On Upyr’s Altars/Tunnels
Upyr, Altars/Tunnels, Serpent Eve Records, Bulgaria, 2013.
If we are to believe Pascal Quignard’s story of what is a “fascination,” the original Roman fascinum is neither a cunning metaphor, nor a mere amulet of sexual playfulness, but something of a bewitching force whose “evil eye” enchants us. We see, and the vision of our eye is corrupted by an unbearable desire hosted in representation itself: what fascinates us paralyzes us. According to this story, contemporary puritanism could be derived from the double bind of desire and prohibition. Music immersed in death culture can be seen as deploying the counter-story of paralysis by fascination, and often there is only the pure and naked form of fascination by Death itself. It is as if the very representation, uninhibited by the corrupting force of fright, is extinguished. Thus what remains is the fascinum; the paralysis fades into nothingness.
A recent death/doom project from the nethers of the Bulgarian underground has brought to the fore a version of this uninhibited fascinum. Their very name—Upyr—is a witty reminder that where representation is involved, to utterly desire death, to welter in the quagmire of the real, is impossible. And the name does just that: it reminds us of the story of how our very culture of fascination by death, darkness, and the void is informed by a malign inflexion of occultism which serves only the human fantasy of playing with the real, but never being in touch with its rotting face. By now “upyr” might mean something to you if you have followed Netflix’s Hemlock Grove. No more: from now on Upyr is the regained, doom(ed) kingdom of metal terror unhinged. And their music tells us a story of fascinating and obsessing with death—and with the Dead—that runs against the poshy fetish of emotional frustrations in our contemporary societies whose fantasies are fed by the impossibility of death.
If we are to believe the now conventional story of how vampire cults arrived in the Anglo-Saxon world (and were romanticized), then we turn to the Slavs. Upyr turn to the Slavic without making an Epic of it, as Alfons Mucha did. They do this with something more than reclaiming an etymological primacy by way of territorial pissing (being from Bulgaria). As some accounts have this, “[t]he term ‘vampire’ has a rich but speculative etymological history, clearly being birthed in the Bulgarian area and subsequently being transferred into other Slavic cultures.” So this is a Bulgarian-born story of the fascination by a creature far removed from the sad stereotype of blood-sucking entities going berserk by virtue of market demand. As Slavic folklore has it, an upyr sleeps and rolls in blood. Listening to Altars/Tunnels is a properly noisy testimony to this, and if you like your doom spiced with intelligent poetry but need the respite of a recognizable doom vocal, this is the time to hear their album.
Nothing is left in Upyr’s project from the romanticized notion of vampirism which reflected a form of bourgeois exorcism feeding on fantasies for immortality and prohibited sexualities. Today’s death cults are tolerated because they are derived from a highly eroticized notion of death created for the entertainment of the bored aristocracies of pre-modern Europe, whose most direct touch with death was to congeal their own blood by fucking each other along class lines. Before the Slavic folklore vampire Upyr—a rather rustic figure—was made noble, its powers were far more transcendent than those of sharp-toothed caricatures of aristocratic nightmares. Devoid of romantic erotic allure, with Altars/Tunnels the sense of an upyr’s robustness and fearlessness, the might of its non-humanness come home to roost. Nothing testifies this better than the “slashing ego” uttered in “Hymn to Pan”—a rather uninhibited sexual deity of the wilderness.
Throughout Altars/Tunnels, the sound of Upyr is varied enough for its death/doom genre determinations: it is suggestive of slow and progressive decay, but also rich of rhythmic failures that feed on the inevitable horizon of decomposition. The lyrics are careful enough to recognize the soul/body dualism inherent in the Bogomils’ circles (“Kneel, my savior, kneel, beside my weakened body”), but this is presented in extremis: the “night is not a host,” the “day brings no salvation,” and the self is “corrupted” and “empty.” This album is not just the unearthing of a forlorn heresy; it adds to it the contemporary evacuation of selfhood. That thin membrane which the self is believed to be, which was once enthroned to protect us from the dark night of the universe, is rendered helpless. You can hear this on “Into the Tunnels of My Sleep.”
Albeit the upyr is often described as less and less emotional as its nature manifests, this album’s rhythmic quality develops with each of the four tracks. This is so articulate a progression that the bourgeois torsion of the death cult gets destroyed in the rather emotional riffs in the last five minutes, those of “Welcome to the Ritual”—as to suggest that the Ritual has just begun; that perhaps we have just been introduced to the upyr’s terror unhinged. This terror is not unjustified: as the vampire cults developed along with plagues and folk beliefs, the later cult of death demanded from its forsaken human lookalikes that they are both the perpetrators and the victims of their own deeds. A plague is incipient; someone is to blame; the guilty are the dead. Altars/Tunnels is the restitution of those dead. As a result, the haunting, brutal beauty of their sound corresponds to just the definition of an upyr: “a corpse which attacks people and animals.” The four tracks are a slow, systematic incursion of moderately aggressive sludge-meets-doom. So if the upyr becomes a person after death, born of evil or touched by it, then the music of Upyr will outlive their rotting corpses. And we know they will not be afraid of the upyrs’ powers that might unearth their flesh and bones. For the self is never saved.