Beneath his calm, unassuming self, Mark Azzopardi admits he’s always busy, his mind forever juggling some musical idea or other. He is also the man behind Draugul, the music project whose debut album The Voyager was released just over a year ago. Originally intended to be a low-key self-released album to give away to a few friends, the album was picked up by German label Pesttanz Klangschmiede, who proceeded to give it an international distribution. “It was certainly a pleasant surprise when the label got in touch with the good news”, he recalls. It was an even bigger surprise that all the copies of the album sold out, some ending up in the hands of metalheads as far as South America.
“The label got in touch to ask if I wanted to do a rerun”, Azzopardi continues, “but by that time I had already finished the second album”. Tales of loot and plunder is in fact the reason I’m meeting Azzopardi. He points out that this second instalment of Draugul’s metal music isn’t exactly a sequel to The Voyager. “That album which was inspired by a mixture of Viking mythology and Tolkien’s work, while the new one is based on real-life Viking raids, but there is a small connection nonetheless”. This is by way of the songs Furore Normanorum, which features on both albums. “The song is about the earliest-recorded Viking raid in history and given the new album chronicles raids carried out by the Vikings between 793 and 1066, I couldn’t exactly leave out the first one”. The ‘II’ prefix behind the song does however suggest there’s a difference. “Yes of course, I re-recorded it from scratch and changed the lyrics”.
Being quite fanatic about Viking history and Norse mythology, Azzopardi says it wasn’t too difficult to pick the particular raids that inspired the music, although some research was still necessary to get all the facts right. And having gotten more familiar with his home-recording studio set-up, he feels the production this time is far better than his first attempt. “I’ve had time to experiment more with the software”, he laughs, “and in doing so I’ve discovered some nifty tricks to get a better sound overall”. This is particularly evident in the sharper, crisper production that characterizes the new songs. Azzopardi is quick to add that apart from Hellcommander Vargblod (his alias within the Draugul project) the album also features four guest vocalists. “I wanted certain parts to stand out in particular, and felt that having other vocalists on board would emphasize certain contrasts”. The vocalists are Clint Aquilina (formerly of Putrid Birth), Alexia Baldacchino (Memento Nostri), Vanja Obscure (Martyrium) and Azzopardi’s wife Katia, who was previously in the local band Shadowborne.
Just like The Voyager before it, Tales of loot and plunder also features a cover. “The last song, King of a stellar war, is originally by Rotting Christ, a band I’ve always admired, and when they played in Malta last summer, I took the opportunity of getting their go-ahead”. I suspect that the inclusion of a cover as the album’s closing track could well become a Draugul tradition. He laughs, saying only that most people love a cover, especially if an artist gives it his own twist and timbre. Having said that, he also strives to keep searching for new ways to develop his sound, and this is reflected in the subtle nuances that add a different flavour to a few of the songs on the new album. “Yes, just because the genre is metal it doesn’t mean one cannot explore other elements too; in fact three of the songs on the album feature flutes and another song features bagpipes”.
Aside from Draugul, Azzopardi has also launched yet another project that literally appeared out of nowhere. “I wasn’t planning another project”, he laughs, “as Draugul keeps me occupied enough, but I was coming up with some riffs and melodies that I didn’t feel suited to what I was doing, but at the same time they were too good to discard”. The solution of course, was simple – he set up Khaospath, which in contrast to Draugul’s Viking metal, is rooted in the more extreme Black Metal genre. “They are totally separate and totally different projects”, he continues. “Khaospath has given me the opportunity to revisit the traditional, raw edge of Black metal”.
And just as his first YouTube uploads of Draugul material caught people’s attention and landed him a record deal his initial Khaospath shares have also been just as well-received. “I’ve had very good feedback so far, and better still my label has also stepped in to release the Khaospath album”. With the second Draugul album now done and dusted, I’m curious as to what Azzopardi will be doing next. “Well, there is the vinyl version of the album still to be released, but other than that, my main focus for the rest of this year will be on Khaospath”. With a handful of tracks already finished for the new album, he admits there’s still a lot of work to be done. “I still need to finalize the rest of the album by the end of the summer in preparation for its release and after that there’s promotion work to do too”. I assume this won’t leave much time for other music, to which he raises his eyebrows and gives me a quizzical look that I take to mean ‘never say never’. “Oh, by the way” he remembers to inform me as we part ways, “the Khaospath album will be called Synagoga Obscura and…it’s going to feature a cover”. He laughs, knowing full well what I’m thinking. Old habits die hard, or in this case, not at all.
An edited version of this article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta (Sunday, 4 May, 2014)