Metal Archives’ database lists 174 Tolkien-inspired acts. One-hundred and seventy-four. Sub-genres range from traditional power metal to atmospheric black metal and beyond. So if you said heavy music may not need any more Tolkien worship, you’d be forgiven, but you’d also be wrong. In August, Wisconsin’s Khazaddum will self-release their debut full-length, Plagues Upon Arda. As a fan of both Khazaddum and JRR Tolkien, I’m excited to say the new record is a solid, meaty effort, marked by significant improvement over their (also really enjoyable) 2015 EP, In Dwarven Halls. This is a fantastic first full-length, and Plagues Upon Arda feels like an engrossing, if still somewhat cursory, study of the line that separates the band’s musical delivery from the literature that inspires its lyrical material.
First off, if you’ve got Blind Guardian in your head, forget it… this is definitely a death metal record. While the intro features some grandiose orchestral work, the true opener is the second track, “The Deathless Crown,” which boasts some of the record’s most frantic pacing. Vocalist Luka Djordjevic’s performance sits perfectly in the mix, leaving the instrumentation plenty of room to breathe, and bearing a striking similarity in both timbre and delivery to Skinless’s Sherwood Webber. Like Webber, Djordjevic sticks primarily to a lower growl, but tracks like “The Black Hand of Gorthaur” and “Oathbreaker’s Curse” see him also displaying a wicked, Ring Wraith-esque shriek. Again, his performance complements the guitar work deftly. Having already heard the band’s first EP, I was aware of their affinity for Nile-style riffing (listen to In Dwarven Halls’ “Thorin Oakenshield” and tell me Khazaddum didn’t love Those Whom The Gods Detest), so I assumed Plagues would feature a progression towards even denser technicality. In a way, it’s a “yes and no” scenario, and that’s a good thing. There are riffs here that are complex enough for Pierced-era Suffocation fans to get their rocks off, but not too noodly for straightforward headbanging. There’s not one instance on the album where the band’s technicality feels like overt grandstanding. On the other hand, Khazaddum are to be applauded for crafting a debut album that displays this much stylistic consistency from beginning to end.
But while the band’s forte is most definitely brutal death metal, this style isn’t all that informs their sound. These songs are often accompanied by orchestration, sometimes in the form of a punctuating flourish (“The Fell Rider’s Scourge”, my favorite track), and sometimes carrying the weight of the entire track (intro “In The Halls of Khazad-Dum”). The string sections are far from heavy-handed, however; they actually feel like an earned, organic component of the songs. In a way, it’s part-and-parcel of the payment required to create music inspired by Tolkien’s works. Something here has to be beautiful, and in the dense soundscape of tech-inspired, brutal death metal, beauty is often hard to come by. All in all, Plagues is an ambitious outing from a band that already has the chops to excel in the genre, while leaving plenty of room to grow in interesting new directions.
On top of jamming Plagues Upon Arda for this review, I also had the chance to talk with Djordjevic, who, in addition to singing, also supplies all the band’s lyrics. And in Tolkien’s style, it’s a pretty long chat. Check out our discussion below to read a little about Tolkien, metal, inspiration and more.
SCHULER BENSON: First, I’d love to have a history of the band. Feel free to go into as much detail as you’re willing, especially with regard to your formation and the decision to settle on both the musical approach and the lyrical direction.
LUKA DJORDJEVIC: In late 2014, early 2015, Alex Rausa (guitarist) approached me with the idea of doing a Tolkien-themed recording project. He knew me through the Milwaukee metal scene and the former bands that I was in. Considering my resemblance to the mythical dwarves of Middle Earth, my love for all things Tolkien, and my vocal style, he asked me to write the lyrics and do vocals. He also recruited Peter Kissane for drums, and Patrick Gunderson for second guitar. Alex wrote the songs, Pete put drums to the tracks, and I wrote the lyrics. We recorded the EP at Belle City Sound with Chris Wisco. Once it was recorded, the release got put on the back burner for some months due to our obligations with our full-time projects. In late 2015, we began to toy with the idea of making Khazaddum a live band. We recruited Tony Cannizzaro on bass, and Noah Mezsick for live guitar. Since then, we’ve played a fair amount of local and regional shows, as well as taking a trip to Alabama to play the NYDM Annual in Birmingham. All the while, we wrote our full length Plagues Upon Arda.
SB: What came first? The desire to play technical death metal, or to bind your music to Tolkien’s mythos?
LD: It was conceptualized in unison. All three of the creative contributors of this band have been playing death metal for years, and it only seemed natural to us to marry the music we are so passionate about with the endless inspiration that we could draw from Tolkien. The idea started with the Dwarven name for Moria, Khazad-Dum, and it naturally grew from there.
SB: BWBK initially streamed “Masters of the Plains,” and the accompanying blurb focused on your music as highlighting the tragedy of Tolkien’s work. Would you say that’s the main aspect of Tolkien’s stories that have inspired your music? If so, why the tragedy?
LD: Many of the songs on Plagues Upon Arda are centered on the corrosive influence that the quest for power has on the denizens of Middle Earth. This is one of the pivotal themes that the mythos is so famous for. The lust for power, and the corruption that follows was always central to storytelling in Tolkien’s writing. There is an inherent tragedy to this unending and all-consuming pursuit. From Sauron’s quest to bring order to the world, shaping it in his own image, to Saruman’s need to seize the One Ring for himself, their hunger for power is an affliction that is terrifying, relatable, and pitiable all at once. The album is not exclusively dedicated to this theme, but it remains ever present.
SB: While Khazaddum is the first purely death metal act (of which I’m aware) to devote its lyrical schemes to Tolkien’s work, you guys are entering a rich company of other metal bands of different styles who’ve chosen to do the same. From bands like Blind Guardian to Summoning, what do you think it is about this material that attracts metalheads?
LD: Tolkien is completely unique in the modern era of literature. With his formation of the immense mythology of Middle Earth, the closest comparisons one can draw is to ancient poets like Homer, writers of the Eddas, and the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata. He developed a modern European mythology in the twentieth century, complete with dialects, gods, demigods, mortals, and monsters. It comes as no surprise that so many draw inspiration from a modern mythos that contains so many rich tales of heroism, betrayal, greed, tragedy, morality, and redemption. Also, considering our civilization’s ever escalating march towards industrialization and modernization, I believe that many cling to his portrayal of these phenomena as a destructive force, romanticizing a world full of mystery and magic.
SB: Let’s talk about Plagues Upon Arda in comparison to In Dwarven Halls. What were the band’s goals with this new recording, and how did that differ from what you guys set out to do with the EP?
LD: When conceptualizing Plagues Upon Arda, we knew we wanted to go bigger and give a more comprehensive look into our interpretation of this material. This also meant that the music would have to reflect this grand concept. Much of the story of Middle Earth is epic in its very nature. Not only did we see a need to make the album heavier, more technical, and more pulverizing than the EP, but we felt a need to express the grandeur of the codex that inspired it. This was done through more focused songwriting, lyrics, artwork, and the incorporation of symphonic orchestration throughout the record. Plagues Upon Arda was recorded, mixed, and mastered at No Passenger Studio by Spencer Fox and Trae Titus.
SB: When it comes to the orchestration, there’s a significant symphonic presence here, but Khazaddum is still in no way a symphonic metal band. Is this what you guys were aiming for? What sent you down that path?
LD: We felt that the incorporation of orchestration was the next logical step in the advancement of our vision. I would certainly not classify us as symphonic metal, but I think that the symphonic elements help enrich the overall scope of the record. We drew influences from movie score composers like Basil Poledouris and Howard Shore.
SB: While your lyrical scope seems to have expanded a good bit, there’s still a lot of love for all things dwarven here. What about the dwarves is most appealing to you, both as a Tolkien fan and as a lyricist in a death metal band?
LD: This is actually something that a considerable amount of thought went into. As previously stated, a large number of bands draw inspiration from the Tolkien mythology when it comes to metal. To me, the races of Middle Earth are best sonically personified through specific genres. Power metal best represents the Elven race, with bands like Blind Guardian embodying this sound perfectly. The forces of Mordor, and those corrupted by The One Ring are best represented by black metal with the likes of Gorgoroth and Isengard, among many others. So the reasoning behind depicting the Durin Folk through death metal only seemed logical to us. Dwarves, the progeny of Aulë, are a hardy, strong, and tireless people. They are born of the earth, and in it they dwell. The technicality and brutality inherent to death metal is perfectly paired with their industrious craftsmanship and their loud, boisterous nature. One can’t help but visualize the hammers of Erebor striking ore as they hear the thunderous double bass. To us, death metal was the obvious choice.
SB: I loved the duality of “The Grey Thus Commands” and “Durin’s Bane” on the EP… telling the same story from the two different viewpoints of Gandalf and the Balrog. Can you tell me if the songs on this album fit into an overall concept? Is there a linear narrative going on here?
LD: There are, for a lack of better terms, “sister” songs on the record. “Lord of Isengard” and “Legion of the White Hand” are two such songs. The former depicts The White Wizard’s struggle to gain power and amass the mighty legions of Isengard. The Man of Skill, consumed with his goals, develops a contempt for nature and seeks to bend it his will, exploiting it, employing slash and burn tactics on the ancient forest of Fangorn. “Legion of the White Hand” is about those efforts coming to fruition. It illustrates the relentless march of his Fighting Uruk-hai in the service of his nefarious ends. Focusing on the siege to Helm’s Deep, it also covers the heroic defense led by King Theoden and the reinforcements brought by Gandalf. “The Fell Rider’s Scourge” and “The Black Hand of Gorthaur” are two songs that are likewise intertwined thematically, the former being about the fallen Kings of Men who had succumb to the promise of power and were enslaved by Sauron, and [the latter] about Sauron, the right hand of Melkor, and his struggle to remake Middle Earth in his own image. Both serve as warnings about the virulent nature of the hunger for power and avarice.
SB: I understand a lot of Khazaddum’s artwork is handled by your brother, Kosta. Can you talk a bit about that collaboration?
LD: Kosta is largely responsible for my love of drawing and art. He’s five years my senior and has always taken an interest in my creative side and drawing. I essentially learned to draw from him. He is also a Tolkien fanatic. From the onset of this band, it was understood that we would collaborate on the visual art for Khazaddum. For In Dwarven Halls, he was responsible for all of the drawings for that release except for the portrait of Gandalf that is on the disc itself, [which I did].. For Plagues Upon Arda, Kosta drew the front cover, and that drawing was masterfully digitally painted by our good friend Matt Zeilinger. All of the interior art was done by Kosta and myself. As far as merchandise, Kosta and I collaborated on our “Oathbreaker’s Curse” t-shirt. You can find this shirt through our Bandcamp.
SB: What’s next for the band?
LD: We’ve got some exciting things on the horizon. We’re ecstatic to finally release Plagues Upon Arda on August 19th. Also, in September we’re headed out east for a week-long tour, and in October we’re spending two weeks heading down south and then making our way to the West Coast.
Many thanks to Luka for his time!
– Schuler Benson