INTERVIEW WITH JOUNI “HALLGRIM” MIKKONEN OF
DARKWOODS OF MY BETROTHED
Darkwoods My Betrothed has returned after a 23-year hiatus. The Finnish epic black metallers went on the long hiatus after the WITCH-HUNTS album in 1998, but carried out a few gigs in 2004 before calling it quits. The Darkwoods squad surprisingly announced releasing the long waited fourth opus titled ANGEL OF CARNAGE UNLEASHED presenting the fast and grim epic black metal.
Metal-Rules.Com conducted the interview with the guitarist and founding member of Darkwoods My Betrothed, Jouni “Hallgrim” Mikkonen to talk about the resurrection of the band and the working process of the fourth album.
Interview by Arto Lehtinen
What’s up in the DMB camp at the moment?
It’s great that after 23 years, new material was finally released. The feedback on the new material has been quite positive. From last fall to spring, the time was quite hectic, as the album’s schedule from composing the songs to finished output was quite tight. Now is a good time to enjoy the output and focus on interviews and promotion.
THE PAST AND PRESENT – FROM VIRGINS CUNT TO DARKWOODS
The band unexpectedly returned to the limelight last year, I assume one of the main reasons was the raging worldwide pandemic because all of you had more downtime suddenly to work on the material for Darkwoods My Betrothed, but was it an easy task to reunite and start working on the DMB material after all these years?!
Yes, just like that, the pandemic enabled a time window for this project and e.g. home studio equipment and remote connections have developed so much in a couple of decades that a different way of working was possible. A common vision for the future material already existed, although it was not even much discussed. Everyone had some material to work on. So in short: we just started the job and it felt like the job was going where it left off in the 90s.
When DMB ceased to exist around 1998, Teemu Kautonen aka Hexenmeister had already formed Wiz(z)ard and Pasi Kankkunen aka Emperor Nattasett joined the dark force with Barathrum and been a member of Hellboozer Union, you have been however involved in the extreme/black metal scene in a way or another thru these years, right ?!
Pasi has probably been the most active of the three of us in the scene and Teemu and I have focused mainly on listening to music in recent years. A few years ago, Teemu became active with Welkins Boreal, but it’s not extreme/black metal. I had before DMB death metal band called Devourmency. We made two demos, which, however, were hardly distributed anywhere. I’ve been considering starting an old skool death metal band, but that’s just an idea so far.
As far as I know Darkwoods My Betrothed went thru some line-up changes and had some session members. Back in the ’90s the band played some gigs with the different line-up and to my knowledge there was a short-lived period between 2004-2005 when Spellgoth fronted the band..Hmm.. Could you shed the light on the history of Darkwoods My Betrothed a little bit ?!
In the early days of the band, we played one gig at a band event in Kitee. It must have been a few weeks since the founding of Virgin´s Cunt. Our goal was to empty the hall of the audience and it almost succeeded, because after a couple of songs, there were no more than a few of our friends in the audience. The line-up remained original until WITCH-HUNTS, when Teemu was no longer a member of the band and I played the bass on the record. However, Teemu was still responsible for the lyrics. Indeed, the next gigs were in 2004-2005, when Spellgoth took care of the vocals and Pasi switched to bass. I left the band after the gigs in Kuopio and Tuska, after which the other band did a couple more gigs. Pasi was the only original member at the time. After that, the band fell to sleep again.
The band was started out as Virgins Cunt sounding more barbaric and primitive. Can you point out what was the major difference in terms of the music between Virgins Cunt and DMB, were there any after all?
The starting point of the band was to do something specifically provocative, insane and blasphemous, as one might infer from the name. The first two demos dealt with very similar themes, but we still wanted to develop the band forward, and not be left with just those themes. We switched to Scandinavian mythology on HEIRS OF THE NORTHSTAR, so there would have been some kind of contradiction in continuing with the name Virgin´s Cunt… Sometimes I have also missed a bit those first two demos.
When released your debut album, HEIRS OF THE NORTHSTAR, on Hammerheart Productions in 1995. In 1996, you released your follow-up album, AUTUMN ROARS THUNDER on Solistium Rec. The third and last opus WITCH-HUNTS came out on Spinefarm in 1998. How do you look at these albums now nearly 25 years later? Do you view they have stood the test of time more than perfectly ?!
You can always think about what could have been done differently or “better”, but it is useless to think about that. These are the products of their era and made with the resources that were available. Maybe now in retrospect, we’ve even been a little amazed at where all those ideas have come from and how quickly in time the first two records were completed, compared to the production of the record now being released. But we can listen to those records completely head up and we are still behind them.
ANGEL OF CARNAGE – UNLEASHED
ANGEL OF CARNAGE UNLEASHED will be seeing the light of day (or the dark of night) quite soon. Anyway could you reveal more about the process of getting this album to the point of being recorded and letting Napalm Rec take care of the marketing and promotion etc?
After the return decision, we just started writing songs. It was clear that in a way we wanted to go back to the practice where the three of us (Pasi, Teemu and I) composed the songs and that’s how it would sound, what we think DMB should sound like. The first thing to be resolved was the fact that we would not be able to practice together. Teemu was the most familiar of us with modern home studio software with his Welkins Boreal project, so Pasi and I had the same things ahead. We made a demo version of the songs on our part and sent them to each other for comments and further development. Pasi and I each composed three songs and Teemu two longer songs. One of Teemu’s demos was so much thrash metal that even after several different experiments we ended up leaving it out. However, I think it would have fit into Virgin´s Cunt’s range… heh heh…
The writing of lyrics began at the same time as composing. Steven Parham´s cohabitant is Teemu’s longtime colleague and through that he knew that Steven is a metal music fan and writes fiction, so the original idea was to start developing a story with him in the spirit of King Diamond.
As the songs progressed, Tuomas developed the synths and towards the end of the demo phase I threw the cautious question that Tuomas’ wife Johanna’s voice would be a stark contrast in the DMB. And Johanna agreed immediately! When I heard her first versions sung on the demo tape, I almost cried. It just gave me cold shivers… That combination was something so fragile and beautiful, but at the same time really icingly murderous and malicious.
So the demo versions already had practically everything played and sung, albeit in raw versions and drums made with EZdrummer. Eventually, Kai had just over a month time to rehearse before recording the drums at Petrax studio in January 2021, so we saw for the first time as a whole band and with producer Tero over 20 years. Two weeks after that, we went to Tuomas’ home to record guitars, guitar solos, vocals and made a few other additions and arrangements. Those were definitely the finest weeks in years.
After the recordings, Tero Kinnunen started mixing the record and the master was ready at the end of May 2021. Tero did a really great job and was uncompromising. We are 200% satisfied with the result. Nightwish manager Ewo is an old acquaintance of ours and in the beginning we got a lot of advice from him on various things and over time only more and more. The discussions led to the fact that it might make sense to let a “real record company” handle marketing and distribution. Napalm Records was interested in releasing the record and taking care of our affairs. They didn’t hear our new material until they got the master version, so apparently they trusted Ewo and us not to do any total shit… But things have gone really well with Napalm!
How important was it to stay true and loyal to the vision, sounds and ideas of Darkwoods My Betrothed, when creating and composing new material? Did you try to explore any experimental and new ideas when composing the material ?!
We didn’t go by force to bring in some new ideas or guidelines, but let the songs come naturally. I think that’s why some people who have heard the new material in advance have said it’s really “genuine”. Of course, that too was realism, that we had a really tight schedule, and there was no time left to explore completely new paths. Maybe the new way of working was new enough for us this time.
In my opinion, Bathory has been one of the inspirations and influences for Darkwoods My Betrothed, some songs are reminiscent of these epic elements of Bathory, how do you view this ?!
Yes, you are absolutely right. In particular for Teemu Bathory has had a really strong influence since the 80s and you can also hear it from the songs he composed. Blood Fire Death, Hammerheart, Twilight of the Gods, etc. are special to Teemu. By the way, we ended up leaving the title of our song about the slaughter of Hailuoto briefly “Massacre” as a kind of tribute to Bathory.
As far as I know, the core of Darkwoods My Betrothed Kankkunen-Kautonen-Mikkonen created and composed all the material, how much did you manage to rehearse and go thru new ideas before entering the studio? Did you share the ideas between the members to see what each other thought of them ?!
I guess I opened this up a bit earlier in the questions. Pasi and I rehearsed the songs together only 3-4 times. Everything else was done remotely. There were dozens of messages and brainstorming every day, which means there was more contact and much closer contact than before.
Having heard a few songs in advance, I must admit you had created one hell of an epic black metal opus. To me, the album sounds like you are truly comfortable with what you have done, created and really trademarked a unique sound for Darkwoods My Betrothed. Pasi Kankkunen’s grim and evil-sounding vocals are recognizable. Of course, the sounds are bombastic. Presumably, you view things in much the same way ? Obviously you are totally pleased with the outcome ?!
Thank you and really great for finding those elements in our music! Yes, we are really pleased with the outcome. One can always think about what could be done better and rub the output indefinitely, but on the other hand too much finishing also “kills the dynamics” of the album and starts to turn against itself. However, I think this music should also be raw and rough and not so finished to the end.
The album has eight songs in all and of course outro. Did you write more songs that didn’t make the record or did you create more good ideas and platforms for songs that could be used for the next album?
We had some other raw material that didn’t just develop into finished songs. We will see if they are utilized in the future or what happens to them. But we don’t have any actual song bank or stock. Teemu had one “Bathory meets Sodom” spirited song that turned out to be a little too thrash metal for DMB’s repertoire and was left out. The schedule was so tight that we didn’t have time to make extra songs and then choose the most suitable ones. Once the structure of the song was complete, the lyrics had to be worked on immediately.
As for the lyrics, ANGEL OF CARNAGE UNLEASHED is based on the work of the renowned Finnish historian Teemu Keskisarja and his book “MurderAngel”. Could you set more light on how this came about ?! The historical aspects have always been the source of the inspiration for lyrics for you?!
At the beginning we thought about what the theme of the album could be and pretty quickly we decided that it should be something gloomy and related to Finland. Since the themes of our previous albums were also historical, we found that this should be the case on this album as well. It’s just part of our band.
The concepts for the lyrics were developed jointly by Teemu and author-anthropologist Dr Steven Parham, and draw on the well-known Finnish historian Dr Teemu Keskisarja’s book ‘Murhanenkeli’ (verbatim: ‘Angel of Murder’) as the principal source. The book deals with the social history of the Great Northern War of 1700-1721 from the Finnish perspective. For the lyrics, social history means that we don’t write about the adventures of kings and war campaigns; instead we focus on how individual Finns – either at the frontline or on the home front – experienced the ravages of the era.
I quote Teemu Keskisarja: “In the safety of today’s Nordic countries, it is difficult to fathom how mercilessly the Angels of Murder annihilated our Ancestors ten generations ago. The Covid-19 Pandemic is but a Mosquito bite compared to the Great Northern War.
Fighting Wars was not a light matter in the 20th century either; nonetheless, to my mind the sufferings of the 1700s are unparalleled: Warriors froze to death in snowstorms, defecated their guts out in diarrhea, and lost their limbs without anesthetics in make-shift amputations. The pains of the soul were as total as those of the flesh. Soldiers fighting on remote Battlefields knew that their homes in Finland had been burned to a cinder, and that their children had starved to death or been enslaved.”
The chief reason for choosing the era of the Great Northern War is that it is perhaps the darkest period in Finnish history, and thus exceptionally appropriate as a context for a black/epic metal album. And, of course, the lyrics are also fundamentally very anti-christian.
Apparently the historian Teemu Keskisarja was involved in the lyrics writing ?!
We had some dialogue with Teemu Keskisarja, mainly to make sure the facts and that the lyrics remained in the spirit of the book, but of course we also took artistic freedoms. However, Keskisarja did not write any lyrics. The horrors and civilian sacrifices of the Great Northern War have not been made into songs or poems and it was great for him that finally someone would bring their lives and deaths to be heard to this day.
Does the front cover relate to the theme of the album ?!
Yes. The men in the painting are leaving, according to the era, in rather poor equipment for war. A war that doesn’t really touch their lives in any way, and isn’t their war at all. At that time, enlisting in the army meant almost certain death and can be sensed from the attitude of the men. The character in the cloud depicts the Murder´s Angel.
Who is behind the cover art?
The cover art was painted by Stefan Todorović a.ka Khaos Diktator and he did a fantastic job! We liked his previous works and Tuomas Rytkönen, who is also responsible for the layout of the covers, mentioned us. We noticed in retrospect that he is also Gorgoroth’s current vocalist…
BLACKENED METAL HEART
What are your personal expectations regarding this new album? Are you somehow nervous about getting the response and feedback from the most puritanist black metal warriors or are you more calmed down knowing the new album is gonna crush for sure ?!
The album certainly evokes conflicting feelings, and it is not meant to please everyone. This is 100% what we want DMB to be and that it is enough for ourselves. We wanted to focus on the product itself rather than what musical category it fits into. Of course, the feedback cannot and should not be completely ignored, because it is also one way to develop yourself. For sure this is DMB’s best album so far. And when it comes to puritanist black metal warriors, as I mentioned earlier, this record is also basically very anti-christian and music will definitely crush, so they can sleep their nights in peace.
Obviously Darkwoods My Betrothed is a more studio band or project at the moment. Apparently your mission was to conclude the saga of Darkwoods My Betrothed, but as the album turned out to be such a killer, I bet that the continuation can be expected from Darkwoods ?!
This record was based on “let’s finish this job with honor”, but it seems that we have a strong will to continue.
Which bands and albums have influenced and shaped your blackened metal heart ?!
My first cassette at the age of 9 was Mötley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” meaning I apparently chose my camp then..heh heh… From then on, the journey continued through heavy metal to speed and thrash metal. Accept, Dio, Metallica, Slayer… i.e. a rather traditional path for many others as well. At the turn of the 80s and 90s, death metal hit really hard and at the same time black metal also became interesting; Bathory, Darkthrone, Beherit, Satyricon, Mayhem, Samael, Emperor and so on. Emperor’s first EP and “In the Nightside Eclipse,” Darkthrone’s “A Blaze in the Northern Sky,” “Under A Funeral Moon,” and “Transilvanian Hunger”, Bathory’s first three albums, and Satyricon’s early production are probably the most significant albums for me.
Sure, I also listen to a lot of other metal music, but it’s clear that today there’s just not that much time to get acquainted with all the new releases. On the other hand, in recent years I have also “rediscovered” bands that I just didn’t listen to about 10-15 years ago. Of the Finnish bands, Havukruunu is interesting and I also expect a lot from …And Oceans’ upcoming album.
I for one thank you for your time for doing the interview, I wish all the best for Darkwoods My Betrothed…
Thank you Arto for the interview!
The Official Darkwoods My Betrothed sites