This will first- and foremost be a discussion exploring the themes and emotions evoked by the lyrics, motifs and dramaturgy of the songs on this album. This is not only because, and I will be honest here, COURSE OF EMPIRE doesn’t necessarily reinvent the Epic Metal wheel (which it neither wants to or has to do, thank the White Goddess…), but mainly because that’s the way I tend to approach pieces of art which entertain not only on a surface/’consumerist’ level. This album invites the listener to watch and listen a bit more closely.
I will clumsily say a word or two about the music itself with as many amateur music journalism buzzwords as I’m able to squeeze in, but the focus will firmly be on the overall ideas, themes, aesthetics and processes making up the complete album. What follows is a review/interview hybrid following the order of tracks on COURSE OF EMPIRE with emphasis on the interview with MANUEL TRUMMER, conducted by telephone in late 2019 (transcribed and translated into English by me).
Not unlike the eponymous series of paintings, the narrative often zooms in and out of the action, supported by ominous keys, ambient sounds, voice-overs and warlike drum-beats, creating an impressive panorama of this primordial and ever-changing vision of Europa, even if according to MT, this is only to serve as a proxy for any civilization, modern or ancient. This series by THOMAS COLE, painted between 1833 and 1836, wasn’t very popular at its time, dismissed by many for being too gloomy and romanticizing a pastoral condition – the gloomy, cautionary tale it told too pessimistic and contrasting the prevailing pioneering spirit and belief in Manifest Destiny.
A small caveat: Keep in mind this interview was conducted in 2019, before the quite tumultuous events of the last 2 years. A global pandemic, the way it is being handled in various echo-chambers on social media and the media in general, racial unrest, police violence, elections and so on, stuff that would have been interesting to talk about in the context of this album. So despite the interview only coming out now, these things are not NOT being brought up for …reasons, it’s just that they weren’t as visible then or even actually existing in the way they do now. Some related themes are being touched upon and I have no doubt it would be interesting to go even further on some of those but this will have to wait until, hopefully, the next album or maybe a short follow-up talk should the opportunity present itself.
[Editor’s note: Bold text are interview questions, italic text is responses, and standard text is commentary]
What made you choose this as the title, despite the album being so very ‘European’ while the paintings by TC deal with a lot of early american issues/self-image?
The album isn’t really meant to come across as ‘European’, it’s rather meant as a universal tale about the rise and fall of Empires and Civilizations. Our approach to storytelling has once been described as pulling a golden shroud over more or less historical events to turn them into tales of imagination with a hint of real history. Of course Thomas Cole’s paintings and the accompanying poems for “The Course Of Empire” are deeply rooted in American landscape painting and the frontier myths of the American expansion, but what mattered to us was the underlying myths of mankind’s rise from pastoral societies to the heights of decadence and back. You can find this kind of cosmogony all over the world, for example in the Greek poet Hesiod’s tales about the “golden men” of olde, which with time became the “iron men” of the present age, who have lost the spark of divinity and have to live in a profane world, bereft of all beauty.
Speaking of paintings, one of the first changes one can notice is a slightly different art direction.
The THE GOLDEN BOUGH was complemented by DIE TOTENINSEL (Arnold Böcklin) and THE WHITE GODDESS used DER MÖNCH AM MEER (Caspar David Friedrich) as album covers. For the newest one, the band an original piece called ‘ARMIA’ commissioned by MARIUSZ LEWANDOWSKI, a painting which reminds me a bit of DER MÖNCH AM MEER, but instead of the calming and melancholic vibe this one looks menacing, sulphury colors accompany an approaching army with a multitude of banners from the sky. Are the similarities intentional, maybe a first glimpse at a more gloomy outlook theme-wise in general?
That’s an interesting approach to the artwork that I haven’t considered myself, but you could definitely compare both artworks. The White Goddess is a very mundane and chthonic album, dealing with death and mortality through the limited viewpoint of us mere mortals. This is wonderfully reflected by DER MÖNCH… with that monk, firmly rooted in the earth but looking out towards the great beyond, eternity with only a vague notion of what could come in the afterlife.
On the new cover on the other hand, the focus point of what’s happening is in the heavens. The experience is shifting from the boundaries of earth to the transcendent realm beyond, whence the spectral army descends. What makes it so interesting to me is that transcendental, unearthly vibe.
All across European history, the legitimation of regal or imperial might was often linked to some sort of heavenly blessing, a gift from god, which is something I see in that painting and what made it have such an impact on me as the perfect representation of the titular concept.
So the connection between White Goddess being an album rooted in the mundane with eyes towards an unsure afterlife and Course Of Empire as a tale about kingdoms and empires under a celestial influence, by the Grace of God or simply – fate.
Also, ‘Empire’ in the title doesn’t stand for an empire in the sense of a realm or a nation, but more universally for rule, dominion. The variety of banners can be seen as a hint that the focus doesn’t necessarily lie on Europe or one specific kingdom or historical period. What you see as sulphurous skies I interpret as a golden, majestic hue, maybe even how the sky sometimes looks right before a thunderstorm. So this moment before the coming of a storm or a new rule, that’s what caught my eye and how I read the painting.
What made you choose him and not another classic painting or even one of the paintings from COURSE OF EMPIRE in the tradition of the first 2 albums and did you commission the piece?
We had a ROMANTIC and a SYMBOLIST before so naturally we wanted something as equally as sublime and majestic, something you would recognize as a Kodex cover. For a while DIE INSEL DES LEBENS by ARNOLD BOCKLIN was a strong contender but I wasn’t completely sure about the colours and the arrangement, so I went through a lot of artists’ online portfolios when I came across this painting by MARIUSZ LEWANDOWSKI whose work I knew from his painting for BELL WITCH’s album MIRROR REAPER. The moment I saw it I knew, if this painting isn’t already in use by someone else, this has to be it.
It’s a great painting and as demonstrated, it can be interpreted in a lot of ways and it will be exciting to see what other people see in it.
Yes it is and although it can be exhausting, it’s something we also want our music to be, open to interpretation. There’s never one definite message, in a world as politicized as ours has become, we’d rather present something that can provide an escape from it all. Something more grand, opening up new perspectives on a life that’s detached from our materialistic, medialized modern world and not the banal, one-dimensional political soap-boxing that has become so commonplace in these hysterical times.
The cyclical nature of this overarching mythos, a creeping visualisation of utopias and dystopias, is being illustrated by the intro called THE ALPHA AND THE OCCIDENT (Rising From Atlantean Tombs). Opened by a poem in German, addressing an unknown entity, invoking visions of ashes, the night and thus either the beginning or the end of said cycle, it quickly sets the tone for what we have to expect from the rest of the album, quite literally with a first mention of the leitmotif and melody the album also closes with, never quite allowing to place it as an optimistic or pessimistic outlook.
The poem opening THE ALPHA…. I couldn’t find anywhere, is that written by you/the band? What’s the significance?
This poem was actually written by illustrator and tattoo artist BEN HARFF aka KODEX BARBARICUS who was responsible for the booklet illustrations of the three Kodex albums. The development of the booklet happened parallel to the creation of the songs, we shot ideas back and forth. We sent him demos which he took as inspiration and then he sent us the sketches which in turn inspired us and at one point he sent us that poem he said was inspired by the atmosphere of the album. And we liked it so much that we decided to include it on the album to fill a void we had in the intro which was initially planned to be a guitar solo. And so with the connections our drummer MARIO has thanks to his audiobook label (YELLOW KING PRODUCTIONS) we found a professional speaker to record it. It captures the essence of a lot of things we talk about on this album and also stands as a perfect example of that mutual creative back and forth we’ve been having with him for so long now.
Speaking of Ben: As with the last 2 releases, the booklet was taken care of by the great illustrator KODEX BARBARICUS and is, in my opinion, the most breathtaking one so far. How precise are you when it comes to references/directions or does Ben also work only inspired by the lyrics or the songs themselves?
Usually he listens to the demos and I explain the meaning of the lyrics to him. Everything else springs from his imagination. He has complete freedom to interpret them visually any way he wants, because we absolutely trust him.
Seamlessly we’re introduced to THE PEOPLE OF THE MOON (Dawn Of Creation), starting the journey following the Course Of Empire at the earliest stages of civilisation with what I can only guess are moon-worshipping Neanderthals. Just like in the second painting, this takes place in a pastoral Arcadia, before empires enter the scene and maybe after they vanished once again. Galloping drums accompany heavy riffs and only to slow down for the chorus which paints this utopia in a sacred light. The ecclesiastical vibe we are at this point expecting from ATLANTEAN KODEX is elevated to another level here.
Towards the end of the song the drums of pictom are mentioned for the first time, bringing to mind the Robert E. Howard quote:
How can I wear the harness of toil
And sweat at the daily round,
While in my soul forever
The drums of Pictdom sound?
A part of an escapism in the tradition of Howard is fantasizing but never overtly idealizing a world of the ancestors, where peace and knowledge are perpetually challenged and under attack, the defense of said values giving more meaning to an existence. Do you think the modern ways of people being able to make their every thought and opinion heard through social media gives them a, albeit less martial way of feeling like the last defense of their views and ideals?
You and I are more or less the same age. Our generation was the last one that grew up without the internet and thus still knows another form not only of communication but also of a civilized public debate. While now every unfiltered statement can immediately gain reactions and in a vicious circle it spirals always downwards from there, we still know a time in which contributions to the public discourse were held to certain standards in the editing process and mostly only curated and moderated content could find its way into the public eye. Which also means we still knew a considerably more stable democracy in Europe before the internet.
Today companies like Facebook commercially thrive on discord and negativity, the more sensational or even absurd something passed off as a fact is, the more likely it is to become viral. So as a result we have a bunch of giant global companies gaining wealth by destabilizing our democracies, over 2000 years in the works, a giant problem we are all faced with having to solve somehow.So I rather think that this is not the longing for the return of a glorious, chivalrous age, we’re standing at the threshold to a barbaric state, ever surrounded by a white noise of contradicting and false informations presented as facts with the complete lack of a common ground or common goal.
Everyone tries to entrench himself in his own little ideology, ready to attack everything that differs from that just the tiniest amount. This is all made easier by the fact we don’t even have to look each other in the eye while doing this, a compromise is out question. But that’s not how democracies work. Democracies need a common ground, even if it’s small. That’s the shared foundation our society and culture is built on. That’s why we need to defend these last remains of common ground, based on for example the values of humanism, freedom, justice, against the barbaric onslaught of the faceless digital hordes.
It may be my nostalgia or even my naivité speaking, but the 80s and 90s, the time we grew up, before the internet, was way less terrifying and more stable than what we are facing now.
R. E. Howard could’ve never foreseen anything like that: a desire for simplicity and a more conscious way of living is often the focal point of his work, a romanticized interpretation of a Rousseau-esque primitivism as an antithesis to an overly complex world like our own. Him posing as a boxer or having his picture taken holding an oversized stein all stand for his romantic notion of barbarism.
This new form of barbarism we are dealing with today is nothing like that. While for the longest time democracy also meant having to back up opinions with facts, as a basis for public discourse and civilization, we are now faced with losing this to a barbarism of post-truth politics.
And we can’t let that happen for much longer. Of course you can’t openly state that without so-called ‘Libertarian’ – what a joke – voices crying about free-speech and censorship. But forcing a globally acting corporation to adhere to the most basic of communication standards isn’t censorship, it’s a necessity.
It seems as if the Metal scene over the last few years has become increasingly conservative, from individual statements in interviews to the ever notorious social media soapboxing of bandmembers. Do you feel that represents the initial spirit of the ‘movement’? In the light of that, do you think it’s still accurate to call AK Regressive Epic Metal?
We were talking about that ourselves. Not only because our sound has become more complex in contrast to The Golden Bough or The Pnakotic Demos, but also because I really feel – and I don’t want to sound arrogant – that we really helped to bring a new element into the scene. Despite our radical backwardness on our first recordings, we somehow created something original and new within the context of metal. And it’s such an amazing feeling to hear younger bands mention the name Atlantean Kodex when it comes to their influences.
Regarding the conservative turn in metal, it doesn’t surprise me at all. Firstly heavy metal is a part of the wider society and thus only reflects the authoritarian turn we can currently observe in our societies. Secondly metal was always rooted in conservative mindsets, for instance overblown masculinities, a problematic view on women, a fascination for the military-industrial complex, war, myths and the glorified past. So while it’s certainly disappointing that a lot of my old childhood heroes turned out to be frustrated xenophobic old white men, it’s not a big surprise.
Tribal sounding drums, hoovebeats, ominously sounding wind and fanfares reminiscent of THE TRUMPETS OF DOGGERLAND usher the listener into next song, LION OF CHALDEA (The Heroes’ Journey), a song about the Nephilim’s march from Eden. This one of 3 songs on a very limited tape called SECRET EUROPE, handed out to only a handful of fortunate people, starts with a simple but more than effective riff that will be a guaranteed fistraiser at live shows, followed by a chorus that is the epitome of a euphoric singalong and even further in presents us with what must be the most badass solo the KODEX has delivered so far.
The lyrics allude to the book “From the Ashes of Angels: The Forbidden Legacy of a Fallen Race“ by Andrew Collins in 1996, exploring the origin of myths about (fallen) angels, the nephilim, events leading up to the deluge and the location of Eden. This is all dressed up as an epic story befitting the sound, a story that can easily stand on its own taken at face-value but one that gets stronger if you read between the lines or even go ahead and do some research about the various names and places brought up in the song.
How important is that to you, people not just ‘consuming’ what is there but digging a bit deeper, trying to decipher some of the more enigmatic lyrical themes?
Very important! I see myself as a storyteller, opening a gate which I invite people to pass through. Some people do and go deeper into the world of Atlantean Kodex, they stumble upon some words or phrases and then do their own research. That’s a great honor and shows we were able to move something inside those people and it’s not even really about them loving everything they hear. Some people approach me on gigs, asking about certain parts, some even bought and read THE GOLDEN BOUGH after listening to the album. What they take away from that isn’t even all that important, just knowing that the stories were able to inspire that amount of dedication is a privilege.
Especially when it comes to Collins, I myself know not a lot about early history or archeology and it’s also not about educating people. It’s about finding a fascinating topic, something triggering associations. Connecting the Nephilim, Eden, shamans and these neolithic sanctuaries does not have a scientific foundation, but it is just flat out exciting and exactly the kind of story for Atlantean Kodex. We don’t want to educate but to enchant the listener.
On the topic of enchantment and storytelling I would like to ask about an observation I made: Perchten and Shub-Niggurath, Catholic Saints invoked in a Thelemic ceremony, you seem to be fascinated with not only pre-existing syncretisms but also creating your own combined myths. Is that an exercise in ‘worldbuilding’ or do you think there’s a, to quote Umberto Eco, primeval truth connecting it all?
The latter is sadly more like a yearning for something higher connecting us all, the nostalgia for a lost unity with the world, which is a prevalent theme of Atlantean Kodex. Sadly that has to remain a nostalgic longing, a romantic fascination.
I really like the use of ‘worldbuilding’ in relation to Atlantean Kodex, one I haven’t thought about before but it’s fitting in a lot of ways. From the very beginning KODEX was about a play with fact and fiction, to create that own cosmos of ATLANTEAN KODEX, one that is unique. On the one hand on a musical level, that is us repeating a lot of words and phrases, similar melodies and rhythms to show that it’s all ultimately connected.
On the lyrical level it’s similar, certain topics always return, like I said a play with fact and fiction like also for example HOWARD and LOVECRAFT do, two of our main inspirations in the early days with TOLKIEN. A big part of my fascination as a reader came from this blending of historical events with made up elements like for example HOWARD’s HYBORIAN AGE, adding another layer to our existing human history, even mapping it out.
Same with LOVECRAFT whose stories are always based on real locations in New England with very relatable, very realistic protagonists until all of a sudden the supernatural, the numinous enters the world and disrupts the order and the normality. That feeling of uncertainty, always wondering what is real and what is not, that’s what fascinates and inspires me.
LION OF CHALDEA for example leans heavily on the theories of COLLIN’s and for the uninitiated it can undoubtedly make you wonder which parts could be based on facts and which ones are not. So worldbuilding, syncretism and the blending of fact and fiction are a great instrument to fascinate and also inspire people to think outside the box or also just rejoice in the beauty of the lyrics and take a break from reality for a while.
MARKUS BECKER gives us 2 of his best teutonic Rs in this one and apropos of him, let us speak a second about his vocal work. I always enjoyed his singing, being a fan of the less virile/martial sounding vocals (which for example makes the MORRIS INGRAM era of SOLSTICE my favorite one), making way for more heartfelt, emotional singing, less war cries and more tragedy, sometimes euphoria. While I never felt his voice work was lacking even in early recordings, I think he leaves no room for criticism on this one, the delivery is always on point and quite frankly a singularity within the genre, it has enough life of its own to distinguish itself from the more stoic method of MORRIS INGRAM or the PATRICK WALKER. I hear a bit of JOEY TEMPEST, a bit of RICK CUNNINGHAM but most of all a voice that at this point doesn’t really need comparisons but has earned its own place in the Epic Metal Pantheon.
I heard you call Lion of Chaldea your hit single in earlier interviews, do you still stand by that?
Yes, I think so. It’s very catchy, in a good way and it reminds me of some of the great tracks by Dio, Rainbow and Heaven-and-Hell-era Sabbath.
Despite that, you said yourself that people won’t find it as easy to ‘get’ the Course of Empire. What do you think makes it more unwieldy than WHITE GODDESS?
I think THE WHITE GODDESS was more straightforward. The choruses were bigger and the songs had a really tight flow with a lot of fist-raising moments. In contrast to that the Course of Empire sounds more complex and layered. The melodies aren’t as much in the foreground as they were on The White Goddess. I think people might find that more difficult.
My personal favorite (sharing a spot with INNERMOST LIGHT) CHARIOTS (Descending From Zagros) is next, opening with a menacing CANDLEMASS-like doom intro, after which subtle keyboards and MARKUS BECKERS’ impressive vocal work prepare us for the trampling behemoth of a song that comes thundering like the unstoppable war vehicle it’s named after, only for the chorus to once again be a slow, choir-carried piece of epicness. Tasteful keys give not only this one a certain Marriage-era Virgin-Steele-like elegance. At 8:30, which is the average length for about half of the tracks on the album, it’s certainly a long song, but as with all of them there is enough variety and ups and downs so this never stands in the way of enjoyment.
As with most battle-themed Kodex songs, the perspective is never from the view of the aggressor, nor do you sing of hard-fought, but victorious defenses. Usually the narrator faces loss, despair, tragedy, usually the depressing sadness of men of the mind faced with raw violence, lack of empathy and a conquering ambition. Are these the fates you’re more interested in telling?
That’s a difficult one and speaking quite frankly, I never noticed that. I’m not sure if that’s a satisfying answer, but while I find these heroic metal clichés fun to listen to, it’s not something, which inspires me in my own songwriting. Maybe it’s too much black and white, good and evil. I find the things in between are the ones which make life interesting. Also feelings of nostalgia, melancholy and triumph go together better with our sound.
Did you ever feel the itch to write a song not about the sacred blood of ancestors, but the freshly shed blood of your enemies?
Well, maybe “Kodex Battalions“ is such a song. And maybe that’s exactly the reason why it didn’t end up on an album yet. No, that’s really not the way I feel and experiences like that don’t really reflect what makes me tick in real life.
THE INNERMOST LIGHT (Senus Fidei) could also be found on SECRET EUROPE. It’s an epic ballad carried by keys, polyphone singing and choirs with drums and guitars providing a doomy backdrop. Running only 3:33 it’s one of the shortest pieces on COURSE OF EMPIRE but it’s also on point and emotional. With the crackling hearthfire towards the end it invokes an elusive feeling of home, for once an optimistic almost utopian snapshot.
Joseph Campbell’s HERO OF A THOUSAND FACES makes an appearance as a sacred king whose descent the narrator longs for and as in past ATLANTEAN KODEX lyrics, if one is looking for references or influences from literature, you won’t really find them with the usual Tolkiens or Moorcocks, but rather with Frazer, Campbell, the Apocryphal Texts of the Bible or Plato. While some of these can easily be criticized for some of the implications in their writings, one thing about ATLANTEAN KODEX is their ability to present topics like home, tradition and ancestors without leaving a lot of room for weaponizing these sentiments.
Of course when you deal with topics like tradition, folklore, your homeland – or Heimat in German – you run into danger of being misinterpreted or appropriated by certain political groups. Of course there’s a real potential for a reactionary reading of our lyrics, that is if you ignore our interviews and don’t know us as persons. A lot of the themes we’re using for our “world-building“ in our lyrics are drawn from 19th century and early 20th century literature. To me it’s mainly the romantic approach to the world of yesterday which permeates the work of many of these authors. The fascination for a distant, mythic past which is looming into the present age in what they thought were ancient rituals, folk-tales and songs. Of course we know better now, we know that there was a lot of ideology and nationalism involved, and that the pagan survivals they were looking for don’t stand a chance as soon as you take a critical look at the archeological and literary sources. But still I cannot help but feel that Frazer or Margaret Murray or Lovecraft make great material for writing imaginative, epic metal lyrics which tread the evocative line between fact and fiction. I think what is really important with our approach to “Bavarian“ elements in our songs on The White Goddess was that our goal was not one of exclusion. We didn’t aim for a glorification of Bavarian traditions, quite the opposite. What we wanted to show was, that they are adaptable in the global context of heavy metal. On the one hand because we were pretty sick of all that bland Nordic Viking Pagan imagery on the other hand because a lot of these tales fascinated us since our childhood and we felt their dark and ominous vistas deserved a wider audience outside of our home region.
One takeaway from this and earlier albums is the feeling that celebrating the past shouldn’t have to mean one only glorifies the absence of elements in the present you dislike and it almost feels like a conscious decision to leave less room for (mis-)interpretation this time.
SECRET BYZANTIUM (Numbered As Sands And The Stars), the 3rd and final song also on SECRET EUROPE is a melancholic mid-tempo doom song which wouldn’t have felt out of place on THE GOLDEN BOUGH. It tells a story about the loss of wisdom as it’s appropriated, replaced or eradicated until it is merely a legend or echoes of its original form become parts of tradition and identity.
Seeing the paintings, it’s impossible to not see parallels between how the story of A SECRET BYZANTIUM is told. Like in the paintings we watch this stretch of land change from afar but never from too far away. I can even kind of see the palace being built where the temple rose in between THE ARCADIAN STATE and THE CONSUMMATION OF EMPIRE. Following the narrative of the paintings almost makes it feel like a concept album.
Great observation, that’s exactly how it’s intended. The songs really do follow the sequence of the set of paintings, the initial plan even was to title the 4 individual sides after their counterparts by THOMAS COLE which sadly didn’t work out in the end. The narrative follows THE COURSE OF EMPIRE, from THE ARCADIAN STATE and the HOWARD-inspired stone ages in PEOPLE OF THE MOON. CHARIOTS deals with the rising and THE CONSUMMATION OF EMPIRE, A SECRET BYZANTIUM with the slow decay. There was meant to be a song in between, but ultimately didn’t make it onto the album. And then we’re already at THE COURSE OF EMPIRE where the cycle begins anew.
HE WHO WALKS BEHIND THE YEARS (The Place Of Sounding Drums) is one of the most hopeful tracks on the album, starting with a deceivingly folky intro, accompanied by a crash of thunder only to break out in one of the rare times I think I can hear a touch of Maiden in Kodex riffs (in this case I’m reminded of the bridge in 2 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT) or, because this is an Atlantean Kodex review after all, a hint of BATHORY‘s of UNDER THE RUNES. The rest of the song, in all its epicness feels, funnily enough, like an epic metal song written by EUROPE. Sweet melodies, choirs, drum-fills, following a nameless, lonely pilgrim out of time, with the ghost of his ancestors in the past and the drums calling him from the future, once again coursing through the seasons as a watcher.
Being privileged in having had the album a bit earlier than most listeners, I spent most of the summer of 2019 going out into the woods in the early morning with THE COURSE OF EMPIRE in my headphones. Coincidentally, the sensation a lot of this album invokes of walking through the forest as a child, with a wonder waiting around every corner, I almost see as a reflection of what is, albeit maybe sounding a bit naive, the spirit of Atlantean Kodex.
Initially we even had doubts if that song wasn’t even a bit ‘too much’, so melodic, there’s so much happening all the time, just like with TWELVE STARS on the last album we had a lot of discussion about its inclusion. Now I’m happy it’s there, in my opinion it’s one of our best songs and lyrics about nostalgia, longing for an easier time filled with wonder and warmth, basically the very essence of the Kodex.
Was there a difference in the songwriting process compared to the earlier albums? And would you be offended if I applauded some of the (very epic, but kind of) AOR-y moments on the album as such?
No, everything happened the same way as before. And no, I’m not offended. In fact I know what you mean. There are certain melodies and harmonies, for instance in “He Who Walks Behind The Years“ which are the most melodic ones we ever had, but it’s important to root these melodies in a heavy and crushing sound. Otherwise you run into danger of sounding a bit cheesy, something we want to avoid – despite our love for melodies and classic hard rock.
Did the departure of MICHAEL KOCH and the introduction of CORALIE BAIER impact the songwriting process in a significant way?
No, not at all. Since I’m writing most of the songs, together with Florian and Mario, everything went according to plan, despite the unfortunate line-up change.
I remember reading way back that there were songs enough left from the writing for WHITE GODDESS to fill a whole new album. Are a lot of the songs on COE from these sessions and if so, which ones are those?
Yes, indeed. “He Who Walks Behind The Years“ was originally written as a pure a cappella song for The White Goddess, but we couldn’t make it work. The chorus didn’t fit the verses and so on. II kept working on it and just in time for Course of Empire, I came up with a proper chorus and a structure which had a good flow.
At around the 6 minute mark comes my favorite moment on the album, an interjection so unusual for the band and the genre that it really caught me by surprise and still gives me goosebumps after countless relistens.
Shortly after, we hear a quote from KARL URBAN’S DR. MCCOY, taken from 2016’s STAR TREK BEYOND. In response to Spock saying that fear of death is irrational he says ‘FEAR OF DEATH IS WHAT KEEPS US ALIVE’. Death has always been an important theme, often explicitly stated thusly in the liner notes. Everytime I experience stories highlighting an ever recurring theme of life and death, rebirth, war and wisdom an unending unbreakable cycle, I search for the point at which this tale tells me to either choose resignation and endure that unavoidable fate or to go and try to take action, break or disturb the wheel. Where do you think falls the moral of THE COURSE OF EMPIRE?
That’s a very difficult question and one I haven’t thought about before, but I think both The White Goddess and THE COURSE OF EMPIRE have something in common regarding their approach to death. It’s the deep conviction that it’s important to leave something behind which is greater than our lives, something which outlasts us. The whole album The White Goddess was a meditation on death as the one inspiring force, which gives us the energy and the will to create something which outlasts us after our deaths, art, music, literature, architecture, something which makes us immortal. The quote from “He Who Walks…” you mentioned expresses exactly the same sentiments. The whole song is a meditation on death and the question of what we give to this world in the short span of our lives. Will we be remembered? So all in all I think the moral of our two last albums is a very baroque one: seize the day, never forget that you’re mortal and you don’t have much time in this world.
SPELL OF THE WESTERN SEA (Among Wolves And Thieves) is more of a poem accompanied by ethereal keys, soft drums and the crashing of waves, setting the scene for the finale of the album.
THE COURSE OF EMPIRE (All Thrones In Earth And Heaven), with 10:45 minutes the longest song on the album, closes the circle started with ALPHA AND OCCIDENT like the Ouroboros Of Steele mentioned in that song and also closes off the narration (as far as closing off makes sense given the cyclical nature of the overall theme) by bringing it closer to the present like ever before in the hour leading up to it with more or less current events. It’s a pounding metal song that sounds very Kodexy yet fresh enough to make the long runtime unceasingly entertaining.
In the final part a soft piano part prepares us for one of the most, yes, epic lines and on the albums. But one other line stood also out to me.
In COURSE OF EMPIRE there’s this line ‘TRADITION’S SAFE ROPE CUT’ which is a disturbing image since that word is one of the handful of Kodexism (with FIRE/ANCESTORS, crashing waves, etc worthy of a MANOWAR-esque drinking game) that is often mentioned as a shield, something reliable. With this in mind, which quote about tradition do you think fits most with ATLANTEAN KODEX?
—The fact that tradition hinders the individual savage from thinking logically by no means proves that he cannot think logically
:: James M. Baldwin
—Traditionalism is the most revolutionary ideology of our times
:: Julius Evola
—One must have tradition in oneself, to hate it properly
:: Theodor Adorno
It’s probably the first one in a certain sense. When we started out – and I think up until today – our regressive or primitive approach to metal somehow made us outsiders of the current scene. A lot of journalists didn’t really get what we were aiming at and thought of us and our raw sound as “savages“, metaphorically speaking. However, everything we did so far, the primitive production, the anti-modern approach to metal, didn’t happen coincidentally. We always had a plan, despite our orthodox interpretation of metal’s tradition.
The last verse once again summons the DRUMS OF PICTDOM, sending us back to the savage state which is also the name of the first painting of THOMAS COLE’S COURSE OF EMPIRE cycle.
The outro DIE WELT VON GESTERN (Abendland) again is more of an ambient piece and accompanying poem, with atmospheric synths, waves and seagulls in the background. It’s an excerpt from a book called “VOR DEM FEST“ by SASA STANIC, a story about the structural change in Germany’s east and its effect on the people of a small, fictional town, interwoven folktales and an otherworldly atmosphere. For all non-German listeners and readers, here’s a translation exclusively from the author himself:
‘WE ARE SAD. We don’t have a ferryman any more. The ferryman is dead. Two lakes, no ferryman. You can’t get to the islands now unless you have a boat. Or unless you are a boat. You could swim. But just try swimming when the chunks of ice are clinking in the waves like a set of wind chimes with a thousand little cylinders. In theory, you can walk round the lake on foot, keeping to the bank. However, we’ve neglected the path. The ground is marshy and the landing stages are crumbling and in poor shape; the bushes have spread, they stand in your way, chest-high.’
It’s a fitting and also eccentric way to end this latest album of a band that’s never quite like others – a bit odd and walking the tightrope between serious topics and issues that plague our modern world interjected with stories a simple mind could turn to absolute nonsense filtered through the paranoid brain of a conspiracy theorist, with quotes out of a modern Star Trek movie. It may sound pretentious, but KODEX once again manages to be the thinking man’s epic metal band while never neglecting the eternal need for fistraisers, powerful singalongs, and straight up headbangers.
Do you think a reason why THE KODEX works so well also outside of Germany and even overseas is, to a certain degree, also that special touch of German Kauzigkeit?
I wouldn’t consider us a typical German band and I don’t know if Germans are really ‚kauzig‘. I feel it’s quite the opposite. I think we’re successful, because we don’t sound and come across like your typical German power metal band. We’re rather the stubborn eccentrics from Bavaria who do their own thing and try to stay away from the German power metal professionals with their tribal shirts, leather pants and “funny“ lyrics and metal clichés as far as possible.
I once read the album was meant to come out in 2017. Do the changes in style and lyrical content reflect the changes Europe went through over the last couple of years ?On a more mundane level, why is it coming out only now?
Maybe on a sub-conscious level, but like I said before it’s not our main concern to comment on current political development. The reasons why it took so long are rather mundane and I don’t want to bore you with them. Just the usual stuff: jobs, families, periods of illness, the loss of our old studio, etc.
With the overarching theme of the album being the rise and fall of empires, filled with allusions to the past and the present, I want to conclude this feature by looking at the band’s eponymous lost kingdom.
So on the topic of falling empires and also a fallen Atlantis, the ideal of a society in a golden age, how close do you think is that state we are approaching to the ones leading to the most famous downfalls of perceived perfect societies in history or fiction? Will further generations look on us like we do on those and say, they didn’t even have it half bad and then…THIS happened?
We are living in a very progressive, enlightened world, especially when it comes to medicine, education, freedom, standards of living, better than ever before in the history of mankind, but a lot of media feed us only the worst of it, catastrophes, disputes, boogeymen and stereotypes. This leads to fear and distrust, new divides. Bad news sells best. While in the 80s when we grew up we had three TV channels with a very reduced news cycle. Now you can’t escape all the terrible things and with that uncertainty comes the paradox of us living in an era in which, some severe problems like for example climate change aside, we should be able to be content, but not allowing ourselves to feel that way and rather letting the media convince us that we’re standing on the verge of collapse constantly.
As with every album before, there will be people criticising the production (sure, the drums could have a tiny bit more power here and there). It’s a time investment for sure and as far from musical fast food as possible and depending on your heavy metal sensibilities, the line into cheesy territory is boldly crossed more than once (always a plus in my book fyi), but by now it should be clear what the KODEX is going for.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried a bit once or twice during my first listen since some parts hit close to home with a lot that I was going through at that time and there’s of course a certain bias thanks to a professional relationship with the band from the early days of my work as an illustrator, me already having been a big fan even beforehand and also being from Bavaria. All that aside, I’m sure the themes and craftsmanship of THE COURSE OF EMPIRE would still resonate with me in a way that has become very rare for me with age.
The fact that you can interface with it on a variety of levels – either as just a collection of bangers for every occasion or as a gateway to a wiki-deepdive into various topics ranging from history and politics to folklore and fiction – is a testament to the quality of the whole package. With this intense growth in terms of musical and thematic prowess combined with an overall aesthetic vision, I can’t wait to hear and see what the future holds for the KODEX.