never feels to me that I can escape into true dream-state when involving others because we're creating things physically, together, feeding off each other, and this feels more like crafting a sculpture rather than void-gazing with my own personal gateway and whatnot.

Hah, the vomiting choir almost started as a joke, but as mentioned before, it's actually quite tied to the mythos as well as some of my own troubles with the concept of puke itself. In total, I believe there were 30-40 submissions? I'm still trying to figure out how to fit it all (and I hope mercy is granted onto whichever sound engineer has to mix it all…) into the song, The Vomiting Choir, which hopefully will be released soon (2020) as a conceptual split album with UK's Abyssal.

In the time since we began this conversation, and actually maybe even sooner than that, it had become quite clear that out of all your projects Tchornobog seems to be the one creating the most real-world “traction.” As in, you get booked to perform, you actually formed a real band, and there’s a sense that the band has taken a kind of position in the metal underground. And naturally this is a good thing, and one that enables you to explore new avenues of the process. But do you have any thoughts about why Tchornobog “broke through,” as opposed to any of your other projects? 

Darn good question. Personally, I think the music industry is utterly unpredictable, especially in the stuff that we listen to. There's some stuff that you can do that some labels do, press release, have artwork that matches the overall aesthetic, do physical media and whatever. But despite all of that you can't just force something down someone's throat until they like it, it's not food. I had no idea what my life would have become after the release of Tchornobog, but I wasn't expecting all that much. I distinctly remember feeling like I had done everything "right,” however, because I believe music is the best way I can remain honest. Depending on who you ask, communication with me can be very good or very bad, but I feel that it comes very naturally for me to express things in broad strokes. That doesn't necessarily answer your question, but I should also comment that you could just be very well seeing my choices to do things with Tchornobog rather than "breaking through." To explain a bit more, Drown, Aureole, and Krukh have some pretty significantly different fans with different tastes, and a lot, if not most of my work, comes from making sure each project sounds different. It seems that Tchornobog has allowed me to work in the metal world more than I ever thought, but about the music industry at large, it's quite a different story.
Furthermore, at the time I think Fallen Empire Records was also peaking in success and vision as well, and with the help from many helpful labels, the release seems to have gained some traction online, which is the best place to show your music, and if it wasn't their hard work that helped that, then working with Adam Burke for the front cover must've definitely had something to do with it!

As a kind of follow up, and maybe as a way to pick at what you just wrote, I’ve had this nagging feeling that one of the ways to gain traction – albeit not a foolproof way – is to be “heavy.” And, to me at least, I understood the greater popularity of a project like Tchornobog in it’s being, for lack of a better term, heavy. Or heavy in a way that is perhaps more in vogue at the moment (death metal, black metal, etc). But all this time you have been engaged in different kinds of projects as well. So I guess what I want to ask is whether or not you have gained a different appreciation as to what makes a song “heavy”or what that word even means, through your work with such varied material? 

Haha, I'm not sure if "heavy" is something I've used to describe music with mostly because I've been predisposed to have listened to black metal for basically my whole life. The genre's typical production doesn't make me think "heavy" as much as it does make me think of "layered" or "textured" but I can see how a Mournful Congregation or funeral doom song can sound "heavy" just from the utter slowness. Kind of like picturing the riff being /heaved/ up before it's delivered or something. 

Anyway, I think my pot of influence generally falls into the layering process of things, which can ironically make things sound more thin than anything. There's some riffs in the first song of Tchornobog that sounded "serpentine" or "twisty" or something, but those are the ones that people generally point out as heavy. Generally speaking I think whether or not something is carrying gargantuan weight is decided from the production of the material. 

I can show an example! On a The Ruins of Beverast song, "Spires, The Wailing City" off the Blood Vaults album [which was the first installment of the Albums of the Decade series, MM] there is this wonderful "buzzing" or sound effect between the guitar, bass guitar and keyboards going on at around… 04:19 or so (this is referencing the Bandcamp stream so your listening portal might vary). The first thing that people would point out if I mention that this is particularly the “h” word (saying it so many times has started to make me giggle like a fool, sorry) is due to the guitars being low and palm-muted. While it's true that it's generally a good way to make something sound H E A V Y in metal, I think some of the production details have something to do with it… the way the frequencies work with the low tuning, and more importantly, that buzzing/crackling sound effect that comes in between each strum that sounds like someone's breaking bones or some kind of electronic in front of you. I think that's an example that sticks out to me off the top of my head.

So, here goes one of my patented ridiculous questions: If “heavy” isn’t a major concern for you, and if, shall we say, a “thinning” general atmosphere is, as you say, the result of the layering you speak of, is there a way that the truly frightening thing for you, the source of real horror, isn’t the scary riff, or the bombastic production, but something like silence? That being able to make music that also makes that silence palpable (say with atmospherics, or this “thin” music) is part of what makes it “work” for you?

Hmm, I'm reading this question with two different answers so I'll just mention both of my thoughts.1 – Horror to me is silence. Not atmospheric breaks or creepy interludes, but I mean the idea of not being able to hear or make music. For me personally I can't imagine a worse fate than not being able to experience or think about it.

2 – In regards to music, composition, production, atmosphere in that realm, I struggle to find anything horrifying, but not for a lack of people trying to do so. When I was younger and discovering, shall we say, "dark" music at first, I thought things were scary or horrifying simply because of the presentation and didn't give it too much thought than that. I struggle now simply because my love for and exposure of music and the language of its inherent nature overshadows any negative feelings, which in my opinion, horror, provocation, etc, would fall into. I interpret such themes as nothing further than feeling grateful that we as humans can make something out of our emotions in order to try to communicate and perform to others what we feel from them. So while I won't necessarily feel the "horror" of an edgy teenager [ or more often now, grown adults 😉 ] trying to shock and awe people, I can definitely appreciate their frustration and that they manage to have an outlet. Of course, this can be utterly horrible and even cringe-worthy if not well-thought out or just not reflective of someone's true self.

I firmly believe that if the given work is not honest and the result of wanting attention based on other peoples' acclaim (or whatever aesthetic they put out there), it can only fall short of what it can be — a true extension of our selves or a larger body of us. I'd like to make an opinion of mine known to anyone who feels that any genre of music should be authoritarian in evoking only specific feelings or notions and say it's not worth it: Consider the fact that if everything was uniform, there would be no new ideas and the things you're influenced and love would likely not exist. Express yourself, first and foremost, because no matter how hard you try to make something "scary" or "provocative" and no matter how much you use obscure aesthetics and weaponry, it will be no match for individuality, honesty and the use of your preferred genre's blade that speaks to you the most. The more you work and meditate on this, the more special it will be. It's one of the things we're really good at as human beings. Vulnerability through music is a most precious skill and those who master this will make truly unique, and in my opinion, the most important music.

Thank you for that. That’s a very moving answer, one that I feel I can relate to quite deeply. If this were a live interview this would be the time I’d go into an overlong rant, but it’s not, so I won’t. Instead I’ll ask my final question. Usually I ask what was it about this or that project that an artist is especially proud of. But I feel like a more appropriate question here would be: What future endeavor would make the present you proud? 

That's a good one! Recently a friend said some cheesy line to me that went something like "Do things your future self will thank you for" and while it sounds like a hallmark greeting card, I can be a sucker for those motivational sayings if they're true, most of them aren't and are just trying to get you to buy something.

Anyway, that cheesy statement actually has been on my head constantly now that I have a lot I'd like to do. If you'll forgive me, I'd like to begin answering this by remembering a time earlier last year in summer of 2018 where I had a lot of existential dread (like all of us do from time to time) and I didn't know what I wanted to "do" with my life. I stayed up nights trying to figure it out, looking for jobs and volunteer opportunities, things to do, etc. There was a particular moment that felt so obvious, and it was a moment that would often occur to me, but this time it stuck for whatever reason: While I was looking for jobs and things to do, I realized that I had a guitar in my lap as I was on the computer! This is a really natural state for me — sometimes it just hangs there with me playing half a note in the amount of 3 hours and the rest of the time it's just there. Nonetheless, this realization, this time around, did something to me, and it was paired with some good news regarding my work with Vigor Deconstruct and Prophecy Productions. It was staring me dead in the face — I knew what I wanted to do! I'd have been doing it for over a decade and even before I was a teenager — I wanted to create music and art, and help enable anyone who wanted the same!

I think I've worked harder on my music career ever since that time. I know that the above paragraph might look even more like a hallmark greeting card, but it's as honest as I can put it. It was like I was outside of myself and someone pointed out that I just should keep at it because it is, for the most part, been the only reason I've ever been happy to be alive, which is why I know it's love. You should always pursue the thing that is most natural and brings you the most love. As I continue, I'm striving to also perfect the distance between the necessity of survival and the love of creating things (to put it cruder, the relationship of having your love be your job and all the issues, especially financially, that go into that) and I feel that most of my life, people have told me that I /can't/ do this sort of thing. I have fetishized proving people wrong about this particular notion in the past much, but much less nowadays as I grow into some mid-twenties responsible freak adult, but the way I describe to people who say that focusing too much on the music and art would negatively affect my survival or well-being, I tell them that not being able to nurture creation and imagination via art and music would negatively affect my survival and well-being much more.