“The thousand-voiced droning of insects and the cries of nocturnal animals in the jungle appeared to be part of the impressive silence. Above the mountain tops, stars emitted a glacial light. I stared towards the black shore on the other side of the lake, where leafage caressed the surface of the water. Without effort I could imagine evil spirits lurking there, prepared to attack.”
– Hella S. Haasse, Oeroeg, 1948.
Artist: Velvet Cacoon
Album: Atropine (double CD)
Record company: Full Moon Productions
Genre: Fragrances from underneath the Earth’s crust
Even though spring has arrived and our shadows are once again growing shorter, an autumnal veil hangs thickly in the air, the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ as Jeeves would no doubt remind us; a perfect time to share the captivating atmospheres of Velvet Cacoon’s dark ambient affair Atropine. One of the most intriguing outfits to emerge from the US, Velvet Cacoon (fronted mainly by a man known as Josh) have indulged in all manner of trickster behaviour to baffle their fan base and show the world of black metal just how ludicrous the idea of ‘trve kvlt’ really is (most famously through propagating the idea of their using/inventing a ‘diesel harp’ – a guitar fuelled by diesel, spitting flames, whose sounds are processed through a tank of salt water and blood). These efforts have alienated them from some of the traditional BM fanbase, which somehow doubt they would lose sleep over, but somehow all these events fit into the idea of the VC Gesamtkunstwerk; fashioning a dream world in which one’s art can live and draw breath. This is echoed in the sample at the end of their song “Winterglow” from Northsuite (2005), taken from The Man of La Mancha (lifted from Cervantes’s Don Quixote):
“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams, this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness, and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”
Whilst previous efforts have seen a broadly black metal approach; Dextronaut (2002), Genevieve (2004), Northsuite (2005), and the mysteriously titled P aa Opal Poere Pr.33, they have all adopted a unique aesthetical and aural approach to the genre. Imagery of luxury, decadence & isolation (in the Huysmans À rebours vein), slumbering narcotics, sea spray, autumnal scents, lethargy, Victorian furniture mingle with the more classical references to snows and forests in these albums, all of which are thoroughly recommended. However, in Atropine we see the aesthetical themes and undulating sounds which captivated the listener in VC’s back catalogue taken to their logical conclusion, in a sprawling dark ambient journey spanning roughly two hours.
What is immediately obvious from a glance at the song titles is that the use of wordplay, or perhaps more accurately wordcraft is integral to the experience of each piece. Evocative names such as “Nightvines”, “Autumnal Burial Victoria” and the magnificently narcotic “Dreaming in the Hemlock Patch” set up the canvas for the listener, on which to paint their dreams inspired by the music. Grafting words onto eachother in order to conjure emotive or iconographical responses in the listener’s mind has been a feature of the Velvet Cacoon discography; one just has to skim through their previous outings to come across the aforementioned “Winterglow”, in which a mellowed acoustic guitar line and a lack of reverb brings an immediacy, intimacy and – paradoxically for black metal – a cosiness to the sound which reflects the title. The title track of Genevieve begins with a harsh, dissonant swirling storm that resolves itself with a (cymbal) crash into a pensive arpeggio melody, delicate and almost feminine in its feel, featherlike. “Marylux” (P aa Opal Poere Pr.33), which one can imagine being the name of some well appointed schooner, contains a throb and swell that is highly nautical in flavour, whose depth of sound portrays the endless fathoms beneath its hull. Every artistic aspect of this project is chosen with care and an extreme attention to detail to reflect the world and atmospheres that VC are choosing to invoke. Their publicity texts are no less intriguing, with no references to the typical mainstay of so many identikit black metal groups (i.e. Satanism, marauding Vikings or misanthropic genocide), instead plumping for an almost over-the-top decadentism that begs to be lived:
“All of our maps are lost in the wind, luxurious wordplay back in hand, laced to the nines in immaculate decadence, the late Oregon fold, life on a grey seacoast, snowsailing into the deep December lavender of a heartbeat’s cadence, drinking Grenache over and over, Grenache Grenache Grenache, spiced lacquer coating in the fade dusk, passages from À rebours, manic laughter at old art and new vignettes, music of the sea, stars, drugs, dreams, soft nothingness treasured, and after too much delay we have finally started recording the new album.
What is there to say? The rain out here is endless, grey waves all day, black waves all night, sheets of freezing rain are almost piercing, very influential on the whole process. This feels incredible.”
Drifting into the proceedings of Atropine with the opener “Candlesmoke”, a faintly audible glass-like note trembles on the edge of hearing before delving into a rumbling wave that, like the smoke wafting from the tallow it invokes, shifts higher and lower, bringing a forceful and almost ritualised atmosphere into play. “Funeral Noir” takes a sterner approach, appropriate for its title. A fiercer movement from note to note, almost brassy in texture, that recalls the sombre decor of an antique hearse. Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage shares the sense of hopelessness and macabre inevitability that “Funeral Noir” evokes: Holm drunk in a graveyard, killed and condemned to drive the carriage across a ravaged landscape. Each tone expands and contracts in on itself, avoiding the conjuring of sentiment yet endowing the piece with an undeniably dour and sombre palette. “Graveyard Sonnet” is a personal favourite. Gently swelling into existence, each note introduces a drawn out chord like a muffled bell chiming in the distance. A great mist or fog envelopes this piece, generally shifting between three chords which brings a sense of wistful or pensive nostalgia, a lone figure dwelling on thoughts in a secluded study or shoreline. I often equate this piece with part of Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, where the protagonist is left alone in Vermont in the dead of winter. The piling snows, fogged perception, isolation, and a somnambulistic dreamlike existence brought about the initial hyperthermia – all these themes fit well into the undulating drones of “Graveyard Sonnet”. Another feature is the whisperings that exist just on the edge of audible perception, reminiscent of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), which edge in and out of the piece, emphasising the subterranean and graveyard aspect, layered beneath earth. The way in which the heavy tones are stretched out and allowed to breath lend the whole composition a heavy yet ghostly feel which is neither horrifying nor sad, but drifting, oddly warm and velvet-like. The final track on the first disc is the towering and solanaceous “Dreaming in the Hemlock Patch”. A glacial, deathly narcotic voyage cushioned by poisoned leaves, the listener lies sprawling in this mysterious and minimalist soundscape. A wavering tone opens out, much like an unfolding plant and almost at the same speed, carrying the song slowly forward at a subdued volume. Occasional bursts of these tones, expanded in volume and octave will issue forth from this foundation, shimmering in the foreground before dying away. The pace of this piece, nearly thirty seven minutes long, has a Vedic calm about it, with the drones possessing a silvery, almost lunar edge to them as they drift forward, bursting into life at intervals like a heavy narcotic entering the bloodstream. Lulling the listener into a lethargy, the final gleams of the notes die away, ending the first half of this album.
“Nightvines” curls into being, opening the second and final chapter of Atropine. Aptly named, each droning chord erupts through the speaker and curls around the listener, weaving into the foreground before sinking back. A short-lived video, posted on Youtube, showed a horse made from vines and tendrils galloping in slow motion through a murky, swamp-like landscape, a nocturnal creature that occurs out of the sight of man. A hidden atmosphere pervades this track, not entirely sinister yet certainly ‘alien’, in that something is happening which we are not privy to. At twenty seven minutes long, “Nocturnal Carriage” comprises the second longest piece on this double disc set, and potentially the most challenging for the listener unfamiliar with ambient music. A single chord rises gradually out of the water, with only minute variations on the upper tones which can be detected behind the main chord, almost like overtones, and the slight wavering of the main body of sound. Several reviews have claimed that this piece has influenced their dreams in peculiar ways when listened to at night; whether or not any manipulation of theta waves is intended I could not say. Certainly, this track catches and freezes a moment of the ambience in “Funeral Noir”, distilling it into one unending fragment; Sjöström’s sombre rickety carriage progressing slowly across dark lakes and silent villages under a clouded moon. An echoing boom introduces the next, and shortest track on the album: “Earth and Dark Petals”. The percussive booms continue throughout the piece, vaults closing in the deep soil, with heavy textured drones falling around them. A drawn out melody emerges in a higher register, spiralling up towards the night sky, then falling like leaves down to the drones below. Just as the listener becomes absorbed in the atmosphere, the piece dies after three minutes and emerges reborn as “Autumn Burial Victoria”. A single thin note rises out of the silence, steadily becoming reinforced by some of the thickest and phantasmic drones encountered on Atropine. The main drones hold a constant note, thickly coiling around a low bass which softly lays a simple melody, giving the impression of being buried in earth under acres of fallen leaf litter; above, sweetly rotting apples lying on branches swathed in mist. A lighthouse slowly winking through the dense fog, across a still and inky sea. Just as one is becoming utterly absorbed in these dense yet ethereal tones, thundering percussive element (similar to those in the previous track) occurs in the background, drawn out into a hiss, and the drones gently die away, receding like nocturnal mist as dawn filters through.
Atropine is one of those rare albums which gives the listener an utterly absorbing and timeless atmosphere, through the use of minimal drones and glacial tones. Appropriately, the album was publicised by Full Moon Productions using the following announcement:
“Atropine extracts of henbane were used by Cleopatra to dilate her pupils to appear more alluring. In the Renaissance, women used the juice of belladonna berries to enlargen the pupils of their eyes for cosmetic reasons (in Italian, “bella donna” translates to “beautiful lady”). Later on, belladonna was used by witches before flight. The juice of the berries was applied to their vaginas resulting in massive and sometimes lethal dosages of atropine. In this state of unbelievable hallucinatory incoherence, they believed they were actually flying on their brooms and as they spoke aloud their spells the results unfolded right before their eyes.”
This album was carefully created over a four year period under the closely supervised influence of mandrake, hemlock, datura stramonium, henbane, belladonna and jesaconitine isolate. Most of the drone library was originally recorded to DAT and buried in the ground for two years before reviving them for use.
The themes of hallucination and narcotic experience/reverie are not new to Velvet Cacoon – indeed they have long pronounced the influence of dissociatives on their music and atmosphere – yet here in Atropine they find their purest expression. The drawn out textures in “Dreaming in the Hemlock Patch” seem to mimic the effects of various exploratory narcotics, and certainly stimulate the imagination into a wakeful dreaming. The aspect of burial also occurs frequently throughout Atropine, although not in a morbid sense. Rather, it is that marvellous lethargy one can feel during sleep paralysis or fever, wrapped in earth and utterly still. This is an album which will entrance and stimulate as many as it bewilders and repels with its length and depth of thought. The use of luxurious textures is utterly fitting for Velvet Cacoon as they make their first official foray into purely ambient territory, and quite simply it is hard to think of a better example of distilled and truly absorbing nocturnal music.
As a side note in finishing this review, it is worth noting that the main creative force behind Velvet Cacoon (and its now-defunct successor Clair Cassis) is also the owner and nose behind the perfume house Slumberhouse, based in Oregon. The scents created are I believe intricately tied into the aesthetics raised in the Velvet Cacoon discography, with names such as Tarnet, Norne, Ore and Vikt, many of which are heavy, emerging fragrances that carry elements of hay, tobacco, leather and similar notes. I own several (some bought, some very kindly sent to me by Josh), and all carry a level of craftsmanship and depth that is entrancing. Highly recommended, and accessible here: http://www.slumberhouse.com/
SGL – guitar, bass, drums, vocals
LVG – guitar
1. Candlesmoke (6:24)
2. Funeral Noir (9:35)
3. Graveside Sonnet (12:38)
4. Dreaming in the Hemlock Patch (36:44)
Total running time: 1:05:21
1. Nightvines (13:02)
2. Nocturnal Carriage (27:55)
3. Earth and Dark Petals (3:03)
4. Autumn Burial Victoria (13:06)
Total running time: 57:06