Roads to the Heart: Cascadian Yule MMXIII
By Ian Campbell
Cascadia: the word inspires many divergent feelings in fans of underground music. In most, the word conjures thoughts of the atmospheric black metal (though, in reality, the scene consists of a wide range of musical styles) of Wolves in the Throne Room, Skagos or Leech. The entire genre has been controversial since people outside of the region caught wind of its goings-on in the last few years of our new millennium’s first decade. Some cry “hipster!” due to unconventional musical styles. Some cry “hippy!” because of the radical stances some groups take or ecological themes presented in any given band’s aesthetics, but many facets of the scene still remain misunderstood, or completely unknown to the outside world.
Most of these assumptions are made with little to no real-life interaction with the people and events that define this music. This is where problems arise, as this particular artistic community is based on a rejection of complete reliance on technology and the cultivation of real human connection through art and friendship, as well as a connection to the land that facilitates this. This is not something that is easily understood without physical and geographical context, or when one only considers one or two bands or artists and assumes consensus among many others.
The Cascadian Yule shows are a tradition that began 9 years ago in Olympia, Washington. Before a spotlight was thrown on the region, these gatherings were shrouded in mystery to all those but the attendants. Even I only have second-hand stories of those early days. Although bands like Wolves in the Throne Room exposed people outside the region to this style of music, many groups recoiled from this attention and became even more secretive. Even after the term Cascadian black metal became ubiquitous on the internet, most people who were aware of it still didn’t know anything about the gatherings that helped define where the music came from. Last year saw Echtra’s final planned performance, which cast some doubt on the future of the gatherings, as his performances had often been a central part of the gatherings. However, the gatherings have thankfully survived another year, though this year was comparatively stripped down, a seeming breath for air between last year’s epic scope (two nights of performances that lasted from dusk ‘til sunrise on each night) and what is being planned for the 10th annual event.
Traveling to America is always an interesting experience for me. As a resident of Vancouver Island in Canada, I am only an hour boat ride away from Washington State, but as a friend noted, the differences stepping off the boat between the quaint liberal college town of Victoria and the meth-addled and devoutly Christian Port Angeles can be a culture shock for the unprepared traveler. Thankfully, I have straddled the worlds of “normal life” and being a bit of a “freak” successfully so far, so I am used to affecting the proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing” attitude when need be.
The small differences a Canadian experiences while traveling the U.S. are always fascinating for those who enjoy paying attention to small interactions. They always serve to put me in a more open and wary state of mind, being at once in search of new conversations and interactions (which can quickly shatter a traveler’s preconceptions about place and people), but ever watchful, feeling like an outsider hiding in plain sight. This state was only enhanced by my experience at last year’s Yule gathering. They have a truly magical and inclusive feeling, marked by intimate locations, aesthetic overload (sage smoke, light provided only by candle flame, evergreen boughs throughout the venue), close proximity to performers and audience-ritual interaction. I was excited and curious about what this year would bring.
As is expected in the Pacific Northwest, grey weather shepherded in the gathering. Rain trickled for the entire weekend and low clouds hung over the huge evergreen stands as I rode inland from the coast.
The areas outside of urban Washington have a strangely desolate atmosphere. Small towns are separated by flat, straight stretches of road through vast fields and claustrophobic forest passages. Mountains often loom far in the distance instead of dominating the horizon, as I am used to. Many of the human structures seem to have a “wet” appearance, being overgrown by moss and algae, seeming to almost drip towards decomposition. In a place where rain falls endlessly, life thrives in strange forms. The unyielding creep of the land is slowly overtaking old farmsteads and homes, and many residents seem uncaring. Only the shiny big-box stores and strip malls seem untouched by the reclaiming forces, being cleaned and ordered in some ill-advised attempt at concrete immortality.
I had arrived a few days before the Yule events, so the next few days were spent with friends in the rural area outside Olympia, catching up, meeting some new people and taking a few short trips through the surrounding area. Indeed, the visits around the events were as regenerative as the performances themselves. Cooking, shooting guns, playing folk songs and drinking a lot of beer with dear friends tend to recharge me as well as anything.
My American friends and I arrived to the Saturday night’s event early (it is worth mentioning there had been a night of DJ sets the evening before which we missed) and exchanged greetings with other friends from far away. We’d not seen each other in some time, some of us only see each other at these sorts of seasonal events and since I had missed Stella Natura this year, it had been even longer than I had counted on. I was as excited to see my diasporic friends as I was for the upcoming performances. The night took place in a small art-space in downtown Olympia. The stage was surrounded by branches and plants and, though we entered to darkness, the room was soon to be lit by tables full of ornate candles.
This night began with a lighting ceremony in which each attendant was asked to light a candle to illuminate the gathering space and imbue it with a wish for the coming year. Shortly, the lighting candle was passed to me, and as I touched its flame to an unlit wick I wished for stronger bonds with my friends in far-away places and for the courage to create new relationships as they revealed themselves. I noted that through the rest of the night, that though my candle flickered briefly, each time it came back to burn brighter than before.
Erik Moggridge soon took his seat, performing alone as Aerial Ruin. He had come up from Portland as part of a short tour with Salem’s Will o’ the Wisp. Moggridge began the night’s performances with few words and little fanfare. His dark singer-songwriter approach eased us into the evening gently. Delicate melodies played on chunky down-tuned and worn-out strings seemed to echo the dualism of the setting of the gathering; beauty in decay, light in darkness. His presence and sound might be described as a marriage between doom metal melancholy and the folk twang of Neil Young.
Cascadian Winter played a set of dark folk. His setup was similar to Aerial Ruin’s, and consisted of a sparse acoustic guitar and deep chanted vocals. What set him apart was the fact that his acoustic guitar pickup was processed through a laptop with a variety of effects, giving his slow strums and picking sections a swirling, oscillating and psychedelic sound that is often only achievable on a recording. While Aerial Ruin’s music is personal and introspective, Cascadian Winter’s is brooding in a darker way, with tension bubbling just beneath the surface, ready to release itself in some kind of unpredictable form at any time.
Seek the Light, consisting of two hooded figures, performed a set of noise and percussion with sometimes spoken, sometimes shouted, poetry recited over the din. Scott Schroder (scribe of the inimitable Spring Speaks Truth) screamed through a distorted microphone as he pounded a tom drum in a part tribal, part martial style, and was joined by his hooded companion, whose drones had been set to a pulsing noise loop. The two started a rhythmic trade-off, using a huge empty oil drum as a percussive instrument. First the two traded accented beats before the mood rose to a frenzy, with Schroder pummeling the oil drum with ecstatic fervour before sinking back out of sight while the noise loops faded away to silence.
With the End in Mind was another one-man project, this time guitar drone created by Alex Freilich. He began his set by building a slow electric guitar loop, thick with delay and the bass presence of down-tuned strings, but still with the twang of a clean tone. After placing his instrument on the floor, he walked forward to a bowl that had been placed on the ground. As he threw a small match into the bowl, a huge flame leapt forth to illuminate the dark room and heat the skin of those watching. He built his music over more clean guitar-loops before turning to distorted bludgeoning and adding looped singing to the mix. Soon the music came to a crescendo. The guitar was laid on the floor again, Freilich manually increased the volume of the amplifiers and then let loose un-amplified vocal shrieks that pierced through the sonic din despite the volume of the background chaos. At the same moment, the fuel in the fire-bowl was spent, casting the audience back into darkness, but still surrounded and embraced by the swirling aural chaos, until the sound subsided the audience was left to absorb the experience.
Will o’ the Wisp gave a performance that touched me deeply. The quartet (Celtic harp, acoustic bass, guitar and cello) began with a few words explaining the genesis of their music; that it was born out of the loss of a mother that had touched the lives of each band member, and that the music the band created thereafter has been an outlet for grief and mourning. They pointed out that the solstice was an important time for them to play, as a way to commit the hardships of the last year to the past and look to new beginnings.
It is a special thing when emotion can be translated so freely through music. Will o’ the Wisp transmits emotion purely through the notes they play. There are no lyrics to explicitly guide the mind, only the passion with which the music is played. A few songs into their set was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and I doubt I was the only one. As a more joyous end to their set, they played their own arrangement of the theme song to the TV show Game of Thrones. The few times I have seen Will o’ the Wisp before, this closer always draws whoops and smiles from the audience. Unsurprisingly, this time was no different; our kind of crowd likes our fantasy.
By the time the last performance was underway I had indulged in enough home-brewed mead and beer to be feeling the effects of the alcohol, as well as the emotional catharsis of Will o’ the Wisp and the fatigue of travel and lack of sleep as the night crept into the wee hours. This turned out to be an unexpected boon for the Hathawa Heron performance I was about to witness. Hathawa Heron is a solo project of Michael Korchonnoff, a prolific contributor to the Northwestern scene whom plays with Alda, Novemthree, Ekstasis and others. The project consists only of Korchonnoff’s looped voice, which he uses in several layers of singing to create a lush aural environment over which he recites sparse lines of verse. In my hazy state, I let my head hang back and closed my eyes, allowing the sound to take me as my head spun inwardly. I was taken into a state of timelessness, close to sleep, but still conscious of the music I could hear. After what seemed to me to be either an eternity or a few short minutes, the music faded as Korchonnoff reduced the volume of his loops, eventually leaving silence as he turned to the audience and, unaided by amplification, sung us one last question:
“Have you paved the roads to your heart?”
I’ve spent the past few days pondering his question; I’m still not sure I have an answer yet. It seems to be a question that could have many answers that would all be true, yet it seems importantly poignant to me. As someone who might be loosely termed an introvert, I’ve often struggled with the ways to approach others. Should the heart be worn on the sleeve or tucked away and earned? This dichotomy often challenges me, and Korchonnoff challenged me to look within again.
After goodbyes were exchanged, my friends and I headed back to their home. It was a long drive back through dark back roads, most of it quiet and contemplative between brief discussions of our experiences.
Sunday night’s festivities were held at a small cafe: the mysteriously named Sizizis, renowned for its selection of dark ambient and black metal music as the house playlist, as well as its dark and wooden interior, which creaks like the hold of a ship with each step one takes. To a small-town Canadian such as myself, it seems almost impossible that such a place could even exist, much less thrive. However, if there is one place that such a space should exist, it is Olympia, a town that is a haven for weird folk of all kinds.
Clouds still hung over the city and the sun was just starting to descend as we arrived. My friends and I were early again, and we enjoyed a hot drink while waiting for things to start up. To pass the time, I engaged a friend in a game of chess with a board offered to visitors of the cafe, in which I was, to put it lightly, obliterated.
Soon enough, the small cafe was full of people, and the lone performers of the night, Ekstasis, were setting up their equipment at one end, with the tables being combined down the middle of shop like the communal long table at the center of a mead-hall. The audience settled into chairs or on the ground and, with a small welcome, the band began to play.
Ekstasis is a band that is less than a year old, yet they have written an amazing amount of material and already given many intimate performances throughout the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia (I am reminded of this last Summer’s epic show in Victoria where Ekstasis and I played under a meteor shower on top of decommissioned naval defense gun turrets at the ocean’s edge). The band is made up of two acoustic guitar players, a violinist, a flautist and a percussionist who alternates between bodhrán and a partial drum kit played with brushes. The members were dressed all in white, a seemingly Shamanic or Druidic gesture towards the returning of the sun, which, in ancient times, was called back by figures shrouded in white, representing the purity of light from the Sun God.
Ekstasis played for nearly an hour, debuting several never-before-played songs and lulling the audience with a tranquil, yet powerful sound that rose and fell like audible tides. Their music is a unique combination of acoustic arpeggios, medieval melodies played on flute, epic violin passages and strummed sections that could be black metal songs if the guitars were electrified. While only a precious few samples have made it online, the forthcoming Ekstasis full-length will be sure to leave a large impact on the neo-folk scene and will be a sure contender on album-of-the-year lists.
After the performance, attendants were invited to partake in the large selection of homemade food and drink that had been laid out by the band and others. More mead flowed and I had my fill of turkey, seasonal vegetables and sweets of all kinds. The meal was a welcome and relaxing way to end the weekend’s events. The atmosphere was a communal one, though as a visitor my social anxiety got the better of me and I stayed to myself and the few people I knew more than I perhaps should have. The lack of darkness and alcohol seem to take their toll on my social outings.
The next day I left early, catching a ride from my friends back northwards to the ferry that would take me home. Along the way we observed that the grey drizzle of the entire weekend was gone. Though the air was crisp and cold, the sun was shining, burning off the last remnants of cloud and greeting the new season. Apparently our efforts had not been in vain, observed a friend, as the sun had indeed been sung back from the underworld. Days later, I was still riding high on the energy of my trip. The frustrations of having friends across borders had been abated, and I was lucky enough to engage in a community based on common ideas instead of arbitrary definitions for a short while.
As I commit my thoughts to the page, I’m still thinking of Michael Korchonnoff’s question. It seems to me that the roads to the heart, be they paved paths or trails thick with bramble and overgrowth, lie in places we don’t always expect. Some of our hearts are on the road itself.