Monday, September 19, 2016

Irkallian Oracle vs Ritual Bullshit

About two years ago I saw Irkallian Oracle for the first time.

It was in an appallingly hot basement  club in Oberhausen, Germany. The upstairs bar was all candlelit, and the descent down the stairs into the room where bands played felt Dante-esque anyway, but that sweltering musical sauna that you entered really became unbearable, an endurance test, helped little by the fact that I was obscenely hungover from drinking two bottles of cheap red wine on a street outside of a police station til the early hours with some friends. 

In retrospect it was the best possible scenario I could have asked for in terms of being consumed by the IO live experience. I wasn’t in an altered state per se but I was..I dunno. Let’s say “vulnerable”. So when the robes, the incense, the opening ceremony and the whole onstage ritual kicked in that evening, I was perhaps a little more susceptible to the overwhelming of the visual and audial senses than normal. And I swear, at one point, I felt like I might be staring right, slap bang into the centre of the fabled void that IO and their likes have constructed so much of their lyrical mythology around. Basically, Irkallian Oracle pulled off the spectacle of Metal Band As Ritual with more authenticity than most other.s 

Irkallian Oracle, Oberhausen, Sep 2014
This was before they recorded their new album “Apollyon”, a thunderous record which again through it’s hypnotic pacing and churning, Stygian low end vibration feels like one of the few authentic captures of some kind of genuine esoteric darkness in musical form. This band is a trance, and a rare example of the music having an intensity that renders its’ human source meaningless in the envelopment of the listener. I’m seeing them finally for a second time next month and I’m curious to see if this performance has the same potency.

We're 30 years into the game since the primal screams of Venom heralded the opening of the (black) gates, and the pretense of the metal musician as some kind of occult priest, shaman, or vessel for the unearthly or sinister is as transparent by nowas the day is long. Yet still year after year the black or death metal fan is bombarded with yet more talk of bands performing "rituals" instead of playing gigs, with fanzine interviews full of gibberish about hermeticism or qliphoth or whatever other occult aspect du jour that bands have plucked from a pdf of some hard to obtain magickal tome they found on Scribd; the bones, the robes, the incense, the impressively dark veils that swathe a void that has less to do with the anti-cosmic and everything to do with personal vacuity become ever more ornate but at the same time ever thinner.

I mean, fuck it. Have you seen the Ghostbusters remake? Know the way a demon shows up at a metal gig while a band are singing about Satan? Have you ever seen that happen? You'd think if there was even a hint this was real that this might actually happen.

I played a show with Blasphemy last year. They were fantastic, because they're Blasphemy, obviously. They sing about demons and goddesses of perversity and wear hoods and chains and all the accoutrements. They're big, intimidating guys. They're not necromancers or wizards however, nor do they pretend to be offstage, and in many ways finally seeing them live and being around them in person a little bit confirmed that they are, to all intents and purposes, my generation's Kiss or King Diamond. Which I assure you is meant as a huge compliment. Blasphemy are both figuratively and literally larger than life, and their aliases, stage garb and general demeanour have served them well in terms of making them these almost superhero (supervillain?) type characters. You almost root for them. They're the bad guys, but they're not actually bad guys if you get me (they're actually quite friendly for the most part. Sorry, NWN posters).

Now, thing about all this, and me pointing out the obvious "Ah yeah guys, it's all just for show" knew that already. You didn't need me to tell you that. Black and death metal bands use the artifices of an occult ritual as an actual ritual. That is to say, these are fixed, repetitive actions which constitute little more than throwing on a uniform as you would going to school or work, to help you delineate what you're doing for a fixed amount of time. Like a postman. See that Portal band? There you go. I've ruined them for you. They're basically just scarily dressed postmen.

Irish death metal supergroup Paul Mgla yesterday
The masking of players that was once idealised as a means to inject an air of theatre or ceremony, be it a genuine spiritual psychodrama on behalf of the bands or just cos, y'know, it looks cool, has also taken another interesting turn though lately. If I stuck some kind of industrial strength ear protection on your head and left you at a gig where, say, Mgla, Qrixkour and maybe Altarage played*, you'd not be able to tell which band was which. The black mask, the raised hood, these are the new tools by which a death/black metal band declare they want you to pay attention to the music rather than the people in the band. And rather than work as intended, all they've done is replace corpsepaint as the go to non-image.Corpse paint though seemed to declare battle. This seems more like hiding. The notion that they the musicians are cloaking themselves, dissolving into the shadows as such to allow the sound to do the work seems strangely but defiantly exclusionary of the audience in the live setting.

So let's go back to that IO gig. I'm thinking about their stage attire, about their performance (assorted bells, a giant drum made of skin, and at one point a tambourine). I neglected to mention that their set began with an opening "ritual" wherein the vocalist turned to the four points, raised a small bell which he struck, and may or may not (my memory is hazy) have uttered some kind of incantation. And wether there was a personal bent behind that act or not, what it served to do was create a bond between the people on stage and the people in the audience. It delineated a beginning point for proceedings in order to focus the attention of all present. The band spent the time between the opening and banishing rites at the end (did I mention that?They did those too) at least giving the impression, depending on how sceptical you are, of giving themselves over to something other wordly. And their discipline in doing so might just have worked in projecting whatever they imagined the were projecting into actual being, even just temporarily.

Their music, their lyrics, and their artwork are all meticulous, and packed with hidden meaning. It would be bizarre for their live show not to become the physical manifestation of that. It is literally them laying everything out for you before your eyes. Occult though it may be, nothing is hidden.

It's worth noting that even with a robe and hood, the singer performed with a conviction bordering upon the maniacal. So underneath all these constructed veils I'm talking about, there was still something strangely open and direct.

Y'see I feel like what this really about when bands in the underground play the "ritual" card, is to involve the audience in a more conscious way. IO's vocalist performing this little blessing of sorts turned the room into a group space in a way, as being present for his little benediction both set a mood and made everyone present aware that this was as much for their benefit as the bands'.The Black Mass style stage shenanigans work as both a mood enhancer and group activity. If done correctly it enhances the peaks and troughs, if a band were, as IO have done, to carefully structure and pace their performance.  IO took on the role as celebrants in their imagined function, masters of ceremony ushering everyone into their private world for 40 minutes or so.

 Audience participation does not need to be of the "SCREAM FOR ME LONG BEACH"  kind. IO and their ilk are in a strange way creating a more intimate relationship with their audience through the theatre of the private or occult act. When done correctly, as IO did, the audience have their attention drawn just that little bit more on what's happening, because the band are inviting them to uses all their senses beyond just listening. They plant symbols that can be dug over on the records, and the live show is them offering both a visual element and a further clue to the puzzle.

Stepping away from IO for one moment, one need only consider Watain's stage show as the prime example of how underneath the lights and greasepaint, there's some clever manipulation of the audience at play. Wether they're actually devil worshippers or not (hint: they are) doesn't come into it - if they're doing the proverbial ""devil's work", they're doing it in such a spectacular way, with such visual panache and bombast, that it's working.  Have you seen their video for the song "Outlaw"? Here it is. Look at it:

It's fantastic. It's both a glimpse into their personal vision of themselves as outsiders and a fascinating way to engage with their audience. On an aesthetic level it also looks cool as fuck. Watain as Thee Temple of Psychic Youth for the Black Metal set. Obviously they're on a bigger scale than IO or their like, and I wouldn't compare the two, but if you want an example of the Metal Band As Ritual thing as a means for really creating a connection between band and performer when it is done properly, there you go.

So yes, heavy metal has and always will have this element of macabre theatre, and as tiresome as it gets when you hear bands shite on about their gigs being like group invocations or whatever..think about the fact that at least partially, perhaps subconsciously, the reason they're doing it and putting on a show is to, in an admittedly flamboyant way, involve you more. Cult of Fire, Batushka, Irkallian Oracle the mass/service/worship/ritual thing may seem ridiculous but it perhaps has been a more considered and labour intensive act that you may think, compared to the studded and corpsepainted or black masked and hooded hordes throwing the "ritual" term around. Think of it as Jodorowsky vs The Conjuring. These people are drawing from the structure of esoteric orders, and not Blackie Lawless in 1983.

Do you want to partake? Do you want to step out of your every day life and just briefly become a disciple of something dark and mysterious?This is what you have to ask yourself when you next see your favourite death or black metal band advertise their next "live ritual". And if you do..perhaps you should be right to expect more than some dry ice and leather jackets.

* (Disclaimer: I listed these three bands as examples, purely as they were the first three of many bands that came to mind utilising the black mask and hood uniform, and this comment is not in any way a belittlement of these three fine bands. Qrixkuor in particular are exceptional and I'll likely post something about their most recent "Three Devils Dance" release here soon.)

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