Explore the intricacies of one dissonant and architectural endeavor.
Beneath the bleak and blackened death metal of A Beacon in the Husk lies a piece years in the making, one that encourages thought and engagement following a flame of curiosity. ABYSSAL's forthcoming record does more than just please those with a palate for unnerving riffage. It delivers structured terror through means that delve deeper into philosophies set forth by renowned scholars. Pair that with an unparalleled album cover and you have yourself a coalition of minds worth exploring.
Heaviest of Art welcomed conversation with the multifaceted entity behind ABYSSAL and the artistic ambitions of Elijah Tamu to genuinely explore the wonders behind the body of work that is A Beacon in the Husk.
Four years from Antikatasteisis and you’re back with your darkest, most ambitious record yet. How did you approach A Beacon In The Husk having grown and experienced plenty since the last release?
Abyssal: It is interesting to note that the album that went on to become A Beacon in the Husk was actually planned to be the third ABYSSAL album but ultimately ended up being leapfrogged by Antikatastaseis. The reason for this is that Antikatastaseis was composed in somewhat of a lightning-in-the-jar moment, in that almost all of the key ideas for the album fell into place immediately without much revision.
Beacon, on the other hand, was a completely different animal. The entire album was restructured and rewritten innumerable times, and I was never happy with what came out. From the outset, I had become obsessed with the album being a singular piece of music that began in an ethereal dream-like state, and progressively darkened and disintegrated towards the end. Executing this in an effective way was however exceptionally difficult, as it is very difficult to open an album with ethereal soundscapes without totally alienating the listener.
Balancing this desire for compositional completeness across the album, with the practicalities of writing an engaging metal record took a huge amount of time to refine. Each track had to simultaneously stand on its own, as well as being a piece in the progressive descent of the album across its play length.
After multiple listens, it’s clear that a lot went into putting it together; musically, personally, and emotionally. This is accurately represented in the music, from your growls to your seamless fusion of black and death metal with bits of post-rock and more. How did this all come together?
Abyssal: The challenge of executing the musical composition that I envisioned was certainly a non-trivial part of the writing process, but I would argue that it was the development of the lyrical concept that I found the most utterly exhausting and demoralizing.
As with most ABYSSAL works, the musical ideas came first, lyrics second. For releases like Novit enim Dominus, or Antikatastaseis, there were loose thematic relationships between the songs, but there was no definitive overarching narrative. With Beacon, the singular nature of the album as one descending, disintegrating piece of music meant that I felt compelled to develop a coherent concept to fit with it.
I went through many iterations of lyrical themes to fit this musical vision, ranging from the descent of a mind into madness, to the isolation of an individual in an apocalyptic scenario of some form, but these ideas were universally trite and uninteresting. It was this lack of unifying concept that ultimately made me shelve the album and prioritize Antikatastaseis.
It was around 2017 when I really began to accelerate my reading, both in fiction and non-fiction. I became somewhat addicted, and absorbed hundreds of books on just about every topic under the sun. It was around this time that I discovered the work of Carl Jung, and his psychoanalytic work on the human mind.
To me, reading Jung was really like finding the keystone.
What Jung suggested, in the briefest possible terms, is that the human mind has a definitive structure, and as such, human experience is subject to patterns which repeat across time. The direct articulation of these specific patterns is exceedingly difficult, but they echo through human existence via mythology, storytelling, art, ritual, music, etc.
Joseph Campbell wrote about this same idea extensively in his work on The Hero, describing how heroic figures from culturally isolated societies miraculously end up manifesting similar attributes, histories and actions (Krishna, Christ and Buddha for instance).
Mythologies across the world as disconnected from each other as Mesopotamian and Germano-Nordic have also independently created concepts of the betrayer, the flood, the wise king, the tyrannical father, even going to far as to converge with one another on totally fabricated folkloric creatures, such as the dragon. These archetypal structures also manifest in modern art forms, specifically seem in the similarity between stories and character structure across cinema, theatre and literature.
Jung posited that these meta-patterns occupied a definitive realm of the human unconscious. He termed this as the collective unconscious, in that it is a structure which all humans share, but it is something which cannot be directly communed with, and must instead be accessed unconsciously, by way of ritual, mythos and other mechanisms.
The highest level of distillation of mythological concepts is an ideal, which is usually embodied in an archetypal persona, surrounded by parables, and supporting stories. From this ideal, philosophical concepts like the golden rule, the nature of evil or the afterlife emerge, and based upon emulation of the ideal, behaviours are enacted by individuals in a bid to live a more effective life.
The upshot of this is that mythologies almost become operating systems for human beings. A human raised in a certain folkloric backdrop will tend to use that folklore to inform his daily life, his aspirations, his long term desires for himself and his community, etc. This means that mythologies which are more effective at inspiring individuals to survive and prosper, invariable out-compete those which don’t in a simple process of Darwinian selection.
The fundamental issue with the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, is that it is mystical, unknowable, chaotic, angular, indescribable, and wholly beyond the realm of methodological natural science. This presented a direct challenge to the axioms of my entire worldview. As a Western atheist, it is exceedingly difficult for me to make a case in favour of mythological narratives as a system for orienting oneself in a complex world.
Nietzsche wrestled with this question of “the death of god” for the majority of his life, as it seemed intractable to him that Judeo-Christian morality had become such a successful mythological operating system, that it ultimately spawned the very enlightenment values that would go on to destroy it (or at least eradicate it from mainstream society). His frantic suggestion was that man could simply invent his own values, but this is not a convincing answer.
The result of this is that I had unwittingly completely demolished my entire worldview out from under myself. My initial stance, as similar to most Western atheists, was that humanity was waking up from a long dark age of superstition, into an enlightened and rational future, and that the only viable route forward was to continue to eradicate all viewpoints that were not rational. This was however completely unsound, and I could not resolve the very same contradiction that Nietzsche had died trying to solve.
In an attempt to order my thoughts, I wrote a series of essays to myself. These were very rough, and mostly consisted of questions. In some of these, I conceptualized the collective unconscious as a form of temple which human beings inhabited but were not consciously aware of. I experimented with ideas as to what human experience would be like if we completely divorced ourselves from all forms thought that enabled communion with the collective unconscious, as per my prior rationalist self, but I couldn’t see any eventuality other than disaster.
It was seemingly by hook-or-crook that I subsequently noticed the total number of essays that I had written lined up perfectly with the number of tracks in the as-yet unfinished album. That was the true lightbulb moment, and I knew that I had my concept, and one that fit the musical compositions nearly perfectly, and one which was laced in fascinating dark, mystical and chaotic imagery.
With that said, and having heard some of the material during the process, how did you approach these various different musical elements at play from an artistic standpoint?
Elijah: I’ve been a fan of ABYSSAL from before we were in contact, so I already felt a strong connection to their sonic color palette, as it were. Incidentally, I actually had the chance to see them in Iceland at Oration Festival in early 2018, where they played a superbly executed and completely immersive set—this was before I had any in-person interaction with them, but it left a strong impression on me. Having this kind of prior personal connection to a band’s music can perhaps indicate that there’s already a latent structural similarity between my visual language and their sonic language, i.e. I get what they’re going for, and vice versa.
Having that common ground in place was huge, but ABYSSAL were also kind enough to send me a pre-mastered version of this excellent album. The music is composed of chaotic, technical riffing set within production that gives the sense of a large, reverberating space, and the lyrics themselves describe the vast architecture of a temple. Something about ABYSSAL’s music has always felt “mathematical” to me in a very dark and even transcendent sense. It feels like looking at a cubist painting through a murky screen.
To me, angular, crystalline forms have long been connected with primordial themes: the pre-organic structuring of minerals, signifying, in turn, the mathematical basis of both matter and mind. These austere planes and angles serve as a kind of meditative mirror in which the mind can “go beyond itself”, recognizing the deeper universal architecture upon which it is built. I realize that’s all quite abstract, and it’s really something that can only be felt and not satisfactorily described. Hopefully the painting is effective in conveying it to some degree.
In working with Elijah, what did you envision for the album cover?
Abyssal: I had initially approached other artists to do the cover, but in general, a lot of their ideas were not fully aligned with the feeling that I was trying to convey. It typically takes over a thousand words to even explain the premise for the album, so I think many people were turned off by that.
It should also be noted that this was the first ABYSSAL full length which featured commissioned cover art. All of the other albums had covers which were selected from already existing pieces. I typically like to write music with artwork in mind, so this was somewhat of a new experience to me.
I had Elijah in mind from day one to write out the lyrics in his parchment style, and we had begun discussions about the concepts behind the album. It was while I was browsing some of Elijah’s work that I stumbled upon a piece that he had created as supporting art for his PANEGYRIST project.
To me, this piece was surprisingly close to the formless, infinite temple that I had attempted to describe in writing. This was exhilarating to me, and I was immediately convinced that Elijah was the one to paint the cover art.
The concept that we arrived at jointly was an alternate view of this temple-like structure, from the inside part of it. My only real direction to Elijah was that I wanted the piece to scream scale and enormity – he really had relative free reign to elaborate on that. The concept that we went with was that it would be a perspective looking up at a collapsing, formless ceiling. In building out this concept, Elijah put a lot of work into trying to capture elements from a lot of different sources. Everything from Islamic architecture, to cubism and M.C. Escher style non-Euclidean geometry.
Going off of Abyssal's vision for the cover, how did you conceptualize those ideas and interpret them in your own artistic manner?
Elijah: There was a lot of back-and-forth email correspondence. I started off by sharing various photos of architecture and cubist paintings. ABYSSAL liked my idea of adding a sort of mind-bending aspect to the architecture, as though it were twisting and shifting: hallways and arches opening in oblique directions, etc. Given the lyrical narrative direction toward ruin and chaos, I wanted something that communicated a "seasick" or uneasy feeling.
The combination of architectural motifs from various civilizations was very intentional, because the lyrics examine the structuring principles and later deconstruction of various belief systems throughout history. Gothic architecture has showed up in some of my previous work, but this time around I also drew on the intricate muqarnas vaulting of Islamic architecture. In particular, the vaulting at the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran, gave me the impression of looking up at constellations in the night sky. I had the idea of combining those patterns with stars and nebulae to create an image of a crumbling cosmic firmament: the shattering of faith in cosmologies and religious systems that had once seemed certain and immovable. Though written from a place of faith and personal lament, as opposed to skepticism and doubt, the following lines from John Donne's "Holy Sonnet V." touch on these themes of paradigmatic shift and discovery at the beginnings of the modern age:
"You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new land can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown'd no more."
Another element present in the painting is the fiery glow from beneath. The lyrics describe fire pits that illuminate the inner structure of the temple. The glowing magmatic cubes are an abstraction building on this theme, and I like how they ended up tying together the fiery and angular aspects of the piece.
This cover is unlike your other works, which typically have a strong use of spiritual imagery and symbolism alongside a vast color pallette. While still complex and multilayered like the art across your portfolio, A Beacon in the Husk is a bit of a departure in more ways than one. What was different?
Elijah: As with all the art projects I take on, the final piece is the result of meditative engagement with the themes that the band brings to the table. The perspectives that Abyssal explores with this album are in some ways quite different from things I've done in the past, and these differences work their way out in the visuals: an intensification of geometric forms, and an absence of the anchoring "certainty" found in the alchemical and religious imagery that I regularly use in other work. This project was interesting because it functions as a kind of dialogue between my religious faith and Abyssal's atheistic position. Because of the existential conundrum at the core of the lyrics, it didn't make sense for the artwork to display the more overtly devotional symbolism that I often use in my artwork. Instead, it's an image of uncertainty, dread, and longing for meaning.
My faith has been under ongoing examination over the years, and it still affords me a bedrock of existential stability. I live every day with a distinct awareness of how it undergirds everything in my life. This explicit awareness also makes it possible for me to enter into the kind of thought experiment that went into the creation of this art: What would it mean if what I believe weren't actually true, but only a kind of provisional crutch? All of the sudden, structures of familiarity rupture and dissolve, and the gnawing void gazes into me, leaving me adrift and unanchored. This is a truly frightening state. Having personally been through a dark night of the soul in years gone by, these feelings of dread and floating off into blackness are very familiar. And yet I am at peace and I can enter into this kind of thought experiment with tranquility.
The record plays like a book and is broken down by chapters, each seemingly representing a different mindset or state of being. What was the intention behind this album structure?
Abyssal: The chapter structure of the album is really an outgrowth of my desire to have the album be one, continuous piece of music which continually grows heavier, darker and more chaotic. Each chapter of the album represents a step change in musical tone. Beyond that, there are also three-chapter structures built into the lyrical concept on multiple levels. In loose terms, one way of looking at it is that the three chapters represent the Hegelian thesis – antithesis – synthesis process which the protagonist of the album travels through.
The first part of the album, musically representing the waking dream state, deals with the recollection of being lost amongst their own set of presuppositions before the discernment of the structure of the temple (representing the Jungian meta-patterns encoded in the collective unconscious). The second chapter is the antithesis of this dream state. It is the discernment of the shape of consciousness, and the realization that the axiomatic ideals of the protagonist are unsound. The discernment of the temple. The third chapter represents an attempt at synthesis between these two points. However in the case of the album, it represents the specific failure of the protagonist to synthesize these dialectics, and the inexorable descent into chaos, misery and destruction. It is a reflection of my own inability to navigate the Nietzschean “death of god” question, but also a wider discussion of humanity’s lack of an answer for this problem. Another way of viewing the structure is that the chapters represent the traditional three act structure of a tragedy, in which the protagonist wrestles with an adversary, but ultimately fails due to his own innate shortcomings.
It is also worth mentioning that the three chapter structure is also bookended by two tracks with opposing styles to their position on the album: “Dialogue” and “Soliloquy”. The idea here was to almost create the effect that this is a story that is being told about timeless events, as if in the sense of a mythological parable. The tracks also loosely reflect the Hegelian dialectic, with “Dialogue” capturing the dissonance of two conflicting worldviews, and “Soliloquy” singularly expressing the broken and defeated babblings after the failure to synthesise the opposing points of the dialogue. This structure also helps to open the album forcefully, before fading into the dream-like tracks.
Did this particular album structure influence the art direction on the cover in any way?
Elijah: The specific three-part structure didn't influence my painting, I don't think. However, I also did the handwritten manuscript of the lyrics for the booklet, so I had a special connection with the words themselves. There is quite a lot of text, and physically writing it out with a dipping pen and ink pot certainly meant that I connected with the narrative arc at a deeper level.
A Beacon in the Husk is overwhelmingly bleak and dissonant; however, there are moments where triumph and optimism bleed in through the serene use of melody. How do you establish a balance?
Abyssal: This is generally the way I have always approached writing music. I take influences from quite a lot of different places, including brutal death metal, 90’s melodic black metal, post-rock, ambient, etc. I find that balance almost establishes itself when I am writing. It is very natural for me to punctuate bleak sections with more melodic reprises, and I find that putting these kinds of styles adjacent to one another actually tends to strengthen both by contrast.
Artistically, how do you establish said balance?
Elijah: I always aim for an interplay of severity and beauty in my artwork. I'm rarely drawn to art that is simply morbid. Even amid the the forms of ruin in my painting, there is at least a longing for transcendence, which I hope is effectively communicated. The cosmic ordering of the starry vaulting is connected with a sense of sadness: even if it is falling apart, does it not express a desire for meaning—a desire that reaches beyond the crumbling forms of reality as we know it, hoping for some bright anchoring point? Is this not a worthwhile thing to affirm, even if it seems beyond reach? After all, what is the alternative? Nihilism? Nihilism is self-defeating; it's impossible to actually live out a structurally consistent life from that basis—by definition.
Aside from of course fulfilling Abyssal’s vision for the cover, was there something that you really wanted to achieve on this piece?
Elijah: The fact that that Abyssal and I collaborated on something that involves real, personally relevant questions is what has meant the most to me. That's always worthwhile, provided there's an open-handed and honest approach to truth, as was the case here. Hopefully it speaks to others too. Doing this interview is an extension of that larger work: inviting people to ask worthwhile questions about their existence. So thank you for the opportunity.
From inception to completion, how long was the process of putting the art together and what tools/techniques were used?
Elijah: ABYSSAL reached out to me back in November. At that point it was just an inquiry about doing a handwritten lyric manuscript. When he described the themes, I immediately clicked with it, and after a little more email correspondence, he asked me about doing the album cover too. At that point I had other commission work on my plate, but he was looking at a release date sometime in early or mid 2019. We agreed on having everything done by sometime in the spring. I began the lyric manuscript and sent sketches during the end of 2018 and the early months of the new year while working on other commission work. The bulk of the manuscript and the painting itself was done between the end of February and the middle of April: so, about a month and a half. The painting was done one watercolor paper with a combination of ink and gouache, using coffee for the solvent instead of water.
Art as complex as this indicates that there must have been strong collaborative efforts between you and Elijah to ensure that the vision was being met. What was it like working with one another to achieve what is such a dynamic piece?
Abyssal: As I mentioned earlier, my work with Elijah began when I approached him to produce a script of the lyrics for the album booklet. In order to agree to the proposal, Elijah wanted to understand the lyrics more fully, which led to a very in-depth discussion as to the concepts we have already discussed here.
It was incredibly refreshing to see Elijah engaging and understanding the perspective I presented, as these are complex problems that I am not even sure I fully understand. Elijah was very much aware of these same existential problems, but approached them from a totally different angle. It was fascinating that, despite almost speaking in different languages, we were almost describing the same things.
It was from that point that I knew I could trust Elijah to produce something that deeply represented the ideas I was attempting to convey. He understood these concepts more comprehensively than anyone I had engaged with. After the initial discussion, I would say the artistic process was actually relatively hands-off from my perspective. Elijah developed the concept pretty independently, and I was generally very happy to let him take it in whatever direction he wanted. I tend to think artists produce their best work when they are given room to breathe, and I have never been the type to micromanage.
There’s a lot to dissect on the cover, from stars to glowing cubes and unorthodox pillars. Again, this is similar to the complexity of the music and is definitely a piece that requires thought and personal insight to interpret meaning. Is there something you would like viewers to take from the cover?
Elijah: Really, I think this joint interview is the perfect starting point for engaging with the content. When the album comes out, I'd encourage anyone who's interested to read through the lyrics with this background in mind. If particular elements of the painting, music, or lyrics spark questions, use that as a springboard for honest inquiry. Neither ABYSSAL nor I have provided answers in the work itself, but have instead simply raised questions.
Art is of course open to interpretation. What is your take on the cover and what about it resonates most with you?
Elijah: For me, the art will always carry with it the in-depth dialogue that went into its creation. I'm very thankful for this, and will always remember it when I see and hear this album.
A Beacon In The Husk is out June 21st via Profound Lore. Pre-orders available HERE.