Although this is a split release by two different artists, it hangs together perfectly as a whole. This is not surprising: James Woodhead (At the Head of the Woods) and Chet W. Scott (Blood of the Black Owl) have a strong history of collaboration (e.g. The Elemental Chrysalis, and Blood of the Black Owl’s third album A Banishing Ritual).
The commonality and contrast of the two artists is one of this CD’s central strengths. It is worth, therefore, dwelling on the overall feel and shape of this release, as well as on the complementary nature of its creator’s disparate styles.
At the Head of the Woods is known for its ambient, psychedelic compositions – slow-moving, airy, and dreamlike – and this is the heart of what we find on this CD. Blood of the Black Owl, for the purposes of this release, moves away from its more usual blackened doom metal palette, and closer to Scott’s more ambient-influenced work as Ruhr Hunter, et. al.
The release therefore represents more familiar territory for At the Head of the Woods than it does for Blood of the Black Owl. The latter is a notably earthy, terrestrial beast of moss and stone and earth; the former a scion of air and flight and atmospheres. Yet each artist reflects aspects of his counterpart in the course of the two 25-odd minute compositions that comprise the whole.
At the Head of the Woods’ track “Here I Stand” begins proceedings with drones, very simple percussion, and drifting vocals. It is subtle and subliminal, conjuring astral imagery and inter-stellar vortexes.
The stillness is an illusion, however, and Woodhead is able to turn the whole piece on a dramatic fulcrum, in which the lyrical direction turns from “I Stand,” a statement of isolation, into “We Move,” a statement of shared evolution. The lyrics test the tension of mind and body, of being both of the earth and yet reaching far beyond it.
From here on the drums and percussion become more forceful, and a wah-soaked, very psychedelic guitar takes center stage. The piece explores variations and developments of its evolving sense of direction, and in all comes to represent that elusive goal of ambient-styled composition: to remain riveting despite slow pace and open arrangements.
From the vast space invoked by At the Head of the Woods we find ourselves in the dark gloaming of Blood of the Black Owl. Exquisite naturalistic samples, drifting drones and wind instruments, guide us into an earth-bound hibernation dream that matches the sky-soaring waking dream conjured by “Here I Stand.”
To this soundscape Chet W. Scott applies the grim vocals of his more recognizably metal compositions. Utilized in a story-telling/spoken word capacity, the vocals become hypnotic, alluding to progressively more primal states of awareness. The theme of hibernation, drinking deeply of ancestral waters, is expressed perfectly in the music that shelters the words.
The Blood of the Black Owl is entitled “Visions of Strix Nebulosa,” Strix nebulosa being the scientific name for the Great Grey Owl. It seems possible, therefore, that the lyrics are the owl’s advice to us to go under…and then up “into the light.” A rather Nietzschean motif!
As the track progresses it reveals some truly virtuosic ocarina/flute playing which carries both mournfulness and joy. Here the call to awaken begins to unfold into beautiful acoustic guitar explorations, evolving towards an almost down tempo voyage, into deep but expansive vistas.
The track concludes with washed-out but heavy instrumentation, a vigorous life-force finding rich expression. In its own way it is quite a rush, and the experiment of restraint is paid off handsomely.
Thus, “Visions of Strix Nebulosa” reaches upward again to the sky. The release as a whole traces the process of conflict and peace-making that marks the old Indo-European mythopoesis of Sky and Earth. Both tracks trace the contradictions and mysteries of these horizons, and additionally the two compositions form their own dialogue, a dialogue which yields an elegant whole.
It is hard to know whether the thematic continuity and complexity that spans each half of this release was born of intention or instinct, but whatever the creative process, Woodhead and Scott have created a superlative demonstration of the riches that a split release can offer.
Scott in particular allows himself to express a side of Blood of the Black Owl that has hitherto slumbered; Woodhead cements the reputation of his creative mastery, his rich understanding of space and tonality.
This release represents a profound and magical artistic achievement from two of the finest creative forces in underground music today. It is highly recommended.
01) At the Head of the Woods – Here I Stand
02) Blood of the Black Owl – Visions of Strix Nebulosa