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Holy Alchemy: Panegyrist’s “Hierurgy”

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To simply call a panegyrist a “eulogist,” as properly defined, is an extreme reduction. When matched with the idea of the root word panegyric — admittedly, a subtype of eulogy that dramatically extols the fallen, but one filled with unmatched, highly studied, undiscriminating praise, completely separate from criticality — the panegyrist fulfills a specific role: one of undying adoration and total submission. This is something meant to be dramatic and confronting, the orator completely losing themselves in an over-the-top performance of admiration in hopes the listening audience will wholeheartedly share their belief, whatever it may be.

In their surprising debut, this idea of extravagance in oration is manifest, Panegyrist‘s chosen name made flesh. An incredibly elaborate effort, no single element is held back as each piece of the band’s puzzle explodes forth at full tilt. Moving at blistering speeds with extraordinary technicality and compositional adroitness, Hierurgy is a gilded effort; a challenging roar of spiritual surrender and exalting sanctity.

Transcending the idea of bizarreness and progression, Panegyrist is serpentine, weaving and slithering in the boundary between the extremes of metal’s various forms, the avant-garde, and an intrinsically mammoth technicality, sparing nothing at their own corporeal expense. The strings shred, voices bellow, shriek, howl, and soar, and the percussion deftly, indelibly sprints forward, but beyond the normal ideas of genre or metallic thought. It is sumptuousness made music, composed extravagance and indulgence, but with an incredibly devout context. This is, after all, a posthumous exalting and theatrical demonstration of submission in absentia, and so Panegyrist throws caution to the wind in favor of pure expression.

In an interview with vocalist/visual artist Elijah Tamu and guitarist Brendan Maine, both members meditate on what it means to be spiritual in the face of black metal’s strict beliefs, what Hierurgy means to them, and how they intend for it to be projected outward. You can read the interview, as well as listen to the album in full, below.

Hierurgy is out this Friday on I, Voidhanger Records.

Experience their Holy Work and embrace the inner depths of faith.

Though Panegyrist’s music is intricate and enthralling, I find the immense variation in your vocal performance to really carry the momentum and guide the album overall. Given the diversity in your vocal execution, is there any sort of process as to when you might sing, or scream, howl, and so on?

Elijah Tamu: Thank you for the kind words on the vocals. Actually, there are two vocalists in Panegyrist; our keyboardist, David, is the other one. I do the harsh vocals and the heavy metal style cleans, and David does the more operatic singing. We both sing during the “choral” sections. I write the lyrics, so I’m mostly the one who fits them to the music, though David often works out his own parts based on basic ideas that I write. He studied music and is a great composer. There’s no set process for figuring out which style of vocal delivery goes where; it’s more intuitive. Certain sections of the music contain a lot more dissonance and darkness, and those are the places where I use throat singing or growling. The sweeping melodic sections are places where we have the opportunity to really make the most of the layered clean singing, so I try to match those passages with lyrical sections that match the feeling.

I wasn’t expecting the shared duties due to how similar the choral parts sound to Elijah’s solo project Orison Wrethe! I’m curious about the band’s ideas of darkness — do you feel dissonance denotes darkness, or does it go deeper?

ET: For me it certainly goes much deeper. There are so many interleaved meanings that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps I’ll start by quoting Wintherr from the recent Paysage d’Hiver interview you did:

“[H]ow do you define darkness? By absence of light. How do you define light? By absence of darkness? No. Light IS. […] Chaos is not a lack of order, it’s nothingness. Because nothing can exist without order.”

That’s precisely the way I view things and I think he articulated it very well. Spiritually and phenomenologically, light is substantive, akin to the Greek “pleroma,” which means “fullness”. However, a world of pure, undifferentiated light would be completely indiscernible to the observer. Darkness is the negation of light, either in totality or in part. Knowledge is only possible when a kind of filtering takes place; we only discern individual colors when the other wavelengths are negated, leaving an isolated slice of the spectrum. Vision depends on the interplay of light and its negation (i.e. shadow) in order for forms to appear and convey meaning. Sight depends on darkness as much as on light, even though light is the substantive principle. This framework operates on all levels of knowledge: from everyday physical sight to the highest possible communion with the Godhead. No finite mind can exhaustively comprehend the Uncreated Light, and so the remainder (and there is always an endless remainder) is only known as the Divine Darkness. This darkness is one-sided; it is darkness only to the viewer looking upward, while the ultimate Divine reality is always substantive (i.e. light and fullness). The elevation of the mind and spirit into deeper levels of communion allows for more of the light to be grasped progressively, but the mystery is always present. Mystery is the darkness of the light, the unknown but strangely familiar, the perennial call. As one of the lines of the title track says, “Perpetual return into the great Other, forever peregrine on wings of red sulfur.”

Darkness also can be understood as death, the unmaking and dissolving of familiar paradigms and modes of being. Alchemically, the black work always comes first. This process is necessarily unsettling, painful, and, in its most profound instances, soul-rending. I want to be clear that when I speak of darkness in these various senses, I do not mean evil. The problem of evil is a whole different discussion, and one we don’t have time to go into in depth here. But, to be brief, I see no value in the various apotheosis-through-evil doctrines that are touted by many black metal practitioners. That is a worthless path that leads only toward degradation, the loss of reason, and ultimately destruction.

These various concepts of course need to be enfleshed in musical contexts that convey the pathos appropriately. The key usually involves a kind of jarring element. Shrieks and dissonance have been part of black metal since Bathory et al., but these elements still contain the essence of something unhinged, a threat to the neat organization of our spiritual, emotional, and mental worlds. Black metal should be an unsettling force. People have often tried to describe the sound as “evil,” but I think “adversarial,” “harrowing,” and even “numinous” are descriptors that come much closer to the mark. The combination of dissonance, speed, shrieking, and droning all elicit deeply embedded emotional reactions because of various associations. Still, all of this is patterned and follows a certain logic. It still bears the noetic light of intelligibility. “Pure darkness” or “total chaos” are cool descriptors to use in album reviews, but any actual instantiation of these abstractions wouldn’t even be music — or anything at all.

Black metal is the soil from which Panegyrist has grown, but I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily the best descriptor of the music we’ve created (aside from the pragmatic concern of needing to provide a point of reference when describing it to people). We fall pretty far afield from most black metal in thematic focus and composition, but many of the core sonic elements remain — only reinterpreted to fit the context. It’s not even particularly sonically dark, compared to a lot of what I listen to. But if there is darkness in our music, may it be the darkness of seeing your old, familiar habits of self laid bare before the burning gaze of God. That trembling before terrible and fathomless height and depth. If there is darkness in our music, it is just the faintest echo of the most profound Mystery.

Brendan Maine: When I first started writing Panegyrist’s music by myself, before anyone else was involved, I was trying to take what Emperor did with dissonance and darkness and put my own spin on it. I worked to create the most interesting and dissonant chords I could think of to create a dark atmosphere. At the time I had no spiritual intentions other than creating interesting music for purely artistic reasons. When Elijah became involved the music become spiritually focused and he began adding melodies over the dissonant chords, which added a whole new level of complexity to the music. The darkness and dissonance now had a purpose to give the listener a spiritual experience.

This idea of balance appears to mean a lot to the Panegyrist project. When paired with what can be deduced to be a transcendental spiritualism (“Uncreated Light,” “Divine Darkness,” “the highest possible communion with the Godhead”), black metal’s own ideas of light and darkness, and Wintherr’s cited meditations on hermeticism, one can assume Panegyrist’s practiced philosophy looks beyond this actual sphere toward something divine or Other, a counterbalance to black metal’s own philosophical darkness. Is this something you (and the other members of Panegyrist) look to accomplish?

ET: I can only speak for myself, since the members each have their own reasons for collaborating in this work. I sense that now is not the time or place to discuss doctrine and creed in detail, but creating this music is a genuinely religious task for me. It’s not just compartmentalized into some “conceptual” or “artistic” sphere but is rather part of my comprehensive life-work. I don’t just theorize or write about seeking union with God; I aim to make all of my life a unified act of living, breathing prayer and devotion. Fully committed, willingly throwing myself into the fire. This means that theosis is a process that is lived out even in (or, perhaps especially in) the mundane tasks of everyday life. It is the alchemical task of “materializing the spiritual and spiritualizing matter,” drawing all strength from the Cornerstone. The aim is for no part of my life to be “un-theological,” but music especially is one of the places where a certain intensity of vision and intent can shine through in a concentrated, condensed form. I’m not sure how well that answers your question. At the moment, I’d rather let my lyrics open up doors of inquiry than simply lay out doctrine. A lot of the lyrics on the album are reworkings of personal prayers and meditations that I wrote out while going through important phases of spiritual transition and solidification. Turning these writings into lyrics helped me unify prayer and craft.

BM: I feel Panegyrist’s music as a whole denotes neither darkness nor light. To me, the music feels holy and scared, but it also feels majestic and powerful in an unsettling but welcoming way. It brings me a sense of peace but also mystery and depth. I feel listening to the music is an invitation to be joined to God in a way that transcends my mortal self and brings me to a place of worship

Since the talk of a deity and worship have been brought into the fold, I’m curious about your thoughts on orthodoxy and dogma in more modern black metal. From an outside perspective, things seem to be coming around full circle as far as language and symbology are concerned. Do you view this in a similar way?

ET: I’ve often heard people say some variation of a statement that goes like this: “The theistic Satanists playing orthodox black metal are essentially Christians at some level.” I understand the sentiment, but I also think it involves a misunderstanding of what “orthodoxy” and “dogma” actually mean in their deeper senses. Aside from more casual usage, these terms imply an adherence to an established creed. No unifying creed defines the various strains of theistic Satanism and related Left Hand Path currents; we have instead a spectrum of overlapping doxa and praxis with varying degrees of compatibility and divergence. Thus “orthodoxy” can only be spoken of in terms of broadest statements about darkness and the numinous. There is definitely belief and conviction, but this is not the same as dogma and orthodoxy. Actually, Deathspell Omega said exactly this in that in-depth interview from quite a while ago, after the release of Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice:

“Satanism, or Devilworship, is not a revealed religion, like just another monotheistic religion. Or better said, it is a revealed religion, but at this stage, there is no such thing as a Book of Books like the Bible is for the Christian tradition. […] Eventually, this means that traditionalism and certainty aren’t standpoints we can defend forever. They are suitable, at times.”

This is why I’ve always felt that the term “orthodox black metal” was a misnomer, despite having a certain respect for quite a few of the bands that adopted the tag. With Deathspell Omega, it’s difficult to grasp what, exactly, their doctrinal stances are — and I think this is intentional. However, they have made reference to both St Augustine and the Manichean Gnostics, which is telling. The Manicheans, with whom Augustine was involved prior to his conversion, taught that two eternal, ineffable substances, good and evil, were forever locked in combat. However, this was unsatisfying to Augustine because within this paradigm he could see no reason to side with good instead of evil, since both had legitimate claims to ontological primacy. This finally led him to reject the Manichean spiritual cosmology and formulate the privation theory of evil, which states that all that is is good, and evil is only the substanceless privation or distortion of goods which should be manifest but are obstructed. This is the standard Christian understanding of the nature of evil. From what I gather, the members of Deathspell Omega uphold evil as being substantive and divine, and thus embrace the shadow-side of the Manichean paradigm. But to do this, they are taking a definitive stance which diverges from Christian dogma. So things may have “come full circle as far as language and symbology are concerned,” but not in terms of dogma. It’s incorrect to simply view them as “evil Christians.” And they themselves never claimed to be that anyway. The only band I know of that has actually come full circle dogmatically is Reverorum ib Malacht — who have created some of my absolute favorite music, black metal or otherwise. And, yes, I do believe it’s appropriate to call them black metal, not only in terms of music but metaphysically as well.

Outside of the “orthodox black metal” movement, there are some other interesting developments, particularly with bands that are interested in the Perennialist approach to traditionalism, ancient wisdom, and religion. Nightbringer is a good example. These bands are not concerned with exclusive devotion to evil, but instead seek the sparks of a divinely revealed Sophia Perennis, or “perennial wisdom,” however this may have manifest throughout history. Though many of these bands still adopt a generally Left Hand approach, the emphasis on gnosis leads to a more radical affirmation of noetic light and the idea of the ennoblement of the human spirit. Christian mystical texts and approaches have definitely fed into this current in black metal. Hermetic alchemy, which is deeply connected to most forms of Western esotericism, also ushers in quite a bit of Christian language and symbolism, though, again, this does not necessarily equate with dogmatic compatibility on all levels. Even outside of the strictly Perennialist tradition, I’ve seen quite a few bands treat Christian subject matter with a kind of reverence. Necros Christos may appear at first to be antagonistic, but interviews reveal a genuine fascination and even respect for the historical figure of Jesus. Negative Plane’s Stained Glass Revelations is one of my favorite black metal records, and it contains what seems to me to be a quiet sense of reverence for certain kind of Christian contemplative posture. I recall lyrics such as the following, from the song “The One and the Many”:

That which cannot be known and that which binds all of us
The Father and the Son
In hidden words which lurk behind the veil
The coils of the serpent swallowing its tail

[…]

The many and the One, ascending star of dawn
Eclipsing noonday sun, descending hours kingdom come
That which was divided, whole at the end of days.

To me, it seems to go one of two ways in the sense of non-Christians using Christian imagery and liturgical language — fascination or blaspheming/mockery. Given your own stance as a Christian, which is still somewhat “controversial” in the world of the black metal-related music Panegyrist makes, do you view that “outside” perspective in a similar way, or are you more forgiving and less “black and white”?

ET: I’ve tried to be serpentine and somewhat elusive, but you’re intent on backing me into a corner, it seems! Very well. Yes, I am a devout Christian. I have no shame about this, but I’d avoided using that terminology because we do not wish Panegyrist to be associated with labels such as “Christian black metal” — especially right from the outset. And, in fact, not every member of the band is a professing Christian, so there’s also a discomfort with such terminology for that reason too. But it’s nice to be able to speak somewhat more freely about these things, now that you’ve broached the subject.

Regarding my personal relationship to black metal, there’s so much I could say about this. It’s something I’m continually, prayerfully evaluating. Not all of it is appropriate for public discussion, but there’s a fair amount I feel comfortable discussing here. You asked whether it was “black and white” or “forgiving.” It’s both. My dogma means that there are a number of core things on which I refuse to compromise. I am a creedally orthodox Christian. The Nicene Creed lays out some of the foundational non-negotiables. I speak these affirmations liturgically every week. I consume and drink the body and blood of my Lord every week. I have passed through the mercury of death in the initiatory waters of baptism. And these things change me. The cycles of repetition, remembrance, and affirmation — alongside moments of the Divine Presence breaking in and altering my world — solidify and individuate me more with each passing day. In short, I am in love. The Sanskrit word maya had an older meaning before it came to mean “phenomena” and “illusion.” The older Vedic usage meant “power of creation.” I spent many of my growing-up years in Nepal, where maya is also the word for “love.” The etymological connection between “love” and “power of creation” is not something I have been able to trace, but I think the polysemy is interesting. For me, at least, it holds personal significance. This Divine power is the same that medieval Christian theologians identified as the originative principle of motion in the universe: caritas, the Divine love — whose name, in recent times, has been reduced to the threadbare connotations of “charity.” This is what Dante spoke of when he wrote of “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” By caritas, agapé, maya, I become more fully who I am. And from this foundation I approach and interact with the world of black metal. I promise I’m going somewhere with all of this.

I actually didn’t explore black metal until much later in my life because of my religion. And I have absolutely no regrets about this. I had to wait until my Lord had done some profound work in the foundations of my soul before I was ready. The darkness is real — and it would have overcome me if I had jumped in too soon. I had to become adamantine first. The marriage of diamond and lighting-bolt, to use a Vedic image; the incombustible sulfur, to use a Hermetic image. And I say this with the sobering knowledge that this is an ongoing process. I’ll also add that I don’t think black metal is something most Christians should be involved in. It’s a thing that genuinely can imperil your life — body and soul. Laugh if you want, but it’s not just some genre or way of playing your instruments. Don’t think this is a playground. There: I’ve given you my warning.

Anyway, even before I began to explore black metal and develop a sense that I had a place within this world, I always felt something calling to me. Black metal in particular, as opposed to any other form of music. The same impulse to throw oneself prostrate in the darkness of prayer, before a looming, numinous Presence. As a Christian, this meant something different, but I nonetheless felt a kind of strange kinship with those who shared in the experience of this impulse: this, even as a chasm was fixed between us. As I explored black metal, I found that I could speak a common language with many of its practitioners. I’ve been privileged to be able to speak, sometimes in great depth, with some of the most serious and respected people who do black metal as a spiritual life-path. And I have almost never been met with antagonism or hatred — even when faithfulness to orthodoxy has required me to make normative statements that boil down to, “I’m sorry, but I believe that I am right and you are wrong.” I think a lot of people can’t wrap their mind around that idea: that you can hold diametrically opposed views on life-defining questions, and yet still build substantive friendships. I’ve done artwork for a number of bands that hold views which diverge from mine. There have been a surprising number of occurrences where, once I have explained my views, there has been an unexpected “middle space” that opens up, when I can create my devotional artwork without compromise, but in a way that speaks a kind of universal language. I don’t know how to explain it. Other times, I’ve had to turn down offers, because there wasn’t a workable solution. It’s a case-by-case thing. As I said above, my relationship to my Lord is one of love, in a specific, interactive sense — because he is alive, conscious, and active. My being is defined by this, and this vertical emanation manifests directly into the horizontal interactions with others. This doesn’t mean I’m a soft, spineless person. On the contrary, it gives me the strength to oppose. Contra saeculum!

I wish I could find the interview again, but David Eugene Edwards from Wovenhand once said that Christianity is the lens through which he sees everything, and he doesn’t have anything apart from it. Or, as C. S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” That’s exactly what it’s like for me. If I’m listening to black metal, it’s through the lens of my religion. If I read ancient wisdom texts from other religions, the various truths I find only make sense to me in light of Christ. And this is as it should be, if Christ is indeed the living, eternal Logos, the fundamental principle upon whom the universe is built and through whom the universe is sustained. This all begins to sound fairly benign, until you remember the creeds I affirm. Everything crystallizes and finds its fulfillment in the historical and ever-living human person of Jesus Christ. The istantiation, not the abstraction. That is the stumbling block, which, in all its offensiveness, is the Philosopher’s Stone. Disagree if you want.

And once again, please remember that I’m only expressing my own views here. Not everyone in Panegyrist necessarily holds these views, and I want to respect that.

How do you communicate these themes within Panegyrist’s more obscure, spiritual, philosophical approach?

ET: I’ll try to keep this one a bit more brief. Lyrically, I’m not interested in regurgitating “safe” theological formulations or Christian metal cliches about fighting demons or what have you. It’s all about inversion and transformation. Hence, the abundance of paradox and alchemical language. Many perceptions of Christianity — both among Christians and non-Christians — don’t even begin to touch some of the inner depths of the faith: a secret place humming with the ageless thunder of transformation. And I write this way not out of some attempt to co-opt and appropriate an aesthetic, but out of an inner conviction. These are prayers. This is my language of meditation and communion. Has it been influenced by black metal? Sure. Black metal has changed me — but not in the way that it intended to.

Is Panegyrist even black metal? I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter. In some ways it feels strange for me to call it that, because it feels quite different from the general feeling that I get from a lot of black metal. I’d just rather that people listened and responded to it on its own terms. I have plenty of darker things I want to express, things more in keeping with black metal proper — perhaps through future Panegyrist music, and perhaps through other projects.

Is there any way you would prefer people view and/or hear Panegyrist’s opening statement?

BM: I’d like people to hear the album as a whole, because, to me, the album feels like a cohesive spiritual journey. I hope it takes the listener into the heights and depths of the Divine in a unique, ritualistic way. We hope to play live shows soon and are currently looking for a local drummer. We are working toward creating a special live experience that will give the audience a firsthand experience of our Holy Work. Watch for announcements. Thank you for taking the time to interview us and premiere our album.

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