by Niklas Göransson
Spells of awareness and recognition – American black metal band Vanum serves as a manifestation amidst the maelstrom of Being. Drummer Michael Rekevics discusses mythical archetypes, the heroic impulse, and sacred numerology.
– “Ageless Fire” is a continuation and refinement of what we explored on “Burning Arrow”, if not perhaps somewhat more aggressive. Also worthy of note is how this is our first release as a full band whereas all past works were recorded entirely by Kyle Morgan and myself, both as a means of focusing intentions and out of pragmatic ease of operation. However, after having gathered musicians capable of playing our material with the necessary power and who understand the spirit of VANUM, it only made sense to include them in documenting the new album. While there isn’t too much of a difference to my ears, there’s perhaps a bit more of that magic intangible fire of a full live band.
“Ageless Fire” is VANUM‘s third release, available from February 15 courtesy of Profound Lore and Psychic Violence Records. The debut, “Realm of Sacrifice” came out in 2015 and was followed by the “Burning Arrow” EP two years later.
– “Realm of Sacrifice” was a sombre and patient work, focusing more on textural, slow-build dynamics and lacking much of the melodic bravado defining the two more recent releases. “Burning Arrow” emerged as a musical and conceptual response to the debut. Essentially, both these works are aligned with the alchemical illustration of the individuation process as used by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. “Realm of Sacrifice” is both musically and conceptually introspective and inward-looking, corresponding to the initial stage of ‘the Great Work’, the process of putrefying and reducing matter to nigredo – the ego negation and distilling of one’s self. As a musician, lyricist, and searcher I came out of this experience with a greater confidence and clarity, as well as a better understanding of what VANUM is and where I want to go. As implied by the song title “Spring of Life”, “Burning Arrow” completed this alchemical process; the sorcerer’s stone, so to speak. It is a decidedly outward-looking record. An affirmation of the force of individual will, intentionally triumphant and celebratory, embracing more classically heavy metal riff-craft and prioritising melody and power over texture. For me, this record is where we truly began to understand the essential qualities of VANUM as a band.
Perhaps it’s the heroic sentiments of the lyrics but I believe myself to detect in “Ageless Fire” traces of that classic old triumphant black metal feeling one rarely hears these days – imbued in works as vastly different as ABIGOR’s “Nachthymnen”, VELES’ “Night on the Bare Mountain”, and PRIMORDIAL’s “Storm Before Calm”.
– I fully understand where you’re coming from with those comparisons, though none of them are specifically points of influence for me. I think the primary touchstones for the direction we’ve been exploring on the last two records are BATHORY’s “Under the Sign…” all the way through to “Twilight of the Gods” as well as the early Greek classics – particularly ROTTING CHRIST’s “Triarchy of the Lost Lovers” and “Walpurgisnacht” by VARATHRON. Nothing particularly underground or obscure but simply powerful, evocative, melodically bold, and honest black metal. No posturing, no irony, just ancient power and timeless force. It seems hard to find many bands today playing with the integrity and spirit to take risks without gimmicks, and to stand by their creations as real thinking individuals rather than just characters.
This lands us at something Michael mentioned to me previously – what he regards as a sort of schism within black metal, between that of the conceptually heroic and transcendent versus the misanthropic and nihilistic.
– Firstly, I wish to be clear that in identifying these two distinct currents within black metal, it wasn’t necessarily my intention to express opposition to the misanthropic or nihilistic tendencies of many bands. I wanted only to clarify and identify my own intent, approach, and goal as a musician. I value emotional honesty in art – black metal included. This isn’t to say that honest expression must take only one shape or be uniform at all times; only that it be true to the creator. To be genuinely filled with alienation, revulsion, contempt, and hate and then channelling all this into violent, anti-social art is respectable if it comes from a place of truth. The problem is how, more often than not, empty-minded people lazily ape generic signifiers without really giving a shit either way, leaving us with even more insincere garbage devoid of substance.
Could it perhaps be said that this occasionally applies also to the opposite end of the spectrum?
– Absolutely. For every clown trying to pass as evil with a phoned in anti-human and anti-life rhetoric, there’s some other arrogant fool trumpeting pride and grandeur without having a damn thing to be proud of and without a shred of the courage and will to create anything legitimately ‘grand’. I see black metal as music of struggle and violence, both inner and outer; there’s the possibility for glory in struggle as well as awareness and affirmation from violence. I wish for my music to work as a spell of realisation and actualisation – of manifestation amidst the maelstrom of Being, at once a guiding beacon and the storm itself. It’s precisely that focus and approach to my music which draws me to the work of Joseph Campbell – this is largely the same path he was on.
Born 1904 and buried 1987, Joseph Campbell was an American Professor of Literature who specialised in comparative studies of mythology and religion. He’s mostly known for his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he argues for the existence of a form of universal and innately human heroic archetype – one which can be found recurring throughout all the world’s religious traditions. The seeds for this life-long pursuit were sown in early childhood when he came across Native American artefacts at exhibitions and history museums. Campbell, who was raised Roman Catholic, recognised a number of striking similarities between the Native American religious beliefs and Christianity. His young mind swiftly concluded that the parallels were simply too strong to be borne from simple happenstance. After completing his studies in English and medieval literature, he went overseas to study Old French in Paris first and then Sanskrit in Munich. It was during his stay in Europe that Campbell discovered the work of Carl Jung and thus the keys to interpreting myth from a nonhistorical and nonliteral approach; this forged his fundamental conviction that all the world’s mythologies are related, each telling through unique allegories and metaphors the same basic storyline. Campbell firmly believed such myths should not be interpreted historically or literally, a fault most religious practitioners are guilty of.
– Campbell drew from myth and legend and used its lessons to reinforce the worthiness of man’s quest for greatness, as subjective and relative as ‘greatness’ might be. He’d often come back to talking about ‘living one’s bliss’, and while aesthetically that phrase might not be one I’d use, haha, I think the essential core of these ideas is largely the same as the one I aim to evoke through black metal: spiritual liberation and the deification of the self. The central thrust of my artistic approach to VANUM is a sort of pan-mythic exploration of the heroic impulse in man, an approach that’s deeply resonant with Joseph Campbell‘s writings. Through his body of work in fields such as comparative mythology and comparative religious studies, he sought to highlight and understand what he called the monomyth – an archetypical framework for heroic myth which exists throughout the whole world and across countless cultures and traditions.
Joseph Campbell was not the first to study the narratives of heroic myth – British anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor noted in 1871 already that there are recurring plot-twists in the classic hero’s journey – but he certainly popularised the concept with his many books and television appearances. According to his interpretation of the monomyth, while settings and events vary heavily, the common heroic plotline typically follows the same basic premise. Highly simplified, it entails the protagonist setting out on an adventure, often hesitantly, during which he stands victorious in the face of great peril and then returns home a transformed man. Campbell, as well as other scholars, argue that such a storyline describes the lives of religious icons such as Jesus Christ, Gautama Buddha, and Moses as well as characters from popular tales such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the legend of King Arthur.
– The way I see it, the monomyth is an attempt at unifying innate human desire and experience on a global scale. Certainly, specifics of any particular story or myth are influenced by the environmental and historical context in which it emerged but the similarities and analogous aspects of them all highlight a deeper connection in human nature. This trans-cultural approach to the study of myth and legend is one that’s particularly relevant to me as an American. I’m the son of a Latvian immigrant on one side and a very typical Irish-American from several generations back on the other.
Michael spent his childhood close to the Mexican border in San Diego, California, where he grew up hearing many different stories and legends from Central America.
– During the past near-decade of living in New York, I’ve been exposed to West African diasporic mythos and cosmology through friends and collaborators of mine. There is immense power and inspiration in all of these sources and their underlying glorification of struggle, sacrifice, and individual triumph. These themes – this essence – that’s what I want my music to represent and evoke. Rather than regurgitating a textbook retelling of any one legend, I’ve made an effort to draw from the broader spirit of the monomyth, so to speak, and convey something true to my own experience in a way that’s resonant with this tradition of story-telling. Jung spoke of life lived without myth as a disease and mutilation of man’s spirit, or something to that effect. I see this disconnect as a symptom of modernity, one that not only alienates us from an important historical lineage which has shaped our cultures and informed the nature of our socialisation but also chains the human spirit and neuters our capacity to create new mythology. By ignoring the mythic and essentially choosing to let it die, we rob ourselves of our own spiritual agency.
While researching the 432 Hz theory for the ALTAR OF PERVERSION feature, many points Joseph Campbell made in his last-ever book, the 1986 The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, were very helpful. While Campbell doesn’t mention the illustrious audio frequency, he did a lot of work on the actual number 432 which makes an appearance in spiritual traditions through regions as far apart as Scandinavia, Sumer, Babylon, and India, as well as within the Abrahamitic credo.
– As for the whole 432 versus 440 Hz debate in regards to Campbell, I think it’s ultimately an inconsequential diversion – synchronistic, sure, but irrelevant to the core of his point. I haven’t read that particular work you mention but I imagine he’s illustrating the depth of connections between the mythic frameworks of the ancient world, whereas the measurement unit of hertz is a totally modern delineation which has only been used for the past hundred years or so. It is relative to the modern ‘second’. I’ve heard the various theories about that frequency and the musical mathematics of tuning relative to it, etcetera etcetera, but I just don’t care. Or rather, it simply doesn’t factor into my philosophical and spiritual world-view, and it certainly doesn’t connect with my interest in Campbell. The possibility of a universal resonant frequency is certainly interesting but has nothing to do with whatever arbitrary unit of measurement we assign to it and how that may or may not connect to various systems of ancient numerology.
Hertz as a measurement has only been in use since 1933, yes, but it refers to the number of times per second the full cycle of a vibration occurs. Which brings us to the unit of seconds. Calling it ‘modern’ isn’t entirely correct; while believed to have been in use at least since medieval times, the earliest clockworks known to have displayed seconds date from the 16th century. The original definition of a second is that of 1/86,400 of the mean solar day; that is, Earth’s average rotation period on its axis relative to the sun. Half of 86,400 is 43,200, I might add. So, isn’t it mildly curious that when tuning an instrument in accordance to Pythagoras of Samos, the Hellenic scholar who 2,500 years ago mapped out the diatonic scale, a rule-set for music notes upon which basically all Western composition from medieval times until the 20th century is based, it produces an audio frequency which vibrates 432 times per second? Worthy of note is also how the school of thought Pythagoras established and based his tuning on – Musica universalis, or Harmony of the Spheres – teaches that mathematical rations of musical intervals mirror the distances, sizes, and orbits of the planets in our solar system. I’m not even advocating anything Hz related myself, I honestly don’t understand music theory enough to draw any relevant conclusions. However, it could be argued that this is merely one aspect of many pertaining to this peculiar numerical phenomenon. Campbell himself points out in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space that a man who exercises regularly and is in good physical shape will have an average resting heart-rate of sixty beats per minute.
And so, indeed, in our modern Western world, when a doctor takes a patient’s pulse, if the beat is sixty a minute (43,200 in twelve hours), it is the pulse of a conditioned athlete in accord at once with his own nature and with the rhythm of the universe: the function of medicine, like that of mythology and ritual, being to keep mankind in accord with the natural order.
– I suppose I stand corrected to a certain degree regarding Campbell‘s interest and exploration of the whole 432 phenomenon, anomaly, whatever you want to call it. He’s clearly drawing a connection between scientific, physiological function, and myth – though I still stand by my reluctance to entirely accept the Hz connection. I think going into the specific science of seconds, Hz, and so on in the context of mythic numerology is tricky as there are many aberrations and complications.
Of this, Michael is entirely correct. For example, since the Earth does not rotate at a fully consistent speed, the solar second becomes fractionally inaccurate over extended periods of time. As such, it’s now been abandoned in favour of the more precise atomic second, the standard we measure Hz in. As readers have pointed out, there’s a similar discrepancy in the numerical connection to the Poetic Edda, in which Valhalla is said to have 540 doors that, come the Wolf Age, each produce eight-hundred warriors: 432,000 in total. But in Germanic languages up until the 15th century the term ‘hundred’ was used for six score, which is 120. However, disregarding semantic aspects the damn number is still there. As in Babylonian and Sumerian cosmology. And not only is 432 referenced multiple times through Rg Veda but has also been woven into its very fabric – these sacred texts of Vedic spirituality, the world’s oldest known written work, contain exactly 432,000 syllables. And 10,800 stanzas, 108 being another sacred number recurring heavily throughout Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bön. Four times 108 is 432.
– I’m certainly open to believing that perhaps at the time, to the best of his calculations, Pythagoras intentionally recognised and perhaps intuitively felt this frequency and its connection to the natural world and so chose it as a baseline for tuning, even if he didn’t have a word for what we call hertz. I’m not so blinded by modern hubris as to deny the possibility of ancient wisdom and awareness that has been lost to us; in fact, I fundamentally believe it to be true. Like you said, it’s impossible to ignore the correlations between the specific numerological choices made by the originators of the Norse myths as immortalised in the Eddas, or the rishis who transcribed the Samhitapatha into the Vedas, who obviously attributed a profound significance to the number 432. But these things shift and change with time. Our seconds and days are not the same, just as our night skies are not the same. One can look at the zodiacs and astrological studies of any number of ancient civilisations and wind up being faced with a similar conundrum. Because of the phenomenon of axial procession, our alignment with the stars has changed relative to the calendar. Even if one believes in all of the lore and significance of any particular astrological system, one has to realise that the relationships have shifted and we cannot judge things based on the same rubric as that of the ancient world.
Michael adds that the question raised by all this is whether the factual veracity of mythic belief is truly important – or is it the human emotional response to myth that actually matters, regardless of scientific specifics?
– To me, the answer is obviously the latter – and this is ultimately a reflection of my character. I’m interested in the stories and emotional resonances contained therein. I care about the way these myths reflect and illuminate my life now, rather than concerning myself with the rigid, esoteric, minutiae that was devised in a time socially, culturally, and scientifically distinct from our own. Surely, there is value in exploring these details, and I do respect those who choose to but it isn’t naturally in my disposition. I think it’s important to not simply live in rote adherence to ancient mythos but to learn from them and create new legends and myths; or at the very least be able to allow for our capacity to build new ones. Are our spirits and imaginations really so impoverished, so far gone, as to be eternally bound to live in servitude to the cosmologies and systems of understanding created by our ancestors?
Perhaps it would be pertinent to reiterate here that I’m not personally peddling any claims related to this number, merely noting the abundance of synchronicities. It’s of course fully possible that all of this is simply a string of coincidences and, regardless if this is the case, I don’t think the prevalence of allegedly sacred numbers lends any added credibility to certain spiritual traditions.
– I’m not saying this is what you’re suggesting, and I know for certain that’s not what Campbell believed either. I just see a tendency in people to create false dichotomies and adopt this ‘one or the other’ mindset, a sense that we’re either forced to abandon myth altogether and live in a purely modern mindset or, alternately, to accept unconditionally the entirety of a particular mythic belief system and in so doing inter ourselves to self-limiting traditionalism. Aesthetically, extremism and orthodoxy can certainly be appealing – after all, black metal is what sparked this entire exchange but, in an effort to be honest to myself, I must admit that I find more richness and value in using the myths and lore of the ancient world as a springboard for my own discovery and creation than as a template or guide for how to live.