There was a time back in the late days of 2011, shortly after we chose to bring Heathen Harvest back to life, that I had developed what was perhaps an ill-advised opinion that American neofolk was faltering in many of the same ways that its European brethren were—less in terms of a lack of quality, however, and more in line with what I perceived as an absence of interest in general. At the time, King Dude‘s Love had just come out on Dais—meaning T. J. Cowgill hadn’t yet been given adequate time to develop the frothing mass of an audience that he has since laid claim to—while Kinit Her‘s Gratitudes was still extremely young and relatively obscure, having been released on the respected yet lesser-known Small Doses. Add to this that only a faint whisper had been uttered amongst fans of the genre of what was to become arguably one of its most celebrated new projects in Blood and Sun, and you can begin to see that a new generation was beginning to take shape.
At the same time, old favorites like the Lindbergh Baby, Harvest Rain, and Awen had seemed to disappear altogether from the national spotlight, while legends in Luftwaffe, Blood Axis, and Changes weren’t exactly missing, but were curiously silent considering the recent respective releases of Ere I Perish, Born Again, and Lament in the year prior. Of course, at the time I couldn’t have known that Blood Axis were moving towards a new project in Knotwork, or about the inner turmoil that was about to occur for Luftwaffe—contributing directly to the creation of Et Nihil, who are clearly featured here. More importantly, I also couldn’t foresee that Stella Natura was about to give the American scene one of the greatest gifts and culturally important memories that a music fan could hope for thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Adam Collins-Torruella. It’s worth noting that several Texans were also quick to rightly correct me regarding Awen in those days as they were far from inactive, being hard at work on a local level.
Needless to say, since the days of Stella Natura—which now seem so distant with new festivals from Thirst for Light to Shadow Woods and Summer’s Wane taking its place in spirit—neofolk has experienced something of a revival in the United States, and two of those absurdly promising projects are being featured here. The Runes Writ in Rust 7″ EP has been created in order to commemorate both projects’ forthcoming week-long European tour, beginning in Leipzig at the Runes & Men Festival, passing briefly through Copenhagen, and culminating with a performance at Elektrowerkz in London. Both are label-mates on Italy’s seminal Old Europa Cafe, with Et Nihil finding their debut in 2003 with Onus, and Awen most recently releasing Grim King of the Ghosts.
Et Nihil’s side of Runes Writ in Rust opens the split with two semi-opposing faces of the same coin. On “Right Hand Son,” a bombastic albeit brief approach is used, with a punk-infused fixation on an aggressive tempo and percussion present at the forefront of the track—an atmosphere and style that should be immediately familiar to anyone who has seen their dynamic live performance as I had when they opened for Death in June. As a means of texture, the track also features a sparse trumpet performance that does more to create a militant feeling than add anything genuine musically. The title track keeps its predecessor’s aggression in moments, but dials it back from verse to verse, focusing instead on a much more complex melodic knotwork of 12-string guitar and flute, the latter of which is performed by Sasha Feline: a notable guest member from B9’s past in Luftwaffe.
Awen’s side, by the nature of their production quality on “Tree of Sacrifice,” takes on more of an atmospheric, perhaps even hypnotic sound. It’s certainly less focused on an aggressive pace, but Erin Powell‘s trademark biting vocal presence has begun to mature, and while it still takes a moment to work into as it’s so brazen in the mix, it has grown to become a much more powerful factor than it was in the days of The Bells Before Dawn. Paired with it is a tense, moving bass-line that has been beautifully mastered against a more atmospheric guitar performance. Their second, “In the Heart of the Corpseknot,” is a nod back to their roots with a few more minimal and even psychedelic edge, but certainly with a sense of ritual ambiance backing Powell’s insistent final questioning: “What must you give? What must you attain?”
Clearly it seems that the album, by title alone, reflects the spirituality of both participants on this split, but—at least for Et Nihil and their place in Chicago as a member of America’s “Rust Belt”—it also seems to have a leaning towards some recurring themes in the genre: esoteric leanings, traditionalist teachings, and at least an implied anti-modern attitude, not necessarily in the sense of criticizing but rather observing the continued decline of Western progress. The title hints at a reclamation of the spirit, of painting the old ways across the ruined forsaken landscapes of the industrial age. Indeed, Awen proclaims as the last word on their side of the lyric sheet:
The rigor mortis grip of the Eastern Sickness slackens in the West, portending a return to the Old Ways.
A1) Et Nihil – Right Hand Son (v2)
A2) Et Nihil – Runes Writ in Rust
B1) Awen – Tree of Sacrifice (Stringed Gift)
B2) Awen – In the Heart of the Corpseknot