Pagan Poetry: Metal Musicians’ Quieter Side Projects

Kim Kelly

By Kim Kelly

on 08.13.14 in Features

Even in the fertile creative world of metal, some of the most progressive purveyors feel stifled. The insatiable drive for darkness often leads extreme metal musicians to dabble in side projects that have may not make a lick of sense to fans, but satisfy something unexplainable within its creator. Upon the demise of his atmospheric black metal band Altar of Plagues, James Kelly forged ahead with his solo electronic project WIFE. Jeff Wilson, of Wolvhammer and Abigail Williams, moonlights in post-punk collective Liar in Wait. Gazelle Amber Valentine of doom destroyers Jucifer plucks the banjo and sings sweetly as the Devil’s Tower. Ash Pool guitarist and vocalist (and Hospital Records don) Dominick Fernow is better known for his vast array of noise and post-punk projects like Prurient, Cold Cave and Vatican Shadow. Stuart Dahlquist of Burning Witch fame is readying the release of his dreamy, droney new project Dama/Libra. Metal’s fierce individualism lends itself well to exploring new territory, or approach familiar ground from a different angle.

“I had the same reaction to discovering Death in June at 18 as I did when I discovered Morbid Angel at 13,” says Shawn Haché, who plays in the Canadian death-metal bands Mitochondrion and Auroch. “It ignited the same feeling of fulfillment, only this time from a completely different source of myself. No one exists solely on one side of a spectrum, and in order to be a complete entity, the opposites must be united. I see no difference between the vigor that comes from extreme metal and the inner expansiveness that comes from neo-folk. One complements the other.” Haché is involved with long-running online publication Heathen Harvest, which is known for its in-depth analysis of neofolk, post-industrial, and other strains of dark, experimental music. He has also helmed the dark acoustic duo Night Profound since 2007, and is preparing to announce details for its next release — a pair of 7-inch EPs via Not Just Religious Music, ahead of a forthcoming full-length. To say that Haché is dedicated to this style of music would be an understatement. As he says, “All art should be generated through some form of suffering. Joyful inspiration is dull and lifeless. As musicians, that creation comes out of us in whatever form it happens to take. I believe there are corners of one’s inner dimension that cannot be expressed through extreme metal alone, no matter how experimental it can be.”

Night Profound’s ethereal acoustic guitars and resonant vocals are awash in rich, haunting tones, and as Haché explains, fulfill an inner creative hunger in a way that mirrors his work within the extreme metal pantheon. Listeners will be able to sample Haché’s wares on Heathen Harvest’s new Midsummer compilation, which features Night Profound’s rendition of a Charles Manson tune as well as tracks from 15 other likeminded artists.

While we await the gestation of Night Profound’s next offering, there are an unusual number of high-quality releases that fall within that same niche of predominantly metal-oriented musicians changing their tune. Here are three of the best.

Musk Ox, Woodfall (self-released)

Nathanaël Larochette has been performing his lush, gentle chamber folk as Musk Ox for nearly a decade, and new album Woodfall is his strongest and most varied effort yet, bolstered by contributions from cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne and violinist Evan Runge. Musk Ox’s long-held but understated progressive rock leanings and bombastic classical influences make their presence known here (especially on the forceful “Part 3: Arcanum” or sprightly “Part 5: Serenade the Constellations,” which sounds positively Victorian), but they still take a backseat to the singing strings and rippling chords of Larochette’s masterful neoclassical guitar playing.

This is beautiful music, full stop. It’s no wonder that Agalloch asked Larochette to contribute several interludes to the Portland icons’ latest album, The Serpent & the Sphere. Larochette’s elegant playing perfectly complements Agalloch’s dark, woodsy aesthetic, dappling sunlight onto their muted palette. The lack of vocals and meandering pace may prove too sleepy for some, but anyone with a soft spot for Empyrium, Tenhi, or Neun Welten will find much to sustain them.

Blood and Sun, White Storms Fall (Pesanta Urfolk)

Blood and Sun’s first album, White Storms Fall, was released by Pesanta Urfolk in May. Helmed by guitarist and vocalist Luke Tromiczak (Maledicere), Celestiial’s Tanner Anderson, on hammered dulcimer, violinist Thomas Ashe, cellist Angela Mcjunkin, and percussionist Erik Wivinus, Blood and Sun offers a dusky, intense blend of grandiose atmosphere, emotive chords and resonant baritone intonations. Anderson’s no stranger to the “metal dudes playing non-metal” phenomenon, redoubling efforts he previously exerted on the upcoming album from his medieval-influenced project Obsequiae, whose 2011 debut LP Suspended in the Brume of Eos was reissued in May via 20 Buck Spin. He carries those wide-ranging influences into Blood and Sun, imbuing the music with a wild energy. It’s engaging, commanding neo-folk, borne of cold winters and steely resolve, placing huge emphasis on the “folk” aspect of its sound and drawing heavily from traditional Celtic and Scandinavian tunes. The album feels urgent and complex, even in its quietest moments, and though it runs long and begins to sag around the middle, it’s an impressive effort from such a new band.

One and All, Together, for Home compilation

The mysterious and prolific Roman Saenko of Ukrainian black metallers Drudkh (as well as Blood of Kingu, Rattenfanger and the infamous Hate Forest) convinced an array of European black metal-inspired bands from eight different regions to record cover versions of traditional folk tunes and write original songs around the theme to celebrate their shared heritage. As Chris Naughton of the U.K.’s Winterfylleth said of the release, “One way that folk music has endured throughout the world’s turbulent history is by people coming together and sharing the stories, tales and folklore of old; recreating the melodies in a way that is relevant to them in the now.” It’s an ambitious effort, and would seem almost quaint if it weren’t for the controversial political backgrounds of several participants, most notably the established right-wing rhetoric of Hate Forest and Drudkh’s shadowy unspoken affiliations.

One and All, Together, for Home has no agenda, though; it’s an exercise in nostalgia more than anything else. Season of Mist released the collection in May. The final result was scattershot, but the good parts are very, very good. The bigger names make the best impression, with Winterfylleth, Drudkh, Kampfar and especially Primordial turning out stirring renditions of long-forgotten classics. Winterfylleth summon the spirit of Summer Isle in the pagan dread of “John Barleycorn,” and Primordial’s plaintive take on “The Foggy Dew” evokes the wild poetry of old Ireland, while Kampfar’s moody “Badnull” captured the lightness Scandinavian gloom and Finland’s Häive took a colder, more black/folk metallic approach for his tracks to satisfying effect. There are a few sour notes (the Viking-obsessed Frenchmen in Himinbjorg don’t fare well) but overall, it makes for an interesting listen, and is worth investigating for the Primordial tracks alone.