In early 2014, New Jersey-based black metal band Hercyn sent me a copy of their debut release, the excellent Magda. To say that I was blown away by the twenty-four minute, single track demo would be an understatement; this was the kind of gloomy, neo folk-tinged black metal I had been yearning for more of ever since Agalloch released their classic The Mantle back in 2002. A subsequent split with Thera Roya spoke to the band’s dedication to continuing to refine their sound, but it also left me wanting more. Fortunately I don’t have to wait any longer, as Hercyn are about to release Dust and Ages. Indeed, the band’s first full length makes good on the promise of the their previous shorter releases, delivering a pair of epic tracks (plus an intro and outro) that are easily the band’s most accomplished and fully-realized works to date. Curious to know more about the band’s inner workings and the creation of Dust and Ages, I sent the band a slew of questions which they graciously answered in great depth via e-mail.
You’re about to release your debut full length, Dust and Ages. How would you describe the album to folks who haven’t heard it yet? What were your goals going into the writing and recording of your first album and how did those goals evolve as the album progressed?
E. Wawiorko: Our goal with any release is to capture us in the moment, to create an aural document of us as musicians and artists at the current time. Magda was recorded as a two piece, and we used a drum machine at the time. Despite the digital drumming taking away from the quality of the music, Magda captured us at the moment we made that release. It was a blueprint for our vision at the time, longer compositions, a focus on melody and harmony, our love of black metal, Swedish music, and progressive metal.
In the months after releasing Magda, we had received a lot of positive feedback (including THKD/IG! Thank you!) and we knew this was a project we wanted to pursue even further. First we wanted to play the music live. Tony had joined the band on bass and Mike had joined on drums and we were able to bring the band to a live setting. The next step was creating a full length. This process began in early 2015, with music finished by the summer ready to record in June and July.
Again, our goal was to capture us as a band at the current moment and present the world with a Hercyn album. Writing with the addition of two members, finally having real drums in studio, and pushing our song-writing skills; are all things we had in mind. The band goal for the album was to have a full and coherent project, with a definitive start and end. A personal goal for this album was to have a better vocal approach, I wanted something more raw and cold and throatier than before.
To describe this album to those who haven’t heard it, it’s melodic black metal with a nod to Swedish death metal and progressive rock. There are folk moments, but there are also moments where the music sounds classical, sometimes even hints of chamber music.
M. DiCiancia: This album, Dust & Ages, is a living example of our evolution as a band as a whole and I think generally expresses an increased energy. Our evolution as a band has gone through a lot of evolutions of momentum, from it being just Ernest and I writing privately for personal release to now being a full band with a lot of energy and confidence. We’re at a point now where the 5 plus years of Hercyn is starting to break forth dynamically, with all the energies adding up, from the time conceptualizing the project, writing and playing the music, performing it with the reciprocal energies of the given crowds we’ve faced, the added energies of Mike T. and Tony S., the increased attention from without our group on what we’re doing, and a general maturity that comes with time and experience are all lending to what we are as a creative force and so now there can be a bit of an overflowing of this growth that we’re releasing as Dust & Ages.
The center tracks of this piece are more aggressive than our previous work, and take on a new dynamic from what we’ve released prior. I think that both of the central tracks on this album are also unique from one another, though sharing a general advanced aggressiveness that took a lot longer to develop in a song like Magda, or was present in Dusk & Dawn but in more of a droning sense and less of an intrusive power that I believe comes forth in these songs. Both of these songs have more punch right out of the gate, so to speak, without sacrificing the central qualities of what make our music what it is for us: which is a well-thought out composition that plays out like a journey and carries a tapestry of emotions across the soundscape that is intended to take the listener along with it on the path. These songs still have the feel of a journey with ups and downs and we still maintain the unforced flow of the composition so that songs which might be 10 or 15 minutes in length pass by for the listener without becoming stale or over-welcome yet still leaving with a sense of completion. We write these songs for ourselves based on the given emotional advance we wish to convey and with the intention of telling a story and they do not end until they naturally resolve themselves.
E. Wawiorko: We played for two years as a duo and as the songs we were writing began to take more concrete form, Mike and I realized we wanted to play the songs live. Our demo Magda was created with programmed drums. We got positive feedback on that despite the “drumming” which led to being more inspired to find a drummer and bring our music to a stage.
M. Toscarelli: In late 2013, I responded to a ‘drummer wanted’ ad in a local online classified section. I heard the Magda demo and was intrigued by the music. Playing twenty minute songs is a challenge. Alas, they got me now. After learning their programmed drum sections, I was able to employ my own abilities within the music, adding that awaited dimension.
M. DiCiancia: Hercyn started as a reaction to uncomfortable places Ernest and I were in expressively at the time we began playing together. I think both Ernest and I sought something with a bit more spirit and that zapped less energy from us as composers and players from previous projects, so we started something that was purely about music with a natural life in it that flowed from us without exertion. The first time we played in front of others was just Ernest and I on acoustic guitars, which was probably the first instance where we began to consider Hercyn as something more than a private means of expression in our friendship. It was over a year after we started before the concept of Hercyn being a full band was openly discussed. Both Ernest and I come from heavier musical backgrounds so I think the development into that was a natural progression for us, though starting off as an acoustic duo lent a lot of the development of our sound which might not have occurred otherwise.
Hercyn’s ability to build tension and suspense, carry the song into a wild tempest or bring it to calm fluidly, to generate the feeling of journey, epic tale, or emotional rush is largely impacted by Mike’s skill and sense of dynamics and his natural fit into what Ernest and I write melodically. It is without question that what we are as a live band now is influenced by what he can do.
Tony’s approach to using the bass to progresses the movement of the song under the riffs, hold the rhythm to let the leads breathe without taking away from the intensity of a section, and to add melody and harmony to more open sections in the songs where the guitar is undistorted or driving something heavy and broad where Tony will find the gaps and add to the energy of the part is another huge aspect of our band. Tony presence in the band is dual, as he is also the engineer on all of our recordings, his role in the studio is integral and we are entirely in the hands of his skill as an engineer when it comes to our recordings.
Ernest plays many roles in Hercyn. His lyrical concepts are a large part of what underlies our music, and his ability to relate those concepts to the rest of the band and flesh them out with us is what allows us to write music to fit them. Ernest is also is a massive contributor to the writing process, where the song gets anchored by a riff or idea he has, or adding a lead to make a part what it is supposed to be, and even balancing me out with his solo work which I feel is very much contrasting to what I do compositionally. Our personal influences and approach to writing on guitar make Hercynian guitar work a product of a very diverse tandem that fulfills one another in a polar sense. This freedom we each have matches the philosophy of the band to begin with and the cyclical nature of our music. His vocals are another thing which he brings to the table that gives us our sound and is important to what we are as a final product. Ernest is also a big part of the production end of Hercyn, playing a large part in the art direction of album design.
I should also mention that without the energies of each individual driving the desire and work of the project, nothing would get done, from simply organizing rehearsals or times to compose, to booking shows and contacting the relevant people we need to be in contact with for all the things we do.
What I bring to the table is harder to say, I would rather let others judge that. I try to fulfill my role not only in composition but also as an interesting lead guitarist, so expressing interesting phrasing in leads and solos, and I also try to add my influences to give a heavier feel to the band when I can and also add a Western classical music influence to our sound as this is something that is a big part of what drives my playing. Bits of Of Ruin, such as the reel-like leads or traditional strumming patterns express hints of Irish folk which is another part of my individual taste in players and composing that I hope adds something special to this album.
You guys have a penchant for writing epic length songs. What challenges does writing such lengthy, complex material present? What’s the secret to keeping a fifteen-plus minute track compelling from start to finish?
E. Wawiorko: The most immediate challenge we had was keeping track of every part and then discussing it later. In songs with common rock/pop structures, it’s easy to refer to a stanza or chorus, but we had issues discussing our music, “Oh that part, the one that comes after that other part”. It became obvious we had to write our music out on paper. All of Hercyn music is scored and everyone in the band has references so we can simply refer to measure numbers now. As to what keeps long songs compelling, for me it’s a matter of interest or taste. There always has to be some movement, emotional, melodic, harmonic, the song has to go somewhere. Take me to another place.
M. Toscarelli: I don’t want to let the the duration of music change the way I think about playing. In the past, I would play constant improvisational music, for half an hour and more at a time recording along the way. When they came to me and showed me their ‘Magda’ track to me, at a reeling twenty minutes plus long, I took it as a challenge to see if I can execute all their drumming needs, add my own personal flair, and keep the intensity and endurance up for such a time frame.
M. DiCiancia: The central challenge in composing a long piece of music is sticking with the concept over time, which, with patience, allows the piece to mature naturally. The main difficulty lies not in composing the music for I find that the music will naturally lead from itself into the new ideas, but in maintaining the energy and presence required for a composer to be at his peak over the long writing process. Constructing songs of such length is an exercise in stoicism. A composer must not only establish a musical idea, but ensure the idea progresses in a relevant direction, which is how one ensures a tolerable, cohesive flow to the music for the entire length without becoming bland. This process becomes cumbersome when writing sessions are splintered into numerous meetings as is the case for expansive compositions. The convolution arises from the contrasting directions a song can progress from session to session. Our thoughts and emotions as beings can change from moment to moment, therefore a conceptual center, capable judgment and a discerning ear are paramount in this process.
One of my favorite things about Hercyn is the way you balance the progressive and melodic elements of your sound with the raw darkness that black metal is traditionally known for. Is this intentional or does the music just come out that way? How would you describe the process of crafting a Hercyn track?
E. Wawiorko: It just comes out this way. We all have pretty broad and varied tastes in music so it seems natural that there is lots of stylistic variety. We don’t particularly say we’re going to write a black metal section or make this more melodic, or whatever. Everything we write has to be written for the ‘song’. We are highly interested in experimenting and jamming out parts or ideas. It’s often what comes out most natural is what sounds best, but we have a certain freedom with each other. I’ll spend time with our other guitar player or drummer and jam and improv over parts and chord progressions, and before we even have a moment to think about what we played there are already ideas and songs flowing out of us.
As for the writing process of a Hercyn track, it feels as though most often, we start with some initial idea, a riff, melody, chord progression or maybe even just a mood or theme and everything is channeled out of that. As musicians, we are definitely in charge of the initial ideas we write, but the further we get from the first idea, the more time we spend writing a song, the more the song takes on its own individual spirit or essence. Writing such long songs isn’t as intellectual as it might seem. I’m definitely interested in writing music full of wonder and intensity, based more on emotion and reaction. After we have a melody or harmony, everything moves fast, there is no time to ask where it came from, just know that the idea is manifested through our hands onto the instrument.
M. Toscarelli: With Hercyn, I make it my job to adapt to what is written and what the song calls for. Starting with the foundation, playing and experimenting at rehearsals, I approach the music with intensity always playing for the ‘song’.
M. DiCiancia: Ernest and I compose music together naturally. Some writers I’ve known create a song wanting it to be in the vein of something that inspires them though. For us, our music is what comes from our playing as we work with the philosophical concept that we want to write music around and from there the music fleshes itself out. That said, of course subconscious influences are going to play their part, and both Ernest and I are heavily influenced by progressive guitar work, for Ernest it’s predominantly Alex Lifeson and Rush and for me Jethro Tull. Beyond that, my only formal lessons for guitar was classical styling, particularly stringed baroque compositions, so I feel that shines through heavily on what I do on guitar. When it came to playing extreme metal, I started listening to music mostly from the Gothenburg scene, with my first introduction into black metal also coming from the melodic spectrum through bands like Dissection, Abigor and Naglfar. Over the past few years, I’ve been especially interested in exploring folk guitar, such as the work of Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, which for example I can point out some Gaelic folk strumming influence is present in the outro section of ‘Of Ruin’. All of these influences have melodic and/or progressive centers driving the style so I think this is what my basis is when I start to compose my own songs for Hercyn.
Dust and Ages doesn’t include lyrics. Can you give us some insight as to the album’s themes and where you’re coming from lyrically?
E. Wawiorko: The common theme of Dust and Ages is decay and loss and what comes out of this loss, an expansion if you will. Dust quite literally refers to cosmic space dust, which can be left over from old dead stars and sometimes helps in the formation of new stars or planets. Ages is a reference to time but really names our insignificance over the course of time and our universe. A lot of my lyrics deal with cycles. Of Ruin is concretely about Roman ruins and how such wonderful monuments still stand, despite all the decay and time they’ve weathered. If these ruins gives us such a glorious site, why can’t we be glorious in our loss?
As for Storm Before the Flood, I began writing that song in October 2012 during the hurricane the east coast was hit with. After the hurricane, a personal event began that was resolved in December of that year. That timescape is where the song comes from. It was a dark and confusing time, almost like a storm, but after it all settled life felt very heavy for a while as if it had been flooded. Writing this song and recording has been therapeutic. The ending of that song deals with the expanse of open space that a flood may bring, washing away everything that was previously there.
E. Wawiorko: The quote is: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” This is the context for the whole album. To me, this quote really captures the essence of what I wanted to say. There are a finite number of atoms in our infinite universe. We aren’t “born into” the universe, but born out of it. What we perceive as death is not an eternal collapse; we go back to the universe. It ties in directly with the idea that stars are born and die to create new stars and planets. Waters flood and wash away for new growth to happen. It’s all very cyclical. Whitman captures that. Whitman had a mysticism about him, he understood that nature had a certain ineffable quality and understood time not to be disjointed or separate but continuous. These themes definitely influence my lyrics.
M. DiCiancia: The transcendentalist movement was a powerful philosophical reaction to the progress in the US of collectivist ‘humanism’ against self-sufficiency and in a more general and intangible way, nature itself. The nature of life in North America during the earliest colonial periods through the expansion westward had always had a wild character to it, a sense of freedom and individuality almost as if it was the wild spirit of Europe rebirthing itself. Self-reliance and able responsibility were bastions of the concept of early America. It was in this reaction against a fledgling universalist monoculture, the growth of populations and the advance of technology and urbanity in general that these thinkers were special, and in their resistance, they gave a special place to man and a spirit to the natural world that made him all he was meant to be, in that place of healthy natural struggle, all born from an natural point of ‘origin’ in a mind that was seemingly drawn from within independently, or influenced by the bond to the natural world, in some ways through a god(s) as a subconscious concept. The wild unknown and the desire to not only preserve but reestablish a bit of it in our lives, that essence which was intended for this continent is a huge inspiration for me and a grounding foundational concept for the intentions of the band. Hercyn after all is the name of that dangerously mystical oak forest which separated the civilized world of the mediterranean from the magical unknown of the barbarous North, to which not even the legions of Rome could not overcome.
E. Wawiorko: The artist’s name is Alex Miracle and he’s based out of Tennessee. Mystery is definitely something we wanted to convey. We wanted something visually striking and abstract but also deep in a formless way. The artwork may be just a glimpse into the formlessness and timeless quality that cycles and our universe may have. There is plenty of mystery about our universe. Support this artist over here: http://www.alexmiracle.bigcartel.com
M. Toscarelli: I was floored when I first saw Alex Miracle’s work. Everyone can look at that cover artwork and see something different, unique, to each of themselves. This album, this art, is for them.
You’re releasing Dust and Ages yourselves rather than seeking any label backing. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the DIY approach? Are labels even necessary in 2015?
M. Toscarelli: We’re in an age where people are churning out basement and bedroom albums by the truckload, promoting themselves online, creating labels and management in their own kitchens, and distributing their music on their own. Some become noticed for this and others are forgotten. I rather enjoyed doing everything ourselves from start to finish, writing, recording, artwork, production, etc.
M. DiCiancia: The advantages are total freedom in direction and no one to answer to when it is all said and done, whether the music is received favorably or not. The disadvantages (or this can be an advantage depending on how you look at things) are that the responsibility is entirely on the band to get all the aspects that go into a release done and to do it properly by delivering a product that does justice to the music and the band and also to the fans you’d hope want to engage your music. I think a lot of bands that go DIY think that it’s acceptable to half-ass the production and hand the audience something that they really didn’t do all they could for. There is a difference between going cheap because you have to, cutting corners in some areas of the production because you have no other choice and just getting lazy, expecting people to think it’s cool because you did it lo-fi.
Hercyn would entertain label offers if it made sense for us to do so. Labels can organize promotion and tours on levels than individual bands typically can’t. A label has people who know what they’re doing (hypothetically) and can ensure that a tour isn’t just a money drain playing to empty rooms or to help ensure the quality production for an album is available and that this gets to the ears of the crowds who would be most interested in the product you create. A label also allows a band to focus purely on the musical end without getting bogged down with all the external work that into the process of creating art.
So, with all that said, I would say that technically labels are not necessary but can be a great asset as a professional institution with the collective ability and skill to properly guide production and distribution of music.
What first attracted you to black metal and how does that initial inspiration translate into what you’re doing now with Hercyn? How have your thoughts on the genre changed/evolved over the years?
E. Wawiorko: Black metal is so primal. It’s an intense, emotional and passionate genre of metal. It’s a technically demanding style to play. It’s also a genre that gives a lot of room to experiment, even some of the early Norwegian bands, Ulver, Arcturus, Samael, experimented with black metal and mixing and blending genres. There was a certain freedom with black metal initially where it felt natural for us to blend our interest in progressive rock and metal with extreme metal. My thoughts haven’t changed. Black metal is as unique and amazing as ever. Just listen to: Lychgate from England, Mgla and Outre from Poland and all the French bands: Blut Aus Nord, Deathspell Omega, Aosoth and Svart Crown.
M. Toscarelli: Before Hercyn, I was involved with speed and thrash metal bands, some progressive rock groups, and improvisational groups for many years. I never played in a black metal band before, other than doing some of the techniques, blast beats and double bass. The other guys in Hercyn have opened my mind to new forms of music and artists that to this day, I can’t believe how these drummers keep going, and going!
M. DiCiancia: I think the general appeal of black metal is the room it allows for emotion to be conveyed in a minimalist manner. Chord choice is of utmost importance and how the chords you chose work together, this makes the difference between a droning depressive section of a song or a fast aggressive one. Drums play a role in this as well but even without them the tone is usually obvious. Once you have your progression, you can use the chords to create a wall of sound that conveys an ambient mood rather than a particular melodic or harmonic phrasing which takes more of the listener to appreciate. The simplicity of this approach increases the power of the soundscape as a whole and makes the passages about the emotional feel that one gets from the complete piece and less about the individual parts. In this simplicity is a sort of raw primitive nature that is so captivating for the genre. What I enjoy most about what Hercyn does compositionally is tastefully blending that primal sort of technique with the finer, more technical aspects of the progressive and melodic parts of our music. The blend is very exciting for me as a songwriter.
Will you be playing any live shows in support of Dust and Ages?
E. Wawiorko: Hercyn just played a wonderful sold out show with Negura Bunget in Brooklyn. We are playing Shadow Woods Metal fest on September 26th. A very unique open air metal fest taking place in the forests of White Hall Maryland (http://shadowwoodsmetalfest.com) And our first hometown show in over a year, September 27th at the Funhouse in Jersey City.
What are you currently listening to? Do you have any recommendations for IG readers?
E. Wawiorko: Listen to Organ Dealer! They just released the best death/grind album of the decade, Visceral Infection.
M. Toscarelli: I second that notion of listening to Organ Dealer. This band is beyond furious.
M. DiCiancia: On the metal spectrum I’m currently listening to Primordial’s “Where Greater Men Have Fallen” and Altar of Plagues’ “Mammal” almost entirely back and forth one to the other. Another album I’m enjoying lately is Winterfylleth’s ‘The Ghost of Heritage’. Outside of metal, I’ve been listening to REM’s “Reckoning”, “The Fairy Queen” by Purcell, Julian Bream playing anything of Dowland’s, of course O’Carolan and Ennis on the harp and pipes respectively, I mentioned Ó Domhnaill above, and perhaps most importantly Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Wood”.
T. Stanziano: I’ve been listening to Stormlord’s “Mare Nostrum” album a lot recently. As for a recommendation for IG readers, definitely check out Thy Catafalque. The 2011 album “Rengeteg” is phenomenal.
Are there any final thoughts you’d like to add?
Our debut album, Dust and Ages, comes out September 11th. You can pre-order it here, or find it on all the big sites, Amazon, iTunes, etc.
Thanks for the interview, and for all the support and interest in Hercyn!