A year of writing for Heathen Harvest

After my “Is all martial industrial the same?” post a couple of years ago, Sage L. Weatherford, editor of Heathen Harvest, reached out to me and asked if I’d like to do some writing for Heathen Harvest. I had some trepidation about this. Writing is not something that comes easily to me. Indeed, I would even describe it as painful. I’m one of those writers for whom every word goes onto the page accompanied by an inwardly-directed curse at how stupid it sounds.

So I said yes.

Over the course of a year I wrote thirteen articles with a schedule of one per month (enforced by Beeminder):

Happily, I got better at getting words out onto the page as a result of all that.

Heathen Harvest is one of the finest publications in its field. I’m honoured to have had the opportunity to contribute to it.

Remixing Seventh Harmonic

Seventh Harmonic - Mneme (Hands of Ruin remix)

Caroline Jago is the composer and multi-instrumentalist behind Seventh Harmonic and Shadow Biosphere. We hadn’t met before, but a few weeks ago she sent me a nice message on SoundCloud. She mentioned that she’d be open to collaborations, and since I’ve done a couple of remixes and enjoyed the process I suggested that I might remix one of the tracks from Garden of Dilmun.

As it happens, that was something that I had been thinking about even before Caroline got in touch. I’ve been familiar with Seventh Harmonic for some time, having seen them playing live at shows in London on a couple of occasions, and one of the things that has always struck me about their music is how dense the sound is. I’m someone who leaves a lot more space in my music, so I’d wondered what they might sound like with a more open mix. So that’s part of what I’ve attempted to achieve with my remix of Mneme.

I love doing remixes because it’s an opportunity to learn deeply about how other people write music. I’ve always worked on my own, so I only know my own way of making music. But when I do a remix I’m always struck by how differently other people approach melody and the structure of their tracks. Like many electronic musicians, I’m perpetually afflicted by loopitis, and remixing has shown me how musicians that I admire avoid that trap.

This month marks Garden of Dilmun’s fifth anniversary, so I was very pleased that this remix could be part of that celebration.

Remixing THYX

In addition to my obvious love for the genres of martial industrial and dark ambient, I’m also rather partial to a bit of EBM and futurepop. One of the finest musicians in those genres is Stefan Poiss of mind.in.a.box and THYX. So when he offered remix kits to anyone who wanted to make a remix, I jumped at the chance and made a rather Hands of Ruin-ish mix of Black Hole.

I was hoping (and I think he was too) that the remix album would come out sooner. When it does, I’m optimistic that my mix will be on it. But in the meantime, I want to share something of what I did. This is the instrumental mix of Black Hole. When the remix album is released you’ll hear the mix complete with vocals (and if my mix doesn’t make the cut then I’ll put it here on the blog).

Is all martial industrial the same?

You know how it goes, they say if you’ve heard one martial industrial album than you’ve heard them all, and that’s more or less true.

Wounds of the Earth

[…] every band in the last 5 years sounds exactly the same.

rotorschnee on Reddit

As for pop, well… it takes real talent to write a good pop song certainly more then it does a bog-standard martial-industrial nazi-shite-fest anyway.

Tony Wakeford

There’s a view that I encounter every so often: that all music made in the martial industrial genre sounds the same. This carries with it the implications that all the musicians are imitators and that the scene is devoid of new ideas. When I first heard it said, I didn’t really agree with it. And given that the Wounds of the Earth quote above is from a review of my own Empire and Dust, perhaps I have an interest in rebutting this view. But really, it just doesn’t reflect my experience.

But I don’t like relying just on personal experience. I know enough about science to know how unreliable that is. I want to put it to the test.

I figured that if I could go through a sufficiently large and unbiased sample of martial industrial music and classify whether each piece was derivative or not, I could get a sense of just how derivative the genre is, and therefore get a sense of whether it was an accurate accusation.

So I went through all the reviews tagged martial industrial on Heathen Harvest, which yields 68 reviews in total. (The archive stretches back to July 2011 — not quite rotorschnee’s five years, but close.) To make it a little more relevant and manageable, I decided to strip out the ones that just seemed to have martial elements but really belong to another genre, and I removed compilations. This made 46 reviews of 38 bands. The full list is at the bottom of the post.

So then I went through and noted down, for each band, whether they seemed to be same-y or not. Admittedly, “same-y” is a pretty subjective evaluation, and furthermore, what are they all the same as? According to Wikipedia, “Nowadays, the Wagnerian style of Triarii serves as point of reference for most martial industrial acts.” That fits with my own impression, so I used that as my standard.

Ninety percent of everything is crap.

Sturgeon’s Law

But then the other question is: what is the test? Ideally, we would have an index of the “sameyness” of each genre. Then we would know where martial industrial fit into that. But in the absence of that, I’m happy to take Sturgeon’s Law as a baseline. Admittedly, ninety percent of everything is crap is not the same as ninety percent of everything is unoriginal, but I’ll be satisfied if I can pick out more than ten percent that I think are original.

A fair number of these bands were already familiar to me, but by no means all. So I had some serious listening to do… And it was a slightly more disappointing process than I had anticipated. It turns out that a lot of them really do sound the same. Nonetheless, there are some good bands in there, so let’s take a look at them:

Dead Man’s Hill

My introduction to martial industrial was In Slaughter Natives and other bands from the Cold Meat Industry label, which instead of the current obsession with the wars of the twentieth century, seemed more focused on the macabre and on rebelling against Christianity. It seems to me that Dead Man’s Hill continue this somewhat neglected tradition, mixing in elements of black metal and noise as well. And the review is of a split with Hrossharsgrani, an ambient/noise/metal band, so that adds to the diversity.

Epoch

Epoch combine martial industrial with the harsh electronic sounds and rhythms of EBM. And far from being a “nazi-shite-fest”, their politics comes from a left-wing American viewpoint.

I.R.O.N.

I.R.O.N. is a side-project of the musician behind Legionarii, and while I’ll admit that the latter is martial-by-numbers, I.R.O.N. introduces a more mechanical and electronic sound.

L’Effet C’est Moi

L’Effet C’est Moi are superb musicians. Their melodies are complex, exciting and beautiful, and their palette of sounds is diverse while still fitting together coherently.

Order of Victory

I can’t claim to be a big fan, but I have to admit that Order of Victory’s strangely processed vocals give them their own sound.

Parzival

Again, it’s the quality of the music (and the unique voice of Dimitrij Bablevskij) that raise this band above the rest of the genre. Though it wasn’t the subject of the review, I was recently blown away by Casta, which they made in collaboration with group of Indian Sikh folk musicians, and which has an exotic sound that I haven’t heard in this genre before.

Rose Croix

Rose Croix have a heavily mystical feel, perhaps a little reminiscent of some aspects of Dead Can Dance but certainly not out of the regular martial mould.

Rukkanor

Rukkanor brings middle-eastern influences to martial industrial. While there might be a precedent for this sort of thing with Dead Can Dance and Arcana, Rukkanor’s approach is very much his own.

Sala Delle Colonne

I was only able to find one track online, but from that and Heathen Harvest’s review I gather that, rather than making modern martial industrial, Sala Delle Colonne makes music that sounds as if it were genuinely recorded 50 years ago.

Svalbard

Svalbard make surprisingly catchy military pop.

Tethrippon

Tethrippon are a Greek martial and neofolk band. The vocals are full of drama.

So out of 46 reviews and 38 bands, I’ve picked out 11 bands that I think can’t be called derivative. This is roughly a quarter — well above the 10% that would be predicted by Sturgeon’s Law. I’ll concede that there was more bog-standard martial industrial in there than I’d anticipated. Still, I consider the accusation refuted.

I think when making the argument that all martial industrial sounds the same there are a few things that one should remember: Firstly, this is a genre of music. Music made within a genre has to sound similar at least to some degree, otherwise it’s not a genre. Secondly, when compared to other genres, is martial industrial more homogeneous? When I think of the other genres I’m familiar with, the answer is a clear no. Most EBM sounds like most other EBM, most dark ambient sounds like most other dark ambient. For every boundary-pushing mind.in.a.box or Desiderii Marginis there are numerous uninspiring imitators. And thirdly, I wonder why martial industrial is singled out? Perhaps because it tends towards being instrumental music, while surrounded by genres such as neofolk that are led by songs. I think that — at least for non-musicians — discerning the differences between vocalists is easier than discerning the different sounds and techniques of instrumental music.

There’s perhaps also a different attitude towards similarity and difference at work among fans of martial industrial music than among fans of other genres. Whenever I dip my toes into any genre of dance music, I don’t hear any complaints about all artists sounding the same, despite what seem to my ears to be far stronger similarities. In those genres it seems much more acceptable to sound similar. After all, the goal of the DJ is often to create a seamless experience.

What do you think? Is my method flawed? Am I just biased towards my own genre?


Here is the list of reviews considered:

Typeface update

Work on the Hands of Ruin typeface continues. I now have all the letters, but there’s more fine-tuning to do.

2015-07-03

I’ve had plenty of help from a wonderful book: Designing Type by Karen Cheng. (There’s a nice review at The Designer’s Review of Books.) It’s a systematic comparison of the shapes of all the letters of the alphabet, in a variety of typefaces. It points out a number of frequent problems in the design of the letters, and how they’re solved in different faces.

From Cheng’s book I saw that there was a problem with the bottoms of a, d and u: the notch where the bowl connects to the stem at the bottom was rather small and unclear. I slightly thinned the bottom stroke and curved the stem into the serif to make it a little more pronounced. Also, did you know that the serifs at the top of the d and at the top of both stems of the u point to the left? Despite looking at typefaces for years, I didn’t know that.

cheng-designing-type

You’ll notice that the stems on the current version of the typeface are heavier than they were originally. The typeface should be a bit on the heavy side for Hands of Ruin.

I also drew a couple of fs, eventually settling on the one with the tail. It adds a bit of a calligraphic swoosh, but without going to italics like I do with the current logotype.

2015-07-03-of-tails

There’s more work to do, though. It’s occurred to me that the serifs are thinner than the horizontal strokes, as if they don’t have any relationship to each other. I’ve been looking at other typefaces, and while there are a few that have thinner serifs than strokes, they’re pretty rare and it’s usually a very deliberate effect. I think I’d prefer to make mine match.

The spacing is still rather messy. I was hacking the sidebearings (the spaces at the sides of the letters) in an ad hoc manner, but really I should follow the recommendations of actual designers and do it systematically.

It’s strange that I find it easier to show a typeface in progress than music. With music, I want to polish everything before I present it. I suppose that, for whatever reason, the flaws in a piece of music feel much more like personal failings than the flaws in a typeface.

All in all, it’s been an easier process than I expected. Though I imagine that tackling a whole alphabet in upper- and lower-case, plus numbers and punctuation, is a more arduous process, and that the number of possible interactions that you have to think about when any text could be written is vastly more daunting.

The Hands of Ruin typeface

Hands of Ruin is branching out into a new direction: typography.

Well, not exactly, but I’ve started work on a typeface which will have just ten letters in it: a, d, f, H, i, n, o, R, s and u, which will be just enough to write “Hands of Ruin”.

I’ve always enjoyed the visual side of Hands of Ruin: designing the website, album covers, and so on, and I’m proud in particular of the HR monogram. Even so, designing a typeface (even one that contains only ten letters) is a challenging undertaking, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have something specific to gain from it. In this case, I’m considering it a practice run for designing a full typeface. Entirely unrelated to my music, I’ve been thinking for a while about a typeface that combines the square-ish letterforms of Eurostile with the extreme weight contrasts of the Didones. It seems to me that I should get started with it soon. But I know that it’s going to be a serious and challenging project, and I want to first get some familiarity with font editing software and with the whole design process on a smaller, less intimidating project. In the same way that starting with a 13 minute silent film was my first step into writing soundtracks, a ten-letter typeface is my first step into type design.

hor-typeface-notebook

Until now, the Hands of Ruin logotype has been written in Gentium. The monogram is also based on Gentium’s H and R. I like Gentium, but while I was thinking about the bigger typeface project, I had the idea for something heavy with an emphasis on straight diagonal lines, which seemed perfect for Hands of Ruin. In my imagination, it is something that you might see on an early 20th century grave or on a First World War memorial, though I don’t know of anything that actually looks like this. (What I mostly see looking at those memorials is that they tended to use all-caps or small-caps, so it’s hard to find anything with lowercase letters.)

The question of serif or sans serif is a tricky one. On the one hand, I feel like the shape of the letters makes more sense in a sans serif style. On the other, I’d like to use the H and R for a new version of the monogram, and I fear that will be too plain without serifs.

hor-typeface-glyphs-1

I’ve been using Glyphs for the actual font editing, which seems like a great bit of software. There’s clearly been a lot of thought put into the interface, and some of the features, such as being able to split outlines at their intersections, are particularly clever and useful.

So far, I have early versions of the letters to write “Hand”. The sequence so far has been H, n, d and a. With each letter I design I’m trying to do something that will tell me more about the design, but also be a small enough chunk to be manageable. I think the next letter will be s, which I know will be tricky, but I’m very curious to see how the diagonal will work in the middle of the letter. Then I’ll move on to R and f. I’m hoping that o, u and i will be relatively straightforward once I’ve got to that point. If I were designing a full typeface then there would be a lot more to consider: kerning, and possibly hinting, for example. But that’s a good reason to start small, like this.

Lot in Sodom: a new soundtrack for an avant-garde silent film

And they called unto Lot: “Where is the man which came in unto thee this night? Bring him out that we may know him.”

vlcsnap-2014-12-20-19h11m09s0

James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s avant-garde silent film, Lot in Sodom, tells the biblical story of Lot, who is visited by angels and instructed to leave Sodom before it is destroyed by God for the sins of the Sodomites. Watson and Webber take an experimental approach to telling the story and make use of a variety of visual effects, including many superimposed shots.

One of my projects for 2014 was to write another soundtrack. The soundtrack that I created for Watson and Webber’s first film, The Fall of the House of Usher, has been one of the more successful things that I’ve done, plus it was just a lot of fun to work on, so I very much wanted to do another. So which film to choose? Well, Lot in Sodom was an obvious choice.

vlcsnap-2014-12-20-18h45m36s60

The transition from silent films to talkies happened very rapidly at the end of the twenties, so that by 1933 making a silent film was an anachronism. Watson and Webber didn’t have the budget to make a sound film, but they did commission Louis Siegel to write a score which they recorded. Siegel’s score is as avant-garde as the film is, if not more so. Though I understand that Watson and Webber were happy with it, in my opinion it’s not very effective at supporting the story. My version is somewhat less experimental, but hopefully it creates the right mood and fits the events on screen a little better.

Compared to The Fall of the House of Usher, this film was a little more challenging to write music for. It’s just under half an hour, so there’s twice as much to write. Furthermore, there are a lot of changes in mood and tempo that are difficult to compose around. And some sections call for more energetic music than I’m used to writing. So working on this project has pushed me outside of my usual styles and techniques, with the result that I’m prouder of this music than I am of The Fall of the House of Usher.

The soundtrack itself is now complete, but I’m still thinking about how it will be released. My current plan is to put the video on YouTube but also create a release on Bandcamp of the music only. I’m also planning to put The Fall of the House of Usher on Bandcamp as well. So there are still a few things to do. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the soundtrack to whet your appetite.

It should all be ready within the next couple of months. If you’d like to be the first to know when you can see it, please subscribe to my newsletter.

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Live performance in London: The Hour of the King – Stories of the Lost

Exhibition flyer

The Hour of the King – Stories of the Lost is a joint exhibition by painters Malwina Chabocka and William Andris Wood that tells tales of solitude and emotional disintegration. I’m very glad to have been asked to contribute music for the private view, so I will be playing a live set of music chosen to accompany the images. If you’re in London on April 3rd, I’d love to see you there.

Malwina Chabocka is an illustrator and author who is currently developing her first graphic novel, The Hour of the King. It is a story about a relationship between a little girl and her grandmother who is slowly developing a mental condition and getting lost in the world of her visions and paranoias. Loosely based on Malwina’s childhood memories, it is a dark tale of emotional disintegration, seen through the eyes of a child who reaches out for the fantastical and the symbolic as a way to decipher the incomprehensible reality. The paintings, which are based on a 250+ image storyboard strip, range from semi-realistic, to surreal and near-abstract. Various portraits of the two characters are incorporated into dream-like landscapes and architecture.

William Andris Wood is a devoted figurative painter with the ethos and techniques borrowed from the Old Masters like Rembrandt, Goya, or Delacroix. His newest work, Stories of the Lost, is a series of portraits of people who have accidentally or purposefully gone off the beaten track, towards emotional solitude, denial or death. Drawing from his personal experience of depression, William has created incredibly moving portraits of a group of regulars from a shabby Oxford pub, which enable the viewer to take a closer look at people who day by day escape from their life and hide themselves behind a pint glass and a pool table.

I will be playing a live set of music selected to accompany the paintings, which will draw from Empire & Dust and Iudicium as well as some newer, unreleased material.

I would be very glad if you could join us for the private view:

3rd April 6-11pm
Gasoline Rooms
299-300 Fish Brothers Studios
Clare Street
London E2 9HD

Iudicium

A couple of years ago I challenged myself to write five tracks in five days. (I like working with that sort of structure.) The results were: two poor tracks, two acceptable tracks, and one surprisingly good track. The surprisingly good track used a palette of sounds that is unusual for me, so it sat around on my hard disk for a long time without me knowing what I wanted to do with it.

When I met Malwina Chabocka we decided to collaborate, combining her visuals with my music. For our first project, I sent her the track mentioned above and she made a series of sketches in response to it which we then turned into an animation. This was our first attempt at animation, so the process was challenging for both of us, with many things done in laborious ways, simply because we didn’t know any better. Malwina put many hours into painstakingly assembling image after image in Photoshop — most of which we then didn’t use. I spent some time messing around with iMovie before eventually ditching it for Final Cut Pro. And in the end we concluded that we’d do the whole thing very differently if (or, hopefully, when) we do it again. Nonetheless, we were proud of the results.

The track itself takes inspiration from the samples used within it: in particular the processed vocal sample that drones throughout, the darbuka from the G-Town sample set, and the less processed vocal samples that appear halfway through. The first of these was a major discovery for me, since clearly this slowed-down vocal sound is the basis for many of the dark ambient tunes that I love. The track as a whole, and its relationship to my other music, could obviously be compared to Arcana‘s Le Serpent Rouge, and this too was undoubtedly an influence.

The structure of the track was influenced by the animation process: the original version was around eight minutes long, but I shortened it to better fit the ideas for the animation.

I have half a plan to release both versions of the track along with a high quality video download and maybe one or two related tracks on Bandcamp at some point. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the video.