Hekseblad Enter the Witchers’ Sanctuary on “Kaer Morhen” (Review + Interview)

Published: May 09, 2024

Netflix’s The Witcher series is set to conclude after its fifth season, and it seems like nobody will mourn its passing. It squandered Andrzej Sapkowski’s beloved book series, sparked unanimous fan umbrage, and destroyed Henry Cavill’s fanboy enthusiasm. You can see how it broke his heart by comparing how giddily he spoke about the show before it aired and his disappointment after he walked away from it. Of course, the television series wasn’t the only large-scale adaptation of The Witcher, with CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt igniting a flame in English-speaking countries that had largely ignored the series until that point. It was a Game Informer cover story featuring Geralt of Rivia ahead of The Witcher 3’s 2015 release that originally caught Bruxa’s attention, stoking the first flames of their love for Sapkowski’s original novels and the games and driving them to form Hekseblad alongside Frosk much later. 

The US-based black metal duo began in the midst of the pandemic and debuted with their first EP, The Fall of Cintra, not long after in 2021. Three years later, they followed it with their first full-length album, Kaer Morhen, drawing its title from the stronghold Witchers retreat to during the winter to rest. The location holds some significance for Bruxa who spent most of their time writing the album in northern Ontario during the winter, where temperatures range from damn cold to punishingly cold. Yet, Bruxa still found comfort and community there that fostered a shelter of sorts, mirroring the exact solace Geralt and other members of the School of the Wolf draw from Kaer Morhen.

While it doesn’t bear many direct nodes to frigid climates, Kaer Morhen draws from two of the most celebrated and frosty black metal albums, Dissection’s Storm of the Light’s Bane and Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse. These influences meld quite well with The Witcher’s lore and its focus on isolation and humanity amongst tales of monster slaying, romance, and politics. Hekseblad’s lyrics retell Witcher stories that fit like a glove with melodic black metal that isn’t afraid to exert itself. So even though most listeners will approach Hekseblad because of their The Witcher iconography, they’ll soon realize the pair’s allure lies beyond it. 

Hekseblad strings black metal’s innate evil sentiments through a stylized lens for grin-inducing results. Although the lo-fi vocals and wicked atmosphere are appropriate for the subgenre, Kaer Morhen possesses a nerd’s heart. It’s jagged and scowling and seemingly retreating from the light of day, but beneath its skin lays an ecstasy to convey Geralt’s tales. No track better captures this than “The White Flame” as it throws around all manner of dinky keyboards and Emperor-worshiping guitars without reservation. There’s also the title track that mirrors Kaer Morhen’s restorative abilities with folkish acoustic guitars and synths. Hekseblad howls their newfound strength through solitude and then displays it through a diabolic guest solo from Sörjande. It’s a little on-the-nose but fitting for Geralt, who is prone to outbursts despite his attempts to subdue his emotions. 

There’s also a sense of humbleness that cuts through the album as if Hekseblad knows how ridiculous corpse paint and a wintery focus can be and only indulges it further. To reel away from it would reek of cowardice. By diving headfirst, Hekseblad conjure black metal’s might for narratively apropos cuts like the epic “Taste of Ash,” with Frosk as the principal architect. Their melodies and solos are Kaer Morhen’s primary engines, acting as lanterns through unlit pathways while Bruxa’s vocals remain fuzzy and obscured. The contrast between the two bandmates–one heroic and the other clandestine–are personifications of Geralt himself, a character whose moral compass drives him to act as a hero but who seeks no fame and sees himself as an outsider. On a more basic level, the balance also takes care of any potentially cheesy overtones while staying true to The Witcher’s themes and tone. Through it, Hekseblad has free reign to be as jubilant as they see fit without sacrificing any grit. 

Keep reading to find out what Bruxa had to say about how Gwent, the debate between Yennefer and Triss, and other aspects of Witcher lore. 


How did you first get into The Witcher series and what about it drove you to base Hekseblad on it?

I first got into The Witcher series maybe a year or so before the third game came out, I randomly happened to stumble across an issue of Game Informer or some other gaming magazine at a comic shop, Geralt was on the cover so I flipped through it and read the cover story, which immediately got me excited, so I went back and checked out the first two games to prepare myself for the imminent release of the third game. I was late to switch consoles and kept my Xbox 360 a few years longer than I should have, but when I finally upgraded to a PS4 the first two games I bought were Bloodborne and The Witcher 3. Since then I’ve gone back and read the novels as well as a good handful of the comics Dark Horse published. 

As for basing the band off of the series, it all started from a band I had at the time of the third game’s release. I was very captivated by the different monsters in the series and I had planned to write a whole EP about them for that project. It never materialised but I kept that idea in my back pocket for whenever I formed a new band. 

In your mind, what separates The Witcher from other common black metal inspirations like Lord of the Rings regarding how they adapt to music? 

Aside from the fact that there are hundreds of bands who write about LOTR the big thing for me is that it’s just the fact that The Witcher is a pretty untouched resource when it comes to black metal. Aside from us, I can really only think of a handful of bands who have taken inspiration from the series (and even fewer are themed around it entirely as we are.) Firienholt released an album last year based around the third game and it was fantastic, but really the band that I think captured the series the best was a one-off project from Germany called Kaer Morhen who released the album, Aen Ithilnnespeth, after playing the very first game in the series. I think we set ourselves apart from both of those projects by taking a majority of our influence from the novels as opposed to the games. 

You adapted a few short stories for your songs rather than focusing on the larger witcher saga that takes up the later novels. What made you pick those stories? 

My favorite novel in the series is The Last Wish, which is a collection of short stories Sapkowski wrote before actually sitting down to flesh out the main series. I’ve read all the books but I’ve re-read the short stories more (because they’re more easily digestible since they’re just one and done). For our future releases I do plan on focusing on the main series storylines a bit more, or focusing on aspects of it and highlighting them. I don’t just want to retell the story Sapkowski wrote (I could never do it as well as he did) so in the future I need to figure out the balance between taking inspiration and reinterpreting the story, rather than just parroting it back to the listener.

I read that your inspiration was the books rather than the show and the game. You wanted more people to get into the books. What do they hold that the adaptions in other mediums don’t? 

We aren’t entirely based on the books; we do take some influence from the games (namely, songs like “A Taste of Ash” off our new record and “The Baron’s Lament” off of our split with Nachtheir and Vér are both based off of quests in the third game). The novels just gripped me in a way that other fantasy series haven’t, and I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my time. I’m not trying to say that Sapkowski commands language or storytelling the same way Tolkien or Moorcock did, but what I really appreciate about the novels compared to the games or Netflix series is just how much more in depth his writing can take the reader when it comes to the emotions and motivations of the characters. A great example of that would be the inner turmoil and betrayal Geralt felt in A Shard of Ice (from the Sword of Destiny collection), and that sort of stuff doesn’t really translate that well to non-written mediums. 

What musical concepts did you feel you had (or wanted) to include to capture The Witcher’s spirit? 

We definitely made a point to include plenty of acoustic and folk instrumentation on the record to sort of reflect Dandelion’s character (the original working title for the album was “Bardic Tales and Elder Blood” but we thought that was a bit too wordy). I liked that we tried to capture the essence of Dandelion and the role of a Bard, travelling village to village and singing songs of Geralt’s adventures, that’s kind of what we do, writing songs about these adventures. 

Do you feel like there’s a limit to how much you can write about The Witcher, seeing as how the series is finished?

Of course there’s a limit to a series that’s finished, and that weighs on me a bit, but so far over our releases we’ve only really covered stuff from the first two collections of short stories without touching much of the main series. Realistically I think I can get a few more full-lengths out of the lore before I start retreading the familiar ground, so I’m not that worried about that just yet. If rumours are to be believed though, Sapkowski is supposedly working on a new entry to the series, so I wouldn’t write it off just yet. 

“The Taste of Ash” ends with this great line from Sapkowski: “You forget; I slay monsters, Not men in twisted forms.” How did his prose influence your lyrics?

I really try not to lift quotes directly from his writings unless I feel it fits the song’s ideas. I think the most obvious one we really lifted was the fantastic quote from A Time of Contempt where Vilgefortz tells Geralt, “You mistook the stars reflected in a pond for the night sky” which we printed on the slipcase for our debut EP’s cassette repress. Sapkowski’s words resonate with me (even after being translated to English and losing some of the original meaning) and I would never want to step on his toes by just directly stealing his quotes for a majority of our lyrics. 

The Witcher series has many vibes—epic, romantic, ridiculous, and heartbreaking (I cried when Ciri and Geralt reconnected at the end of The Sword of Destiny). As such, how did you approach your music to reflect those vibes?

There’s also a lot of themes in the novels about the hardships that peasantry faces at the hands of the ruling class (you also see this illustrated very well in the video game adaptations) and that struggle is unfortunately very applicable to the real world and society we all live in. I tried my best to convey those themes on our track “The Fall of the Northern Realms”, where I take the POV of a peasant watching my homeland destroyed by the invading armies of the Nilfgaardian Empire, while also being besieged by the monsters and ghouls that plague the more wild lands outside of the village, and grappling with that feeling of, “Wow, we’re fucked no matter what we do, the world is cruel and unforgiving outside of the safety of our homes, the rulers don’t care what happens to us, so what makes them any better than the monsters that hunt us at night?”

The Witcher is about monsters and politics but also what it means to be human, isolation, and destiny. Which of its themes did you want to represent in your music?

A big thing Geralt struggles with for a majority of the series is his denial of fate, grappling with destiny, and the fear of losing the people he loves. I really try to reflect those sentiments on the record, especially on the closing track “Vatt’ghern”. The way Sapkowski writes about isolation and humanity also influences other moments in the record, especially the title track, which tells about the keep of Kaer Morhen, where Witchers return for the winter to isolate and recharge before setting back out in the spring to follow The Path. It’s that feeling of wanting a home but also understanding that the concept of “home” can be very lonely.

Geralt is a complex character and I feel you captured that well—beyond just killing monsters. What was the biggest difficulty with translating his character?

Geralt is very complex and truthfully very flawed, he has this destiny that he knows he has to carry out and see through to its conclusion, but he rejects it, he denies it. He sees himself early on in the series as someone who is above destiny and fate. He (annoyingly at times) often takes a stance of neutrality, which he ultimately learns that he cannot do that because he ends up failing the people he cares about. I truthfully don’t feel like I delved as deeply into those themes as much as I wanted to, so it’s already a bullet-point for our next release (whenever we end up sitting down to write it). I feel that there’s a lot to his characterisation and how he interacts with the politics of his time, the oath he swore to his order, and his interpersonal relationships with the people he cares about and protects.

Could you make a black metal song about Dandelion?

I’ve had a few lines written about Dandelion for awhile now, I just haven’t found the right way to flesh it out into a full idea for a song, but I do love his character and the shenanigans he gets into, a lot of people just see him as a womanising bard but really his character is more complex than that, he’s very loyal, he’s very committed to his loved ones, he’s always there to help when it’s needed.

How do you feel about Gwent?

I think Gwent was a very fun addition to the game (to the point where I ignore main quests just to travel the land playing with various merchants and shopkeepers). I’ve played the standalone Gwent game on Steam, and for Christmas last year I was given a custom made card set that I’ve spent many hours obsessing over and playing with people I care about. 

My partner needs to know if you’re team Yen or team Triss.

I am very strongly on Team Yen. Our song “Obsidian Star” (off of The Fall of Cintra EP) is based around Geralt and Yennefer’s bond. I understand why people who have only played the third game may be Team Triss, but playing the other two games or reading the novels it just really goes to show how truly awful Triss Merigold is as a person, only caring about her own selfish goals and not caring about the repercussions. I always get a kick out of the moment from the series where Yennefer comes to Kaer Morhen and literally throws Geralt’s bed out of the tower window because he slept with Triss in that same bed, and she doesn’t want to sleep where something like that happened. 

None of that even touches on how much I love how Yennefer’s character is written and her motivations for her actions. She’s not perfect, but she mirrors Geralt’s own characterisation in an almost perfect way. The bond Geralt and Yennefer have is such a huge driving force for his actions early on, and leads to some of the best character moments in the series (Geralt’s conflicts with Istredd in Shard of Ice always stands out, as does the infamous “Dear Friend” letter from Blood of Elves).

Kaer Morhen is available now through Hypnotic Dirge Records.

Rock / Metal / Alternative
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