A Guide to Book of Sand’s Discography, Part I: Dialogue with Ghosts
Walking through a band's or an artist's entire catalog is never an easy task; especially if the artist's work is deemed "unusual." Book of Sand's mastermind dcrf is definitely not an "academic" black metal musician, neither is he a self-proclaimed vanguard, advocating for everyone to break and overturn the codes of black metal. dcrf simply sets his own path, exploring or twisting any aspects, arrangements or compositional approaches he sees fit.
dcrf has been so kind to comment on my impressions and answer questions I had about his works. Hopefully the following guide, commented by the artist himself, will help you find your ways into the vivid realm of Book of Sand.
This first article covers the first "arc" of Book of Sand releases. In these "early works" you will find mood and atmosphere, subtlety, melancholy, Southeast Asian influences, the spirit of Old Songs, and a rather odd companion to a black metal journey…
Note: All the albums presented in this first Chapter are available for free download on Book of Sand's bandcamp page.
How Beautiful To Walk Free (2010)
This is the very first album by Book of Sand, and probably the one that most resembles "straightforward," "raw" atmospheric black metal, with barebone drumming between blasts and d-beats, ice-cold riffs and synths.
But quotes are in order for there’s already important twists that will be part of Book of Sand’s sonic identity : abstruse, hardcore-ish yelled vocals put pretty low in the mix, weird intervals and this omnipresent noise.
This was straightforward raw & harsh black metal as far as the sound, but many of the songs had unusual compositional approaches; if I remember correctly, some of them were twelve-tone, there were some chord clusters, the second part of the last track was a simple process, and so on. Track 6 turned into "Postmodern Witchcraft."
Some of the songs work better than others, but many of the things I've been interested in were already there.
The sound in this album is shaped by the thick fog of synthetic noise surrounding the whole thing, that eventually becomes completely overwhelming on "I heard you’ll be gone a long time." You have to go and search for black metal behind the dense sonic shrouds, and by the time you find it you realize it’s been completely subdued by the ominous synths, hence accessing a view of what has been going on at a much higher level this whole time. From the very beginning, Book of Sand has been playing with the tropes and narrative frame of black metal.
Final copies of the original CD run are available here.
Destruction, Not Reformation (2010)
This second opus is where folk elements ostentatiously come into the mix. The first track, "No excuses for fascist sympathy," is driven by violin-type strings, played in a very non-Western manner, featuring unusual intervals. They are a structural canvas to almost continuous blast beats and lo-fi strumming. Destruction, not Reformation is a record of deep melancholy, and a strange breed of atmospheric black metal as the voice is almost as evanescent as the drums, and the slow melodies are led by either strings or keyboards. This record will appeal to fans of icy, beautiful and depressive black metal: it is cold, romantic and solitary. Still one of my favorites in this dense discography.
The sound of this album was largely determined by circumstances; at the time I only had a little practice amplifier with a borrowed guitar and couldn't find anyone to play drums, so I tried to find a sound that worked with what I could do. There must have been something in the air, too - there's some similarity in vibe to the Murmuüre album which came out around the same time on Paradigms as well.
To me, this is one of my more successful albums, and it helped me to start finding ways that an album could feel like black metal without sounding like black metal. This also had the start of some gamelan influence as well, although only in a tentative way.
The Bees and the Butterflies EP (2011)
The Bees and the Butterflies can be described relatively quickly: slow, nontraditional atmospheric black metal led by strings and noise, in front of evanescent drums and vocals. It grants more space to the guitar riffs, and a warmer tone compared to Destruction, not Reformation, without taking too much distance from the general vibe. The Bees and the Butterflies acts as a transition album in a very fruitful period for Book of Sand.
Definitely one to spin for any "atmospheric" black metal enjoyer, but the feeling and the lyrical themes are starting to carve out another crucial aspect of Book of Sand's influences: old folk and blues. Song titles will ring a bell to those who are deeply versed into Alan Lomax's archives and the likes of it. As far as I am concerned, "Young girl cut down in her prime" instantly reminded me of "The Young Lad cut down in his prime", that old Blues standard that eventually partly morphed into "St James Infirmary Blues"–one song that I am obsessed with lyrically and musically.
The bees and the butterflies was recorded shortly before Mourning star and was in part an exercise in figuring out the sound. All of the songs are folk songs, some of which I reharmonized in different ways. "Young girl cut down in her prime" I believe is a variant of the English song you mention; I think I first heard this version on a recording by Che-SHIZU. Old songs are powerful.
They are indeed.
The Face of the Waters (2011)
The Face of the Waters has a very peculiar atmosphere, definitely a slow and depressive black metal even though the typical black metal instruments are all far behind in the mix, the prevalence being given to strings, blues harp, and guitar arpeggios. A round and deep bass guitar shapes the overall ambience. The album literally feels swamped, like black metal under heavy meds, trying to find its way through hallucinations and mud.
Question for D: Judging by the song titles and the impressions the music left on me, the album sounds like a biblical journey, the end point being at "The gates of heaven", the final blues before going calmly into the dark. What is the theme of the album? What story are you telling?
Is it conceptually linked to the next one, The face of the Deep? Were the two albums created in parallel?
I was very happy with how this album came out, and I still think it's maybe the best of my first phase of albums. As opposed to most of my other early recordings I didn't play any games on this; I wrote more intuitively, and I think the result was better.
The face of the waters and the face of the deep are references to Genesis 1, the only part of the bible with any resonance for me. At the time I believed that the creation had been a great mistake and that only pure negativity was correct; now I understand that part of our struggle is to reject the Christian effort to remake the world in its image and that there are other positive ways to go.
Mourning Star (2012)
It’s kind of redundant to qualify any Book of Sand album "experimental;" let’s say this one has the biggest internal contrasts. Surprisingly, it may be a very good entry into the realm of Book of Sand. For one, it has the strongest bluesy and doomy vibes.
Once you survived the initial wall of sound, screams and free improvisation that is "The face of the water", you get to "Fits and Starts:" a trippy, headbanging riff tune at first sight, until you realize it's actually nine minutes long and has industrial ambient soundscapes at the very middle of it, and ends in three full minutes of deafening white noise concealing very low-mix classical guitar arpeggios. "Lord Have Mercy" is another doomy and ominous blues, shorter and more straightforward but still perverted by the spooky violin and strings arrangements.
I almost wanna call this album "progressive" just for the sake of the mighty, 15-minute track "Planet SUV;" like "Fits and Starts" it has warmer, heavier guitar tones in the riffs. It is a litanic, psychedelic black metal journey through noisy soundscapes and tortuous free jazz musings. If Swans, Darkspace, or Solar Temple ring any bell to you, maybe this will appeal.
That being said, the unsettling, psyched bayou blues and Southern Gothic cabaret "A devil, not a phoenix" breaks the canvas again and presses the album’s contrasts even further.
There was a lot going on in this one, and I think some of might have been too self-indulgent.
There were a few themes through this album; I had bits of Verdi's lacrimosa and Machaut's kyrie throughout, as well as some other repeated things. This album had a twin, which I ended up not releasing, and so there were shared melodies and such between those two. I was trying to find ways to use 12 and 24-tone techniques in parts of the album.
This one was difficult for me to write, and I mapped out the whole thing graphically before recording it. Much of this album was put together with cut-up techniques as well.
So… yeah. Experimental, complex, and high contrast, but maybe more accessible than others, for there is a lot to be picked up here if you like anything near Southern Gothic, Dark Cabaret, Psychedelic black metal, or even Blues.
The Face of the Deep (2015)
The Face of the Deep has the most memorable and intriguing pitch: black metal and Javanese Gamelan. This is a cross-breed one does not see very often, but as always with Book of Sand, it serves a purpose and targets a particular atmosphere. One word to qualify this album is "eerie." The trance induced by the chanting and the Javanese bells with their odd rhythms tame the unfed black metal beast underneath. The Face of the Deep is a hypnotic album, the kind that gets you to mechanically nod in rhythm through and through. One of the most infectious Book of Sand albums; it WILL get under your skin, and haunt your mind long after you’ve stopped listening.
Question for D: I’d love to know how you came to Gamelan, and the Javanese kind in particular. What kind of inspiration did you find there, why did you choose to incorporate it in your music ?
I've studied Javanese gamelan for about fifteen years; I'm not an advanced student by any measure, but I can play most of the instruments with some competence and have a moderate level of understanding of the inner logic and feeling of the music. This album came to me in a dream, and so I tried to make it happen. At the time I was still fairly new to gamelan, and both the writing and the performances are crude and not always correct - I think it works as an idea, though, and I might try to revisit this in the future. I like the thought that in some dimension this is how symphonic black metal sounds. Why not? The last track is the most successful one, I think.
Interlude : Patterns and Recurrence
One thing that pops up when listening to Book of Sand's entire works is the recurrence of songs, melodies and patterns. Several songs like "All the Pretty Horses", "Crawling through sand", "Crawling through earth" and "The Face of the Waters" appear re-worked from one album to another.
One that I particularly like is the beautiful melody from "To Live Forever": originally a song from the second album Destruction, not Reformation, one can hear it as the carillon intro of "The Face of the Deep". Then it appears again, as the second track of Elegy.
I've had a number of things come up repeatedly; generally if I don't feel like I'm done with a melody or if I think there's more to do with it then I'll use it again. I think I possibly have some things that come up throughout, like the Bach, DSCH and Schnittke motifs.
A lot of the joy of music is in finding new things in old songs. In gamelan music, as with American and European folk music, the songs rarely have composers - the focus is the way that people play them as much as where they originally came from. So, I do this with my own songs too until I don't feel like I have anything more to add. In music (as in life) we're always in dialog with ghosts, and so I don't mind doing this in a personal way, too.
Elegy EP (2015)
CAUTION : this album mix is loud. Like, really loud. As said on the Bandcamp page, turn down the volume before pressing play. No joke.
I won't embed this one here, for I need to make sure you have read the warning before pressing play. But you should definitely go and download or listen to it over there.
This one has the weirdest, most experimental Book of Sand sound so far. It is unique and definitely off the rails for anyone expecting usual black metal, but it is also eerie and beautiful, and it will actually feel very familiar to anyone who has listened to the other albums. It bears the offset melodies, the "gamelanic" edge, and familiar compositions. Elegy is a sort of conclusion to Book of Sand's first "chapter."
All of the songs except the last are reworked versions of tracks from previous albums–I intended this album to complete my first set of seven releases. There were clean electric guitars on a few tracks, but no other electric instruments. To me, this one has a winter sound–bright, cold, and nostalgic.
The mastering will definitely catch you off-guard at first listen. Even if not for the very loud mix, it is also very unusual in its use of saturations and tones. It is an oversaturated trip (massive understatement here), yet it has a great clarity of sound with clean guitars punching heaven's ceiling and something that sounds like… glockenspiel, maybe? The closest description I can think of is if Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells were played by an ensemble of Indonesian musicians through amps with full gain, re-recorded through piezo (contact) mics, and then mastered with even more gain.
The mix is as loud as is possible with digital audio. I still think the sound quality is lovely. I discovered this sound in a defective cd pressing of "Yo-Yo Ma: Japanese Melodies" which was given to me as a gift many years ago.
Definitely one record you need to hear. This is truly something you will never hear elsewhere, a performance in itself. But beyond the performance on sound engineering, Elegy has a rare and comforting beauty. It reveals in broad daylight that "odd companion" I mentioned at the very beginning of this article, a feeling that has been with us all along this listening journey : kindness.
Book of Sand is kindness made black metal.