The success of a fundamentally non-commercial Kharkiv-based band proves the half-forgotten truth: true art does not necessarily depend on PR – even today
Kharkiv-based Drudkh (meaning ‘forest’ in Sanskrit) has been an undeniably iconic band for metalheads across the world for some years now. And the status of this icon is justified by nine full-length albums released by prestigious European labels (Supernal Music and Season of Mist). The band's new full-length album Eternal Turn of the Wheel (ninth in the band’s discography) was the first ever Ukrainian album analysed in detail by the American site Pitchfork. These telling facts suggest that Drudkh is a phenomenon that exceeded the limits of subculture success a long time ago and has since acquired special significance for more than just the black metal stage. Since Drudkh has always been a purely studio project and never given a concert, it still remains a phenomenon little known in Ukraine.
Long-time music fans are very familiar with such Ukrainian metal bands like Hate Forest and Astrofaes known far beyond Kharkiv and Ukraine. Their members Roman Saenko and Thurios teamed up to create Drudkh in 2002. The previous projects won recognition underground, while the new one found success with a much wider appeal despite a consistent policy of no PR (no official site, photo shoots, concerts or interviews). This strategy appears to make sense for several reasons: 1) It is comfortable for the musicians, who are interested precisely in music rather than the accompanying details that almost always require a great deal of time and effort; 2) It makes sense for black metal with its non-commercial nature and scepticism towards contemporary society; and 3) It fits the principle ''Sapienti sat”, especially relevant given the current information overload.
However, Drudkh’s authority rests also on other factors: an entire series of conceptual and purely stylistic distinctive features of their music make it unique, particularly in the context of Ukraine. In other words, they owe their cult status not only to their musical talents but also to their deep cultural roots. The band professes a clearly mythical and pagan worldview, but this lies in the content and spirit of their music rather than textual manifests and appeals. This worldview and aesthetics, as well as the pagan component, come through in all of Drudkh’s albums and are the central theme in four of them: Forgotten Legends (2003), Autumn Aurora (2004), Songs of Grief and Solitude (2006) and Eternal Turn of the Wheel (2012).
THE SYMBOLISM OF NATURE
The theme of time and natural cycles runs through Forgotten Legends. This album is about autumn viewed metaphorically rather than literally. Autumn as a period of decadence and death has traditionally been identified with the geographical West and corresponds to the sunset. This theme is underscored by the designs on the band's disc: it is stylised as an ancient calendar (the wheel of the year) and the booklet uses photos and pictures of autumn landscapes at sunset. The name of the first piece, “False Down”, points to the anti-modern and anti-urban message that runs throughout the entire album. Its pessimistic tone can be viewed not only as foreshadowing the end but also as a direct indication that the dawn of the modern era, which has rejected traditional values, is, in fact, its twilight. As can be seen from further releases, this philosophical leitmotif is central to Drudkh’s entire music production.
The symbolism of autumn and the wheel of time are the foundation of the band's second album Autum Aurora as suggested by both the autumn-related names of its tracks and its visual design. The final composition, First Snow, seems to indicate a point of no return, a symbolic dividing line between the old and new situation in the world. However, there is no warning contained there – Drudkh’s mythic poeticism places great value on fate as an objectively invincible force.
This same fatalist mood feeds also the completely acoustic folk-music album Songs of Grief and Solitude, which is unique in the band’s discography. Is luxurious design and macabre images allude to Ukrainian folk legends, ballads and fairy tales. Melancholy and contemplation dominate, and a large number of refrains does not evoke a feeling of excessive monotony. Coupled with the sounds of nature scattered in the rhythm, this creates an inimitable atmosphere. Despite its odd sound, this album is not an experimental one.
The most recent album, Eternal Turn of the Wheel, is not just a simple “manoeuvre” to return to Drudkh’s thematic roots. Rather, it is a much grander interpretation of the cycle theme. While the central images of the above albums were autumn and twilight, this compilation deals with the unity of all four seasons which are both the archetypes and the chronotopos of Drudkh’s poeticism. The absence of pauses between tracks is reminiscent of eternal change and transformation in nature, while expressive vocals convey the freshness of impressions that come with every new season. Consequently, the new album is not “repetition of the past”, if only for these distinctive features.
A different and no less important strain of Drudkh’s artistic production consists of albums based on poems written by outstanding Ukrainian poets: The Swan Road (2005), Blood in Our Wells (2006), Estrangement (2007), Microcosmos (2009) and Handful of Stars (2010).
The Swan Road was the first album in which Drudkh turned to Ukrainian poetry. Its lyrics are based completely on Taras Shevchenko’s famous poem Haidamaky. The last track on this disk is the authentic “Ballad about the Destruction of the Sich” performed by a bandura player rather than the band itself. The rebellious poetry of Shevchenko lends historio-sophic and metaphysical dimensions to the album: the bloody pictures of violence painted in the poem have a tonality similar to that of the best samples of the mythological epos about the “end of time”. Despite its bitterness and extremely aggressive sound The Swan Road is a romantic album.
The tracks of Blood in Our Wells are inspired not only by Shevchenko but also by poets like Lina Kostenko, Oleksandr Oles and Yuriy Klen. The booklet to the album quotes a poem by Vasyl Symonenko, and the last instrumental piece is called Ukrainian Insurgent Army. The album itself is dedicated to the memory of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. After its release some superficial and politically-concerned people began to falsely accuse the band of playing national-socialist black metal. As a result, Drudkh issued a short press release which emphasised that it was outside politics as such. Blood in Our Wells is extremely rich in its imagery and themes. It opens with the prelude track Nav which is a fragment of the soundtrack to the Oles Sanin film Mamai.
Estrangement is a fairly short but extremely powerful album based on Oleh Olzhych’s poetry from the 1930s. It reflects, in an original way, the spirit of the OUN’s liberation struggle. Life and death in struggle is an apt summary of the album’s theme.
As the name of the album Microcosmos hints, the theme of time and cyclic change is viewed here from a personal, self-reflective standpoint. One of the two main ideas of the disk is the inevitable decline and rebirth of all living things in the whirl of time.
Drudkh most recent album to take from Ukrainian poets (this time to such little known figures as Oleksa Stefanovych and Sviatoslav Hordynsky) is Handful of Stars. Despite coming from under the pen of two different poets, the poems, which date back to 1923-43, form an integral ideational and thematic foundation of this disc which metaphorically immerses us into the atmosphere of turbulent 20th-century Ukraine with its desperate and uncompromising struggle that left no room for romantic doubt. Handful of Stars is also a landmark album for Drudkh in terms of its evolving style. For the first time in the band’s history, its album featured experiments with shoegaze/post-black metal which, despite their splendid execution and fitting place in the album’s concept, received mixed reactions from Drudkh’s long-time fans.
Drudkh does not so much evolve its style as it consciously picks the means of expression most appropriate to the concept of a particular album. The use of Ukrainian poetry, the deep mythological and philosophical foundation of its music, the impeccable visual design of its albums (with photos of Ukrainian natural settings and paintings of past masters) all suggest that Drudkh is much more than just another talented band – it is the best representative of Ukrainian extreme metal and its significance is set to grow in the future.