Hand of Kalliach released an EP last year called “Shade Beyond,” and it made quite an impression on me (Joel, aka VUK). When I saw just the cover of “Samhainn,” Hand of Kalliach’s debut LP just released this weekend, I got far too excited. It was almost shameful. Like… I screeched. And I listened to it as soon as I possibly could. Before it was half way over, I shared my enthusiasm about the record with my buddy Serena. Now, if you’ve been a TMW reader for a while, you’ll know what that means. Because when Serena and I adore an album… we go all in!
So, she and I began planning a massive track by track review, and approached the band to ask for an interview.
Sophie and John Fraser, the husband/wife duo that make up Hand of Kalliach, not only agreed to an interview, but accepted an invitation to join Serena and I in our discussion of “Samhainn,” which just blew us away! I can’t speak for Serena, but… well, I screeched.
There are ten songs on this brilliant record, and the four of us just went to town chatting about it. The background on not only the music but the mythology behind their inspiration was, as you will soon see, absolutely fascinating. So much so, in fact, that we felt the most effective way to publish it all was in two parts.
So, my friends, please enjoy part one of our discussion with Hand of Kalliach.
John: The name Hand of Kalliach comes from the legend of the ‘Cailleach’, a Scottish witch god of winter. There are plenty of varying tales about her in mythology, as she’s represented across parts of both Scottish and Irish culture, but one of the stories goes that she lives at the bottom of an enormous whirlpool (3rd largest in the world) called Corryvreckan near the Isle of Islay on the west coast of Scotland, where half my family is from.
Sophie: The Cailleach legend has a lot of malign connotations in folklore, bringing all those negative associations typically associated with any god of winter – death, age, loss, etc. But she is also written about as a nurturing creator deity, so the music we make is broadly centered around these dual concepts of benevolence and malevolence, all against the backdrop of the history, mythology and land/seascapes of the Scottish islands.
Beneath Starlit Waters
Sophie: In the story of the Cailleach we favour, she emerges from the whirlpool to usher in winter, and this track is very much centred on this concept. She washes her plaid (a sort of tartan cloak) in the whirlpool until it is white, then casts it over the lands which materializes as a layer of snow. We wanted this track to introduce the stirring of winter before the dawn of the new season.
Colder, the waters that
Bring the night closer
The waves like rhythms
Stir my soul
Serena: The lyrics certainly denote a being coming more and more alive beneath chilly waters, only to rise up and blanket the land in a spell of frost.
John: Awesome, that’s definitely the mood we were driving at. With Samhainn being a seasonal shift to a new time of year, we wanted to try and convey the anticipation of change, with a mixture of both the beauty in the harp and female chorals, and the sense of malice with the low choir, double bass and drums.
Joel (JW): That mixture of darkness and light (beauty -vs- malice) comes through in a lot of ways just in this one song. Layers of it, and until you mentioned the word “anticipation,” I couldn’t quite put my finger on how the music was making me feel. But there’s an acceptance to it as well… a coexistence of both dread and appreciation. It’s almost jarring how well your voice compliments Sophie’s. The two of you, in a way, are literally singing up a storm. Even without being aware of the mythological piece, it’s quite clear something big is brewing.
Sophie: Thank you! We’re glad you enjoyed the balance! We definitely tried hard to find vocal tones that complemented each other well for this album that allowed us to really represent that duality. Whilst we’d experimented with a range of vocal styles in our first EP [“Shade Beyond”], we mostly settled on death-y vocals for John and cleans for me for “Samhainn”. It really let us work more with that contrast of extremes and provided a lot of room for dynamics between our voices.
Serena: I love when folklore is about old women because it almost always applies a sort of evil mysticism to them. Cailleach is to be feared because she can create these really terrifying storms, but she is simply just doing what she has to do.
John: Absolutely. She’s frequently referred to as a ‘crone’ or ‘hag god,’ who brings storms and winter and death and so on, but in other tales she’s described as as taking the form of a strikingly beautiful woman, and those stories are typically where she’s shepherding deer and other wild animals like your more benign angelic, druidic-type legends you might find in other cultures. But regardless of form, she is invariably portrayed as a mystic old woman with unearthly powers. And I totally agree with your point on the ‘doing what she has to do’ bit. I think through a historical lens you can really see the drivers for why these legends developed; as a way to make sense and rationalize the suffering of winter by framing it as a necessity or even a duty for the divine to inflict upon the world in order to make way for the new life and rebirth that comes with spring.
JW: Oh, that’s just fantastic! Framing the harshness of winter as “a duty for the divine to inflict upon the world,” is such a human need. To find purpose behind everything, or a reason for suffering, the stories we tell each other are all we’ve got sometimes. Change is inevitable. It happens because it needs to happen, and in order to make any sense of this at all we need to put a human face in it. Winter, then, becomes a little less terrifying when it’s seen as a deity’s purpose.
Sophie: You nailed it! Trying to find order in chaos and looking for patterns where there are none are such human characteristics, and it’s fascinating looking at these mythologies that were at least partly created to provide some explanation the harsh and brutal lives that people commonly lived at at the time.
JW: This song makes me think of a warrior who’s either on his way to, or coming back from a particularly meaningful battle. He’s sailing dangerous waters and screaming to the heavens with increasing conviction. And once again, it’s the female deity who helps bring the clarity this warrior needs in order to feed that conviction.
“Eyes high,” she says, almost in a whisper. Transcend “this mortal veil,” put all of these human trivialities aside for a moment, take my hand, and let’s just walk. Focus.
The music intensifies after that first chorus, too. It’s driving this man into a cathartic rage. He’s getting through this storm, one way or another, with the help of an angel. Perhaps “angel” isn’t the right word here, and I may be way off base with my interpretation, but the point is these characters have each other’s backs. No agenda. Just hard truth. Oh, the agony and the grace of incorruptible sincerity. If you think about it, “honesty” is Metal as fuck, and this song packs a punch!
John: That’s a great interpretation of it, and not far off what we were driving for. This track was written specifically to follow up from the rising of the Cailleach in track one, to introduce winter and what it means from the perspective of a mortal now under her reign.
I love that you took the view of a warrior coming back from battle, and sailing dangerous waters, because what we were originally writing was about this weary soul lamenting the coming frosts, the loss of youth and the rapid passage of time. The first lyrics of the song are:
The warmth departs these shores
From eightfold crones the chants are heard
The sand inverted once again
The grace unseen
As paper fingers snap
The night encroaching all too fast
A blink, a moment, lifetime spanned
John (cont): With the warmth of summer departing, and the sand in the hourglass inverting with the start of winter once more the protagonist feels time slipping away, as he awakes from dreaming of the events of “Beneath Starlit Waters,” as if it were a vision. The eightfold crones is a reference to another bit of Cailleach mythology, that she has eight ‘attendants’ that help her in her rituals initiating winter, but they go unseen by the mortal world.
Sophie: To counter this melancholy, the female voice is more uplifting, as you say with the encouragement to set eyes high and discard the grim laments, and reach out to what is truly important (reach out where hearts lie in anchored rest, keep it near), and again as you say helps to guide him through this physical/existential storm – which I think still very much fits with what you took from it!
One of the reasons we prefer to write mostly abstract lyrics is that it lets the listener take from it what they want from the tracks. We don’t think there has to be a single, unambiguous message through them. Rather, our personal view is that songs should first and foremost hold the meaning to the person that listens to them. Whilst we do have meanings in mind, that’s not to say that’s what a listener might hear, or want to hear, or even need to hear when they first play them.
Serena: “As paper fingers snap” invites such visceral imagery into my head. Picture it: fingers grown impossibly cold and stiff from the brutality of winter, only to literally snap in half due to the excessive loss of heat and flowing blood. It makes me shiver.
I think allowing room for interpretation allows a piece to immediately become more interesting; there are so many stories that can fit into one single piece. I often envision time as a rapidly moving river pushing you toward the head of a cliff where the water drags you over and brings you down, so the thought of having a sort of divine female figure calling out to you in a moment of hope and encouragement is a rather warm one. Also, though many of us fear the winter, there is always the knowledge that warmer days are coming and the bitterness of the freeze will eventually thaw, though those thoughts may often get buried too deeply by the piling snow to be properly acknowledged.
John: That’s some fantastic imagery, and great to hear that was your take away. Despite the bleakness of the track, there is definitely a warmth to it through Soph’s vocals, which I think really adds a totally different dimension to what would otherwise be a very dark atmosphere. And that really neatly ties off the translation of the title – ‘a strange light’.
John: Each Uisge (pronounced ‘ey-ach oosh-ke’) translates to ‘water horse,’ and is a fae/demon from Scottish mythology that disguises itself as a horse before binding it’s flesh to a rider and galloping into the sea to drown and eat them, leaving only their liver which floats up to the surface. This song was more of a story that actually tells a tale (which is a bit of a contrast to our usual writing) about a shipwrecked sailor following a siren voice to find an Each Uisge, and then charts his demise as he desperately mounts up to rest and ride to safety, only to realize his mistake too late.
JW: This is a spooky tune. Extremely heavy, too. Violently melodic. You can really hear the drama you’ve described quite clearly. And, as with “Solas Neonach,” the drama only increases as the song progresses. Using layers of sound, both vocal and instrumental, with a percussive drive that seems very intentional. I also love that guitar solo towards the end of the tune! So good! The tone is just beautiful. I would love to know what kind of guitar you’re using there. And the way it goes from the solo into the chanting?! God damn, I love that!
Sophie: Thank you! Really glad you enjoyed it, and great that you felt that the percussive element of it was a highlight! This one was a lot of fun to write, and when we were discussing how best to portray an Each Uisge, we had a lot of ideas but ultimately settled on a sense of this demonic beast galloping towards the waters with a helpless rider bound to it. As a result, the rhythmic, percussive element you call out was very much central to the track.
John: Definitely, “Hooves drive me, merciless” was the guiding mantra for this one! Really glad you liked the guitar tone too thanks, I use a Schecter C-7 Hellraiser, and we’ve just recently been endorsed by Elysian Pickups, who are very kindly building us each a custom set. The owner, Adam, is actually a fan of ours and is designing them specifically for our sound, which is just amazing.
Serena: This track feels downright evil (in the best way possible, of course). Learning about the story of the Each Uisge and then listening to the track again makes for an almost unpleasant experience (again, in the best way possible). Hearing those thundering drums that mimic the powerful galloping of a horse and that menacing wail that slithers up while also visualizing your very own flesh binding itself to a demon as you are then forced to ride toward your own grotesque death is just… I have no words. This track rules. I thought for a moment that there was synth included on the track, so knowing now that it is a guitar I hear is so, so, so cool. What a distinct sound!
Sophie: Thank you so much! It’s definitely one of our favourites, and with the imagery it was a no-brainer for us to choose this track to get a lyric video made for.
Serena: The way this song actually sounds as though it starts up from deep beneath the water is SO. COOL. The chugging instrumentation makes it sound like you, as a listener, are helplessly struggling against the mounting waves.
John: Yeeeah! We have to give full credit to our engineer, Wynter, at Sphynx Studios for the intro effects. It was all his idea based on discussions on the track. It was brilliant working with him. He really took a big interest in the project and made some really tasteful suggestions that didn’t alter our vision for the songs but really enhanced them. A lot of the choir libraries used in the album for example were only settled on after a lot of discussion and a bit of trial and error, but we ended up with a much deeper atmospheric sound than we had on our demos.
Sophie: Yes, we entirely accept that our tracks have a lot going on in them, which can make them non-trivial from a mixing perspective: dueling vocals, choirs, dense layers of guitars etc. So having someone not only capable of engineering a metal album effectively, but who also takes an active interest in shaping the whole sound to fit the vision was invaluable.
Serena: The purer, siren-like aahs at the beginning being immediately replaced and taken over by a harsher voice growling out the words “Torn, pulled from the void, blackened the gift, wrapped in the bloodied cloak” is such a powerfully fun way to open up a song, and it creates an interesting back and forth. As noted above, this quality certainly helps to extend that mixture of beauty versus malice theme found in prior songs. The instruments on this track feel wonderfully chaotic, but it feels a touch more grounded when the feminine vocals rise up. In only three minutes, this track includes an incredible amount of lyrics that tell a tale of what I interpret as a sort of betrayal? There are so many interesting lyrics to pick through on this track.
Trailing off of Joel’s comments about a warrior, for this track I can’t help but visualize a fallen warrior wrapped in the snow that has fallen over a land rife with bloodshed. Is the “bloodied cloak” a literal garment, or is it the land Cailleach has turned cold? Is Cailleach being banished by the fires sung about in “Òran na Tein’-éigin?”
John: ‘Chaotic’ was definitely the vibe we were going for here! So, this was originally a standalone single that we put out in early 2021. It was the first track that we wrote after we dropped the EP in December 2020. We wanted to take all the best bits of that release and condense it into a track that would guide our sound going forwards. Of course, cramming everything into three minutes ended up making it pretty mad with a lot going on, but it was great fun as you say and is one of the most breakneck tracks on the album.
Sophie: There is indeed a lot going on with the lyrics! And you’re on the money thematically, broadly the track is about raging against the futility and injustice of existence, in a life that has reached a violent conclusion in a world of dead or uncaring gods.The bloodied cloak is meant to symbolize that even from early on life can be a dangerous, zero-sum game and the comforts, protections and structures we seek out can come at costs. The song is about setting fire to the horrors of the past and present and using it as fuel to burn out brightly in one last act of defiance.
John: It’s partially inspired by the Dylan Thomas poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and could probably be accurately summarized by the line: ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ Our spin on it is possibly a bit darker, taking a certain final pleasure in watching old orders collapse into flaming inconsequence before the end:
For all the stars I will not see
For all the faces that have passed
I will savour every second
As I watch it all collapse
No candle burnt out brighter
No darker tragedy
Now this doomed fate befalls us
Adrift in blackest sea
Immolation as a virtue
Inverting to ascend
In this race to destruction
May these cinders mark the end
Serena: Oh, that’s fantastic! That makes the poetry lover within me so very happy.
Part two of this fascinating conversation, and in depth discussion about “Samhainn” will be available for your reading (and listening) pleasure next week. At midnight exactly on Halloween, to be precise!