Cello, synths, bagpipes and melodic death metal: Scottish husband-and-wife duo Hand Of Kalliach are doing folk music a little differently

Hand Of Kalliach
(Image credit: Matthieu Gill)

Like the titular whirlpool of their second album Corryvreckan, Hand Of Kalliach’s rush of melodic death metal and Gaelic folk music will pull you under a vortex of powerful guitars and ethereal siren songs. The Edinburgh-based husband-and-wife duo weave tales around ancient myths and legends as grand as their Scottish homeland.

“It was a wild and weird project that we wanted to do just for us,” guitarist and vocalist John Fraser says. “Something to really escape and break up the monotony [of the pandemic lockdowns].” John and his wife, co-vocalist Sophie Fraser, have three young children and have led a quiet life in the nine years they’ve been married. Never in their wildest dreams would they have thought they’d be releasing music together, let alone sign to a record label. “I got asked in an interview how I feel about being a musician,” Sophie says. “I don’t think I’d actually realised that I was a musician. It’s just very strange to think of myself like that. I’m a very accidental musician.”

Stuck at home in 2020, the Frasers fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole of Scottish folklore, tinkering with putting those stories against an undertow of death metal and amplified with melodies of traditional Gaelic music. “We’d talked about doing something for a while with a Celtic vein that had a very different interpretation of folk,” John says. “Obviously at the moment you've got a lot of popularity of Nordic mythology, but there's as much on the Scottish mythology side of things that nobody knows about, including Scottish people. So it was a lot of fun digging into that – the more you dig, the more there is.”

On a whim, they released their first few demos through Bandcamp, expecting to get lost in the endless ocean of new and independent music. But instead, they found an audience, inspiring them to self-release their debut album, Samhainn, in 2021. In January 2024, it was announced they had signed with Prosthetic ahead of the release of new album Corryvreckan a month later. 

“I think we were emboldened and confident that we had the right sort of sound and that we were in the right ballpark,” John said about their evolution to Corryvreckan.  John and Sophie met about 12 years ago in what she recalls was “a really grubby, crusty rock club in Aberdeen.” Folk music has been part of their relationship since the start.

“One of our first dates was at this little pub called The Blue Lantern,” she says, turning to John. “There was this incredible folk night and this female singer who had haunting vocals. That’s kind of stayed with us and we try and emulate that quite a lot, [that] traditional, ethereal, haunting kind of sound.”

Hand Of Kalliach have adopted these elements into their signature sound. Contrasting Sophie’s ghostly, disembodied croon against John’s growl and wall-of-sound guitars, their songs can range from mesmerising and soothing to utterly apocalyptic. “We kind of stumbled onto it,” John admits. “Sophie was doing some high vocals for the first demo and when we were playing it back I’d accidentally left three of the other takes on the channel at the same time. It created this amazingly, freaky chorus effect which, because it was so high pitched, had this spectral quality.”

Hand of Kalliach’s lyrics are sung in both Gaelic and English, while swells of cello, synths and bagpipes augment pummelling death metal riffs, translating the aggressiveness of melodeath without drowning the listener in twee folk stereotypes. “We really want the folk to build the atmosphere more than anything,” John says. “Fundamentally, a lot of what we’re making is rooted in melodic death metal.”

Even the band’s name is taken from Scottish folklore, the Callieach an ancient witch god of winter, said to live at the bottom of the Corryvreckan whirlpool. Fascinated by the Cailleach’s dual nature, they’ve used her contrasting legends to inspire all angles of their band. “The split tales that you see in the mythology really resonated with where we were going sonically,” John says. “We’re trying to build that duality and contrast.”

The Frasers want their success to inspire other budding artists. Their music didn’t get discovered because they were following a trend, but because they were being true to who they were and what they wanted to do. “There’s probably a lot of bands who thought nobody was gonna listen,” Sophie says. “We want other people to have the stones to just give it a try and back themselves,” John adds. 

The next step is getting the band on stage with aims to eventually tour the UK. The Frasers have recruited a live guitarist and drummer and rehearse whenever they can find someone to watch the kids. Their biggest challenge is balancing the amount of atmospherics and layers to translate to the live show.

“We can’t have a full choir and a harpist and a cellist up on stage,” John says. “We’re still working out the kinks just to make sure it’s going to sound right.” But the practices have fuelled their appetite to take Hand of Kalliach to the next level. Until recently, their music only existed in their headphones. Now there are other musicians playing their songs the way they were meant to be played. “It was actually the first time we’d heard our sounds being played loud,” John says. “It was like, ‘Wow! This is such a lift and a blast!’”