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  • Interview by Faye Coulman

Melancholic metal masters Harakiri for the Sky talk headlining UK tour, cathartic dark art and making of new album

Whether attending weekend yoga retreats, taking a long, hot bath or brutally anaesthetising one’s inner turmoil with copious quantities of hard alcohol, the modern world has furnished us with no small amount of therapeutic sticking plasters for the tricky business of being human circa 2024. But, as any tortured artist or morbidly-inclined creative visionary will no doubt eagerly attest, there’s no finer, obsidian-hued balm for the soul than that of the pure, pitch-black catharsis to be sourced from the most evocatively haunting and visceral of art forms. And with their uniquely enveloping blend of bloodcurdling, frantically energised aggression and eerily entrancing atmospherics, Austria’s Harakiri For the Sky certainly know a thing or two about letting loose their inner demons. On a night that finds these gifted players mere hours away from kicking off a tremendously anticipated UK tour, long-time friends and writerly duo Michael ‘JJ’ V. Wahntraum and Matthias ‘MS’ Sollak reflect on the intensely therapeutic ritual of live performance.

“There were so many difficulties that came with being so long out of the game, of playing live concerts, but at the end you were just happy to not have to cancel the shows again,” recalls Harakiri For the Sky frontman Michael ‘JJ’ V. Wahntraum of the unprecedented period in which COVID-19 drastically impacted every conceivable aspect of the world we once knew. Second only to the immeasurable loss of human life and the psychologically debilitating extremes of grief, isolation and financial crisis that followed, there’s no overstating the inevitable damages incurred to both creators and consumers of art of innumerable different forms and variants. Not least when we stop to consider the rich abundance of bleakly entrancing sonic brilliance contained within the duo's latest melancholic masterwork ‘Mӕre’. Following extensive and frustratingly prolonged delays to its official release, the album finally received its long-overdue live debut in the band’s home city of Vienna back in January 2021. With the inevitable host of stringent and, at times, frankly nonsensical COVID restrictions doing nothing to dampen the pair’s sheer, unadulterated joy over this much yearned-for return to the international tour circuit, the months and years that followed saw the band throw themselves headlong into an extensive slew of live dates and prestigious festival slots.

“We never played so many shows a year like we did this year,” JJ observes of the exceptionally productive past couple of years. “But, I mean, it's a mixture of all the shows that were cancelled between the two Corona years, and so generally we had many options this year and we tried our best to use all of them. So we played nearly six weeks of the USA Tour, then we were a few days at home and then we flew to Kyrgyzstan, which is still kind of unreal to me that we have been there. It was a very cool experience.”

Having made their very first, incendiary appearance here in the UK at prestigious black metal gathering Cosmic Void back in the autumn of 2022, suffice to say there’s since been no shortage of eager anticipation around the Austrians’ long-awaited return to UK shores. Kicking off in the capital this very evening at legendary live music haunt The Underworld with illustrious support in the shape of melancholic black metallers Ellende and delectably frostbitten UK collective Fen, it’s clear guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Matthias has given considerable thought as to precisely what tonight’s tremendously awaited performance might entail.      

He elaborates: “We’ll definitely be playing different songs than we did for Cosmic Void. First, not all, but most of the songs. And second, some songs we didn't play last time we were over here, so it’s like a mix of our last releases and like one song from the second album that we did a re-recording of. So we’ll try to keep to a setlist that makes sense to us mood-wise and not only the blastbeat stuff, but something to really relax the mood in between a bit and I hope it works. Let's see.” 

Indeed, from the frantically barrelling percussive blasts and exquisitely ethereal melodic intricacies of ‘Sing For the Damage We’ve Done’ to ‘Fire Walk With Me’s’ exhilarating fusion of elegantly entwined riffery and lung-puncturing screams of abject torment, theirs is a rare and seemingly limitless capacity for conjuring emotion. With every bloodcurdling scream and eerily transcendental whisper of distortion audibly reverberating with anguish and profoundly entrenched depths of melancholia, this is the unmistakable sound of a band exorcising the very darkest and most unflinchingly vulnerable parts of themselves.

“Catharsis, you mean?” JJ responds. “Yeah, for sure. I can only talk for myself, but I totally need to do this and write this personal stuff.”

“Yeah, like, things that have to be yelled out, you know?” Matthias offers after a moment’s careful contemplation. “It's easier than sometimes just talking about it, if we do it in the context of art and self-expression. I try to do it with melodies in this band and with the lyrics and it's like, when I read the music and he writes the lyrics we usually always agree right away which song and what lyrics should go together. And knowing him for almost 18 years right now, I always know exactly what it's about, so that gives it a very deep and personal feeling for me. And that's something I very much appreciate because it conveys a certain honesty. Even though it's not always easy topics, I think its important that we address this stuff. To clarify, our music is not intended to make anyone feel bad or depressive. It's just talking about situations in our lives and yelling it out when there were tough times and that's a good thing. We actually get a lot of fans talking to us, telling us that it helped them.”

“In the end, nearly all of it is about authenticity,” JJ adds with audible conviction and sincerity. “Authenticity…” he falters for a moment over pronunciation, “…is also in German a really terrible word to spell. But yeah, you know what I mean? I couldn't write about something I wasn't into or I didn't go through personally. And then your experiences through life and growing up and broken relationships and estrangement and all the other things that are important issues in our lyrics. I couldn't write about anything else. I couldn't just write about some fantasy shit or whatever.” 

Taking its name from that of a malicious supernatural entity with a penchant for crawling onto the chests of its sleeping human victims and inducing terrifying nightmares, 2021’s 'Mӕre' comprises the latest in a prestigious line of intensely dark and evocative studio albums. Comprising an all too perfect metaphor for the exceptionally bleak and turbulent personal circumstances in which it was initially conceived, lyricist JJ reveals: “The funny thing about the lyrics on ‘Mӕre’ is that I wrote a break-up album before the break-up even happened, so it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy or something,” he laughs wryly.  

“Yeah, but I kind of saw it coming and that it was lying heavy on you at the time,” Matthias remarks. “So I think it's a good metaphor. The title that we chose for the album.”  

“Yeah, I mean that's what life is ultimately all about,” JJ adds. “Some relationships stay and some you have to let go and that's also something I wrote about in one of the lyrics, that some people can maybe stay in your heart but not in your life any more. I think, in life, that's the overall metaphor for all of us.” 

Having long since recovered their creative momentum following the substantial damages inflicted by COVID-19, there’s no mistaking the tremendous excitement and vigour with which Harakiri For the Sky enter into this latest round of intensely anticipated tour dates. But despite the no doubt gruelling and intensive demands of their current touring schedule, it seems the making of a new album is already well underway, with a substantial body of material written and ready to record.

“We have a lot of material gathered,” songwriter Matthias confirms. “I'm gonna start recording guitars in December, actually, and Michael also gathered a lot of initial impressions. The past three years have been kind of tough for us, you know? For me, it wasn't easy to write because of this like, never-ending loop that I was trapped in. The lethargy of always staying at home and not getting any outside impressions. So it's like two years where I couldn't write any music, but now everything is coming back and we’re ready to start making the next album.”

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