Words by David C. Obenour
Around the world and throughout most of known history, oral traditions have recorded our stories. Whether through myth and folklore that convey greater meanings, or through legend and lore that mark monumental occasions, spoken word was there first.
Providing a soundtrack to this tradition, Virginia’s Foretoken use each album as a chance to delve into these ancient and sacred narratives. With vocals and lyrics researched by Dan Cooley and pummeling guitar riffs and culture spanning orchestration from Steve Redmond, the duo return with Triumphs on Prosthetic Records. While the name conjures banners flying in victory, the album lives in the shadows they cast on a land and people ravaged by war.
Off Shelf: Ruin was released unto a world that was experiencing largely that in May of 2020. How do you feel the life of that music was affected, given the global pandemic that surrounded it? Does it change your relation to it?
Dan Cooley: To be honest, the way music is consumed nowadays isn’t different from back in May of 2020. Music for the most part is quickly listened to and put on the shelf for future listens… hopefully, anyways. We’re happy that our debut album caught people’s attention and was able to be released through Prosthetic Records.
OS: Triumphs was written in 2021, how largely did the pandemic loom over the process?
DC: The pandemic impacted how we recorded the album more so than wrote it – as we’ve always written things virtually. For me personally, I was very careful to not catch COVID before I was scheduled to record vocals. I read about stories of vocalists who were dramatically impacted by COVID vocally and I didn’t want that to affect my tracking.
OS: I see that you included Naglfar’s “I Am Vengeance” as a song you love to jam on and a good encore song. What was it like recording a song and knowing you’d be able to play it live again?
DC: We both love this song so it was awesome that we were able to include it on the album. We’d often jam this song during practices because it’s just so much fun. From a recording perspective there was a bit of pressure because we wanted to make our interpretation do the original justice.
OS: You also talk about utilizing traditional narratives like myth, legend, and folklore in your songs. How do these traditions lend themselves well within the structure of a modern metal song?
DC: The stories at their core encapsulate the human experience. Rage, pain, sorrow, despair, all these elements fit nicely when writing metal songs and lyrics. From a songwriting perspective, the climatic moments story-wise are carefully ordered so they fall alongside the music; kind of like a mythology-inspired metal audiobook.
OS: Can you site a few instances of the different folklore you pulled directly from for Triumphs? How did they work into the story you were trying to tell and what are the challenges in weaving together a patchwork of global oral storytelling styles within the confines of an album?
DC: The primary message of Triumphs is that some of, if not all, victories have collateral damage. The album explores various stories which illustrate how a hero – or even a villain – achieved great things yet caused destruction and death. Some stories include Heracles, Zeus & Kronos, Zhong Kui, Zahhak, and Cu Chulainn. The biggest challenge of including so many different myths is doing the research to find them and portray them accurately. The research phase is fun for me so while it’s work it’s not really a chore.
OS: You also utilize a number of traditional instruments from around the globe on the album. Can you talk about any that particularly stand out to you in their role?
DC: I’d say the erhu stands out in Demon Queller because there’s a break in the beginning where only the erhu is heard. The instruments are meant to help the listener quickly understand what part of the world the song’s story is from. Not really any instruments in particular. We do, however, try to limit the number of instruments we use so that they’re not the focus of the song.
OS: As you talked about before, as an album Triumphs explores the often-ignored collateral damage incurred by war. What inspired you to want to explore this theme in your music?
DC: In mythology – and I guess in life too – we focus on the result and not the journey and sacrifice. I wanted the album to allow for a retrospective on some popular stories and underscore the damage done and/or attempts to undo damage caused.
OS: Triumphs as a name seems very purposeful for the subject matter, can you talk about your decision in naming it that?
DC: The title is supposed to be the one-word thesis to the album’s message. In Triumphs it talks about victories but the title is also meant to be somewhat ironic because it forces you to ask, was it really a victory because of the consequences?
OS: This is your second time working with Tomas Honz for an album cover, how did you become familiar with their work?
DC: Back in 2019 when we were writing Ruin, I was looking for an artist on Deviant Art who might be able to help us visualize the album’s concept. I found Tomas’ work and the rest is history. He is great to work with and really understands our artistic vision. For Triumphs, I sent him some rough sketch ideas and he improved and brought the ideas to life.
OS: It is also your second time working with Hannes Grossmann on drums. What do you appreciate about what he brings to the Foretoken sound? Would you want to bring on an official third member?
DC: Hannes is one of the best metal drummers ever, full stop. What makes him so good is that he is not only a metal drummer but a jazz drummer. This combination has helped us define what listeners can expect in our music. We do not want just blasting, we want someone who plays groovy and interesting drum parts which add depth. We’re currently looking for a full-time drummer, actually. They’ll need to have that same type of background or be capable of it.
OS: I see you’re already at work on the next album, having researched the stories, written the themes, and even identified a few riffs. How much of a departure are you expecting from the first two albums? What are you excited to further perfect and what are you excited to explore?”
DC: We are! The next album will be heavier musically, tonally, lyrically. I’m excited to explore this chapter of Foretoken. With each album we want to do something different. Ruin was melancholic, Triumphs was energetic, and album three will be brutal. After listening to Triumphs repeatedly during the mixing/mastering process we recognized that we’d like to make some parts shorter and more direct. Listeners can expect a more “go for the jugular” record.