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Echtra’s Dualism and the Quintessence of Black Metal

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Black metal is a genre of essences. Artists search for the pure essence of winter, coldness, evil, nature, the list goes on. It is a genre of genuinity and purity.

But can it go deeper?

Alchemists worked with “quintessences” — quite literally the fifth essence or fifth distillation of an essence. Though unwieldy in creation, the quintessence was a single element on the long path of transmuting lead into gold.

Though black metal is the style of essence, Pacific Northwest solo artist Echtra (also of Fauna, Fearthainne, and Alethes) finds that quintessence — the distillation of black metal. Through dreamy minimalism and the championing of texture and atmosphere over rote songwriting, Echtra rifles through black metal and finds the magic buried deep within its forests. With each new 23-minute chapter, the project’s appeals to wonder (according to the artist) communicate beauty, despair, and transcendentalism through pure shamanic sound.

In a new interview, Echtra discusses the project in depth and dispels myth while maintaining an air of mystery and magic.

BardO released last Friday through Temple of Torturous. The album can be purchased digitally at the artist’s Bandcamp.

With each song at exactly 23 minutes in length, this particular number follows the Echtra narrative from the Burn it All Away album. I understand that (numerologically) this number has specific meanings regarding change, the search of knowledge, and satiation, but I’m curious if this has other meanings to you. How does this specific number and the specificity of song length fit into the Echtra paradigm?

Interested in pursuing the intangible, the conjoining of “2” and “3” has always fascinated Echtra. Stylized depictions of the two numbers alongside each other fill notebooks from my youth, and the aesthetic impact of this signifier has always entailed an ineffable fascination. A penchant for [arguably] overly long song lengths, the construction of early works on a decrepit 4-track recorder that recorded at 2x speed (rendering blank tapes billed as 45 minutes per side but actually more like 46 capable of holding 23 minutes of continuous music), and a sentimental attachment to this number all created this tradition and necessitated its continuation once established. I’ve never been particularly interested in numerology, finding this manifestation of metaphysics less compelling (particularly as regards divination or other temporally-bound interpretations). I do pay special attention to idiosyncrasies and fortuity, seeing in them the true birth of meaning systems that can transcend logic. Echtra is interested in symbol as a gateway for consciousness to be loosened from the strictures of the conceptual, and the use of “23” is one pathway along which this can unfold.

Additionally, the album referred to here as Burn It All Away was never intended to be titled as such. It has come to be known thusly through accidents of time and impersonal digital communication. The original packaging of this album, which was handmade in an edition of a few dozen and gifted to friends and collaborators in an underground network of seekers existing at the margins of all known scenes, included a square of black cardstock with the text “burn it all away” printed upon it in black ink. This was also the first utterance in the vocalizations one hears on the album. This statement was meant as the summation of Echtra’s understanding of its role, as a catalyst for a sacred, purifying flame, one which could lay to waste the nightmare unleashed by postmodernity as well as the prison of self. However, this album was never meant to have a title. I have taken to calling it Echtra I, representing the initiation of the project in manifest form, but Echtra would not have trafficked in such conspicuousness. The phrase “burn it all away” was intended to be the secret within the skin of the Echtral universe, an initiation for those entering the gates of that soundworld, the only conceptual token offered as listeners unfolded into its embrace.

I notice there are references to both “I” and “Echtra” — is there a duality between the two? That is to say, are these two different entities?

Yes, I suppose so. One could say they are two different entities that are functionally united. Or, that the consciousness of Echtra transcends my own but is enfolded within it. My belief is that Echtra is supra-synaptic, arising from deep within the Earth and from the unknowable long-ago. It is channeled through my awareness and delimited by it, however, making it somehow contingent on me. The triumphs and folly of my all too human existence color its expression, but I’ve never experienced Echtra as wholly my creation. That which is Echtra seems co-created by a host of beings, seen and unseen, birthed by the intermingling of consciousnesses and modes of being that extend far beyond the confines of my personal mind.

When did you first find yourself having this Echtra entity speaking through you? Did it coincide with the first release or is it something earlier?

I don’t know that I’m comfortable with the term “entity” to describe Echtra. It suggests corporeality, or delimits the nature of Echtra into a form… perhaps “essence” would be a better alternative, or “energy” (however vague and insubstantial this term has become in modern discourse).

One way of approaching your question is by looking at the nature of atavism. An arising of features or modes of being exhibited by past iterations of an organism is akin to how I experience Echtra, and in this sense I have been subject to irruptions of primordial affects and modes of perception from an early age. I don’t think I’m unique in this; children the world over display an animistic sensibility before it is beaten out of them, which could be interpreted as an atavistic display. I can recall attempting to initiate wonder in the adults around, cuing them to the ineffable grandeur of the surround, only to realize that this was not communicable to those in the thrall of scientific materialism. This was Echtral consciousness, though I wouldn’t have understood it as such at the time. The project of Echtra is very much a continuation of this effort to initiate wonder and to loosen the strictures of rationality, and in this sense it is congruent with my early experience.

Are there different wonders to which the Echtra project appeals with each new installment? Or is there something more general and all-encompassing?

That’s a great question. At the risk of equivocating, I’d have to say, “Both.” There is an overarching experiential space Echtra is attempting to initiate others into, in which wonder is not a noun but a verb, a way of being that is also a perpetual perceptual mode. In this, the utter sacredness of our phenomenological being is laid bare, and every aspect of the phenomenal world is recognized as an invitation to wonder. In particular, the emergence of other lifeforms — the variegated and manifold world of nature — exerts a pull on the psyche toward awe, and Echtra affirms the importance of wild spaces as holding environments for the attainment of gnosis. Enmeshment in wildness opens a way of understanding that does not obliterate the indwelling core of unknowable truths inhering in the world.

There are simple incursions one can make into reified, mundane consciousness that can open up a space for wondrous contemplation. For instance, I have spent a good deal of time meditating upon this abyssal refrain: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” We should never cease interrogating the mind in this way, welcoming the vertiginous displacement that ensues. Additionally, continually returning to the only reliable truths of our lives is necessary: 1) we will die; and, 2) we don’t know when. How incredible it is to be alive, and how amazing that this will cease! A basic stance of wonderment opens the possibility of a fundamentally different manner of living, one in which awe becomes second nature. This represents, I believe, the full flowering of human possibility, in contradistinction to an immature urge to dominate and control. As Paul Shepard wrote, “inherent in maturity [is] an acceptance of ambiguity.”

At the same time, Echtra has sought to highlight different initiatory paths with different releases, and has in some ways manifested in order to realize novel expansions of the core realization with each album. It is for this reason, though I currently experience the project as being complete, I know I can never fully close the book on Echtra’s life. In 2012 I performed the third (and final) installment of the Passage Cycle, Re-Enterior, at the Cascadian Yule festival. This represented, for me, the nadir of Echtra’s manifestation. However, it may be that what Echtra was will be transcended in order to facilitate the realization of what Echtra needs to become.

If BardO was performed ten years ago and the future Re-Enterior in 2012, does the passage of time between performance and proliferation play into the experience?

The passage of time is not intentional, but arises out of the complex web of attending to multiple arenas simultaneously. As has been mentioned in other discussions related to the various music projects I foster, the release of albums for public consumption is quite low on my list of priorities. The performance space and the ritual enactment are what Echtra lives for. The soundscapes are crafted as a backdrop for these moments of emergence, an immersive aural world that can foster states of being necessary to the journey of the rite. The notion of my sounds as simply an artifact readied for technological abstraction and commercialism is abhorrent to me. Echtra has never cared one whit about its stature in any digitized scene, and any considerations of the marketplace have been eschewed as blockages to the full becoming Echtra seeks. Also, as a modern person attending to the necessities of wage earning and family life, I am simply unable to devote much time to perfecting works of art to be solidified as releases. It is somewhat embarrassing, though, to release that the BardO album is ten years “behind schedule.” Fauna recently recorded an album of material we wrote in 2008 (though it was retooled and re-imagined somewhat), still has two completed albums from 2009 and 2011 that have yet to see the light of day, and the Rain project has an album of material recorded in 2014 that needs attention. In other words, many projects exist in various states of incompleteness, in part because I’m busy and simply don’t have the time, but also because I will always elect to engage in a new live ritual enactment than labor in front of a computer (or other device) honing recorded material. This living, breathing, and inspirited quality of musicianship is what it’s all about for me, pushing towards novel and unanticipated ways of being that signal the attainment of a new psycho-spiritual embodiment, and this will always win out over doing what needs to be done to have Echtra be recognized by the broader world.

If you have the aforementioned abhorrence for physical documentation in the digital age, what drives you to make these artifacts?

In the preceding I wrote, “The notion of my sounds as simply an artifact readied for technological abstraction and commercialism is abhorrent to me.” The key phrase in that sentence is simply. I don’t mean to say that releases are intrinsically abhorrent to me. Rather, what is meant here is that the aural worlds Echtra creates are designed as a conduit for transformation, meant to unfurl in a physical place seekers share with me, a manifest space in which an embodied experience of communion takes hold. At a certain point in this project’s development, it became clear that seekers from far-flung domains wanted to partake of Echtra’s fruit. They would never be able to be present for one of the live rites, however, necessitating a decision about how to craft these issuances. As time went on, the releases became more numerous, disseminated farther out into the wider world and with more elaborate promotional efforts. Echtra has never made strong efforts to secure label support, but has assented to working with the few labels that have approached me. I don’t begrudge these developments, but am ambivalent about releasing music and would never allow the project to prioritize this. I fundamentally distrust music that does not have a performative dimension, and would never release an album that was not birthed in a live setting first. Layering tracks in one’s bedroom is a meaningless act, and music groups that exist solely as recording projects are an absurdity. Music must be real.

This concentration on the performance certainly explains the visual, video dimension which began with “Sky Burial.” Are there documentations of the earlier performances which led to Echtra I, A War For Wonder, and Paragate?

Yes, at a certain point it seemed ridiculous to be releasing albums when the Echtra aesthetic is not really musical. The music is a vehicle, to be ridden like the shaman’s drum, but the crux is not music. Fundamentally, I don’t think of myself as a musician, but as someone who has stumbled upon sound as a pathway for growth and transformation. So, beginning with Sky Burial, a focus on the visual element was birthed. To continue that with BardO was important, though whether this will be maintained remains to be seen. From the beginning, Echtra has been very ambivalent about documentation. The first rites with the music Echtra I, as well as the sole A War for Wonder and Paragate performances, were offered in spaces in which documentation was expressly forbidden. This was before the era of cell phones being held aloft in response to any vaguely interesting visual information, so this kind of purity was easier to maintain, but there was an ethos in the earliest days related to presence. Anything that could impinge upon the fullest possible experiencing of what transpired in the space was eliminated, or mitigated to the greatest possible degree. Spaces were transformed, any referents that facilitated the encroachment of vacuity were jettisoned, and the outdoors were brought in. With Echtra, I sought to create a space in which the psyche could free itself, and initiated various experiments with attendees intended to provoke sudden and unexpected incursions of the numinous. The presence of machines was minimized to the greatest possible degree, making the space unfriendly to prominently displayed technological artifacts such as cameras. Fundamentally, to attempt the capture of Echtra’s spirit on video felt counterfeit, so was never seriously considered. At a certain point, those “seekers from afar” mentioned above began requesting virtual admittance to these spaces, and an openness toward this developed. Around this time I met a documentary filmmaker who expressed an interest in filming Echtra, and from whom I learned digital video editing techniques. He had quality gear, a good eye, and had an abiding respect for what was being created. When he approached me it seemed worth experimenting with, as he swore an oath not to interfere with the ritual process as it unfolded. In the end, I’m very grateful to Adam for filming and for sharing his footage with me. Though I honor the impulse guiding the strictures of the earlier manifestations, a part of me dearly wishes there was documentation of Echtra’s prior enactments. I think it’s difficult for people who weren’t there to even imagine what transpired in those environments.

According to a biography on your Oneirios website, the releases in the Passage cycle are considered to be posthumous. Years later, do you feel the Echtra project is still ended, or will there be future performances which continue it?

I know myself too well to ever get too convinced about anything I say. Yes, there was a sense of finality to what I imagine will be the last Echtra performance (2012’s Re-Enterior, the conclusion of the Passage Cycle), but it’s entirely possible that the project could become active again. One of the things I’ve noticed is that Echtra responds well to solicitations, so I imagine that if the right situation were to arise for the Echtra voice to manifest, and the spirits were to dictate is should come to be, then the shroud could be lifted…

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