The Caucasus are a unique place. It is the crux of Eastern and Western civilization that is the heart of Eurasia. A place of passionate hot-headed personalities; richly sweet fruit and wine; strong poetic traditions; breathtaking natural beauty; cities that bear the architectural mark of about a half-dozen historical empires, and, sadly, a contemporary history of ethnic violence and frozen conflict. Is a place like this really conducive to extreme metal? It certainly has no shortage of suitable thematic fodder, but how its communities would react to something often seen as so deviant was, and arguably still is, unclear. It wasn’t long ago that I came across an Armenian melodic black metal band called Sworn, not only was this the name of my favorite Emperor track for a time (the breakdown at about 2:23 is still KILLER; one of the best riff/lead combos of all time), but the band bore a strong resemblance to the Norwegian legends. I mean…the level of quality and musicianship….this band is from the Southern Caucasus? Not to be condescending, but it was a pleasant surprise. No silly goat imagery or corpsepaint, just solid thrashy, keyboard laden black metal. I recently had the pleasure of talking to Arsen and Vladimir, formerly of Sworn and now members of the band Daeron, the former a leading audio producer in his home country and the latter the main songwriter for the group. Daeron plays a progressive hybrid of various metal genres, interspersed with clean vocals, heavy keyboard layering and growls that vary in range. Though I burned myself out on this genre long ago, Sworn‘s music was incredibly well done and Daeron offers enough versatility to escape categorization. The band draws influences from Emperor, Arcturus, Enslaved, Shape Of Despair, Colosseum, Gojira, Meshuggah, Ihsahn, and Arvo Part among others.
Unfortunately, since this interview was conducted, Arsen has left the band to pursue other musical endeavors. Nonetheless, this band presents a rich introduction to a region that is not known for it’s metal or heavy music scene. For their part, Sworn enjoyed a considerably extensive career and one that was heralded by critics, though only occasionally catching their attention. Their only full-length release is out of print but is up in its entirety on Youtube. Just as important as the music itself is what it means to live in this part of the world and create music that’s often so alien to mainstream forms of expression. For example, Iran has a thriving metal horde; it’s a place where thousands upon thousands of metalheads reside. However, it’s pretty safe to say that this isn’t known by the majority of the metalheads in Europe and the Americas, or surely by the Ayatollah himself. Though people enjoy relatively more freedom of expression in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, creating extreme metal in these countries is a unique challenge, not necessarily in the face of censorship, but due more to the lack of precedent. After all, there were no Venoms, Hellhammers or Sarcofagos to dull people’s sensibilities during the Soviet years.
Sworn is not to be confused with the Norwegian black metal band or about half-dozen other artists by the same name. The clean vocals are a hallmark of the band and are one of the main factors still present in its modern incarnation. The high quality performance videos paint a very vivid picture of the band’s live set. Don’t let the the epic keyboard compositions or clean singing deter you; there is plenty of brutality to go around. I know this is a ton of embedded music but I promise it’s all worth your time.
In it’s previous incarnation, Daeron was formerly known as Sacrond. The track “Universal Chaos” is a striking contrast of majestic clean vocals followed by oppressive heaviness. Take a listen to these tracks. The quality of the live performance videos is once again uncanny. Arsen and Vladimir opened up about their experience as an extreme metal band in Armenia, their personal goals and live experiences of making such music in the heart of the Caucasus.
How did you get involved in the metal scene and music production, in general? How long have you been doing it?
Vladimir: I’ve been producing music for about five years, but of course my introduction to metal started a lot earlier with Somewhere in Time album by Iron Maiden. Couple of years later I accidentally stumbled about an album by Emperor and that was my gateway to extreme metal music. That’s when I started to realize, that music is becoming a major part of my life and a form in which I also could not only express my inner thoughts and feelings, but also succeed in my urge to do something meaningful.
Arsen: For me it’s a bit longer story, I started the Journey of Metal \m/ back in 95 with Metallica, but my ticket to real extreme metal were Pantera’s The Great Southern Trendkill and Slayer’s Divine Intervention. From there throughout the years I started going deeper into the many subgenres of the extreme music, but my main fascination has always been with doom and black metal music.
I’ve actually listened to Sworn in the past and was, frankly, proud that this quality of metal was coming out of Armenia. Daeron features 3 of the 5 members that made up Sworn and you list some of the same influences. Though both bands cite Emperor as an influence, for example, Daeron seems to have some more progressive elements (Meshuggah, Gojira). What do you think sets Daeron apart from its predecessor and from other bands on the scene?
Vladimir: For me personally, Daeron is the continuation of Sworn, incarnated in a totally new and revamped form. Musically Daeron is more unique in many ways as its influences are so much broader and indistinct, not as fixed on specific number of our favorite bands as it was with Sworn. The thorough incorporation of academic musical traditions and orchestral arrangements (fueled by with my fascination with Victorian era culture) in weird combination with progressive and odd-time rhythmic patterns create a distinctive sound, which will not be so easy to compare to other bands this time, haha.
What is Daeron‘s approach to songwriting?
Vladimir: This is a hard one. At first an idea is born. Not even an idea, but a feeling, a mood, an inner vision, something which is not even musical at first, just something very abstract. You can call this Muse. Then I start playing to this mood, and from this a motif is born, which starts to grow its own branches and mutate into different forms and shapes. Concurrent to this, more technical tasks are being performed – deciding on the appropriate instrumentation and arrangements, placing the accents, creating transition, etc. After this, a demo version of the song is being sequenced and recorded, it is studied and rehearsed by the band. Now that we have full album envisioned and scored, the process of pro recording, mixing and mastering the album is underway.
How were you received in Tbilisi?
Vladimir: It was pretty good, quite a positive experience. The sound was good, the lights were good and the crowd was crazy. And at the peak of our performance we had people slamming in mosh pits, which was awesome.
Arsen: We’ve already played twice in Tbilisi, and everybody in the band agrees that these two have been our best performances to date. The reason for this lies mainly in the crowd. Whereas Armenian audience prefers to stand and listen to the music, Georgians, being more hot blooded and crazy, create this tension in the atmosphere, fueling us with their energy and having us go all the way. Also, the fact that when playing in Tbilisi, we don’t have to deal with the organizational matters of the concert helps a lot in having a stress free and focused performance.
What are some of your most memorable concert experiences?
Arsen: I think the most memorable experience came from an open air festival that we organized jointly with some friends in 2008. This was the first time we had a famous metal band, Sadist from Italy, perform in Armenia, which was already something marvelous and also the fact that extreme metal is being performed open air in the middle of Yerevan came as a (pleasant) shock not only to us, but I’m sure to everyone in the vicinity.
Vladimir: As for our own concerts, the most pleasant atmosphere at the concert was registered by me in 2007 on Sworn‘s solo concert. I can’t realize what was different, but it was very peculiar. I thought this will not happen again, but then I felt the same in 2010 during Daeron’s first concert in Tbilisi. It felt like everything was burning.
From your experience, how would you describe the hard rock or metal scene in Armenia, the Caucasus and surrounding areas (Russia, Iran)? Roughly how many bands play heavy metal or extreme metal in Armenia?
Arsen: Unfortunately there are not so many metal bands In Armenia, but each of them has something unique for offer to the public. I don’t think there are more than 10 extreme metal bands in Armenia for the moment, but I must say all of these bands are pretty good. That must be because you really must have something to say, a huge dedication to music, to be able to survive as a metal band in Armenia. There is a comparably bigger scene in Georgia, but the rock scene is more scattered there into different subgenres and the audience is pickier, so I wouldn’t say metal concerts gather more crowd there. Iran, instead, has thousands and thousands of metalheads, but as you may know metal is prohibited there, so no bands have ever or will play there in the near future. The most devoted of the fans have to go to Turkey or Armenia for concerts. As for Russia, I am not very familiar with their metal scene, but judging by the bands, that I know, the metal there is well gaining momentum, and the Russian metal scene will be comparable to [Western] Europe pretty soon, I’m sure.
The Caucasus is a unique place culturally, being geographically and culturally lodged between Europe and the Middle East. It’s also a place with strong religious traditions and one that until recent decades doesn’t have a history of representative government. What would you say is unique about playing your kind of music in Armenia?
Vladimir: The music we play seemed very strange and unusual in the past. Many people often reacted to it, as to something so weird that even criticizing would not make any sense. Bands playing metal music were considered something paranormal, getting air time on public television being presented as a phenomenon, rather than a form of art. But now I see more and more people able to understand it better than before. I must say System of a Down played a huge role in metal music orientation for the average Armenian.
You’ve said that the band is rooted in European academic traditions. Which specifically?
Vladimir: We are, of course, referring to the musical traditions. Daeron has great affinity with the European academic music, with its melodies and the construction of harmonies. We should also mention how we give the roles to the musical instruments that we play. While most of the symphonic metal bands use symphonic orchestration as a background for the core elements of a rock band (guitars, bass and drums) we instead consider these instruments as parts of an orchestra. This doesn’t mean we sound less metal because of this setup, but what we try to do is not to diminish the presence and importance of the classical instruments to a background canvas.
Daeron and Sworn do not seem like political bands on the surface. The Caucasus and the Middle East have been experiencing waves of political activism and protest. Have these influenced your music or affected your daily life?
Vladimir: All that is happening around of course affects our lives, but for us art lives on a different plane of existence, quite apart from the mundane. It is something very real, vital and omnipresent, yet it doesn’t depend on what is happening in the real life with all its politics and everything. And so none of the surrounding reality is reflected in our music.
Arsen: Well, it doesn’t influence the songwriting of the band, but from the concert organizing perspective it had quite an impact. For example a lot of rock concerts under liberal slogans and banners were organized with financial support by foreign NGOs and foundations during the last years. Self-financed concerts never pay off, if not sponsored, so it has been a great way for promoters to organize the concerts and for the bands to play on decent stages, even If they normally wouldn’t sign after the ideas promoted at these events. Also the market situation also has a direct connection with the music scene here in Armenia. For example the monopolistic behavior of our only air company, ArmAvia, forces us to fly the visiting foreign bands to Tbilisi instead of Yerevan, and then drive them to Yerevan by bus.