“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Original English text crafted by Maximus Rex, Defender of the Faith
Dutch translation plight for Hetman Degtyarev (Coming relatively soon)
Photography conceived by Usvakorpi
The concept of ‘the epic’ is as old as the gods, or at least as long as we have been writing about them. From the aspirations of Arjuna in the Mahabharata to the supernatural struggles of Gilgamesh, and from the swaggering imperialism of King David to the wily wanderer Ulysses, many of the highest literary accomplishments in our history have included an impressive sense of not only something that is simply so massive or magnificent as to be beyond our comprehension, but rather something that ignites our imagination; we might not be able to rationally conceive of Fafnir becoming the wicked wyrm as though it could happen to any one of us at a time of greed or material attachment, but we can imaginatively conceive of this happening, and certainly we can conceive of its symbolic, mythic, and moral significance. It is important to consider, too, that the epic is inextricably associated with concepts of Good and Evil, not necessarily on a moral plane, but necessarily on a plane of Being and nonbeing, of light and darkness. Persephone is pulled down by Hades and rescued by Hermes, but not before she has tasted the death of the underworld, and thus surrenders a portion of her fertility every year. This is merely one ‘epic’ example to help us understand the cyclical nature of reality, and the everlasting dualistic conflicts between order and chaos.
Our religious traditions and our mythological legends are invariably imbued with terrific and terrifying themes that share a rootedness in the eternal because that is how we understand the larger dimensions of reality – we apperceive or envision the formal domain on a metaphysical level, and then we clothe it with shades of the familiar, the sensible domain. The result is the epic, which is therefore the extraordinary superimposed upon the ordinary, the latter being at once the host and the beneficiary of the former; it is therefore the quality of connectedness between time and eternity, the profane and the sacred, man and God. Thus understood, the epic is hardly a ‘literary device’, and neither is it merely another genre or particular style – it is universal, and therefore includes all the pathos of tragedy and all the optimism of comedy within its proper definition. Finally, the epic, in those rare, joyous moments of absolute success, makes such a strong impact and stubbornly endures the passage of time by virtue of the response it invokes in man: we are compelled to protect, evangelize, and preserve these precious heirlooms by means of which we come to realize the inner exigencies of the cosmos and to participate meaningfully in its beauty and mystery.
“For those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality.” – Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
While the broad, socio-religious effects of ‘the epic’ have clearly made themselves known most demonstrably through the literary arts in European history, music has arguably managed better in this regard in the past two centuries or so. Despite the occasional tremor in the (post-Blakean) Romantics and the exceptional earthquakes that were Goethe’s Faust and Tolkien’s Legendarium, as a whole Western literature has been dwarfed by the powers of Western music in respect to the invocation of the epic per se. (That the superiority of music, which is ostensibly an art form more attuned to the semi-conscious, ‘dionysian’ forces of our genius, has to do with the climactic ascension of Spengler’s ‘Faustian soul’ we have no doubts, but that is neither here nor there.) From the titanic efforts of Wagner to recreate the naive vitality of the northern pagans to the subtler ambitions of bands like King Crimson and Yes to once again perceive imaginatively the world we live in, and again to the contemporary attempts to remember a ‘solar’ mythos as found in Burzum‘s Belus and Nokturnal Mortum‘s The Voice of Steel, it is evident that music is the medium through which we can most clearly express the sublime, the epic.
The literature of Dostoevsky and Baudelaire, of Mann and Kafka, has generally delved into the more ‘mundane’, personal problems of existentialism, self-discovery, and surreal journeys of the psyche. All of these are undoubtedly valuable subjects for the post-modern individual who is indeed a more or less totally individuated being by now – but, as of this moment, none of us are post-modern individuals; none of us are lost in the vast spaces of the universe without so much as an inkling of our real identities. Right now we are all seekers of glory and magic, of Homeric warfare, and of deep, unyielding, impossible sorrows – right now we are simply seeking the epic.
“Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is only a faint shadow.”
Summoning are a band that is intimately familiar with our subject. In a period when bands all over Europe and the United States were saturating the black metal movement with boring, derivative, and domesticated music that cast poor shadows of the Scandinavian originals, Summoning sought a different sort of inspiration. They quickly found it from God-knows-where when they released Minas Morgu and especially Dol Guldur, an album that obviously has some outer vestiges of black metal but is really of an entirely unique order in its essence. This is music that aimed to be the foremost soundtrack to the legends of Middle-earth; everyone appreciates ‘The Battle of Evermore’, but there can be no question that a song like “Khazad-Dum” is more thoroughly convincing in its deeply pathetic, resonant demonstration of the bridge, the demon, and the grey wizard’s fall. The landscapes and the stories of Tolkien’s imaginal realm comprise the lyrical and aesthetic content of Summoning‘s work not because they are fascinating or fantastic, but because they are real, because they awaken the dormant imagination of the twenty-first century man, and because the music itself requires subject matter that can offer the same mythical depth as that which is implied by the songwriting.
Some black metal acts frequently adopt Satanic imagery in an effort to cultivate an image that evokes an aura of great evil in order to align the music into a position strictly opposite of Christianity; others have tried to see themselves as pre-Christian bands that strive to remember the myths and even the general ethos of the Nordic, Celtic, and Slavic pagans. Both of these angles have honestly created music that accords with their ideology, but we wonder whether any of the examples from either of them have enjoyed the same success, whether any of them have approached the epic to the same proximity as have Summoning. Sure, there have been some valiant attempts – the majesty of In the Nightside Eclipse, the unsettling meditations of Filosofem, the Manowar-esque, pompous melodrama of Pure Holocaust, the frigid melodies of Far Away from the Sun; perhaps Graveland has come closest in its steady stream of intelligent releases that come nearer and nearer to an enlightened mysticism based on an higher, more durable order. None of these artists (with the possible exception of something like Bathory‘s Twilight of the Gods, which of course is not fully black metal either), however, have exhibited to the same degree the epic quality of their music. They have produced some excellent material, sometimes even better material on a purely artistic basis than have Summoning, but it is of a different quality all the same.
The general target for the black metal artist is firstly to awaken the subtle, ‘dionysiac’ forces of the subconscious; just like E.A. Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, their art is manifestly dark and ominous because they are often communicating to (and about) the same faculties within us. They typically forecast the emergence of the repressed in an inner apocalypse that destroys the safe, illusory constructs that the conscious mind has established as barriers to protect itself from the darkness below. The perpetual presence of Satan and other symbols of evil in the black metal aesthetic is a reflection of its alleged antipathy to Christianity, the religious tradition which it almost invariably sees as an oppressive, occupying power; but in reality the opposition is directed toward the ‘ego’, the conscious mind, the society at large that acts as the tyrant suppressing the native creativity of the ‘libido’, the Dionysus god lurking in Jung’s ‘unconscious’. The recurring symbols of the moon, water, night, nocturnal animals, demons, and other instances of telluric, feminine imagery all help us to identify the fundamental meaning of black metal, that it is, namely, the natural reaction when the dying day has reached its twilight.
“It was lunar symbolism that enabled man to relate and connect such heterogeneous things as: birth, becoming, death, and resurrection; the waters, plants, woman, fecundity, and immortality; the cosmic darkness, prenatal existence, and life after death, followed by the rebirth of the lunar type (“light coming out of darkness”); weaving, the symbol of the “thread of life,” fate, temporality, and death; and yet others. In general most of the ideas of cycle, dualism, polarity, opposition, conflict, but also of reconciliation of contraries, of coincidentia oppositorum, were either discovered or clarified by virtue of lunar symbolism. We may even speak of a metaphysics of the moon, in the sense of a consistent system of “truths” relating to the mode of being peculiar to living creatures, to everything in the cosmos that shares in life, that is, in becoming, growth and waning, death and resurrection.”
– Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
That is why we said above how the nature of Summoning is perfectly distinct from those bands which one might be tempted to call their forebears. Where bands like Gorgoroth or Mayhem are directly assaulting the more underground regions of our psyche, Summoning have expressly attuned their music to visit us via the more available media of our conscious mind and our imaginative, creative faculty. To give a more concrete example, very few of us are driven to seriously research the dark arts, to peruse the Satanic bible, or to burn churches, or whatever it is that unholy hooligans do, but certainly we are reminded by the music of Summoning to revisit Middle-earth or similar lands; the chosen mythos is now an intricate part of our civilization, and by incorporating it, Summoning are maximizing the mythic potential of their music – we identify so easily with the characters and the narrative because we are so starved of stories that speak to the imagination in our mechanized, specialized, and perversely dissected modern environment. The music itself, with magnificent, bombastic melodies that have no right to sound so genuine coming from a keyboard, and orchestral, euro-centric percussion that cannot fail to remind us either of sky-scraping mountains or of imminent war, is profoundly solar; there is absolutely no necessity to appeal to the lunar, subconscious dimensions when the music is so patently glorious, so patently sympathetic to our conscious needs and desires. Metaphorically speaking, where black metal might be like Saruman bewitching Theoden through little lies and half-truths, slowly corrupting him to surrender his country without a fight, Summoning are rather like Theoden mounting his steed to charge down the Uruk-Hai in a last ride of the Rohirrim; whereas the former is a clever act of outer beguilement to Theoden’s wavering ego, the latter is an inner act of defiance against fate, the suicidal yet only available course of action that Theoden in all of the nobility of consciousness can possibly choose.
“Arise now, arise, Riders of Theoden!
Dire deeds awake, dark is it eastward.
Let horse be bridled, horn be sounded!
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Each Summoning album tells its own tale; each one of their albums is as categorically different from any other as The Lord of the Rings is to The Hobbit, or The Children of Hurin is to The Silmarillion. This is why the band decides to write a record on their own terms, when the inspiration for a new legend arrives – if it were otherwise we might wonder if an album was merely the superfluous extension of its predecessor. At any rate, we have been truly blessed this year with the visionary accomplishment that is Old Morning’s Dawn, a release which is without question the finest release of 2013, and a release which actually surpasses every other Summoning album since their magnum opus, Dol Guldur.
It is difficult to say whether any prior Summoning effort is quite so romantic as Old Morning’s Dawn. To be sure, they have historically managed to convey a strong sense of the heroic, of course, as well as the tragic; such songs as “Nightshade Forests” attest to this claim, but there has not ever been such an emphasis on the kind of ‘natural idealism’ as found presently. The music echoes such song titles as “Earthshine”, “Caradhas”, and “The Wandering Fire” when it proclaims the full authority of the natural realm, the kind of authority that does not ask us to kneel but compels us to by its sheer presence. The listener is positively and progressively filled with awe as the initially gentle, inviting melodic passage easily transitions to an imposing, glacial impasse; the soaring notes of the synth lines inspire a mood of light-headed introspection, as though we were climbing the Misty Mountains ourselves. The low, faded guitar tones, however, as well as the precise, intricately arranged percussive patterns keep us grounded and prevent us from falling into abstraction or an oxygen-deprived kind of intoxication. While the narrative rises and falls in distinct, consequential motions, its atmosphere never becomes anything tempestuous; it rather assumes a delightful grace, a humble serenity in which we can better adulate the beauty of the environment surrounding us. Moreover, whereas the vocals are predominately in the form of a vague kind of shriek, the listener is hardly impressed by any harshness whatsoever. The transparent atmosphere is again commanding us to fall to our knees before its majesty, an effect which is assisted by the occasional choral vocals or spoken voice, which happily supply a masculine, martial support to the sometimes ethereal soundscape.
The music of Summoning has often been of a thematically ambiguous constitution, prone to investigating the shadows of the universe in light of the human heroism that lives in them, thus creating a delicate pathos that touches both life and death in a genuine, unrehearsed manner. This has never been more the case than in Old Morning’s Dawn, however, where the music is cast into an optimistic, more hopeful hue, and yet sacrifices none of the looming darkness and threatening grandeur for it. The almost ‘folkish’ introduction to “Caradhas”, for example, founds a soft, peaceful mood at the root of the song that the listener is affected empathetically by, and cannot help but feel for the central motif, in spite and partially because of the dangers that are thrust upon it later on in the track. There is at once an aura of sadness, but also of a grim, irrational determination to survive the chasm, to win despite dying, perhaps not unlike Frodo’s realization that his struggles with the Ring will mean his death to the world, regardless of whether he succeeds or not. This song, with its immaculately coherent narrative, its main melodic chords, and its dual cheerful and tragic conclusion plays a special role in invigorating this album with the dramatic tension that defines every powerful story. This song also epitomizes the duality of there being life in the midst of death and darkness.
The romantic, naturalistic elements of this album are significant not in the sense of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the forces of nature react to the false stewardship of man by revealing their effective, unpredictable potency, but rather in the sense of Wordsworth, who captures the simple wonders and naive pleasures of nature, and of Blake, who shows that all the beauty of nature would mean very little without the human being to experience and imaginatively enliven it. The natural world can be a mechanical thing built of metal and wheels and business, it can be a sensuous, pastoral paradise to lose oneself in, or it can be a playground in which we enjoy our first kiss, discover delicious or medicinal vegetation, and find the source for metaphor and poetic illumination. The sun is converted into energy by the ‘great Satanic mills’; but the sun is also the brilliant entity that kills each night and regularly resurrects the day. That is precisely what one half of Old Morning’s Dawn strives to represent: the daily awakening of the light, the suddenness of gold across the long, dusky horizon, and the hasty retreat of the shadows as the gods of the visible domain return to their kingdom, their throne.
The other half of this album, however, is plunged into a depth of a nocturnal atmosphere and a wistful nostalgia, constituting the other part of the duality we referred to above. The title track, for example, with its leading melody and prevailing motif, is highly suggestive of something ancient, or of something ancient that persists in a strange, newfangled age; the contrasting rasps, the tenor chants, and the brief narration contribute to an overall experience of long, empty halls filled with ancestral memoirs and a wealth of heirlooms with no heir apparent. The lyrics themselves at first clearly indicate the gloom apparent in the song’s expression: “I am not the light you see / But only that which is falling on me”. This could mean an heir to a great house, whose only honour is not his own but that of the old family name, or it could mean simply the light of the moon as the dim reflection of the sun, which corroborates the major theme of the album, namely, the interaction between light and darkness, the black purity before the ascension of the dawn. Once more, though, we are provided hope when the narrator tells us at the end how “old days come to life again”, and the cycle repeats itself as the sadness of nostalgia becomes the optimistic blueprint for the succeeding age.
Where once Summoning drew forth albums named Lugburz and Minas Morgual, and Dol Guldur, all of which being fortresses of the Lord Sauron, Old Morning’s Dawn features a song entitled “The White Tower”, which of course is the highest point of Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor and by extension of the free world of men. This is the clearest encapsulation of two things: first, the even greater removal of Summoning from the black metal genre and its driving ethos, and secondly the outstanding progression of the Summoning project in itself. Whereas formerly (in the mid-nineties) they were drifting onwards with a clear musical plan yet had an incomplete artistic vision; with a lingering black metal aesthetic which always hinted at the idea that the band really cheered for the orcs, and a relatively innovative musical shape that was still early in its development, the early albums, for all of their genius, were yet in a state of confusion. In Old Morning’s Dawn we are witness to an emphatically mature instalment, a real transformation into something properly coherent whilst maintaining its high levels of raw, creative energy.
This album is an interesting synthesis not only in the formal sense between vision and music, but between darkness and light, nostalgia for the past and hope for the future; instead of presenting two opposites in diametric opposition, Old Morning’s Dawn is the elaboration of their interaction in the sensible world, the ordinary reality in which concrete things, not platonic ideas, dwell. The strength of the sun is celebrated via its vassal the moon, and through the unrelenting hints of its eventual victory, the euphoric moment when it finally breaks from the mysteries of the night in the full glory of dawn. The highly melodic, supremely conscious qualities of the music reflect, vindicate, and propel the essential, artistic will of its creators, resulting in an album that unveils the majesty of our world through that of Tolkien’s; the authority of the timeless is conveyed through the manifestation of the mythical, the cyclical. That is what makes Old Morning’s Dawn the superlative expression of light and the good in their eternal struggle with darkness and evil, and this is what makes Old Morning’s Dawn epic.
“Don’t grieve for me
I’m not there
I am the gentle autumn rain
Hold up my lamp to light your way
Farewell to thee”
Upon listening to Echoes of Battle, the debut album of a band that came out of nowhere, you would not be likely to imagine that its makers are American citizens, much less that they are from Salt Lake City, a place famous for its deep-rooted Mormonism if nothing else. Much like Summoning, who are clearly Caladan Brood‘s principal inspiration, the music sounds as though it arrives directly from the Austrian Alps, imbued as it is with an unmistakably European aura that commands the listener’s initial impressions as well as his last. That it comes instead from a city in view of the Wasatch Mountain Range in Utah is surprising not for any perceived inferiority on the behalf of those blameless mountains but simply for the fact that Americans have historically been altogether underwhelming in terms of creating long, thoughtful, majestic, and epic heavy metal – even the best of black metal has been beyond their capabilities, limiting themselves to the bestial filth of Profranatica and Nyogthaeblisz or the thrashing black / death fusions of Order From Chaos and Absu. We can make our point clearer yet if we bring to mind the massive success that Quebec has had on this front, creating a legitimate movement in black metal that rivals even their original French homeland. The reality is that, as much as we love ‘epic’ bands such as Manowar and Manilla Road, there is astonishingly little by way of comparison with continental or Quebecois romantic, intelligent black metal in the United States, which is why it was axiomatically unthinkable that any American band should resemble Summoning, one of the most quintessentially European artists of recent years.
Unthinkable, that is, until this year, until the sudden birth of Caladan Brood, who have not merely imitated their forebears almost to perfection, but have infact introduced their own distinct elements to the model. Summoning conceive a subtle, engrossing atmosphere via the patient process of layering one dimension on top of another and highly cyclical structuring, in both repeated phrasing and in reverberating one effect into the other to create the semblance of an everlasting composition, like playing the entire string of Beethoven‘s symphonies successively. Caladan Brood, on the other hand, lacking this kind of diligence as well as the vast experience of Summoning, depend upon a more linear narrative; far from developing a single, multifaceted theme throughout the course of a song, the typical track in Echoes of Battle is comprised of several different musical themes that are progressively revealed as the song takes shape. The composition, therefore, is anatomically similar to that of the common story: it establishes a foundation in an ominous, tense, but quiet introduction, builds on it through plot development and rising melodic action, then climaxes in a crescendo of aural intensity and dramatic pathos before finally settling into a sad, reflective resolution that dwells thoughtfully on what has just transpired.
This is a highly persuasive form of songwriting by virtue of the support it provides to the overarching telos of the album, which is of course a collection of descriptive stories testifying to the collapse of empires and the fragility of human institutions in the face of merciless time. Lyrically, Caladan Brood are motivated by the fantasy novels of Steven Erikson, but the band have wisely approached their lyrics from a broader angle in order to avoid the problem of limiting the music’s direction into a too narrow field, into the restraints that would necessarily be imposed by the specificities of Erikson’s imaginary realm. The overall vision, then, as evinced by both the lyrics and the instrumentation, is that of mixed sentiments of nostalgia and stoic intellection over the inevitability of death; nothing lasts in this reality that is subject to space and time. Caladan Brood are coldly efficient in demonstrating both the human element, the sadness we naturally feel at the moment that we are touched by decay, and the sheer logic that this is what happens and there is nothing whatsoever that we can do about it.
‘Temples crumble as the great wheel turns
Ground to dust
Monuments and megaliths unnamed
Fall the same
Earth and sky enrobed in deathless void
Worm of Autumn claims its final throne”
One particular factor of Battle that exemplifies this nostalgic approach, and therefore helps clarify the passage between form and content, is the use of the clean, choral vocals. The black metal rasps are typically utilized to evoke a sort of death in themselves, to inform the listener of the perpetual presence of decay, but it is the employment of the accompanying chants that plays a special contribution. This is what we meant earlier by the ‘human element’, namely, the evolution of a pristine pathos, of an unwavering memory that the speaker tries again and again to dislodge but which only returns to remind him of former glories, of better days gone by, which naturally causes him further pain in the poverty of the present. The deep, sonorous vocals are almost overwhelming in their genuine feeling and heroic expression, which add doubly to the visceral and epic themes of the composition.
The emphatic display of melodic counterpoint, moreover, is another gateway to the elucidation of Caladan Brood‘s vision. In both the pliable, gentle synth lines, which are a nearly constant characteristic, and more importantly the riffs that emerge sparingly but effectively, the melody is precisely adapted to the contours of the song, and unfailingly manages to reinforce whatever mood that has already been founded. Naturally, the melodic lines usually take the shape of a prolonged sadness, again providing the music with that transparent nostalgia which plays such a vital and recurrent role. Every once in a while, however, notably during the climax of “To Walk the Ashes of Dead Empires” as well as the finale “Book of the Fallen”, the instrumental melody unites with the molten rhythmic base and the pure, seraphic power of the clean vocals to create a harmony which inspires an entirely heroic surge, overrunning everything in the way. All of the limp melancholy and all of the rationale behind the ruthless determinacy of time are thereby swept aside in an ascendant moment of human defiance; whatever conditions we live in are merely that, merely obstacles that we must rise above and that ultimately grant us greater glory in the eternity of the present moment, the nunc stans. Thus, Caladan Brood wave the ragged, defeated banner of Hope in the true spirit of humanity, despite the fallen world that they have depicted so dismally.
Whereas Caladan Brood share with Summoning many of the same accidental features, such as their orchestral percussion, triumphant, ‘otherworldly’ melodic phrasing, and unfamiliar themes from older, stranger lands, they are nevertheless distinct, an artistic campaign unto themselves. This is mainly because they have managed to build off of the Summoning paradigm whilst not enthralling themselves to it; the Brood retain the grandeur, but apply an ‘American’ immediacy that happily grounds the articulate subtleties, the often flighty (but almost always met) ambitions of the Austrians, with whom they cannot help but be compared. There is a more familiar sense of rhythm, for example, manifest particularly in the plodding, mid-paced guitar chords.
The most critical point in this juxtaposition, however, is not a difference at all, but a commonality: both Summoning and Caladan Brood are excited with, immersed in, and exceptionally motivated by the epic. This is music that rivals any film score in scope, exceeds any soundtrack in actual quality, and is all the more impressive in offering up a coherent, interesting narrative with a life of its own, independent of the visual story that a movie tells. This is music that manages to avoid the trap of falling into sumptuous cheese or lame kitsch, and in turn manages to become something serious, something that we can contemplate imaginatively. Any kind of ‘Americanism’, where the music takes on a superficial, deceptive disposition, is absent because this is authentic artistry; wherever they come from, wherever they derive their inspiration from does not matter, because Caladan Brood excel beyond the historical limitations of their country. They are universal, because the epic is universal – those beautifully Homeric vocal cascades, those sweeping aural landscapes can emerge of a sudden from where, any place, even deep within Mormon Country, USA.
Finally we arrive at the third in our trilogy of 2013’s epic albums, The White Goddess, the highly celebrated sophomore album of Bavarian act Atlantean Kodex. Just as Caladan Brood are often lumped in as Summoning worship, Atlantean Kodex are frequently likened to their older, English counterpart, Solstice, but not without reason: both play a kind of traditional doom metal à la Candlemass, unafraid either to increase the tempo or to slow it up in long, magnificent monuments. In both cases the music is spoken with a pristine precision, a learned, powerful rhetoric, and a wealth of natural charisma; the instrumentation, from the invariably thunderous rhythm section to the sylvan clarity proffered by the volitant vocals, is wielded with a firm, commanding grip, and conscripted valiantly to the respective ends of either artist. Atlantean Kodex are nevertheless, for reasons we shall describe below, the patently superior project on a moral, artistic, and most of all a conceptual basis. Whereas Solstice are interesting for their distinct descriptions of and relevance to the past, Kodex are fascinating and indeed essential for their prophetic vision and relevance not only to the past, but to the present and the future as well.
Most music that any period divulges is doomed to be delegated to repeating and reinforcing the established conventions that have been entrenched by the gradual progress afforded by recent history; most music is at best an alternate view on what has already been said, and is at worst a derivative regurgitation of what has already been said by someone vastly more articulate and profound. The exception is what defies the popular vote, what topples the status quo; the exception combines the basics of the prior tradition with something fundamentally different, and thereby announces the advent of a fresh, rejuvenated tradition. The truly exceptional are not driven by novelty or ‘originality’, for those are everywhere and always; they are original in that they seek a return to origins. Like Beethoven when he united Classical with the Romantic, causing the old master Haydn to curse and cover his ears, the exceptional is both traditionalist and visionary; the strength of the old is relieved of its grimy crust and is positively renewed in the creation of a new, vigorous form. Without meaning to be melodramatic or excessively hyperbolic, though arguably becoming so anyway, we claim that Atlantean Kodex are all of this insofar as they have envisioned a radical spirit to call the heavy metal vassal home.
‘The epic poet collaborates with the spirit of his time in the composition of his work. That is, if he is successful; the time may refuse to work with him, but he may not refuse to work with his time.” – Lascelles Abercombie, The Epic
Admittedly, the music of Atlantean Kodex is unlike the music of our prior two studies; it is firstly governed by a traditional doom metal Weltanschauung, and is therefore concentrated on creating something deliberately, explicitly ‘heavier’ and more direct than the carefully measured atmospheres that Caladan Brood and especially Summoning construct. There are several riffs, for example, that are burdened with the immense steel of a German Blitzkrieg, moving forward with cold, co-ordinated efficiency to the propulsion laid down by an equally explosive percussive battery – and meanwhile the clean vocals soar overhead to give the onslaught a defiantly, paradoxically human and personal character, rather unlike the Stukas that screamed demonically in advance of the Wehrmacht. The listener might also imagine an ancient sage, a Judean prophet like Isaiah, or possibly someone like Savonarola belting out omens and auguries to an apathetic crowd who nevertheless remain fixated upon the ‘madman’ before them. The melodic element, which is more of an omnipresent on The White Goddess than on Old Morning’s Dawn or Echoes of Battle, is asserted to provide the music with a visceral, providential beauty and a strong compositional breadth that envelops any which song to make it at once engaging and memorable. The music is altogether imbued with the presence of mixed volumes of intense, dark moods of serious warning and more playful, joyous themes that never fail to neutralize any possible interpretation of despair. This unique mixture is indicative of the album’s consistent motif of life and death, which will become evident below.
Atlantean Kodex also diverge from our two previous subjects in respect to lyrical content. While Summoning are most successful when they renovate Middle-earth and all of its mythic splendour in the musical traditions of our own earth, and where Caladan Brood illuminate a lingering sadness and inexorable decay via the legends of Malazan, Atlantean Kodex directly approach the European mythos by means of our actual cosmology; they are inspired by the imaginative metaphysics of history instead of recent literary ‘fictions’, by Mithras and Jesus Christ instead of Galadriel and Cotillion. The objective, too, is more apparent: to adulate and more importantly to recreate the ‘European ethos’, the underlying soul of our civilization from Hector to Metternich, through a consciousness of art that is as visible as it is virile.
There is a flagrant honesty here that defies convention and dares the listener to oppose it. This is not another sappy homage to the tree-gods, or a wistful, neo-pagan commemoration of primitive Nordic and Celtic gods as has always been in vogue within heavy metal. This is instead an album that is remarkable for its devotion to the Latin deities such as Sol Invictus and Europa, which are more enduring icons in that they contain suggestions and powerful prophecies of the full constitution of our civilization, which is, namely, the final baptism of the various pagan nations into the holy waters of Christ and the unity of the Holy Empire. It is not the all-conquering sun that is truly Our Lord, but the all-conquering Son, Who is infact favourably compared with the sun in the Gospels and in the prophecies of the Old Testament.
That it is the Roman religions that are invoked is particularly relevant in that the Roman Empire acts as the unifier par excellence, the politico-cultural institution that, especially when infused with the Christian faith, collects all the different tribes into its custody and generates a kind of socio-spiritual bond that nevertheless leaves individual parts to develop naturally and somewhat independently. This is particularly apropos when we read into the implications of the Christian reality in Atlantean Kodex lyrics, which subsist side-by-side with the reminiscing over Classical Antiquity; just as the Roman Empire acts as the political unifier, so too does the triumphant Roman religion, i.e., Roman Catholicism, act as the spiritual unifier. The universality of the Christian faith is therefore not only a soteriological doctrine, but one of immense worldly importance as well, as anyone from Dante to Hilaire Belloc would tell you. To the everlasting annoyance of neo-pagan adolescents, limp-wristed fedoratheists, and occultist, ‘satanic’ black metallers, Atlantean Kodex pay tribute to what the Christian faith has positively accomplished, as can be seen in the excerpt of a Churchill speech that is incorporated into Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown, one of the most excellent anthems for the enduring strength and pride of Europe in living memory. This is ultimately an album that seeks at once to remove the needless divide between proper paganism and the Roman Church; this is an album that, like the efforts of St. Patrick, Augustine of Canterbury, and Willibrord, seeks to show the pagans both the necessity of the Cross and its compatibility with their native creeds, and in so doing to remind us Christians of the pagan rootedness and integral connection to mundane reality that we often forget in the ongoing process of secularization and sentimentality. Their effort is really, as an associate of mine succinctly points out, to Christianize the Pagans, and to Paganize the Christians. The result is obviously not something, at least in the foreseeable future, that will tangibly achieve anything like that, but still provides us with a terrific dialogue by means of which we can vicariously enjoy the enticing possibility of such an event.
“From darkness grows light, from ashes a fire to conquer the cold
The rites of Yuletide defying the times – The virgin-born child
Sol, Sol Invictus – Shining Guardian of the West
In saecula saeculorum – Conquer with fire and with faith”
The White Goddess is therefore a subtle inclination to, dare we say it, the allegedly oxymoronic ‘Christian metal’. That it is subtle is necessary; any kind of explicit Christian imagery or evangelical fire-breathing and it runs the risk of being just another exaggerated, preachy effort of ‘Christian’ musicians (such as Mortification and Frost Like Ashes) who completely misinterpret the nature of heavy metal. As bands like Black Sabbath, Trouble, Candlemass and even Peste Noire (albeit in a very different way) comprehend, the Christian ethos and traditional aesthetic must be inserted carefully, with a certain acknowledgment of the music’s inherently dark character. Atlantean Kodex are a welcome addition to this unheralded side-plot of the genre; they have proven that they can poetically play with their lyrics to provide a happy alternative to the monotonous bellowing of death and darkness, or of those ‘great’ and ‘noble’ vikings, or of mindless blasphemy for the sole sake of blasphemy.
This is music that is ‘dark’ for the right reasons, which are notably the desperate state of the Christian religion, the victory of the consumerist Goliath, and the seemingly imminent occurrence of Apocalypse in some form or other. And yet, true to the Christian spirit, there is an unmistakable presence of light that reminds us of the hope that is there. The band themselves tell us to ‘consider this album a statement on death and the power that comes with it, on downfall and the beauty of a past we never knew, on the grim, unavoidable truth behind every myth in Western history’. Every tradition has its scripture detailing the End, the Day of Judgment, Kalki’s Ride, Megiddo, the supernatural finality that purges a bloated devolved entity and brings another cycle to a close – this is ‘death and the power that comes with it’. But death also has the power of life, of inverting the aged, broken being into something that springs from the ground, youthful and jubilant – this is why every apocalyptic legend ends with the rebirth of the phoenix, whether it be the New Jerusalem or the repopulation of the world by Lif and Lifthrasir after Ragnarok. Atlantean Kodex celebrate the cyclical nature of our world, the paradoxical relationship between life and death, particularly in ‘Enthroned in Clouds and Fire (The Great Cleansing)’, which darkly describes the state of our own ‘Kali Yuga’ and yet promises renewal at its conclusion.
So, yes, Atlantean Kodex are indisputably different from Summoning and Caladan Brood on multiple levels, but we are interested rather in what they all have in common, which is namely the attention every one of them implicitly and explicitly pays to the Epic. Summoning represent a slow scaling of heights to finally offer a panorama of light and loss and impenetrable, mythic majesty – we are prostrate before the grandeur that the inhuman atmosphere imposes on us, but rejoice in the touches of personality that tell us of the human experience within that grandeur, and thus breathe and participate in the Epic. Caladan Brood represent the long musings of a weathered veteran of numerous wars as he contemplates both the fragility of human accomplishment and yet its absolute necessity – we listen to him out of a common reverence as he tells stories of sadness and terror and climactically of the spontaneous glory that makes it all worthwhile. Atlantean Kodex represent the comings and goings of the cosmos as reflected in the microcosm of Western civilization – this is the liturgy of the priest who offers us the chalice of life and death, giving us the opportunity to die before we die, to die that we might truly live. All of them are furthermore deeply invested in the stock of Good versus Evil, or of man fighting the chaos of the created world so that he can find a place and a peace for himself, a little bit of order by means of which he can make sense of the darkness surrounding him.
“The crises of modern man are to a large extent religious ones, insofar as they are an awakening of his awareness to an absence of meaning.” – Mircea Eliade, Ordeal by Labyrinth: Conversations with Claude-Henri Rocquet
Now, whether the reader and the listener perceive more or less the same Christian ethos in all three bands is fully up to him, as it is nowhere sufficiently unequivocal in order to make an objective claim for the Cross. It is compulsory, however, that the listener partakes in the Epic when involved in this music – he may violently reject it outright as an outrageous philistine, he might wallow in pitiable indifference, or he might drunkenly plunge into the wealth of magic and sacramentality that this music has to offer, but he must at least recognize that there is something deeper at work here. The nature of this kind of art is universal insofar as it speaks to the inner spirit of man. The hazy powers of Urizen and the totalitarian oppression of the imagination on the part of the modern age of reason comprise what is without a doubt the predominant cause of the contemporary dullard, the boring and bored peon who is content with the reality that his television, his job, and his shackled, well-educated brain tell him to believe in. The epic is something that tells us otherwise. The epic tells us of myths that are true, of mountains that are home to gods and giants, of unforgettable acts of heroism, of terrible trials of apocalypse and ruin, of angels and demons and everything in between.
The days of unblinking, unrepentant, and unremitting darkness in heavy metal are numbered; Dionysos and Selene have nearly run their lunar course; it is time for Apollo and Helios to commence their own. Sol Invictus is approaching, and he shines nowhere more radiantly than in these contemporary heirs to Homeric poetry. Slowly but certainly, just as the sun-gods and the myths of rebirth and the Imperialism of Caesar Augustus led the way for the victorious evangelism of the Christ, the meaningful imagery and commendable adoration of Europa found in these bands prepare the foundation for the restoration of real Christian music. Whether it actually takes the shape of heavy metal as commonly recognized is highly contentious, but it is an absolute that there is nothing more epic than the Incarnation, nothing more epic than dying to the world and realizing divinity in the Personhood of Christ the God-man. In the meantime, like Our Lady enjoying the gifts of the three wise men coming from foreign lands, we can enjoy without restraint the beautiful offerings that the very best of the pagan realm have mustered in tribute to the old glories of the West, the inner imagination that lives inside us still, and of everything that inspires men to create, kneel down in bewildered awe, and sing unfettered prayers to the heavens – for the only border that the epic knows is that between the vision of the wise and the myopia of those still staring at the shadows on the wall.
Maximus, Anno Domini MMXIV
Maximus Meyer – text and blessings
Usvakorpi – all images (except the last one, by Degtyarov)
Degtyarov – editing/butchering of image and text, eternal gratitude towards the afore-mentioned individuals
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