Lesnoy Tanets / Knyazhaya Pustyn / Isaz | Сплетение (Spletenye) | | 2014
“A stone near the road, crystal water,
Cosmos, cold and pitch-black,
The boundless secret Universe, unlimited
A review by Degtyarov
I – Temple forest
The clouds press heavily on the trees, cloaking them in a sultry fog that permeates even the loneliest thickets of the immense boreal forest. The spruces that safeguard nature’s last remaining secrets reach into cold, unwelcoming soil, yet it is the only home that they have ever known, and ever will know. Set in motion only by an occasional breeze, these green giants stand side by side as the pillars of an immovable forest wall, unscathed by man. Their only fate is eternity; they shall remain loyal to the earth that nurtured them, until the end of time. And should one of these wooden titans perish, from his remains a sapling shall shoot forth, arising slowly from the grave of his forebear until he once again stands between his shield brothers. Everlasting order prevails at the grace of this sylvan phalanx. It is in deepest taiga, this boundless woodland sanctuary, that the Earth-Mother herself resides and is revered by all around her. Here, the fringes of time dance gracefully, as aeons pass like seconds and serenity revels in perpetuity.
A bear roars as he parts with the cavern that cocooned him across the long and merciless winter months. Whilst hibernating, his heartbeat lowered, resonating with the cadence of the gentle breathing of the forest. The trees, themselves until recently engrossed in deathlike hibernal slumber, shake off their mantles of snow and ice to greet this resurrected monk of Mother Nature. Soon he will start his quest to gather supplies for the next audience with King Winter. It is the same quest as the year before and – should fate show clemency – the same quest that shall present itself for years to come. This ritual with no beginning and no end serves to honour the mighty sun above, this celestial deity that forever strives towards its equally circular destiny. The bear settles his gaze skywards as sunrays embellish his muffled fur. Cries of cranes resound in the distance, as they announce their return and greet all the unknowing friars of nature divine.
A tear rolls down a tree branch as the green noise of the sacred forest is marred by the advancing grinding of urbanity. With each passing year, the verdant frontier sinks deeper into the heart of the woods, as more and more emerald hoplites fall to an enemy they cannot resist. Inertly they await their doom, the fealty to their soil holding infinitely more significance than their own existence. They perish in honour, so that from the dust of their departure something new may arise. But now that the repellent humming of civilisation’s cacophony draws ever closer, the circle of life has been uprooted. Eternity has been interrupted; the circle has been broken.
II – The wolf in the woods
As the foreboding advance of domesticated human life forces the savage elements of nature to retreat to the heart of the untamed wilderness, so the relentless march of modernity obliges those ancient in spirit to fall back into the primal state of their being. In a world that bestows judgment on the basis of mere possession, and designates value hinged solely on economic arguments, the only possible escape is a total departure from the system of values in which evil is rooted; to assume a meditative state in which total collapse is patiently awaited, until the day shards of rain reach into putrefied soil and restore what once was.
In art, and music in particular, one can already witness the casting off of falseness and Babylonian platitudes. Though commonly seen as a force of desecration, the black metal genre is ugly only in form, as its hideousness merely serves to hold up a mirror to the nauseating excesses of the era against which it revolts. Folk music, too, spearheads its own insurrection by attempting to purify itself of the grotesque musical mutations that together constitute the soundtrack of the 21st century. It is important to make a distinction here between folk music and traditional music: where traditional artists aim to duplicate the songs enjoyed by our distant ancestors, folk rather incorporates the aesthetic and musical traits of traditional tunes to create something new. Therefore it should be understood that the authenticity of folk relies not on its physical correspondence with the music of our forefathers, but on its embodiment of the spirit expressed in such art. When Spanish clergymen tried to formulate a theory stating that Latin was in fact a corrupted language that devolved back to its pure, original state with Castilian, their ambition was to give a higher, divine meaning to their language, which they of course knew was itself the product of an arbitrary evolutionary process. After all, this view allowed them to assert that Castilian was indeed the language spoken in paradise, before man was tainted by original sin. Similarly, folk music, while knowing deep inside that it is not a carbon copy of our ancestral musical traditions, upholds its primal pretence because it allows itself to denounce the heritage of modern musical evolution. In reality, folk, like black metal, introduces a new mould in which to pour its regressive tendencies. Said approach is key to the renunciation of modernity in general: impossible though it may be to deny the heritage of the past few centuries, which has lamentably engraved itself into our very being, one can resist its values by using its ugliness to create something beautiful once again. Albeit in different respective manners, this is what both black metal and folk set out to do.
Pivotal to both genres’ defiance of profuse decadence is the forest trope. In mediaeval times, the forest embodied a realm in which the rules, laws and customs of man did not apply. Man, who by then had already been gentrified by the false sense of safeness provided by the city walls, was afraid to venture into the woods, fearing the dangers it supposedly harboured. In reality, it was within the city walls that evil lurked the most restlessly, directing an endless array of perils to prey upon the sick, the frail, the fearful. Peril stalked the woods as well, but the threats that dwelled among its darkness incited a more universal fear, for they did not discern between serf or nobleman, bandit or priest. Man was to rely on his own ability to ward off attacks from wolves, highwaymen and others who did not take into account his worldly status or achievements, as so often did the urban autocrats and executioners. As such, the labyrinth of trees condemned man to a natural sense of equality, motivating him to rely on his own senses and skills to help him find his way in this world of malign mystery; he would define his humanity by his ability to preserve, improve and remain loyal to himself. Black metal and folk, too, revolve around departing from the mundane pleasures of modernity and acknowledging the true self.
III – The emerald coil
Thus it is no surprise that the folk release at hand should take us back to the taiga, the mightiest of forests and one of the last remaining places on Earth where nature reigns over man instead of vice versa. Staunchly enduring the hardships of all seasons, the taiga is the antithesis to the civilised world. It stretches from Canada to Scandinavia, covering enormous parts of Siberia and European Russia in spruces and larches, subduing all that is contained within to the rule of nature.
It is also from Russia that the three participants of the split album Spletenye emerge. Lesnoy Tanets, Knyazhaya Pustyn and Isaz  bundle their forces to create a versatile folk record that incorporates throat singing, tribal percussion and acoustic instrumentals, even briefly dipping into black metal across its 78-minute musical exploration of the supreme Russian wilderness. While all three bands are recognisably different from one another, their respective repertoires are all constructed around the same motifs. They intertwine to such a high degree that the listening experience possesses the same uniformity as would an album created by a single artist. This split album’s title, which can be translated as ‘coil’ or ‘plexus’, is very appropriate indeed.
Lesnoy Tanets gets the ball rolling with a set of three instrumentals of vernal-flavoured folk. Running water salutes the sunrise, as a piano playfully reflects the warmth of the sun. A flute emerges, imitating the tranquil murmuring of the forest; that soft whisper of nature brought forth by the chirping of birds, the fiddling of insects and the content rustling of foliage dancing with gusts of wind, their bumbling weaved together by the harmony of forestal ambience. Drum beats, meanwhile, ardently thread throughout the songs to underline the splendour of Mother Nature – a proud woman, after all – with mouth harps serving as frills to the percussion, amplifying each blow with an affirmatory throb. Periodically, organs evoke imagery of pastoral scenes of secluded places of worship, attended to sporadically by solitary Shishkinite figures.
Later on the album, Lesnoy Tanets presents another portion of songs, this time four in number. This second round commences with the marvelous “Chernaya skala” (“The Black Rock”), which through the employment of Tuvan throat singing and the warlike tempo of the percussion is given an oriental flair. Its idiosyncratic timbre is further enriched by the now more expressive mouth harp, and the resultant galloping cadence makes the composition come to life with almost Morricone-like character. “Zaklinaniya dozhdya” (“Rain Spell”) starts with wind instruments echoing through a valley, after which a downpour is summoned with overtone singing and mid-paced drums adorned by bells. On “Na lysoï gore” (“On the Bald Mountain”) the drums sound with ritualistic piety, as the flutes, equally captivated by sacred fervour, guide the procession up the epynomous mountain. It is from this mountain that Lesnoy Tanets bestows its final offering. This panoramic position proves ideal to process the tremendous journey that is all but over now. A hint of melancholy can be noted before baroque percussion and idem flutes transport the listener back to the ground below, soaring over the tree tops, rolling as the dusk down the spikes of fir trees . Feet land on the ground, and night has fallen. All that can be heard is a passing torrent consoling the wind, which quietly weeps in loneliness.
Knyazhaya Pustyn, despite having formed recently, is the most prolific of the participating bands, already having several albums and singles under its belt. Their first release, Vechnost from 2013, struck a near-perfect balance between folk and black metal. Sadly, the ensuing experience was brought down considerably by the omnipresence of an off-key flute that ensured every carefully crafted atmosphere came tumbling down as soon as it malevolently made its appearance. The follow-up album Marævo, released in January of 2014, suffered from the same problem, but thankfully it affected much less of the content, allowing it to deliver some of the best material to have emerged from the Russian black metal scene in many years. It was becoming clear that, while Knyazhaya Pustyn had a lot of ground to gain in terms of execution, the band possessed enormous potential, as conceptually and aesthetically speaking they were set to surpass every other Russian black metal band in relevance.
As irony would have it, Knyazhaya Pustyn ups the ante on Spletenye without playing a single note of black metal, instead isolating the folk segments from previous albums and giving them a life of their own. Like the songs of Lesnoy Tanets, Knyazhaya Pustyn‘s material is presented in two segments; the first consisting of three songs and the second of four songs. When the band starts playing its inaugural notes, the music is instantly recognisable as being the product of Knyazhaya Pustyn, though a few alterations can already be noticed. Instead of being accompanied by samples of blizzards and footsteps in the snow, the acoustic guitar is now greeted by the sound of birds and soft breezes, which help establish the springlike theme that the first half of this album in particular builds upon. Still, in keeping with the group’s previous work, the guitar melodies create an atmosphere that is more ominous than the principal buoyancy that which emanates from the compositions of Lesnoy Tanets.
Due to the reserved presence of the percussion, the guitars are able to offer a more liberal, versatile take on melody and rhythm, adhering less to a central structure and often meandering meditatively as to mirror the poetic contemplations narrated over the music. Occasioned by the calmness emitted by songs such as “Obnimaya polet ptichych staï” (“Embracing the Flocks Of Birds”) and “Glad okutannych molchanyem” (“Surface Of Herbs Wrapped in Silence”), Knyazhaya Pustyn guides the listener through the haunting beauty of Russian terrain with more finesse and subtlety than the animate hymns of Lesnoy Tanets. After Knyazhaya Pustyn‘s already convincing display, the album closer is a grand reward for those who have always believed in the group’s potential. All of the techniques Knyazhaya Pustyn applies on Spletenye come together gloriously across this pensive eight-minute composition. A wistful poem is narrated interspersedly through spoken word and singing, engendering a sense of Fremdnostalgie in those who have never had the honour of witnessing the beauty of the taiga for themselves. When the vocals fade away, multiple acoustic guitars capitalise upon this departure and interact with each other by delivering different melodies that interlace playfully, again paying homage the album’s all-encompassing title. A keyboard tune that mimicks heavenly singing constitutes the final notes of this work, graciously delivering us at the last destination of this introspective pilgrimage, a sacred grove in the heart of the taiga.
Across its seven songs on Spletenye, the sound of Knyazhaya Pustyn is in some ways comparable to that of neofolk. The instrumentation, choice of samples and unconventional song structures are all highly unusual for tradition-oriented folk and bear more resemblance with Douglas Pearce’s makeshift orchestra. These similarities are expressed primarily by the overall richness of the sound and not so much by the tone colour itself. In sonically saturating its folk compositions, Knyazhaya Pustyn drinks from wells of inspiration that set it apart from neofolk’s usual inclination towards the industrial. A dissonant flute imitates the calls of birds flying into the sunset, with distant traditional chants diving into the ancestral ashes from which this music has arisen. If truly this music must be administered a name, let it be taigafolk.
Some blemishes (slight guitar mistakes, offkey singing in places) lay scattered among the seven folk songs the band contributes to this split, and as such it is not quite the ‘hit-the-nail-on-the-head’ moment its followers are so desperately waiting for. Even so, Knyazhaya Pustyn‘s contribution to Spletenye is definitely the most captivating, worthwhile material these mysterious Russians have put out to date, which only ramps up expectations for their unknown future. In combination with the stylistically similar Lesnoy Tanets, the listening experience gains the consistency which helps each band’s input become more than the sum of its parts.
“If truly this music must be administered a name, let it be taigafolk.”
However, the puzzle is not yet complete. Two lengthy songs courtesy of Isaz separate the other two bands’ first portion of songs from the second. Much like how the pronunciation of a vowel is affected by the consonants that surround it, Isaz is key in evolving the initial light-hearted spirit of the album into the more contemplative, foreboding mood that pervades its later stages. To achieve this, Isaz is the only band on this release to make a foray on black metal territory. A keyboard melody that reminds of Burzum‘s “Tomhet” is the harbinger of the band’s brief exploration of naturalistic black metal. Gradually, more instruments and melody lines are weaved around its consistent theme. Then, an acoustic guitar promptly takes over this carefully laid-out motif. The keyboards disappear into the background, where they remain humming quietly, as the guitar offers a more vigorous take on the established melody. As the song progresses, the base structure described by the guitar is enriched by an array of instruments. Flutes, bells and additional guitars allow the melody come to fruition. They dance in harmony, paving the way for the drums and electric strings, which finally push the composition into a black metal orbit. These instruments, too, remain loyal to the leitmotif, with the solemn humming in the background persisting until the very end. Together, they establish the scene of Mother Earth, who can only stand idly by as a great evil pierces through her crust.
Isaz‘s second and final composition takes a less exhaustive approach and sees the band blast its menacing black metal right off the bat. “Zakat Zaratustry” (“Zoroastrian Sunset”) has an organic allure that lays bare the group’s familiarity with folk music. By including instruments such as the accordion, glockenspiel and organ, the tone colour comprises an unusual mix of black metal and neofolk. In addition to the success with which Isaz unites these unlikely pawns in its grand scheme, this group also has at its disposal the Drudkh-like quality of playing music with rock instruments while still being able to absorb the sublimity of unconquered nature into its atmosphere. Even the harsh vocals that pepper this composition become one with the ruthless force of nature that sweeps through forests, valleys and across the steppes, bestowing its acerbity on all the sentient beings unfortunate enough to cross its path. Isaz teaches that, in nature, the gap between beauty and death can be bridged within the blink of an eye.
In the end, all the music on Spletenye comes together splendidly. Whether the artists choose to invoke folk, neofolk or black metal, the music never betrays its own spirit. Within the first round of songs provided by Lesnoy Tanets and Knyazhaya Pustyn respectively, the listener is aided in setting his first steps into the Russian wilds. Isaz then lures him into the nocturnal bogs, confronting him with the dangers that inhabit the taiga’s ruthless infinity. By the time Lesnoy Tanets and Knyazhaya Pustyn present their second bout, their free-spirited hymns thrust forward with renewed appreciation, as the listener wilfully lets go of the last straws of modern decadence, immersing himself fully into this strange, perilous but ultimately beautiful world. This pagan pilgrimage, upon which he embarked with temporal intentions, enchanted him such that he chooses to leave behind the trivialities of his own meaningless world forever. After all, one day of life in the total autonomy of the taiga is worth more than a lifetime of subjugation to the fatuous whims that direct the sentinels of a society that lost its mind a long time ago.
More confident than ever, the listener treads upon the path of no return, the glow of a doomed civilisation shining dimly behind him like a will-o’-the-wisp: beautiful, tempting, awe-inspiring, but ultimately a flagrant illusion.
IV – Eternal circle
Black metal is a genre whose very existence is a paradox in itself. Revolt though it may against the modern world, it cannot help but be a part of it. Its intrinsic ugliness is what drives it to chase unattainable beauty. Pastoral scenes, mighty natural phenomena, the yearning for solitude: all these cravings testify of the legacy of Romanticism, which lurks deeply in the genre’s spirit. Good cannot exist without evil, and so the stains which soil black metal’s rotten crust are what allows the genre to delve into the otherworldly splendour that rests at its core. Thus, in rejecting its own repulsiveness, which modern bands too often do, black metal also denies the very source of its desire to leave this world behind.
To establish something new, the old must first be destroyed. Black metal can only function when it dedicates itself to the Romantic paradox of the sublime. Imagine a lonely figure standing on a cliff along a stormy coastline, beholding a tidal wave that will surely end his life. Although for a fraction of a second his heart is filled with terror, he soon lets go of this fear; this emotion no longer serves a purpose, for it is incapable of altering his unfortunate destiny. What follows is a brief moment in which the whole acceptance of his fate intermingles with limitless awe for the sheer power of the very nature that is about to take him to his grave. Fear and wonder are consolidated, and it is exactly this veneration that defines the sublime. Accordingly, black metal is the brief moment of inner peace one experiences when beholding the total collapse of a world that no longer has a right to existence.
It therefore testifies of considerable wisdom that the artists on Spletenye should invoke folk music to impose a rite of cleansing on their listeners without having to constantly remind them of the horrors of the world they left behind. Though folk, as discussed earlier, is also partially rooted in modernity, these traces are much more nebulous. Where black metal chooses to attack this part of itself frontally, resulting in the music’s violent posture, folk rather covers the more antagonistic ramifications of its being underneath a veil of unequivocal beauty. Consequently, folk music refrains from endlessly directing the attention of the listener to the evils that loom outside.
Spletenye‘s majesty resides therein that it employs different music styles to do exactly that which they do best. The result is a record filled to the brim with highly imaginative music that, while swaying between different moods, styles and atmospheres, never gives the impression of being bipolar; the music is never in conflict with itself. In summation, the album provides a rough blueprint of what a new wave of Russian folk and black metal should aspire to become: a soundtrack of redemption to a terminally ill world, and a celebration of the beauty which not even the greatest evil will be able to vanquish from this world. On a cosmic scale, our war against nature and ourselves is but a blip on the radar; a temporary suspension of something that, in the end, shall always remain unchanged. It will not be long before we will once again – voluntarily or not – harmonise with an adversary that wields divine power. Ultimately, the eternal turn of the wheel shall prevail.
V – A forest of men
One day, the trees stop falling, and the distant grinding is gradually drowned out by the symphony of the woodlands, which now sounds with more potency than ever before. The forest hermits reap the rewards of their unconditional loyalty to the sacred home soil, as they crawl out of their caves, from underneath dead wood and from behind boulders. Those lofty boulders, whose rough skins shine even in the morning sun, reflecting in brilliant cobalt the eternal glory that breathes through the woods. Birds sing, bears grunt, leaves dance, all rejoicing as the rivers of life slosh in abundance. And they celebrate that, somewhere afar, man harmonised with the world around him once more; the homo borealis is reborn. He greets the sun, the source of all life.
“Eternal forest, eternal people. The tree lives, as do you and I. It reaches for the sky, as do you and I. Its death and being weave time. People stand as forest, in eternity.”
Сплетение – Spletenye
Лесной Танец (Lesnoy Tanets) / Княжая Пустынь (Knyazhaya Pustyn) / | (Isaz)
1. Лесной Танец – Енисей (3:49)
2. Лесной Танец – Думы валунов (3:48)
3. Лесной Танец – Северные цветы (3:45)
4. Княжая Пустынь – Крада / Проливень (4:20)
5. Княжая Пустынь – Обнимая полёт птичьих стай (5:38)
6. Княжая Пустынь – Искры надежд / Ожеледь (6:08)
7. | – Поющий горизонт (10:03)
8. | – Закат Заратустры (7:12)
9. Лесной Танец – Чёрная скала (3:23)
10. Лесной Танец – Заклинания дождя (2:57)
11. Лесной Танец – На Лысой горе (4:16)
12. Лесной Танец – Зимовье Зимы (3:20)
13. Княжая Пустынь – Отгорел золотой листопад… (2:41)
14. Княжая Пустынь – Гладь окутанных молчанием трав (2:42)
15. Княжая Пустынь – Дым прощальных костров (6:57)
16. Княжая Пустынь – Провожая закат на чужбины / Просторы (7:57)
Total time: 78 minutes
 For the purpose of readability, the band that unwisely decided to call itself | is referred to as Isaz in this article, which is the name of the symbol that constitutes the band name. They are not to be confused with the German black metal band also named Isaz.
 The last part of this sentence is a paraphrased quote from Kamaedzitca‘s “Ocean Of Loneliness”, Voiceless are your words, 2012.
Taken from Black Ivory Tower #2, ‘Time of heroes’, forthcoming.
Thanks to MDL for corrections.
Paintings by Ivan Shishkin, Efim Volkov and Theodor Kittelsen.