Clandestine Blaze|Northern Heritage
by Niklas Göransson
Finland’s Mikko Aspa, the multidisciplinary counterculture-artist of Clandestine Blaze and Northern Heritage, explains “Tranquillity of Death” – a monument in music to the constant struggle between birth and burial.
The following is the first part of this conversation, the second – which is both longer and more in-depth – is published in Bardo Methodology #5. Features from the same issue include BLASPHEMY, DAUTHA, ACRIMONIOUS, LYCHGATE, MORBOSIDAD, Nuclear War Now!, Cult Never Dies, MYSTIFIER, ROME, W.A.I.L., WINTERFYLLETH, and PHURPA.
– After finishing “City of Slaughter”, I didn’t compose anything for CLANDESTINE BLAZE for about a year and a half. I had something like one full-length’s worth of unused riffs from previous album sessions but didn’t really feel like returning to old material. In December 2017 I was working on a few ideas while trying out a recently purchased analogue eight-track recorder. Within a few weeks, several songs – all highly improved and inspirational – had taken form. So, “Tranquillity of Death” was fully composed and recorded, including a pre-production demo, all within the month of December. In many ways, such as the creation from spontaneous bursts of energy, things remain largely the same. Yet there are plenty of musical elements unlike anything else ever heard in CLANDESTINE BLAZE before.
Mikko says that technically speaking, “Tranquillity of Death” combines entirely new studio methods with a return to the days of old. This analogue eight-track acquisition of his played a major role, although the final mix and mastering were carried out by digital means.
– That old familiar guitar sound was brought back by digging out the same small amplifier I used on the early albums and then drenching all of it in rotten distortion. While most of my older songs were based on pre-existing lyrics, in later years I’ve been leaning more towards writing after finished compositions. I believe music contains its own spirit which can dictate what the lyrics should say. As a result, while the instrumental mix was completed in December, vocal recordings and arrangements didn’t take place until several months later. Each track has its very own essence – whether it be brutal and violent, eerie atmosphere with surprising turns, bleak and repetitive, triumphant melodies with stomping rhythms, and so on. I wanted plenty of time to engage in dialogue with the spontaneously emerged material, to properly interpret the message hidden within its audible expression.
Besides breaking new musical ground, this most recent offering was treated to a far more ambitious aesthetic approach than before. The cover artwork – some manner of warped hybrid spawned from photo collages, paintings, and drawings – is a massive project in and of itself. Especially compared to the rather modestly decorated earlier CLANDESTINE BLAZE work.
– It might be an odd view but there are definitely things like ‘too well-done black metal’, be it musically or visually. It’s not meant to be a purely cerebral immersion but also something that’s felt and experienced. However, I didn’t want such blunt anti-artwork as in the early days – this time it felt mandatory to create actual paintings and images, more advanced than my beginnings or even “City of Slaughter”. Firstly, various torn-up collage parts were glued together on a big canvas, this was then painted over with both acrylic and regular Indian ink; some areas are entirely covered by paint while others are just ink-toned… then details using pencils, ‘paint-pens’, and so forth. The cover itself is a photograph of this canvas. No computer was used in its final stages, the band logo and so on are all part of the original hand-made piece. So, one could call it a mixed-media artwork on the merits of me literally using whatever was at hand. I’ve previously created plenty of collages, some have even been published and exhibited, but these are getting closer to paintings.
“Tranquillity of Death” has the neat timing of not only qualifying as album number ten but also being released in conjunction with the twentieth anniversary of CLANDESTINE BLAZE. Needless to say, I’m curious how else this joyous occasion will be commemorated.
– There was no deliberate timing of any kind. I honestly don’t consider the twentieth anniversary to be a huge source of relevant discussion; two decades is more of a mathematical fact than anything especially profound. It just so happens that albums tend to come out roughly every second year, with the logical result of the tenth full-length record coinciding with the twenty-year mark. CLANDESTINE BLAZE exists hand in hand with my own life and interests and so, to me, it seems as if there’s still a lot left to accomplish.
As with “Castrate the Illusionist”, the latest audio assault from Mikko’s long-running power electronics project GRUNT, the first track of “Tranquillity of Death” differs somewhat from the rest in terms of being rather primal and ‘basic’; more old-school and straightforward in the case of CLANDESTINE BLAZE. I’d have to assume there to be some manner of mutual intent at play.
– I’ve stated many times that the main musical projects I work with, GRUNT since 1993 and CLANDESTINE BLAZE since 1998, are not just ‘creative outlets’ but also inseparable from myself as a person. Of course, there are elements of artistic creativity and aesthetic decisions but the subject matters of both bands are strongly present in my life. This obviously means that my music and various art projects often have a strong connection.
To exemplify, he mentions that many of the thematic foundations for GRUNT’s “Seer of Decay”, “World Draped in a Camouflage”, “Myth of Blood” and “Castrate the Illusionist” align perfectly with those of CLANDESTINE BLAZE albums such as “Deliverers of Faith”, “Church of Atrocity”, “Falling Monuments”, “Harmony of Struggle”, “New Golgotha Rising” and “City of Slaughter”.
– Anyone with a red marker pen could start taking comparative notes regarding the drastic levels of cross-over, where the material has dialogue ranging from one project to the next. This applies even when bringing VAPAUDENRISTI or such into the same puzzle. Other bands I contribute to might have a narrower conceptual theme which doesn’t follow the same lines as my main body of work. I generally have multiple projects underway at any given time but my focus shifts incrementally. Now that CLANDESTINE BLAZE has been completed, it’s enabled me to let go and open the floodgates for GRUNT’s next album to begin taking shape. In some ways, this is shaping up to be both another return to the past and a leap towards the previously unheard. So, clearly, even unconsciously the state of one’s mind is capable of impacting artistic output.
Besides all of his bands, the physical record shop, several ‘zines along with a plethora of additional countercultural endeavours, Mikko owns two labels – industrial noise outfit Freak Animal and the more black metal oriented Northern Heritage. Having been at this for two decades now, I’m curious how he finds running an underground operation in 2018.
– I see zero purpose with digital promotion-campaigns targeting various alternative music sites, nor do I feel comfortable spamming my customers. Such behaviour turns me off other labels – highly annoying, receiving on a weekly basis various ‘black metal Bandcamp bargains’ or something similarly important. Yet in certain ways I have some understanding for this as it is indeed difficult to reach the target audience. Email is gradually becoming ‘outdated’ for a lot of people; surprisingly low percentages appear to react even to newsletters they personally signed up for. Flyers no longer move as no one sends letters. The vast majority of all ‘zines sell so poorly that it seems pointless to take out ads in hopes of reaching new customers. Many distributors are overtly careful about what they carry, trying desperately to avoid ending up with a little overstock. If, on a good day at the right moment, your social media post gets through then at least someone using it might see. Although Northern Heritage has a Facebook profile, I don’t follow any labels or bands on there so I can’t really relate to standard practices. Judging by the overall situation, I’m sure most people have yet to even notice recent releases such as NUMINOUS and PHLEGEIN; both of which are excellent and have sold decently but there’s been very little in terms of feedback.
Mikko adds that he has no ambitions of growing the label or taking anything to the next level – Northern Heritage has always been operating on the level it was initially intended for.
– In the end, I don’t think big numbers are an especially relevant factor – I’m merely acknowledging an odd situation where certain albums sell one thousand, two thousand, five thousand… and the next only a few hundred, at best. How does one get people to pay attention to releases that remain surprisingly unnoticed and overlooked despite the fact that they absolutely kill? Clearly, it appears to be a pure gamble which CD sells or what links people will click. It’s difficult explaining this to bands who, naturally, want their music receiving maximum exposure to the general public. One can only ask, where exactly?
Do you check out everything that comes out yourself?
– No. I probably listen to records about eight hours a day – every day – and there are literally thousands of them piled up in waiting, so I can relate to habits of not rushing to grab every single new item. Still, I frequently come across releases dating five or so years back and end up wondering why the hell I’ve never heard about them? Why was nobody talking about this anywhere? It is of course possible that I was sent an email which got lost in the flood of incoming spam. I simply have no time to suffer through several dozen unknown labels’ unimaginative promotional campaigns and lazy marketing material, all of which fail entirely in convincing me why I should even bother checking out anything from their roster. In many of these cases the band is long gone at the time of discovery, along with its label. More often than not, they put out either one or a mere handful of releases and then disappear. This is unlike what’s happening with Northern Heritage and CLANDESTINE BLAZE. I’m in no haste. I’m fine with keeping albums in stock for ten or twenty years, that’s actually my aim; almost the entire back-catalogue has been repressed to remain in stock. In the long run, good bands usually get noticed even if there’s never any hyped-up rapid popularity.
In our Bardo Methodology #2 conversation, Mikko expressed grave dismay over the amount of people who believe all Finnish black metal to sound similar or even the same. This is something which still vexes him to significant extents.
– It’s an inaccurate claim that reflects the cluelessness of people who never bothered checking out many of the best bands from Finland. It also seems related to the present situation where black metal content in general is saturated with dull apathy. The audience constantly seeks something new and exciting, not even acknowledging devotional authenticity to the requisite depths. One can remember times when humanist metal values were trampled under the jackboot of black metal, and the movement grew rapidly. What might very well have been ‘juvenile’ to some degree was nevertheless infused with plenty of substance that served as inspiration and also left a real impact behind, changing lives and carving permanent scars into existence. Looking at present surroundings, it should be clear for all to see how developments have now taken a very unfortunate turn.
In light of this, Mikko looks forward to a reconquest – a black metal renaissance of sorts.
– Even this ‘religious’ current that was supposed to bring evil back to black metal soon became riddled with corruption. Is the study of tradition and literature really more important than actual personal connection with or perception of divinity? Many seem to be under the false impression that memorising a couple of leather-bound scrolls or making obscure cultural references makes all the difference. Is personal benefit the only motivation to explore and serve the unknown? How rare are expressions of unselfish commitment? We have the semi-Faustians who’d sell their soul to the Devil if it meant gaining something, yet it feels more tied to modern-day self-help. Then there’s the TV-shop type guys peddling rituals and spellbooks for greater prowess in sex and work. We’ve got esoteric branches talking about rather confused pacifist ideals. Plenty of window-shopping at exotic surface-level belief systems. And as soon as any less self-centred type of mentality emerges, its blunt evilness upsets even the Satanist! Just something like a personal choice of alternative political ideals horrifies just about everyone who can’t see beyond the variations offered by democracy. You even see the black metal scene absolutely aghast when well-known musicians receive court sentences for fairly minor charges. Please tell me how that crowd could ever – at any level – relate to ideas of getting their hands dirty in ritual proceedings? You know, whereas these New Age-esque contemporary people advise us to transcend, I advocate transgression!
Mikko adds that not everyone espousing a radical black metal ethos such as anti-humanism and the worship of evil does so for ideological reasons; in many instances, it’s simply the result of a mind tainted by psychological and social duress.
– An easy assumption would be that if someone comes from an utterly brutal childhood, these very mundane circumstances could likely have played a crucial formative role – as opposed to actual enlightenment regarding the nature of divine evil. Their assaults against all earthly existence may be mere attempts at coping with their own pain and shortcomings, as evidenced when the same individuals fart out their infantile extremities and then burst into tears upon being labelled ‘edgelords’. I believe those who consciously set out on the right path are there for a reason, they don’t particularly care what the mundanes say or think about them.
He observes that selfless notions such as promoting a sense of duty, as opposed to only pursuing personal gain, are exceedingly rare.
– Servitude does not necessarily equal slavery; it could even be perceived as freedom. Mantling the role of a man against time, he who steps beyond and stands against the rigid moral framework of contemporary society, might be destined for failure but is at least bound to serve a higher cause. This type of authenticity seems awfully scarce – wherever I look, the main trait seems to be opportunism. I’d hope genres such as black metal would influence people within its reach to not accept such situations in their life.
He says that when discussing common black metal concepts such as the adulation of uncreation and nonexistence, whether this really is to be regarded as ‘evil’ is equal parts perspective as it is semantics.
– Destruction is a creative force. It’s not really dualism but one uniform entity – meaning process, or perhaps entropy. The fact remains, every living being that breeds increases world suffering and misery. Procreation leads to neither salvation nor anything good per se; every action taken to ensure peace and tranquillity is therefore a manifestation of demented mental issues. So instead of striving towards such a psychotic paradise, one should accept and celebrate the struggle as a driving force behind all of existence. It’s essential for finding true harmony, one need only look at the phenomena from a perspective of divine distance; this is what the title track from the new album is about.
The hand of destiny leads you to the grave
Through a life of miserable ordeals
Decaying pages of history barely grasping what happened
And even less of its reason
…If the quest for knowledge leads
into endless silence with no answers..?
Swarming human insects below our feet we walk!
Rejection of fearful questions finally interlocks with the perception of existence
Like vindicators we are storming towards the vortex!
These musings are an extension of topics thoroughly explored on the “Harmony of Struggle” album – matters Mikko identifies as central to the faith of CLANDESTINE BLAZE and key to grasping its message. He notes that while many associate the term harmony with a state in which things are peaceful and satisfactory, this is not the context he refers to. The basic dictionary definition is, ‘An orderly or pleasing combination of elements in a whole’. Consequently, in his view, it’s struggle itself which constitutes true harmony.
– When observing the harmony of nature through the eyes of a typical Western man, most are prone to romantic ideas of peace and quiet. Yet if one looks closer, really gazes into the shadows, there is the never-ending contest of life and death. Endless combat and battle for survival from the level of the tiniest living organisms to full planet ecosystem. In order to find harmony among the bloodthirsty conflicts of mankind, you need to step out from the world of man; conditioning yourself to look from the perspective of divine distance, so to speak. It’s the order of all that lives, and perhaps even some unliving phenomena operating on different levels. “Tranquillity of Death” speaks of embracing this struggle, accepting the seemingly irrational. We both know full well that any ultimate revelation as to the nature of existence, if there even is such an answer to be had, would undoubtedly be sheer horror for man. I expect no paradise and vindicate this by a readiness to storm towards the vortex, a chaotic whirl of nothing but struggle, pain and destruction, until everything disappears. Something which certainly – in the correct state of mind – can also be inspiring and satisfactory!
You have reached the end of the first part of this conversation. The second, which is both longer and more in – is published in Bardo Methodology #5. Features from the same issue include BLASPHEMY, DAUTHA, ACRIMONIOUS, LYCHGATE, MORBOSIDAD, Nuclear War Now!, Cult Never Dies, MYSTIFIER, ROME, W.A.I.L., WINTERFYLLETH, and PHURPA.