Vanum – “Spring of Life” (Premiere + Interview with Michael Rekevics)
Vanum's Realm of Sacrifice (Profound Lore, 2015) was a unique anomaly, meditating on the "Hellenic black metal" sound projected through the long-form, atmosphere-centric lens of multi-instrumentalists Michael Rekevics and Kyle Morgan's own projects, Fell Voices and Ash Borer (respectively). An active representation of North American black metal's "tentacular" approach, absorbing a different style or stylistic philosophy and projecting it as an addendum to its own sinewy musculature, Realm of Sacrifice's emphasis on the tragic element found in all "great" Greek art embraced its meditative, intrinsically American (at least in black metal) foil.
However, accepting art's multi-faceted nature and fluid evolution, Vanum's own evolution shows the band shedding the weight of introspection in favor of celebrating victory. Closing out the trilogy of songs which make up the impending, proud Burning Arrow EP is "Spring of Life", this duo's most potent work to date. Opening with the sound of an unsheathed sword, or at least something which sounds comparable, Vanum's new, armored self revels in triumphant melodies and sprints into battle with powerful, thunderous percussion. Even with this new, more battle-ready self, the tragedy and downcast nature of previous works nestles itself in select places - a dual-edged blade, no victory comes without its own cost.
Burning Arrow will be released by K.'s own label, Psychic Violence, on April 1st (digital + LP pre-order). Scroll below for an exclusive first listen of closing track "Spring of Life" and an unexpectedly long, introspective interview with Michael Rekevics.
Both Kyle and your bodies of musical work (including Fell Voices, Sleepwalker, Ash Borer et al) have been regarded as the exemplary "gold standard" for the new school of American "atmospheric (read as: long form) black metal," but with more recent efforts like Vilkacis, Predatory Light, and, of course, Vanum, there's been a marked shift toward the more triumphant, tragic sound pioneered in the early 90s by the then burgeoning Greek and Slavic scenes. What provoked such a dramatic shift in stylistic concentration?
I can really only speak for myself, though I'd assume Kyle is somewhat on the same page, but for me Fell Voices, especially when we started in 2007, was very much a learning experience. The members of Fell Voices had previously been playing hardcore, noise and experimental musics, and while we had all long loved the music, actually composing and playing black metal was new to us. We were experimenting and searching more for a feeling than a particular sound. We were stretching our boundaries, figuring out what we were capable of as players, and generally less concerned with focus or discipline, at least in that initial state.
In time, I developed a bit more discipline and control and grew to understand the value of focusing in on the essence of any given project. As I continued to collaborate with more and more people in various formations, it became important to be aware of the spiritual core of each unit, and to be willing to cut away that which is superfluous. I suppose this awareness, coupled with a natural shifting of tastes over the years is why various projects have emerged sounding the way they have while a band like Fell Voices has also transformed to some degree.
That said, I have by no means abandoned or forgotten about the power of time, endurance, struggle and self-denial in music.
This definitely falls in line with the "trimming the fat" approach you mentioned in the Burning Arrow press release - do you see this more as a fruition and gradually unveiled end goal rather than a shift?
Acknowledging the essence of a particular collaboration (or solo endeavor in other cases) doesn't necessarily preclude fluidity and natural exploration. With that in mind, I wouldn't call what we have created with Burning Arrow an "end goal." It is certainly different than Realm of Sacrifice, but it is informed by the same spirit; another head of the hydra.
Referring back to the "trimming the fat" comment - I found that intriguing because it definitely refers to the length of the songs and their internal organization, but what is contained therein is dense. I was told at times that there were up to 24 simultaneous tracks. Obviously "vertical" density versus "horizontal" length are two entirely different monsters, but they definitely feed from a similar source and work in conjunction with each other, following malleability's laws of stretching and condensing. Was this a conscious approach, or were the layers more an afterthought for texture?
Both records are actually similarly dense, at least in terms of the sheer number of tracks. Though in each case that density is employed to different effect. They are definitely used mainly for texture, but they certainly weren't an afterthought. With Realm of Sacrifice we sought to create an immersive fog with layer upon layer of guitar and synth. When approaching Burning Arrow we used the same tactic of repeatedly layering guitars but with the intention of creating a feeling of unyielding strength and immediacy. Andy Oswald, our longtime friend and collaborator, engineered and mixed the album with us to create a sound that reflected the differences in song writing and theme. Rather than the distant, effect sheltered production that suited the introspection and patience of Realm of Sacrifice, Burning Arrow is direct, forceful, courageous and prideful.
Moving from the inward look of introspection to the more active pride is a big jump, which fits the emotional shift of the music but is challenging when demonstrated under the banner of a project with only one prior, defining release. How do these two emotions and approaches fit into Vanum's philosophical backbone?
In Latin, Vanum is emptiness, void. This name was chosen because for me, it resonates with the alchemical and subsequently Jungian idea of the nigredo or the sol niger. This void is not the end goal, but the first step in a process of spiritual distillation and individuation. In alchemy, it is the first step in the great work, in which all of the alchemical ingredients are putrefied, cooked, and purified into a uniform black substance. The process of reducing all matter to this essence is the necessary key to creating the sorcerer's stone.
In Jung's psychological framework, he applies the alchemical idea of the nigredo to a difficult process of deep introspection and confrontation with one's shadow self. Ultimate self-awareness and the actualization of true individual will demands this shadow work, this ordeal of selfhood.
Realm of Sacrifice was the embodiment of this process. It was the expression of that painful introspection, the breaking down of perceived self in the quest for purification and true individuation. Burning Arrow is the next step. It is an affirmation of gained awareness. The gnosis reached through inner struggle turned and brandished as a weapon amidst outer struggle.
That said, I am by no means blinded by pride or taken by the notion that I've somehow achieved absolute enlightenment. This struggle is ongoing and one that inevitably must be repeated. The fact that our expression of this experience manifested itself this time in the form of Burning Arrow doesn't mean Vanum will forever sound precisely like this. The experiences are all bound by the process, but the expressions are fluid.
From introspection to greater awareness within the void - where does Vanum move next? Enlightenment and ascension? Acceptance and resignation? Does such a symbolic confrontation matter when put into the context of Jung's distillation of all things?
Eternal struggle. This is black metal after all.
Truthfully though, these things don't happen in a philosophical vacuum. While Jung's theories on the process of individuation have certainly been a valuable tool for navigating the cycles of self-reflection and expression on both personal and collective artistic levels, it does not define the totality of our worldview and approach as Vanum, or my own as an individual. It serves as inspiration and as an illustrative device to help express our own experiences and our own creative processes.
Other projects of mine have used different mythologies and metaphoric devices to express similar ideas, and to grapple with these same experiences. The personal battle is what is important to me, not orthodoxy to any particular pre-established belief system.
This eternal cycle of reflection and self improvement, regardless of what ideological lens one chooses to view it through, is simply my process of staying sane and creating some semblance of meaning. All joking aside, as an individual and as a black metal musician I am committed to this struggle. I have said it before and I mean it absolutely, black metal is spiritual war. Vanum will continue this war, as will all of my projects.
How exactly we will approach it conceptually and how that will translate sonically? That remains to be seen.
So is black metal the struggle or is it merely a vehicle through which you carry it?
The vehicle, but to such an intrinsically linked degree that, to me, it is one in the same.
"Black metal" is ultimately bound more to ideology and concept than it is to sound or any one particular compositional form. Certainly there are many regional idiomatic devices and traditions that have become largely codified into the language of black metal, but that is not ultimately what is most important, at least not to me. The spiritual struggle and inner war are the core of it, and that's what has most drawn me to it.
If black metal did not exist, I would still walk the same path and seek expression elsewhere. So in that sense it is simply the vehicle. Yet, without commitment to this struggle, the genre would either be irrelevant or simply not exist as I know it, so at its core it also is the struggle.
With your background in hardcore bands like Mohoram Atta, there's been a historic style-based path and build-up to your current meditation on catharsis in black metal, but have been other styles which helped you express such a struggle in a comparable way?
Hardcore, at least as far as my involvement was concerned, was always lyrically and conceptually limited to the corporeal world. We expressed rage and dissatisfaction, which was cathartic to a degree, but stopped short of seeking any sort of inner transcendence and avoided engaging with anything metaphysical. As a result, it all felt far less intentional and productive than what i would ideally have had it be. I suppose if I had been of larger mind and ambition at the time, I could've approached it all differently, but what's done is done.
That said, my time in Mohoram Atta did have a huge impact on how I physically approach playing music. We were an extremely loud band; three guitars always pushing the limits of what we could endure. We almost only ever played DIY spaces where drums were not mic'ed and simply turning down was not an option, so I learned to play very hard out of necessity. Since then, I've never considered playing any differently. The act of playing unconditionally with unyielding force can have mind altering effects and while not necessarily conceptually connected, the act of confronting physical pain and finding the capacity for endurance has proven to be a powerful externalization of this inner spiritual struggle we've been talking about.
While personally I haven't played much music outside of punk and metal, I believe that most any music played with passion, intention and discipline can be a powerful means of both expressing and exploring this struggle; the music of John Coltrane (listen to the Olatunji Concert!) and Coil are two wildly different examples that spring to mind of musicians explicitly engaged in this struggle for spiritual liberation. Perhaps two of the absolute best examples honestly. Endless inspiration there.
Is there anything into which you could see yourself branching in the future?
Absolutely! I'm an explorer, so much is possible. I'd be interested in exploring more dark, endurance based music that is not idiomatically bound to black metal, or metal at all for that matter. That and I've also been slowly working on a new punk project called Grey Hell. I've been recording off and on for the past few years but have yet to make any of it public. Maybe something will surface later this year.
I hear you've been working on a few more imminent things as of late, as well! Care to elaborate?
Haha, yeah, it's been near constant work lately. 2016 was the first year in a decade that I didn't release any new music, so I'm hustling to make up for that. Its honestly difficult to keep it all straight in my head sometimes.
After a bit of a hiatus Vilkacis has been furiously productive. I've just finished the long-in-the-works second LP, Beyond the Mortal Gate ,which should be going to press real soon. I'll also be contributing a song to an upcoming House of First Light cassette compilation, and Vilkacis is also currently recording material for a split with the phenomenal Dutch band Turia as well as another EP.
In addition to that, Vorde just began the recording process of a new LP, as well as our side of an as of yet announced split. Yellow Eyes is going to be recording a new LP early this spring as well.
Lastly on the recording front, it is my intention to at long last finish and release the second Ruin Lust album.
Maybe there will be more. We'll have to see.
Besides all that, I'll hopefully be doing a fair share of touring this year, beginning with Vanum in Europe this April and May.
There'll hopefully be more to announce soon as well.
Any final thoughts/anything you would like to add?
MR: Thank you for the interest and the refreshingly thoughtful conversation.
ALL HAIL HOUSE OF FIRST LIGHT.
ALL HAIL PSYCHIC VIOLENCE.
BLACK METAL AS SPIRITUAL WAR.