TOR-HELGE “CERNUNNUS” SKEI Discusses MANES, MANII, HØSTSOL, SYNING & More

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Norway’s Tor-Helge “Cernunnus” Skei is a creative genius whose highly varied body of work has already left what will prove a lasting impact on the music world. Although his elevated output has never been commercially oriented, revered creators like Tsjuder’s Nag and Shining’s Niklas Kvarforth understand the weight of his contributions. The latter stated the following in conversation with From the Bowels of Perdition”: “I’m in eternal debt to Cernunnus as he has played a major part in building my musical legacy…” Indeed, Cernunnus has influenced countless bands. 

Cernunnus founded the pioneering brutal, haunting, and ethereal black metal outfit Manes in 1992 as a side project to Atrox. Vocalist Sargatanas soon entered into the fold. Sargatanas and Cernunnus actually began collaborating in Perifa but discovered that they functioned best as a two-piece. Thus, this fabled duo crafted three historic demos — “Maanens Natt” (1993), “Ned i Stillheten” (1994), and “Til Kongens Grav de Døde Vandrer” (1995) — as well as a groundbreaking album — “Under Ein Blodraud Maane” (1999). After a hiatus, Manes emerged with a whole new lineup around Cernunnus and a genre-defying style that might seem radically different to most ears yet shares a definite inner link with the old material. Yes, Manes, an enduring vessel of authentic darkness, has always produced avant-garde art of the highest caliber and utmost integrity. 

Of course, both incarnations of Manes can be described as wildly inventive. They are distinguished by their rare and lethally potent magical qualities, all-consuming atmospheres, fearless exploration, lack of limitations, etc. Once gripped by the spirit of Manes, it is, in my view, impossible to break from the spell of this enigmatic entity. That said, Cernunnus has had a variety of other stellar projects over the years, such as the currently active experimental duo Lethe, of which the celebrated Anna Murphy is a part, and the black metal acts Syning, Høstsol, and Manii — a mighty force that arose in 2011 and represents Cernunnus’ creative reunion with Sargatanas.  

Between Manii’s “Innerst i Mørket” and Høstsol’s “Länge Leve Döden,” Cernunnus had an absolutely incredible year. In the black metal world, he put all but his bandmates and a couple of other esteemed voices to shame. However, it would be impossible to properly sing Cernunnus’ praise given the transcendent nature of his art. Thus, without further ado, we present the results of our discussion with the master himself.  

This September, you unleashed the sublime masterpiece that is Manii’s “Innerst i Mørket, which MetalSucks rightly gave a 5/5. Of course, I adore the album and believe that it represents a very special moment for black metal. Could you please take me through the creative process for this effort in terms of composing both the music and the lyrics?   

Thanks. The process wasn’t very different from the usual way I make music, really. I make small bits and musical pieces, all kinds of forms and styles, all kinds of instruments or source material all the time, always in create-mode, very seldom in consume-mode. Once in a while, a collection of these “sketches” (as I call them) feels like it kind of belongs together, and I begin working with it as a unity, as one thing. Up until this, it can be riffs, simple synth chords, samples, cut-up loops, or field recordings… anything, really. But as soon as the various ideas have a “purpose,” I rebuild much of it from scratch, turn synth parts into riffs, remove samples, write lyrics, etc. to shape it into whatever it wants to be. 

Each band or project additionally has its own “flavor,” its own mood or sound… something that belongs to that project or band. Manii has this mental thing, where I need to be in a certain mood when creating states, which usually isn’t very pleasant to be in for longer periods of time, so I tend to work in short but intense bursts. 

Never liked to talk about lyrics. They’re there to create a mood, an atmosphere, to enhance and add to the music. 

I would like to note that Sargatanas gave what I believe was the year’s greatest black metal vocal performance, besides those of Niklas Kvarforth and Vicotnik, on “Innerst i Mørket.” Obviously, you and Sargatanas forged Manes’ classic and highly influential black metal content together. Is there anything that you would like to say about the evolution of your musical partnership with him?   

I joined Perifa for a while when he was singing, and he followed me over to start Manes. He totally understands what I want with the music, and I know exactly what he wants to do with the vocals, how he will be singing on riffs. It’s a perfect match. We don’t really have to talk much about it or discuss how things should be done. It just fits perfectly. It’s been over 30 years, so, naturally, things have changed: the sound of his voice, how we record, what we want to do and express… But I think it has continually evolved for the better! 

For the first time in Manii, you were joined on drums by Whoredom Rife’s V. Einride, a fantastic fellow Trondheim-based artist. Whoredom Rife has covered Manes’ “Maanens Natt.” I also know that you and V. Einride work together in Syning along with Levninger of Knokkelklang and Askeregn. Thus, I assume that there’s much understanding between the two of you. He added the perfect touch to Innerst i Mørket. How was the experience of collaborating with V. Einride on the album? 

Bornyhake played drums on the second album (The first was a drum machine.) and the ‘Skuggeheimen’ single, and he did a great job, absolutely! But it’s so much easier to work with people living in the same place as you, and, also, the new material needed a little bit different drum style. So, Ole suggested V. Einride for the new album, and I thought it would be perfect… 

And it was/is… By the way, I have played with V. Einride before… a long time ago… back when Keep of Kalessin were interesting (ouch), I played guitar for them at a gig here in Trondheim. 

How was Innerst i Mørket recorded? Was any of it done live?   

It was recorded in my own “facilities” (i.e. my living room), except vocals and drums, which were done at V. Einride’s place… We did it separately… First, I did the demo, as always, with drum machines and my own crappy “vocals.” Then V. got a version with the drums replaced with just a click, or cowbell or something, to keep the timing during the ambient and floating parts… And he recorded the drums and sent back the separate tracks. Then me and Sarg went to V.’s place a couple of times and recorded all the vocals. Then I took everything home and started mixing, replacing synths, re-recording guitars and bass, did some “mastering,” etc. 

Both Manii and Syning are signed to the legendary Terratur Possessions, which I believe to be the top black metal label besides The Sinister Initiative. Terratur is, of course, the brainchild of Ole A. Aune, who assisted with Manes’ magnificent “Ihjelbrent Skatt” (2022) box set, the die-hard version of which includes material from your former zine, Stigma Diabolicum.” Could you kindly tell me about working with Aune — one of the most important figures in the black metal community?  

Smooth and easy. Not much nonsense, no soaps with logos, or action dolls. He’s been very supportive and, actually, was quite an important part in getting me motivated to make more “obscure” music again. 

I really love Syning. I do want to emphasize that Levninger is a criminally underrated talent: Some believe that Knokkelklang’s Jeg Begraver (2018) is one of the greatest black metal records ever made. Syning (2021) is no less excellent. I’ve read that Syning came about naturally, but I was wondering: What was the black spark that inspired it?  

I had a couple of quite long tracks that I wasn’t sure what to do with and sent them to Ole. (I often send bits and pieces of music around to different people.) We started talking a little about it, and since I had just told him how much I loved Knokkelklang, he suggested Levninger for the vocals (and acoustic guitars)… And V. was perfect for the drums. I originally thought of it as a Manii album, but I felt it had a bit different feel to it, less mental, a different kind of grimness, so it had to become something different. 

As far as Manes is concerned, I know that you’ve completed a new record, which, I assume, will be coming out at some point via Debemur Morti Productions. I’m really excited to hear it! Is there anything that you would like to share about it or any of Manes’ other future plans in advance?  

Manes has turned into this slow-moving behemoth, always taking far too long between releases. The last few years messed up more things, but we didn’t stop making music. We have a bunch of stuff more or less finished now. We have this remix album that should have been released just after “Slow Motion,” but then the pestilence came, then the Russia thing… Maybe we will just post it on the net somewhere just to have it out and available. 

We have a new album that is currently being mixed, and we just started on a single/EP series that you will hear more about early next year. The album will not be released by Debemur Morti… Lethe was also signed there for the first album, which they did a great job with… But they did things I can’t accept, so I’m not working with them anymore. We are looking around… Some interesting proposals and possibilities have popped up, but we will finish the album on our own terms first and then start talking with labels… maybe think about licensing instead of a trad “deal”… or something… who knows?! 

I’m really fascinated by your Manes bandmates. Asgeir Hatlen has an absolutely incredible and bewitching voice. Torstein Parelius is a filmmaker and great mind. Rune Hoemsnes and Eivind Fjøseide are also terrific. What would you like our readers to know about your experience working with this outrageously talented group of people?   

It’s an “eclectic” mix of people, yeah… Different backgrounds, different opinions, very different musical tastes, different ways of working and thinking… Kind of strange that we have kept together for more than twenty years now since we’re so very different, but maybe this contrast or friction is what makes Manes what it is. 

Manes’ Slow Motion Death Sequence,” one of my favorite albums, turned five this year. In addition, as you more or less just noted, the equally phenomenal “Vilosophe” celebrated its twentieth anniversary. “Vilosophe was your groundbreaking first non-black metal release, though you had been experimenting with electronics long before its unveiling. The album received stellar reviews right away. For example, Germany’s “Legacy” correctly gave it a 15/15. Are there any memories that you would like to share from the time period surrounding “Vilosophe”?  

Yeah. Lots of people were soooo disappointed, calling us sellouts and whatnot, as we expected. For quite a long time, we did think about finding a new name… But, well, who cares?! It’s just a name. People will associate it with whatever they want anyway. 

I had just moved back from Oslo, where I had been living for a year and a half (programming graphics for video games) and was completely disillusioned with music and everything and had no idea what I wanted to do… Started talking with a few people, showing them some of the ideas I had been collecting during the last few years. We added some of the others’ ideas, and it kind of grew naturally… And it morphed into (neo-)Manes. We recorded it in Skansen here in Trondheim in quite a short time, a week or so, I think, or maybe two. During this, we also played some gigs, and after the album, we did a round of festivals, playing at some of the (at that time) major metal festivals in around Norway… to some surprised reactions from the metal crowd that didn’t know that we were a bit different than before. 

Høstsol’s debut, Länge Leve Döden,” which officially dropped on January 13 and earned a 10/10 from “Metal Injection,” is yet another one of my most highly regarded albums of all time. Høstsol is, of course, a supergroup that features you on guitars; Shining’s Niklas Kvarforth on vocals; ex-Shining and Ajattara’s Rainer Tuomikanto, who replaced Mayhem’s Hellhammer on drums; as well as ex-Barathrum and Ajattara’s Kalmos on bass. I know that Kvarforth has spoken on this topic, but, in your own words, could you please explain how Høstsol came into being and also how Länge Leve Döden gradually took form? I understand that you wrote all of the music. 

Yeah… Me and Niklas often send music we’re working on back and forth between us, so I sent him a demo of the entire album. Like I mentioned earlier, I often make some kind of demo using drum machines and do some crappy vocals myself just to give people an impression of what I’m thinking about… Same thing with this… I had the album “finished,” sent it to him, and he immediately loved it, so we started talking about getting a proper band started and recording it properly… Niklas got the job of “recruiting” the other people. Initially, it was planned to have Hellhammer on drums, yeah, but (according to Niklas) he pulled out… So, Rainer took his place… And I think it was absolutely for the better… Kalmos too came in after Niklas talked with him… I had played some pretty “wild and hysterical” bass on the demo, and he did a really great job “interpreting” my nonsense. I played all the guitars and synths. 

The guitars and the synths amaze me every time! The synths have such a cinematic feel, as a lot of your work does. The lyrics to Länge Leve Döden are brilliant and have continued to plague me over the course of this past year. Kvarforth composed most of them in Swedish, but Tuomas Tahvanainen penned the text to the English-language first track, As Seen Through the Eyes of the Prophet.’ What was your reaction to hearing the album’s lyrics for the first time?  

I knew exactly what to expect, so it was no surprise. I loved them from the first moment I read them! 

I really appreciate Kvarforth both as a truly inspiring person and an unsurpassed musical genius like yourself. He told “Metallerium” that he has listened to Manes every day for the past 25 years, except when circumstances have prevented him. You noted that you send music back and forth. I’ve also heard Kvarforth mention that, at a certain point, you sent him an MP3 player full of unreleased material that he crafted and recorded lyrics for. Both he and Xasthur’s Scott Conner, another great person, helped you bring some old Manes demo material to life many years ago. Could you perhaps shed some light on your friendship with Mr. Kvarforth through the years? What do you love most about this impossibly endearing character?  

My first contact with him was back in the old demo days, I think, and we’ve kept in touch on and off since then, sometimes with years in between, sometimes more often. I think both me and him look at life, not from the same angle, but from the “outside,” maybe… inner demons, not a very positive view on the current state of the world, not really fitting in anywhere, but not really wanting to either? “Like barn leker best” [proverbial meaning: “birds of a feather flock together”], maybe? I don’t know… 

“Länge Leve Döden” was mastered by King Diamond’s Andy La Rocque, and the stunning artwork was created by Tuomas Tahvanainen of Cold Prophet. Tahvanainen actually runs The Sinister Initiative together with Niklas Kvarforth, who founded this diabolical entity in order to liberate himself from the chains of incompetent and money-hungry labels. Fortunately, The Sinister Initiative released “Länge Leve Döden” in conspiracy with Avantgarde Music. Please fill me in on the joys of working with TSI!  

To be honest, not much different than with other labels. I prefer to stay as much out of the administrative side as possible. As long as people do their side of the bargain properly, everything is fine. 

Kvarforth appears on Lethe’s ‘Transparent, which is a haunting track, but there is also some brightness that kicks in. I really enjoyed hearing Kvarforth in that context because he has such a beautiful voice that’s suited to so many types of music. But, of course, your collaborator Anna Murphy is amazing! I believe that you have another Lethe album on the way. What can listeners expect?  

Yeah, I don’t actually remember how that song came to be, if it was him asking or me… Anyway, I was very positively surprised by the result! And I think it fits very well! About Lethe… depends… It’s not metal, more electronic and experimental, trip-hop, but, also, there’s a bunch of distorted guitars! It’s a “bastard”…  I have no idea how to categorize it… We got additional help from some amazing musicians and vocalists, but I can’t say much yet. It’s more or less good to go now. The album is mixed and mastered. The cover is almost done. The video and single(s) are being prepared. 

Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you would like to discuss?  

Never take what I say in public or on the internet very seriously. Personal me and public me are two quite different people… and… I’m glad you didn’t ask what I think about modern black metal…  

Find some of Cernunnus’ work below:  

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