What Valdrin brings to the table are a few seemingly forgotten traits that have been missing from extreme metal for what feels like ages. The feeling of strangely pleasant suspense, of grandeur and splendor, the intriguing sense of underlying mystery, all those things have been seldom given a fair treatment since the golden days of melodic death and symphonic black metal in the mid ’90s. Apart from being primarily a creative outlet for you as people and musicians, is Valdrin perhaps a subconscious tribute to that particular sound and some of its original proponents as well?
Carter Hicks: Well, first off, I want to thank you for everything you just said. That was a very unique and heavy compliment to give us. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to play our own style of black/death metal in light of what we’ve learned. What I’ve learned in particular from the legendary bands of the past, is that it’s okay to take your influences and create your own sound with them. That being said, I do occasionally like to pay homage to those influences, and that particular era you are speaking of is one of my favorites. The Swedish black/death bands of that time are a huge source of inspiration to all of us in the band. The first two albums of Dawn, Dissection, and Sacramentum are all classics. The mid-to-late ’90s black metal bands in general had so much creativity and melodicism, and that medieval harmonic-minor riffing style was what helped shape my guitar playing. That, along with bands like Bathory, Destruction, Mercyful Fate, and a lot of soundtrack music is still what gets me inspired to make this kind of metal.
Some of the melodies and riff progressions on Effigy Of Nightmares have a distinct visual, almost cinematic quality to them. At times, it feels like the sound tends to transform into shapes and colours, as if one could almost see the music instead of only hearing it. Have you ever experienced something similar while listening to your own music, that particular feeling that a single sense isn’t enough to absorb everything the music has the offer?
Carter Hicks: I definitely associate music with color in my mind. I can’t claim to have experienced full on synesthesia, but I have always thought of music in terms of images and color. Music I’ll hear for the first time can immediately conjure up extremely specific images and even memories from the past that I’d previously forgotten. We have a tendency in the band to describe a riff in terms of the images it projects. For instance, the riff at the end of Down The Oubliette Of Maelstrom creates the image of a nightmare world being syphoned into a vortex, and ultimately into the void. It sounds like a white-noise spiral into nothingness. We’ve always tried our best to have all our music feel very cinematic and visual, and I think Effigy Of Nightmares was our greatest accomplishment thus far in that regard.
Is channeling some of those evocative, sentimental emotions through your music, like the ones in Serpentine Bloodhalls for example, something that should reflect the more gentle side of your personalities or is its only purpose to provide a much needed contrast to your predominantly harsh and intense sound, whose absence would probably render the band’s music somewhat one-dimensional?
Carter Hicks: Our drummer, Ryan, wrote that song, so I can’t speak to exactly what he was feeling. I remember him showing it to me many years ago, and it stuck with me. The song has a very subdued and relaxing feeling, but with a lingering sense of dread and fear behind it. The song is meant to represent a brief moment of respite, in the midst of nightmare. You could think of it as a calm before the storm. It’s a very hypnotic song and the vibe turned out exactly how we all wanted. We always try to write very dynamic records, and Serpentine Bloodhalls is a perfect middle piece that ties the whole album together.
Who is Valdrin Ausadjur and what precisely is the Ausadjur Mythos? Are the first three chapters of the said mythos represented by your first three studio albums and, if they are, what is the story told by each of them?
Carter Hicks: Valdrin Ausadjur is the protagonist of the Ausadjur Mythos, which is the lyrical concept our music is based on. Roughly speaking, it’s a story about a warrior from a spiritual race known as the Ausadjur, whose soul is sent to Earth and into the underworld known as the Orcus, in order to quell a growing insurrection of demonic gods. When he enters the Orcus he is met by the creator and presumed overseer of the Orcus, Nex Animus, who will eventually become the antagonist of the mythos. That is a very brief introduction to the events of our first album Beyond The Forest. Our sophomore album, Two Carrion Talismans is a prequel to the events of Beyond The Forest, and it is told through the perspective of the villain, Nex Animus. The album chronicles his creation of the Orcus underworld and the beginning of his plot to manipulate the Ausadjur warrior when he arrives at the end times. Effigy Of Nightmares is another album centered on Nex Animus, and again taking place before Beyond The Forest. However, this time it is told from the perspective of a nameless soul on a curated tour of Nex’s torture palace Hospitium Mortis, a place that exists only in the mind of Nex and the dissident gods of the Orcus who are subjected to this punishment. Effigy Of Nightmares is essentially a short story that is only meant to demonstrate the supreme evil powers of Nex Animus. It’s not pertinent to the overall Mythos, it’s merely an exhibition of his ultimate spell.
Is the character of Valdrin Ausadjur merely a name, a paradigm of some sort, a human shape that incarnates some particular values or principles? Have you developed his personality and identity on a more basic human level, if not in the actual lyrics or in the Ausadjur Mythos, then at least in your minds? When you fantasize about that character, what set of psychological traits you tend to attribute to him?
Carter Hicks: Valdrin is a spirit that has been tainted by the experience of being a mortal. His human side as it were, is responsible for his many failures throughout his journey, yet it is also the source of some of his greatest power and identity. It’s an eternal conflict that in my opinion is the crux of the whole story. He’s essentially learning about himself throughout the entire journey, and you’ll notice this if you read the lyrics on Beyond The Forest. As for the values this character represents, I’d say it’s individualism and the pursuit of truth amongst constant strife. He’s at once ruthless, naive, compassionate, and self-destructive. There’s a yearning in his spirit to set things right, to undo the wrongs of the past, and then to achieve the true death: inexistence. There’s still a lot for me to discover as to what type of hero Valdrin really is.
Is Ausadjur Mythos a fully developed concept at this point or does the story unfold and get written together with the music, with no definite answer as to when and how the Mythos will end?
Carter Hicks: A lot of this has been planned out since the very beginning of the band, but just as much has completely changed. After all, this story does feel like it’s channeling through me, and sometimes I feel like I’m being taken on a journey that can lead to so many unexpected places. For example, we never planned on making two prequel albums about Nex Animus, it’s as if we were possessed to do it. It was almost illogical and probably confusing to people for us to follow up Beyond The Forest with two prequel stories centered on the antagonist of the mythos. But again, I had to do it, because the images of Nex and his story were too vivid to ignore. Our next two albums will pick up after the events of Beyond The Forest and will finish out the story of Valdrin Ausadjur. I understand this has probably been difficult to follow as it unfolds, but I hope that someday people will refer to the second and third releases as the Nex albums and the remaining three as the Valdrin trilogy. We intend to keep it chronological from here on out.
Compared to Two Carrion Talismans, Effigy Of Nightmares feels more relaxed performance-wise, with more breathing space within the songs that are now more straightforward and memorable than on your previous two full-lengths. Do you share this sentiment and would you say that putting too many additional spices on such convincing, supreme sounding riffs would not have only been unnecessary this time around, but perhaps even downright counterproductive?
Carter Hicks: I agree with everything you just said. It’s quite funny how you mentioned adding additional spices, bells and whistles, because at first we thought we would have to do that to bring this nightmare hospital concept to life. There are of course many sequences with multiple layers, but the overall atmosphere is coming from somewhere else. It’s in the performance. We made an extremely introverted album that was filled with bizarre imagery, dream-like riffs, and lyrics that we thought would only make sense to us. Yet, somehow people really liked this one. I like the word relaxed to describe the performance. We had no need to push ourselves in a super technical direction for this one, or to even try being heavy in the traditional sense. Every second of music was meant to be as visual and nightmarish as possible.
All those different prevailing shades of red on the cover of Effigy Of Nightmares radiate with an intensity that is almost unpleasant. One could say, half-seriously of course, that starring at the cover for too long could make the eyes sting, or that touching it could make the fingers burn. Was that the idea from the beginning, to come up with something that would feel dangerous due to the choice of colours alone?
Carter Hicks: That’s an interesting interpretation. I do remember telling Lucas Ruggieri, the artist, how I wanted the color red to dominate the entire piece, even at the expense of good taste. Obviously what he did is incredible, but if you compare it to the cover he did for Two Carrion Talismans, this one is much more threatening and sick.
That said, whose portrait hangs above the tomb, and whose body is in the tomb?
Carter Hicks: The portrait is of the villain, Nex Animus. If you look closely, you can see that he’s wearing the same regal attire that you see on the cover of Two Carrion Talismans, only this time his features are distorted and grotesque. The body represents any potential victim of Nex’s torture hospital. I was very inspired by the mutilated corpses of Jack The Ripper’s victims. Though the gore in this image is sort of metaphoric, because it’s truly a mutilation of one’s essence. It’s a spiritual lobotomy, which renders the soul a docile, meager piece of spent energy.
When you take a look at your music collection and all the metal bands that predominantly influenced you and steered your musical creativity in a certain direction, which of them you feel didn’t quite get the recognition they deserved? Between those somewhat obscure bands and albums devoid of universal acclaim, could you name a few your collection and your life wouldn’t be the same without?
Carter Hicks: There’s a lot of bands we are influenced by that people don’t pick up on. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not influenced by bands like Emperor at all, even though I do enjoy their music. The stuff that changed my style of guitar playing forever would be early Peste Noire, Destruction, Mutiilation, early Xasthur, Windir, The Chasm, Dawn, Order From Chaos, but hardly anybody picks up on these influences. I’d also like to mention the band Endless Dismal Moan from Japan, we’ve all been massively inspired by some of those early albums since the very beginning of our band. Nobody I know outside our group likes Endless Dismal Moan. Some people throw them in with the wimpy suicidal bedroom black metal bands, but this stuff is truly evil sounding to me. It’s a very uncomfortable listen, and I somehow enjoy that.
The abyssal underworld atmosphere, as you once described it, from the legendary Bathory’s 1985 sophomore effort, was something you hoped to convey on your debut Beyond The Forest. Was that particular album a spiritual guideline for these last two albums as well? Would you say that the mission of channelling its unique aura into your music was a success?
Carter Hicks: That particular album by Bathory is still my favorite album ever, but I don’t really think we achieved anything close to that on our debut album. I still enjoy the music on Beyond The Forest, it represents my entire teenage years of discovering extreme metal, but the production is too clean and soft. Maybe this is why we chose to stay in the Orcus underworld and decided to write two more records in that setting, but centered on the villain. I’ve never considered this before now, but I do think we achieved more of that deep, abyssal atmosphere on the last two albums. However, I doubt I’ll ever make anything close to Bathory’s sophomore, that is black metal perfection.
Are there any other albums whose uniqueness fueled your ambition to create something that would be worthy of the same reverence?
Carter Hicks: Some other all time favorites would be Arntor by Windir, The Somberlain by Dissection, Melissa by Mercyful Fate. There’s too many to name, but those are certainly albums that are like a north star to me.
Lemmy Kilmister once said that a band that doesn’t play live regularly isn’t much of a band. Has this legendary notion ever been confirmed and validated through your own touring experience? Did you ever feel that spending weeks in the discomfort of a touring van was spiritually beneficial for the band?
Carter Hicks: He was right, and this is an area we are continuing to try to improve in. We’ve done some mini-tours you could say, but nothing more than the weekend warrior kind of thing. We’ve played some great shows in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Richmond, Cleveland, but we have much more to prove in this department in the future. We had a lot of plans to play everywhere we could in 2020, but I guess the world needed to give humanity another challenge to overcome. I think we are a great live band, and I’d love to play everywhere we can once everything returns to normal.
If you were to deconstruct your appreciation for Pink Floyd, would you say that you are more fond of Roger Waters’ lyrics or David Gilmour’s guitar playing? When you listen to The Final Cut album, for example, can you hear the conflict the band was apparently plagued by during those recording sessions?
Carter Hicks: I barely ever listen to The Final Cut, and as much as I love The Wall and that era, I don’t listen to it very often either. My favorite period of Pink Floyd is A Saucerful Of Secrets up to Wish You Were Here, because I think that era had a perfect mix of Gilmour and Water’s best stuff. It’s the combination of Roger’s universal, emotional, and philosophical lyrics with Gilmour’s ethereal guitar sound and voice. That’s what defines Pink Floyd. The Division Bell and The Wall are both very good, but not as good as Meddle, for example. I can’t even think of what The Final Cut sounds like off the top of my head, but I’m sure you can hear a band falling apart.
Have you ever tried to emulate the screaming in The Great Gig In The Sky?
Carter Hicks: No, I’ve never tried to emulate the scream to that song, because their best scream is in Careful With That Axe, Eugene. That song has a very metal scream done by Roger. It sounds like he does an inhale scream, kind of like what Sheepdog does on the old Razor albums.
Is hanging on in quiet desperation exclusively the English way?
Carter Hicks: Hanging in quiet desperation is probably a human universal, but my guess is that he’s referring to what the effects of the post World War II, and Cold War era did to the English consciousness.
Do you appreciate more the intellectual or sentimental value of Pink Floyd’s music and do you more often find yourself daydreaming or thinking intensely while listening to it?
Carter Hicks: I used to overthink when listening to Pink Floyd, and sometimes feel too much emotion, have intense flashbacks, but that’s why they are possibly the greatest band ever to me. I do enjoy all of the classic Pink Floyd lyrics. As I said above, the message is universal. My favorite lyric is the last line that Syd Barrett sings on a Floyd album, in the song Jugband Blues: And what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?
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