Armenia is mostly known for things like the Kardashians and Dan Bilzerian. Yet it has a long and rich history to explore. Unfortunately, this is hardly known but if it’s up to bands like Ildaruni, that is about to change.
Situated near the cradle of civilization, at the crossroads of east and west, Armenia has a wealth of stories to tell. Bonding their talents into a force to be reckoned with, Ildaruni is here to illuminate the world.
I got in touch with Robert Melksetyan, Garbis Vizoian and Arthur Poghosyan II about their band, the history, and myths of Armenia, and playing black metal.
Ildaruni: into the depths of time
Can you tell me about Ildaruni and how you guys got together?
Robert: I have always wanted to have a band oriented towards a mix of both black and pagan music since I have always felt closest to these two genres. I had come to know that Arthur (drummer) and Garbis (bassist) were also interested in said genres; I also knew that Arthur had played before in some folk bands. We met and decided to form the foundation of our band. By that point, I had already known Arthur in person, but we have never had any experience playing together in a band.
Garbis: I met Robert back in early 2016 through a mutual friend of ours when I heard that he was looking for a whistle player for this very same project. We first met on that basis, but when upon discussing the nature of the band in more detail, we figured it was much more fitting if I joined in as a bass player and writer. At the time, I was searching for a band with folk and mythological influences in order to utilize and further develop my writing skills. Robert’s timing of this project was simply too good not to join in since the project thematically complemented my writing direction at the time. As such, I took the project as an opportunity to delve deeper into the more forgotten aspects of our ancient pagan culture, such as some of the lesser-known ritualistic and mystical sides of our culture, while also unearthing some of the very specific but generally forgotten events from our history. All the while, helping Robert lyrically and to some extent also compositionally, produce and play the songs that we have written so far.
Alright, so you did play in previous bands? Can you tell me which these were and what you played?
Arthur: I used to play in a couple of other bands before Ildaruni. It was Arbor Mortis(black metal project) and Araspel(folk/heavy metal). I also have another active band called The Windrose. There we play just pure Armenian and Celtic folk music
Can you tell me something more about the name of the band and what sort of music you make? What bands inspired you to go in this direction?
Garbis: Regarding the name of the band. Ildaruni is the ancient pagan name of the second largest river that flows through Armenia, currently known as Hrazdan River. As to why we chose Ildaruni as the band’s name, well more so than anything, it is a veneration of life and legacy. Hrazdan River or Ildaruni, has been flowing through our highlands since time immemorial. It has provided life to our people for millennia ever since civilization existed in these lands and as such, we wanted to extend our gratitude and potentially bestow Ildaruni the glorification it deserves. Also, one of the few ancient inscriptions that survived to this day, is a chronicling of the massive efforts spent by king Rusa II of the Van Kingdom (the time period our first length album is based on) in building canals along the Ildaruni River and all the perks that the river has bestowed upon his people. Taking into consideration the thematic focus of our songs around the Van Kingdom, it is only fitting that the name of our band is one of the most venerated and blessed sources of life during those pagan times. I guess Robert can talk more regarding the sort of music we make, since he composes the music.
Robert: In the genre that we play, the inspiration to compose has primarily been from bands like Enslaved, Rotting Christ, Nokturnal Mortum, Dissection and Drudkh. Those are all bands that were able to carve new paths and steer black metal in an unprecedented direction. Musically, they were able to reach new heights and retain compositional prominence. The compositions of said bands are so rich, both as a result of their unique atmosphere and their functionality as compositions, that I can listen to them constantly and still discover new aspects and details within their songs. I’m awestruck every time I think about the way these bands have created masterpieces so frequently and within such short amounts of time, that have such high values for the overall metal world.
Regarding the sort of music that we play, we generally compose within the Black metal genre, but naturally, just as with any metal band, we occasionally make use of compositional structure from other genres as well. For example, in our music you may notice the occasional influence from Thrash metal, just as in any other Black metal band. The core of our music also has folk music as one of our main influencers. The composing process of which has proved very difficult and lengthy endeavor, since it requires a lot of concentration and maximum attention to the composition at hand. But overall, the genre that we compose in when putting the music and lyrics together, could be classified as Pagan Black, which in reality is a much better genre than most people come to realize.
You mentioned that the inspiration for your pagan metal is the very much forgotten ancient pagan past of the Armenian highlands and the myths. As most people are probably unaware of those, would it be possible to tell more about this time and history? And how do you work them into your music?
Robert: Our paganism had a massive, undeniable presence within the daily lives of our ancient ancestors. Needless to say, as is the case in the ancient chronicles of most countries, Christianity took over with violence, killing en masse, the oppression of pagans. Setting aflame all the knowledge, temples, artifacts and every scroll, book and manuscript regarding our pagan past, which could have helped us massively to study and reveal more about our mythos and ancestors. Armenian paganism had a large number of gods and goddesses. It shares many similarities with the ancient Greek pantheon of gods, in terms of how deep and rich it goes.
Through the texts that we write, we touch on various periods of pagan Armenia. On subjects that revolve around not just historical events but also some of the hidden pagan cults who functioned during those times. Our songs mostly echo Van Kingdom’s struggles against the Assyrian Empire, retellings of warfare and also some unsung victories and struggles of certain kings. It is possible to find a lot of information through our songs, regarding some cults and certain hubs of pagan worship, which demands a lot of research, source gathering and textual refining to write about.
Garbis: Regarding how we incorporate the myths and history into our songs; it has all become quite systematic now to be honest, i.e. taking the concept from point A to point Z, regardless though, the process itself is where the art lies. It usually starts with a single event, concept, geographical location, a historical character, a pagan ritual that would pop up in our conversations. Usually, things that are quite vague and unheard of, quite the revelations even for us. Then comes the long and arduous section of research and source-hunting. Considering the unknown nature of these specific events and concepts, this step is usually one of the longer ones in terms of how long it takes to achieve, albeit one of and if not the most important step.
Afterwards, it goes either two ways, usually I take on the historical subjects, i.e. specific historical events or characters, study whatever sources we have gathered and by that point, I would already have the music composed and prepared by Robert. I repeatedly listen to the very early versions of whatever composition we are working on, while I write down the lyrics as I gather all the events and sources into a compositional retelling of sorts of said events. In a way that all the sources and facts connect and make sense. For the concepts and subjects that have to do specifically with the paganism and spiritual aspects of our culture, Robert lays down the overall groundwork after a thorough study and research of the subjects at hand then passes them down to me. I proceed by translating and writing them down in a lyrical format in order to keep a persistent lingual theme in between the rest of our compositions. Finally, it’s only a matter of working together in finalizing the editing in order to have the final lyrics fit the vocal range of our vocalist, alongside any necessary changes in order to have our lyrics and music complement each other, to best represent the specific concepts or events that we’re aiming to bring forward into public eye.
Am I correct in assuming you are talking about the kingdom now called Urartu? What time period are you talking about more precisely and can you maybe share a brief explanation about the pagan tradition, what its believes where and myths? What do these traditions mean to you and why did you chose to go this direction? Is it simply storytelling, identity or a source of pride?
Robert: Yes, that is correct. Urartu goes by different names; most historians call it Araratian or Van Kingdom. If you also check out some of the old Behistun inscriptions, you’ll notice that different nations at the time also called Urartu various other names. In our lyrics you can read specific events that occurred throughout different periods of the Van Kingdom, it’s derived from the entire historical timeline of Van Kingdom’s rule. There is no singular specific year or date that the demo album or the subsequent, potential full-length is based on but rather various specific events, dotted throughout the entirety of Van Kingdom’s history. Also, as mentioned before the lyrics don’t revolve solely around historical events but also conceptual ideas and representations of ancient pagan cults and rituals.
If I were to single out a single one, I find the myth regarding “Mher’s Door” or “Raven’s Rock” as it’s called, very attractive and interesting. It’s a sacred cave near the fortress of Van, where according to myth Little Mher, the final hero in the epos of “Daredevils of Sassoun”. He shut himself inside the cave as a furious retaliation against the world’s injustices. According to the sagas, Mher comes out of the cave atop his horse, traverses the earth but convinced that the earth could not possibly handle his weight and seeing the still prevailing injustices, he returns to Raven’s Rock. It is prophesized that one-day Mher will ride out one last time; to punish the enemies of his people and establish the justice he has long desired, thus will beckon the Day of Wrath. Speaking of Raven’s Rock, the artwork of our demo album, done by our own guitarist Mark Erskine, is a depiction of the legendary “Mher’s Door”.
Thank you, I would like to ask you then, as said above, what these traditions mean to you and why did you chose to go this direction? Is it simply storytelling, identity or a source of pride? In other words, I’m interested in your personal relation to this topic. Maybe to elaborate even further on this, very often any sort of ancestral themes or historic topics can be regarded as political. Perhaps that is something you’d like to respond to?
Robert: Our pagan history and traditions are a source of pride for us. Armenian’s rich ancient past tells of such glorious stories of our ancestral heritage, rich myths and important historical events that impacted greatly on the foundation of our country and defined Armenia and its people as we are today.
We do not consider our lyrics to be politically motivated and they have no reference to modern day or historical political events.
We want to showcase all aspects of ancient Armenia, especially the hidden and lesser-known aspects of our history to our Armenian audience as well as to people in other countries.
We have an interest in the Van Kingdom period which is often forgotten about as there is little information on the era. Writing and playing about our ancestors’ pagan beliefs, traditions, mythology and history is another way of preserving it and we aim to keep the period alive by mixing our ancestral roots with Black metal.
Garbis: I would say it’s all three in conjunction with one another, our identity is our source of pride and what better way to retain our identity and pride than with a little bit of good storytelling. We have taken this direction because there is a dire need of preservation, regarding these topics; especially the specific events that are generally overlooked and aren’t covered in your average school history book. In an increasingly digital world, historical texts are more and more left on the wayside. If our songs manage to instill interest and drives as many as a handful of people to conduct further research in extension to what our lyrics pertains, then I’d personally consider our project a success. Naturally, our ambitious scope is much larger than that.
No, I would consider our output to be completely apolitical. Certainly in this day and age, the political nature of any subject at hand has become a personal matter. Any subject may be wrapped with a political mantle, if the consumer of said subject wishes it to be so. Having said that, as artists we wouldn’t want that fact to hinder us from producing and achieving the primary objectives of our work, which is to unearth and preserve the lesser known parts of our rich and very ancient history. As such, as composers we steer away from tailoring our work to per consumer’s political standing or beliefs, just as well, we do not let our own personal beliefs or political ideologies tarnish the primary objective of presenting our history as accurately as possible.
I would like to continue to your music. Do you use any of the historic or traditional music or instruments in Ildaruni? And if so, what are these? If not, are you intending to do so?
Robert: I compose the majority of our music and we collectively add or remove certain parts of the composition during our rehearsal sessions. In our songs we use whistle and dap, which is a type of traditional Armenian drum. The whistle gives an eerie tone to the music to create an atmospheric ambience to our songs. In future recordings we are going to use a type of Armenian bagpipe called a parkapzuk, which differentiates from other instruments with its uniquely attractive sound. The sound transports you back to ancient life in the Armenian highlands.
Before writing the folk elements of our songs we invest time researching the traditional sound, trying to find ancient melodies to help us reconstruct the historical Armenian sound and to replicate the sound of the instruments we use in as close a way as possible to the music played by our ancestors. When it comes to the creative process of composing the music, we make the sound our own while using the influence of Armenian folk music.
Alright, so what can you tell me about the debut release ‘Towards Subterranean Realms’?
Robert: Towards subterranean realms had been set for release at an earlier date but due to some band issues, like a change of line-up, the release date had to be moved forward.
Our demo is a small taste of what to expect in our full-length album, we already have some great material written.
As we mentioned, the general goal of our music is to present lesser-known excerpts from ancient Armenian paganism and mythology, which are often overlooked or forgotten.
We have had a positive response following the release of our demo which makes us progress to reach new goals.
I wonder how your music, with its themes, is received in your country. Do you face any detractors like bands in Western Europe would have (often accused of nationalism or worse)?
Also how are those sentiments, since I learned that many Armenians live across borders (from my contact with the band Avarayr)?
Robert:Our music was met with positive feedback in both Armenia and abroad. Before we formed Ildaruni, there were other Armenian bands that played pagan black metal, so this genre was already known about and popular in the Armenian metal scene.
We haven’t received any problems as a result of our music. We try to deviate from politics or any kind of movements. Instead, our musical themes revolve around our culture, our pagan history, our ancestor’s beliefs, mythology and the historical representation of some aspects of pagan occultism.
Would you say that metal music is freely played? Or is there still a form of it being frowned upon. For example, metal has always clashed with religion.
Robert: Playing metal or presenting it to our audience etc. doesn’t cause any problems per say; but the scene in general is still considered deep underground. In Armenia, it is still I in the early stages of development. There are some good bands around who really deserve to receive some exposure abroad but there’s no real development or investment in the scene nor the existence of a big metal scene. I would say the reasons for all of that is, there is in general very little interest in metal from the general public and the overall belated introduction of the genre as a whole in the country. We don’t have any problems preparing and organizing concerts but the problem comes from the lack of valid places, venues or organizers in generals. Those are the core issues that present the real difficulties and barriers rather than any societal conflicts.
Alright, so I want to ask you also about the Armenian people abroad, as I mentioned before the interview I did with Avarayr. Does this impact the scene in any way, is it because of that more international (due to the cross-boundary population) or do you think it generally creates an open-mindedness?
Robert: Many Armenians living abroad bring the musical taste and influence of the metal scenes from other countries back to Armenia with them. Some of the bands living abroad making the most impact on the metal scene are Ambehr, Hexen, Highland and Avarayr.
Many people from diaspora returned to Armenia in the past 10 years and they bring new ideas and changes to multiple areas of our country including the music scene. It’s great to see new life and direction being brought into our country.
Armenians from the diaspora are helping to shape and develop the metal scene in Armenia by participating in concerts and adding a new taste and quality to their music. In general, the Armenian people in the metal scene are open-minded and we hope that the metal scene can progress by the organization of more gigs and influencing younger generations to take an interest in the scene.
So, tell me about the scene in Armenia. How did metal come to your country and which bands are the progenitors? What’s happening now and where is the scene happening? In the capital or are there local scenes worth mentioning?
Robert: The popularity of metal in Armenia has been fluctuating over the last 20 years or so. Some members of the local metal scene put in effort to develop metal bars and gigs but usually for little or no financial gain so there are also periods of stagnation in the scene.
During the Soviet Union, in the middle and late 80s, there were bands that impacted on the development of the metal scene and were known for their quality music. Two bands worthy of noting are Ayas and Asparez.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the people had more freedom and many started listening to metal and formed bands. Today, conditions have changed immensely compared with the past. Organising metal nights used to be a long and frustrating process but now many bands have clubs where they can host self-organized gigs and have studios where they can rehearse to improve their musical skills. Many bands were formed by our diaspora abroad which also impacted on the Armenian metal scene.
We have bands which are having regular gigs and it’s a good thing to see in Armenia. Unfortunately, there is no major interest in metal in Armenia compared to the scene in the US or Europe and that is the main reason why we don’t have so many bands, there is no demand or interest. I hope that over time this problem will be solved. Almost all metal events are happening in Yerevan because most metal bands and fans are centralized in the capital.
What future plans do you have for the band?
Garbis: Regarding the future plans of the band, we are hard at work to fulfill our most immediate plans for the time being, but we always have a one eye open towards the bigger picture in the future. Since we pretty much have all the material written and rehearsed for our first full-length album release (barring some minor additions and changes here and there), we are trying to figure out the best approach regarding the production of our album that would best represent the true vision that we have for the release.
Having said that, our plans further into the future is definitely to expand the range of our live performances. It is always a great pleasure and a collective challenge to provide an energetic and memorable live performance to our local audience. But we are definitely aiming at playing more shows throughout the year, so in order to do that we are hoping to take our performances to the neighboring country of Georgia to start with and then expanding into greater horizons, playing in some well-regarded pagan festivals. All in due time as we take one step after another.
Robert: There are some distinctive metal bands that have stood out in the past and present metal scene in Armenia, each with a unique sound and approach to their music.
I recommend that people check out atmospheric black metal band, Sworn. Unfortunately, they split up some years ago but they made a big impact on the local metal scene. For fans of raw blackened death metal, I recommend they check out Merial, their music is both aggressive and catchy. Lovers of folk or pagan metal should listen to Araspell or Vahagn, both are a mix of Armenian folk with heavy and unique riffs.
If you had to compare your band to a dish, what would it be and why?
Robert: Many different dishes come to mind considering the richness and uniqueness of Armenian cuisine, but if I had to choose, I would say traditional Armenian barbeque. Our music is like a well cooked meat with hidden spices and flavours which represent the folk elements in our music.
Thanks for the interview.