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Artist Feature: Death in June – Peaceful Snow + The Snow Bunker Tapes + Lives at the Edge…

Peaceful Snow

Peaceful Snow

As diverse, meaningful and strong as it has become today, it is difficult to even begin to fathom how our collective scene would exist in any kind of familiar guise without the many varied contributions of Douglas P., and to say that the man has enjoyed a fruitful career over the past three decades is nearly an offensive understatement; after all, there are only a very select few that can lay claim to the kind of influence that Pearce has, and even fewer continue to develop that larger-than-life presence and cast an intimate shadow by absorbing such levels of new, youthful fandom so late in their career.  It is indeed doubtless how different many of us would be, not only in terms of artistic taste but as people, had Pearce never taken the steps that he has in order to ensure the legacy of Death in June — a legacy that will surely live on and linger in the echoes of prominence long after he has left this side of existence.

Yet, in a proverbial bite the hand that feeds moment, some seem to have found themselves at odds with the emotion and energy (or lack thereof) found within the bare-bones compositions on The Rule of Thirds — an impression that seemed to boil over and intermingle with frustrations that were to follow for some fans of neofolk and its related genres that were focused on everything from arguably misguided complaints on Sol InvictusThe Cruellest Month to Derniere Volonté‘s unexpected change in direction, Der Blutharsch‘s abandonment of the genre, and Blood Axis‘ embracing of perceived psychedelic qualities.  The laments are many, and believe me, for better or worse, I’ve heard them all.  As critical (and, frankly, utterly ignorant) as some of these opinions have become regarding the latter examples, few can argue with the sentiments that have defined opinions of The Rule of Thirds for a half-decade now.  Whether you enjoy or dislike the album, there is simply a certain fire missing that has been present on most other Death in June recordings, something that isn’t just relative to Pearce’s intentions towards deconstruction.  It seems ironic, then, that these embers would bear a kindred flame in a new cycle — one whose symbolic rise would be embraced in, of all things, snow.  Perhaps the beginnings of new, minimal life for Death in June — or perhaps its own Fimbulvetr, a prelude to its end.

Live in Brest, France

Live in Brest, France

After all, The Rule of Thirds departed from the abruptly split abrasive experimentalism and additional instrumentation which was found on All Pigs must Die and instead favored a stripped-down sound that found Pearce evolving towards standing naked as the day he was born in aural form.  This tendency hasn’t ceased with Peaceful Snow as Death in June has been dismantled to a point that has found Pearce focusing entirely on his vocals with all instrumental accompaniment coming from pianist Miro Snejdr, with the exception of some processed vocal accents for effect and atmosphere.  Make no mistake, this is an album of emotional and seemingly retrospective torch songs whose definitive meanings have been, purposely or not, shrouded — a quality which can be witnessed by the album’s noticeable lack of lyrical inclusion.  Lyrics have admittedly been an ambiguous part of Death in June’s persona in the past anyway, and I’m sure that the fragmented process for putting those found here together was no different than in the past.

Perhaps, even if only through his own subconscious have they found their form, the themes on Peaceful Snow seem to hover around Pearce either facing his own mortality or coming to grips with the aging decay of Death in June itself, with countless mentions of words or phrases that surround life and death from “Life Under Siege” to “My Company of Corpses”, “Cemetery Cove”, and the infinite ghosts whom inhabit the lyrics on the album — faint silhouettes of men from Pearce’s past whose images are backdropped by the emotion felt in that precise moment, be they lovers, traitors, family or comrades; roses, fire, blood, and of course, snow.

In terms of sound, well…this feels like classic Death in June that has simply traded in Douglas’ trademark acoustic and experimental elements for an impressive sweeping, emotive piano performance that has done a great deal to breathe some new life into the project, albeit as only a temporary romance, an aural fling.  I suspect that, even with Death in June lurking in Peaceful Snow whilst sporting a new skin, many long-time fans are perhaps even more interested in the part of this album that only came with the first 3,000 CD copies: a bonus disc entitled Lounge Corps that revitalizes and reconstructs various Death in June classics into new form as purely instrumental, piano-based compositions.  No voice, no words — only the original melodic heartbeat of every song as seen through the poetic fingertips of Snejdr.  I must admit that a single sit-through of both discs ended up turning the overall sound vapid, but that is not a direct critique of the skill level that is on display in Peaceful Snow — rather, it just shows that without additional instrumentation to give depth to the atmosphere, the work can seem to go on forever.  Peaceful Snow reminds me a bit of Black Sun Productions‘ farewell opus, Phantasmata Domestica, in that Mikael Karlsson was brought on board as a collaborator and successfully breathed an entirely new essence into the project in their final exhale.  That said, at least Black Sun Productions had the courtesy to spotlight Karlsson’s name directly on the spine of the album for his part, and though Douglas certainly wrote the entirety of Peaceful Snow only to have Snejdr resonate his own interpretations of those compositions, I feel like his name deserved a more prominent place on the album than the liner notes at the bottom of each cardboard insert.

The Snow Bunker Tapes

The Snow Bunker Tapes

Somewhat unexpectedly if not ironically, The Snow Bunker Tapes — which is, as most of you should know by now, the original guitar / Totenpop versions of the songs that are found on Peaceful Snow — feels quite a bit more inspired and diverse.  Even stranger, I’m usually a heavy-handed critic for sloppy musicianship, and while I’m not positive whether these are supposed to be the true rough demos that Snejdr was just intended to work off of (as Pearce has noted in an interview with LINE Magazine that “…an album of what the original demo recordings of the “Peaceful Snow” album started life as, should be released later in 2013 … I’ve only ever deliberately ‘demoed’ songs for one album before and that was “The World That Summer” in 1985/86.”), or “final mixes” of those songs that were intended for eventual release, there is plenty of it on this album that I can’t find myself complaining about.  That said, it’s this very lack of focused production and the additional sporadic accenting by percussive elements in the songs that adds so much more character to the songs for me.

For example, I couldn’t help but chuckle heartily at the contrast between Douglas’ pronouncement that “hatred is my best friend on Red Odin’s Day” as he quickly followed it up with a chipper, melodic vocal bridge of “la la la la la” that was unfortunately taken over by the piano on the Peaceful Snow version, essentially robbing the track of an immense amount of character.  In addition, especially early in the album, there are some very uneasy, off-time dual vocal layers that, when paired with stronger emphasis on the various percussive elements and sparse, subtle synth(?), ended up giving the tracks a surreal sound that is only present on The Snow Bunker Tapes, and fits in with the lyrical nature of most songs on the album.  Then there is the simple, raw emotion that is present on the album — something that feels caught in the moment in tracks like “Peaceful Snow” and “My Company of Corpses.”  That said, the tracks found on The Snow Bunker Tapes certainly aren’t just guitar versions of those found on Peaceful Snow — they have their own spirit, their own unique sound and approach that warrants an existence separate from the piano versions.  I couldn’t blame anyone for not seeing the point in owning both, but both represent an entirely different experience.  If you don’t want both, choose wisely — you should already know what your owns tastes warrant.

Live at Unknown Bunker | 2005

Live at Unknown Bunker | 2005

The last bit of this feature will be dedicated towards the recent two releases from Steelwork Maschine that include both a DVD that spans 3 concerts in Brest, France over a nine-year period, 45 songs, and 81 individual performances, as well as somewhat of a sister release in a double-LP celebrating and covering the featured show from 2011.

We’ll begin with the featured coverage on the Lives at the Edge of the world DVD; more specifically the 2002 concert which begins modestly enough.  All Pigs Must Die had been released in the year prior, and the subject matter was, as such, still fresh as the theme surrounding the album came up vocally throughout most of the show.  The recording of this show unfortunately suffers from poor quality with all footage being shot on one hand-held camera from which little editing has been utilized.  The sound quality is decent enough, and most of the performance revolves around what you might have come to expect from Death in June over the years:  charismatic guitar and vocal performances by Douglas with strong, bombastic percussion take up the lion’s share of the evening, with two all-too-familiar masks being used by Douglas.  It is not until — fittingly enough — “The Enemy Within” that Douglas bares his true face, symbolically shedding the mystique around Death in June for a moment and furthering that lifting of the veil in favor of a more intimate setting by interacting with the crowd, playfully joking with one attendee that “loving him forever” would be “asking just a bit too much”.  This very short part of the set, technically the encore, has an all-together different atmosphere that may or may not be due to the shedding of the mask, but it certainly feels warmer, less separated between listener and performers and more of a collective experience.  This warmth is abruptly ended after only two songs, however, as a noticeably and understandably irritated Douglas Pearce has to call on management to get Boyd Rice out for a guest performance of “Total War” after a clever introduction with the guitar melody from “People” failed to get his attention.  Despite the unfortunate missed opportunity, “Total War” ends up as a powerful end to a set that lacked that sort of abrasiveness with Boyd wasting little time taking full, furious command of the microphone.

Everything in the 2005 performance is of a noticeable rise in quality, from technical aspects that include better sound quality, several camera angles and much better editing, to the performance itself which sports a masked percussionist whom seems to be actually spiritually present as opposed to the unemotional, static drummer from the 2002 performance.  That said, I was shocked when I realized that the linear notes in the DVD gatefold confirmed that both drummers are in fact the same person in John Murphy (KnifeLadder, Foresta di Ferro), but his spirit is different in each performance, including the last. Even Douglas’ own presence seems somehow much larger here, which is understandable as this was an incredibly important and emotional concert for him at the time as he professes after the performance of “Ku Ku Ku” that he hadn’t properly spoken to an audience in over twenty years and that it would change that evening because this was perhaps to be the last Death in June concert for some time, perhaps ever.  This premonition turned out to be true as it wasn’t until 2011 when the world would see Douglas in live form again.  For the Death in June fan whom has struggled to find their own meaning in Pearce’s often all-too-ambiguous lyrics, there are some pretty intimate insights given into many of the songs in the set list for this evening  — these brief explanations almost seem worrisome at times, as if a condemned man is telling his close friends important information in preparation of his perhaps impending permanent departure.  Adding to the intimacy of the evening is the now-famous rainbow flag, proudly draped between both gentleman performers as a reminder to one of the most important aspects of Death in June — a prop that Douglas proudly displays in hand after performing “He’s Disabled”, asking “Does this fuck you off?,” after which he proclaims “well that’s just fucking tough!  Get used to it!”  It’s a strong, beautiful moment.

Live in Brest, France | 2011

Live in Brest, France | 2011

The 2011 performance once again brings about a noticeable shift in quality with the advancement of technology, with this one coming about as close to a professionally filmed concert as you’ll find.  With the 2011 performance, Douglas’ familiar mask doesn’t last long, being removed just after the opening ritualistic tracks that have accompanied every concert on this DVD.  Here, after almost a decade since the first, John Murphy and Douglas are both appropriately beginning to show their age as they both, whether conscious of it or not, hold a role in our collective scene as the proverbial wise elders.  Here, it is the songs from Peaceful Snow that appear to energize Douglas, with “Peaceful Snow,” “The Maverick Chamber” and “Life Under Siege” triggering passionate vocal deliveries and facial expressions despite their “smooth” nature.  It’s interesting to look back between performances of tracks like “She Said Destroy” and witness the change in energy, from the seething accented end in 2002 with “in BLACK!” to the gentle, passive pronouncement in 2011.  There’s definitely an evolution that takes place between the three shows — whether they involve the process of aging or not is hard to say, but it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t played a part.  Then again, “Little Black Angel” still seems to draw that fire from Pearce’s heart.  Either way, all three concerts have their similarities as well.  With the amount of changes that Death in June has seen just in terms of style over the years, it’s remarkable that Douglas and John Murphy have stuck together through all of it, and with unchanging form.  Percussion, guitar, voice.  The formula remains the same.

Both of the latter concerts feature galleries with exclusive photographs, the one from 2005 being the most significant as it documents a secret performance in an abandoned French bunker on the day prior to the actual Brest performance, an event which only 50 people bore witness to.  In regards to the double-LP that has been released as a companion to the DVD (but sold separately from it), it features the most recent performance in Brest with the same brilliant audio quality that accompanies the DVD, with the added benefit of that warm vinyl format sound.  The record has been released as a gatefold with two silver-grey LP’s in a limitation of 500 copies.  While having the DVD will ensure that you have the full audio from this performance, obviously the availability of it on vinyl should be appealing to collectors.

Lives at the Edge of the World

Lives at the Edge of the World

The purpose of this article has been to document the most recent chapter in Death in June’s long existence.  Listening to both Peaceful Snow and The Snow Bunker Tapes shows that there is still a great deal of passion behind both Pearce’s ability and his will to create new, relevant and inspired music.  Everything here is certainly a step forward from The Rule of Thirds.  However, seeing him in 2011 on Lives at the Edge of the World showed me a man who may be getting tired, and who has certainly done his part in securing a legacy and fostering a scene well into its golden age and beyond.  I saw a man whose energy in that moment with Boyd Rice in 2002 appears to have long departed as Death in June continues to break down and evolve towards its own tick-tock moment.  Even with, by all accounts, strong performances at the Runes & Men Festival and the 2012 Heilige! Tour, with the American Death of the West tour forthcoming, it’s completely possible that we may be seeing Pearce’s last performances, so if you haven’t purchased your tickets yet for one of the shows in your area, you might want to do so now or risk regretting missing your chance.

Track List:

Peaceful Snow:  Disc I:
01) Murder Made History
02) Fire Feast
03) Peaceful Snow
04) Life under Siege
05) A Nausea
06) Wolf Rose
07) The Scents of Genocide
08) Red Odin Day
09) My Company of Corpses
10) Cemetery Cove
11) Our Ghosts Gather
12) Neutralize Decay
13) The Maverick Chamber

Peaceful Snow: Disc II:
01) Leopard Flowers
02) Hail! The White Grain
03) Break the Black Ice
04) The Glass Coffin
05) Kameradschaft
06) Luther’s Army
07) She said Destroy
08) Heaven Street
09) Jesus, Junk and the Jurisdiction
10) Runes and Men
11) But, what Ends when the Symbols Shatter?
12) The Enemy within
13) Fall Apart
14) Rose Clouds of Holocaust
15) Idolatry
16) Golden Wedding of Sorrow
17) To Drown a Rose

Rating: 3.5/5
Label: New European Recordings (Australia) / BADVCCD54 / 2xCD
Neofolk / Classical / Lounge

The Snow Bunker Tapes:
01) Murder Made History
02) Fire Feast
03) Peaceful Snow
04) Life Under Siege
05) A Nausea
06) Wolf Rose
07) The Scents of Genocide
08) Red Odin Day
09) My Company of Corpses
10) Cemetery Cove
11) Our Ghosts Gather
12) Neutralize Decay
13) The Maverick Chamber

Rating: 4.25/5
Label: New European Recordings (Australia) / BAD VCCD56 / CD
Neofolk

Live at the Edge of the World 2xLP

Live at the Edge of the World 2xLP

Lives at the Edge of the World:
Brest 10-XII-11:
01) Till the Living Flesh is Burned
02) Bring in the Night
03) Death of a Man
04) Ku Ku Ku
05) Golden Wedding of Sorrow
06) Hullo Angel
07) The Honour of Silence
08) Peaceful Snow
09) We Said Destroy
10) He’s Disabled
11) Fields of Rape
12) Life Under Siege
13) Because of him
14) Leper Lord
15) Luther’s Army
16) The Maverick Chamber
17) Kameradschaft
18) Hollows of Devotion
19) Wolf Rose
20) Death of the West
21) Giddy Giddy Carousel
22) All Pigs must Die
23) Fall Apart
24) She Said Destroy
25) Little Black Angel
26) Rose Clouds of Holocaust
27) Runes & Men
28) But, what Ends when the Symbols Shatter?
29) Heaven Street
30) C’est un Rêve

Brest, France | 2005

Brest, France | 2005

Brest 7-V-05:
01) Till the Living Flesh is Burned
02) Death of a Man
03) Bring in the Night
04) C’est un Rêve
05) Ku Ku Ku
06) Symbols of the Sun
07) Omen-filled Season
08) She Said Destroy
09) The Mourner’s Bench
10) Because of him
11) He’s Disabled
12) Rose Clouds of Holocaust
13) Little Black Angel
14) Doubt to Nothing
15) Luther’s Army
16) Flies have their Houses
17) Death is the Martyr of Beauty
18) Hollows of Devotion
19) Disappear in Every Way
20) To Drown a Rose
21) Tick Tock
22) Death of the West
23) 13 Years of Carrion
24) All Pigs must Die
25) The Enemy Within
26) We Said Destroy
27) But, what Ends when the Symbols Shatter?
28) Kameradschaft
29) Heaven Street

Brest, France | 2002

Brest, France | 2002

Brest 10-IV-02:
01) The Night of the Knives
02) Death of a Man
03) C’est un Rêve
04) Ku Ku Ku
05) She Said Destroy
06) Smashed to Bits (in the Peace of the Night)
07) All Pigs must Die
08) Tick Tock
09) Rose Clouds of Holocaust
10) Disappear in Every Way
11) We Said Destroy
12) Little Black Angel
13) Kameradschaft
14) Fall Apart
15) Giddy Giddy Carousel
16) But, what Ends when the Symbols Shatter?
17) Fields of Rape
18) He’s Disabled
19) The Enemy Within
20) Heaven Street
21) People / Où est Boyd Rice?
22) Total War (Feat. Boyd Rice)

Rating: 4/5
Written by: Sage
Label: Steelwork Maschine (France) /  SMR012, SMR013 / DVD, 2xLP
Neofolk

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