From the sands of Giza, to the shores of Lindisfarne, to the paddy fields of the Mekong Delta, heavy metal music has long engaged with a broad range of historical subjects. History offers artists a nostalgic escape from the present to a past that appeals to their beliefs, cultural traditions, and sense of self, while it can also use the past to comment on issues of the present. While metal becomes more globalized and more demographically diverse, and that diversity brings with it new narratives of local histories set to song, the epicenter of the genre remains both Europe and the continents that the birthplace of heavy metal, England, had colonized. Thus European history, from the Trojan War to the Second World War, remains the most frequently received in heavy metal historiography.
However, among those historical topics that often appeal to a sense of identity and belonging to a particular city, nation, or “Western” civilization at large, one topic is frequently overlooked: the Byzantine Empire that succeeded the ancient Roman Empire as its eastern, Greek-speaking half in the medieval period, from the founding of its capital Constantinople in 330 CE to the city’s conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. For over a millennium it stood at the crossroads between the Catholic kingdoms of the medieval West, pagan raiders from the North, and Islamic civilizations to the East and South. This bureaucratic autocracy, which for most of its history controlled an area from the southern Balkans to the territory of modern-day Turkey, kept alive the tradition of classical literature that it bequeathed to the West to inspire the Renaissance, while at the same time exporting its Orthodox style of Christianity to much of Eastern Europe. The Holy Roman, Ottoman, and Russian empires laid claim to be its legitimate successors, while the modern nation of Greece coalesced under its sway. Despite its massive and widespread political, cultural, and religious legacy, the theme of Byzantium is seldom taken up by metal musicians. Its purely Christian identity makes it distasteful to those bands wishing to reconnect with the pagan traditions of their ancient past. Even in Greece, it is to Achilles, Leonidas, and Alexander and not Justinian, Basil II, and Constantine XI that they look as the touchstones of their national character. The Byzantines, even by their name that was assigned to them during the Enlightenment, have time and again been viewed as the Other, divorced from their ancient foundations and antagonistic to their medieval coreligionists. Indeed, the most popular topic of Byzantine reception in metal is the empire’s destruction in 1453, largely to do with its implications for the Western European struggle against the Muslim East.
In 2020, there are signs that this void is beginning to be filled, thanks in part to the album Let There Be Nothing by the American Power Metal band Judicator, a collaboration of musicians from Utah, Arizona, and California. The band consists of vocalist and lyricist John Yelland, guitarist Balmore Lemus, bassist John Dolan, and drummer Jordan Elcess. Let There Be Nothing was released on July 24th on the Los Angeles-based label Prosthetic Records.
Let There Be Nothing is a concept album focused on the Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius and the wars of reconquest of the former Western Roman Empire during the early-to-mid sixth century CE, in the reign of Justinian I (r. 527-565). The record traces Belisarius’ career from the aftermath of his humiliating defeat by the Persians at Callinicum, to his victories over the Vandals and Ostrogoths and recapture Carthage and Rome, to his subsequent tribulations caught up in court politics under Justinian and Theodora, and the torture of his relationship with his beloved but unfaithful wife Antonina.
I conducted the following interview with Judicator’s vocalist, lyricist, and songwriter John Yelland.
Jeremy: What events and/or inspirations led to Judicator’s formation in 2012?
John: In 2010 I wanted to see Blind Guardian on their Sacred Worlds and Songs Divine tour. I was in the middle of my bachelor’s degree at the time so I could only attend a show that took place on a weekend. Tempe, Arizona it was! I got a cheap plane ticket and went down early on the day of the show. I had nothing to do, so I went to the venue to just hang out and, “Who knows? Maybe I’ll meet a band member or something.”
I waited at the venue for hours until Tony Cordisco showed up. We greeted each other and made small talk. He told me he is friends with one of the bands who was opening for Blind Guardian on the tour, Seven Kingdoms (the other was Holy Grail). When Seven Kingdoms arrived, he took pity on me (haha) and asked if I’d like to join them all backstage. I was ecstatic!
We watched Blind Guardian soundcheck, playing “Traveler in Time” if memory serves me right. We went to the green room to hang out for a bit, but after thirty minutes or so a venue worker noticed we didn’t have backstage passes, so he booted Tony and I. We hung out for the rest of the night and exchanged information.
We communicated via Facebook for a while, and at one point Tony reached out to me wondering if I’d be interested in doing a cover of Helloween’s “Ride the Sky” with him. I was happy to, and when we posted it online it got very good reactions. Tony had an album’s worth of music he had already written and was just sitting on, so at that point he asked if I’d be interested in collaborating on an actual album. I again was very happy to.
We couldn’t put out an album without having a project name, album name, lyrics, and so on, so Tony I discussed the project at length. Thus Judicator was formed! We kicked around band names, but the one that really stuck was Judicator. Tony suggested the name, which is the name of an Imperial Star Destroyer that shows up in the Timothy Zahn book Star Wars: Thrawn. I was really interested in Napoleon Bonaparte at the time, so I suggested that I write the album’s lyrics as a concept album about Bonaparte’s return from exile, culminating with the Battle of Waterloo.
This was our first album, King of Rome, and again it was received very well online, for as rough as it was, production-wise. And it led to us producing a follow-up album, Sleepy Plessow, which was received even better. As a result of all this positivity and support we really committed to our third album, At the Expense of Humanity, and upped our game on all fronts. The rest is history 😉
Jeremy: What are some of the band’s primary musical influences?
John: For myself I would say the likes of Blind Guardian, David Bowie, Protest the Hero, and Tryptikon. I know Balmore’s favorites are Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Angra.
Jeremy: Judicator’s gone through some lineup changes these past eight years. How have those impacted the evolution of the band?
John: To be perfectly honest, none of the lineup changes have really had an impact on Judicator, save one. As you might know, Tony Cordisco left the band this year (2020), and he co-founded the band with me and wrote all our music. Additionally he was essentially the band manager, so replacing him has been quite a feat. Luckily he left on good terms, going so far as to make sure we had all the knowledge and tools necessary to keep the band going the way it had been with him at the helm.
I feel confident in our future, but seeing as how he wrote like 99% of the music up until now, our sound will certainly be different moving forward. I don’t think this will be an end of the world scenario because Balmore Lemus (our lead guitarist) is a fantastic songwriter and super talented. The next album’s songwriting is being split fairly evenly by Balmore and myself. So it will be very interesting. If people enjoy the new direction Judicator takes then great, and if not they will always have the “Tony Cordisco era” of Judicator to enjoy (our first 5 albums).
Jeremy: You’re based in the SLC metro (with members from elsewhere out west). One of my colleagues in grad school had her English classes at UofU with Jake of Visigoth. How would you say Judicator is a product, if at all, of a “Salt City” scene?
John: I (John Yelland) live in the Salt Lake valley, but the rest of the band lives in California (John Dolan & Balmore Lemus) and Arizona (Jordan Elcess). Jake is a good guy as far as I can tell; I have played a handful of shows with Visigoth (one with Judicator and a few with my old band Disforia). Their music is terrific!
I don’t think of Judicator being a product of the “Salt City” scene, but I will say I certainly love our local music scene. There’s a lot of creativity and talent in Utah.
Jeremy: Let There Be Nothing was released in July this year. Did COVID affect the production process of this record? How has the band been handling the pandemic?
John: The pandemic didn’t affect our release that much because until fairly recently we were essentially a collaboration project that didn’t play live often. However, as we’ve become more serious we have sought out more live opportunities, especially since getting signed to Prosthetic Records. So COVID-19 was a setback but it didn’t feel completely new to us. The album still did rather well.
As I mentioned though, we’re excited to do more touring in the future, so we are a little concerned about 2021 because we would like to do some touring. All we can do is cross our fingers and hope that COVID-19 doesn’t continue to wreak havoc on the entertainment industry in 2021. We’re not counting on the world returning to normal in 2021, but if it does we’ll be pleasantly surprised. In any case, our main priority is producing our next album, which will be finished by the end of 2021 and released in the 1st or 2nd quarter of 2022.
Jeremy: What inspired you to write an album on Belisarius? How does Let There Be Nothing fit in with (or depart from) your previous records on topics like the First Crusade (The Last Emperor), Frederick the Great (Sleepy Plessow), Napoleon (King of Rome), or even the personal turn you take on At the Expense of Humanity?
John: I had always been interested in Justinian. I remember watching a History Channel series about him as a kid, and I was enthralled. He was so ambitious yet human, and he survived the plague for crying out loud!
In Judicator we have a pattern for album production. We produce two albums that are related somehow, whether it’s time period or theme, and then we produce one album that’s something totally different. So we have King of Rome (Napoleon) and Sleepy Plessow (Friedrich der Grosse), then At the Expense of Humanity (my brother’s death by cancer). Then we have The Last Emperor (the First Crusade) and Let There be Nothing (Justinian’s reconquest campaigns, which were a sort of “proto-Crusade”).
Jeremy: What themes do you focus on in telling Belisarius’ story, and how are they conveyed musically? What struck me reading the lyrics was the complexity of Belisarius as a soldier, man of faith, and devoted but cuckolded husband to Antonina (is that her voice I hear on “Gloria”?).
John: This is a big question! I would say the primary theme is one’s struggle to be a good person when it seems the whole world around you is shitting on you. It’s very difficult to be a good person when you’re surrounded by people who have no concern for being moral. Belisarius tries to do the right thing with his adulterous wife, but the world derides him for it. Empress Theodora would have punished Belisarius if he killed Antonina for her infidelity, but nobody else would have blamed him for it.
There is also the struggle against God, His providence, and even your own nature. Our lives are full of pain, suffering, injustice, and sorrow, so how do we view God in light of that? And how do we view our own lives? Where is the line between free will and God’s will? When Belisarius finally does snap and imprison Antonina and her lover Theodosius, it doesn’t take long for the plan to backfire. It’s like when he acts out of character fate or God course corrects the situation. So often in life you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control your perspective and how you react to the situation moving forward.
Jeremy: What historical sources informed you? Did you go directly to Procopius and/or did you use secondary sources like modern histories or documentaries?
John: I read most of Prokopius’ The Wars of Justinian, and most of The Life of Belisarius by Lord Mahon. I read all of Belisarius: The Last Roman General by Ian Hughes, which was my favorite, and Antonina: A Byzantine Slut by Paul Kastenellos. I haven’t read Prokopius’ Secret History yet, but I understand it’s quite spicy!
I also really enjoyed the series about Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius produced by Extra Credits, a YouTube channel. I would highly recommend their work, as it’s brisk and entertaining.
Jeremy: I’m in love with the album’s artwork, clearly inspired by Byzantine mosaics such as those of San Vitale in Ravenna, whence you derived Belisarius’ likeness. Can you tell me more about it, and who created it?
John: The artwork was created by the very talented Mitchell Nolte, who has a very large body of work on historical people and events. I simply adore his work.
I wanted the artwork to be as accurate as possible, hence using the San Vitale artwork as a reference, and I wanted it to feel old, like it belonged to the world we’re writing about. I really like that the album looks like an ancient mosaic or something. You can see Belisarius and Antonina holding hands, with that pesky Theodosius riding beside Antonina. I never thought I’d write about a love triangle, but here it is!
Jeremy: I have read in previous interviews that The Last Emperor in some ways spoke to the times in which it was produced. Does Let There Be Nothing react to anything specific in the world today?
John: If The Last Emperor spoke more to our modern world, in more a macro sense, then Let There be Nothing speaks more to our timeless world, in a more micro sense. What I mean by this is I see the album as a morality play which speaks to timeless elements of human nature. The album is more intimate and focused on an inner journey than its predecessor.
In particular, after I converted to Orthodoxy I began to focus on my personal struggles in a way I hadn’t really done before. I was putting a lot of effort and attention into fixing my bad habits and behaviors. Essentially, I was beginning my own personal war with myself, with my sins. I’m so glad I set out on that path because I’ve seen very good results. The Church is a hospital and I’m a patient, and Let There be Nothing was something of a reflection on my treatment.
Jeremy: Compared to Greco-Roman antiquity and the West European Middle Ages, Byzantine history is rarely received by modern pop culture, and is just as rare in heavy metal. Why do you think this is the case?
John: Yes, I think this is a great thing to bring up! When I was studying the 1st Crusade, I read that Emperor Justinian’s reconquest campaigns are looked at by some scholars as a sort of “proto-Crusade.” So I thought this would be a very interesting follow-up to The Last Emperor, because if we were to do another album similar in theme to that album, you would expect us to do the 3rd Crusade, maybe the 4th, but it would be much more interesting and far less expected for us to go backward instead of forward, to East instead of West!
As far as why Byzantine (East Roman) history isn’t very well-received in pop culture, I think there are two reasons. First, the empire fell first to the Latins and then later (after a brief revival) to the Ottoman Turks. So, because Constantinople ultimately fell to the Turks, modern-day Turkey is essentially in charge of the narrative. As Turkey is now rising in power, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing more pro-Ottoman/Turkey content being produced, such as Rise of Empires: Ottoman (2020) and The Ottoman Lieutenant (2017).
Something interesting, however, is that many Russians see themselves as the heirs of Rome, calling Russia “the third Rome” even. In 1472, Ivan III of Russia married Sophia, who was the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. This is seen by many as a dynastic link between East Rome and Russia. This is even related to why the Russians adopted the ruling title of “Tsar,” which means “caesar.” So I think it’s interesting that the Russians are producing content about Byzantium, such as Viking (2016) and The Fall of an Empire: The Lesson of Byzantium (2008).
The second reason I think Byzantium isn’t as well-received in the West is the empire always stood at the crossroads between East and West. For centuries upon centuries it acted as a bulwark against invading Islamic armies. It’s no wonder that only 76 years after Constantinople fell, the Turks were laying siege to Vienna, Austria! I think religion also plays a part in this estrangement, because in 1054 AD the See of Rome broke away from the rest of the Church; this marks the West becoming known as “Roman Catholic” and the East becoming known as “Eastern Orthodox.” So when Constantinople fell, I don’t imagine the West shed too many tears. All of this is to say America and Western Europe has more history and tradition in common with Catholic Rome than they do with Orthodox Constantinople.
Jeremy: I read in a previous interview that you were considering becoming an Orthodox Christian. If you did end up converting, is there any relationship between your spiritual journey and your music, especially when approaching this album? What is it like to be Orthodox in the metal scene?
John: Yes, I did end up converting to Orthodox Christianity; I was baptized and chrismated on 20 April 2019, which was Lazarus Saturday (the day before Palm Sunday).
Regarding whether my worldview has affected my music, I would say in some sense absolutely. I have always worn my beliefs on my sleeves: In our first two albums there is an undercurrent of non-theistic ideas like nihilism, atheism, agnosticism, and in our third album a little more openness to ideas concerning the divine, in our fourth album a little openness towards Christianity specifically, and our most recent album has some explicitly Christian themes.
However, I never want my beliefs to take control of the album, whether it’s atheism or Christianity; I don’t want our music to preach on behalf of any worldview. The Christian elements in Let There be Nothing are not contrived, but rather a feature of General Belisarius’ character. Just because I am a Christian and the band’s lyricist does not mean I want the band to be considered Christian. I only want to tell compelling stories.
As far as what it’s like to be a Christian in the metal scene, I’m certainly very aware that I’m in a minority within the community. I will say though that, by and large, metalheads are very warm and welcoming people. Metal is not a mainstream genre of music, and so many of its fans are not mainstream. I guess I’m just trying to say that most metalheads know what it’s like to be a minority in some sense, and so they’re sensitive to how others are treated.
Jeremy: One issue I’m wrestling with lately is the connections between heavy metal narratives on European history to nationalist, eurocentric, and/or racist agendas. Several bands in Europe, North America, and Oceania flirt with or even embrace these connections, though others like Atlantean Kodex seem to square their themes of nostalgia for their collective European heritage with an explicit opposition to nationalism and fascism. As an American band that writes mainly on European history, what are your thoughts on this?
John: I think it’s good to be proud of where you’re from and to cherish your nation’s traditions and history. If it is this “healthy nationalism,” then great. However, when this crosses over into an unhealthy or excessive devotion to the country, at the expense of morality, justice, and so on, then I have a big problem. I think the extremes of fascism and communism are extraordinarily dangerous, and that we are still seeing these two ideologies manifest and butt heads in the modern day. We need to be vigilant.
To the point on nationalism though, this is part of what has prevented me from writing an album’s lyrics about American history. A lot of American history is so incredibly tricky, because while I think it was a good and moral thing for us to enter World War II, I think it was atrocious for us to bomb German civilians (Dresden, for example) and especially for us to use nuclear weapons against the Japanese (on civilians too, no less!). When you examine American history, so often you find a strong plus but then also an equally strong minus. For how fragile the U.S. is right now in terms of culture, politics, and faith, I wouldn’t want to produce an album that is too negative, but I also wouldn’t want to ignore or sugar-coat anything. I have thought about this a lot, and I do have ideas that I think would be appropriate and constructive, but time will tell if we end up moving forward with any American history albums.
Jeremy: Thanks so much for your time in answering my questions. I hope to see you guys on tour once the world returns to some semblance of normal. I look forward to seeing what direction you go next!
John: I really appreciate it! Thank you. This has been a fascinating interview and I really look forward to seeing how this is received. I really like the work you’re doing and look forward to more.
You can order Let There Be Nothing here: https://smarturl.it/judicatormetal
Check out Judicator on Bandcamp, Facebook, and Spotify.
Judicator can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.