"What's that godawful noise you're listening to, sagger maker's bottom knocker? - My father, to me, in 2006, upon me subjecting him to Bal-Sagoth's sixth album, "The Chthonic Chronicles" on a visit home from university.
"Yano, I told them that would happen." - John Peel, BBC Radio, upon playing Bal-Sagoth's epic song "And Lo! when the Imperium marches upon Cul-Kothoth, then Dark Sorceries shall Enshroud the Citadel of the Obsidian Crown"
"That basterd song broke my iTunes with its name!" - My mate Alexander, upon attempting to play an MP3 I sent him of "In the Raven Haunted Forests of Darkenhold, Where Shadows Ebb and the Hues of Sunlight Never Dance"
"By all the Gods! I shall carve my path in bloody carnage, and inscribe my saga upon the scrolls of legendry in the spilt blood of slaughtered kings!" - Bal-Sagoth, "Naked Steel"
"It's not normally good practice to start a writeup with more than one quote about the subject you're writing on, but Bal-Sagoth are so epic it's unavoidable, and if you disagree, then this writeup was not made for such puling mortal worms as thou; begone!" - Me, just now.
Formed in 1991 and named after a short story by Robert E. Howard entitled "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth," this five-piece Britannic Battle Metal band hail from Yorkshire, of all places, which is about as far from the praesidium of Ys as Cheryl Cole is from being a socially acceptable person and not a selfish overpaid loutkin who punches nightclub attendants. They consist of Byron Roberts, on vocals and lyrics, Jonny Maudling on keyboards and compositions and production duties, Chris Maudling on guitars, Paul Jackson (formerly of a wonderfully named death metal band called Extreme Maggot Infestation), and Alastair McClatchey on bass.
They are known for having songs with ridiculously over the top and belt-hitching names, and lyrics that are best not so much sung as proclaimed, ideally with a sword in one hand and a chained naked slave girl in the other, in a "here are my genitals, please kick them" pose, and bare-chested, usually vaguely about pulp science fiction and fantasy novels. Although this is not strictly accurate; their lyrics are all excerpts from as-yet-unwritten fantasy sagas penned by the frontman, all of which are set in different ages of an "Antediluvian Age" and which seem to incorporate bits and pieces from all types of fantasy and science fiction. These are either, as mentioned above, proclaimed as if atop a pile of dismembered corpses of one's enemies, or given the black metal screech treatment. While underneath, blast beats hammer out, buzzsaw-like yet crunchy guitar riffs storm along, and Jonny Maudling throws massive orchestral arrangements (albeit on keyboards) into the mix, and it sounds fucking amazing beyond belief. Imagine the soundtrack to an epic fantasy film, then give it a solid-steel enema and that's close to what Bal-Sagoth sounds like. This is music that makes you bloody well sit up and take note. It is no coincidence that a fan-vid of their song "As the Vortex Illumines the Crystalline Walls of Kor-Avul-Tha'a" was made using clips from Frank Frazetta and Ralph Bakshi's "Fire and Ice." In fact, if they made another Heavy Metal film, then Bal-Sagoth would have to be in there somewhere. I mean, Byron Roberts even sounds like the frickin' Loc-Nar. That's the sheer level of awesome we're talkin' about here, people.
And then there's the musicality and songwriting. No verse-chorus-verse mediocrity here, folks. We've got stuff here that goes on and on and on and on. In a way it's a bit like Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg," in that the overture has no repetition or structure to it, yet hangs together perfectly, just as a lot of Bal-Sagoth tracks, except the Sagoth doesn't kick off six hours of opera with no word for "fluffy" in it. By simply playing with a theme for six to eight minutes, they produce such masterworks as they do. Those songs that do have repeated segments usually follow a "mirror" type ABCDEDCBA arrangement, if you follow, except the segments on the way down usually are variants themselves on their mirrors on the way up if you know what I mean. Sort of like... ahhh stuffitt, go and listen to "Of Carnage and a Gathering of the Wolves" to get the idea of that. You will be converted. The best way I can explain it is by saying that the songwriting and musicianship is what allows them to get away with the sorts of lyrics they do and not be thought a joke. The same applies to Rhapsody of Fire, although Rhapsody are more about quests and honour and nobility and searching for the Emerald Sword as opposed to "crush the Tellurian sphere, and all those flaccid lickspittles who purport to guard it!"
Oh, and let's get back to the lyrics. Motorhead may have congratulated themselves on getting "parallelogram" into a song, but Bal-Sagoth have a song about an alien icosahedron ("The Voyagers Beneath the Mare Imbrium"). To put this into perspective, the closest anyone else in the world of music gets to such geometric brilliance is... well, nobody, unless Lady GaGa's decided to go out dressed in an oblate trapezoid bra this week. (Oh, and GaGa, if you're reading this, and think that's a good idea, I want a cut.) Then there's the bit in "Sixscore and Ten Oblations to a Malefic Avatar" in which Byron goes on about "a vespertine viper's nest of sublime wickedness". So it's not all chanting and belt-hitching, they do have quite a way with words, in a sort of overdone and tongue-tangling kind of way. Though anyone who hasn't nursed a semi/cracked a moistie upon hearing the opening to "Behold, the Armies of War Descend Screaming From the Heavens!" is probably lying.
Bal-Sagoth, sadly, are more than a little defunct now. I cannot help but shake the impression that they called it a day after their sixth album, the notes to the last-song of which, "Return to Hatheg Kla," indicate the "six coruscating rings of power" that led to Altarus and his apprentice Xerxes of the Praexeum learning knowledge of "the end. The end of all there is!" Whether this means the Sagothverse is over I do not know, but I hope not. We still don't know what happened after the Ogre Mage of the Black Lake and the Swordmaster of Kyrmanku spake the words which unfetter when the Obsidian Crown was unbound, nor do we know if Zyl-Zyn-Horhuz's progeny consumed him. There's been no action on their part, not properly anyhow, since 2007 or so, and as such it may be all over. If, however, your intrigue has been piqued, here follows a rundown of their works:
- 1. A Black Moon Broods over Lemuria. This is their first album and it's less epic and a lot more straight-up black metal than their later works. It's dark. Darker than Cthulhu's cackpipe. Less proclamations and more growling. Still good though.
- 2. Starfire Burning upon the Ice Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule. Everything's bigger on this album compared to the first one! It's got more synths, more epicness, and the start of a lot of Bal-Sagoth's best loved storylines (best loved? Who am I trying to kid?!). If I could sum this album up in a word it would be "cold." The synths howl round the soundscape like the biting North wind, and the guitars have a grim, forbidding tone to them that underscores the inestimable horror that's about to swallow your SOUL until the stalwart men of the synth parts come riding in to save the day. (Did I just seriously write that? Zounds, I'm good.)
- 3. Battle Magic. In Byron Roberts's words, if Starfire Burning was like The Empire Strikes Back, then this is like Return of the Jedi. It's more triumphant and upbeat and even a bit thrashy at times. Whereas on Starfire Burning you were fighting for survival against a horde, here you're fighting for glory and honour and epic battle and being able to stand over the corpses of your slain foes and shout, "AND THE CROWS SHALL FEAST UPON THE EYES OF THE SLAIN!" if that makes sense. A lot of the best sing-along parts are on here, and the longest song title in metal - weighing in at 30 words, it's "The Dark Liege of Chaos is Unleashed at the Ensorcelled Shrine of A'zura Ka'i (The Splendour of a Thousand Swords Gleaming Beneath the Blazon of the Hyperborean Empire, Part Two)." One of their more accessible albums for n00bs.
- 4. The Power Cosmic. Bal-Sagoth conquers outer space! A lot more synth-heavy, this one is, and also quite martialistic. The storyline here surrounds an alien icosahedron that's dug up on the Moon and accidentally releases Zurra, a pan-dimensional being bent on destruction. This album features the single best song (in my opinion) by Bal-Sagoth in the form of "Of Carnage and a Gathering of the Wolves," and also has a song about Galactus on it. You know you want to.
- 5. Atlantis Ascendant. Probably their weakest album; I don't own it and have only heard it the once or twice. I do remember "Atlantis Ascendant" being a pretty tasty track though.
- 6. The Chthonic Chronicles. It's all about Lovecraft, and it rules harder than a chav's cock upon seeing a Tinchy Stryder video. This is the hardest and crunchiest album since the first one, and has the sort of thick, meaty production that makes the Sagoth sound their best. It has the most incredible lyrics, the harshest sounding riffs, the most declamatory sing along bits, and it generally rules. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that it was one of the best metal albums of the 2000s without a shadow of a doubt.
And that's about it. If music be the food of love, then BROODING GODS OF THE NORTH, DISPLAY UNTO THIS OUTLINE OF THRALLS THINE IRE, ENVENOM OUR BLADES WITH THE DEATH KISS OF A THOUSAND SERPENTS, UNFETTER THE DREAD WAR WOLVES WITHIN US, THAT THEIR CLAWS MAY REND, AND THEIR JAWS MAY BE REDDENED.