Self-sufficient multi-instrumentalist Niklas Holm is a busy man. When not issuing increasingly fine-tuned metalized hardcore/punk via Broken Cross over the past seven years, you may have found him death-dealing blackened grime through Extermination Temple, running his own Apocalyptic Visions record label, or fronting an impressive new black metal outfit called Dødsleie. I spoke with Holm on the heels of Broken Cross' first-ever live performance earlier this month to learn more about how everything has progressed to this point…
I don't know much about your history. What's your musical background, and was Broken Cross your first band?
When I was 12, my parents bought me a guitar for Christmas. At that point, I had just started getting into punk and extreme metal. A few years after that, I got into hardcore punk. Growing up, I played bass and sometimes guitar in my friends' bands—which ranged from melodic punk rock to crust punk. I didn't have much input in the songwriting, which might be one of the reasons I eventually stopped playing with other people. I had never written any song from start to finish for any band until I started Broken Cross in 2011.
Broken Cross has really been gaining recognition over the past couple of years, so it can be easy to forget that the project has actually been active for some time now. Following the 2011 New World Soldier demo and a couple of compilation appearances in 2012, Broken Cross' first proper release came in 2013 with the Anti-Human Life 7" on Dwid Hellion's Holy Terror label. That's a pretty coveted stamp of approval at that early stage of development. How did it come about?
Dwid heard the demo and liked it. Not a particularly exciting story, but that's pretty much how it came about. Needless to say, I was super stoked on it. Actually, I can't think of any other label I would rather have been on.
Following up with the Secret Destruction 7" and Through Light to Night LP via your own Apocalyptic Visions label, Broken Cross continued to develop a diverse style of metallic hardcore/punk bearing some similarities to kindred spirits such as Integrity and Vegas. That being said, your work has always had its own atmosphere, and was initially centered largely around cacophonously raw recording techniques that carried a bit of a black metal aesthetic. How would you characterize what you were going for throughout those earlier years?
The whole reason I started Broken Cross was because I wanted to do my own thing. In the beginning, I didn't have any drumsticks, so I used long-handled paintbrushes about the same size and recorded with them. I also didn't have a proper microphone, so I screamed straight into the built-in microphone on my MacBook. So, yes, it's safe to say that I used raw recording techniques on those early recordings. Not because I necessarily had to do it that way, but more because I wanted to be creative and challenge myself.
As for how I would categorize it, I'm not sure that I can. I'd say that the early Broken Cross material was quite original and that in itself was a huge part of the whole expression. I don't like to limit myself creatively and I don't over-analyze what I do musically, I just do it and move on. I was definitely inspired by G.I.S.M., for instance, and still am, but more in spirit rather than the actual sound. I always found it funny that the only genre of music where the lo-fi, one-man band approach is acceptable is black metal, as it seems like a pretty damn punk thing to do in my book.
You had mentioned guitar and bass earlier, at what point did you begin learning to play the drums as well?
I had never played the drums before I started Broken Cross. Once I tried it, I realized it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. I still don't consider myself a drummer at all, but I've learned to keep a somewhat ready beat, and it seems to be working for the music I make.
I personally began to really stop and take more note of Broken Cross with last year's excellent split 7" with Vegas, upon which "Ancient Execution" marked a huge and immediate shift in terms of the sound quality and the directness of the songwriting. Obviously this was an intentional decision, and I'm really curious to learn what brought that on?
"Ancient Execution" was originally written and recorded back in 2012. I never released that version of the song because I wasn't entirely happy with it. In hindsight, I don't think the lo-fi production worked in that song's favor. I always liked the main riff, composition, and melodies, though. When I recorded it again in 2016 in a real studio, I believe that song came to life. It's probably one of the most epic—pardon the overused expression—songs I've done.
You really went above and beyond on the packaging variations for that release as well. It turned out to be quite a special split.
I wanted it to be special. We had discussed doing this split for quite a few years, and as [Vegas mastermind] T would say, the stars finally aligned. There are lots of small details and symbols present on the limited versions which represent different aspects of both bands. Putting the records, covers, and all the small parts together was demanding, but I really enjoyed doing it.
As an aside, that 7" was also the first time that your Apocalyptic Visions label released material from a band other than your own. Do you have any plans to further branch out with the label's roster moving forward?
I've thought about it, but time doesn't allow for it. Besides, I don't think I can do much for other bands as my label is quite small. I could see myself doing another split 7" on the label in the future, though.
That brings us to the brand new Broken Cross LP, Militant Misanthrope, which continues to exhibit notable development in terms of production values and songwriting. To my ears, the same elements were present in your prior work, but they've been clearly expanded upon and refined herein. Some of the hardcore/punk influences, for example, seem streamlined for more immediate and memorable compositions; though, at the same time, the melodic sensibilities are a bit more advanced and layered, etc.
It was time to change things a little bit. I had accomplished what I set out to do with the lo-fi thing. About a year ago, I started writing songs for the new album and it went faster and smoother than I had expected. Perhaps the songs turned out to be more simplistic and direct this time around, which is not a bad thing. The only things I would consider advanced on this album are the guitar solos and leads, which always have been a part of Broken Cross, but they might be more noticeable now because of the clearer production.
As for the hardcore/punk influences, they come naturally. So do the heavy metal, hard rock, and thrash parts. I tried to write an album that would appeal to the kid in me, and by doing that I suppose the end result turned out to be a metal/punk crossover album.
Broken Cross has typically been billed as a "solo project," but I've found myself wondering if that's still the case these days?
Yes. I still write every note and play every instrument on the recordings. The only thing that has changed is that I have used a real recording studio for the last couple of releases. Joona [Hassinen] from Studio Underjord is a great guy and he has been really helpful in shaping the present Broken Cross sound.
That's incredibly impressive. What was it like adjusting to the use of a legitimate studio? For example, was it nerve-wracking having to record in the presence of an engineer, as opposed to being completely alone, etc.?
The big advantage of recording by yourself is that you have no real pressure of performing on the spot. If you're not happy with a take, you can just wait until the next day or the day after that to record again. Of course, using a professional studio will generally make the sound much better, and it makes the whole recording process so much easier.
So, it was a little nerve-wracking in the beginning. I tried to explain to Joona (the sound engineer) that I wanted the vocals to sound deliberately weird in certain parts. His response was, "You mean like G.I.S.M.?" After that, I knew that we were on the same page, and everything went well from there.
Alongside some recurring wolf-themed imagery throughout the layout, the album's succinct, almost Discharge-styled lyrics with frequent references to war, destruction, and the "inner wolf" had me wondering if Militant Misanthrope might be a "concept" album?
Some of the songs follow the same concept. Basically, the song "Militant Misanthrope" is about a kid that grows up and becomes disillusioned with the world and the people around him. In the end, he turns into a beast and when the transformation is complete, he kills everyone around him. You may notice the same behavior pattern in school shooters and suicide bombers, for instance. In other words: isolated people who dwell on experiences of rejection get radicalized and act on their impulses against the people around them.
In general, I would say that people involved in underground metal/punk cultures share many of the same traits, as they're either rejected or choose willingly to alienate themselves from mainstream society. Without the artistic and creative expressions and sense of belonging to a group of like-minded people, the majority of people involved in different subcultures could easily end up as [2017 Las Vegas mass-shooter] Stephen Paddock. Being a lone wolf is a blessing and a curse, and there's a fine line between isolation and connection. It is a dark subject matter which seems to be taboo-ridden, therefore I find it interesting.
Some of the other songs on the album deal with the same concept, but also things like illusions, dreams, cult behavior, mass suicide, and war. The post-apocalyptic aura has always been a part of Broken Cross, and I enjoy painting a bleak atmosphere through the music.
The artwork was handled by Dwid Hellion, who has also supplied some killer visuals for your work in the past. Militant Misanthrope, though, has a very distinct, manga-influenced look to it. What type of specific instruction did you provide to steer that direction, etc.?
It was similar to what I just described above. I also sent some references for manga art which I personally like. I wanted a surreal touch, and Dwid suggested that he would do something similar to the nightmare scenes in An American Werewolf in London. The end result turned out amazing, and I'm impressed with Dwid's ability to do many different types of artwork, but always with his own twist to it.
Speaking of Dwid, following your Instagram feed, I'm oft-impressed by the depth of your Integrity collection, and would be stunned if anyone out there has a larger assortment. I'd love to hear more about that.
Technically, I started the Integrity collection in 1995 when I bought Systems Overload. Over the years, I got more into record collecting and at some point I guess I thought it would be a good idea to collect every version of every Integrity release ever made. This also includes tapes and CDs, I might add. I still see new variants of their releases all the time, so it never really ends.
My favorite items in the collection are those super rare/one-off things like the In Contrast of Sin 7" with a white cross on the cover, The Blackest Curse LP test pressing limited to two copies, and probably lots of others that I'm forgetting right now. If anyone has a test pressing of the Septic Death Karaoke 7" on Victory or the U.S. test press of Systems Overload on Victory, they should definitely get in touch with me, as those are some of the last pieces of the puzzle I need and I would probably trade something ridiculous for them. Or pay lots of money.
Amidst the "middle years" of Broken Cross, you also began to release music under the banner of Extermination Temple—in many ways a grimy, faster-paced, "death metal version" of Broken Cross. There are a lot of parallels between the projects, and it was technically Extermination Temple that debuted your improved recording techniques on 2016's Lifeless Forms EP. Talk about this outlet and how you might compare or contrast it with Broken Cross, etc.
Originally, I wanted Extermination Temple to be a really gritty 50/50 mix of death metal and black metal. To be honest, I like the Extermination Temple demo more than the EP. The demo had a more wicked atmosphere, which was closer to the original vision I had for the band. Don't get me wrong, I like the EP as well, but the sound turned out to be traditional death metal with an emphasis on groove for that recording.
Overall, I think the expression is quite different from Broken Cross. I guess both projects sound similar in some regards, but Extermination Temple is obviously way more rooted in metal. I'm actually not sure if I will ever record new material with this project. The death metal scene is flooded with so many bands, and it's hard to find one's own expression. On the other hand, that pretty much goes for any style of music.
Also just released was the debut album from Dødsleie, an excellent black metal trio for which you handle the vocal duties—also featuring Rob Orr (Unreal City, ex-Integrity, etc.) and Brent Bubash. From the outside, this pretty much came out of nowhere, so what can you tell me about how Dødsleie took shape, whether or not there are plans for additional recordings in the future, etc.?
Last year, Rob and I reconnected after a few years of being out of touch. We talked about memories from the Integrity European tours in 2012 - 2013, music, and nerdy stuff in general (video games, record pressings, etc.). Somewhere in the midst of this, Rob sent me a draft of a black metal song that he and Brent had been working on. I really liked what I heard, and we decided to give it a try with me on vocals. Rob told me he didn't want a Satanic approach, but was looking for more of a depressed expression—which made things easier for me when it came to writing lyrics and laying down vocals.
I'm really proud of what we accomplished with this recording. It has a special feeling and atmosphere. We've talked about recording new material, which will hopefully happen soon.
By the time this interview hits the site, Broken Cross will have concluded its first-ever live performance at the Judas Chair Collective festival. What was the experience like?
Some time ago, the guys from the Judas Chair Collective got in touch and asked me if Broken Cross would like to play their festival if they provided a live lineup. Over the years, I've had promoters ask me if Broken Cross can play their show, and I've always had to decline as I don't have a lineup. As time went on, I was almost determined that I'd never play live with this band. This time it just felt right, and I decided to give it a go.
The Judas Chair Collective hired a bunch of professionals from well-established Finnish punk/hardcore/metal bands (The Reality Show, Hexhammer, ex-Foreseen, etc.) to form a band. The whole experience was amazing. I didn't know what to expect, but it was a lot of fun playing live and people seemed to like it. All of the other bands that played were awesome as well. A big shoutout to Kalle, Mikko, Santtu, and Lauri for playing my own songs better than I ever have! Also, to the rest of the Judas Chair Collective crew for making this happen.
Looking beyond, what's still to come?
Good question. I have no more live shows planned, but under the right circumstances, I'd definitely consider doing it again. There has been talk of a few split 7"s, which will hopefully see the light of day this year. Other than that, I don't know. All I know is that when the time is right, I will write and record new music. I'd go insane if I didn't.
Purchase physical copies of Militant Misanthrope (or other records/merchandise) through Apocalyptic Visions. Find more news and music via Facebook or Bandcamp: Broken Cross, Dødsleie, Extermination Temple.