Falling From the Sky Like Lightning: Empyrium Revisits Their Demo 25 Years Later (Interview)
The last time we spoke with Markus "Ulf Theodor Schwadorf" Stock of German dark metal luminaries Empyrium, we were revisiting their final first-era metal album, Songs of Moors and Misty Fields. Today, we look back to Empyrium's beginning, namely the demo Der Wie Ein Blitz Vom Himmel Fiel…, which is being reissued today by Empyrium's home label Prophecy Productions.
How does this demo, the absolute first Empyrium effort, compare to later material? Back then, Empyrium was just on the cusp of the sound they would very quickly revolutionize on the soon-to-follow A Wintersunset…, but they were still very much a metal band. Considering themselves "atmospheric black metal" as opposed to the more Romantic terminology they would come to use later on, this demo was much darker than what would come in the future and more alike to their proclaimed genre kin, though a much more keyboard-enhanced and deliberate version of the style (see: bands like Thy Serpent, Nordwind, Trivial Thorn, and so on).
Using ideas from their previous band, Impurity, but with a new, idiosyncratic approach, Empyrium was born. Born on the shoulders of Impurity, fine, but with their higher stature came an elevated vision. Though still trapped in black metal's occult thematics -- the demo's title literally translates to "He who fell from the sky like lightning," a reference to Lucifer's fall from grace -- Empyrium's music itself was already romantic and pastoral, influenced by Stock's hobby of nature wandering and photography.
Though a sign to come, the brief, "blackened" existence of Empyrium's demo era, which lasted from 1994-1995, fed into a larger narrative of what "dark metal" (a term coined by Finland's Thy Serpent) was during that period of time. Drawing influence from death and black metal, but putting a greater emphasis on moodiness, vibe, and atmosphere (generally through generous use of keyboards), Empyrium was both black and dark metal at this point, which was unique for the German scene.
Owing their unique sound to their own isolation -- both Markus Stock and keyboardist Andreas Bach were originally from a very small village in rural Germany -- Empyrium's sound during that period, and what would eventually follow, was isolated musically, as well, somehow drawing influence from source material like Deine Lakaien (who have recently signed to Prophecy) as well as Emperor. As such, Der Wie Ein Blitz Vom Himmel Fiel… was deservedly met with near universal praise, garnering positive reviews from fanzines who received the tape, as well as praise from labels like Hammerheart Records, a major source of new music at that time.
Empyrium would quickly sign with a then-fledgling Prophecy Productions, releasing their A Wintersunset… debut, Prophecy's first, just a year later, and, to quote an overused turn of phrase, the rest was history. Without this demo, we wouldn't have Empyrium, nor would we have Prophecy Productions, nor would we have this entire wing of thoughtful, dark music. It really is incredible how history hinges on something as small as a cassette tape.
Read my interview with Markus Stock below.
I think it's very cool to re-release [the demo] as well. I get a lot of fan requests for it, it was so far only available on vinyl in this box set we released a couple years ago. People were really into this and I think it's a great thing to revive the past when it's like 25 years ago.
Let's look back into the past -- what brought about Empyrium? What made this band happen?
A lot of things. We were two metalheads from a very small village like with 300 inhabitants and we were listening to music all day. We were meeting every day and what we did was listen to music and watch horror movies and go out into the forest and make pictures of ourselves with corpse paint. It was a logical thing to put this enthusiasm for music and this kind of atmosphere into a shape. We were both experienced with music before in other bands, I was playing with these older guys and we were covering stuff like For Whom the Bell Tolls by Metallica and Hell Awaits by Slayer. I met Andreas… I didn't really meet him because we already knew each other, coming from the same small village. When we "met," we kind of had this same idea of what kind of music we could do. And, of course, there was a lot of influence from the British gothic doom metal scene like My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost, and, of course, from the Norwegian black metal scene. These were our inspirations
It was very interesting looking at other releases around that time. Sure, there is the Peaceville music which kind of runs through the Empyrium sound to a degree, but Empyrium still sounded… different. It was more pastoral, it was Romantic in a different, more "classical" sort of way. You said it was a group of influences, but how did this all meld together?
It wasn't really planned, you know? I think it all melded together because we were just two guys and we had the same kind of vision. We were not attending many concerts or really active in the scene -- my only contact with "the scene" was through letters and mail. We were in our own "pond," or however you want to call it. By not talking to other musicians or meeting at gigs ro realizing what was trendy, I think we pretty much developed our own sound. I think it's also the fact that we mixed this kind of gothic atmosphere, like with the Peaceville bands, with black metal. I think that was pretty unique. Of course, we brought in the Romanticism which was pretty unique at the time, as well. The only band that had this kind of lyrics and Romantic approach back then was Cradle of Filth, which was, by the way, a huge influence for us.
I recall you telling me about that last time we'd spoken. There are two opposite ends of the spectrum, I think, with Cradle of Filth being so bombastic and aggressive, while Empyrium was more laid back and poetic soundwise.
We always focused on the atmosphere. I saw this interview with Fenriz the other day where he's talking about black metal, and he says "all the black metal bands back then, what was so great about them was because they had the aggression and the atmosphere, then there were all the bands who were only atmosphere" and I think we destroyed it [laugh]. We are guilty of that in a way, you know? [laughs] For us, it was always the atmosphere that mattered. If a song carries you away. Back then we were rehearsing in this very old house -- it was very spooky in there, you know? -- and we were totally focused on what we were doing and totally into our own thing.
And it shows. I mean, when you listen to the demo and you put it into context, you put a lot of effort into the atmosphere, but there is still the musicality that backs it up. It sounds very Romantic because it is, not just because it has a Romantic atmosphere.
I totally agree.
With that sort of balance, obviously you have put emphasis on the fact that you were putting everything into the atmosphere, but what made it put so a riff or progression would fit within the confines of these early takes?
I think you have to keep in mind how we composed back then. It was a very weird process because we didn't have any technology like today where you can record an idea to your computer. How we composed this stuff was: first, we rehearsed with me on guitar and Andreas on the keyboard, and then we checked if the vibe was good between the guitar and the keyboard, and then we went to another rehearsal space where he played the guitar and I played the drums. The rest was going on in our minds, you know? How that might fit. I saw a little bit of luck when we went into the studio that it went so well. It was really kind of… most of the stuff was really composed in our minds, and so the first step of composing with the guitar and keyboard was the key.
I remember when me and Andreas were in a small room in his parents' place where he was sitting at the keyboard and we had candles lit. It was always a great atmosphere when we composed back then. I think that kind of crept into the music.
Going back, you had mentioned Andreas playing guitar. We only really hear of him as a keyboard player, so it's interesting to hear how he was active in the other parts of the songwriting process on other instruments.
Well, he played the lines I showed him, you know? He wasn't the best guitarist, but he could do it because in the band we had before, Impurity, he was also playing guitar. It was for us to check and see if the guitar and drums fit together. We didn't give a fuck about bass back then, of course, like everyone else. He took over what I played on the guitar and we rehearsed with guitar and drums to see how that would work.
Tell me about your old band Impurity, this is really my first time hearing about it.
I keep telling people I have one riff from that period of time, from Impurity, that I never used. I still play it, so I'm sure at some point in some project of mine it will be used. We had a rehearsal tape with five or six songs, I can't remember. It was a mix of early Samael, very simple, mid-tempo black metal, but a little more melodic. The slow parts of Darkthrone. There were two other people in the band from our village, but they were more regular Metallica and Napalm Death fans. It didn't work out, and that was kind of a turning point when we turned Impurity into Empyrium. We took the atmosphere we enjoyed from Impurity and brought it into Empyrium.
And that quickly turned into a demo. I recall you saying you only worked on the demo for a few months?
Absolutely. What we wanted to do first was get this Impurity stuff I wrote as a demo, but then when we booked the studio, we got cold feet and decided it wasn't good enough, so we restarted everything again.
And then when the Empyrium demo happened, that was also very quick, right? I recall you saying it was…
It was recorded in one day.
And the next afternoon we went to the studio and had two beers with the guy, and it was more or less mixed. It was a professional studio and recorded on 2-inch tape, 24-track recording… it was awfully expensive, I think it was 1,000 German Marks, which I think is $600 or something. We were really trying to be quick, you know [laughs]? I was still going to school so I didn't have any income and Andreas was learning to be a cook, so he was in the first year of learning cooking. There was no money, so we had to ask our parents to [laughs] give us some, and, of course, they didn't invest tens of thousands of German Marks into us.
But it ultimately paid off because it was with this demo that you were discovered by a then-new Prophecy Productions. What was it like being discovered?
It was amazing. I mean, we were two guys from a small village who could only consume music through fan zines. We sent out these demos to fan zines and labels and we got an overwhelming response which we didn't expect at all. We were with this mindset that we were going to get slaughtered in these zines, and then all these super positive reviews came back and labels asked us for collaborations. It was kind of a little like a dream, you know? What the hell is going on? We were really stunned by the response.
What labels did you hear back from? Obviously you went with Prophecy and have built this legacy there, but who approached you?
I can't even remember… Hammerheart from the Netherlands, we were negotiating with them, then there was a Norwegian label, not Head Not Found, but it was run by this guy who had a magazine who later released stuff on Prophecy with the band Penitent. This was more like an offering like "Your music is so good! Let's do a 7 inch record!" or something like that. The two labels we were negotiating the most seriously with were Prophecy and Hammerheart.
You were an early band on Prophecy, as far as one of the breakthrough artist.s How do you feel Prophecy has changed because of Empyrium?
I think we were the first band on Prophecy, A Wintersunset… was the first release, and we pretty much paved the way for what the label would become. It became the blueprint for what Prophecy would look for. And I think that was until the mid-2000s or something, and then Alcest came and they kind of were the new "blueprint" [laughs]. Empyrium was inactive, so...
I think in the beginning Empyrium made the impression on Prophecy that this was the vibe they were going for. All their early releases kind of had this "atmosphere."
What was it like for you as the creative force of Empyrium seeing your project become the blueprint for a label?
I never spent so much time thinking about it because back in the 1990s I was every close with Martin [Koller] from Prophecy. We were living in the same house. I started my studio, he ran the label from the pavement and I was in the attic with my studio. In between I had my flat. In the '90s I was so close with Prophecy. I talked so much with Martin about music and musical tastes and showed him other bands I enjoyed and he showed me music. In the beginning I wasn't exactly running the label, but my music tastes and recommendations had an impact.
This must have been quite the fast evolution for a band that went from borrowing money from their parents to make a demo to being part of what would eventually grow into a larger label.
When I think about the time between 1994 and 1999, these five years were so packed with happenings. We recorded the demo in 1994 and then in 1995 we recorded the debut album that was released in 1996, then in 1997 we recorded Songs of Moors, in 1998 I moved into the Prophecy studio, then in 1999 we recorded Where at Night. Stuff was happening all the time. It completely changed my life.
I think back to that period of time, and when I was the same age you were. You were, what, 15 or 16 when this demo was recorded?
I was 16 and three months, so I was really young.
You think about what happens to people as they become older, and you think they become more creative, but I think about those prime years when you're becoming an adult and you have all this creativity. It seems that you really harnessed that.
Yeah, absolutely. It's like… all the decisions I made back then were very quick. I'm still quite quick with decisions because it is a character trait which is lost now that everything can be digitally postponed to eternity. I really enjoy people being decisive. When you're young you are very brave, as well. You just go for it, and that's what we did all those years. Make decisions and stick with them, Go to the studio and put stuff out. No overthinking! This is what happens, or at least what I realized when I produce other bands, is that the tendency to overthink stuff is really there nowadays. Back then, we didn't have the money to overthink in the first place. It was really great because it kind of lets you focus on putting the emotion into the music instead of the perfect performance.
And I feel that emotion is something that defines Empyrium more than the other elements. You were deliberate enough in your approach that you were able to really pour yourself into it.
And I think this is what people will always realize and always hear in music -- if it's honest and it's real emotions or if it's just a pose or a theater play, which can be nice as well, but real emotions just grab you.
This isn't your first time revisiting this demo as there was a CD box set, the vinyl in the vinyl box set, and now there is this standalone. It's been twenty-five years -- what was it like revisiting the music in such a milestone time?
It's weird because it's like a different life, in a way, because it's so long ago, but I also feel closer to my teenage years now than I did ten years ago. I revisited a lot of my thinking and passions that I had from back then, like photography and going out into the woods. I do the same nowadays. I think it kind of… the circle completed, in a way, and I'm kind of back where I was back then, but with more life experience and musical maturity. It feels a little bit weird, but it feels like an echo from a different life and it really resonates within me, to put it that way.
I think about your musical output now, and you seem to be revisiting a lot of things. Not in a rehashing sort of way, but a revitalizing. I think about Sun of the Sleepless, Noekk, Empyrium, all have been revived in some way or another. Do you feel your creativity -- you brought up it's like an echo -- do you feel it resonates with this circular life cycle?
Yes, absolutely. I absolutely feel like that. When I composed the last Sun of the Sleepless, it resonated so strongly that I really felt reminded of when I wrote the music to when I did Songs of Moors. I think everybody, between yourself being a teenager and becoming a grownup, is probably the time of your life which has the most impact on how you sense things. It's the same with music. Nowadays when I put on music, on vinyl, for example, is the way I really listen to music, and it's almost all from that period of time, let's say from 1992 to 2000. When I just want to check out a band, I'll use Spotify, but when I really want to listen to music, what I know pleases me. It's the same with writing music -- I could experiment with writing a funk song and could be great, but I don;t think so. This is my expression, it is my music, and this is why I focus back so much on this kind of vibe and music.
That really resonates with me, especially when you actively listen to something, it's something you know. I feel that kind of familiarity carries power. I think about older Empyrium music, and how much power it carries, and how it comes back. I'm curious, now that we've revisited your whole catalog, what comes next?
You will hear very soon! It should have been released in November, but we had to postpone the release and now it's postponed again, but it will come out in February of next year. I think it really shows this kind of… what we talked about: fulfilling a circle and taking everything from the journey with you and putting it into something that is new as well as old at the same time. It has a lot of the elements of old Empyrium but also not written by 16 year old people.
So we can expect kind of a balance of what we heard from the first three releases (including the demo), but also the Dead Can Dance and neofolk-ish elements of Turn of the Tides.
Exactly. I think when you mix these elements it becomes something new again. And then you follow this new path and it leads you to a new place, but with impressions of the past.
As a longtime Empyriuim fan, it's cool to see this reverence to the old material.
That's something that came back to me maybe ten years ago. I realized, I think it was when we started to play live with Empyrium. It made me re-appreciate the old material so much. Feeling it when you play it and hearing it performed by a band, that was the moment where it clicked -- what's really inside this music and what it means to me.
And metal is something which reveres history -- you want to sound like an older band or you want to revitalize older material, and that's really cool. I appreciate that, especially as some jerk who "studies metal history."
I definitely see myself as a metalhead. I remember the comments from my three older brothers, and they told me when i was 13 or 14 that I wouldn't listen to metal anymore when I was older. They were listening to ACDC and Iron Maiden, but they weren't listening to Sepultura. I always thought they were wrong because I feel it. How can that leave me, when you feel something that deep?
I want to pivot back to the demo again -- the title is very striking. I understand it translates to He who fell from the sky like lightning. What led to that very interesting title?
I think I read it in some occult book back then, I really can't remember. It is a description of Lucifer -- he who fell from the sky like lightning. It was a description or analogy for Lucifer, and since we were really into occult stuff and, of course, because we were listening to a lot of black metal, we thought it would be a great title. The first track, Astrum Luciferi, the introduction, made perfect sense.
So Empyrium early on, while it was Romantic, had this Luciferian underpinning?
I think it really resonated with us being rebellious teenagers. I was quitting school and Andreas was not quite as rebellious as me, but I always was into the Luciferian spirit, you know? The whole symbolism behind him being the one who stands up against all the rest. The outsider theme. This is something which still resonates with me totally, and back then we were like young teenagers into black metal, so we read all the occult literature, Crowley, LaVey… to kind of strengthen what binds us to the music we love.
That kind of occult sort of vibe didn't last very long in Empyrium.
Not at all.
Why'd you end up dropping that aesthetic?
I don't know. I think something that might come into play was another German band that we were really close with, they were called Tumulus. Nobody knows about them, but they were one big influence in Empyrium. They were just like 30 km away from us and they recorded this demo Hymns and Dirges. It was later released on Hammerheart, coincidentally, as a split CD with the Norwegian band Mock, which became Kampfar later on. They had this kind of pagan approach, and from their pagan approach, it got me really into nature and this nature mysticism. It was Tumulus and also Ulver which made me realize this was really how I wanted to express myself. That and my experiences going out into nature, since I can actually relate to what these bands sang about. I think that's why the occult theme went away and more nature-based themes in Empyrium came to the fore.
You were so isolated, it makes sense for that to become the theme.
This occult thing, when we had it in the demo, it was more an interest that made us be more into the black meta thing. To be more drawn to this genre. I think after we finished the demo and started writing for A Wintersunset…, I think we had so much confidence after the demo that we went in our own way without trying to be something that fits one thing.
You definitely feel that affinity toward black metal on this older material pre-the albums. Did you feel you were closer to being a black metal band back then?
I think our understanding back then was that we were an atmospheric black metal band. I think in early Empyrium you can hear early Samael, early Rotting Christ (Thy Mighty Contract was huge). Also Emperor… I don't know if you hear Darkthrone, maybe the melancholy they had in Transilvanian Hunger. I think in 1993 we went to the Fuck Christ tour, the first black metal tour with Immortal, Blasphemy, and Rotting Christ. We drove over 200 km in corpse paint and bullet belts. That was the way we dressed and everything, so I guess we were a black metal band, but not with black metal music, which sounds weird.
I've always found that black metal boils down to atmosphere as a consequence, and that is more than just the music: it's also the theatrics, and Empyrium has always had theatrics working in its favor. I can totally see that affinity in the beginning.
I think there is nothing more Romantic than early Norwegian black metal. It is the enhancement of the feelings, doing something larger than life, escaping the reality of this world into your own mind. I think this is the blueprint of everything Romantic.
Do you have any stories about the demo sessions or writing sessions?
I can't really remember the writing sessions so much, but I know that we had a couple funny studio stories. This one day we recorded was really big for us, and I remembered that I should have been at school, the 19th of December, 1994, it should have been a Thursday. My girlfriend back then was not at school and Andreas was not at work (he had confirmation from his doctor that he was sick). This is the way we recorded this demo, and I remember that we struggled a lot with some parts -- Andreas struggled a lot with some keyboard parts. The keyboard wasn't recorded by MIDI, so it was really hard to make punch-ins when you have notes which ring out. He had to perform the intro in one pass, and it took him like ten times, and then the engineer said he had to rehearse it. In secret, he pressed record, and then Andreas had one pass where he managed it, but didn't know we recorded it! We made fun of him and let him play it a couple times more even though we had the good take.
What is your relationship like with Andreas now?
I see him as good as never, actually. It's… the way I see it is we had this time together, it's like I'm talking about an old girlfriend, when we really fit together like a glove on a hand. It was perfect for three or four years, and then we went in different directions, both physically and spiritually. He focused more on his job and I concentrated more on music. He was having things beside making music -- other interests and his job -- and I was stubborn and wanted him to work like me, and that's how we spread in different directions.
The last time I saw him was at Prophecy Fest when we performed as Empyrium, and he watched it. We spoke after, but it was weird, like we hadn't spoken in 15 years. Back to the question, I don't have any relationship with him now.
I would say that I hope things change, but, obviously, it's just so different now.
I think he doesn't have much interest in music anymore. At some point, I think it was in 1997, pretty much after Songs of Moors, when he wrote themes I criticized them for being too bombastic, too kitschy, too Cradle of Filth. I wanted to go more into an acoustic direction -- become more intimate and atmospheric. He wanted to become catchier. It just didn't work out musically and on a friendship-base. Even though we were best friends from 1993 to 1997, and we were together working together, I think it really manifested on Songs of Moors when I essentially wrote everything and performed keyboards when he couldn't. I was doing music all day and he had his job so he couldn't focus so much. That was the reason why we split.
I never knew that. Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to add?
It's always hard to answer this question. For me, the one thing that stuck out to me when I listened to the demo and wrote liner notes for it is how much this demo meant to me and what I became as a musician and a person, consequently, as being a musician and artist is a huge part of my personality. The demo was the stepping stone, the first landmark in becoming who I am now. This is why I still cherish it a lot, and when we did the tour in 2018 when we played material from the demo and first two albums, we played "My Nocturne Queen" live and it was super cool to play this song live. I realized how good the song is -- what is in there is still fantastic to play and it doesn't feel bad like something I have to do to please the fans. I still stand behind the core of what this recording is 100%.
Der Wie Ein Blitz Vom Himmel Fiel is out today on Prophecy Productions.
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