Hello, friends! You have stumbled upon part two of our chat with John and Sophie Fraser, who are Hand of Kalliach. Not much need for an introduction here, except to say thank you for joining us, once again, to conclude our discussion with Hand of Kalliach about their amazing new album, “Samhainn.”
The Lull of Loch Uigeadail
J. Wukotich (JW): This is where the album becomes devastating. The way this builds up, it is nearly the heaviest part of the record, to my ears. Something is brewing, and after what’s on its way arrives… nothing will be the same. It reminds me in some ways of an Ennio Marricone composition. The bull kicking up dust before it charges, so to speak.
Serena: The layering on this track is just superb. The daintily plucked strings (I genuinely cannot tell what instrument this is) and beautifully soft vocals drifting above quiet snarls as a pounding grows and grows and grows creates a scene that, for me, sounds like nighttime turning more alive as the sun sets itself low. The sorrowful hum of what sounds like a violin (?) and the layers of hushed growls are reminiscent of crickets, bullfrogs, and night birds all lifting their songs up into the dark. Sophie’s voice is like a bird grown restless with its mournful tune, and that repeated riff reminds me of water droplets cascading off of dewy grass, or a trickle of water wedging its way through a rock face in quick spurts.
John: Thank you for the kind words! Yes, I totally agree Joel. Once things get going with this track, it is definitely one of the heavier tracks, just through the weight of the atmosphere. The plucked strings you mention, Serena, are from a sampled Celtic harp, which is smaller than a typical harp with a more treble-y sound, and then a double bass beneath that. This is one of the few tracks where we make more use of traditional instruments. Whilst we embrace being badged as a mix of melo-death/folk, we take an active decision to make minimal use of traditional folk instruments for most of our songs, as we feel adapting the rhythms and patterns for distorted guitars instead let’s us keep a lot of power and aggression that sometimes can get lost using softer tones.
Sophie: This was a very different track for us, and was originally written as the first half of a bigger track. You might notice that the melody the guitar starts playing about halfway through is nearly identical to the high riff in “Ascendant,” with the drum outro from this one doubling pace into the next. We decided to split them though, as sometimes you may wish to listen to one and not the other depending on mood, as it’s a big swing from this one.
Loch Uigeadail is a loch on the Isle of Islay off the west coast of Scotland, where John’s family come from. It’s name roughly translates to ‘the mysterious pool’ and this track is sort of an interpretation of how it gained that name. As usual, the lyrics are pretty abstract but are from the perspective of the bottom of the loch, in a place of relative calm which you’ve really articulated nicely in your initial interpretation. We wanted to build an impression of these swirling echoes of rage and residual heat from the abrupt end of “Cinders,” and capture that emotive nadir that can follow a prolonged period of anguish, rage or exertion, and find a level of peace amidst the sorrow, calling you to rest in the deep.
JW: I’m so glad you cleared this transition up for us, because “The Lull of Loch Uigeadail ” absolutely feels like the smaller part of a whole, while still able to stand on its own. Then, as “Ascendant ” begins, we’re not just plopped in the middle of that cyclone of sound. Again, I think this is where “Samhainn” just detonates as a whole piece.
John: ‘Detonates’ is a great term! Absolutely, we originally had a more gradual transition into “Ascendant,” but it worked so much better just exploding straight into the wall of sound after the brief intro beats. It also made it work as a very punchy track that could stand by itself. As Sophie alluded to, sometimes you might be feeling that you just want to listen to this track by itself, without the prelude from “The Lull…”
Òran na Teine-éigin
John: Òran na Tein’-éigin (pronounced oran na chehneh ey-gin) translates to ‘song of the need-fire,’ an old ritual where all the fires in a village would be extinguished and then re-lit with torches from a single bonfire that was lit through villagers turning a huge augur (a kind of upright log, pointed at the bottom) with ropes until the friction causes the wooden base it’s driving into and the surrounding kindling to light. It was a ritual carried out to variously banish plagues, evil spirits, or whatever malign forces were perceived to be affecting the townsfolk.
Serena: This track is truly unlike anything else. The quickly sung vocals running parallel to the lilt of the piano pushing atop the rapid drums makes for such a sonically appealing song.
Sophie: Thank you! This is probably our most ‘out-there’ track musically, as it melds a lot of Black Metal elements with Scottish mouth music, called ‘puirt-a-beul.’ It’s a very rapid, melodic singing, with a lot of rhythm and repetition, and we were originally thinking of including it as a bonus track – but the more we worked on it, the more we thought it deserved to be in the main tracklist.
JW: That was a good choice, but I can see why the thought crossed your mind. As Serena said, this one is unlike anything else on the record, which makes its inclusion a bit of a gamble. But it works, and damn well.
John: Thanks, yes it was definitely a gamble. And full credit to Sophie for her vocal performance on it. I wrote the melody for this one, and when I played it to her she just stared at me like “are you kidding?!” But after a bit of practicing she absolutely nailed it.
Sophie: I would say a LOT of practicing, but yes, thankfully we got there in the end and we’re pretty pleased with the result!
Trial of the Beithir-nimh
John: This is another track that has a folk tale behind it. We love a good mythical monster story. ‘Beithir-Nimh’ (pronounced beh-hir niv) translates to ‘venomous serpent,’ which a 12-legged wingless dragon from Scottish mythology that stings it’s victims before racing them to the nearest body of water. If the victim wins, they live, and if not they die. Much like regular dragon folklore, they lived in mountains and played twisted games with careless travelers. They were believed to be formed under lightning storms from the corpses of a snakes that had been severed in two by humans, and some tales held that the Cailleach once took the form of a Beithir-Nimh herself having been killed by hunters whilst in her human form. The riff in 12/8 was written to emulate the 12 legs moving rapidly down the cliffsides.
Serena: I’ve said this before and I will say it again – all good Metal albums have at least one song with a rainstorm intro. It’s one of my favorite things. Here, we have yet another unsettling interpretation of an absolutely horrific creature come to life through music. All of the sounds on this track work so well together to paint this grim mental imagery of being made to run (or I imagine it would be more of a stumble) down a slippery, moonlit hill in desperate hopes of somehow getting away from this 12-legged monstrosity. The menacing drums, that chugging bass, and the fierce growls really bring forth that feeling of panic. The clean vocals sound almost as if they are teasing whoever is being chased. That guitar solo that pops up near the end of the track is stellar and I love the bass line that rolls along beneath it. Such a cool piece.
Sophie: Thanks very much Serena, we did debate using a storm intro a lot as to be fair, it has been done a few times before… But hey, it’s literally an evil lightning dragon-serpent, if you aren’t going to put a storm intro for that then you never will!
John: I’m really glad you picked up on that desperate, stumbling sort of atmosphere, as that was absolutely what we were aiming for! We were also really debating the use of my cleans, but we thought it added a bit of a haunted air to the release in the chorus – the translation is roughly,
‘I was lost in these hills, and then the lightning found me’
Almost as though you are hearing the lamenting ghosts of previous victims. This was a huge amount of fun to pull together and lean hard into a riff-focussed, death metal aesthetic.
Return to Stone
Sophie: Our final track is another nod to Cailleach mythology. Having come alive on Samhainn in time to rule over the winter months, at the end of the season she turns to stone on Bealltainn, beneath the depths of Corryvreckan.
Serena: I love the intro on this piece; it reminds me of ringing bells. Those little clinks that echo in the back right before the vocals come in are such a minor touch, but they add so much to the soundscape being created. Without having the lyrics to read over, the harsh vocals come across as rather irate, then the clean vocals seem as though they are attempting to mitigate those heavy emotions. Once again I commend the sound engineer because that rumbling change up that happens around the 3:00 mark is powerful. The build up with the clean vocals ascending in quick, little steps and then being split off by that boom of both growls and instruments is super enjoyable to listen to. I might have played that specific part on repeat an unnecessary amount of times. What an excellent conclusion to a fantastic album.
John: Thanks again Serena, we are genuinely delighted with the reception to the album, and you’ve called out so many little details we tucked away in the tracks which is immense! The clinks you’re talking about at the start are hammer and anvil samples from a forge. The Cailleach is frequently depicted as wielding a staff that produces ice wherever she walks, and a hammer that she uses to shape and reshape the mountains and the skylines.
Sophie: This is quite a sombre track (even by our standards) for the end of the album, and we wanted to create an atmosphere of finality and gazing at the abyss, as the Cailleach and/or protagonist reflects on all the horrors of their wintry existence and prepares for the end. The laborious hammer strikes echoing in the background were to create a sort of grim, cold and determined air.
Serena: Ah, okay! This makes sense with that ‘blows from a hammer’ line in “Ascendant.” Such a minute, but super neat detail! The beginning of the track sounds like someone trudging through thick snow with slow and labored steps, but the end brings forward a full sense of resolution and closure with that final shout – ‘Return to stone!’ The skin has become thicker, perhaps metaphorically, having gone through such tough travels. But then also literally, as the Cailleach has reached the end of her season. Love, love, love it.
John: Spot on, 10 points for joining the very obscure dots there with the line in “Ascendant,” I’m impressed! And you describe it better than we have – that ‘trudge’ through the snows of winter is exactly what we wanted to bring out here, at the final song for the Cailleach’s final hours. And the metaphorical vs literal themes are definitely heavily represented in this track, probably even more so than the others.
JW: Wow. This was just fantastic! Thank you so much for making time for us to do this. It really brings the album to life, and it was already pretty animated in my mind from the jump! The effort you’ve put into writing these songs, and perfecting the song structures, layering heaps of sound over a fascinating mythology… just an incredible piece of work. Congratulations, truly.
I’ve said this before, but I don’t think the way you work together; the chemistry in your voices, and your ability to share a single artistic vision can be overstated. What you’ve given of yourselves; the emotions you’ve let us all borrow for a while, “Samhainn” really is quite a special record.
Sophie: Thank you Joel! We’re extremely humbled by all your kind words, and are delighted that the album has resonated with you both so much. We’ve loved working on the album together and trying to combine some really contrasting styles and influences, and it’s fantastic to hear the positive feedback.
John: Yeah absolutely, it’s been brilliant getting to talk about the tracks in such depth, and you’ve touched on so many little elements and details that we had tucked away within them. We’ve been floored with the reception, and it’s tremendously encouraging to be getting such a positive response to what is ultimately a pretty experimental mix of styles, we’re very grateful. Thank you both for your support and inviting us to chat about it all, we’ve loved it!
The Metal Wanderlust, i.e. Joel and Serena, collectively rate “Samhainn” by Hand of Kalliach
All relevant links, and information on how to listen and purchase “Samhainn” in both digital and physical formats can be found in part one of our discussion about the album. We would like to thank John and Sophie for taking so much of their time to discuss music and mythology with us. And we thank you all for reading and listening.