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The Well-Worn Trail: Lost in the Woods with Michael Korchonnoff of Alda

Updated: Apr 8

Lost in the woods with the Cascadian bard from Tacoma.

alda interview.
Photograph by Jake Sanders

Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):

It took roughly fifteen minutes after leaving our comfortable corner of the Antique Sandwich Co. to arrive in the lush forested setting of Point Defiance.

En route down Pearl Street, we got a clear, descending view of the city's oldest corners brought back to life in recent years. Endless rows of Queen Anne, and Craftsman houses zipped past us, their freshly painted siding an assorted rainbow of muted tones. Spiraling past the Point Defiance Park and Zoo, people filtered slowly out before us, many stopping to expend their energy at the exterior gardens and playground.

Climbing out of the vehicle, I checked both of the lenses to my cameras, watching as Michael Korchonnoff admired the large barrier sealing off the grounds from approaching vehicles.

Asia Kindred Moore, (Thirst for Light festival, Pee Ell, Washington, 2015)

Locking his car door, he grabbed a metal water bottle. "That's weird, they usually don't shut this. Ah well — let's go."

Traversing over podzol through the Rhododendron Park, it took me by surprise how dense the foliage was, even here, at the edge of a city park and zoo. Moss climbed up roots and stalks, the birdsong and chittering of life making all aware they were merely visiting the home of other creatures.

As we rounded a corner, a massive Douglas Fir with charred edging towered over us, a facade of black bark showing a public face among a sea of earthy-green towers and their evergreen canopy above. Stopping in front of it, Michael turned back to highlight the markings, his finger tracing up and down for fifty feet.

Left to Right: Jace Bruton, Ian Campbell, Steph Bruton (Thirst for Light festival, Pee Ell, Washington, 2015)

"See those carbon scoring marks?" he asked. "That's the evidence of an ancient forest fire from more than four-hundred years ago. They're tough, and can survive that, although I think this one is dying now, to be fair."

Hollow in the middle with pock-marks scattered about, it was clear that even in death — massive living entities like these could still remain vital, and habitable to the creatures that called them home.

Carbon scoring, photo by Jake Sanders

We spent some time looping back through paths to see these old growth trees, pausing only for a moment as he bent to pick up a small white fragment of fluff. He inspected it, bringing it to my attention.

"That's an owl feather," he said. "A fairly new one, too."

Owl feather, photograph by Jake Sanders

Usually the observant hiker, I was staggered to discover that Michael's level of awareness on the trail far exceeded my own, as he pointed out signs around us of the life I could only faintly piece together. The wind blew stronger, inhibited only by the depth of the forest.

"I was curious," I asked. "The photo of the waterfall on the cover of your demo — that's not out here, is it?"

He shook his head. "That's actually by the town of Eatonville. To get to that waterfall, you actually have to wade through the river to get up there. It's just a place that had individual significance to us. We had gone on adventures there. That photo was taken by Stephanie; most of the photos, were all taken by Steph."

Alda (demo) cover photo, taken by Stephanie Bruton

As we reached a clearing that seemed familiar, I stopped, catching my breath as we took a drink of water, our directions now split at a fork. Glancing about the labyrinthine trails, my guide stopped to survey the trail ahead, behind us, and the winding path away Northeast.

With a smirk, he took a swig, adjusting the cap on his head.

"I hope I'm not going to get you in trouble with your fiancée," he commented. "But... I don't really remember this all that well."

Left to Right: Carolin Margraf, Steph Bruton, Jace Bruton, Tim Brown (Coos Bay, Oregon, 2015)

I laughed, taking it in stride. "She'll understand. This is a lot of fun — and we're really not too far from the road, anyways. We'll find our way back eventually."

Opting for the left-hand path, we traversed down a gradual hill, descending towards the road and the scenic overlook that had been barred from vehicle entry before. We trekked off the path, our feet landing on concrete, but still safely at the furthest point in the Defiance Point peninsula.

I glanced about, noticing the Sound just over the ledge below. The sound of boats speeding by, and slow ferries crawling in the distance our fortunate view for the day.

Heading Eastward, Michael drew my attention upwards to a titan of the forest. Thick and shrouded by pockets of greenery at its feet, a massive Douglas Fir stretched to the heavens, its roots tapering off in several directions as a tripping hazard to those caught unaware.

"Ooooh, dear god," I exclaimed, craning my head back to see its enormous breadth.

"I think this right here is one of the oldest trees in the forest," he said. "It could live here to be over eight-hundred years old."

‘The Mountaineer Tree’, photo by Jake Sanders

"It's awe-inspiring," I stuttered.

"Yeah," he agreed. "This tree was a sapling when William Shakespeare was born."

I pondered this for a moment. "That's unreal. There's just little tiny pockets of these trees; I know California has the monopoly on all the old-growth trees out here, but some of these are so huge I don't see how they're still standing."

He nodded. "They have the Redwoods. Actually — the Redwoods aren't too far from where I live in Southern Oregon. It's like a two hour drive for me to get to the California Redwoods."

"Like... the ‘Return of the Jedi’ film sites?" I asked.

"Yeah," he confirmed. "They filmed it in Jebediah Smith State Park, and I've been there. Maybe not the exact place they filmed at, but yeah."

Left to Right: Kevin Shintaku, unknown, Kyle Bagnall, Webe, Asia Kindred Moore, Dylan Bloom, Steph Bruton (Wisp House in Salem, Oregon 2015)

The road winds a mean parabola back the direction we came, tilting upwards steadily, much to the dismay of my legs. Up until then, I hadn't realized how much hiking had been accomplished over the week, but with me now falling behind Michael every few steps, I recognized that my stamina was taking a real hit with the leg workouts I'd been getting in for the past few days.

Pointing into the distance, Michael's hand drifted towards the nearest floating land mass to our position, a few thousand feet from the guardrail we had perched against.

"That's Vashon Island," he remarked. "It's where me, and other people in Alda used to be interns for a nonprofit out there called ‘Wolftown.’ It was a wolf sanctuary. Wolves lived out there, and it was also a wildlife rehab site."

I nodded. "Do they a little bit of space out there?"

"They did," he said, shaking his head. "They're no longer there."

Tim Brown, somewhere in northern California (Alda - Huldrekall tour, 2015)

The walk was pleasant on the road back. Afternoon mists began setting in, the slight cloud of moisture wafting down until I was forced to stash my camera back in my bag. Ironically, I found myself humming a passage that had been stuck in my head repeatedly over the past few years. Chuckling to myself, I recognized it at-once as the 11:30 marker of Alda's title-track to their latest album, A Distant Fire.

Continuing to hum the melody, I apologized to Michael.

"Well, that never usually happens," I joked. "I'm caught singing your music unconsciously because it's just one of the things in my rotation. I love that part on ADF."

He gave a cheerful grin, noting the measures himself.

"I wrote that," he said.

It was stated with a sober humility, a mutual acknowledgement that I was a fan who could appreciate, and he was the artist who could look back on it fondly. Profound exchanges are rare, often brief, and seldom as this. No stating of the ‘saving’ spiritual properties of musical reflection, no inherent fanaticism, no hubris to one's own craft. It was over as quickly as it had been declared, and I could still feel the heat in my face of saying it out-loud.

Michael Korchonnoff, photo by Jake Sanders

We walked and talked for some time. An hour and a half passed while we traced the road back to his unassuming parking place. The sun was drooping now, its light crawling through the treeline into the West, the sounds of commuters making their way back across bridges in the distance.

Our time was spent in the friendly solitude of two hikers getting to enjoy fresh air, birdsong, and a picturesque boreal landscape in its waning days of warmth. What else do two metalheads discuss when alone in the woods?

Discussions were had regarding the intricacies of DSBM, the commercial elements that plague the wild world, the mystic symbolism that permeates throughout the sphere of Death Metal imagery.

I learned that Michael has an interest, and respect for the artist Xasthur, and that attempting the metal merchandising game is a serious gamble that can backfire at a moment's notice.

We shared personal tragedies, and the ripples of our lives that are started by them. Once, not too long ago — I felt as a journalist that it was an apparent thing to question whether or not the personal suffering of an artist played a role in their creative development. Here, with Michael, the question was safely laid to rest.

Left to Right: Tim Brown, Jace Bruton, Steph Bruton (Sea-Tac International Airport, Seattle Washington, 2018)

He was an artist in a living world, used to growth of being close with personal friends and colleagues who shared similar values of musical inheritance. Any suffering would've paled in comparison to the massive support system he had, the earnest endeavors he took upon himself, the subsistence of his artistic companionship, and the marrow of his spirit.

Alda is, to me, one of the finest objective examples of a musical think-tank. In many aspects, I grew up similar to Michael. I was surrounded by folk music, shared an environmental conservationist attitude that has slowly evolved over time, and been entranced by the music of the extreme.

The difference is that while most fans, myself included, took an observer perspective as they grew into the scene, Michael Korchonnoff, and Alda, by extension, took an outward glance at their internal landscape of audio backgrounds. By successfully marrying the folk elements to a healthy reverence for modern extreme metal, the group created what is potentially the strongest, and most compelling example of Atavistic Black Metal.

This was a dream, for me. Not only because this humble metal journalist was able to spend a day bugging the living daylights out of one of my favorite artists; it's a sublimely simple dream to make happen. My love of hiking has taken me all over this country, but never in tandem with the people who make art from the living world.

Alda is a love-letter to an organic utopia that has existed despite our quaint blip of carnage. To walk the woods with a man who has gotten to experience a forgotten world of nature that most of us will never see, is what I would call a benchmark event.

Since 2007, they've endured as an only slightly mutated form of their ancestral selves.

Point Defiance Park, photo by Jake Sanders

The soul of what the band has accomplished has remained intact, unaltered, or tempted by the deviances of mainstream commercial success. Their legacy, as it stands, is the purity of having a near perfect discography that stays true to the original message: The Earth does not belong to us. We are merely passing through, and as stewards of this planet, we owe it to the natural world to let it stay that way, its bark and stone untarnished by the human element.

Born through a mutual love of all things wild, musically or otherwise — Michael Korchonnoff, Jace Bruton, Stephanie Bruton, and Timothy Brown represent the honesty of artists who live for keeping the natural order. Those who blend the traditional with the modern are typically seen as progressive, but in the case of Alda, the only term that fits is ‘reclaimed’.

With clever innovation, production, and an innocent inspiration that takes little and gives so much back, the Cascadian scene at-large owes more to this group than arguably any other. Their influence is self-evident in the imagery on their covers, the photos from which they promote, the view on the horizon.

This is their domain, we're all just visiting.

Alda, by Dallas Bolen


Support Alda with a visit to their Bandcamp, and checkout Stonebreaker Media for a collection of some of the finest artistry collected under one roof. A massive thanks to Michael for humoring me — I've never felt more excited to be lost.


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