by Niklas Göransson
Guido Saint Roch is a French historian who specialises in the Medieval Period, as well as the visionary behind dark hermetic metal band Ysengrin. He discusses volcanic winters, alchemical practice, and the intrinsic link between art and divinity.
– Our split with STARGAZER is ready – TT of ABIGOR just finalised the master so we’ve sent it to Yosuke of Nuclear War Now!. This is the third and second-to-last instalment in our collaborative Magnum Opus series based on the four stages of alchemy and, like the others, it will only be made available on vinyl and tape.
During my preparations for this conversation I learned of another upcoming release YSENGRIN are participating in – a compilation focused on the Tarot card concept which sees a number of different bands each contributing their own sonic interpretation of archetypes from the deck. Featured bands include the likes of HEAD OF THE DEMON, NIGHTBRINGER, ACHERONTAS, SERPENT NOIR, DØDSENGEL, ZEMIAL, and so forth.
– This is a long-running project that Luciano – the boss of I, Voidhanger Records – has been working on since 2012. It’s taken him years just to collect everything, you can imagine all the hassle involved with cancelled bands and so on but I think it’s almost complete now. All artwork was drawn by Croatian artist Marko Marov, with every illustration individually designed after the composer’s own vision – so it’s going to be a great project in the visual as well as musical sense! I chose two cards for this compilation: The Hermit and The Sun, both perfectly aligned with and having been almost omnipresent in YSENGRIN since the very beginning. These two tracks were recorded with the “To Endotaton” (2012) line-up several years ago so they still have guitars.
Ah, yes – I read that you’re continuing bass-only henceforth?
– Indeed. A few years back, shortly after recording our two Tarot tracks and the BLACK GRAIL split (“Nigrum Nigrius Nigro”), I decided to sell my guitar and amp, keeping only the acoustic guitar. This was during a time of line-up changes as well. Since the 2016 split with SARTEGOS (“Resurrezionespiritual”) and until the band comes to an end, we’ll keep bass as our main instrument. Even before buying a real one, I was heavily drawn to its sound – actually, many years back I used to play bass with my guitar by using an effect on my Boss pedal, haha! I think my obsession stems from hearing tracks such as “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)” (METALLICA), “Peace Sells” (MEGADETH), “Rime of The Ancient Mariner” (IRON MAIDEN) … then some years later “Black Spell of Destruction” (BURZUM) and “Pagan Fears” (MAYHEM) from the darker side of music. I’m also a sucker for fretless bass, with masterful players like Steve DiGiorgio (DEATH, AUTOPSY), Sean Malone (CYNIC), and Damon Good (MOURNFUL CONGREGATION, STARGAZER, CAULDRON BLACK RAM). Perhaps guitar to my ears sounds more down to earth whereas bass is somewhat chthonic?
YSENGRIN’s past material has featured a few medieval instruments, so I’m wondering if they intend to explore this further. Coupled with the double bass it brings to mind the classic NECROMANTIA EP “Ancient Pride”, and that’s never a bad thing.
– I don’t think we’ll use such instruments in the future but more likely work with promoting neo-medieval feelings by using real bells, organ and chants. Interesting that you should mention this NECROMANTIA mini-CD because it was the first opus I bought of this cult band – the chorus on “For the Light of my Darkness” is so majestic! You can hear the whole mystic sound of the Hellenic scene in such riffs. By the way, I was just listening to ON THORNS I LAY so you can see that the Storm Studio is never too far from me… I was greatly moved by albums such as “His Majesty at the Swamp” (VARATHRON), “Crossing the Fiery Path” (NECROMANTIA), and “The Inheritors of Pain” (OBSECRATION).
I was told beforehand that art and religion are big interests of Guido’s. As such, I’m curious about his thoughts on their synergy and interplay – does one influence the other and if so, how? Is feeling possessed by the Muses the same as being filled with the gods?
– The very best of mankind’s art was created under religious influence and, may I add, the two were probably born together. Just look back though human history – since thousands of years and in essentially every corner of the earth you can find beautiful creations linked to spirituality. Without religion and the sacred there would have been no mighty temples in Hellas, no cathedrals, no Jheronimus Bosch, no Johann Sebastian Bach, no Romanticism, no Surrealism, and I can continue the list… Oh, and excuse my Eurocentric point of view but I speak of what I know best; the same also applies to the Americas and Asia, for example. Let me tell you something, almost ten years back I had a conversation on this very topic with Emil Lundin of REVERORUM IB MALACHT.
Before converting to Catholicism over a decade back, Lundin was a death-worshiping black metal musician known from bands such as OFERMOD and DÖDFÖDD.
– I told him I cannot understand how these ugly churches built in our modern times could possibly be a sacral place, to which he replied, ’This is the place of the Lord. Simple as that. The exterior, the interior of the church is not very, very important, when I shut my eyes to pray, or when I gaze at the tabernacle.’ From my point of view, it’s the exact opposite because the aesthetics are very important – it’s all about these powerful links between man and divinity. It’s like praying in a park rather than an old forest surrounded by trees… don’t tell me you can feel the presence of what lies beyond in a fucking city park! Nowadays, our atheist and materialist society can no longer create real art; music is shit or bis repetita, painting is boring, architecture is awful, etcetera. There are of course some exceptions. Finally, it’s important to note that even non-religious artists can create sacred art, with the best example I have in mind being H.P. Lovecraft. Despite his strong science-minded spirit, nobody can deny the religiosity of Lovecraft’s writings! In the sense of the Muses, he was indeed ‘filled with the gods’.
Guido’s passion for sacred aesthetics is reflected in his career choice, he is a historian who specialises in medieval history and regularly holds lectures about topics like stained glass – meaning, coloured windows such as the ones in churches of the era. This is a topic I must sadly admit to knowing next to nothing about, besides having read about its great prevalence of Sacred Geometry.
– Our ancestors knew how to build with the good proportions, indeed! Stained glass is far less Bible oriented with clear drawings for uncultivated people and more a vision of the New Jerusalem through windows made from beautiful minerals. Just imagine the procession in a church mass, drenched by the sun’s rays coming through the coloured stained glasses – casting a magical yet physical sheen of God’s presence. Read for example the Gospel of John, 9:5: ’When I am in the world, I am the Light of the World.’ It’s also definitely worthy of interest from a Luciferian point of view, seeing as how you’re forced to deal with alchemy when working with stained glass. Among the raw materials used are plant ashes and, obviously, fire is primordial. There’s a strong connection to the blacksmith’s craft as well.
Are you primarily interested in hermetic philosophies or do you actually practise alchemy yourself?
– Well, it’s not as if I own a physical laboratory besides that of my body; remember what the alchemists of old would say: Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem – ’Visit the interior of the earth, and by rectifying you will find the hidden stone which is the true medicine.’ I use plants and minerals and follow a semi-ascetic way: I have neither television nor smartphone, I live in the forest… although I do have a car, computer, and all I need to survive. I’m vegetarian for both physiologic and philosophical reasons and I regularly train my body. I must confess to finding it a great pity how so many guys into the esoteric tend to work only the inside – you should be making a temple out of your flesh-prison and then turn shit into gold!
Given his medieval expertise, I’m curious if Guido knows of any credible evidence regarding some kind of hermetic underground which managed to survive once the tradition fell out of favour with Christianity and could no longer operate openly.
– Hermeticism certainly didn’t disappear with Christianism, you have the Operative Masonry, the Templars, Fede Santa… and you still to this day find the Tradition even in Islam with Sufism and in Judaism with Kabbalah. I think it’s sterile to associate Hermeticism only with paganism, as there’s a strong line into the whole era of man. Once you verse yourself in the womb of creation there is less secret and more reality because, from an Hesiodian perspective, modern humans are nothing but false products of the Iron Age. It’s not that difficult to follow the Tradition and return to the core even in this modern world by killing your ego. Of course, the number of alchemists dwindles but Hermeticism is still alive. In the early 20th century the famous traditionalist René Guénon had high hopes for the Orient but, sadly, the number of alchemists is low even in this part of the world and that’s because we’re getting closer to the Conflagratio…
YSENGRIN participated in a 2011 compilation album called “A Tribute to the Dark Ages”. Now, I can certainly understand why one would find the Medieval Period greatly inspiring, but the Dark Ages? I’m no expert but to me it seems like an utter bastard of a time to be European. Not many historical documents have survived from this time, few were written and less remain. The year 536 saw a volcano erupting somewhere in Scandinavia, filling the sky with such an amount of dust particles that both Hellenic and Roman sources speak of the sun being usurped. For a full year. This instantly turned Italian mid-summer into full-on winter conditions, so it would presumably have gotten quite nippy up here in the north. Another volcano erupted four years later, in the southern hemisphere this time, spewing sulphur into the stratosphere and causing already freezing temperatures to plummet. These events wrought upon Europe the coldest decade for the past two thousand years. Agriculture was hit especially hard, resulting in widespread famine. As if bitter starvation from years of volcanic winter wasn’t enough, 541 A.D. saw the arrival of the Plague of Justinian, which is estimated to have claimed the lives of between twenty-five to fifty million people – that’s thirteen to twenty-six percent of the world’s population at the time.
– The idea for this compilation was mine of course, and its title is more of a play on the cliché of embracing both fantasy and reality. Remember than in the course of our historical study into how life once was, we’ll need mythology and emotion to maximise understanding. Also, take the darkest things: war, illness, passion for luxury, omnipresent death… it’s crazy to see how similar these are to the modern world! That’s probably why it’s effortless to get back in this time of pseudo dark age. French historian Jacques Le Goff argued that the Medieval Period didn’t end in 1492 but rather in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution. Life in the rural areas of our countries didn’t change dramatically during these times… not until the early 20th century. But it’s interesting that you mention the climate-change of the 6th century because in my conferences I speak about the colossal volcanic eruption of Samalas, Indonesia, in 1257 – with consequences such as massive clouds covering the sky during the second half of the 13th century. The decrease in sunlight it caused paved the way for developments in stained-glass creation with the invention of grisaille, a clear panel of glass, because there was too much darkness in the churches. I also read that a medieval mass-grave in London containing thousands of skeletons can also be tracked back to this event. This can be seen as the beginning of the fall for the golden age of the Middle Ages. Last but not least it also marks the start of the Little Ice Age, which lasted for five-hundred years.
The Little Ice Age was a period of general cooling from the 1300s to 1850, featuring three especially freezing intervals. No one is certain why this happened but some of the theories include additional volcanos, changes in ocean currents, and decreased solar radiation.
– On a side note, there are still lots of deeply rooted misconceptions about the Medieval Period… it’s funny that pseudo-progress of humanity always leads to spreading false things and criticisms of what was before. But when you start to search a little bit, you find the truth. Not everything about this era has to do with burning witches, the violent and dirty people, etcetera.
Personal hygiene amongst the medieval populace is a contentious issue?
– Many people nowadays seem to think that medieval people didn’t even wash themselves! On the contrary, the dirtiest century in France was definitely the 17th – you know, Louis XIV and the practice of ‘dry toilette’ with clothing and unguent. This started one century before when people began avoiding water because they thought it helped the spreading of miasma. Public bath houses were closed, in part because of mixing the sexes which the church considered taboo. The constant religious wars and the fundamentalism it fostered naturally didn’t help much. This was not the case in medieval times, with the continuation of the public bath house practice like during the Antiquity. They used different types of soap, and also the Saponaria officinalis plant.
During the 16th century, the belief that bathing was hazardous to human health began taking root; warm water was thought to cause one’s pores to open, granting nasty humours entry to the body. This ties in with the leading medical science of the time, the so-called miasma theory. It was believed that ailments such as cholera, plague, chlamydia and so forth were spread by miasma – ‘bad air’, emanating from rotting organic matter. Some academics took the theory one step further and determined that obesity could be caused by inhaling food odours.
– The same ignorance reigns in association with persecution of witches during the Medieval Period. In reality, it occurred mostly in Germanic countries during the 16th to 17th centuries, Christianism of this time was totally crazy and vile so it’s not difficult to see a link between this fanaticism – be it Catholic or Protestant – with the closing of the baths, so another key of comprehension from my previous example. Just remember that the famous Malleus Maleficarum, the witch-hunter’s manual, was published at the end of the 15th century.
In closing – I read that your upcoming and almost-finished album will spell the end of YSENGRIN, why is that?
– The raison d’être of YSENGRIN is useless once my quest of lapis philosophorum is over, hence the perfectly named final album, “Initiatio” with every letter illustrating each of the nine tracks. By the sign of the ‘Y’, under Neopythagorean influence between vice and virtue, the way to liberation. Note that I recorded the album during my thirty-sixth year, so there’s again a link with the magical number nine. I guess, you can find similarities with my spiritual brother Mors Al Ra of NECROS CHRISTOS, who also just released his last album. Moreover, I should add that it’s not a big deal because in this milieu where bands and labels are over-producing tonnes of releases, like a large tsunami of vomit, I’m exasperated and turning more and more individualistic in my musical journey. If in several years from now there will be people still playing my music with real pleasure – as in genuine listening with headphones and booklet – fine by me.