Heidevolk Guitarist Bomenbreker Explains History Behind New Concept Album "Batavi," Discusses Diversity Within The Metal Genre
Talk about a broadening of multicultural horizons. Through a stirring new concept album (reviewed here) worthy of mention in a future "Global Metal" sequel, the members of Dutch act Heidevolk have paid creative and passionate tribute to the history of their regional ancestors. As the release of "Batavi" drew nearer, guitarist Reamon "Bomenbreker" Bloem phoned me to provide some background on the album's subject matter. The discussion ultimately centered on the endless diversity of the metal genre at large, revealing some considerably greater musical depth and breadth than the superficial "folk metal" label with which Heidevolk tends to be stuck.
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): The only real challenges about “Batavi,” for me, are the Dutch lyrics and song titles.
Reamon Bloem: That’s why in the liner notes, we offer an explanation in English for every song, just to let people know the type of song, what we’re singing about. Of course, the rest is up to the listener. [Laughs] I’ve seen some translations in different languages on YouTube if you really want to know what the songs are about – but I don’t know if they’re good enough, because I don’t speak Spanish or Italian. [Laughs]
Mike: Can you take me on a quick tour of these songs, thematically?
Reamon: Well, this is our first real concept album, and we basically describe the whole history of a tribe called Batavi that lived two thousand years ago in Gelderland, the region we all come from. The first song, “Een Nieuw Begin,” [“A New Beginning”] is about their journey from Germany to our own region, and what we felt was their leaving their old home behind and looking at this new land of rivers – very wet, swamp-like land. At least that’s what the Netherlands was back then. They journeyed to a city called Nijmegen, where the Roman legion was located. Then, in a few songs, we describe the Batavians’ cooperation with the Romans. History tells us that they were pretty good fighters, especially good horseback riders. The Romans needed to cross the Rhine on horseback, and no other tribe but the Batavians could do it, so they incorporated them into their army. So they did not have to pay taxes like other Germanic tribes if they served in the Roman army. And then we have the song “Als De Dood Weer Naar Ons Lacht,” [“When Death Laughs At Us Again”] which is our new video. That tells of the whole rebellion against the Romans. The reason isn’t 100% clear, but it seems the Batavians got fed up and didn’t want to give away all their young sons to the Roman army for other… unpleasant reasons. [Laughs] So they fought them. And in the last two songs, the Batavians look back on their own history. They sort of disappeared after that. People found some leftover artifacts that could be Batavian, and some gravestones, all over Europe from England to Romania to the far south. They were sort of scattered all over Europe. That’s what we describe in the last two songs.
Mike: On the musical side of things, what were your intentions, if any, to take a step forward with “Batavi” and set it apart from all that came before?
Reamon: Well, we never really had a long-term plan. When the last record “Uit Oude Grond”  was released, we’d already written some new material, so when we got together and showed what we had to each other and started playing, we noticed that it was more aggressive – and maybe even a little darker than the previous stuff we wrote. So we picked it up and started thinking and negotiating, and we felt pretty good with the material, so we thought, “Let’s make a more aggressive album.” We took it in that direction and started writing more aggressive songs, and we sought a producer who could bring that whole vision to life. We found that Peter Tägtgren [Hypocrisy, Pain] was available, and we all like his work – he’s a pretty big producer here in Europe – so he worked with us on the album. He gave us exactly the vibe we were looking for. Darker, more aggressive, a bit more “metal,” if you will.
Mike: Which of Peter’s past production or mixing jobs really stood out for you, and most influenced your decision to hire him?
Reamon: Well, it wasn’t exactly one album, but we all sat around at a table and everybody named a few albums with fantastic production. I believe almost everybody named an album of his, and they were all pretty diverse. So that was the reason we decided, “All right, it’s obvious we have to go with this guy.” And we were very lucky that he wanted to try something new, something that was “folk” metal. So we ended up with him. But also, a friend of ours is Ask from Kampfar, which is a Norwegian black metal band. He’d just finished recording an album with Peter, and he told great stories about the guy, and how professional he was, and how he thought like a musician and not like a producer. That’s something that really attracted us.
Mike: Can you take me through the process of composing a Heidevolk song? What comes first – a riff, a vocal melody, or something else? How is it built?
Reamon: For the previous albums – especially in the beginning – we’d just write in the rehearsal room, but as time passed, everyone wanted to put more into the music, and we all started arguing way too much. [Laughs] So nowadays, we sort of come up with a frame of a song, or maybe a few riffs, and explain our ideas for the song to the rest of the band, and they’ll add something to it. But “Batavi” was a bit special, because it’s based on history, so the story was already set. We couldn’t change things around. So the first song HAD to be about the Batavians’ journey, and that’s why it’s sort of a mid-tempo, almost march-like riff. And of course, the song about the rebellion had to be aggressive. Normally, after recording the earlier albums, we’d start thinking, “What’s gonna be the opener? What’s gonna come after that?” But we couldn’t do that this time, because everything was planned from the beginning. So that was new for us, to have a story that was already set, and have to make music that fit into that story. I wouldn’t call it a handicap, because it all worked out pretty well, but it was hard. It was fun too though, and a great experience.
Mike: That first song really kicks the album off in a powerful way. Like you said, it feels like a march, and it signals that above all else, “Batavi” is a METAL record, and a guitar-driven one at that. I think a lot of what we call “folk metal” has lost that ballsy edge. Years back, did you have any idea that Heidevolk would be lumped into that subgenre? How do you feel about that whole thing?
Reamon: We never really used the term, because when you say it, you start thinking about certain bands, y’know? I personally don’t listen to folk metal that much. There are a few bands that I like, but I personally don’t really like the “oompah riffs,” if you know what I mean. [Laughs] It makes everything sound the same. And we’re all metalheads, if you look at our CD collections. But still, there’s a lot of difference between the styles we like. One time, we sat down to see what albums we all had in our CD collections, and I believe we could only find “Reign In Blood” by Slayer. [Laughs] All six of us had that one. But one of our singers, Mark, [Bockting] likes grindcore. Joost, [Westdijk] our drummer, likes black metal. I like a lot of mid-tempo death metal, but also power metal. Everybody likes different styles, and most of all, we’re just metalheads trying to tell a story about the history of our region. We already wanted to do it with male vocals, low range male vocals. And then at a certain point, it seemed a good idea to put some violin in it, and some flutes and stuff. And then it became “folk metal,” but we never called it that.
Mike: So do you ever worry about worldwide music fans writing Heidevolk off as “just another” folk metal band without giving your stuff a chance?
Reamon: I know that some people sort of think like that, for the same reasons that some people say, “I don’t like death metal,” or “I don’t like black metal.” But luckily, most metalheads own albums by Iron Maiden AND albums by Morbid Angel, or something like that, y’know? So if you look at it like that, I think there’s enough room for some new fans. [Laughs] Especially with the new album being a little bit more aggressive, more “metal” than the last one. But you’ll always have… what would you call them? … “conservative” metalheads who just like one thing and don’t want to try anything else. There’s nothing you can do about that, so let them listen to their own music, that’s cool.
Mike: Heidevolk’s overall music and lyrics are very, very European. And yet, “Batavi” contains traces of American influence as well. I hear some thrash and even a little Pantera-style groove. In the future, can we expect even more diversification as your fan base continues to grow worldwide?
Reamon: I can understand that; there is some experimenting with thrash metal. Some call it black metal, and some say it’s all power metal. There are a lot of different opinions of the album! [Laughs] Maybe that’s something to do with our other guitar player [Sebas van Eldik] leaving the band during the recording – on good terms, by the way. He just said he wanted to try something new and close this chapter. He wanted to finish the album and then move to Germany, making it very difficult for him to travel every time we have a gig or rehearsal. Maybe that has something to do with it, because he wasn’t a real metalhead; a lot of the old “folky” melodies came from him. On the other hand, he had a part in the whole writing process. So I think we all were just ready for something new, y’know? Like I said, we all like different kinds of metal, and we all like stuff like Pantera, so that’s not too strange. On the last album, you can hear some Pantera influence on the last song “Beest Bij Nacht,” [“Beast By Night”] so that’s not totally new.
Mike: Speaking of gigs, what type of metal bill are you most comfortable with? Do you enjoy playing with similar styled bands, or stuff that’s completely different, or somewhere in the middle?
Reamon: The cool thing about being on a bill like Paganfest or any of the big tours going through Europe – or America, for that matter – is that it attracts a lot of people that like the same kind of music. Everybody knows exactly what the bands are about, and what they can expect. But on the other hand, at more mixed festivals, you can attract some new fans. We’re a band that always likes to party afterward and start talking with the audience, and they sometimes go, “Hey, I never heard about you guys, but I really liked it, and bought the album,” and stuff like that. So for the band, it’s pretty good to play diverse metal festivals.
Mike: This kind of question gets asked a lot, but since we’re on the subject, I’m curious. If someone asked you to construct that fabled “perfect tour,” and had to select each band from a different style or subgenre, what might that look like?
Reamon: I can only speak for myself, but there are a few I’d pick. I love Behemoth, although that would make it a very strange festival, I think. [Laughs] Behemoth, some old school death metal band like Obituary or Morbid Angel, combined with Manowar. That would be awesome! What else can I come up with? … Well, let’s not go too far and say “Metallica” or something like that… [Laughs] It’s tough to say, because there are so many different bands we like, but to be honest, when you tour, you’re together so much. You sit together on the bus, you’re together in the locker rooms, and it’s much more important to be with guys you can really get along with and party with. That’s so important. With Heidevolk, we do this purely for fun. There was never an intention of being rock stars or making money or anything like that. If we wanted something like that, we would’ve sung in English! We do it for the fun of it, especially the live gigs.
Mike: From a music fan’s perspective, is there anything out now that’s really impressed you? Any new favorite albums from any genre?
Reamon: Well, to be honest, there are a lot of old school bands that are back now with some great albums. I really liked the latest album by Accept, really powerful. I like Megadeth’s new album. But I haven’t really found any newer, smaller bands to be enthusiastic about. That sounds horrible, [Laughs] because I remember going to concerts when I was young, and you’d see the old guys sitting in the back by the bar, just drinking, and they’d always say, “Ah, I like the old stuff better. I don’t like these new bands.” And now I’m starting to become one of them. [Laughs] But since we tour a lot, we do see a lot of newer bands, and I still like to stand and watch everyone, even if it’s five minutes before I have to go on another stage. I do like listening to new material and seeing what kind of new bands are growing. The only problem is, nowadays, I feel like there’s more copying than some years ago. A lot of bands will sound exactly like a band I heard one year before, or something like that. That’s one thing that irritates me a bit about the metal scene nowadays.
Mike: But time will get rid of the pretenders!
Reamon: Maybe that’s one of the good things about all the downloading and stuff – you don’t make metal for the money, if you ever could before. But certainly nowadays, you’re not doing it for the money, because people are downloading so much, and record sales are still going down. So I hope that the people who are left are the guys and girls who are really doing it for the love of music.
Mike: Tell me a bit more about your own musical background. You mentioned that you and the band were all metalheads, but was that always the case? Or were you brought to the genre through something else?
Reamon: [Laughs] I think I started listening because when I was little, my sisters listened to all the bands in the big hair, glam scene that was very hot back then. Bon Jovi, Poison, and stuff like that. I always found it interesting, y’know, with the big solos. And then I went over to Metallica and Sepultura and stuff like that. I’ve played in a few bands; I was in a power metal band that quit it after a year. Then I was in a band called Thronar that was also a little bit into “folk metal” riffs. We did all right; we did some fantastic festivals and a lot of gigs. As for the other members, Joost is in Bolthorn, a sort of old school black metal band. Mark was in Goatlord, a death metal band. Our bass player Rowan [Middelwijk] has played in different bands and projects, and he was also in Bolthorn. So we all have different backgrounds.
Mike: Heidevolk’s identity draws much from history, but what if someone asked you to base a song or an album on current events? What in today’s world interests you enough, or do you feel passionately enough about, to adapt into music?
Reamon: Well, I don’t think we would do that. [Laughs] I mean, there are subjects we could sing about other than just old pagan rituals, or old pagan beliefs, or nature. We thought about doing something in the future about our region a hundred years ago, rather than a thousand, and all the stuff that was going on then. That’s one thing we’re thinking about. But whatever we do, it still has to have something to do with this area we live in, and its history. I don’t know; it’s just something that Heidevolk does. I couldn’t imagine writing a song about current politics or something like that!
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