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

his is the 41st installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]

Artist: Malokarpatan

Album: Nordkarpatenland

Year: 2017

Label: Invictus Productions

Favorite Song: "Ked svetlonosi započnú v močariskách nazeleno svícit (When will-o'-the-wisps begin to shine green in the bogs)"

The Bare Bones: Nordkarpatenland is the second full length from Slovakian black metal outfit Malokarpatan, founded in Bratislava in 2014.

The Beating Heart: "Catching the spirit" seems to be an idiom well suited for describing, coming to terms with, and admiring the singular force that Malokarpatan has become in the last few years. Catching the spirit in terms of the band's commitment to locality, what in wine-making terms could be termed the terroir in which its blend of heavy metal and black metal grows: that of Slovakian language, legend, and culture. When you think of it it really is a kind of small miracle that a band as engrossed in locality achieved as much international support as Malokarpatan has, at least in underground terms, and yet their "catching of the spirit" seems to be a big part of that appeal. But catching the spirit also works on another level, namely in Malokarpatan's tapping at the spirit and force of the musical traditions from which it draws inspirations and using that essence to make something entirely new. So when Malokarpatan "combines" black and heavy metal it does so, yes, in spirit: in the rebelliousness and abrasiveness of first- and second-wave black metal and in the sheer joy and showmanship that was such a big part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Where the two combine, in spirit, is in a magical of over-the-top-ness that exudes from every track on Nordkarpatenland: the over-the-top-ness of storytelling, of drama, of flashy leads, and of an almost progressive impulse to keep the listener guessing, to always shift and move, never sustaining any one moment or mood – as arresting as those moods can be – for them to overstay their welcome.

It is this rare and, dare I say, exhilarating and, yes, enjoyable mix of earth and sky that marks Malokarpatan as one of the leaders of the new school of European black metal, a position further solidified with the release of the brilliant and sprawling Krupinské ohne earlier this year. And it is for those reasons precisely that I have chosen to include this wonderful album in the Albums of the Decade series via an interview with the band's founder and main songwriter, As.

As usual before we get to my exchange with Jaime this is my chance to encourage you to check out the rest of the Albums of the Decade series (and the rest of our interviews, including a news series about the great albums of the 90s) as well our new podcast (YouTubeSpotify and all that) and/or our latest compilation album MILIM KASHOT VOL. 2. Also follow us on FacebookInstagramSpotify and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, if you like what you see here (for whatever reason). Thank you for your time and support. On to As and Malokarpatan.

Is there a moment with a song or an album, maybe as a younger person, that really changed what you thought about music or made you want to become a musician yourself? Obviously there might be more than one of these, but anything that stands out?

This one is hard to answer in my case, as it has come to me already around the age of three or four. My older brother was about to enter his early teenage years (we are talking early 90s) and got into metal music, which at the time was experiencing a boom around Czechoslovakia. Lots of very random people were into metal, like our neighbor next door and several of brother's friends around the nearby streets. This era soon disappeared around the mid 90s, but it's what formed me already before I started attending elementary school. My father was an old hard rock fan from the 70s, which helped too. It was quite normal to see heavy metal videoclips on the national TV at that time, so those were some of my first visual impressions. One that I particularly remember is trying tonlook like the frontman of Slovak band Tublatanka, who used to put these sort of laces around the headstock of his guitar, inspired by local folklore clothing. I had a toy guitar and forced my parents to wrap pieces of cloth around it to resemble him.

  1. As a follow up, can you understand better now, with the years that have passed, what it was that grabbed you about that initial moment? Perhaps an element you retained in your own music?

I was always into strong melodies and into music that conjures up atmosphere. This also meant that after flirting with death metal in my youngest days, I soon moved towards black metal as it covered a far wider emotional spectrum. So it was an easy "decision", I knew I will be making my own music some time in the future. The only issue was how young I was. So for the first years, after the plastic toy guitars, I had just a cheap small sized classical guitar which I played from around 95 to 2001. In early 2002, at the age of 15, I finally got my first electrical guitar and I would soon enter the local underground scene with a bunch of amateurish demos.

Could you speak a bit about how the band came together and whether or not you felt like you operated within a defined musical scene?

I never felt part of the local scene, despite the fact you obviously belong there just for geographic reasons. But you could see Malokarpatan as a continuation of the sort of lost art of early Czechoslovakian black metal, the way it was played before the Norwegian model became so popular. That early scene I have much respect for after all the time has passed from its heyday – as a kid I would by far prefer foreign artists, but now with the bigger perspective at hand, I see how unique it was. I see Malokarpatan as just a chapter in my overall musical evolution, the obvious exception about it is that it reached success internationally, which never happened with my previous recordings/bands. It first started as my solo thing, but already during the recording of the first album, I invited two of my old friends to contribute and before the second album appeared, we developed into a five-member band playing live gigs. I still write all of the material, but the band is definitely a more team effort now compared the early phase.

Slovakia isn’t a name on everyone’s lips when it comes to extreme metal, despite having a very fertile and busy scene. Do you feel like that sense of distance or isolation contributes to your ability to express your ideas? That there’s an advantage, in other words, to being the underdog in that sense?

I think our scene is extremely small, especially when you compare it to places like Finland or Norway that have about the same size of population, yet immensely more bands. Being the underdog might be an interesting factor these days for sure, when people are more and more superficial in their listening habits and music is spread by the means of someone posting "Yo, have you heard of this cavernous blackened death metal from Tajikistan" on their social media. And then it gets forgotten a week later, haha. Jokes aside, the former Eastern bloc still has this sort of aura of mystique around it even for Europeans themselves, it's like the vast lands of Rhûn on the map of Middle Earth. People usually know Prague due to its touristic nature, but then it all goes vague. Many of the classic gothic horror stories come from these parts, including those based on real historical figures like Elizabeth Bathory and Vlad Tepes. So I think despite of the overall low activity here, we have pretty much perfect cultural backgrounds for black metal inspiration.

Stridžie dni was a very raw, very aggressive-sounding record, owing much to first and second-wave sounds. And yet as you moved into Nordkarpatenland the production and sound become much more polished and more cohesive. Does this owe to practicalities like more experience recording or more time or was this a conscious choice to emphasize the “sheen” of the music?

The debut album was intentionally meant to sound ugly and rough. I wanted it to have that Return-era Bathory vibe, sounding like a dimly lit wooden cottage in 15th century, where people are afraid of malefic spirits lurking in the darkness, damaging their crops and cattle. Nordkarpatenland was more inspired by NWOBHM and generally classic metal from the early 80s, so it called for a different sound again. And it was also recorded professionally in a studio, unlike Stridžie dni. With the third album, we did sort of a mix of both approaches – it is still recorded professionally in a studio, but we again went for a bit more lo-fi sound, because the darker nature of the material was calling for it.

One of the noteworthy aspects of Nordkarpatenland is its mix of two seemingly separate modes of black metal – the first is a harsher, Darkthrone-like style and the second is what you would call a love of all things “flashy” – harmony, NWOBHM-like solos and lines, and some of the grandiosity of bands like Summoning or Emperor. What would you say brought about this link between a very serious and, may I say, very fun and upbeat style?

Interesting question, you might be up to something! I just have to say, there is very minimal Darkthrone influence in most of our recordings – that being said while I still love old Darkthrone and continue having respect for their recent works too. But their music has been imitated so many times – same as Burzum – that the last thing I'd want to do would be to sound like yet another Under a Funeral Moon or Transylvanian Hunger clone. So if there are parts that remind you of them, it's either because we take inspiration from the same 80s bands as they did, or in some cases it's just my subconscious side working as I of course listen to their albums quite often. While hoping not to sound like a pretentious fool, I think that sort of conflict within our music is between those two so-called Apollonian and Dionysian approaches to art. Malokarpatan is definitely more Dionysian, but the Apollonian elements try to fight through, most prominently on our second album. I like both of these approaches to music, but one of the key things I want to always keep in Malokarpatan is that element of madness and unpredictability, even in moments of melodic catchiness.

Another thing that has been apparent in Nordkarpatenland and perhaps even more prominently in Krupinské ohne is an inclination toward progressive dynamics. There are moments, of course, of dynamics in Stridžie dni but those felt more like isolated ideas, whereas this changing things around with pace and volume became a much bigger part of your sound. Was this need to change things up and keep them varied there all along, or was it something that developed with the band?

It's mostly just the fact that I love variety. I'm not the kind of guy who always orders just chocolate ice cream, I want to try licorice too and even gorgonzola. All of our albums are naturally different from each other and this will likely never change. But another element to it is that with the debut album I only discovered the overall concept and world of Malokarpatan. With newer recordings, I am now expanding on it and looking into the hidden corners. There is a strong psychedelic aspect when it comes to traditional Slovak folktales (which are the basis of many of our songs) and I really enjoy mixing it up with the more basic meat and potatoes metal parts.

What would you say is the biggest “non-metal” influence on Nordkarpatenland?

Old local movies – both their soundtracks and the overall folkloric and quirky atmosphere. There are also some small signs of 70s progressive rock influences that became more prominent on Krupinské ohne – I actually planned to delve more into that on Nordkarpatenland already, but in the end I didn't have enough studio time left to fool around with it. For example I brought glockenspiel to the studio for Nordkarpatenland sessions, but due to the short amount of time, I would only use it on the next album. One of my big inspirations is also a classic Slovak musical from the 70s called Na skle maľovan. (Painted on the glass) which deals with the life of Juraj Jánošík, a semi-mythical figure of our history from the 18th century who was a major inspiration for the artists of Slovak Romanticism movement in the 19th century – which in turn are also an inspiration for me. I think Nordkarpatenland is a mixture of all these elements – the classic 80s metal songwriting and catchiness, the black metal madness and mystery, and the folk psychedelia coming from our local culture. Another big inspiration source are old puppet theaters and marionettes, again closely connected to folk culture and superstitions.

Looking back, is there something you’re especially proud of when you look back at Nordkarpatenland?

I am still extremely satisfied with the album and I also understand why it's often a favorite among our fans. Although funnily enough, it did get its share of criticism by the time it came out, as people expected another filthy Bathory-like record after the debut LP. I guess what I'm proud of is that it doesn't include any weak song – you could maybe say the 9th song has the most primitive structure, but that's why it was added to the album, to counter-balance the more melodic songs, and it works great live too. My only struggle was the albums sound, as it was a little bit too polished for my taste at first (again, coming from the really harsh sounding debut album), but I got used to it and I think it will probably stand the test of time, even production-wise. Krupinské ohne is a much more specific record, it's for introverts, for people who delve deep into the weirder elements of our music. Nordkarpatenland is our "hit" record and I am perfectly fine with that.