Panegyrist interview (12/2018)
|Conducted by:||Apothecary (e-mail)|
When I first came across Panegyrist's Hierurgy debut earlier this year, I knew before even listening that I was going to be in for something truly unique and atypical for the realm of black metal. Angelic, Christian-influenced imagery adorned the album cover, and subsequent statements I read from guitarist, vocalist, and lyricist Elijah Tamu appeared to rebuff the idea of Panegyrist as a simple "Christian black metal" band, and hint at something much darker and more subversive behind the album's music and themes. As repeated listens to Hierurgy made me admire the composition and genuine inspiration behind it more and more, I decided to reach out to Elijah for this interview. To call the conversation that ensued enlightening would be an understatement, for it was no less than a glimpse into the mind of a man who truly breathes the driving forces behind his life into his work.
Che: Hello Elijah, and thank you very much for taking the time out for this interview. To begin, Panegyrist are a relatively young band, having only formed just last year. How did you all get things off the ground and running?
Elijah: Our album was written and recorded without any of the songs having ever been played together live. Before the completion of the album, I think there were only about two times when all of the members were present in the same room. Everything was composed and scored in a series of sessions usually involving no more than two to three people at a time.
Che: Was there a clear moment of everyone coming to agreement about pursuing a particular sound and aesthetic, or was it something that happened more over time as a result of each member's influences?
Elijah: The initial plan was to just to record a few minimalistic, nature-themed black metal songs under the name Gloamingwald. I began wanting to take things in a more esoteric direction, and that coincided with shifting to the name Panegyrist. Brendan (guitars) and Vince (guitars) actually continued the Gloamingwald project on their own and recorded an EP something that could loosely be termed "dark metal," with a lot of focus on atmosphere and subtle prog elements. When Paul (bass) and David (keyboards/vocals) got involved in Panegyrist, they brought in even more of those unconventional elements that solidified our sound. Paul listens to a lot of math rock, and David has classical and jazz training. The whole thing ended up much more Avant-garde than I think any of us expected.
Che: Yes, it's interesting to see how things sometimes just happen naturally like that without too much of a pre-established plan. Even with Panegyrist being quite new to the underground metal scene, the sheer quality of your work makes it seem as though you all have been playing music for years. Were you involved in any other bands previously, or are you involved in anything else at the moment?
Elijah: I'm glad the album works for you. Most of our musical backgrounds are leagues away from what's common in black metal circles. I personally don't have anything to speak of other than a lo-fi ritualistic/post-industrial/ambient black metal side project called Orison Wrethe. The only music that's been publicly released under that name is the "Saint George" track I was honored to contribute to Brave Mysteries' massive Communion Of Saints compilation. Brendan and Vince have worked on a number of things together, including EPs from the aforementioned Gloamingwald project, a modern metal band called Gates Of Erebus, and a classic heavy metal project in the works. Vince also played in the band Austaras several years ago. Paul (who has recently departed from Panegyrist) writes a bunch of math rock on his own but doesn't have anything recorded yet. David does a lot of jazz gigging and also writes and records his own compositions.
Che: What artists would you say have played a big role in influencing the development of the Panegyrist vision? Not necessarily just musical ones.
Elijah: Brendan was heavily influenced by Emperor in the initial writing phases. Beyond that, the band members didn't share a lot of common influences. I spend considerable time with esoteric black metal, and it's within that context that the thematic elements for Panegyrist developed. Even though the "Avant-garde/progressive black metal" tag gets applied to our music, that's actually something that developed somewhat unintentionally. I really like stuff like Arcturus' Aspera Hiems Symfonia and Ved Buens Ende's Written in the Waters, but I only realized that some of those parallels were present after the music had taken form.
I've already discussed some of the alchemical and theological influences in other interviews, but I can point to a few other things that have shaped Panegyrist's vision. I can't understate the importance of Lo-Ruhamah's album The Glory Of God to me. In fact, if it weren't for that band, I would be in a very different place in life musically, artistically, even spiritually. Lengsel's album Solace has also influenced how I write black metal guitar lines. It's a relatively unknown album, but extremely unique an excellent balance of darkness and contemplativeness, where the progressive elements intensify the atmosphere instead of drawing attention to themselves.
I've always wanted to bring more of a classical approach to extreme metal composition in a way that sidesteps symphonic metal tropes. Counterpoint is underutilized, I think. It's mesmerizing, the way that multiple melodies can dance around each other to create tension and release. Something like Shostakovich's string quartets could translate into a black metal context very well. Plenty of progressive metal bands draw on the flashier side of classical music, but I'm interested in the sacred and contemplative. Arvo Pärt's compositions, in particular, move my spirit like very little other music can, and I would like to find ways to tap more directly into a similar current. Some of this classical influence is definitely present on the Panegyrist album, but we'd like to take it further.
Che: As far as the thematic inspiration of Panegyrist is concerned, both lyrically and visually there seems to be a heavy dose of Christian lore and mysticism. But it feels very unique and mixed with darker, more esoteric elements as well, certainly not the "usual" brand of Christianity. Would you care to elaborate upon this dimension of the band and what you really seek to accomplish with it?
Elijah: The spiritual vision, whether expressed in lyrics, art, or the music itself, is fully in line with the heart and essence of Christianity. The unfamiliarity of our forms of expression is the very thing that I hope reintroduces this religious essence in a way that many have forgotten. You rightly identify this aspect of unfamiliarity when contrasting our esoteric approach with what you call "usual" Christianity. In that sense, you're right; it is dark and esoteric in a way that many will not initially see as compatible with Christianity's more overt cultural manifestations. But my hope is that the unfamiliar indeed the subversive aspects of our approach function as a mirror in which the listener finds their assumptions exposed and laid before them in a new way. This should cause discomfort. Holding this mirror to others is only something I can do because of having done this myself first. Seeking the luciferous spark of Christ within my inner void has necessarily been accompanied by fear and trembling, and many of the lyrics on our album were first written as personal meditations. In putting these meditations on a public platform, I'm inviting those who are so inclined to enter into these waters as well, to struggle through the lens of the words and perhaps even experience these prayers alongside me. I sincerely hope this doesn't sound hubristic, because I want to communicate the opposite. It's not about me. In trepidation I first held the mirror to myself, but only because my one goal in life is union with my Lord, whose goodness, holiness and yes, even his love is severe.
Che: Regarding that spiritual vision, I'd like to talk a little about the post you made online earlier this year a few months after the release of Hierurgy, because I feel like that made an important statement about what you're really looking to use Panegyrist as a vehicle for. In it you somewhat implied that so called "Christian black metal" often comes with an expectation of safety or tameness. How do you see what you're doing with Panegyrist as contrasting with that?
Elijah: I never intended for Panegyrist's music to be embraced by the Christian black metal world, in part because I want to explore territory that is explicitly unsafe. I don't mean that I'm concerned about offending Christian fans, but Christian black metal is generally aimed at audiences who have no real contact point with the occult. My perspective on black metal has been formed by taking the ideologies and aims of occultists seriously, and my meditative language of expression reflects this. I'd discourage most Christians from going into those places at all.
Che: You also touched upon something with that writing that I strongly agree with, the point that many seem to underestimate just how much Christianity can serve as a foundation for truly dark, subversive pieces of work within the context of black metal. What do you think leads people to assume that it can't?
Elijah: Familiarity with external form. Confusion or near-sightedness regarding essence. That would account for a lot of it. Understanding, knowledge, and cognition depend on relations: i.e., this thing is understood as distinct, over against that thing. It's impossible to escape this substratum, and even the transcendence of duality doesn't destroy distinction, but only shows how the One and the Many are co-foundational to each other. Singularity is understood in terms of plurality, and plurality is understood in terms of the singular. That doesn't mean that I think correct binaries can't be discerned; there are true oppositions. However, people often misidentify the deeper distinctions and create false oppositions that don't pierce to the heart of the matter. This is present in the absurd vortex of politics, for instance. It's likewise present in discussion of religion. People see Christianity as being the totality of its doctrines and regular cultural expressions, and they assume that the core premises of the faith can only lead to a very limited set of conclusions.
Whether they use this specific terminology or not, probably the majority of people in black metal operate according to something like the paradigm of the Apollonian and the Dionysian that Nietzsche develops in The Birth of Tragedy. The Apollonian is that which involves structure and solidification, while the Dionysian is the realm of dissolving and ecstasy. Nietzsche unabashedly favors the Dionysian, seeing this as the realm in which we are able to commune with the tragic-triumphant spirit at the heart of reality the numinous that finds unique expression in the dissolving power of music. On the other hand, he views the Apollonian as a dream-world that is constructed to provide some kind of structure to the chaos and make life liveable. The Apollonian finds its expression in the art of sculpture illusory semblance and lifeless rigidity. My problem is that this whole paradigm is skewed; the supposed primacy of the Dionysian depends on setting up a caricature of the Apollonian. In Hermetic terms, it tries to separate the solve from the coagula, and it favors chaos and dissolution over order and structure. The only paths that I see as being ultimately worth pursuing are those that lead to higher individuation; in order to get there, the black work of mercury is a necessary first phase, but total annihilation is never the goal. The dissolving or fluid aspect is necessary for life and motion, but attaining to the higher self also involves fixing the volatile, i.e. the solidification of identity.
Bringing this all back around, people in black metal usually operate according to the assumption that the rigidity of Christianity's cultural crystallizations is simply the natural outworking of its inherent nature. Christianity is understood as Apollonian, and when the hypocrisy of Christians in so-called Christian societies is unmasked, this seems to be evidence that the entire direction of the Apollonian-Christian current is toward the construction of a lifeless dream-structure. This is the "castle of the dream" that Varg speaks of on Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and the light that he warns of on Filosofem: "Beware of the light, it may take you away to where no evil dwells." Hence a reactionary glorification of chaos over order, of darkness over light, of the left hand over the right hand. This particular kind of essentializing ultimately falls apart, though. When people claim, as they often do, that chaos is somehow more real than order, I challenge that and I have never met anyone who has been able to convincingly support such a claim. Even if a kind of primordial chaos could be identified, the very fact that order emerged implies that the seeds of intelligibility and order were already present in this chaos from the beginning. This means that the so-called chaos was never truly chaos in an ultimate sense because such a thing could never be known, nor could it ever manifest (because manifestation is ordering). Even chaos-archetypes such as Tiamat, Leviathan, and Typhon are given identities and attributes all of which are a kind of ordering. Even the sea follows its own inner logic, and that is how we name and know it.
You run into all kinds of logical inconsistencies when you try to essentialize right and left hand approaches in the way that a lot of black metal does. I have often said that my faith contains both right and left hand aspects, just as the Tree Of Life contains both Chesed and Gevurah. Yes, Christianity is a religion of love and light; but we must not forget that it is also a religion whose sacraments bear the marks of death. The blasphemy of feasting upon the murdered God is essential to the faith; there can be no Christianity without it. In his own words, "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53, ESV). These words proved so offensive that many of Jesus' followers abandoned him after hearing them. Christianity is subversive, inverted, and in its own particular way even sinister. I do not mean evil; light and darkness do not always mean good and evil in a one-to-one equivalence. Christianity is not a religion of evil, but it is much, much darker than many ever realize. Yes, true Christianity is ordered and doctrinally bound, but it is not without life or motion. It is both solve and coagula. Both Apollo and Dionysus bow before the supremacy of Jesus Christ, who is both lion and lamb. There is both fire and blackness here. A true Christian black metal would be one that is black not only in form, but in substance a blackness that illumines, an obscuring that reveals.
Che: Those are some fascinating points to consider. Do you think that black metal is somehow more suitable for expressing themes of ritual and theology than other mediums? If so, what makes it so distinct?
Elijah: Excellent question. In my best moments, black metal is both nothing to me and also an incredibly important part of my life. Black metal is at its most potent when it forgets itself, when it points beyond itself and the seeds of this teleology were uniquely part of black metal's history of lived-out extremism, though I also believe that false frameworks of understanding simultaneously short-circuited this trajectory from its very inception. With the beginning of the second wave we had a generation of people who were convinced that something was amiss and false in the world, and they were not content to simply reflect on this in the sterile sphere of "art." The conflict had to be lived. Christianity, because of its cultural legacy, was identified as the enemy, and in an extreme rejection of Christian values and morality, a violent elitism emerged. In a certain way I feel a kinship with this all-or-nothing impulse, but the Lord I serve is different, and so my life takes on a strange pattern of profound convergences and divergences with those who are seriously involved in black metal. I have a close friend and spiritual ally who used to say "God is my God, but black metal is my religion." He later abandoned such language because he realized that it was bound up with a deification of black metal in ways that were spiritually counterproductive. Nonetheless, we both still agree that we share something of that sentiment; black metal is truly religious a true religious path when it is used as a real spiritual discipline with God as its ultimate end. It is also a treacherous path.
You asked what makes black metal distinct. In other words, do the above descriptions apply to black metal in some special way, as opposed to other forms of music? That's a tricky question. Other forms of music can certainly be used devotionally in ways that black metal can't. I certainly wouldn't say that black metal is the pinnacle of religious music; however, I would say that it contains the potential to be a particular pinnacle of expression for a certain slice of the spectrum of religious experience. Some of that is built into the sonic elements of the music itself. I've never encountered another form of music that so effectively juxtaposes severity and grandeur. There's a specific way in which the majesty of black metal makes sense only in light of its fury, and vice versa. I've never found that in any other form of music, aside from certain places where death metal essentially becomes black metal in spirit. But I also feel that black metal can be pushed further in this direction: darker, more fiery, more communicative of the numinous.
The power of black metal has always been that it violently aims for something absolute; conversely, when it becomes self-referential, it becomes just as degenerate and foolish as any other inbred subculture. Black metal can never be about black metal not without destroying its very essence. So many people talk loudly about being devoted, but what does this devotion really consist in? Collecting vest patches, going to shows, having vague ideas about darkness, parroting invocations from dubious grimoires, and making politically incendiary statements? I have no interest in those games. For all its supposed adversarial, individuating fire, black metal as a social phenomenon is just another dead end, another bastion of those seeking security in a herd. And I would be an adversary of that just as much as anything else that is false. Put your black metal to death so that it might be reborn in the form it was always meant to assume. Yes, black metal as a religious path but only after you slit its throat on the altar.
A lot of people if they've read this far are going to check out here, because I'll be perceived as an outsider attacking what's sacred to them. In a certain sense they'd be right. But weigh my words, if you're willing. Take a good, long look at yourself. A true elitism the only kind of elitism that's worth anything is one that doesn't depend on comparison or the need for inclusion. A person is truly elite when they've checked out of the entire game, because they realize the pecking order doesn't have anything worth offering. Seek the eternal truth. Slaughter the rest of your hopes.
Che: Your art for you appears to be a very personal, cathartic experience, a reflection of experiences you have lived and are living before anything else. With artists for whom this isn't the case, does their work at times feel incomplete or ingenuine for you?
Elijah: I'm usually most drawn to artistic expression that comes out of reaching deep in search of something living, raw, or even ultimate. That isn't always explicitly religious in nature, but it involves a degree of serious personal reflection often catalysed through some kind of suffering or perplexity, or by moments of ecstasy and self-forgetfulness. Even our experiences of intense joy and beauty involve a certain ache, it seems. I would say that's because we catch a glimpse of the greater reality and purpose we long for, behind the veil. But I'm also not always a serious, brooding figure, and I enjoy artistic expression that's much more immediate and enjoyable at face valuethings that are just fun without needing to be deep. I'm sure a lot of people would laugh at some of the other music I enjoy. Spiritual maturity means you're free to take yourself less seriously. I need to be reminded of that quite often.
Che: I recall reading you say somewhere that, regarding feedback to Hierurgy, you were slightly disappointed to not see as much discussion of its lyrics as you had hoped for. How important would you say that aspect is in the final formula of the album? Are the lyrics meant to tell a story, or have some sort of overarching concept?
Elijah: The lyrics, alongside the artwork and music itself, are unified in intent all these things in light of each other. The pervasive themes are theosis, inversion, and transformation. The album doesn't follow a story-arc so much as it provides a series of perspectives on these themes. Regarding theosis, I draw from the mysticism that was at the very heart of ancient Christianity and is still beautifully preserved in certain ways in Eastern Orthodox theology. Just as God is an eternal, inexhaustible fire, we are invited to likewise become fire and, in the words of Saint Peter, "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4, ESV). The Greek word theíon means both "sulfur" and "divine fire," and in alchemy sulfur is related to the soul and individuation. Speaking of brimstone, it might be worth mentioning that certain Eastern Orthodox theologians have proposed that the experience of hellfire is simply a negative reaction to the fiery presence of God: those who undergo theosis are purified and remade by the fire, but those who hate the truth and refuse to be united with the fire are simply burned. This isn't something I dogmatically hold to (certain Scriptural passages provide different inflections), but it seems to be a piece of the puzzle, something worth contemplating.
Che: From what I understand you all in Panegyrist had your first show earlier this year, at Red River Fest in Texas. How did that go over, and has it inspired you at all to perform more in the near future?
Elijah: It was an interesting experience to do things in reverse: playing songs live for the first time, after the whole album had been recorded and released. We had originally hoped to find another drummer so that Vince could play guitar and I would be free to focus solely on vocals. When we weren't able to find anyone else to drum, Vince did an excellent job learning all the drum parts as well as taking charge of practice sessions. It took some time for me to get the hang of playing my guitar parts and doing vocals at the same time, since there are very few traditional rhythm guitar parts and our compositions are mostly a series of winding melodies instead. In spite of and perhaps even because of these challenges, the whole thing was extremely rewarding. I'm extremely grateful to the people at Red River Family for having us play. We'd definitely like to do more live performances, but right now we're going through some lineup changes, including the aforementioned departure of our bassist Paul. We're incredibly thankful for everything Paul brought to the band. The elegance and technicality of his bass work will be sorely missed and hard to match, but we also completely respect the fact that he wants to pursue other musical directions.
Che: If performances continue, do you think they would be limited to small festival appearances here and there, or is a full fledged tour a possibility?
Elijah: We'll have to see what the Lord's will is. With the current lineup changes, it's uncertain what will be possible. Festival appearances look more feasible right now. Work schedules make touring more difficult, though that would be an exciting prospect.
Che: Are there any bands or musicians in particular who you'd like to work more with in the future, whether for touring, musical collaborations, or just mutual promotion?
Elijah: There are certainly bands I'd be interested in connecting with, but I've found that it's usually best to let those connections happen organically. It feels a little strange to just name-drop a bunch of bands here.
Che: Understandable. Before we wrap things up, I feel this interview would be incomplete without pointing out that in addition to your musical abilities, you're also a notable visual artist as well, what with your Ikonostasis work and even having done the cover for Hierurgy. Is this something you've been doing before music, or is it a more recent passion?
Elijah: As a kid I used to go through stacks and stacks of paper, drawing pictures. In high school I started taking a more serious approach to art and saw a lot of technical growth, but then in college the vision was choked out by other work and responsibilities. That period of dormancy lasted some years after college, but even during that time I had the sense that art would one day become part of my life again. The spark was reignited when I began to sense that the Lord was opening the doors for some kind of work related to black metal. Most of my earlier work hadn't had direct spiritual intent behind it not the way that this new phase has. As I encountered more of the work of contemporary occult artists like Denis Forkas, Benjamin Vierling, and David Herrerias, something just clicked. Every new painting I do involves experimenting and learning, and I use this as an opportunity for prayer. The Lord has continued to supply true inspiration a living work of his Spirit through these hands, this mind, this heart. What can I be but grateful?
All praise to you you who see me, know me, and work through me, despite my limitations. All praise to you. May I become transparent, so that the immeasurable profundity of your light may break forth through this imperfect glass. All else dissolve as shadow! Hail, infinite uncreated fire, impossibly burning point of my focus, my one love.
Cover of Metamorphosphorous, a 3 way band split from I, Voidhanger, by Elijah.
Che: Is there anything you feel you can express with your paintings that might not be fully touched upon with your music?
Elijah: It has more to do with inflection than content. It's like observing a three-dimensional object; you can't see all the angles and surfaces at once, even though the object remains the same, despite shifting vantage points. Music provides a certain vantage point, visual art another. The specific nature of each of these inflections is something that's very hard to put into words perhaps because it's beyond the conceptual, in the realm of experience itself. Qualia. The remainder that always exists, no matter how hard you try to encompass meaning discursively.
Che: Would there be any conditions to bands using your pieces for album artwork? For instance, would you have to feel a certain kinship between their work and yours, or does it not matter?
Elijah: The devotional nature of my life and work means that there are definitely limitations on what I can be involved in. There have been offers for artistic collaborations that I've not been able to accept because of spiritual reasons, even though they would have gained me a lot of exposure. I'm not doing this for my own name; the more my artwork is seen, the more strongly and constantly I need to be reminded of this. There have been other times when I have sensed God was opening up spaces for me to work with certain bands, despite spiritual and philosophical differences. I'm also sometimes open to doing artwork for bands who don't take a spiritual approach to their work but nonetheless explore themes that interest me, albeit in a more abstract or open-ended way. Overall aesthetic, sonic, and thematic coherence is important when deciding whether or not to work with a band. Technical musicianship without a carefully cultivated personal vision doesn't usually do much for me. One of the things I value most about doing commission work is the relationships that develop through it being able to talk to people about the inner worlds they've put years into contemplating, building, and refining.
Che: Where do you see Panegyrist going from here with future material, and how much of a blueprint for your future course do you think Hierurgy will end up being? Do you plan on departing from that sound a good deal or mostly sticking to it?
Elijah: The core elements are in place, but the road looks darker from here on out. We seek the guiding hand of the Lord. Amen.
Che: Well I know myself and others certainly look forward to traveling along that road with you and the rest of Panegyrist, wherever it may lead. Thanks again for your time Elijah, and feel free to offer whatever final words you'd like to those over at Metal Storm who have been enjoying your work.
Elijah: I've publicly written a lot in the months since the release of Hierurgy. Perhaps too much. It's time to turn my back on distractions and drink again from the source. Thank you for your thoughtful questions. I mean that. This will likely be the last interview I do for a while.
May the Lord Jesus Christ haunt you relentlessly.
||Posted on 10.12.2018 by Comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable since 2013.|
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