Ria Wigley from Karnstein: An Interview

Ria Wigley is a musician from Canterbury, UK.

With Karnstein, Ria is exploring a range of harsh music ranging from death/doom and goth to keyboard-tinged black metal. The band's Apocalypse Demo is a perfect place to start with their sound.

Weirding: I was listening to your songs on the Plague Upon Four Houses EP and love how you blend the very early death/doom guitar sound with so many other elements. Listening to it is like watching live theatre on stage and I find myself paying attention to the little things going on in the background all the time. Talk to me about your songwriting processes. How do these pieces come together?

Ria: I'm very happy to hear that it had that effect on you, because that's exactly the kind of experience I hoped to impart with those four songs. I absolutely love when bands have a sense of theatrics and storytelling with their music, and one of the reasons I started this band was to do my own version of that. It's actually one of the reasons we never have a verse-chorus-verse structure and only infrequently repeat a riff. Because the songs are structured more like symphonies in that regard, or even video game soundtracks. 

In terms of the actual songs themselves, 'Unholy Transition' and the first half of 'To Laura From Carmilla...' were written as one song way back in 2008. I was sixteen. Back then I had all the time in the world and would write all sorts of weird stuff. And the decent stuff just stayed in my head all this time. When it came to doing a split, that song immediately came back to me as something that would work really well for it. But we split the keyboard intro into a separate song which became 'Unholy Transition' and we extended the death/doom part into its own song, which became 'To Laura From Carmilla'. 

That was kind of how the idea of making all four flow continuously came together. And lyrically I was starting to cement a theme because ‘Vampire's Pain’ was already a song we were working on right before the pandemic hit. That one actually dates all the way back to 2010 or 2011 because it actually comes from Dark Theory, which is the band myself and our keyboardist Brett were in years ago.

I can't really remember why but we decided we wanted to bring that one back and rework it as a Karnstein song, so what was originally a pure gothic doom track got this big infusion of black metal and an extended outro that flowed into 'Unholy Transition'. Initially it was just going to be those three songs and then maybe something more ambient to end off, but I ended up re-writing the ending of 'To Laura...' multiple times. 

Weirding: And that evolved.

Ria: At first it had really simple guitars and the keys took more of a lead, but it didn't feel interesting enough so we scrapped it and I put in something more guitar focused. But it still wasn't right so we shelved it for a few weeks. In that time, I ended up listening to the most recent Venom Prison and Paradise Lost albums, which inspired this much heavier yet sadder last couple of riffs that ended up really working for the song. After that I decided to see what it would sound like if 'To Laura...' went straight into an unused song that I had come up in the middle of lockdown. They flowed perfectly together, even though the end of 'To Laura...' is extremely sad and the start of 'Dance With Death' (as the song came to be called) was very aggressive.

Weirding: There are a lot of keyboard and synth ideas throughout your music.

Ria: I can't speak much for the keyboards, as other than 'Unholy Transition' very little of it was written by me. That was all Brett. I came up with the piano parts as I had been listening to some great gothic metal songs with prominent piano and wanted to incorporate some of that. As for all the strings, choirs, and weird stuff like the bell chime in 'Dance With Death', that was all Brett. I just sent him the metal tracks and he came back with all that over a period of a few weeks and it sounded great. 

Now that we had all that in place the last thing to come together was the lyrics, which were inspired by the book Carmilla. Just to briefly summarize the plot, it is about two young women, one called Laura and one called Carmilla, who come together and fall in love. But the twist is that Carmilla is actually an ancient vampire called Mircalla Karnstein — which as you may have guessed is where the band name comes from. This isn't explicitly revealed until right near the very end, although it is frequently hinted at throughout the book. 

In the end Carmilla/Mircalla is killed off-screen by a bunch of older men, most of whom have literally just entered the story. The ending always has frustrated me because up until that moment everything is building up to Carmilla confessing the truth to Laura — and the two of them going off into the night as the lesbian vampire queens I wanted them to be. So 'To Laura From Carmilla' is essentially fan fiction of how it might be if Carmilla returned from the dead — as vampires are wont to do — and laid her heart bare to Laura. The line 'You are mine; you shall be mine, you and I are one forever' is actually a direct quote from the original book. And I tried to keep the rest of the lyrics in the same general tone. 

Weirding: And the last song in that suite, 'Dance of Death'?

Ria: 'Dance With Death', despite being fairly aggressive, is essentially Carmilla's expression of joy at being together with Laura again as she chooses to become a vampire as well, and they go off to rule the night together. The original Dark Theory version of 'Vampire's Pain', as you'd expect from the name, is about how terrible it would likely be to live forever. When we reworked 'Vampire's Pain' and expanded the song for Karnstein, I made it more of an origin story for Carmilla. It starts off the same, with her being turned against her own will and hating existence, but then she rebels against her master and forges her own life. 

But of course, as all the best stories are, the songs aren't 'really' about what they're about.

'Vampire's Pain' is largely about gender dysphoria, or more specifically overcoming it and coming out stronger on the other end. This is re-enforced by the title of the instrumental track: 'Unholy Transition'. I thought I was being all clever with that name, tying vampire lore symbolically to a trans narrative. But upon re-watching What We Do In The Shadows for the third time earlier this year, I noticed it's actually something Nadja says in the series when she's helping a young vampire she had recently turned. So I guess the phrase was already in my head. 

With 'To Laura From Carmilla...' I pulled a lot from my own feelings of unrequited love. In 2019 I fell madly in love with a woman I had known since we were both in our early teens after seeing her again for the first time in years. That combination of feeling such strong attraction and admiration for someone who you know certainly doesn't feel the same way utterly devastated me — to the point that I don't honestly understand why I even felt so strongly, and sometimes still continue to do so. The song was a way of laying out some of those feelings, especially as I had barely been able to talk to anyone about them. 'Dance With Death' is much more positive, as it's basically about moving on with your life and embracing where you've come from — even if you haven't been able to work everything out yet. 

Weirding: Tell me a bit about your listening habits, I'm interested in what inspires you. Also, reading habits for that matter. The songs often have an episodic or literary quality to my ears. 

Ria: I think most of the bands I listen to won't surprise anyone all that much. There's a lot of black, goth, symphonic, death and doom metal for the most part, with a fair bit of sludge, thrash, grind and punk thrown into the mix as well. I also enjoy a lot ambient, noise, and experimental music, even some DnB, trip hop and rap, but I don't listen to those very frequently. 

In terms of stuff that's very relevant to the band, My Dying Bride, Cradle of Filth, Celtic Frost and Triptykon and some of the second wave black metal bands — mainly Darkthrone, Satyricon, and Mayhem — have always been huge influences ever since I was sixteen. 

Emulating some of the tracks off of Midian by Cradle was actually how I first started learning how to do extreme vocals. More recently Paradise Lost have been a big one too, the last three albums they've done are outstanding. Carach Angren make incredible theatrical black metal that I love and the super early death metal of Possessed, Death, and the first couple of Kreator releases have become increasingly influential on me. Batuskha have been more influential than you might think on this band as well. I saw them at Bloodstock in 2019, and they had the most incredibly atmospheric sound and presence — all dressed up in these bizarre orthodox church outfits, with a backing choir and a stage full of candles and incense. It was that set that made me go "damn I've gotta do something kinda like this". I formed the band a few weeks later. 

One band that is probably much less expected is Evanescence. I know that's super uncool and not metal of us but honestly, they're great. If you look past the obvious singles and go to tracks such as 'Like You', 'Snow White Queen', 'Haunted', or 'Never Go Back' there's some amazing songs there. I've found the lyrics and piano parts especially influential and they've helped me get through some bleak times. If you listen closely to The Open Door album in particular, you'll probably see we've got more in common with them than you might think on first listen.

A fair amount of video game music has wormed its way in there too, most prominently the Bloodborne soundtrack, which I love so much I actually own it on CD. The Silent Hill OST's are incredible too, whether it's the harsh industrial noise tracks or the anthemic alt rock themes, Akira Yamaoka's work is just incredible. Castlevania is one I feel I have to bring up too, particularly Symphony of the Night and the original NES trilogy. I could listen to those OSTs any time. Some of those moody Metroid OSTs have definitely influenced me to some degree as well I feel, mainly Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion, and the first two Prime games. 

The vast majority of what I listen to these days though are other underground bands that I've mostly met through Twitter. I've had the recent Rage of Devils, Everson Poe, Revered and Reviled Against All Others, Geten, and The Sun Came Up Upon The Left on repeat often recently, and I just listened to the new Aeons and Monuments for the first time. Highly recommend them all.

Weirding: You mention video game OSTs [ed. - Original Soundtracks]. I'm really interested in the relationship between and the blending of music with other experiences. Video games can be a perfect example when done well. I'm interested in what you look for in video game OSTs and how you see the relationship between the music and the experience you are having within the game — like thinking about it primarily as the player of the game.

Ria: It definitely depends on the game. You need the music to match — and often encourage — the gameplay. In general terms, you probably want a high energy very melodic and memorable looping track for a level in a linear platformer or most boss fights. But if that same kind of score was playing over the huge expanse of Breath of the Wild it would get grating really quickly, which is why that game has a way more ambient and laid-back OST. To get more specific, if you're playing Shadow of the Colossus and you get to one of the bosses, a sweeping epic score kicks up as you climb the monsters and engage in these huge, level-sized boss fights. But when you actually beat the boss, a really sad tune comes in as they fall to the ground slowly and this dark energy comes out of them. 

The contrast between what it's like fighting the boss versus what it's like actually beating the boss pretty much tells you most of the story of the game.

Weirding: The music drives the way you understand what has just happened. What you’ve just done. 

Ria: If the Final Fantasy victory theme played instead, it would be a totally different experience. Or for an example — and much more relevant to metalheads — take the heavy-as-fuck industrial metal soundtrack by Mick Gordon from the last two DOOM games. Mechanically speaking, they're constantly moving forward — if you stop and stand still to try and carefully aim you're gonna die. So instead, the game wants you to never stop moving — which it encourages with the glory kill mechanic which forces you to get close to a weakened enemy and rip and tear them with your fists to get health back. The end result is actually almost like a sort of mosh pit simulator, you're constantly circling around the violence — taking damage and punching your way back in a loose rhythm to the music until the song ends. 

Something I found very interesting in Mick's GDC talk from a few years ago is that the music was originally much faster and more akin to death metal, but it stressed players out way too much and the game became more frustrating. So he brought it back to this kind of mid paced chug sound.

Weirding: Could you see Karnstein creating an OST?

Ria: Absolutely! 

Weirding: What would it be like?

Ria: What a lot of people who only know me through the band don't know is that I'm actually an illustrator and hobbyist game developer. I released a game called A Squirrel's Tale on itch.io at the very start of 2019, which was a very simple Mario-style platformer that I put together over about nine months. It's really rough in a lot of areas as it was just a project, but I did in order to learn how to program. Nonetheless, there are definitely elements of it I'm pretty proud of — especially the chiptune soundtrack. 

Weirding: Do you have new games in the works?

Ria: I'm currently putting the finishing touches on a game called Destroy the Shogun, which is more in the vein of the early Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man, and Castlevania. Kind of like: “What if the Ninja Gaiden trilogy got an SNES sequel?” 

In terms of a Karnstein OST for a game, I actually have some loose ideas for a vampire-themed side scroller of some sort, maybe featuring instrumental or symphonic renditions of some of our tracks mixed with new stuff, as well as characters based on some of our lyrics. 

If I ever do something in that vein though it will be many years from now. Game development takes a long time after all. Something I am actually actively working on right now however is a comic book adaptation of the songs from our recent split, which as I've mentioned act as both a sort of prequel and sequel to the novella Carmilla. So consider this a sort of 'soft announcement' of that while I'm still working on the details. I really like the idea of Karnstein being some kind of multimedia band, but the line between 'brilliant' and 'pretentious' is really thin — especially when you're as small-time as we are currently. But I can at least do things that play to my strengths.

Weirding: So the game OSTs and the comic book, this gets at that literary quality of the songs.

Ria: I think we have an episodic or literary quality. That's something I've really strived to create with this band. I've already gone pretty in depth about Carmilla, but I'm always seeking out influence from various books, shows and films. The look and feel of classic 1990's gothic horror films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview With The Vampire, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have definitely been an influence on the general aesthetic and atmosphere of this band. With Dracula in particular — I'm talking about the 1992 one directed by Francis Ford Coppola — it's not much of a stretch to say that Gary Oldman's delivery as Dracula has influenced my vocals, and you can't understate how good the score is and how it enhances every scene. It's such a damn good film because it takes the events of the original book, which largely presents Dracula as a Satan-like personification of the Christian notion of sin and temptation, and adds this twist of relatable tragedy and lost love to the character. 

I feel similarly about those old universal horror movies, I recently watched Dracula's Daughter and The Wolfman and you could definitely put our music to scenes from those films and it would likely match up extremely well. 

Weirding: I could see that.

Ria: That's not to say it's only older films or even purely horror films I find relevant. Everything from Jennifer’s Body to Get Out to The Matrix to even the original Mulan has something I can relate to in some way — and that then gets translated into the song writing. 

I'm also really into video essays on YouTube relating to Queer subjects, especially around analyzing media or history. James Somerton, Rowan Ellis, and Jessica Kellgen-Fozard have all done really interesting videos amongst others. And applying that 'queer lens', as people say, to horror — and sometimes other modern stories — has very much informed our writing approach and the general vibe of the band. 

Podcasts such as Horror Queers and Girls, Guts, and Giallo are coming from a similar place too, and Hell Bent For Metal is doing much the same with metal music itself. In terms of literature, since the formation of this band I have read Dracula, Frankenstein, The Vampyre, various Edgar Allen Poe stories, part of The Werewolf of Paris and I've re-read Carmilla twice. Currently I'm making my way through a collection of short stories that came out around the same time as The Vampyre. I like to take notes while reading or watching things I might be potentially influenced by in an attempt to tap into that same kind of poetic rhythm and dual meaning. 

Weirding: Something I wanted to ask you about is that in describing the Apocalypse Demo I had seen that you mentioned not having been able to get studio time on account of the pandemic. Of course, it turned out that the recording that you all did put together sounds amazing. Could you describe what the recording and mixing process was like?

Ria: It was fairly simple really, all three of the main songs were ones we had practiced a fair bit pre-lockdown, which is why we chose to record them first. Essentially myself and our guitarist at the time recorded our parts separately at home on fairly lo-fi setups — which is fairly easy to do when you're recording to a drum machine. Unfortunately, our keyboardist had no way of recording at home at the time. And at the time we weren't expecting the pandemic to last nearly as long as it has. So, I did the keys using a digital keyboard. They sound pretty good but it would've been way better if we'd managed to get Brett doing it on an actual keyboard because you can hear the difference.

It's amazing the demo sounds as good as it does to be honest. My vocals were recorded on my phone — because I didn't even have a mic at the time. In terms of mixing, all I really did was adjust volumes and add some reverb in parts. I think we'll likely come back to these songs one day and re-do them in a way that will hopefully blow everyone away.


Ria Wigley of Karnstein

IG: @KarnsteinBand and Twitter: @KarnsteinBand

Bandcamp: http://karnstein.bandcamp.com

Recent release: A Plague Upon Four Houses

Games: rwillustration on twitter, RWigleyIllustration on Facebook, and Ria Wigley Illustration on Instagram.

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