Alexander von Meilenwald | Inner landscapes

This interview has been published on Radio Metal the 10/03/2021.

In 15 years of existence, The Ruins Of Beverast managed to define an immediately recognizable style—a blend of the aggression and occult atmospheres of black metal, the animality of death metal, and the epic slowness of doom delivered in long, sprawling songs—and to push it in different directions with every album, through shrines, rain, blood vaults, and mass graves. With the last one, The Thule Grimoires, we’re heading north: Alexander von Meilenwald, the project’s mastermind, paints a threatening, hostile world in seven songs that sound like frozen barren landscapes, icy mists, and endless nights only illuminated by the magical, psychedelic colors of Northern lights and the flames of rituals performed by shamans wrapped in furs.

In keeping with his black metal roots, Meilenwald expresses himself in a precise, controlled way: the following interview has been done by email. It was made for the release of The Thule Grimoires and touches its creation, but I couldn’t resist bringing up Meilenwald’s unique path to get an insight into his creative process, his inspirations, and his views on a world that is both opaque and inhospitable.

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Apparently, when you work on an album, you write the lyrics first and then you write the music. Was it the case for The Thule Grimoires as well? Do you start working with a clear idea of what you will say and how the music will express it or is it something that you figure out along the way?

Obviously, it worked like that on Blood Vaults for example, where I didn’t play a single note before the lyrics were finished. And here it was clearly structured, central topics given and propositions clear. Things worked different on The Thule Grimoires though, because given the central “geographical” idea of the songs, I was seeking for a musical image of the deserted wastelands that the songs would tell of later. So the foundations of a concept for the album were laid beforehand, but this time I extensively wrote the lyrics when at least the basic riffs and structures and the instrumental skeletons were set. I understand things depend on the central idea of the album, but the different approaches entail different methods of operation. Given lyrical concepts may mean instrumental corsets, not easy to handle.

Before (and outside of) The Ruins Of Beverast, you’re mostly a drummer, and you have a black metal background. What influence do you think it has on the way you write music?

My drum background has indeed a very serious impact on the songwriting. The drum patterns are the most important element in many TROB-songs, after the lead guitars, and I always try to have them take their well-deserved prominence in the songs. Many of the drum parts are actually composed like guitar riffs, and I put lots of time and effort into their evolving and practicing. Drums have the power to intensively modify the whole dynamics, power and mood of a song, and I sadly witness too many people neglecting that.

Your albums often feel like concept albums, but I don’t know if you always see them as such. Do you think that The Thule Grimoires is one? Does it make your work on single tracks (for splits) very different than for whole albums?

I would say it is one because it tells a story that each song is part of. But it’s not like Blood Vaults where also the sequence and extent of the story was given beforehand. That was a different kind of composing like I said, whereas on The Thule Grimoires, I was writing songs that are able to stand alone. That means they all have their individual line of tension, while on Blood Vaults this line extended to the whole album and each song was one step in the line. Still the dramaturgy for the songs was given by the lyrics, so it was a really hard thing to develop them in such a way that they worked as songs and still served the album story. Working on the Thule Grimoires songs was not distinctively different from composing songs for a split, as they were all self-contained and had a definite beginning or end, I would dare to say. And yet, understanding a song as a part of an album sequence does change the songwriting in a way, maybe. Because you would think where to put a respective song, and if you found an option, you will certainly adapt the song to its position. At least I do, I guess…

Mythology is obviously an important inspiration for you, from the name of the band—”Beverast” is a derivation of “Bifröst”—to the title of this album. You borrow from different traditions as well. What speaks to you in mythology and those various traditions? And what roles does it play in your creative process?

It is true that I have an extended interest in mythology which may go along with my obvious interest in historiography, but it is also true that it does not play this elemental role on The Thule Grimoires that it seems to be attributed with. And besides, my possibilities to deepen my studies concerning mythology have been drastically decreased throughout recent times. The Thule Grimoires is an album about deserted landscapes and fatal, savage nature, and not so much about human beings, and thus just as little about mythology. “Thule” for instance was by all means an actual object of scientific history, and not entirely mythic. In fact, I can only think of one genuine mythological element on the album, that is Helios, at the end of it. He is the guardian of the desert and the deadly sun, which consumes the protagonist in the end. But in this role, he serves as a metaphor for a natural force that towers above man, just as “Surtur” did on Exuvia and in a way also the “Pythia”. The mythological idea in TROB lyrics, if contained, is that of man fearing and submitting to greater beings, and unknown places. Almost every time that means inferiority to nature, a dangerous, unpredictable nature animated by beings of threatening energy. Something that people of our times think to be overcome, and therefore neglect and deny. I love to bring it back, and I prefer to use mythological power when doing so, because the unknown still is man’s biggest fear. And thus also mine.

Although they seem rooted in history or myth, your lyrics often have an introspective quality—same goes for the music, which often feels like a succession of moods. Do you experience writing music as a rational process or as something that’s emotion or feeling based? And what is your aim with it? Are you trying to get the listener to feel or to think?

In a way it is both rational and emotional. Music is an art form whose blood is run by emotion, as far as you’re regarding it as art at least, sure that. However, if you let your melancholia flow out of your mind and directly pour it into music, that sounds promising, delicious even I would say, but it doesn’t guarantee a good song. At least in my experience. I still need to apply some musical measures to make it become that discomforting and menacing monolith, which a TROB song is supposed to be in my ears and mind. And that demands silence and awareness, which you actually cannot count on if you’re composing entirely out of an inner impulse. In addition, I am trying to have the songs let myself dwell and float in unfamiliar spheres and landscapes, and at best, the listener as well. And this calls for some particular audial elements that don’t arise from themselves. And third, I am very much trying not to have TROB serve as an emotional collecting tank for myself. The Ruins Of Beverast are not meant to represent me as a person, they are an artistic organism wearing its own face, and not mine.

You often evoke altered states of consciousness—trance, insanity—in the lyrics and the music. Do you think it’s what (your) music should do too—spin our perception of things?

It must! That’s how music is magic, something which I am deeply convinced of. It modifies our perception, stirs up our emotions, it changes lives. I’m just saying that composing out of pure emotion does not guarantee that the listener is experiencing it the same way. It is a bit like with art movies, the power of visual and audial art is to make yourself get lost in a strange world, forgetting about what is just happening, that is listening to a sound carrier, or watching a monitor. Instead you’re being shaken by something you cannot put your finger on and you just cannot find your way out. That’s what happens if music is working the proper way. But it needs some compositional gimmicks to get that going, and that’s really complex and yet intense work.

Your albums always feel quite narrative and build atmospheres, almost landscapes. They’re somehow cinematographic in that respect, and your use of samples of movies makes it even more striking. You also talk about your music in visual terms, in colors for instance. What would be the color of The Thule Grimoires and more generally, do you see your albums as movie-like?

All TROB albums feel like movies to me, out of reasons I named above. They possess drama and maybe even elements like a tension delay or whatever. It is an exciting yet somehow also straight way to compose, and it grants multiple possibilities to check if the atmosphere works. But speaking of landscapes, as I mentioned above, The Thule Grimoires are the most intense TROB album in this regard. It’s not only that they build instrumental landscapes, which TROB songs do by nature, but this time it is indeed very particular and vivid wastelands that are designed by the music, to serve the concept. The Thule Grimoires are of a dirty nature green certainly, it’s what the artwork illustrates, because the color was in my head from the beginning somehow. Don’t ask me why.

You seem to enjoy goth-leaning music: you’ve covered Dead Can Dance and Depeche Mode, and Type O Negative is an influence of yours. It’s never been more obvious than on The Thule Grimoires. Was it deliberate, and if yes, why did you choose to explore this this time? What draws you to these artists?

I still don’t remember saying Type O Negative was an influence for The Ruins Of Beverast, I just keep reading it with regards to the new album, and I can only repeat myself, I don’t think that I have a big deal with anything “goth”, apart from my old Bauhaus-, Siouxsie- and Sisters-LPs. And I don’t know why this always pops up with the new album, because it is mainly reduced to the clean vocals. But the clean vocals are not a product of a goth preference, yet they learned a new productional paint, that wasn’t ever used before like this. I like Type O for what they are, and I’m a lifetime supporter of Depeche Mode, as they were my first serious contact with music, no doubt here. But I wouldn’t be able to say they had an explicit impact on my way of singing, and speaking of Pete Steele, my voice doesn’t even come close to his inhumane capacity, so I wouldn’t try to imitate him.

You often say that professionalism is a danger for creativity, and for extreme metal as a genre. On the other hand, your music is quite sophisticated and needs a certain quality of production and so on. How do you find the balance between DIY and artistic ambition?

Yes, hard question. I guess I may just have been lucky here. You know, I’ve been recording the TROB albums at my rehearsal place for years, and that was the way I wanted it to be, because I had total freedom of acting without any enervating discussion with music producers. They wouldn’t have understood me anyway, my way of working with music can be a weird one, and especially the prominent elements in TROB, lead guitars, clean vocals, samples, often evolve from longsome or quirky workflows. I wouldn’t have the time to do this in a studio, so I would have to prepare them beforehand. And that is something I have never made positive experience with, people who produce conventional Heavy Metal or Rock albums seem to have difficulties when including such weird stuff in their production, if they even accept it. Now, that’s one of the aspects why I think that people who call themselves professional often think the conventional way, and conventional thinking and creativity don’t go together for me. However, when I met Michael [Zech, also known as Arioch] and he became our live guitarist, I was just lucky that he was actually an educated studio technician, because his approach to music is still as far away from conventionality as my own. That is why I am now able to extend TROB’s recording possibilities, because as much as I enjoyed working alone, I am not educated in this matter, so I met some limitations. Working with a friend in a studio now means, we can experiment with oddities, create a powerful guitar sound without sticking to the rules of modern Metal production, and keep the true nature of The Ruins Of Beverast.

You’ve been in the scene for about 25 years and you went from straight-up black metal to the very rich, unpredictable and varied sound of the last albums of The Ruins Of The Beverast. Are you still driven by the same thing? The scene changed vastly: did it change anything to you?

I guess what really changed—and I also experience that with my old friends—is the stance over belonging to a “scene”. It was obvious that the early 90s, 2nd wave Of Black Metal or whatever you wanna call it, was referred to as a scene, because it was vehemently striving for isolation and defined itself through negativity. And as I said often, I was proud being part of it, the energy of this time had the hugest possible impact on me. But the idea of Black Metal that evolved within this scene is non-existent anymore, and frankly, it was faded in the late 90s already, even before the internet era, in my humble opinion. So, what scene would I actually be part of today? I was talking of conventional thinking before, and what could be more conventional that seeking for a category to fit in? I guess that is—and must be—something that people grow out of, once their artistic vision is complete. The Ruins Of Beverast are still driven by wrath and contempt for the ignorance of mankind, and that sure hasn’t diminished since the time I spoke of, since my adolescence, since the early 90s, since Nagelfar. But I guess my channels and tools, and also my tongues are different today. My teenage thinking was displayed by straight, sometimes certainly shortsighted accusations, within The Ruins you’ll find a more pictorial, abstract, and surely also cynical approach, which maybe is just a regular development in human attitudes. I am not reflecting on this so much. My vision is clear with The Ruins Of Beverast, and following it is the only path for me.

 

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