If beauty is benign, then why does it so often reside in tragedy? It was this thought that leapt through my mind in circular motions as I attempted to process the death of Prof. Dr. Hans Jansen. My admiration for this Dutch Arabist and author goes back many years, but only after his untimely passing at the age of 72—a raw deal for a man of his stature—did I truly realise the extent of my appreciation for his work. It is difficult to tell how Death—that cunning bastard—is able to impose such heartfelt musings. Perhaps the death of a man we value makes us realise that the wisdom he bestowed upon this world was a finite resource. Perhaps the profusion of charming idiosyncrasies emerging from all those warm eulogies allows us to empathise better with the humanity of the deceased, or it could simply be the basic human obligation to not speak ill of the dead which drives this sudden outpouring of positivity.
Regardless of what inspired the contemplation described above, it finally helped me understand why music (and art in general) seems at its best when it is imbued with an elegant sense of sorrow. On the day of Jansen’s death, I started listening to Departure at Sunset, the latest work from Russian black/folk metal band Isa (generally stylised as |). From their music emerges a graceful melancholy akin to the magical works of Russian painters such as Ivan Shishkin and Efim Volkov. ‘Graceful’ because the sadness on which this album is hinged never reduces itself to the type of mawkish self-pity that hordes of emotionally immature DSBM projects insist on boring us with.
Departure at Sunset sees Isa travel further down the path it embarked on across its previous two releases, respectively Songs of the Dead (2014, full-length) and Plexus (2014, split album). Across these two releases, Isa made clear that, in spite of the black metal crust that covers their soundscapes, its music is so heavily rooted in Russian folk that it would not be a stretch to file them under that category before anything else. While Departure at Sunset is thus consistent with the modus operandi of its creator, the metal portion of Isa’s existence steps even further away from the limelight. As a result, the beautiful ambient and dark folk that has always tread an undercurrent of naturalistic beauty through Isa’s music rises closer yet to the surface. On songs such as ‘Feather Grass’ and ‘Wait’, the main themes are ushered in by foreboding organs, distant recitations, flutes, and various acoustic string instruments. Percussion and electric guitars eventually enrich these melodies, but they provide subtle guidance instead of attempting to assert their own dominance. The resultant sound can best be described as a more organic, less bombastic take on Summoning, two nuances which see the music gravitate towards the tragic rather than the epic.
With the aid of the lingering, ominous cadence crafted by the solid fundament of dark folk and ambient, Isa evokes images of perilous ventures through desolate landscapes similar to those envisioned by the aforementioned painters. As with previous Isa recordings, some of the compositions on this record are a little too inclined towards simplicity, relying on straightforward four-chord progressions for too long and thus failing to provide the respective composition with the amount of depth implied by its rich timbre. Fortunately, Isa have matured in this area as well, and such encounters with superficiality have become marginalised. Highlights are provided by a song such as ‘Twilight of Autumn’, whose gentle meandering dances on for many minutes but remains captivating due to a plethora of subtleties that constantly alter our perspective of the music. Meanwhile, ‘Feather Grass’ sends us through several moods before deftly tying the song’s outro back to its inaugural notes, instilling in us a true sense of completeness and understanding.
Listening to Departure at Sunset with religious fervour made me realise that this piece of art is not beautiful in spite of its tragic nature, but rather because of it. This record emits a profound sadness, yet in mourning that which we hold dear but is no longer with us, we do nothing but underline and magnify that exact beauty, forlorn though it may be. Whether it is the evanescing purity of nature lamented in the lyrics, or the end of life’s cycle embodied by distant cries of cranes, at the core of this grief resides a radiant essence of beauty. Thus, when a tear departs from our eye, we do not know whether it’s from joy, sadness, or possibly both.
Under the soothing guidance of the music at hand, I have had to think a lot about poor Mr. Jansen ever since his death. I pondered over his profound influence over my writing, went back to his books, and chuckled lavishly at the goldmine snarky humor contained therein. None of these were novel actions, but I experienced them more consciously than ever before. And then it hit me: it was the permanency of death that had instigated the celebration of his life. Art and tragedy—it is a marriage that is meant to be.
“Fight the good fight.”
01) Отход на закате (Departure at Sunset)
02) Сумерки осени (Twilight of Autumn)
03) Ковыль (Feather Grass)
04) Жди (Wait)
05) Танец песка (Dance of Sand)