Bringing the Past Into Perpetuity: An Interview with Draghkar’s Brandon Corsair
There's almost no adjective out there that can be attached to a death metal release that isn't somehow a compliment. It can be ugly, dumb, and disgusting, or it can be witty and devastating, and it could still be awesome either way -- that's one of the great things about the genre. This sounds touchy-feely, I guess, but it only needs to resonate somehow, connecting listeners to the passion that drives the music and not just checking the boxes. In the case of California's Draghkar, that passion comes from the desire to create music they themselves want to listen to and that nobody else is making. Building upon the bizarre metal of yesterday that fuels their own love for the genre, Draghkar interweaves early black metal and traditional heavy metal into potent and atypical death metal. Their debut full-length At the Crossroads of Infinity offers a twisted cosmic horror tale of an undying man's journey through eternity, tightly packed with spine-tingling moments.
One of the early singles, "Beyond Despair, the Dawn of Rebirth" sums up how far the band has come since their first demo, which focused primarily on bludgeoning death metal. Launching into undulating death metal riffs that trade off with melodic motifs as Daniel Butler (of Vastum) growls out cerebral lyrics, the song rides an impeccable balance of musicality versus savagery that retains that early impact but tempers it with tuneful orchestration. It's also laced with strange harmonies that foster a sense of the unknown -- a vital component in cosmic horror, and here heightening the sense of unending that the concept revolves around.
Elements of black metal, doom metal, and traditional heavy metal are worked into At the Crossroads of Infinity in ways that defy what those terms often mean today. On "Seeking Oblivion," a bombastic epic doom riff flows into double-bass driven madness to create a curiously ecclesiastical form of death/doom, while on the closing track, the bass takes up Mortuary Drape-esque melodic duties rather than simply driving the low end. Draghkar feels like an alternate evolution of death metal that stems from some parallel dimension: the ancestors of today's highly disparate subgenres, whether obscure or timeless, are more easily detected within the band's esoteric sound.
That word gets thrown around a lot these days -- "esoteric" -- but it actually does fit here. As band leader Brandon Corsair puts it, his biggest influences are "bands that absolutely nobody gives a shit about." These range from Mediterranean black metal with its heavy metal influences to Finnish death metal bands like Cartilage and Demigod to the riff-packed sagas of Slough Feg. Brandon, who also plays in Azath, Serpent Rider, and Grave Spirit, has shaped the band's development since its inception in 2016, releasing splits, demos, and an EP all in service of finding the right balance of the various elements before unleashing a full-length debut.
Looking to understand the origins of the album's sound and how it came to be, I sat down with Brandon to discuss its creation and release. Read the full interview below.
How has navigating the whole album release cycle for At the Crossroads of Infinity been with everything going on in the world?
I can't help but feel like it's made an impact in terms of how the music is spread and been received, because I know that people are just listening to a lot less music right now. I think that's something that's been pretty across the board -- I was talking about it with my friend Sarah from Smoulder, who works at Bandcamp and is obviously a journalist for Decibel now, and BangerTV, and a bunch of other stuff, and she was saying that so many people, bands, labels, you know, pretty big entities are all saying the same thing. Which is that streaming is just down across the board, sales are down across the board. It's, you know, Draghkar's first album release and it's been pretty noticeable even just comparing to our other releases that even with what should be more of a name because we've been doing this for longer, we've toured now, it's just going a lot slower than even our last EP was. And I'm hoping, I'm thinking, it's gotta be at least partially the pandemic just because you'd think at least people who are fans of our previous releases would at least be checking it out even if they thought it sucked. It's a really interesting situation to be in to drop our debut months into a pandemic but you know, it was all recorded, and the release date was set before any of this stuff went down and we didn't see a reason to move it up or delay it.
If the pandemic hadn't destroyed our country's infrastructure, what would you guys be doing right now? Do you think you'd be doing some touring off this album?
Hard to say, because all of us are really busy, which is just the reality of being in a band where everybody's doing stuff. I was supposed to tour with my other death metal band Azath, and we were going to tour with Drawn and Quartered in October, and that was gonna take out a significant chunk of my personal vacation time. Kelly is in Drawn and Quartered, they were obviously going to be touring with my other band. They're also always doing festivals and stuff, and he also is in Plaguebearer, which is a pretty active long-running local band in his area. Obviously, Dan is pretty busy with his stuff, you know, we're all involved in a lot. I think that we definitely would have at least tried to do some like hometown shows, maybe a small west coast run or something, but obviously there's absolutely no chance of any of that happening for quite a long time. It's very disappointing that we can't plan anything to promote our new album.
How dispersed are you guys? I know you're somewhere on the West Cost, what about the rest of the band -- are you able to meet up for a livestream, or not even that?
Not even that much, I'm in the general Southern California area, I'm in Orange County. Our bassist Cameron is in L.A. most of the time, with the pandemic he went back home to Texas, but he's normally based out of L.A. Our vocalist, Dan, is based out of the Bay Area, our lead guitarist Kelly is based out of Seattle, and our drummer is based out of Indiana. That's less relevant because we weren't going to be able to do shows with him anyway -- he's a studio only guy for Draghkar, so we were gonna use a live gun to do shows, but you know, we're kind of at a point where even without the pandemic we wouldn't be able to really easily do stuff, so with the pandemic, like what you're saying, maybe doing streaming shows, there's absolutely no chance.
At the Crossroads of Infinity has been out for about three weeks now, and I've seen a lot of glowing reviews across the internet. How has the reception been so far from your view?
It's been kind of interesting, because there has been this really interesting mix of just this incredibly glowing praise that was far beyond anything I expected and from a lot of people that I really really respect. We have this cool stuff going on, like we're doing this with you right now, which is super cool, and on the other hand we have like some reviewer where the guy was comparing us to Ghost. Like, the rock band. It's been interesting, because I've never done something where our influences were so constantly misconstrued. I knew that this was gonna happen going in when we recorded, because just to be frank, a lot of my biggest influences are bands that absolutely nobody gives a shit about -- even when they were at their peak, nobody gave a shit about outside their countries. It makes sense that people would not necessarily have the context to pick up on what my influences are, and that's not because I'm super cool and underground or anything, but just because I worship irrelevant bands. It's been this really interesting mix of praise, people that are into it and are saying like, really weird stuff, and then people who are really not into it and are also saying weirder stuff. And then that, combined with what I hope is the pandemic slowing stuff down and the fact that we're not out there playing shows, and it's been a very interesting release cycle and promotional cycle.
Since the first few demos and EP you did, your sound has changed a lot, I would say -- you mentioned in a Ride into Glory interview in June that you're basically developing your influences further into your music and getting it to where you wanted to be in the first place. Has that been a tough sell at all to fans of your earlier releases?
Oh yeah, it's been an ongoing thing where there's been guys that have been into it since demo one who are no less into it and continue to buy everything and be super supportive, but at the same time there's guys who are like "You know, I appreciate that you guys are doing your own thing, but I really liked it more when you guys were more of a death metal band." Some people have, mostly people that know me or the band well enough to say that kind of stuff, but just in general all around there's definitely been an attitude from some people that it's gotten too melodic, that it's not death metal enough anymore to them, that it's changed too much. I think it's outweighed by the amount of people who like the direction that we're going in, who like that it's more unique than what we were doing before, which is just pretty much jamming together Abhorrence and Autopsy and Convulse and other mostly old Finnish death metal bands. Even people who are maybe less personally connected with our new sound for the most part seem to respect and appreciate that we're trying to do something different and that we don't want to just keep rehashing old ground.
What influence do you think would be most surprising to people who are listening to this album without any background knowledge on you or Draghkar?
Huh, most surprising -- tough question. I guess it just depends on what they're familiar with, because Draghkar is a deeply, deeply regressive band in pretty much every possible way. When I was writing the album I set myself a hard date cutoff of like 1994, and I just didn't listen to anything that was released after that from the day I decided to start writing the album until the last riff was recorded to a metronome. I didn't listen to anything modern or remotely modern, anything even after I was born. So, people that are not as familiar with death metal including heavy metal influences might be surprised to hear that there's a pretty tremendous amount of stuff like Slough Feg in there -- as much as I know that that breaks the rule I just said of not listening to anything after 1994. There's a lot of Iron Maiden in there, there's a lot of classic doom like Trouble and Candlemass. I guess if people didn't keep up with Septicflesh's career and they think of them as, you know, a wimpy riffless orchestral band, they might be surprised that probably our single biggest death metal influence was the old Septicflesh stuff from back when they were still actually a death metal band. I found that a lot of people don't realize that they were ever a really serious death metal band, but before the costumes and the orchestras and the complete lack of fucking guitars in their music, that's what they did. I guess the stuff that people would be surprised by the most is just the stuff that most death metal bands are not really taking influence from these days.
You're a little bit off the beaten path as far as conforming to more mainstream expectations of what death metal should sound like. When I wrote about the album in our Upcoming Releases column a few weeks ago, I had a little trouble finding the right words to quickly explain your sound. Do you have a sort of "elevator pitch" for describing your band?
Maybe if it's a pretty long elevator ride, you know, like maybe sixty floors? I usually say, as a very short version, Mediterranean black metal mixed with even more heavy metal than the Mediterranean black metal bands were influenced by, a lot of Swedish melodic death like Eucharist or A Mind Confused or Desultory, and a lot of early Finnish death metal, especially like Cartilage, Wings, Demigod. There's not really a short version because it's really just my entire taste in metal music thrown together into one band -- there's black metal in there, not really anything after Darkthrone, but there's a lot of Mortuary Drape, Darkthrone, Master's Hammer in there. It's pretty eclectic, I guess.
It felt like the lyrics in this release were pretty varied in the way that they fit into the meter and were paced. Given that Daniel Butler [of Vastum] is now on vocals, did you approach lyrics any differently than past releases?
I actually wrote pretty much 80 to 90 percent of the music and lyrics before I approached Daniel to join the band, with the intention of doing the vocals myself for the album, as I had with the previous material. What ended up happening is that I realized one day that I didn't want to keep doing it, and Dan had reached out in the past when a different band of mine had put out a demo and he pretty much said "Hey man, whatever you're doing, I haven't checked it out yet, but if you ever want vocals, guest vocals, let me know." So obviously, I had him do guest vocals for that band for a release, but then I also kept that in mind and when I decided to step down from Draghkar vocals, he was the first person I immediately hit up, because he's been a fan and a supporter for a long time and obviously he's an absolutely incredible vocalist. I would have said "Fuck yeah, let's do it" no matter where he lived, but it really worked out that he's also in California.
Because of the way that worked out, I had written everything pretty much by the time he joined. I had to finish up the lyrics still once he came in, but a lot of it was written, and we had already recorded two of the songs from the album with the same lyrics as a promo tape with me on vocals. And so, when him and I were discussing how we wanted to approach it, I just asked him to modify the lyrics however he needed to make the recordings work, but he continued to give me complete control of what I actually put down. I trusted him enough to make my vision work in terms of the lyricism that I didn't end up taking any special considerations. I might work with him on it a little bit more closely in the future, now that he's a firm member of the band, but the very short version now that I've given the long version is that no, I didn't write it any differently for him.
Was it a relief to not have to do the vocals at the very end along with everything else for the album?
Yeah, it was really weird, it wasn't until pretty recently that I had ever done anything that I wasn't on vocals, and so it's kind of nice especially now 'cause it's not just him, I also have a lead guitarist in Draghkar for the first time. It was extraordinarily bizarre to be able to track my rhythm guitar and just be done -- no long session of double tracking the guitars, trying to think of leads, which I'm not very good at. Vocal rhythms, I always wrote after everything was tracked because I'm an idiot. So I didn't even have anything planned for vocal rhythms except for the two demo songs that we'd already done. It was great to just be able to step back, hand it off to him, and obviously he absolutely killed it. It was a relief knowing that I couldn't mess up the vocals for yet another release.
I thought yours were pretty good on the last demo, I liked them. The live tracks on your compilation, you had some pretty good "ooghs" on that one.
I do miss doing the "ooghs."
This is the biggest lineup that Draghkar has had, right?
Yeah, we had never been anything larger than a three piece before this for any other recording. I'd talked before about maybe getting a lead guitarist, but never actually went through with it, so this is - to go from three people to five people is definitely not only our biggest lineup, but it was a little bit of an adjustment in terms of workflow, figuring everything out. I like it a lot, I like not having to do everything myself and I like the creative voice that comes from, again, not doing everything myself.
Are you planning to write songs as a band rather than writing by yourself?
I'm probably going to just keep writing them myself, because the vision that I have for the band is pretty singular. It's really difficult for me with this particular band at least to step back and let anyone else handle anything, at least in terms of songwriting and arrangement. Obviously the other guys have complete and utter freedom to do whatever they want with their parts as long as it fits. I didn't change a note of any of the bass parts except for, I wrote one very brief section if I remember on the album that I asked Cameron to play something a specific way. But for the most part, I just let the guys go wild with their parts and I would just step in if there was maybe too many solos or if I thought the solos should be moved somewhere else or whatever. But that's pretty much the extent that I'm willing to let things go that I'm not handling myself. If one of the other guys figured out writing something and showed me some riffs that really sounded like they fit the band, then I would be happy to use that, but it doesn't strike me as very likely given how picky I am.
Thanks so much for your time and all the thoughtful answers -- just one more question before we wrap up here. If you've broken your 1994 rule now, are there any albums this year that you're digging, if you've had time to get into that?
There hasn't been a ton that I'm just like, all over, but there's been some really, really fucking good stuff. I really, really liked the new The Wizar'd album, the new Road Warrior album, and not to plug stuff that's on my label but I really liked the new Meurtrières, I don't know how to pronounce it, EP, I really liked the new Acerus album, Altar of Gore, Exhumation... my good buddy Andrew Lee, that I play in a couple bands with, had another solo album under the name Ripped to Shreds this year, it's fantastic. Smoulder put out a really killer 12-inch EP. Not a lot has really blown me away, but there has been some really killer music so far.
At the Crossroads of Infinity released July 27th, 2020 via Unspeakable Axe Records.