Interview with Cistvaen
Interview with Guy (Vocals), Lee (Guitar), Chris (Guitar), James (Bass) and Ed (Drums)
Interview by Demitri Levantis
Following the release of their first EP: “Under the Silent Meadow Skies”, I caught up with Britain’s atmospheric black metal group Cistvaen to discuss where the band came from, what inspired the new release and where they see themselves in the near future.
Hi, thanks for joining us, let’s begin with the band itself, what inspired the name Cistvaen?
Chris: It’s Lee’s fault!
Lee: The name ‘Cistvaen’ comes from burial chambers found on Dartmoor of the same name. When I lived in Devon (I have since moved to London), I found these landscapes to be very desolate and bleak, and therefore inspiring to write music of that nature, so I wanted to choose a name that linked our music to these landscapes.
How is Cistvaen different to your other projects, both musically and theme wise?
Chris: Myself, Ed and James also perform in Mordrake which is Symphonic Blackened Melodic Death Metal.
James: I am the lead vocalist guitarist and song writer in another metal band called Mordrake so I do take a backseat when it comes to the actual song writing in Cistvaen. I’m happy to add my bass lines and have that as my musical input.
Ed: Cistvaen is different to every other musical project I’ve been a part of, just due to the style of the music. 10 minute long dirges aren’t super typical across the other acts I’ve played with. I think we definitely have to take a unique approach to how we write and play, we’ve had some funny disagreements in the past when writing songs: “No, that riff sounds too jolly! We have to change it!!” As a drummer, it’s important for me to remain aware of the kind of music we’re playing. Can’t do anything too leftfield, it would just take you out of the experience to have Peart style high tom fills. We all have to keep the goal in sight – the mood and atmosphere we want to create.
You’re described as Atmospheric Black Metal by most media outlets, is this true for you or do you have your own way of describing Cistvaen’s music?
Chris: Yeah I agree with that.
Ed: I think Atmospheric Black Metal is a good enough name for it, but there’s been all sorts of terms thrown around: Doomed black metal, post-black metal. I know people like to clarify their genres, so they know if they’ll like something, but it’s hard to encapsulate what you want to do musically in a few adjectives. However, atmospheric is good, as we’re generally quite patient with our songs and do try to create a kind of atmosphere for the listener.
Lee: To keep things simple, I tend to use the atmospheric black metal label. However, the music definitely has death/doom influences from bands such as Paradise Lost, Swallow the Sun, Katatonia, etc which sets us apart from many other atmospheric black metal acts. People have also likened us to Insomnium and Cult of Luna!
Guy: I guess it fits what we play rather than trying to give ourselves a whole new sub-genre. Personally, I wanted to go with ‘Doomed Black Metal’ but was outvoted!
What was it like to work with artist Hester Aspland, who designed your album artwork, and would you work with her again?
Lee: Hester is a friend of ours who used to live in Devon (now lives up in Scotland!). She also takes a lot of inspiration from Dartmoor in her works, drawing the circled stones of Wistman’s Wood for example, and she has a love for atmospheric black metal, so she was a perfect choice to have some artwork commissioned! She is great to work with. She takes your ideas, draws up a draft, listens to your feedback and really works together with the band to create a beautiful piece. The magpies were her idea, and we have since become quite attached to those birds!
Ed: Hester’s art is just fantastic. She’s really captured the mood of the music in a visual way. It’s full of stuff from Mother Nature, but it’s also sort of foreboding and dreary, in a good way! The monochrome, the looming moon and the corvids, it’s all working towards the same idea, like we try to in the band to create that atmosphere!
Guy: I love Hester’s artwork, she is fantastic and totally nailed that album cover. We also worked with a dude called Joan who did the rest of the artwork for the physical release – the back cover and the disc itself. Both stunning artists. I’m always amazed at how good some people are – I can’t draw a circle around a penny.
James: Hester has been a friend for a while and has also worked with Mordrake designing our Dragon logo.
Chris: Hester’s artwork speaks for itself. She is incredibly talented, and everything she designs is pure gold. In a heartbeat, we’d work with her again
Does “Under the Silent Meadow Skies” have an overall theme or are the songs stand-alone?
Lee: All of them were inspired by general feelings of melancholy as well as the desolate, yet beautiful landscapes of Dartmoor, but there wasn’t a specific theme linking the songs together in any way when writing the songs. In fact, ‘Waiting’ was originally written for a previous project that Chris and I were working on that never saw the light of day.
Ed: It’s certainly not a concept work, though I could see us doing something like that in the future. One of the songs was actually written for a previous project of Lee’s, so, it’s not a continuous narrative or anything. But I think it’s all cohesive, the songs are all quite similar semantically, in one way or another.
Guy: The songs are stand alone, but I guess a sort of theme flows generally throughout. It was not our intention to write a concept album as such.
Do you have a personal favourite song on the new album and if so, why?
Ed: That’s a hard pick, personally I’d pick Under The Silent Meadow Skies – for me it marks a moment when the songwriting started to evolve into the sort of thing we have to offer now. Out of the three on the EP it was the the newest and I feel that we all contributed a lot and it turned out fantastically.
James: The Voice of an Old God because the bass felt so natural and In places takes on a lead melody rather then remaining a background instrument.
Chris: To play live it’s probably the title track, but there’s a special place for The Voice of an Old God as that was the first song as a band we had. When recording it, I added a melodic line at the climax of the piece and now when I hear it, even when on stage playing it, I feel a rush of emotions sweep over me.
Lee: If I was really pushed for an answer, I’d have to say ‘Waiting’ is my favourite. It’s the earliest written song (dating back to around 2015 before Cistvaen was founded), so it has a nostalgic and sentimental value to me, and it has really developed and matured into a very emotionally charged piece with the whole band coming together to provide parts for the track. Guy’s vocals and lyrics are just heart-wrenchingly good!
Guy: Hard to say, but I think the title track overall. It was one of the first Cistvaen tracks I wrote the lyrics for and there’s a lot of feeling gone into it, which makes it a great song to play live.
What has been the best gig you’ve played so far and what made it stand out?
Chris: Warhorns Festival 2019. I think it was one of the first festivals we played and the furthest we’ve travelled to play. We were the first band on the Saturday and had the classic sound check issues meaning we were delayed by about half an hour and during that time the venue had filled up just watching us stood on stage not doing anything! Then when we finally played it was such a euphoric moment, so many people came up to us afterwards saying they enjoyed the set, our sound etc, the beginning of things to come
Lee: For me, I really enjoyed the latest show we played in November at Eradication Festival in Cardiff the most because I just decided before the show to focus on enjoying myself on stage rather than worrying about playing perfectly or worrying about anything going wrong. The crowd was great, the venue and promoter were fantastic and the band played a really tight set!
James: Warhorns Festival. Despite being the opening band the room was packed and the crowd were responsive and enthusiastic.
Guy: Ragnarok in Norwich was awesome – we were all crashing in an Air BnB that night, so I could actually stay, drink beer all evening and watch the bands after our set, which I very rarely get to do! There was also a chip shop near the venue and the owner gave me a free piece of cod! I’ve never been given free fish after a gig before – or since!
Ed: The best gig for me would probably be our most recent one, at Eradication Festival 2021, we were all in high spirits getting back to gigging, we have newer songs that we’re bringing into the set and we all enjoyed it to no end. Warhorns would be a close second, as that gig just felt huge and we had a great response. Met lots of great people.
You’ve maintained the same line-up for the band over its five-year history, what is it you think makes you all work well together?
Lee: Well, technically only 2 of us have been in the band from the very start (James and I), but as a functioning live act, yes, we have been the same 5 guys since 2018 with Ed joining the band most recently on drums. For our first live show, our friend Frank Dennis (Hybridize, ex-Cambion) filled in for us on drums. We work together well because we are all incredibly passionate about what we do and we communicate well. We all bring something of crucial value to the band and we all have a shared idea of how we want Cistvaen to sound. I don’t consider any of us to be replaceable!
Ed: I’m the newest member to the band, and since I’ve joined the line-up has not changed, it’s great. I feel like we all know exactly what we’re about now that we’ve cut our teeth together in this band. We all have common interests musically, but bring different things from our preferences. It’s definitely showing through in our newer songs, which we hope to record properly very soon!
Guy: We’re just a bunch of dudes who live for heavy metal. We all share the same passion and the same goal. We don’t tend to disagree, and all decisions are diplomatic. We all make each other laugh – and after recording the EP we now know that we can spend at least 3 days locked up together!
Chris: I think we are just a bunch of normal people! Whenever we have a disagreement or something we just talk it out, hear everyone’s side and move on if it doesn’t go your way. That and a healthy dose of Egg related memes.
How has the global pandemic affected you, did you have to make any disappointing decisions like cancelling gigs?
Chris: Yeah our first tour was cancelled, due to take place in the before times of Easter 2020. We would have played with our good friends Deadwood Lake, in places like London for the first time, hopefully we can make that work again in the future.
Lee: The pandemic then dragged on so long it caused us to have to delay the recording of our debut EP ‘Under the Silent Meadow Skies’ not once, but twice! In hindsight, delaying the recording of the EP turned out to be a good thing. We were able to work on the songs for a longer period of time, fine-tuning them into what they are now. And when we were finally in the studio after 12+ months of delays, we all had a tonne of energy and passion that had been building up that we otherwise may not have had in the studio.
Ed: The pandemic was a real kick in the teeth for the band. We felt we were really picking up steam. 2019 was a great year, it held many festivals and gigs for us, and we weren’t slowing down at all, we had a tour booked and more on the horizon. Unfortunately, it all got cancelled when everyone realised just how serious the pandemic was. But, there’s nothing we can do about that. We were still active throughout the lockdown and put our efforts into other things like writing more songs and getting stuff recorded. I’m pretty confident that things will pick back up in time.
Do you have any gigs lined up in the near future and you playing anywhere you’ve never played before?
Lee: Yes, we have three very exciting shows lined up at the moment in 2022: The Ruin of Jorvik at The Fulford Arms, York alongside bands such as Fen, Wode, The Infernal Sea, Wolvencrown, Ante-Inferno, and many more on Sunday 10th April. This 2-day festival is completely sold out! We are opening for 1914 and Ruadh at Fuel, Cardiff alongside Ethereal, Agrona and Drekavac on 29th April. And we are playing in Plymouth at The Underground supporting A Forest of Stars with Wolvencrown and Adder on 28th May. We have never played in York before, so that should be a great new experience for us! We’re hoping to secure a few extra dates around that show and maybe make a mini tour out of it.
Is it only nature and landscapes that inspire Cistvaen, or are there other things like mythology, spiritual things, etc?
Lee: In the beginning, it was mainly nature and Dartmoor, but in newer, unreleased material, I have been drawing influence from depression, mental illness, self-development and existential dread leading to some of the most downright crushingly harrowing riffs and melodies I’ve come up with to date.
Guy: Anything is a potential influence so long as its fits the music and our vision.
What do you make of the UK black metal scene at present, what sort of status do you see it in and how has it changed in your time?
Lee: The UK black metal scene is a truly underrated scene that has a tonne of incredible bands within it. Bands like Winterfylleth, A Forest of Stars, Saor, Fen, and Old Corpse Road have been leading the way for pretty much the last decade now, with newer acts like Necronautical, Ninkharsag, Abduction, The Infernal Sea, Argesk, Aklash and Wolvencrown coming in more recent years to become part of what is now a very exciting, strong and rapidly growing scene. Festivals like Reaper Festival and Blackwood Gathering show that there is a demand to see these bands en masse and that there is a truly dedicated fanbase in the UK who want more of this type of music.
Ed: The UKBM scene is exploding at the moment, we have been very fortunate to see the emergence of so many quality acts, and it’s good to see them getting recognition. Agrona and Necronautical just to name a couple. But then, the UK has always had a strong extreme metal scene, and you can see the threads of influence from one band to the next. Old Corpse Road, Fen and the like have carved out a very unique place in the world of metal, and there’s myriad bands around at the moment who are developing the genre, or just hammering away at what we Brits are best at – being miserable. It’s wonderful.
If you could pick any band long gone to share the stage with, who would it be and why?
James: Not long gone but I’d have loved to be able to say I’d supported Children Of Bodom on a Finnish tour.
Lee: Agalloch. 100%. They are my biggest influence when writing the music for Cistvaen from a guitar playing point of view. Ashes Against the Grain is my favourite album of all time and I’m very sad they split up back in 2016. I was lucky enough to see them at least in 2015 at Bloodstock Festival.
Guy: Mayhem with the ‘true’ line-up!
What do you like to do besides music, do you have any other big passions or pastimes?
James: As a full time music teacher and musician, music takes up most of my time. I do also enjoy films, gaming, reading and exploring the forest and lovingly squishing my cat!
Lee: Chris and I are into running, regularly running 5ks and 10ks sometimes up to 3 or 4 times per week! I’ve become something of a health fanatic since deciding to lose weight back in March 2019. I lost 45kg in around 1 year and have kept it all off since.
Ed: I’m a big nerd. That, sailing and animal husbandry.
Chris: Lee and I are avid runners. I quite like reading fantasy novels
Guy: Hiking, camping, medieval history, visiting historic sites, reading, beer and barbecuing
What advice would you give to aspiring young musicians who want to start their own bands?
Ed: Start drumming, there are only 13 drummers in the country so you’ll be in high demand! In all seriousness though, just try everything, answer ads or put out your own, it’s always worth giving things a shot, sometimes you’ll play one show, sometimes you’ll end up playing loads! Also, practice.
Lee: Write music that means something to you and have fun with it. Don’t look to other bands to gauge your own ability or worth. Sometimes your limitations are what allows you to cultivate a unique identity rather than just sounding like everyone else who can sweep pick super fast!
Chris: Find a good bunch of people that’s fun to be around, and the advice I was given in my college days was ‘write the music you want to hear. There’s enough people in the world that someone else out there will like it’
James: Go to as many gigs as possible especially the local ones. Keep local venues alive. Practice practice practice.
Guy: Not sure what great pearls of wisdom I can give really other than – practice! And don’t drink too much.
Do you see your sound as the “future” of black metal in any way, like you see other bands being like Cistvaen emerging in your wake?
Lee: I think black metal is already a very diverse sub-genre, it’s hard to see where it could go next. I guess we are on the much more melodic side of things, so it would be nice to see more extreme metal bands adopting a more melodic approach to their writing in the future.
Ed: I see our sound as a part of the current big wave of BM in the UK, I wouldn’t go so far as to say anything like that. If we inspired one person to start playing music I’d be very happy! Music is waaaay too broad to have its future defined by any one act or genre. People are always doing cool new stuff.
Guy: It’s difficult to say, there are so many more bands now than there ever were – it’ll be interesting to see which ones are remembered.
Finally, do you have anything you’d like to say to our readers?
Lee: Really appreciate anyone who took the time to read all of our answers! We hope you check out our debut EP ‘Under the Silent Meadow Skies’ which is available on Spotify and on our Bandcamp page (which is at the top of this interview). If you’re already a fan, then thanks so much for your support thus far!
Chris: Check us out on Bandcamp, get yourselves to a gig, support your local scene and Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere.
Guy: Be excellent to each other!
James: Have a tea break.
Thank you so much for joining us, I wish you all the best for the future.