KULL, the present incarnation of Sheffield’s long-standing Epic Fantasy Metal outfit BAL-SAGOTH, released ‘Exile‘ just before the pandemic. With 2006’ ‘Chthonic Chronicles‘ being the last full length we’d heard, would multi-instrumentalist and composer Jonny Maudlin, alongside his brother Chris, and new vocalist Tarkan Alp, steer the boat to calmer waters, or deliver the new BAL-SAGOTH album you were waiting for? Well, to our ears, they captured all the brilliance, pomp and ceremony of the last five albums, but with the darkness of the first, and with a fresh vocal style. Excellent! We catch Jonny for a quick chat on the music and themes of KULL, and where they might be going next ( hopefully more KULL shows ). And, with the passing of so many years, we wonder whether you as a fan might have considered it high time you grew out of this fantasy metal malarkey, or have you doubled down, and want more?
Hi Jonny, so how have things been for yourself and the band in the last couple of years?
Hi, we had a few of setbacks with rehearsing and playing pre-booked gigs over this time period, as did many other bands.
There was obviously quite a gap between the last Bal-Sagoth album and Kull’s Exile. How long did you spend writing the tracks?
More or less straight away, but all of the tracks took a few years to get down and record/release.
Are we right to see Kull as a musical continuation of Bal-Sagoth?
I guess for now it is the best continuation of the Bal-Sagoth thing, but hopefully in a different direction. You can’t run away from how you write or play, so there will always be similarities, especially with the lineup being essentially the same.
Exile got a well-deserved excellent review on AngryMetalGuy.com, a website that is hard to please. I heard a few seconds of a Kull demo track ( I think ) a few years ago , thought it was ok, got side-tracked by life, then let it slide until 2019, but even now I cannot get enough of Exile. How could I have doubted you? As AMG said, “…as a payoff to over a decade of Bal-Sagoth drought, it’s a work that’s more than worth the agonizing wait”. So, how has the reception been, bearing in mind the pandemic, and that your life-long fans are not so likely to have the enthusiasm and flush of youth they once did?
That’s a good question. You only hear from the fans that like what you are doing, and all echo the sentiments that you have expressed saying it sounds similar to Bal-Sagoth, it was always going to as it’s the same personnel, but hopefully different enough with elements that push it to another direction, especially the vocal content.
Despite being quite a riff-heavy album, some of the guitar parts don’t sound like they were originally written on a guitar or conceived of as a guitar part – the chromatic guitar falling chords on By Lucifers Crown for instance. Just wondered – do you ever swap instruments and their parts around?
On that track you mentioned, the guitar riffs were mainly written first, with the keyboards added afterwards. Most tracks were written/composed on keyboards first. Chris and I piece the guitar elements at the final stage of the song writing process.
As a keyboard player, things must be exciting these days, technology-wise. How have you changed things over the years?
I haven’t really, but the samples are better. Also, I trigger samples/sound effects in the live environment which I didn’t do too much in the past. I try to keep things keyboard wise as live as possible without having to use click tracks live.
On the classical music that might have inspired your move towards being a musician – what are your favourite orchestral pieces?
Classical music didn’t inspire me to be a musician, I always was one, having piano lessons from age five and listening to my parents record collection as a kid. I didn’t really get into classical music in a big way until much later. My Dad had things like The Planet Suite by Gustav Holst and The Sorcerer’s apprentice etc. which I listened to quite a lot. Later on, I got into Romantic era and twentieth century music like Wagner, Stravinski to name but a few.
On the lyrics. There is a theory, a centuries-old fight between two artforms – the potentially corrupting ‘magic’ of instrumental music, and the importance of the written word, with each fighting for dominance. I only mention it because on the last Bal-Sagoth album it seemed like a battle between the two was indeed raging, but on Exile, everything seems balanced, and the tracks seem like songs.
I don’t see the last Bal-Sagoth album as a fight for dominance, we just did the same thing we always did. I will say there are many moments of musical urgency on that album, and Byron may have been influenced to write the written word accordingly as lyricists often do.
It takes a lot of work to keep a band of five people working together, and people are bound to change a lot over time, so I think twenty plus years of Bal-Sagoth was good going, and you have only lost one member. How has that all worked out? Amicably, I hope?
We didn’t have to keep five members together, as the main stays were mainly three, and we came together when we were ready or there was a reason for it, like a gig or a new album. We obviously must keep in touch with each other concerning the business side of things.
Tarkan has settled into vocals perfectly, and the layers used in the recording process create a variety of textures that is quite ferocious. Perhaps you (or he) can tell us about him joining Kull, and the stories and texts that fuelled ‘Exile‘?
I can’t go into massive amounts of depth about the lyrics because I didn’t write them. We had known Tarkan a good few year, and he had been in bands and was a fan of Bal-Sagoth. During a couple of live Bal-Sagoth shows in the UK we were stuck without a singer as Byron pulled out, so we called Tarkan up and he did the job of front man, having to revise the setlist on a cd on his way to the gig. After this we decided to form Kull with him.
You are a band I wish I’d seen live. I went to see you in 1995 with Sigh, Hecate Enthroned and Primordial. Alas, you didn’t play – I never knew why? I missed every gig you did after that. Kull played at Beermageddon last year 2021, and I couldn’t attend – how did that show go for you, and are you ever going to play live again?
The reason we didn’t play the show you were talking about was because of the unprofessionalism of the organisers, and the grief and lack of security we met when we were there. The Beermageddon fest was a great Ice breaker/return to the stage for Kull.
Has the musical world you have created, and perhaps the writings of Robert E Howard, had an effect on how you see the world, on a daily basis? Do you mutter Robert E Howard quotes to yourself, for instance?
No, I don’t. Again, I can only speak musically, and what you hear on record was always with me in my head. If it hadn’t been, it would be a totally different band.
There are a lot of new bands about, particularly black metal bands up in the north England. Are you in touch with any bands these days?
Rarely, they tend to be friends or people we always knew or met along the way.
My daughter was a baby when she first heard ‘A Black Moon Broods….’ (Strapped into the back of a crumbling 1.3l mini metro, whilst I blasted out ‘All witches fly to me…’, belting around Birmingham with the choke out). She particularly liked reading the song titles on later releases. Have you any young fans, or inspirational stories of youth?
The great thing about this band like you mentioned is we have a wide age range of listeners, but then again, I’m not totally surprised as the band was always pretty unique anyway, and couldn’t be pigeon-holed into a particular era/category by the punters or press.
We always ask our interviewees what they have learned from their lives. So, what advice would you give, what would you say to yourselves if you could go back to the early nineties, before the band made it?
Stick to your inner truths and be brutally honest with yourself when song writing, even if you think “I like it but maybe the audience wouldn’t”. You are the best judge!
What is the purpose of your Epic Fantasy metal and why do you think so many people listen to it / crave it?’
Purpose? No real purpose or agenda with it, it’s just escapism, epic story’s set to epic fantasy music ‘scapes.
Imagine a parallel universe. What would you have been doing if it weren’t for Bal-Sagoth?
I never just did Bal-Sagoth or Kull, I’ve written music for lots of well-known bands and recorded and produced many more. If I wasn’t a musician, I probably would have gone into some sort of science related research.
To end then, what’s coming up for yourselves and Kull?
-New album, more shows.
-Thanks for the interview, and cheers to the listeners for all of the support!!