Into the Tarbathian Fortress: on the extreme scene of Tartu

Into the Tarbathian Fortress: on the extreme underground of Tartu and Pergerus collective

Standing right in front of Finland on the other side of the eastern gulf of the Baltic sea, Estonia exists. Yeah, I know, what a surprise, uh? A country as big as Netherlands inhabited only by 1.3 millions people, whose culture is not really much popular outside the Baltic area. And yet, metal found its way there, too. A guided tour of the area would have been the best way to discover the local underground, but since the COVID-19 pandemic’s still raging our only option was to borrow a local guide to virtually show us around. That’s where Maddy (bass player for Form and Langenu) came in. With his help, we’ll be able to grasp what’s going on in the only non-Indo-European Baltic country, focusing on the city of Tartu. But first, a few facts about Estonia — which, let’s be honest, you probably won’t know.

Although most of the times identified as the motherland of Metsatöll and Loits, Estonia has to offer more than this. Acts like Tharaphita, Urt, Sõjaruun, Deceitome, Thou Shell of Death, Süngehel, Pime, Bestia and the here (re)presented “Tarbathian metal scene” collective are indeed active, too; and, quoting Maddy’s words, «festivals keep popping up like mushrooms after rain», giving us a surprisingly vivid idea of the state of live music there. Hard Rock Laager, Howls Of Winter, Käbliku Beer Camp & Rock’N’Roll and Barbar Feast are just a few of the events spanning through the not-that-vast Estonian land. But a difference must be made, between the northern side of the country and the southern.

«I feel like Tartu is not even the same country as Tallinn [located right in front of Helsinki, in the northern part of Estonia, NdR], but this is the case in every country in my opinion. The capital is just something different and the most urbanized region of the country. I personally wouldn’t like to live in Tallinn, because it seems like everybody is hurrying somewhere. It might just be the case, because the people there seem to be more ambitious and effective. In Tartu people seem more relaxed and it has a somewhat cozy feeling, therefore often ridiculed by people of Tallinn and called a village. I don’t mind really, because I was born at a countryside and enjoy peace. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why Tallinn’s metal scene is publishing one album after another and in Tartu… well, it has a different tempo».

The whole of Tartu’s beauty, though, would be better understood if we were on a field trip there — which you might consider doing, in the future —; for now, before delving into the real interview, I’ll wrap this up by quoting one last time Maddy, who told me about this, using his friend from Ziegenhorn‘s words, that «Tartu is interesting because, if you start from the medieval feeling centre and start walking, you will find a different type of city in every direction you go».

Now, starting from the Tarbathian Fortress split: where does its name come from? And what does it stand for, if it does stand for anything?

Tarbatu was a historic name for Tartu or more specifically, its fortress. It is a common thing to have a romantic hindsight to medieval times in metal genre. 1695 (yes, it’s a nickname), a member of Pergerus, came up with the idea to give this historical name to the album and to the scene of Tartu overall. He is working in the Estonian National Museum and interested in archeology, so he comes up with this stuff all the time.

How representative it would be of the whole local scene, in your opinion?

This is the representation of the scene in Tartu. First we had a bit smaller group sharing common rehearsal space that we called and still call Pergerus — a fictional medieval sounding name, I came up with by using letters from our bands. Consisting of Langenu, Form, Tapper, Mortferus, Ulguränd and later added Sküllfükk Satänik Slüts and Ziegenhorn. The scene in Tartu has grown since then and not all bands are directly connected to Pergerus, so we call it altogether Tarbathian scene.

It’s a split between a lot of bands — really, a lot, considering Metal Archives lists only 38 acts from Tartu. Whose idea was it? And how did you guys work it through?

The idea to make a split-album came from our friend Kruxator — the head of Ziegenhorn who originates from Germany, but is with us for some time now. He wanted to make the first release of his freshly founded music label Warhorn Records special, so the idea of a split album was perfect for this purpose. The metal scene in Estonia, by the way, is bigger than what is listed in metal-archives. Besides newer additions lately, there was quite a history that was found on a website — sadly, the site is not there anymore.

It looks to me like some sort of collective work. How much of a “collective” stands behind the Tarbathian Fortress split and, overall, the Tarbathian underground?

When we started Pergerus, we felt that collective feeling and discussed everything, worked as a team and so on. Over time the dynamics started to fade and the bands were doing stuff on their own. Kruxator organized the bands from Tartu under one hat again, uniting us with other bands, whose members some of us were unfamiliar previously. The first meeting was held in Pergerus rehearsal room/studio and after that we all had our assignments along with a deadline. Everything was made here in Tartu, starting from the bands recording their songs, some people dealing with editing, mixing, mastering, others with visual side or texts and ending with using the local cd pressing plant. Everything important was discussed together and we asked each other’s opinions. You can indeed call it collective and the co-working will proceed in the future.

Do you think it’s going to be a “one time only” thing or we might expect another big compilation like this, in the future?

It might be interesting to make something with other scenes as well, both here and abroad. I think Warhorn Records will manage to pull more rabbits out of his hat pretty soon.

Back to the collective thing, now: let me just wash my hands and let you deal with the hard part. Would you please introduce the bands and projects who took part to the split?

Bare with me! In the order of appearance:
Sküllfükk Satänik Slüts — They call their genre B.D.S.M, meaning Black Death Speed Metal. Their overall performance, outfit and aesthetics gives me strong flashbacks from Motörhead and Turbonegro. They are about to release a 7 song! Demo cassette Uncut Speed 2021 Demo(lition) and maybe it will be baked by the time this interview is released.

Ulguränd — Technically it is Pagan Black Metal, but they call it Ragnaröcknroll, which i find very suitable and clever. The lyrics are mainly based on true and interesting historic events, rather, than fantasy that is more commonly the case in Pagan Metal. They have realeased their EP in 2019 and currently working on their full-lenght album.

Ziegenhorn — Goat themed Black/Death Metal. Their first demo(n) went with an amazing speed and the rise of their horns has been a quick one. Considering what impression their first live apparance left, I can say they will go far with this.

Koffin — Another band that rose from 6 feet under straight to public attention. Old-school Death Metal, that never goes out of fashion. The sound and aesthetics belong to an era some decades ago. One could find something to either listen, wear or sew onto their denim jackets from Koffin’s bandcamp site.

Igor Mortis — If a C category horror movie cross bred with alien testicles was a band, this would be it. Stress to the word “gory”, as this describes both — vocals and the music itself, if you add taking an acid bath while taking acid to the equation. You can find some usually sold out cassettes from their Bandcamp.

Swarn — Lovecraft crafted into music. Crusty-sounding Death Metal, but with a unique sound. There is something crawling under the skin as you listen through the tracks. While their first studio album gained international success, they recorded an EP, only to start to record their next studio album straight after that. Very productive!

Kaev — Until now, they have been a very good live-band. Black Metal with some distinguishable pagan and melodic elements at times. They have used the lockdown time off the stage to refresh the line-up and work on a studio album.

Langenu — The oldest band in the list. Langenu has been in a constant change and had additions to the style, but there is always Black Metal in the end. It started out with a trashier sound, added some black ‘n’ roll elements and currently has developed a psychedelic touch to the music. More of a mental state rather than a prog or hippie term. There will be a second EP out soon in addition to the last LP Need, Kes Näevad Imesid and a demo/EP dated back to 2009.

Form — Experiments take time. The progress cannot be stopped by unforeseen events. Therefore Form saw an opportunity in chaos and organized an art exhibition instead of a usual album presentation concert. The fresh album Aerosols And Dust Particles brings you to the world of Experimental Black Metal and Ambient sounds. There’s also a demo from 2009.

How’s things like in Tartu? I mean, how’s the underground scene, there? We know there are some bands, but is there a public supporting them?

Current situation is not good to anyone anywhere, but nevertheless we feel the support that has been always there. The crowd is hungry for Metal and whenever an event takes place here, you can always count on them. They are so loyal that even if some of them have to choose between food and your merch or album, they will suffer for the well-being of the scene. Also, very patient people, because the bands have had some really silent times and slow cooking. Thank you all for your existence!

And what about live gigs? I mean, in a broad sense, like “how would lives go, in case there’d be no pandemics”?

I cannot speak for all the bands, but I assume we share a similar experience with this. As I said, Tartu has a very supportive crowd. Even though the amount of people is not in large quantities, nor is it important, there is always a festive and fulfilling mood floating around. I think it is important to enjoy your own music and then the listeners enjoy it even more. There is something you cannot fake and the headbangers in the front row can feel it with their sixth sense. I would even say that the concerts held in lesser known places with smaller amount of crowds has given us some special ecstatic feeling and intimacy, that cannot be felt on a large stage. But what do I know about that anyway…

Overall, how much suffered Estonian and Tarbathian live music due to the COVID pandemic?

Difficult to say. We have every option to share our music with people on the century we live in. I guess the most sales will be done during concerts as the people have something burning inside from live music, but after all we do it for our own fun and there is no way we could get any profit in any situation. A hobby is always costing money and if it becomes profitable, it becomes work. If it becomes work, it’s not fun anymore. Simple as that. I think the venues bars and larger concert organizers suffer the most. During summer we may see things activating again, but in summer people prefer to sip their beer outside, the bars are working on low gear and venues are typically having a vacation. Maybe this time things will be different.

There’s something I’m curious about. How did it all start, in Estonia? Where did the metal seed started to grow, and where did it spread from?

As with every story, the starting point is difficult to pin out. There was a conference evening in July of 2019 held in the National Museum of Estonia alongside or addition to the exhibition about the early years of Estonian re-independence in the beginning of 90s. The 2 hosts Lembetu and Anders (respectively the founding members of Loits and Forgotten Sunrise) talked about the early scene that started in the end of 80s and how it evolved to what it was in the mid-90s. The early scene consisted more of Thrash and Death Metal and Black Metal started to flood mainly when the 2000s were on horizon. The story is too long to conclude with a few words and probably would deserve a book sometime, but let’s just say bands like Shower, Misdeed, Mortified, Aggressor and Forgotten Sunrise were involved. Also, I’m not a person adequate enough to answer these question as I belong to another (born on ’89) wave.

Has the Finnish scene (or the Scandinavian, or even the Russian) scene ever influenced what’s been going on here, musically speaking?

I think the Finnish scene hasn’t left anything untouched anywhere. I was a bit surprised to find out that the scenes of Finland and Estonia evolved almost simultaneously, but the direction of influence was probably from Finland to Estonia. In the early 90s most of music and contacts between metal bands moved over coast with letters and often they returned the stamps inside the letters for re-using. It was a time of do it yourself with the price of your kidneys. There was a distinct scene of local Russians in Estonia, that was somewhat more aggressive or temperamentous. There is something boiling there up to this day and it would be interesting to know how specifically that part of the scene evolved. Personally, I am not aware of the history of that part, but they most probably had a similar communication with the Russian scene as the one between Northern Estonia and Finland.

And what about your personal influences, the ones you then put in your music: what influences you as a musician?

I share the musical taste to a large degree with my band mates. I enjoy mostly avant-garde and atmospheric Black Metal alongside with progressive and even classical music. I’m not usually the main character in the bands, as I play 4-strings in Langenu and Form, but we all have our input to new songs and therefore the output is the collective result of our approach to music. I do some side-projects, maybe not entirely connected to scene, but let them be there until time is right. I don’t put influences directly to music by thinking of something specific, at least I hope I don’t. If someone listens and tells that it reminds of this and this band, it means there’s a long way to go to uniqueness. I want to point out that even if the mainstream music sounds more horrible over time, the metal music goes only better and better. Tomorrow someone will invent a new approach to Black Metal and that will be forming the next decade of BM.

Let’s talk about Form, now. Would you introduce the band to our readers?

Form started out as a solo project of Arhitekt. I joined 2009 alongside him and Koljat and then it became a band. As Henry and Anto joined, we took it to the stage and Rebeca completed the line-up. Original music was written by Arhitekt, but latter songs were made as a collective effort. I could say we try to keep it out of the boundaries of “traditional Black Metal”, but it is not true, because we are not trying — it comes somehow naturally. It’s kind of a lab experiment, when you mix in some ingredients and see how it will react.

Your latest release, aka your debut album Aerosols And Dust Particles, has been out for a couple of months, now. How’s it been received?

People have waited long for this and it finally arrived. Form has always stepped on different stones than the rest of the bands and I don’t mean only Tarbathian scene with this. I don’t know how large our audience is, but our music certainly is not for everyone. There have been people, who expectedly got our album and others, who probably don’t even listen to metal, but still got it after hearing it or seeing the artshow.

Without spoilering much – otherwise nobody’s going to read the review, when it comes out – how would you describe it?

Don’t expect any typical Black Metal sound. This is not supposed to be how “music is made” but how it became to be what it is. Overall there is some cold sensation and vibrant background. Vocals range from pit-depth screams to somewhat clean melodies. There is a lot of synth ambiance present. This is what Form sounds like — at least on this album.

You know, when you told me you were going to present it through an exhibition, you left me speechless. Where did the idea come from? And how did you pull it off?

Art has always been a part of Form. Arhitekt himself has done all our artwork and he had this vision a long time ago, how our live and overall appearance should look like. The idea came in the need to do something different, For both — epidemic and self-realization reasons. So he recruited Ave Kongo (who is behind our stage costumes), Rauno Kalda (who took our promotional pictures) and Adumbra (a surrealist artist pair, whose style got Arhitekt’s attention), for their work fit well with Form‘s aesthetics. We had our meetings through internet and discussed the details there. We found a spot in Genialistide klubi, which is known to be visited by artists and other dissidents and managed to prepare the exhibition within 2 days. The concept was simple — every installation was linked to one song from the album and all together it was a full circle of creation, destruction, life, death, despair and reconciliation. All that with lights leading people and giving a suitable atmosphere to the whole experience.

I mean, I’ve never thought about something like that. That’s a new perspective. Was it hard to adapt your music to the art-museum context or vice versa?

First of all I think the artists were very suitable for the task. Everyone was offering their ideas of how it could look and feel and what they can do to fit their art and our music together. I think if you have a good imagination and an ability to push the right buttons, everything is possible. In the end there was both — positive feedback and also people who were confused. I was watching this all during 2 days from the height of a light booth and it seemed to me as some kind of a social experiment. The guests found themselves from an unknown environment, where they had to let things sit for a moment, before realizing how things work in the exhibition world they found themselves in. Some people were calmly observing and following the route, some seemed to need a constant action and wandered around the place whether it was darker or lighter in the room and didn’t bother to read or observe much detail. Add the awkwardness of wearing masks and trying to keep distance to the show. I hope we can arrange some different kind of “social experiments” in the future. What was the most interesting was to see and talk to people who would never have come to our album presentation if it ould have been as a typical gig format. In that regrd we were able to penetrate the borders of black metal!

And how would you explain our readers the whole concept behind such presentation?

Arhitekt arranged the installations (including his own ones) according to the space that was available in a way that each song from our album was connected to the certain art-installation (there was all sort of rforms presented: metal-sculpture, photography, clothes-design, surrealistic collages, etc.) and as one song was playing the lighting directed the focus to the installation that was connected to that, so there was a journery from one installation to another. In reality it worked out just as planned. People would just walk in and start their journey from wherever the focus was on at the moment and they could either complete the circle or just relax and listen, while resting on pillows.

Multimediality is being a huge part of the modern world: like we’re now used to watching-and-listening, or reading-and-listening stuff, not only in art. As for music, we’ve had the latest Beltez featuring a novel written ad hoc for it, we’re used to Igorrr‘s madness – both acoustic and visual – and we’ve gone through some pretty weird stuff, like Cara Neir‘s trip to pixel-land, which I wouldn’t mind listening while playing videogames. What’s your take on this topic?

I think this is how things should be. I cannot be a person with a simple task of reproduction and work. I want to know how stuff works, dismantle it and restructure it to something that might not even have a purpose to a normal human being. There has been a concept that thins the lines between music and film. Maybe we can inject music under our skin and change the perception of it forever. I found a guy in YouTube, who is growing fungi and attaching them to modular synthesizers. This is something similar I want to see and do.

The last year has made it quite difficult for musicians to perform live as well as for people to experience live music. How’s it been to present Aerosols And Dust Particles live in such an innovative location?

It was not actually live, though we were present there to keep things running. Both this exhibition and the release of Tarbathian Fortress has taught us how to manage teamwork and that deadlines are very important. A strong leader with a vision is important, who sees how everyone’s doing and whips when someone or part of the team needs to be stimulated. Even though we are all different, everyone has to do their part and not let the others down. Luckily, we managed to do this all with a good taste remaining in mouth afterwards. The people involved are excited to do more things like these together.