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The Land of Dreams: Cascadian Yule XIV

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The Land of Dreams: Cascadian Yule XIV
by Ian Campbell

The wheel had turned, winter came again, but this year was no simple reoccurrence. While last year’s journey was an introspective one, it was mostly joyful and lighthearted, full of enjoyment in the company of friends from afar. This year was, without a doubt, a descent into things I would have rather not have faced. But, sometimes, for the sake of growth, and for the sake of peace, one’s demons must be faced head-on and screaming if there is any hope of overcoming them.

I preface this piece with these facts to illustrate that I cannot be objective in my accounts of this event. This year in particular was much too personal. A big part of me did not want to write this article. To attempt to ignore those elements would be completely dishonest. So, dear reader, take my words for what they are: an attempt to come as close as I can to creating an account of my experience without delving too deeply into my own personal details and those of others. Perhaps my tale can give you an insight into why gatherings like these are much more than “shows” or “performances.” The space they create is one as old as man itself—a place of myth, ritual, tribe, and self-discovery.

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The year’s longest night was fast approaching. Besides being a time of greyness and rain in my corner of British Columbia, this time of year meant it would soon be time for my annual journey south, to the Cascadian Yule event, which I have attended since 2012.

This year’s was the 10th annual iteration of this now storied event. The gathering is based out of Olympia, Washington, a town like no other. Olympia is a place where hippies meet black metal elitists, crust punks mix with crystal-gazers, folkies mingle with occultists. It’s a place where every strange subculture exists together. And they all know each other (almost to a clique-like fault to an outsider like me). Just take a walk down the street and see “so-and-so” from that band, “what’s his name” who does that celestial ambient stuff or “that dude from the ELF.”

Yule in Olympia was originally established by some of the elders of what became known as Cascadian black metal. What began as a solstice celebration in 2004 quickly became a show of community solidarity when, a few weeks after the inaugural event, prominent contributors to the scene Exile and Sadie were arrested and imprisoned for actions related to the Earth Liberation Front. The US government used new laws passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to track down the culprits of ELF related actions that took place in the late 90s. Both Sadie and Exile were prosecuted and branded “domestic terrorists.” The two, along with Daniel McGowen (whose’ story is documented in the film If A Tree Falls, recommended viewing for more background about this facet of the story), were the only ones of the many accused in the FBI roundup who refused to cooperate and testify against their former friends. They served seven years in prison for destruction of property. During those years, Yule became a benefit for their financial and spiritual support. It was often held in The Hall of the Woods, a now defunct show space/squat. Unfortunately for me, those days were long before my involvement in the scene.

In the spring of 2010 I was sitting on the stoop of a punk house in the small town of Squamish, in BC. Having freshly completed my first year of university in Victoria I was back home for the summer. I had been digging into black metal for a few years at that point, and all the Norwegian classics were my favorites. A friend told me about this new band he had found on the internet. They were called Skagos. They played a strange blend of black metal and post-rock and sang about anarchistic primitivism in an atmosphere that just dripped with the damp and mossy atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest. People called them “Cascadian black metal.” I was entranced.

I eventually learned that Skagos were from the same town where I was born and spent my early childhood, the small town of Courtenay on Vancouver Island, and that they were the same age as me. In my second year of university I learned that Ray Hawes, half of Skagos and its conceptual mastermind, was playing bass for the blackened crust band Iskra and volunteered his time at a record store they ran in Victoria, where I lived. I went to meet him one day, expressed my love of his work, and we struck up a friendship that has lasted since.

Ray was friends with many of the creators of this scene. He introduced me to bands like Leech, Echtra, and Fauna. Soon I found others in the area on my own; Alda, Mania, Wolves in the Throne Room and many more.

2012 was the first year I went to Yule. It was the year Sadie and Exile were released and Exile performed again for the first time since his arrest. That year was an ending in many ways. It saw a conclusion to its sustaining purpose with their release. It also hosted Echtra’s final, iconoclastic, performance, whose presence in one who had been critical to the gatherings. It seems 2012 was a strange time to be my first. I had got to experience the last of the old traditions, with 2013 I witnessed the first passing of the flame to the new stewards, and with the event’s tenth anniversary the flame has been fully kindled again in a new form.

Day 1

This year’s event was held at Millersylvania state park, a few miles outside of Olympia. Our group arrived in a caravan of vehicles (I was travelling with my friends in the band Alda, same as last year), winding our way through the dark forest passages before emerging into the clearing of the park, on the shore of a beautiful lake. The venue was the park’s central hall; wooden, decorated with a stage area, an altar for offerings and the unmistakable Cascadian Yule symbol, the inverted tree (a tree hung from the rafters, upside down). There were many small cabins dotting the part, inhabited by overnight attendants who had traveled from far. I saw old and new friends from California, Oregon, as far away as Colorado. I ended up staying in Jace Bruton’s camping trailer, which we had affixed to the bed of his pickup truck earlier in the day.

Jace is one of the guitarists of Alda. I met him, and the other members, at my first Yule, after having followed their music for many years. The first time I sat with them for a beer I was very careful not to come across as an overzealous fan, as their music meant a lot to me. But as we got to talking, it became apparent that they were all as down-to-earth as could be. Jace and I connected instantly over our love of salmon. Jace is an avid fisherman and I have worked in salmon conservation for a large part of my adolescent and adult life. We spent the better part of that night talking more about fish than music. Turns out we both like old country music that our dads played for us back in the day, too. And we’re working men at heart.

Meeting Jace and his partner Stephanie Knittle, (Alda’s bassist) made me realize something important. The sincerity of who you really are is what should be expressed in your music, and in your life. In the past I had worried about what band shirt I was going to wear on stage more than what my fingers were actually trying to say through my guitar strings. I had tried to fit into some kind of mold of what I thought a black metal musician was supposed to look like and behave, instead of just being true to myself and letting my creativity flow through naturally.

Shortly after arriving, my friends and I checked in and mingled for a while. I saw Ray for the first time in nearly a year, and we greeted each other with a big hug. I also met Dylan Rupe, the man behind Evergreen Refuge, in the flesh for the first time. He had traveled from Durango, Colorado. It was his first time being at one of the Cascadian gatherings after he’d watched from afar for years. Seeing his enthusiasm reminded me of the way I felt in the early days of my time in the scene.

Soon we were called to gather around a fire outside for the opening ceremony. Johnny Delacy, one of the organizers and member of several of the bands playing, along with Mae Kessler of Ekstasis gave a short introduction stating the intentions of the event.

There was no doubt I was heartbroken. It had hit me only a few weeks before and I had been totally unprepared for the aftermath and unsure how to deal with it. Things had not subsided by Yule. Perhaps I was just hoping for healing of some kind. But, I had also come for the new and old friends I only get to see a few times a year. I had come to take part in the music that had inspired me to put so much into the creation of my own. I had come to observe the changing of the seasons among like-minds as my ancestors had for so many generations. I had come because, really, I had to.

Once the ceremony was over we were invited into the hall for a potluck feast. Soon the hall was full, with people scattered all over the floor, talking and eating. Folks were arriving steadily now and I got to see some more people I’d not seen in a long time. Friends from Stella Natura, from my first Yule, from the Eternal Warfare Festival, it seems that every year this family continues to grow. As I said hello to the many friends in the food line I too joined in the feasting (and some of the best garlic mashed potatoes I’ve eaten!).

Rain|By Carolin Margraf

Rain|By Carolin Margraf

The first musical performance of the night was the return of Rain. Many will know the project better under the name Fearthainne, the moniker chosen to represent the recorded material, though the live incarnation of the band has always been known as Rain. They performed unaided by amplification, and seated in the centre of the room, circular and facing the inverted tree in the center. Joshua Phillips, the main songwriter, played guitar and sung in a deep, resonant, and chanting voice. He was joined by his wife Lina McLean on violin, who also sung, but countered Joshua’s gruffness with a high and melodious voice. A second guitar player sat by Lina’s side, and next to him was Chet Scott of Blood of the Black Owl, playing the hammered dulcimer and adding percussion in certain sections. The crowd surrounded Rain and were enraptured by their risings and fallings. Long picked arpeggio sections led to trance inducing strumming, droning vocals, giving way to spoken word sections and rising back to a frenzy with Joshua shouting to the ceiling. Their set ended with Joshua slowing fading out a picked chord. Out of the silence he voiced a soft “thank you.” The silent crowd responded with a roar of applause, cheers, and screams.

Rain had not performed in many years and their inclusion and placement at this anniversary event was the perfect way to begin. They had been a musical entity I had resigned myself to never witnessing live. Later, Joshua told me this was just why they had decided to return, to give people who had discovered their music in the years between their activity a chance to experience it live. It occurred to me after their set, while walking through a dark field with Jace, that the sort of feeling expressed in Rain’s music, and indeed the music of many people made at this gathering, is not the culmination of trying to write a great song, find a “cool” chord. Rather, it is born of, as Wordsworth once wrote, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” these feelings being informed by real struggles in life. These people have experienced the timeless and mythic struggle of being human and translated it into song. Their music is a soul being bared to you. Perhaps this is why, in underground music, many of us are so forgiving of the little idiosyncrasies that make things like neofolk and black metal so far from “perfect.”

Ekstasis | By Carolin Margraf

Ekstasis | By Carolin Margraf

While pondering these thoughts and others in the darkened field, I missed most of Ekstasis’s performance. Rain’s music brought up many thoughts for Jace and I, and we had to get them out, I feel that conversation may have been much more valuable to both of us. The small part of the last song I caught was a still a reminder of how far Ekstasis have come. I’ve been lucky enough to have been following them from their first show and even open for them a few times. Their music is beautiful and affirmative in every sense.

A few minutes later I settled onto a bench on the side of the hall for what would be the strange experience of Three Sisters Dance Company. The backing track to the dance was a strange series of clicks and metallic sounds. The dancers appeared in long cloaks, heads covered by wrappings. At the time I was unsure of genders of the dancers, despite the company’s name. Their movements and appearance from the distance I was observing was very androgynous. Their movements were sometimes slow and robotic, sometimes quick with the whoosh of a cloak. Their performance, though interesting to interpret, definitely came across to me as the strangest of this year’s Yule. And, for the bunch of strange folk who make up this scene, that is saying something.

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Sirenum Scopuli| By Ian Campbell

Every Yule has some unexpectedly welcome surprises. This year’s first one came in the collaboration between Port of the Sun and Sirenum Scopuli. Port of the Sun’s lone member, Ocean, wheelchair bound since a car crash years ago, rolled onto the stage, with a large binder and a single microphone. Behind him a projection of rain on a car window looped. The windshield wipers swished back and forth, back and forth, a strange rhythm for the reading about to take place. He opened his book and took out some pages and began to read. A story of a village, a young child, a whale and their unfolding relationship followed.

It seems simple to describe, but Ocean’s prose is anything but. It is prose-poetry at its finest. His style is a mix of modern stream of consciousness interwoven with mythical allusions, magical realism, extended metaphor and beautifully descriptive tangential narratives. Yet, the listener gets the sense that every word has been plucked and placed with the utmost care and attention. To get some idea of Ocean’s other written work, search for his poetry collection Black Hills Cabal, which he was kind enough to gift to me over the summer. It is a collection of more formal short poems, but Ocean’s poetical voice is unmistakable.

Ocean’s story ended and the projection changed to a field of stars. Two figures robed in white took the stage, a man with an electric guitar and a woman behind a keyboard, as Ocean went to the side of the stage. This was Sirenum Scopuli, I had no idea who they were, and I later found out that no one else did either (including a few of the organizers!). The project had been kept secret up to this very moment. They played three songs, each with a poetic spoken-word introduction from Ocean, each a gentle mix of clean electric guitar, the keyboard on multiple sound settings, and the woman’s voice. I soon recognized the keyboardist’s playing style and voice. This was Mara Winter, flautist of Ekstasis and medieval musician extraordinaire. The man’s identity perplexed me until a few days later, as he almost never faced the crowd, but it turned out to be Johnny Delacy, also of Ekstasis and Fauna. As they played their final song, I took a seat on the floor, let my head hang loosely and closed my eyes. The song sounded like a forgotten British traditional tune, reclaimed from the depths of time and brought to our ears. It was the story of Samson and Delilah. The keyboard was the deep sound of a church organ this time. It took me to a very faraway place. For those few minutes there was no awareness of the space or people around me. I was just… elsewhere. “Cheer up, cheer up,” Mara sung during the song’s refrain. In many ways it was what I needed to hear at that moment. And, for a while, I did.

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Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang| By Ian Campbell

After Sirenum Scopuli departed the stage the murmurs in the crowd were that Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang were performing next. Readers might recognize Kenney as the female voice present on Wolves in the Throne Room’s Two Hunters and Celestial Lineage albums. After witnessing this performance it is clear why the Weaver brothers picked such a compelling voice.

Kenney and Kang began with little fanfare, with Kenney standing simply in front of her microphone and Kang taking up his violin. What followed was a strange cacophony of scraping and high-pitched squeals, which were being made in sort of a call and response manner, but each was obviously planned. What was happening was a deliberate confusion between musical instrument and voice. One could not tell if Kenney or Kang was making the sounds. Even watching the violin bow, Kang’s fingers, or Kenney’s lips wouldn’t give a clue. Slowly the notes began to resolve into recognizable scales, and further still a melody formed itself in a distinctly middle-eastern feel. It occurred to me that what was happening was a sort of sound-play mirroring the birth of language. What came out of cacophony and confusion transformed to become melodious and poetic. The metaphors are boundless. Chaos into beauty could represent any creation one chose to see in it.

As the piece ended, Kenney explained it as an adaptation of Persian poetry. She said they had another piece to perform and they’d be forgoing microphones. Slowly Kenney began to walk into the mostly-seated crowd, making single-syllable vocalizations at perfect pitch and regular short intervals. Kang followed not far behind, matching each note with his own sustained stroke of the bow. They went through the whole hall like this, almost seeming to test the acoustics of each nook and corner. Yet, there was something more meditative and trancelike that flowed out of their slow walk around the room. The voice and violin became a metronome of kinds and soon my mind was calmed by its repetition. Returning to the front of the stage, they ended simply and gave a thank you to the crowd. The performance made me think of the close links between traditional pieces of music and the more experimental modern adaptations of them. It seems that though the performance was something very modern, it was rooted in something archaic and seemingly timeless. Much like the entire Yule gathering itself.

I had heard positive rumblings about the young Olympia black metal band, A God or an Other, but I was still unsure what to expect from them. What I, and the crowd, got was a chaotic storm of sound, grinding, atmospheric, and absolutely punishing. One could compare their work to Deathspell Omega at their most frantic, but traces of crust punk and doom were to be found as well. One guitarist’s long hair almost reached the floor as his neck and body bent forward and convulsed in the surge. I couldn’t help but join in my own way during their set, unleashing a few of my own cathartic primal screams that were washed away in the wall of noise pummelling me and the crowd. When their set ended I was left with a simple thought: these kids can jam.

Berkeley’s “Owlish California Cave Wave” trio, Noctooa, (who win the prize for the best descriptor in the program booklet) were to be the second last band for the night. Sammy Fielding’s baritone voice shook the rafters as he stomped his kick drums and strummed an acoustic guitar heavily processed with effects. Adam Mussel’s cello was a deep and melodious counterpoint and Jorge Gallo’s reverb saturated electric guitar washed out the combination with a psychedelic color tinged by the tones of old surf-rock. Their rousing song “Winter Solstice” had me singing along heartily.

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With the End in Mind| By Ian Campbell

Alex Freilich’s ritual drone performance, With the End in Mind, was one of the highlights of last year’s Yule. I was excited to see what he had in store this time. It was now late into the small hours of the morning and the crowd had thinned to the last ones on their feet. Freilich began by turning off and unscrewing all the dim, red light bulbs that had been lighting the performance area through the night. He would play by the light of only a few candles. Once the room was in darkness he took up his guitar and, playing through a wall of amplifiers, began a simple loop of clean tones, then stood again and lit some old-growth cedar sap gathered on a piece of bark, taking it around the room and filling the space with its smoke.

When he returned to the stage he was followed by two women, Emily Metcalf and Caitlin Fate, who sat in a semi-circle and took up microphones. Their ambient vocals soared around and intertwined with Freilich’s guitar loops. The music roiled and swelled, eventually turning distorted and pounding. The room shook with each strike of the strings. I put my back to a wall and slid down it to be seated, feeling the vibrations through the wood travel into my spine. It was late into the night at this point and I began to drift between wakefulness and sleep, almost caressed by the wash of sound filling the room. Once the sound had subsided, the few of us left stumbled outside and towards the trailer to finally sleep.

Day 2

I woke up with a nasty hangover and a leg muscle cramp that shot me out of bed, screaming loudly in pain. It was a dramatic way to start the day. Jace and Steph were a little confused, to say the least. It was only once I got ahold of myself that the headache kicked in. That’s what I get for drinking sugary beers I thought. We peaked out the camper’s tiny windows to see low-grey skies and pouring, thick rain. What a nasty way to wake up.

The morning was spent nursing my headache with many cups of coffee, boiled on Jace’s camp stove inside the cramped trailer as we tried out best to stay dry. I ate a cold, stale bagel with a frown on my face. After a short while a few of Jace and Steph’s friends from Red Hawk Avalon (the lands that the Thirst for Light festival is held on) found their way into the trailer, bringing some dehydrated meal packs and donuts. Eventually Alda’s second guitarist, Tim Brown, who had missed the first evening, showed up and joined us. Most of the day was passed in this fashion, huddled somewhere trying to get out of the rain. We all lamented the few poor souls who had set up thin tents in the open field. The weather was miserable; typically Cascadian.

I missed much of Medicine Moon, but what I heard was another pleasant surprise. Sammy from Noctooa accompanied Shantel Amundson’s swirling psychedelic songs. The music was melodious and slightly poppy, in an offbeat sort of way. I only have a few memories to go by, but my impression was very positive.

Aerial Ruin|By Ian Campbell

Aerial Ruin|By Ian Campbell

Erik Moggridge’s Aerial Ruin was the first performance of the night that I was able to see the whole way through. His set had not changed much since the previous year, though he added a new song or two. As I wrote last year, Aerial Ruin has a gentleness mixed with the chunky scrape of guitar strings way past their prime. Moggridge’s voice has a soft twang at odds with his Viking-like appearance. His between-song raising of a bottle of Jack Daniels and a toast of “cheers, motherfuckers!” elicited a laugh from me and some others. It was refreshing to have a little bit of lightness during an event that can take itself extremely seriously.

Our performance piece of the night was to be Scott Schroder’s Seek the Light. Inside a circle of candles and driftwood he appeared, naked but for evergreen boughs tied around his waist by simple cordage. Bones of all sizes were strewn at his feet. Seated outside the circle was Lauren Gabrielle, she hummed a tune that seemed Appalachian to my ears, then spent the rest of the performance silent, eyes downcast. He slowly began to gather the bones, picking the up, studying and organizing them. When they were in a pile he took up a bodhrán that had lain on the ground. He raised the tipper, arms wide, and brought it down to strike the drum’s skin, but each time stopped inches from connecting, letting out a burst of air from his lips with each attempt. Eventually, with a forlorn look he dropped the drum and scattered the bones in frustration. This happened several times, each ending the same. He was unable to strike the drum and the frustration mounted and mounted. Eventually he fell to his knees and cried out in pure despair, accepting failure, accepting the pain. It was then, slowly, ever so slowly, he rose. He ignored the bones this time. He took up the bodhrán. He opened his arms wide one last time, brought them together, and simply struck the skin once.

As someone who is often vexed by performance pieces, I was surprised to find this one so clear and poignant. The story it told is timeless. It is a piece of advice everyone who ever has ever tried to comfort a troubled friend or loved one will say. You have to try and fail before you can really succeed. That success comes from the depths of despair. I often find this placating, I’m not sure why, because it seems to be universally true. Perhaps it is some comfort for those in the depths of that despair. But, I think you really need to fully rise out of it to appreciate that small fact.

Alda| Si Matta-Darkwood

Alda| By Si Matta-Darkwood

My friends in Alda were the next to take the stage. I can only write so much of them, as my relationship to the band members is long, storied, and only getting more complex. It suffices to say that they put their hearts and souls into their music, and you can feel it. It is despairing, joyous, affirmative, destructive.

Some friends have described them as ‘wholesome black metal’. I’d say that works as well as anything. I was somewhat sad to learn afterwards that Jace was very dissatisfied with their performance. They had a few small technical issues, but that wasn’t the problem. Jace seemed to think “the heart was just not there” this time.

I won’t placate him with my own feelings, but to me, it reveals another part of how self-critical Jace is towards his art. While this can sometimes be self –destructive, it also makes sure that only the best of what he is capable of is enough to please him. Perhaps that is one greatest gifts he can give us who care to listen.

Worm| By Erica Savadow-Pope

Worm| By Erica Savadow-Pope

Next were California’s Worm Ouroboros, in the midst of a tour up the coast. The crowd packed close to the stage for them, and I was unable to see most of their set, but I decided to find a comfortable seat and simply listen. Jessica Way, Lorraine Rath, and Aesop Dekker sounded fantastic in the hall. Their sound was gentle, yet held a subtle power.

It occurred to me that they had a heaviness to their live performance that wasn’t as present on their records. Yet, it wasn’t a heaviness of speed, slowness or riffs. I think it came from a slightly fuzzier and more atmospheric tone of the guitar and bass. Rath and Way’s voices still soared beautifully and Dekker was obviously completely comfortable with his rhythmic role in the group. When he is allowed some space at a slow tempo he has an undeniable groove that doesn’t have as much emphasis in Agalloch or his other projects.

To many people’s surprise, the event was running ahead of schedule. The Yule events are notorious for constant performances lasting until, and sometimes well after, sunrise, so the fact that there was some extra time between bands was quite shocking. After Worm Ouroboros left the stage some trance music began to blast out of the PA and a large contingent of the attendants began dancing frenetically. I took a walk down to the park’s lake with some others in the dark. We heard that Murk Rider, not originally on the bill but all in attendance from California, had been asked to play a set to fill out some time. We heard their mix of psychedelic black metal, doom and punk riffs echo across the water as I had some of my most personally difficult and reflective times of the weekend sitting on that shore.

Fauna|By Erica Savadow-Pope

Fauna|By Erica Savadow-Pope

We returned to the hall for the performance that many had come in anticipation of. This was to be the return of Fauna. After several years of silence they were to perform again. I found a place near the front of the stage. Many of my friends were clustered around one side of the stage. I felt like I was inside some kind of adopted family unit, with a group whose’ roots go back to their days in high school welcoming my strange Canadian presence into their fold for the few days a year we get to see each other. They all told me I was in for something special. Jace had often told me that his first time seeing Fauna was the catalyst for Alda’s creation. It had inspired Jace and Michael (Korchonnoff) to turn away from creating music based on the old 2000s American Black Metal traditions of substance abuse, anti-religious rhetoric, and wallowing despair and towards the creation of something affirmative in its spiritual mission. Any one performance that could have such an effect must be powerful indeed. And they weren’t the only ones who had told such things to me. Fauna and the expression “life-changing” had come up many times in the years since I became aware of this scene. It is no exaggeration to say their name is legendary, and not in any clichéd rock and roll sense of celebrity worship. Past Fauna performances really are the stuff of legends; told in reverent tones by the friend-of-a-friend of someone who was there back in the early days.

Photo by  Johann Currie

Photo by Johann Currie

Sounds began to waft out of the PA. The chirps of birdsong. I knew what was coming. The first acoustic guitar notes come next. I was right. It was “Soaring into Earth,” the first movement of Avifauna. With those first notes, the shamans step out from the shadows, clad in black robes, hoods over their heads, stark white faces painted. Eyes black with ash. Four faces stoic. Two carry a large wooden box emblazoned with their sunwheel symbol. They set it in front of the crowd and begin affixing ritual implements.

There are no instruments present yet, the music comes straight from the speakers. Echtra takes his place behind the microphone. A pair of owl wings are draped across it, hanging loosely. He begins to sing. “I am floating home, on the blood of the wind...” Candles are lit. Vines appears, an owl mask over his face, severed wings in each hand. “As owl flies, winding by” Vines slowly flaps the wings as he dances across the stage towards Echtra. “Our labyrinthine minds entwine.” Echtra and Vines lock arms on each other’s shoulders, their eyes meet and do not break. The music continues. Soon the altar is constructed. Smoke wafts from burning incense and antlers hold candles dripping with wax. One hooded figure steps back towards the drums behind him. Another takes up a bass guitar. Echtra and Vines each take up a guitar. The acoustic section is about to end. Again, I know what happens next. I am blasted by sound. For a few seconds, total sensory overload. The volume differential is like being punched in the face. Echtra begins convulsing so violently with each tremolo stroke on his guitar that his hood is flung back.

The same thing happens simultaneously with Corvus, the bass player, his long, blonde hair explodes out from his hood. Blast beats pummel the crowd. The vocals from Echtra begin again. This time screams. Some of the most emotive musical screams I have heard in my life. The crippling intensity continues; the crowd is enraptured. Some are moving ecstatically with the music, most are still with awe. The blast beats give way to a slower, doom section, which swirls with subtle guitar effects and comes to a crashing end. Acoustic arpeggios begin drifting again. The drummer comes in front of his instrument and lays down. Echtra and Vines come to his side, both have bodhráns in their hands. Corvus stands at in front. Echtra and Vines begin beating their drums frantically over the prone figure. Corvus gestures with cloaked arms outstretched beckoning his comrade rise. We are watching a resurrection. The drumming doubles time, the shaman are beating fast, struggling to keep in time, then they break and a violin comes in and the prone figure rises, reborn and reawakened. The four take up their instruments again and the music transitions seamlessly from acoustic to electric once again. This time the drum beat circular and tribal, the music screams towards the final climax “falling into solar abyss, soaring into Earth.”

Ambient sounds gives a small interlude before the second movement, “Syrinx.” The drummer takes a small bag full of candlesticks, and lighting multiple wicks at once on the altar candles, begins handing them out to the audience. His hand is visibly trembling with adrenaline, spilling drops of wax onto the floor as he hands them towards us. Soon the room is lit with what must have been 60 or 70 candles, each illuminating the face of the bearer. Fauna launches back into their electric assault with no loss in vigour, though it has been over a half-an hour of pure energy release thus far. The music of “Syrinx” is more sinister, but no less evocative. A few guitar lead sections scream through and elevate my state ever more skyward. Corvus sings a section, screams ripping his throat. When it is time for the song’s final climax I could hear the recording’s female vocals even though they weren’t there. The members tell me later that they hear the same thing every time. I sing them to myself. In the last verse of the song Echtra shouts the harmony that matches his wife’s on the recording. His voice is half a roar and though it wavers in and out of key, it doesn’t matter. I feel it. The last notes are struck; Corvus collapses on his instrument in a wash of feedback. He lays there unmoving as the others exit the stage in their own way. Eventually someone turns off his amp. He crawls on hands and knees out of sight. After applause, the crowd begins to disperse. No one says much. Words seem meaningless.

I do not know where such music comes from. Is it some sort of reward? Is it channeled through the beings playing it? Is it really their own creation? This performance will be burned my mind for as long as I listen to the Avifauna record, and I am sure long after that. It is without a doubt one of the best I have ever been witness to. The words “Fauna is like going to church” were uttered. Indeed. Whatever this is, whatever this represents, this is my spiritual path. This is my church.

It was to my disappointment I missed the last three performers: Plumes, Merkury, and At the Head of the Woods. I was particularly looking forward to At the Head of the Woods closing the gathering, as I have been a fan of James Woodhead’s creations for many years now and have never got to see him live. However, the physical and mental exhaustion finally took its tole and I was no longer able to stay on my feet. I climbed into the camper at about 2 in the morning and fell into a fitful sleep.

Day 3 and the journey home

The next morning was full of goodbyes. I bid goodbye to the members of Alda and many other American friends as they headed for home. However, it wasn’t time for me to go just yet. I was to spend a couple of days in Olympia with Ray.

Ray had helped organize the gathering this year, so he stayed around to clean up, and so did I. First we made a run down some country roads to take Fauna’s gear back to their practice space, where we talked at length and Ray recounted much of Yule’s history to me. We returned to Millersylvania to help with the final cleanup. By that time almost everyone had gone. The clock struck 4 and the park ranger came to inspect the cleanup. As he went around the park some of us finished off the leftover soup in the kitchen, and were even treated to the Three Sisters dancers practicing some traditional dance in the parking lot. The three or four of us watching gave them some smiling applause as they skipped and jumped and tried to avoid the huge puddles left by the deluge of the day before. Soon they too left, as did the rest of the stragglers. Ray and I hit the road back to Olympia, and joined the other organizers, Mara, Johnny, and Ocean, for a dinner at a burrito joint. After we ate, Ray and I stopped by Obsidian, the new cafe/bar opened by Wolves in the Throne Room’s Nathan Weaver, for a beer, where we ran into Alex, Emily and Caitlin from With the End in Mind, as well as Dylan of the band Huldrekall, who are also old friends, but were absent from Yule this year. We also met up with Adam of Noctooa, who was staying with us as well. After our drink we retired back to Mara’s house, where we were staying. After a much-needed shower I collapsed into my sleeping bag and passed out until the morning.

The next morning I felt a cold coming on, and spent most of that afternoon listening to music in my earbuds with the sleeping back over my head. However, it didn’t stop me from having a wonderful jam with Adam and Mara. I strummed my 12 string guitar as Adam played his cello and taught Mara the flute melodies of a traditional folk-inspired piece that came to his friend in a dream. The quickness with which Mara learned the full scales and multiple parts of a 7/8 piece was breathtaking. I was struggling to keep up with the four or five chord changes. Emily, Caitlin, and Alex eventually came over for dinner, a delicious curry cooked by Adam, and we gave the piece a shot with Caitlin joining in on a second guitar. It proved to be some of the fun I’ve had musically in a long time. We also played along to some of Caitlin’s Appalachian-style original songs. Despite my growing sickness it was a wonderful evening.

Ray and I got up ridiculously early the next morning, as we were leaving to head north back to Canada and were giving Mara a ride to Sea-Tac airport on our way so she could fly out to see her parents for Christmas. We said goodbye to Olympia in the pre-dawn darkness. Our drive to Seattle was uneventful, and we dropped off Mara without a hitch. Ray and I continued on, drank some horrible road-coffee, and reached the border before noon.

I soon dropped Ray off in downtown Vancouver, and then finished my solitary journey back to the town of Squamish to see my parents and settle in for a relaxing Christmas. I was content to spend the next few days confined mostly to my room, alone, recharging from many days of constant social interaction and working through my sickness. It was a few days before I had any desire to speak to another human. But soon that too returned, along with my health. I was on the mend.

More than a month later I sit here reminiscing about this event. What it did for me, what it meant to me. It occurs to me that Yule, or any of these gatherings, are not a cure for anything. Attending them will not fix your problems. They will not repair your damaged ego, your wounded pride, or your broken heart. But, perhaps their magic lies in the truth that they give you a chance to begin to do these things for yourself.

Here’s to all who give us such gifts.

___

Rain (Fearthainne) | Ekstasis | Port of the Sun | Jessika Kenney & Eyvind Kang | A God or An Other | Noctooa | With the End in Mind | Will o The Wisp | Medicine Moon | Aerial Ruin | Alda | Worm Ouroboros | Murk Rider | Fauna | At the Head of the Woods

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