Looking through the vast lands of Asia, we’re coming – for the first time, but definitely not for the last – to Vietnam. Because, what we know about Vietnam? A thing or two, but musically speaking? Personally, nothing. So, it’s obviously even more enticing to go and their local scene.
Helping me in my exploration is Hiếu (also known by his moniker, Imperial Cult), one of the co-founders of the label House of Ygra, the Vietnamese metal label, and also the guitarist for the Vietnamese black metal ensemble Elcrost.
Hello, Hiếu, thanks for your time doing this interview! How are you doing these days?
Hello, thank you for reaching out, I’ve been doing great, we’ve been busy working non stop since May, doing shows, touring, and releasing albums through my label. It’s stressful sometimes but the experience has been quite rewarding
Oh, you just gave me the ammunition to ask a lot of questions, haha…however, as I’ve said…the Vietnamese metal community and scene is a big enigma for me, therefore, I really appreciate your help with uncovering it not only for me, but also for the readers and metal fans around the world! So, what’s the current situation of Vietnamese metal? How would you describe its current state?
So with every regional scene, there’s always rise and fall. Extreme metal has existed in Vietnam for a long time, mostly congregrate in 2 big cities, Hanoi (the north) and Saigon (the south). Saigon had its hey day 10 years ago or so when Loki, a very prolific musician started the death metal scene, with bands surrounding his label, Bloody Chunks. They toured around South East Asia and was concurent with the rise of brutal death metal in South East Asia then.
But that scene disappeared after 3 4 years when Loki slowed down his output, by now the Sourthern scene has completely gone, except for just a few bands. Nowadays Saigon is the place for mostly hardcore/metalcore/punk bands.
In Hanoi, where i live, i never felt like we have a proper scene for a long time, even in its peak its mostly very young bands that were associated with college clubs, so they mostly play covers and i never really feel like they embodied the extreme metal spirit, but when i started my black metal band, Elcrost in 2019, the scene took a turn, with a lot of bands started at the same time, and now i would say Hanoi scene is very lively.
Interesting! Now, let’s get a walk through the memory lane and talk about the beginnings of metal music in Vietnam… do you know who was the first ever Vietnamese metal band?
So I’ve been in the scene from 2014, and its hard to define and say which is the true “first” ever metal band. Because in Vietnam, there was never a focus on recording and releasing music, either because of the limited resource in the past, or the band just never bother try. So because of this poor documentation, to me as a younger listener, i also too don’t know which band is truly the “first”. Speaking of extreme metal only right, because you can also call softer mainstream rock bands “metal”, some of the first metal bands are from Saigon, they were Sagometal (heavy metal), Atmosphere (thrash metal), and the first ever black metal band (because black metal is my usual zone) in Vietnam is probably ROT, Loki’s first band.
Well, let’s talk bout your efforts in the Vietnamese underground… you have already mentioned being busy doing shows, being a musician etc…which came first? Hieu the musician or Hieu the event organizer?
Hieu the musician, absolutely. Like i have mentioned above, i started Elcrost along with my band mates, originally as a studio only project. Because we love black metal and we want to record music together, never even thinking about playing shows and such. But after the release of our first album, we got a lot of positive feedbacks from the local scene, and people asked for us to play live, only then we assemble a complete band. After that, i realize that our direction as extreme metal musicians were a bit different from the rest of the scene you could say, so i want to find people/friends to hang out with and to release music together that share our value. So we started the label House of Ygra, and right from the start we got support from Vong, another black metal band and Revasseur, a melodic death metal band. After that, we see that there’s almost no promoter left in Hanoi, so we book our own show, then we we organize our own releases, and the rest came after. At first we just do that out of necessity, but as time went on and we became the focal point of the Hanoi scene, so i suppose it is now our job.
Good that you’ve mentioned it before I could ask 🙂 House of Ygra. First of all..what is the significance in the name of the label…what or who is Ygra and why this choice of a label name?
Ah so i’ve always been a fan of comics, especially old horror comics from the 50s 60s and later a comic imprint called Vertigo. They have a series called House of Mystery, and i always like the format of that name. When we came up with the name of the label, i want it to be “House of …” and one of the co-founders suggested Ygra, shortened from Ygramul, apparently its like a character from the series The Never-ending story. I never really bother to check it out, but i like the name, and Ygramul is a shapeshifting monster or something with the nickname of “the many”, i like that it represents how we are a black metal first label, but we could diversify ourselves and not just limited to that one genre.
Ah! I see…well, I have never got the access to comics when I was youngster, so those kinda eluded me…but at least I know the name of Vertigo imprint…they did Hellblazer, if I am not mistaken… Neverending Story..is that connected with the famous book/movie?
Yeah! Correct, Hellblazer was one of their flagship series. It’s a horror/alternative comics label from the 90s, very gothic, very poetic so it fits with my vision of my music and art. Yeah Never-ending story got adapted to a movie, but once again i never check it out
Oh, the original movie is still one of my favorites! As for live shows..how hard is it for underground musicians in Vietnam to find a local place to organize a live show? As metal is not a mainstream genre in Asia (I assume), what reaction do you get from your local neighbours?
The problem is always the venue itself, most venues are either not suitable for extreme loud music (in terms of gear, how they design the room) or they just straight up hate metal music, because of this prejudice that metal musicians are destructive, they would ruin gear, they are problematic, starting fight, etc … which is not true at all. I know that in the past there were lots of shows that got cancelled by the local police midway through, not because rock or metal are banned or anything but the venue is not insulated enough so they got noise complain. Nowadays we have it a bit better as there are some venues who are friends with us or tolerate us, namely HRC (Hanoi Rock City) a mid size venue that has been running for a long time and HUBxGRA, a smaller bar. So running show has been quite smooth.
It seems to me that your gig organizing goes from success to success…How’s the line-up for a particular show decided? Because lately you’ve hosted gig with Thailand grindmasters Smallpox Aroma (shoutout to our bro Polwach!) and something tells me you have fingers also in the upcoming event hosting the famouse grinders Wormrot, these are not insignificant bands, quite on the contrary! And mentioning the famous…do they act like stars? Let’s gossip! 🙂 🙂
Thank you, it’s great to see that the current streak of shows has been great, but it was not ever the case. We have bombed a show before and it was a hard lesson to learn from, as we have been promoting shows only for more than a year. In terms of how shows are decided, i hate how in the past “metal” show in Hanoi would have bands that are not “extreme metal” in the line up, and for obvious reason that there were not enough bands. But we are in a position now that can curate the line up a bit. I see shows are also a tool to educate the listeners, as lots of our followers are young adults who are new to the genre. I would do a “black metal” only show and show them what is black metal, or do a grindcore/death metal show so they would know the differences between each genre.
In terms of international bands, it’s mostly by chance and timing as well…So I met Polwach for the first time last year when i traveled to Thailand, through a mutual friend of ours. And i came to really like all of his bands, I know that Smallpox Aroma just released an album, so thats a good excuse for me to ask him to come over and play in Hanoi. It was great, and the bands are super super nice, very down to earth, no rockstars haha … and they play tremendously, that show with Smallpox is one of the best extreme metal shows in Hanoi in a long time!
For Wormrot, it’s also by chance, i was offered the gig by Sergey, a drummer for Cut Lon (a crossover thrash band from Vietnam, and arguably the biggest metal band in Vietnam right now). He will host their show in Saigon while we do the show in Hanoi. I haven’t met or talk to the band yet so i don’t know how they are, but i’m excited to meet them and see them to play in the flesh.
Well, why am not surprised! I need to talk to you about it when the gig is done!!! But now we’re coming to the another important topic – and we can’t avoid the topic, haha! When people think Vietnamese black metal, they tend to think Vothana. Not to dwell on this topic or controversy for long (as there is no need), but we will talk about the native Vietnamese black metal – you’ve mentioned coming to the underground circles in 2019 with your band Elcrost… so let’s talk about the band! And yes, I am repeating this kind of questions in almost every interview I do, but for me it’s fascinating to read/hear people’s stories….so, how did you get into the metal music? What was your “gateway” band and album?
I got into the “general” metal music around 6th grade i think, so around 2008, through mainstream bands like Slipknot and such. The music and the angst appeared to me as a younger kid. From then i checked out all the canon stuffs like Metallica, Slayer, Lamb Of God, those kind of bands. But to me the “true” start in extreme metal came a few years after when i heard Opeth for the first time. Still to this day it’s my favorite band of all time and i still remember being blown away when listening to Blackwater Park. Some of the bands that i help me move further to the underground scene are Katatonia (with the album The Great Cold Distance), Type of Negative (with October Rust) and Cult of Luna (with Vertikal).
For black metal, the first band i ever listened to was Emperor, In the Nightside Eclipse.
…a true classic, yes!
I remember that i have tried to listen to a Burzum song before or Freezing Moon by Mayhem and it sounds bad, coming from this Opeth, high production side, i hate black metal at first. But Emperor i really like because they have the symphonic/progressive side, and the music is not so bad to listen to.
Ater that, i discovered post-black with bands like Alcest, Agalloch, and people might hate them but Deafheaven and Cradle of Filth (with CoF now being one of my favorite bands of all time) From then i started to ease into black metal a lot more, it also helps that the early stuffs from Opeth and Katatonia also had a lot of black metal elements
Well, obviously, lo-fi black metal is a different league than the high art as Emperor or later Mayhem and other bands play…but I am still an early Mayhem and Burzum fan …however, And talking about Elcrost..let’s talk about it a bit more, in a more detail…so, can you introduce us to the band’s current line-up?
So the current line up of Elcrost consisted of me under the moniker of Imperial Cult, i play guitar and sing backing vocals. Rogdan, who’s the lead vocalist and the second guitarist (who also has another black/death band called Blood Serpent) and Axe, our bassist. Me and Rogdan are original members and we share songwriting credits. Axe came a year later when we started looking for live member and he has remained with us ever since. He came from a very prominent black metal band called ROT. We bounced between different drummers. Our first drummer was Sergey from Cut Lon, and then we had a long stint with Abyssal, a younger guy from the scene, and our current drummer is Storm, the drummer for ROT as well and a legendary figure from the scene. When i was away abroad for the first year of our live show, a guy called Viridian stepped in as fill in guitarist for a year.
I guess the musical influences are well stated in your previous answers…what can you say about lyrical themes? Black metal can be many things nowadays….
Well those are my early influences, but Elcrost is the creation of both me and Rogdan, so we had a share source of inspiration and individual input from each of us. As a whole we play melodic/progressive black metal influences by Opeth, early Ulver, Dissection, Dawn, Agalloch, Rogdan also loves the cold Icelandic black metal scene with bands like Mystherming, while i like gothic music and goth/black bands like Cradle of Filth, Tiamat, Katatonia…
For lyrics, i’m the main lyricist. In the beginning we just have a general idea for lyrics, about forest, tragic stories, black metal tropes and such. But now we are more defined, i’m particularly influenced by the decadence movement, decadence art, i like to write stories with sexual imagery, debauchery, Greek mythology, influenced by guys like Rimbaudt, Baudelaire.
Image is important – do you consider yourself a black metal traditionalist, you know..spikes, fires, corpsepaint?
Not a traditionalist like that, no. To me black metal is the music of one’s ego, to stay true to who you are, to have a certain attitute towards the world. Some of my favorite bands like later Dissection, they don’t dress over the top but you know the spirit of black metal embodied with them. Some bands choose to be theatrical with smoke and mirror and that’s fine with me, as long as they stay true and not trying to chase a trend and parading black metal like a joke. I can’t speak for anyone about what they should consider this genre to be, i like to keep it simple let the music do the talking. To me spikes, fires and corpsepaint are irrelevant in my expression of black metal.
It will be hard to ask which release of Elcrost is your favourite…however, which one do you consider most memorable to you? Any interesting memories from the recordings of individual releases? And talking about the music releases…Elcrost and regarding to the reception to your musical output.. how well is it received on local and international level?
For the question of which one is my favorite, i have the easy answer of “our latest” one. To me that’s a good answer as it shows you still enjoy what you’re doing now much more than what you did in the past, and it shows that to you at least, you are still growing as composer, as musician. So not counting the current songs for the upcoming album that me and Rogdan are writing together, i would say the latest split we put out with Vixenta as our favorite. We have experimented with our sound from the first album and our EP, and with those 2 songs from the split, we truly felt like we have come together and discovered the poetic essence of Elcrost.
For interesting stories … I would say the debut album was memorable to make. Back then i still lived abroad and only came back to Vietnam for like a few months, so with that limited time together, me and Rogdan wrote and recorded the album together (along with then third member Nemo) and whatever we recorded stay on the album due to time constraint. So we felt like songs would go on and on in direction that we didn’t expect, it was more in the moment, spontaneous. Looking back now some of the decisions were horrible but we still find it interesting.
For the reception … the first 2 releases did okay, it did well in the local scene but we received less from abroad, understandable why because Vietnam is not such a prominent place for metal. But with the split, we got much better reception and it was later released through Pest Productions, so we got much more exposure abroad. And i like it that many of those receptions are for the music, and not the novelty that we are a Vietnamese band.
The major problem for, I guess, all of us, is the enormous rise of the postage costs to buy and sell merchandise. How you deal with this situation – Is your material available in distros in Europe, or you distribute everything through the label exclusively?
Yeah, so that has been a huge problem for us as a label, even without the cost increase from the pandemic, sending stuffs from the Vietnam post is an abysmal process. In Vietnam, CDs are considered to be sensitive content as they always want to censore or check what’s inside the disc, it’s just a goverment thing, and i think you can tell it’s not easy to explain to them why we are sending out extreme graphic blasphemy music. So i either have to bribe them, or find post office with workers who don’t care to get by with each international order. We also tape trade with other labels so our CDs are available worldwide. In Japan you can get it from Zero Dimensional or Obliteration Records, in the US you can buy it from Nuclear War Now! In Europe we used to have some stock at Iron Bonehead but i think it might be sold out. We also work with other labels in the region like Non Self Supremacy from Thailand for some limited distribution.
The end of 2023 is getting closer…what plans do you have in store for the band, the gig event organizing and the label?
So like previously mentioned, we have the Wormrot show this September, which is our last big show of the year, we might do some smaller gigs with local bands after. In terms of label releases, 2023 has been a busy year for us as we released 5 different CDs, and we still have maybe 3 more to go. For Elcrost, after our show in Thailand, we played one more homecoming show last month and now we’re focusing on writing for the next album
I have to say, though…that while I usually write and explore the realm of extreme music, I am also a fan of mainstream music of all genres…OK, most of the genres :)…I’ve already notice few bands you’ve mentioned I had not been aware of…but for the curious music explorer…what non-UG bands and artists would you recommend to anyone interested in discovering modern Vietnamese music? Rock, heavy metal stuff…and thinking about this question…do you have something like V-pop in Vietnam? You know, like K-pop in Korea?
We do have V-pop in Vietnam and its a very popular thing here, i don’t know much about it because i’m not into those music so unfortunately i can’t tell you haha. But i know that in the past it came from the post-war era, then morphed into the 80 90s pop, during the 2000s a lot of artists were inspired by pop music from China and in the 2010s they were influenced by the Western music and K-Pop as well.
Aaaaah, now I need to browse the internet for more info, haha…coming to the end of this wonderful interview…any final message to the readers of Indokult?
Thank you once again for conducting this interview. For the readers, i hope that through this interview you have a more insightful look into our scene and the music that we made.
House of Ygra FB: https://www.facebook.com/House.of.Ygra
House of ygra IG: https://www.instagram.com/house.of.ygra/
Elcrost FB: https://www.facebook.com/elcrostblackmetal
Elcrost IG: https://www.instagram.com/elcrost_blackmetal/