According to Romanian mythology, the Varcolac is a wolf demon said to have emerged from the souls of unbaptised children. A grisly beast rooted in Catholic complexities – the perfect subject for the jauntiest song on Powerwolf’s new, eighth album, Call Of The Wild.
“The Varcolac is like the king of the werewolves, so I wanted to have a massive, marching riff to illustrate the mightiness of this entity,” says Powerwolf guitarist Matthew Greywolf. “For Powerwolf lyrics, there are always two levels: if you are interested, you can read something more about them, or, you can just enjoy the lyrics and sing along!”
Frankly, it’s impossible not to sing along – it’s ridiculously catchy.
No one could have guessed that a bombastic, werewolf-themed German power metal band who sing operatic anthems about mythological beasts and religious romps (Resurrection By Erection, anyone?) would become one of the biggest metal bands in Europe. Almost 20 years into their career and now on album number eight, the five-piece are huge in Germany, racking up No.1 albums and headlining the 75,000- capacity Wacken festival in 2019.
But their success spreads beyond their homeland: they have more than a million monthly listeners on Spotify, a host of famous fans and are due to play London’s Roundhouse in October. Turns out that quite a lot of people enjoy chanting along to songs about undead boners.
Powerwolf bounded onto the metal scene in 2003 with an intriguing backstory: brothers and guitarists Matthew and Charles Greywolf were on holiday in Romania when they met Attila Dorn – a half-Romanian, half-Hungarian opera singer who was mad about myths and legends, and was the perfect final puzzle piece for Powerwolf.
A quick Google search will tell you this backstory is fiction – though many believed it when Powerwolf first appeared. The Greywolfs aren’t brothers, or called Greywolf, and the mysterious man behind Attila Dorn isn’t Romanian or Hungarian, but also German – and he and most of the other bandmembers were once in a stoner rock band called Red Aim. This backstory is all part of the theatre of Powerwolf, and while it’s no secret that it’s part of the show, the band do their interviews ‘in character’.
When Hammer speaks to Matthew Greywolf and keyboard player Falk Maria Schlegel (Attila doesn’t do interviews, but did answer some of our questions via email), it becomes clear that these ‘characters’ they play are toned down when off the stage. There is a ‘wink wink, nudge nudge’ quality to their answers when they’re asked about them, especially Attila: “There’s only one Attila Dorn!” Falk chuckles.
These characters appear to be extensions of themselves – an extra theatrical boost to build upon the immersive world of Powerwolf. As Matthew notes at one point in our conversation, “I couldn’t play a character that was not within me.”
Matthew is clearly the driving force of Powerwolf; he speaks with careful authority and has a serious air. Falk is more excitable, especially when he talks about playing live. They joke with each other and seem genuinely at ease. You believe them when they say that the guys in the band are friends – the only line-up change since the beginning has been the drummer (current sticksman Roel van Helden joined in 2011).
“I always tell people we are friends first, then we are a band,” says Matthew. “That’s important. I’m convinced that when a band stands onstage, you can feel if it’s friends, or a bunch of musicians who are compiled. It’s not about being musicians: it’s about being a pack.”
From the beginning, Powerwolf wanted to invent something that was more than just music. “We wanted to create something musically and visually exciting,” Matthew says. “We didn’t have a concept planned – it was rather spontaneous ideas. Like, ‘Let’s incorporate an organ into heavy metal.’ It was a pretty adventurous time when we wrote the first album [2005’s Return In Bloodred].”
“We had a vision to deliver this entertainment element,” adds Falk Maria. “We even had the make-up from the early days, though we have definitely improved that! Ha ha ha! In those days, there were no Youtube tutorials on make-up!”
“The inspiration in those early days was theatre, like how in theatre you use make-up to enhance and masquerade the characters of the actors,” says Matthew, adding that Attila’s ‘background’ in opera and musicals was an influence in trying this. “I think musicians can learn a lot from theatre.”
To go with their dramatic look, Powerwolf’s songs often delve into elaborate narratives – myths and legends, historical figures, and fantastical tales of werewolves and vampires. The first song they wrote together, Mr Sinister, set the tone for what was to come – supposedly influenced by Attila’s passion for Romanian mythology, it’s about 15th-century Romanian prince Vlad the Impaler, the man who inspired the character of Dracula.
On Call Of The Wild, they explore legends of beasts from around the world – there is the aforementioned Varcolac, while Beast Of Gévaudan tells of a mysterious creature that spread terror in 18th-century France, and Blood For Blood (Faoladh) explores the Irish werewolf, the Faoladh.
“The interesting thing is that a lot of these folkloric legends are connected to religious elements,” Matthew says. “One of the theories about the beast of Gévaudan was that it was the revenge of God for the sinful life of mankind. These stories are super-interesting to write lyrics about for Powerwolf, because they perfectly fit.”
They fit because Christian symbolism is arguably the key theme of Powerwolf, from the visuals, to the songs, to the performances. Matthew describes their look as “priests on a battlefield”, they call their live shows the ‘metal mass’, and the religious themes on their albums are extravagantly overt – their second album, Lupus Dei, was about a wolf who found enlightenment, and 2018’s The Sacrament Of Sin examined the concept of transgression.
Matthew grew up Catholic, and his fascination with the church began early on. “From a young age already I was starting to doubt something about the whole concept [of the church],” he says, “but I still enjoyed the celebration, the liturgy. When we formed Powerwolf we found out that we were all, in a morbid way, fascinated with the visuals. The cathedrals, the liturgy, all of these things, so we started to integrate them because they felt natural to us.”
Powerwolf’s holy themes have left some listeners confused, wondering if they were Christian fanatics, or Satanic God-haters. But Powerwolf’s take on the church is usually presented with tongues firmly in cheeks, with plenty of over-the-top anthems – the aforementioned Resurrection By Erection is, er, a firm fan favourite, as well as Sanctified With Dynamite and Raise Your Fist, Evangelist. Many of their music videos seriously up the clerical camp – like the jaunty Demons Are A Girl’s Best Friend, which shows Attila canoodling with a bunch of naughty nuns. On the new album, there is the absurdly catchy Undress To Confess.
“This kind of humour is a means to make clear that this is not a religious message we deliver,” Matthew says. “We’re entertainers. We’re not religious preachers or critics. I think that religion and spirituality is very private, very intimate, so we wouldn’t make a religious statement. How serious can we be about religion if we have a song called Resurrection By Erection?”
“I’d say that metal is our religion,” adds Falk. “If you ask people who listen to metal, it’s always a bit like a religion for them – so we turn that into our stage outfits, our props and everything, so there is this connection to the lifestyle as a metalhead.”
“We don’t pray to God or Satan – we pray to heavy metal,” adds Matthew.
But there is one song on Call Of The Wild that shows a new side to Powerwolf. Glaubenskraft (‘Power Of Faith’) is their first song that takes religion seriously – and criticises it.
“Last year, for the first time in the history of Powerwolf, I felt the urge to write about something serious: how the church deals with recent cases of abuse within the ranks,” Matthew says. “It’s not about the actual abuse, but about how in Germany, church law stands above constitutional law: investigating these cases is up to the church itself, it’s not investigated by federal forces. That left me speechless.”
Matthew admits that taking this stance against the church contradicts Powerwolf’s approach to religion. “Usually we don’t do that,” he says. “But this was something I needed to address. It’s 2021, not the Middle Ages.”
But don’t expect Powerwolf to take a U-turn into full-on serious subject matter just yet... “It was important for me to bring a good balance again with Undress To Confess,” Matthew says. “Yes, we talk about something very serious in Glaubenskraft, but at the same time, we’re still entertainers. This humour is important to bring it all into balance.”
Glaubenskraft shows that Powerwolf aren’t afraid to mix things up. From the outside, their schtick might seem gimmicky, but it isn’t set in stone. “Every album and tour is like a new chapter in our story,” Matthew says. “This concept we have is constantly moving. There are no rules to how it’s going to look – we want to keep it open.”
Everything comes together in Powerwolf’s live show. Their super-charged, wildly theatrical ‘metal masses’ see the band leaping across the stage with manic grins while pyro spouts, wind machines blow, and Attila looms over the whole thing, looking like a demon priest dug up from the grave.
When Hammer asks Attila via email what he enjoys most about Powerwolf, the answer is simple: “Performing onstage and interacting with the audience.” Powerwolf live is a serious power metal party that will surely put a grin on the face of even the kvltist metallers – even if they’re just laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.
“We call our shows the ‘metal mass’ because it gives the audience power, and they give power to us,” says Falk, getting excited. “It’s about interaction. You can still breathe the energy after a show. I often enter the venue [after a show] when it’s empty, to breathe in this energy. I’m so addicted to it.”
Unusually for a keyboard player, Falk is a focal point in Powerwolf’s shows – he leaps out from behind the keys to interact with the audience, shouting along to the lyrics without a mic, and generally being outrageous. And he loves it. “Keyboard players are mostly very boring onstage,” Falk says. “I always wanted to do it in a different way, to interact with the audience.”
“It’s pretty close to theatre, right?” Matthew says. “This movement Falk does, this cheering up the audience, wasn’t planned. But when he did it, we realised, ‘This is special, this is good entertainment, let’s go for it!’ Falk is one of the best metal pantomimes, ever.”
Wolves, vampires, naughty nuns... Powerwolf’s modus operandi is about having fun, and celebrating the love of heavy metal. Almost 20 years on, they haven’t tired of being in the pack.
“For me, the dream has come true,” says Falk. “I remember going to see Iron Maiden at a festival in Germany on their Fear Of The Dark tour, and Nicko [McBrain] took a picture of the audience, with everyone throwing cups everywhere. It was an amazing atmosphere. I was thinking I wanted to have that one day. I wanted to play on a big stage. And now I have it, and I am so grateful. I feel it in my blood and everywhere. It makes me happy every time.”
“I’m more motivated now than I’ve ever been to continue the dream that is Powerwolf,” Matthew says. “Of course, growing success is a good motivation! But we have also preserved this enthusiasm for the music; sometimes it’s a very naive kind of enthusiasm. The bigger a band grows, the more important it is to get back to being just five guys, who are totally crazy about heavy metal."
Published in Metal Hammer #350. Powerwolf's new album Call Of The Wild is out now via Napalm. Powerwolf play London's Roundhouse on October 8.