In the growth of radical neofolk music, the band Alsarath has been a key staple in combing genre elements with its own revolutionary energy. Alsarath member Margaret Killjoy is a jack of all trades: musician (particularly of instruments she herself makes), writer, and survivalist. Her earlier black metal project Feminazgul, which had itself been on the frontlines of the antifascist black metal scene, has a new b-sides release called Mallacht, a 2020 album named No Future for Men , and a split with Awenden, where her and co-musicians Meredith Yayanos (Mer) and singer Laura Beach have created some disturbingly beautiful and atmospheric black metal that draws as much from neofolk as it does from other traditions. The album also has beautiful art by Trez Laforge, and their newest t-shirt design, which is shared below as well, is by the Portland based graffiti artist N.o. Bonzo.
We interviewed Killjoy, Laura and Mer about the history of this influential band, what drove this particular release, how regional folk music and traditions influence them, and how the experience of being an iconoclastic force inside of edge music has been for them.
How did Feminazgul first come together? Where does the name come from?
Margaret: The name is a play on the phrase “feminazi,” which gets levied against us women who actually desire to be free and equal and are vocal about it. There was an old joke, “I’m not a feminazi, I’m a feminazgul” (referencing the wraiths from The Lord of the Rings). Feminazgul started as a one-woman bedroom black metal project in early 2018. I recorded a three-song EP, The Age of Men is Over-–
Mer: –I’m a lifelong Tolkien nerd / sworn enemy of Limbaugh filth. When Margaret told me about that first EP, I immediately got the portmanteau. I was punching the air, cackling “YESSS, THE TIME OF THE ORC HAS COME.”
Margaret: I put it out into the world expecting nothing much to happen from it. It resonated, though. An explicitly feminist black metal band with a clever name and earnest music found an audience faster than I could have hoped. From there, well…
Laura: …in late spring of 2018, I met Margaret following a horrific breakup and I had just been abandoned in a city where I didn’t really know much of anyone. We met on Tinder of all silly places. We got to talking a lot about music and after a few months of knowing each other, I offered up my vocals. She took me on and it’s been a whirlwind of all sorts of excitement. And then in March of 2020, we added Mer…
Mer: …and I went covid-lockdown apeshit all over “The Rot In The Field Is Holy” and recorded some other fun stuff on No Dawn For Men. It was so satisfying to work with you both. I didn’t want it to end!
Was this an antifascist project from the get go? Why was it important to have that front and center?
Margaret: It was antifascist from the start, but really just by virtue of, well, I have a lot more experience with antifascist organizing than I do with metal. I’ve been into both for a long time, and the two have overlapped on more than one occasion, but I didn’t position myself or Feminazgul vdv as antifascist so much as consciously feminist–which of course includes antifascism.
Mer: Flavia Dzodan forever: “My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.”
Laura: I’ve always been hard left in my politics. So it makes sense for me.
Tell me a bit about the songwriting. How do you work on lyrics and music (what’s your process, what instruments do you use, how does the recording work)? What was different about the lyrics on this new release?
Laura: How I work with lyrics? Well if it’s me writing lyrics, after being given the subject matter, I will spend a lot of time researching said matter. After I feel like I’ve done enough research, I often just write down a bunch of sentences that sound really cool when spoken out loud. Essentially I literally just throw things at the metaphorical wall until one of them sticks. By then, Margaret has generally written a first draft of what she wants the song to sound like. I’ll probably listen to the song and its various incarnations of development, at minimum, 100 times or so to see what sounds best and just sort of mouth the words to myself and out loud during the writing process. Just you know, mouthfeel. But nothing’s ever truly set in stone until we get close to the song being finally done. As sometimes I’m scrambling for word order and/or word choice often until the very bitter end.
With the split, I didn’t do very much to be honest. At the time that we were writing it and recording it, I was basically working way too much in trying to make sure that my household was covered fiscally due to the pandemic. So on the split, Margaret wrote nearly all those lyrics. (I slipped in a few extra filler words though. Hehe.) And just did my thing about giving my harsh vocals where needed. How this relates to the new release? Before writing/recording, I made a promise to myself and everyone else that I would do more this time around. So when I was tasked to write lyrics about the Dearg-Due and Irish curses, I had lines and lines and lines written of what I thought sounded neat. I brought these lyrics to Margaret and we hashed out what fit and what didn’t. Feminazgul so far tends to work best with lots of long drawn-out words and syllables. So in the end and what you all see now is probably about half of what I wrote. Ahahaha. I think the first set of lines is the only thing that really survived the culling. But yeah. This time around I tried to jam a lot more words and phrases in and I think it worked out okay. I am definitely way more out in front in the mix for the new single and I have to show everyone what I can do with this voice.
When it comes to recording, I’m kind of a codependent little bitch in the sense that I like to have critical feedback during recording and also for someone to hit record for me as I’m screaming my guts out. Ahahahaha. Not to say that I haven’t recorded by myself but I just tend to work better when someone is with me. My deepest apologies to all those that have been subjected to this from me. Haha.
Margaret: For the music itself, most of the time it starts on piano. Piano is my favorite instrument to just fuck around on. I’ll find some chords that make me happy, then maybe a melody but not always. Bring that into a DAW and throw synth guitars over it, see how it sounds. If that works, start building out from there, with other parts, bridges, etc…black metal isn’t big on verse/chorus arrangement, which is very freeing, so it’s more like a bunch of different parts that come together in different ways. But I really like building everything off of solid, simple bones. Some of the songs are just two chords. Once I’ve put in the guitars and drums, sometimes I add more pieces, all the different weird folk instruments I’ve been building, then I pass it to Mer and Laura. Laura does amazing shit with the vocals and often the lyrics, and Mer, I don’t know, does weird alchemy to it.
Mer: [whispering] I am Chaos Grandpa.
There are some neofolk influences on the new album, what’s inspiring the new direction? Does your experience in Alsarath have any effect on that?
Margaret: I have another band, called Alsarath, that is more consciously a neofolk band. And yeah, that’s definitely been an influence… sometimes when I write things I struggle to figure out which band would do it better. But a lot of that folk direction, for my own part, is because I’ve been building instruments. I spent the last year alone, like so many people, and I just… started building folk instruments. And now I get to play them. And frankly a lot of the new direction is from bringing Mer on full time as a band member. She plays a million instruments, and it gives it all a beautiful feeling.
Mer: Thanks! I dig the organic textures of all your handcrafted witchyfae woodland instruments. I’m glad everyone’s down with tugging our sound in unexpected directions. I’ve been learning and making different kinds of music for forty solid years now. Hella middle-aged at this point and getting comfy with it, and I’ve realized that I don’t suffer from impostor syndrome anymore half as much as outsider fatigue. So I relish being a part of a project with folks who actively encourage me to lean into my Chaos Grandpa tendencies regarding genre.
Laura: Harsh vocals are pretty much all I have. Ahaha.
Mer: NUH UH. You’re not just a pretty face-melter!
Laura: I am trying to learn guitar and drums when time allows me but often with my busy schedule (the rent is too damn high, hence a two-job life. TT_TT ), it doesn’t occur as much as I’d like. But I do my best to try to not let myself piggyback off these two amazing musicians. So I am trying to do more and be more vocal so that I can feel that I am doing my best that I can with the tools that I’m given.
What does Mallacht mean? What about the Irish folk tradition felt alive for you in this album? What was some of the process that went into researching this?
Mer: “Mallacht” means “curse” in Old Irish. We drew inspiration from a Celtic mourning tradition known as keening. Deep, old roots. Margaret shared her desire to craft a cursing, keening song, and I immediately thought of my bestie, Kristine Barrett. K’s a transmedia artist who lives on a cozy houseboat in Sausalito, CA. Incredible singer, choral director, finds a lot of inspiration in feminine folk-art traditions. She’s currently working on her second Master’s degree in Folklore at UC Berkeley, and she’s a big ol’ Tolkien nerd as well. Her dog, who I’m besotted with, is named Gandalf. I gushed about her to the rest of the band, and they invited Kristine to come aboard as a guest vocalist and co-researcher/arranger on “A Mallacht”. When we sent K what the band had already put together (which was plenty hair-raising by that point!) the only direction was “contribute in whatever way feels best”. Kristine ended up recording something like 20 wailing, shrieking, full-on banshee vocal tracks down in the barge of her houseboat while Gandalf huddled on the bed disapprovingly. Those vocals, combined with Laura’s, make the song feel very brightly alive, but spectral, too. It’s a modern approach that pays direct homage to an ancestral deathing ritual.
Laura: I just went on the internet and searched for this Irish vampire story that Margaret had told me about. And thus, I found the Dearg-Due and her story. And also a few articles about the art of Irish cursing. And boy, the Irish are great at cursing.
Margaret: I’m descended from the Irish diaspora, from a few different places.
Mer: Same! Ireland and Scotland. Kristine as well.
Margaret: Some of my family came over during the famine, some of my family fled right before the civil war. As best as I can tell, a lot of my family fought in the Easter Rising… I met my great great uncle on his 100th birthday, and he’d been wounded in the fighting, and the records put an awful lot of people with my family name in jail for awhile as a result of trying to throw off British rule. I fell into a really deep rabbit hole this past year, thinking about what it means to be the descendant of people who fled colonization in order to come be colonizers, like I’m a colonizer myself. About what it means to reconnect to traditions, some of which were stolen from us by colonizers when they drove us from our lands, and some of which we abandoned to sign the devil’s deal to be accepted into whiteness. There’s nothing I can do individually to dismantle whiteness, and I don’t get to opt out or deny my position and privilege, but I’m excited to work to undermine that erasure by reconnecting with the traditions I come from. This song doesn’t owe much to what is traditionally understood as Irish music… maybe one day I’ll fuck with that, I don’t know. Instead it’s trying to tie into, yeah, the cursing, the mourning, the rage and sorrow, using the musical tools that I know.
How do folk traditions help and empower a feeling of resistance? What from Mallacht feels really relevant right at the moment?
Margaret: All music builds culture, right? And what those cultures stand for, and what those enmeshed in them do, is something that we all co-create. There’s some danger here… I was raised Irish Catholic, right? And Catholicism, when contrasted with the Protestant invaders, became something of a culture of resistance. Maintaining our own religion, which lets be honest is closer to paganism than most of the rest of Christianity, was important. Yet when Ireland had that half-revolution, I’ve heard people describe it as a theocracy after that. The Catholic church leveraged all that good will it had garnered by being the resistance religion in order to do all kinds of fucked up shit. And of course, Catholicism itself was a cultural import, really a sort of religious colonization, that had happened a thousand years earlier.
It’s never a good thing to look at folk traditions as if they are static. They are of course changing. That’s the beauty of them. The druids didn’t write shit down. They could have; we had writing. They chose not to. Mostly people say they did it to keep their shit secret, but I think they did it so that the traditions evolved, that each teacher and each student interpreted the lessons to their own context. And that’s the beauty of folk traditions. It’s not about learning anything by heart, music or poetry or any of that. It’s about interpreting your traditions and applying them to your own context. That’s part of why I fucking hate rightwing sentimental bullshit that tries to hearken back to some mythical past. We gotta do shit now, the way we want to. The folk tradition isn’t a script to be memorized, it’s a practice, a means of developing and continuing culture.
Mer: Kristine told us about how the mná chaointe of ancient Ireland were often described as disheveled and wild in appearance (barefoot, tangled hair), both feared and honored. She explained that “keening women were not simply responsible for guiding the living through grief, but for ‘sewing’ social fabric—stitching the broken body of the dead, family, and community back together again via encoded laments and performative deathing rituals. Lament was also a space for women to rebuke, curse, and express injustices, often towards those involved in the conditions that brought about death.” 2021 has been ripe for exploring collective grief, rage, resistance, transformation, release, etc, through songcraft.
What role does Appalachia play in the music?
Margaret: We call ourselves an Appalachian black metal band, because ⅔ of us live in Appalachia, and because the environment we’re in can’t help but influence our music. The summer storms, the humidity, the ancient mountains, old and worn… they’re where we live and where we songwrite. I suspect that more consciously Appalachian music is to come… I just finished building a mountain dulcimer a couple months ago, and songwriting on an instrument invented in these mountains feels good.
Mer: Whenever it’s time to make the next full-length record, I can’t wait to come out there and finally start co-creating in person! It’ll be helpful for me to get to know the land a bit better. Margaret, I’m especially looking forward to hanging out on the porch of your black triangle house in the middle of nowhere. Which, if memory serves, you built yourself?
Margaret: I did, yeah. Had help from my friends, of course, but it’s all built by hand.
There’s something sinister about finding my own Appalachian roots (I’m more Irish than Scots-Irish, but I’m ¼ Scots-Irish and part of my family has been colonizers throughout the south for hundreds of years). It’s sinister because it’s a folk tradition that’s born from colonization. It’s a complicated one, for sure, and that tradition is remarkably multiracial and there’s an awful lot of history of resistance in these hills… there was a whole civil war within the civil war fought in Appalachia to stop the racist fucks in the confederacy. Still, when the land speaks to me, I listen, as aware as I can be of my own position here, on stolen land.
Who does all the art on the merch and album cover?
Mer: So much badassery: Trez LaForge drew the harpies for No Dawn For Men, N.o. Bonzo created an abolitionist nymph for our side of the Awenden split, and there’s spooky bilateral symmetry courtesy of Satangirah for this release. Manfish did the wraith shirt. Melissa C. Kelly from Tridroid comes up with all the lovely cassette and LP designs for us.
Feminazgul feels kind of like a textured painting, and there is almost a feeling of isolation in it. What kind of feelings are you trying to evoke?
Mer: The woods, the fire, the wind, the water, the rutting earthly rot! Isolation, yes. A sense of exile. But also of communion, let’s hope? A rekindling of awareness of more atavistic ways of being. How to come back to the body. How to breathe. How to scream. Personally, I’m putting a lot of love into this project, blending it into the textures right alongside wrath and grief, because it’s impossible for me not to feel and express joy, working with these women, even though we’re exploring super dark stuff together.
Laura: For the most part, metal is primal and emotive. Feminazgûl has definitely been a place where I’ve channeled my depression, my rage, my frustrations, my losses, and various other feelings into. For me, it’s part therapy, it’s part art.
I’ve seen you get some harassment from some reactionary types in the metal scene.
Laura: I’m not going to lie, I do lurk a little bit in black metal groups on Facebook and boy, do I find some gems in those places. Some of our dumbest merch has been born out of people trying to dunk on us, but due to all of us being basically unflappable, and also with the support of our amazing fans, we usually end up turning it on those trolls.
Mer: Laura had a run of “BLACK METAL CHUD TEARS” mugs made. Sold like hotcakes.
Margaret: Yeah, I know this is arrogant, but I find it funny when people try to take us down. Like, some metalheads on another continent “declared war” on us. What the fuck does that even mean? How detached from reality do you have to be? I’ve got actual armed neo-confederates who live near me and publicize my address… sorry, random black metal nerds, you’ve got to get in line.
How has your reaction to your work been? Have you found strong musical allies?
Mer: Plenty of strong allies, for sure. Our label Tridroid Records has been superb. It was an honor to collaborate with Awenden on that split. Everyone involved with that big shiny Black Metal Rainbows book is awesome.
Margaret: Honestly the outpouring of support from within metal, even outside the RABM community, has meant so much to all of us and is a huge part about why the project continues to both exist and expand. For every random asshole who is like “nooooo, girls stay out of metal” or whatever, there are 20 or more people of all genders who are just so glad to see more women involved in extreme music.
Laura: I’m amazed at how far Feminazgûl has come from being a one-person bedroom black metal project to topping various charts and getting recognition from prestigious publications like NPR and Esquire. It’s wild to me and at times, it doesn’t feel real. But I’m thankful for every goddamn second of it.
What comes next? Are you playing live?
Margaret: Building out a live band is challenging, but we’re working on it. We’re a three-piece metal band without a guitarist or a drummer. So we’re recruiting a guitarist, bassist, and drummer, figuring out how to take such layered music and break it out to be playable by only six people. As if six people was a small band!
Laura: Margaret and I did play live a few times before No Dawn, but with lack of live instruments and a ton of backing tracks, it could be a bit underwhelming. But I feel we can make something out of the hired guns we have now.
Mer: We were supposed to play a handful of live shows as a six-piece, end of the summer. We were SO pumped for Shadow Woods Metal Fest, held deep in the woods, in Maryland. I bought bug pants and tied a thousand tiny bells to a ghillie suit for my stage costume. But I’m immunocompromised at the moment, and the big Delta surge meant there wasn’t any way for all of us to travel and perform safely, so we dropped off the bill. As of September, 2021, our focus as a band is figuring out the logistics of recording Feminazgûl’s first full-length album as an official trio, and more generally getting our feral asses better organized with help from our new manager, Mallory, who rules. A good band manager can make all the difference in the world, to be honest.
What about your other projects, Margaret with Alsarath and Nomadic War Machine, Meredith with Parlour Trick, Laura appearing in a new music video?
Margaret: I am in Alsarath with Jack, who lives in Canada across a border that has been closed for… 20 months or something? We’ve released one single during that time, and we’re both proud of it, but it doesn’t come close to what I think we’ll be capable of when we’re in the same room as each other. We wrote our first EP in a week, because we were offered a show. We write well together. And both of us have matured as musicians quite a bit in the intervening two years since we wrote Come to Daggers. So… my hope is we wind up with a full-length that’s like nothing either of us have ever made before, that’s like nothing people have heard before. Nomadic War Machine… the future is murky there. I’ve been moving in a synthpop and indiepop direction with that band, and I’m happy with it, but frankly the new stuff might not be Nomadic War Machine anymore. We’ll see, we’ll see. Feminazgul has been keeping me quite busy!
Meredith: Me too! Happily. (Harpily?) Also, Margaret, I really enjoyed recording violin and theremin on that Alsarath EP for you and Jack. Such a stark, beautiful thing. Other projects: John Fryer recently put out a Black Needle Noise single called “Machine” with Atta Salina– I contributed some strings. Right now I’m slowly cobbling together Jaws of Light– a compilation of disparate commissions and compositions and oddities created over the past ten years using The Parlour Trick moniker. It’ll be the first full-length album I’ve personally whelped since A Blessed Unrest. But the work I’m most eager to get back to is Cassandra, a double LP-length collaboration with co-composer Scott Gendel that’s been in the works since 2016. In early 2020, we were making plans for me to fly out to Madison, where Scott lives with his family, and finally record some of the songs he and I have been Dropboxing back and forth for years. Full, live chorus. Big chamber orchestra. Pipe organ. All gorgeously arranged and directed by Scott. Then the plague hit. We soon realized we couldn’t do Cassandra justice without bringing a whole bunch of bodies together in one place, breathing the same air, so I had to put the project on hold indefinitely. Fingers crossed, we’ll get back to her soon. I’m also finishing up a twangy folkish indie rock album with Last Valley, my duo with the luthier Sean Crawford, who I fell ass-over-tea-kettle for while we were remotely co-writing songs last year. We live together now. Life-in-concentrate and love-in-quarantine in the time of COVID-19.
Laura: I don’t really have any other projects… I mostly just hang around and do things. I constantly have ideas though. I’ve also got some things that I’ve done some guest vocals for that are still in the works. Not sure on their release dates and/or if I have permission to talk about them. I did some spoken word for Parasiticide. However… (old creaky voice) in the before times… a long while ago in 2019, I did shoot with the band, Summoner’s Circle, for their music video for “Chaos Vector”. I’m basically just having an existential meltdown following violent demonic possession whilst rolling around in mud and blood. Just really fun and wholesome stuff. I’ve known most of those people for well over a decade from my time growing up in Knoxville’s metal scene. I’m really thrilled to see how far they have gone/are going and I’m really just glad for the opportunity to appear in their video. As for anything else, I’m always generally down to talk about maybe doing guest vocals for other people’s projects. In the past, I haven’t exactly had the space for recording but now I do, so if people are interested, I’m here for it!
You can get Feminazgul’s new releases on their Bandcamp and can also listen to them on Spotify. We have added some new tracks to the Antifascist Neofolk Spotify Playlist, so make sure to follow that, and check out their release below!