The American neofolk ensemble Stone Breath will be a familiar name to many people. With a catalog dating back to 1996, its members have a long and winding history together, which also includes a number of branching detours and assorted side projects. This is at least partially due to the fact that Timothy Renner, the vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and driving creative force behind the band, prefers to keep his releases with Stone Breath as close to 100% acoustic as possible. When he feels the urge to record music based around tape loops or electronic instruments, he releases it under a separate name. His special devotion to analog recording techniques is exemplified in a 2007 solo release under his own name entitled “Primative Recordings,” a live album of traditional songs made at his own home with a tape recorder, a banjo made from a cigar-box, and a single stereo microphone. The physical album consisted of a CD-R in a homemade cardstock envelope, tied with twine.
This year’s first Stone Breath release, a cassette entitled Twist of Thorn, is the first not to be distributed by Mr. Renner’s own Hand/Eye label since the band’s 2008 return from a two year hiatus, being instead offered through the Wisconsin-based tape label, Brave Mysteries. Originally intended to be a small collection of songs to introduce Stone Breath to the Brave Mysteries listener (before the forthcoming LP, The Night Birds Psalm), Twist of Thorn soon turned into an album. It features rerecorded versions of three of the six original tracks written for Black Happy Day, Renner’s 2006 project with Tara Vanflower of Lycia, along with a number of new songs and an old traditional ballad. The album is tight and spare, exemplary in both its quiet modesty and technical accomplishment. Stone Breath continues to be a defining voice for neofolk in America, and if nothing else, this factor alone would be enough to make the band somewhat remarkable. American neofolk is, in itself, something of a contradiction.
The idiom of neofolk is quintessentially European: the traditional music it is based in, the religious and historical subjects that it addresses, as well as its politics in the contemporary world, are all foundationally rooted in indigenous European identity. For European Americans living in diaspora, national identity means something very different. Unlike American identity, European identity is not defined by a political ideology or a set of borders on a map. History shows how easily these things come and go, and taken next to the story of their forbearers which came before the colonization of the New World, the whole of the European American experience is a comparative flash in the pan. Though a political map of North America will not show the Navajo or Cherokee nations, their identity is likewise rooted in something more enduring. They, along with the other native peoples who share an ancient connection to American soil, are the true keepers of American traditional living. When we speak of that which is American in any sense other than this, we necessarily speak of something which is not traditional, at least in the sense of the ancient traditions that neofolk deals in.
Though one may point to a variety of “American Traditions,” traditional ways of living and the national identity they give rise to do not begin or end with the signing of documents, be they the United States Constitution or immigration papers. Apple pie was hardly a symbol of America for colonial settlers. Rather, it was a reminder of the homeland they left behind. In that same vein, one of the finest tracks on Twist of Thorn, is a heartfelt rendition of “Johnny has Gone for a Soldier,” an American Folk song dating back to the revolutionary war. The tune and lyrics, however, were adapted at that time from an old Irish ballad of love in a time of war, “Siúil A Rúin”. By arranging the American version of this song in a performance style influenced by the current revival of European traditional folk, Stone Breath has created a dialog between the people of European heritage on either side of the Atlantic.
For people on the North American side of that divide, the motivation of their ancestors to immigrate was largely financial. Especially for those who (like my own family) came to America during the immigration boom of the nineteenth century, the move to America was a reaction to the destabilizing effect that the mechanized processes of the industrial revolution brought upon long-established ways of life in rural, primarily agricultural communities. Family farms gave way to factories, where fewer workers were needed and knowledge of time-tested and sustainable practices, developed over generations, declined sharply in value. Leaving behind traditional living for a more secure place in a rapidly modernizing world, European settlers did their best to become a part of a new American non-culture based around what had brought these diverse people to the same spot in the first place … money. Material lack was routinely traded for a new kind of poverty: a poverty of the spirit.
The “Great Awakening” movements of the nineteenth century attempted to address this issue by renewing interest in the development of Christian faith. To this end, men of faith hosted afternoon prayer meetings, gave street corner sermons, and set up “tent revivals” in which large groups of people would gather for days at a time to bask in the presence of God. In poorer areas, which were often short on clergymen, traveling preachers would ride on horseback in a circuit between towns in order to organize these kinds of faith-enhancing events. Sometimes, these impromptu services would include side-show theatrics, quack medicine, and the induction of trances. Like most magic, it was a fairly even mix of hokum and genuine spiritual transcendence, couched in practices of local folk religion such as snake handling, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), and being “slain in the Spirit,” i.e. falling to the ground in a convulsive visionary state.
A large portion of the music Timothy Renner and Stone Breath have recorded is Christian. Though Mr. Renner self-identifies as “culturally-Catholic,” his musical approach seems to stem largely from the American roots and gospel traditions of the evangelical Protestants who formed the heart of the second and third Great Awakenings. Even so, both the recordings and the physical releases themselves retain a sense of the ritualism which typifies a traditional Catholic approach, despite the fact that it also dwells freely in the area of spirituality generally defined as “low” church– that is to say, less associated with liturgical practice than with personal religious experience.
Mr. Renner’s personal Christian practice of prayer and meditation is also unusual in its incorporation of a kind of backwoods animism, which he has stated he does not feel is in opposition to the teachings of Christ. It is perhaps worth pointing out that this position is shared by the immensely influential theologian Thomas Aquinas, who speculated through his “natural theology” that souls might exist in animals and plants.
Mr. Renner’s belief in the presence of animistic spirits seems also to be tied to a belief in the closeness of the dead. The opening number on Twist of Thorn, “Where the Crows Go,” exemplifies this convergence, first by posing the question of how animals confront the mystery of death. As the song progresses, it moves to suggest how attunement with these animal mind-states might open avenues by which humans can also experience an instinctual knowledge of life and death’s true natures, as they are perceived by these wild creatures. By extension, observance of the natural world becomes an observance of both the human and animal dead, lacing the night wind with chanting voices and populating the shadowy depths of the wilderness with roaming “sleepwalkers,” who drift at the edge of our perceptions of life and death.
These perspectives on the presence of eternal souls at close parallels (or even points of intersection) with physical creation are somewhat at odds with the Protestant approach to theology with which Stone Breath sometimes flirts. They are nearer in spirit to more ancient Christian beliefs, in which the veneration of the dead figured prominently. When the early Christians of Rome found themselves persecuted for their faith, the catacombs beneath the city provided a refuge where they could practice their sacraments in secret. Services were conducted among the remains of the dead, sometimes with a coffin or tomb for an altar. The subsequent development of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass carried with it a shadow of this gloomy past, though the second Vatican Council (which took place in the 1960s to adjust the church’s liturgy to be more in line with contemporary thinking) has done a good deal to chase the specter of the catacombs from the bright and sanitized world of modernity. However, it seems that the ghosts of old refuse to be completely expelled from the Mass, as evidenced by the results of Mr. Renner’s Catholic upbringing.
Despite the well attested tradition of Christian reverence for the spirits of the deceased, Protestant doctrine has historically regarded prayers for the dead, or prayers asking for intercession from the dead, as questionable. The sectarian argument against such activities is supported by citations of both a lack of scriptural basis and the association of such prayers with the doctrine surrounding the Catholic belief in purgatory. Specifically, this second grievance comes from an objection to the practice of paying monetary gifts or “indulgences” to the church in exchange for the salvation of departed souls. This was the policy that initially lead Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, to challenge the established church. Strict Evangelicals today still avoid prayers dealing with the souls of the dead.
Taking these factors into account, it is clear that though the religious beliefs which propel Stone Breath’s music are an expression of some of the most venerable Christian traditions of Europe, they arise in the context of contemporary American life as a reaction to the same kind of modern spiritual crisis that the tent revival preachers and holy rollers of the Great Awakening movements were seeking to resolve. As such, the recordings of Stone Breath and its associated projects are of special relevance to European Americans seeking to reconnect with their cultural inheritance and spiritual birthright. Through their music, the experience of spiritual exile that has been shared by European Americans of different cultural backgrounds over the last few centuries is elegantly addressed, and Christianity is reunited with the broader spectrum of traditional Indo-European religious practice.
In some ways, the use of Christian imagery in neofolk music has become more transgressive than the Satanic imagery which was the stock in trade for its predecessors in black metal. Who, after all, would want to risk being associated with Christians and Christian music, especially in Protestant America? Writing music about one’s own sincere religious beliefs opens a performer up to criticism in a way that attacking a well-established belief system does not.
Something else most people fail to realize, especially within the realms of neofolk and black metal, is that nearly all serious work in Western mysticism has been conducted by devout Christians … and that after the Reformation, they were almost without exception Protestants. In fact, the rise of Ceremonial Magic as a distinct set of practices closely parallels the rise of Freemasonry– an exclusively Protestant fraternal network– with both of them appearing on the heels of the Reformation at the end of the sixteenth century. These, the folk religious practices of evangelicals, and numerous other examples illustrate how a lack of rigid liturgical ritual has, in the four intervening centuries between the birth of Protestant theology and present day, given rise to several schools of pseudo-liturgical magic, all with the intent of recapturing the divine spark from the clutches of a Church which they view as corrupt.
Christian mystic Arthur Waite, a Catholic by upbringing and one of the most prominent alumni of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, (an important magical order of the late nineteenth century) spent the better part of his career rejecting the Church in pursuit of a unifying current behind the veil of these hidden lineages of magical practice. He termed this body of symbol-shrouded lore “the secret tradition,” and cut an incisive and controversial path through the occult world in pursuit of it, debunking his mystical opponents with his rigid, scholarly approach and a razor sharp wit. He even managed to earn the ire of the notorious Aleister Crowley.
If I may hazard a guess, it seems that Mr. Renner is pursuing this hidden current as well, with his forays into the grail mysteries and his inclusion of imagery from Arthur Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith’s rectified tarot in the cover illustration he created for his bandmate Prydwyn’s 2009 side project, Solitude Owes Me a Smile.
As one might expect, given the his mystical pursuits, the remaining four tracks on Twist of Thorn (aside from the rerecordings and the ones I have already addressed) form a sort of hermetic statement. Resuming after the new version of the titular track from Black Happy Day’s lone album, In The Garden Of Ghostflowers, “No Ends Meet” describes the lonely life of a person attempting to grasp onto traditional values in a faithless modern world. “Silhouette,” which follows it and closes the A-side of the tape, describes the coming of night, used earlier in “Where the Crows Go” as a synecdoche for the broader mythopoetic notion of solar death.
With the onset of this death-state come the “night-birds” of the album which Twist of Thorn prefaces, creatures which flit freely through the shadows of this dark time. Here, the male voice directly addresses the female voice of “No Ends Meet,” counseling it with words of comfort. It then narrates us toward an affirmation of continued strength through this hopeless period: “Hold tightest what they cannot steal. It is brightest which night reveals.”
The B-side reopens with the cryptic “Madstone,” referring to a bezoar taken from the belly of a deer. These were reported in Appalachian folk medicine (as well as in earlier, European sources) to have curative properties against rabies, thus earning them their name. The lowest grade of such stones came from the innards of a brown deer. A higher grade could be obtained from a spotted deer. However, a perfect Mad Stone came only from an albino or “witch deer”– pure white with pink eyes. Such a stone was reputed not only to cure rabies, but also other ills such as rattlesnake and spider bites.
Curiously, no actual mention of a madstone is made in the lyrics of the song. Instead, it describes a wish for future generations to “know the secret words to make the sleeping wake,” and describes the trajectory of the newly awakened down the “dreaming path,” to a place where “the dead talk in tongues so fresh born.” It seems to suggest that the cure for the madness of modernity lies not in the past, but in the future, when yet unborn children will shake the world from the slumber of night described in “Silhouette,” and reopen the conversation with the venerated dead which modern materialist fears have presently closed.
Interestingly, the last rerecorded song “How Many Hours ‘Til The Spider’s Work Is Done?” is positioned between “Madstone” and the album’s closer, “Blood Winter.” It describes the process of waiting, neither awake nor asleep, through a seemingly endless night.
“Blood Winter” brings the album to a haunting, transcendental close. Morning comes, but on a world drifting inevitably toward an even deeper death-state: winter. Out of this chilly vision of a dying world comes suddenly comes the witch deer– a kingly white stag, presumably carrying within its body the madstone to be extracted upon its death. As a faltering, male/female harmony ushers this creature in, signs of life within the winter death begin to appear: a rabbit which traces hidden symbols in its wake, and silver fish beneath the ice.
The album’s narrator now comes forward in the first person once again, describing his lonely vigil of prayer and solitary travel through a frozen world. However, it is with joy that he enters these darkest depths of ice and snow, hailing it as the progenitor of a new spring which has already quickened in the frozen womb of winter. As the day fades again, he hails the coming of night as well … for within that night, blood is spilled, in “red upon the white.”
Imagery of bloodshed, when considered alongside the previously discussed “Johnny has Gone for a Soldier,” gives Twist of Thorn a subtle but nonetheless provocative suggestion of militancy. The word martial, when applied to neofolk music, tends to conjure up booming percussion and chanting oratory. In that sense, Stone Breath is not a typically martial band. There is, however, something decidedly martial about the somber austerity of their lilting melodies, and one must not forget that the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of Rome began with the baptism of soldiers. Religious ideas of undying sun gods were already well known to the Late Roman army in the official cult of Sol Invictus (Latin: “Invincible Sun”) and the Mythraic Mysteries (secret brotherhoods which worshiped the miracle performing solar hero, Mithras) which flourished during that time. The archetypical synergy of the primary instrument of Jesus’ supreme self-sacrifice and preexisting emblem of the solar cross led to a shift away from the Jesus of miracles symbolized in early Christian with by the ichthys (Latin: fish) and toward the Jesus of the Passion– a Jesus who has proved a powerful focus, even to this day, for soldiers preparing die in service of their beliefs.
The colors red and white also have a specific Christian symbolism. White, the color of the lily of the Annunciation (presented to Mary by the angel Gabriel when he made her miraculous pregnancy known to her) represents the purity of consciousness which makes it ready for reception of the divine. Red, the color of the rose of the Passion, implies the full unfolding of consciousness into the ecstasy of divine experience. The sanguine hue of the flower represents the blood of the sacrifice, with the thorns being linked to the crown which was one of the Instruments of the Passion. Consider also that the relics of the passion were commonly referred to as “Arma Christi,” meaning “Weapons of Christ.” Framing the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross as a warrior’s death– one which turned the tide of a metaphysical battle towards victory against Satan– casts him in a light which clarifies his relationship to other, earlier figures in the religious thought of Europe.
The imagery of blood on snow is surrounded with symbols which are significant not only to Christianity, but also in older manifestations of European religious thought. Allusions to the sharp nettles of holly and pine explore the association of the wounding points of Jesus’ crown with sharp edged evergreen plants, a natural symbol eternal life with remarkable continuity in its use between Christian, Celtic, Norse-Germanic, and Greco-Roman systems of thought.
The witch deer king, carrying within himself the madstone which will rid the world of its frenzied illness, is another instance of an archetype which finds continuous extension through each lens of thought we apply. This figure, as manifestation of the Christ who must die for the world to be saved, synergizes Christian symbols of later coinage with their precursors in precisely the same way that the rood of the Passion was brought to richer spiritual use by its simultaneous identity as a solar symbol. Where the old was once turned to enhance the new, the new now reflects back into the old. With each pass through the prism of consciousness, the light of divine truth grows exponentially. Taken together, the symbols in “Winter Blood” conjure a number of simultaneous visions: the sacrifice of the witch deer king, which will unlock his curative treasure; the passion of Jesus, as an example of human enlightenment to the natural perspective that life exists both within and without the domain of death; and finally the inevitable, violent overturn which modern life is racing towards, as it threatens to bring death to all that is sacred in both the natural world and human society.
These allegorical emblems are continuous with the symbolic language of The Night Birds Psalm, which follows Twist of Thorn, as well as with the addendum that bookends the other side of these sessions, Who Is Listening? All of these recordings are still available through the darkhollerarts.com website.
For those who crave still further insight into the world of Christological symbolism, I expect that Arthur Waite’s The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal should be more than enough to satisfy any appetite. For those in the vicinity of New York City, a trip to The Cloisters might likewise also prove instructive.
Written by Stuart Sudekum
01) Where the Crows Go
02) Hand in Hand
03) Johnny has Gone for a Soldier
04) In the Garden of Ghostflowers
05) No Ends Meet
02) How Many Hours ’til the Spider’s Work is Done?
03) Blood Winter