In some ways, Rotting Christ’s recent album The Heretics is the dark metal version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The blacklisted writer’s canonized play reflected his own, personal witch hunt for expressing contrary ideas to the political zeitgeist of the time. Rotting Christ’s career bears similarities to Miller. The idea of a Rotting Christ may be offensive to some, but freedom of expression is not about appeasing everyone. It’s about having the chance to express unpopular opinions. It’s ironic their own country, Greece, forced them to cancel concerts, considering it’s the birthplace of democracy. In 2018, they were even jailed as suspected satanic terrorists in the Eastern European state of Georgia. The most famous barring came at the hands of Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, who wouldn’t play a show in Rotting Christ’s home base, Athens. Recently, protests forced the band to sit out a gig in Patras, West Peloponnese.
The band’s name is controversial, but they will not bend to sensitive nature of the current world. They aren’t ashamed of their art and stand firmly behind it. In terms of musical art, The Heretics shows intelligent, expansive craftsmanship. Monastic chanting (Rotting Christ are masters of the chant) and black metal shrieks relate stories of the burning times through several languages including English, Greek, Russian and Arabic. The group found lyrical inspiration through historical events, and utilize quotes from classic authors including an entire rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s canonistic poem, “The Raven.” Musically, the band continues its path of gothic black metal with grim and enlightening atmospheres, off-timed tempos and Bronze Age heft.
Vocalist/guitarist Sakis Tolis spoke with Heavy Music Headquarters about The Heretics and his experience as a modern heretic. We also discuss what the global black metal scene was like during the Lords of Chaos days and his thoughts on said movie.
Darren Cowan: First of all we need to address censorship. Did you just get banned from playing a concert?
Sakis Tolis: Yes, that’s true. I don’t know what’s been going on the last five years. People are getting scared. People are getting more offended than in the past. People are getting crazier, in general. I see this because I travel a lot. I don’t know what’s going on in the world. I feel like something is going wrong. Humanity—instead of having step ups, they have step backs. In my opinion, it’s quite dangerous because this is how all the big wars got started. Our name got us banned from one show here in Greece. Watain had some problems. Belphegor, too.
Dave Mustaine refused to play a festival in Israel with Dissection in 2005.
Yes. I don’t know what is going on these days. It’s exactly the same. Last year, we had problems in Georgia. We’ve had some problems off shore in places like Malaysia, but they are Islamic countries. I can deal with that, but to have this happen in a place like Greece that birthed democracy, you know something is happening really wrong here.
People are becoming more and more polarized today. There really is no compromise. Either you live my style of life or that’s it.
Do you know where all this starts? Financially. We’re having financial problems and political ideas become extremely right or extremely left. This is how all the World War stories began.
When Germany experienced all their financial woes, Hitler blamed it all on the Jews.
That’s history, it shows us everything. It’s a good book. I tell people to just read the history. Don’t make the same mistakes. We’re about to colonize other planets. Come on! Who cares what side you subscribe to? I can look at your philosophy and come to respect your philosophy on life. I can respect your spiritual philosophy about life, but I can’t respect the exploitation done by organized religions. It’s just too much for me. We spent a day in jail in Georgia (Eastern Europe). We stayed in a holding cell. It happens. This is the feedback when you play in a band called Rotting Christ. We are soldiers of metal. We have been here for 30 years. We’ve been here since day one. We are here supporting metal all of these years and metal is becoming more and more famous.
How important is it to you to keep your name? I’m sure you’ve had pressure to change it.
Yes, but it’s a part of us because it’s where we started. I respect and never forget my past. Maybe we’re not as extreme as we used to be back in the day. You know something, though? If you lose the rebellion in your life, then you are getting older. I’m getting older, but I want to keep this rebel streak in my life because it keeps me young. It keeps me feeling like a soldier.
Stepping into something more positive, you created something you can really build on this year with The Heretics. Is this a concept/thematic album on the topic of heresy?
It’s a lyrical concept album about heretics who were burned in the Middle Ages for their beliefs. It’s quite similar to what we live nowadays. That’s not only me, but all people who have followed this black metal path. The system is quite heretical for these people. The path that I’ve chosen doesn’t always go with the flow. The path I’ve chosen is quite heretical, so I wrote an album about this. There were people in the Middle Ages that were blamed as heretics by the system. Their books, their writings; some of them died for their ideas. I am inspired by this because of the path I have chosen. We, the black metallers, it’s quite heretic.
In 1950s America, we had what was called a “witch hunt.” There was a blacklist for people who didn’t express the political views that the United States wanted to convey. Arthur Miller wrote a play, The Crucible, about the Salem witchcraft trials, as a metaphor on his own personal witch hunt. Is The Heretics your The Crucible?
Exactly, yes exactly like that. Maybe we’ll be on a blacklist here.
Greek artist Maximos Manolis created the artwork. Was this what you visualized? Did you give him the concept?
Yes, I did give him the concept and he came up with a cover that presented very much the music I wrote for this album. I’m very satisfied with his final result.
John Milton inspired you to write “Heaven and Hell and Fire,” which you released a video single for. You used his quote “The mind is universe and can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
It is not only this. There were a lot of quotes that inspired this album. “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” Voltaire. “The world itself is the will to power – and nothing else! And you yourself are the will to power – and nothing else,” Friedrich Nietzsche. “Blessed are the destroyers of false hope for they are the true Messiahs. Cursed are the god-adorers, for they shall be shorn sheep,” Anton LaVey. There are a lot of writings, a lot of poems out there that interest and represent me, so all these writings inspired me to the write this album. I’m very satisfied that I came up with an album that represents myself. It’s very honest. I’m pretty happy about this.
You return to the world of poetry with your rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” How did you translate this poem into a Rotting Christ song?
To me, writing a song about Edgar Allan Poe was a bit risky. I like “The Raven” very much. It’s not a heretic song or heretic poem, but on the other hand it represents myself a lot. I wrote a song about this. It was a very difficult procedure because I had to write music to a poem from one of the greatest writers in human history, in my opinion.
The vocals are often sung in a priestly or monastic manner. You both sing and narrate passages. Please talk about using developing and recording this vocal style for this song.
Yes, I tried something different. Vocally, I tried to catch the idea of a priest singing. I may not agree with religion, but they have some good melodies there, good atmospheric, soulful melodies, so I tried be influenced by this. I made it a bit different this time. I heard a lot of this kind of music, except the brutal parts, I incorporate styles like this.
“I Believe [Πιστεύω]”is one of the blackest, darkest tracks. This track works on sustained, black metal notes and an evil voice sung in another language other than English. Are you singing this in Greek?
It’s poetry, actually. It’s poetry from one of the Greek heretic poets. It’s a poem I enjoyed very much. I wanted to also write some music about this. This song is quite different from others. It has unique intonation for a poem, so it was quite risky for me. I am also very glad I did this. The quotes “I believe” is just part of the poem. I wrote that part of the title in English or people wouldn’t understand it. (The quote used is “Ερχομαστε από μια σκοτεινη αβυσσο, καταληγουμε σε μια σκοτεινη αβυσσο το μεταξυ φωτεινο διαστημα το λεμε ζωη,” Νικολαος Καζαντζακης.”)
The Heretics features guest vocal performances. Melechesh’s lead alchemist Murat “Ashmedi” Cenan adds vocals on “The Voice of the Universe.” How did this happen?
I know a lot of musicians out there. When I come up with a song, I ask myself what friends, and only friends, can help me out? How can they make the song better? How can they make the song sound different? So, I ask for Ashmedi and I ask for Irina [Zybina] for another song in Russian. People from other nationalities bring their own ideas and their own language in my songs. That makes my songs more diverse. It’s also a bit different, so when I come up with an idea for a song, I think, how can my friends make it sound different?
Black metal was a small, global community when you started in the late ‘80s. The internet was not a thing back then and bands mailed letter and cassette tapes. You released several short recordings and eventually your debut, full-length album Thy Mighty Contract. Were you in contact with Euronymous from Mayhem? Did he sell your recordings at Helvete?
I recently watched the Lords of Chaos movie. It was like, “Wow! I was a part of this!” All the guys I know. All the stories that took part there. I’m very proud I lived during this era. In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s I knew all the guys who used to trade demos. I used to be in contact. Many of those people visited my home in Athens in the early ‘90s, some of those people you saw in the movie. I am very glad I was a part of this scene. This black metal scene started then. This is how black metal started, more or less. I’m very glad I’ve been here since day one.
What did you think about the film?
Not so good as a biography, but as a movie it was good. What else did you expect? This was more or less how it started. It’s a movie that’s quite close to the truth for me because I lived every moment. It’s like, “Wow, our past came alive in a movie.” It’s not the best movie ever, but the movie represents what happened, more or less, in Norway back in the day.
What’s next for the group?
Starting to tour the globe. We’re playing all around the world. We will be everywhere there are metal heads. At the moment, we are touring Europe. We look forward to coming back to the States to play some shows because you guys keep the spirit alive. There are people who keep the spirit alive, so Rotting Christ will be there. Until we meet you on the battlefield, keep the spirit alive and also Non Serviam!
(interview published March 26, 2019)