Band – Mystras
Album – Castles Conquered and Reclaimed
Country of Origin – Greece
Genre – Black Metal
Release Date – July 17, 2020
Label – I, Voidhanger
Author – Hayduke X
As I sit here writing this review, I think it is important to give some context as to what is going on outside my window, so to speak. There was a peaceful demonstration in the downtown of my city yesterday evening. The march was in protest of the murder of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis several days prior, by a white police officer, and in solidarity with Black Lives Matters and other organizations seeking justice for his death. The police present at the demonstration were in full riot gear. Eventually, the demonstration escalated, which included tear gas and rubber bullets being used by the police against what were essentially unarmed protesters.
Why am I writing this in a music review? First of all, in solidarity with all those seeking to end oppression wherever it is found. Which means, of course, I stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matters and the protesters. Second, Mystras is the new one-man black metal project of Ayloss, who has another pretty well known one-man black metal project entitled Spectral Lore. Famously within the scene, Ayloss proudly and publicly let the world know that he is an antifascist, causing no small stir at the time. While Spectral Lore is not really political thematically, and though Mystras is a medieval themed black metal project, this latter project is definitely a political animal.
To start with, Mystras is not your typical medieval project focused on the glory of kings and knights and an unrealistic, romanticized view of the past for the purpose of honoring ideals that never really existed in the first place. No, on Castles Conquered and Reclaimed, Ayloss takes the point of view of the peasants, and seeks to show them as the true heroes of the story. In addition to original pieces, he covers four different traditional folk songs, each portraying an aspect of this. For example, “The Cutty Wren” is an English folk song about an uprising of commoners seeking to throw off their yoke of bondage.
If you haven’t quite put the pieces together yet, Castles Conquered and Reclaimed is thematically an allegory for today. The majority of wealth and power is held in the hands of the few, while the working class struggle more and more to get by. When they try to rise up to throw off the yoke of oppression, they are attacked by “modern day knights”, who were just as much guard dogs of the wealthy then, as they are now.
As this is a review of a musical album, some mention of the music is in order. This album is phenomenal. Castles Conquered and Reclaimed is fiery black metal, first and foremost. It’s not raw in the sense of the subgenre, but it is certainly more roughly hewn than his Spectral Lore material. At the same time, Mystras manages to capture a sense of majesty and internal power, the type that is inherent in certain people, no matter their so-called station in life. For the most part, the medieval influence is found in the four covers of the folk songs, though it is subtly apparent throughout in some of the melodies. The album is a beautiful, raging, tightly cohesive journey back in time to discover our roots as the working class. Solidarity.
Read on below the music to see the full interview with Ayloss. It is definitely worth your time.
Hayduke X: First of all, congratulations on another incredible release. Are you satisfied with how Castles Conquered and Reclaimed turned out?
Ayloss: Τhank you. I’m very satisfied with how the album turned out, indeed. While the first track for Mystras was written a year ago, the bulk of writing and recording took place in two months in a pretty intense period, which is my favorite way of writing music (to give an example I’ve written Sentinel in about the same time, while III was written in the course of five or six years). But this should be the way, as I wanted a rawer and more visceral approach with this record.
HX: You are already a prolific artist with Spectral Lore. Why the need for a different project?
Ayloss: That’s an interesting question because I’ve always felt the need to experiment in different styles of music, and therefore have lots of different projects. Strangely Mystras is not all that different from Spectral Lore, and I’ve done space ambient and acoustic/drone albums with Spectral Lore, so I realize why this looks strange! I’d say that the specific character of the concept behind Mystras was asking for a different name. I had the idea for a long time to do an album in the genre of medieval black metal, but with a rather different lyrical approach to what is used. Grainy black metal tapes with old looking photos or drawings of castles, cassette sound with raw production, echoes of medieval battles… you know the appeal I’m sure. I grew up with stuff like that and I always wanted to contribute to the style.
HX: Oh, for sure. Though I think there certainly is similarity, I think there is a clear difference between the two. I was just interested in the compulsion to do a different project.
Though, the music is incredible in the way that the traditional folk melodies, songs, and instruments are woven into the rich black metal tapestry, it’s really the lyrical and thematic content I’d mostly like to discuss. Can you give me a brief synopsis of what those themes are?
Ayloss: Well, the problem that I always had with depictions of medieval concepts in black metal and and metal generally, is that the lens was problematic, and this obviously doubled in such a field that has been already scarred by historical revisionism and a romantic, Eurocentric outlook. What we see, whether in Hollywood movies or in heavy metal records, is the same tired cliches of noble knights and wise kings, something that had obviously no bearing in reality, as knights were more like cops rather than defenders of the weak (and Kings, you know). Women are fair and pure and submissive and people of color aren’t to be seen. And of course peasants, villains, the embodiment of all that is filthy and low and a reference for us to feel superior to. A whole outlook on a historical era purely identified with its ruling class, in other words. That quite sucks, doesn’t it? Moreso, when everything that was good about that age (the music, the art, the armors, well, the castles) is nowadays used as a cheap reference to signal traditionalist and conservative sentiments of longing about the things that actually sucked about the middle ages. So, in essence, the whole concept of Mystras is about reclaiming. We don’t need to abandon these thematics. We just need to tell these stories again from a better perspective. And the obvious choice is to do it from the side of the class that suffered the most while being the majority, the peasantry. I guess an obvious choice was to deal thematically with peasant uprisings and this will definitely continue to be a central theme in Mytras, however, it will probably not be the only one.
HX: You have chosen a handful of traditional folk songs to perform in-between original pieces. Why? How does that fit?
Ayloss: Ι had a formal music education, so I’ve had contact with pieces of music from the medieval ages from early enough. It’s still one of the most under-discovered eras of music, as there’s so much more than Gregorian type chants. The complexity of the music that was reached with the styles of ars nova and ars subtilior is actually quite fascinating. In the first Mystras LP, there are four acoustic pieces, three of them are covers of folk tunes from England to Southern France and Greece that are each somehow connected to the concept of peasant rebellions, and there is also a more “serious music” piece that belongs to the tradition of the Francs of Cyprus. I would say my incentive for including them would be to create a medievalist atmosphere without resorting to the typical synthesizer/noisy intro/etc solutions. But at the same time, I’m lately getting more and more into this music of the era, so this probably will not be a one-off thing with Mystras. It’s a good chance to explore this kind of music and I suppose makes the project more unique.
HX: Can you tell me a little more about the themes of each folk song? In what way is the one from France more serious?
Ayloss: I had second thoughts about using the word “serious”, but what I mean is in the tradition that was later called classical music, you know, music that is notated, with particular forms and so on. This divide with folk music is so deeply contaminated with elitism that it’s interestingly difficult to find a neutral way to refer to this music (it’s usually distinguished as “art music”, which is equally ridiculous, if you’ll agree). In any case, the pieces are: The Cutty Wren, which is an English folk song that is connected with the period of the Peasant’s Revolt (which is also the theme of the song from the Mystras album “The Murder of Wat Tyler”) and has been covered by anarchist band Chumbawamba. “O Tsakitzis” is a tune from a Greek folk song concerning a Greek and Turkish folk hero that has been described as “the protector of the weak” and was a rebellious Robin Hood-like figure. Finally, “Ai Vist Lo Lop” is an Occitan folk song that describes the troubles of the working class.
HX: Is your message meant to serve as an allegory for the modern world? What do you hope listeners take away?
Ayloss: Is there any way of speaking about historical issues that ISN’T an allegory about the present? I don’t think so, we’re interested in the past not because we’re historians and we have to do some science thing, but because it’s something particular that interests us there. There are elements we pick up and some that we don’t. Many times I’ll hear the argument that it’s just “escapism”, and there is a truth in that. We are always escaping TO some place in particular that we are choosing. To some place we prefer (even if for a bit) to the world we are living in. The middle ages were uglier, more violent, more unequal, but also more magical, more mythological, more poetic than the current world. What is it exactly that appeals to us? Different things for each one.
The group Vox Vulgaris (perhaps the most famous neo-medieval music group on YouTube) describes its approach as anti-medieval, saying that their aim is to actually attack notions of romanticism and authenticity regarding medieval music (especially these that are appropriated by right-wing culture). I would say that my approach is similar. For sure, there is a particular message in the album and it is not subtle. Climate disaster is upcoming and inequality runs rampant world-wide. Fascism is making a comeback and the division between “east and west”, “us and them”, “civilized vs. non-civilized” is growing larger and more dangerous. [Editor’s note: the following was added after the interview in response to the protests regarding the death of George Floyd]. Also just a few days after this interview has been conducted, we’ve had the biggest uprising in recent years in the USA against racism and police violence. In other words, revolt is as relevant as it ever was.
HX: Some time ago, you caused a stir in the black metal scene by publicly declaring that you’re an anti-fascist. What has been the outcome of that to this point?
Ayloss: Nothing much, with the exception of some new contacts with like-minded individuals and music groups. I don’t think it should be considered something special. More like a duty to do something like that in the black metal scene, if one doesn’t want their music to co-exist in the same spaces with nazis and nazi sympathizers.
HX: Sounds like good news then, and I definitely see it as a duty.
The Greek black metal scene has a reputation for some fascist activity, but also has, for example Yovel, as well as your own work. What can you tell me about the Greek scene on the ground level?
Ayloss: To be honest, I don’t partake in it since many years, so I don’t have much to tell. Every black metal scene is not really that much different from another. Some good music here and there, but spiritually/thematically/politically very far off from my interests. Yovel is a great band and good comrades, we’ll collaborate in some way or another soon I believe.
HX: That last is very exciting news to hear. Anything else you can say about that at this point?
Ayloss: Not except that I have some music files to listen and decide to do something with them these days!
HX: That’s plenty to get me excited anyway!
At one point a while ago, you offered to give proceeds from your album sales to an Immigrant relief organization (which caused me to buy three of your Spectral Lore albums). What was the outcome of that? Were you able to raise some funds for the cause?
Ayloss: Yes, as I posted in the Spectral Lore Facebook page I raised 1076 euros which were given to three organisations (Lesvos Solidarity, Médecins Sans Frontières, One Happy Family) that help refugees in Lesvos, where the bulk of the refugee population is being kept. Unfortunately, the situation is still tragic, even more so right now during the COVID period. These people must be moved immediately in a safer environment and asylum to be given to them, but things don’t seem to be moving anywhere as the Greek government couldn’t give less of a fuck, to be blunt.
HX: How do you see music in general, and your music in particular, serving as a vessel for change in the world?
Ayloss: Art should be a vessel for positive change in the world when it’s approached with an internal honesty. First of all, we should be looking to please ourselves as creators. We should be bold and ambitious, and we should ignore the confines of our genre and the demands of our audience. Heavy metal generally gets that part (the individualistic one). What we should not forget though, is that we must also examine ourselves, rather than just explore ourselves. Look more carefully towards our intentions, why we do something, what do we want to achieve. There is a moral counterpart to art. Create something, then judge it. Is it something that is worth putting out to the world? Freedom must be balanced with responsibility. In regards to how I view my music, I can tell you that there are certain ideas I want to put out there and certain explorations that I want to take. I don’t set any goals about the effect that they might have, but I work hard and hope that they are welcomed. In general, I sure hope that metal culture starts being more socially conscious and revolutionary, both in a political and artistic sense. There’s a lot of potential and it’s not good to see it wasted behind cliches, tired tropes, and an unimaginative repetition of the past.
HX: Wow! That’s honestly a really beautiful approach. I think it balances very well two key concerns that are often in conflict.
Let’s go back to the album. What can you tell me about the writing and recording process?
Ayloss: I’m afraid my writing and recording process is rather dull and pretty much the same from record to record. It’s just me looking on my computer screen with a guitar in hand. It would be more interesting to talk about the fantastic musicians that contributed to the acoustic pieces of the record. I’ve had a flute player (Stelios from Lüüp), a violin (Manthos from Art of Simplicity), a percussion (Dimitris from Spider of Pnyx) and a lute player (Victoria from Neda), which would be about the most people taking part in a personal album of mine ever. Their contributions gave a whole different color to the record, as I’m usually playing everything myself. I did not have the chance to play in the same space with them however, as the recording of their parts took part in the beginning of the COVID period, so everyone did it in their own place. This is one of my goals for the future though, it would be fantastic for a Mystras acoustic piece to be played by a full band.
HX: That would be very cool! My next question was about contributors, but you’ve already covered that.
Tell me about the creation process of the cover art. Whose art is it? How does it fit with the album?
Ayloss: The cover art is by Loukas Kalliantasis and it depicts a fantastical version of Mystras (the actual medieval town) based on some sketches of the era. If you’ll notice, there are signs of a siege having taken place, so I’m sure you’ll see how it ties with the title of the album “Castles Conquered and Reclaimed”. Mystras (to me) essentially represents the concept of the medieval era and black metal itself. It’s a town that sort of exists in a liminal space in between the present and the past, as it has been abandoned and functions just as a tourist attraction nowadays, but it’s not just some ruins, as some buildings are habitable. It’s basically the center of medievalist fantasy and byzantine nostalgia in Greece. You can therefore understand how this connects to the title and the concept.
HX: You’ve been working with I, Voidhanger for awhile. Tell me about how you connected with the label and your relationship with them.
Ayloss: I’ve been a member of the I, Voidhanger roster for so long that I have forgotten how it is to be outside of it! The relationship with Luciano has been always perfect as he is a man deeply interested in the art, and understands the need to support the persons behind it. I’m definitely proud to be in a team with some of the most forward-thinking artists in metal today such as Mare Cognitum, Locust Leaves, Luup, Esoctrilihum, Creature, and many others.
HX: Will there be more Mystras? What’s next for this project?
Ayloss: Yes there will be! I am imagining a trilogy and maybe a split release could happen. We’ll see, for sure though there are many things in this concept and style I’d like to continue exploring. Maybe get deeper into working class histories of the medieval age apart from just rebellions and it’s also a very fun process to record for Mystras. In the meantime, I’m going to focus on the next Spectral Lore full-length album though.
HX: Excellent! I’m very excited about all of that.
My final question is what else should we know?
Ayloss: Well, the Mystras album is out on the 17th of July and if you’re interested to listen to new projects of mine, check out the Spectral Lore Bandcamp page from time to time. There will be lots of new and different releases this year.
Thanks for the interview!
HX: Thank you so much. This was a really great interview. Solidarity with the work you are doing.
Biography: Hayduke X has been writing for MoshPitNation since June of 2016. Beginning in 2018, he also began writing for VM Metal Underground. Prior to joining the MoshPitNation team, Hayduke published reviews on his own blog Rage and Frustration. In addition, he has DJ’ed an online metal radio show of the same name as his blog, written for TOmetal.com, done interviews for Metal Rules, and collaborated with The Art of B Productions to create video interviews with a wide variety of bands.