Grey Aura’s second full length, after more than a six year break, is finally upon us! I was lucky enough to hear an advanced copy of “Zwart vierkant,” so I’ve been sitting on my excitement for a while! This is extremely forward-looking atmospheric/avant-garde Black Metal that challenges at every turn, and I love an album that makes me think. Bands the likes of Blut Aus Nord, Aastraal, Panopticon, and Liturgy are the closest I can come to making a solid comparison as far as Metal goes. All four of those bands exist a bit outside the typical fringes of the avant-garde game, and believe me when I say Grey Aura sit quite comfortably in such company.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this music is its diversity. In true experimental fashion, it manages to sound familiar while remaining very much its own entity. You can hear jazz, but not from every instrument at once. While the drums may sound like Art Blakey, Paco de Lucia is in the corner playing a flamenco lullaby, and Quorthon is strumming an Ibanez Destroyer through a maxed out 20 watt Yamaha. On top of that, vocally, there is a bit of the anger one can find on early Enslaved records. Mixed with both spoken urgency and the screams of a man who is desperate, angry, terrified, and determined all at once. That’s just track one, “Maria Segovia,” which songwriter Ruben Wijlacker likens to “a very violent wakeup call.”
By the second track, the moss-gathering boulder-like forcefulness of Michael Gira’s Swans can be heard waltzing with an evil yet oddly graceful disposition. During other parts of the album you can hear surf guitar, funeral brass, choral chants over jazzy blues chords, and swing beats. The bass playing is astonishing throughout the entire record, and the heavier rhythm guitars are assertive, but not in the way of anything else.
All of these things and more are available at any given moment during “Zwart vierkant,” and what you will find upon repeated listening is that your perspective on what you’re hearing will shift each time. Not drastically, but enough to help you place another piece of the puzzle where you feel it belongs. It is a challenging listen in a way that might turn some people off. The type of person who won’t watch foreign films because subtitles are too much work, or who just plain old isn’t in the mood to think too hard. But as far as I’m concerned, this album is a masterpiece.
There is so much to the story of this record that requires further observation, it’s really not a terribly easy thing to describe. I considered attempting this for the review, but another option presented itself before I got started. As a bit of a surprise, Grey Aura vocalist and conceptual artist Ruben Wijlacker was both available for and eager to participate in an in depth chat about the six year journey that ended up “Zwart vierkant.“
I’d like to suggest you play the album while you’re reading Ruben’s thoughts.
Interview: Ruben Wijlacker – Grey Aura
VUK: Hi Ruben. I’ve been spending some time listening, and reading a bit about the concept of your new album, which seems so vast and limitless…I love it! And my desire is to get it right with the questions I ask, but then it dawned on me… If anyone could help me understand Pedro as a character, and how your book fits in to the music on “Zwart Vierkant,” it would be YOU!
So, would you mind, for starters, briefly explaining where the concept came from? Was there an initial spark of inspiration that set you in motion to create this album?
Ruben Wijlacker (RW): The concept came from a growing interest in Modernism; specifically Suprematism, which is an early 20th-century abstract art movement, based on geometric shapes. It is a total rejection of academic art. The Suprematists went quite far, as the movement’s initiator Kazimir Malevich would say that “The ‘Venus de Milo’ is a graphic example of decline,” and “Michelangelo’s ‘David’ is a deformation.” The artists behind the aforementioned works of art tried to imitate nature, instead of seeking life’s spiritual essence, which cannot be found on the surface reality of life.
One could say that the culmination of Suprematism is Malevich’s “Black Square” (1915), which is, to put it quite simply, a massive black square on a white canvas. The painting puzzled us at first, but as we learned more about its context, we understood how radical it was. “Black Square” is one of the first truly abstract paintings, and it immediately depicts abstraction’s essence: a total nothingness. “Black square” is a gaping void, from which literally anything could emerge. It is not coincidence that Malevich himself called it the “zero point of painting.” It was intended to be the start of a new world.
As we were delving deeper into the subject of Suprematism, we decided to base an album on it. We have always worked conceptually, so we wanted to use a story to guide the listener through different levels of abstraction and help them reach its core through our music. This is why I decided to write my novel “De protodood in zwarte haren.” The music follows the novel’s storyline and atmosphere. The novel gives the music a sense of direction.
Kazimir Malevich, “Black Square,” 1915, oil on linen.
VUK: Reading the introduction on your concept page (link below), it also dawned on me that perhaps I’m making things too complicated.
Because this seems to sum it up pretty well:
“a story about a young painter who is engulfed by radical modernism and an unquenchable desire for abstraction.”
Those two obsessions – radical modernism, and a desire for abstraction – if understood on any level, could lead to both beauty and insanity. Which I think is partially evident right away with “Maria Segovia.”
RW: Abstraction can definitely lead to insanity, although it is important, and in many ways the essence of the universe. Thoughts and feelings are essentially abstract. If we let go of the rational constructs within our mind, life is too. It is, however, very interesting to see what letting go of rationality looks like, especially when it is combined with an extreme intensity and a desire to escape the banal suffering of everyday life. It becomes a free fall into absurdity and strangeness.
“Maria Segovia” starts off very bombastic and disorienting. The track follows Pedro, our story’s protagonist, as he flees from mercenaries who have just murdered his family. This initial spark of terror, draped in Southern-Spanish atmosphere, is intentionally strange. We didn’t want to have a long introduction or a moment for the listener to breathe and relax.
French philosopher Georges Bataille once said that in order to escape our servile state of being, we need a very violent wake-up call, like a gunshot, ringing in our ears. “Maria Segovia” is that wake-up call.
VUK: I love how you put that: “if we let go of the rational constructs within our mind(s)” then life itself becomes abstract. Which would make it almost a necessity to better understand the abstract, both as artistic and spiritual concepts. Or to put it another way, as the Malevich painting suggests, from nothing comes everything, and from everything comes nothing. A paradox, depending on your perspective.
The idea of setting these concepts to music reminds me a great deal of the no-wave movement of the late 1970’s. The response to what they thought was Punk’s recycling of Rock n Roll cliches, and an attempt to find both beauty and apocalypse through the use of noise, or building upon repetition. Specifically bands like Swans and Wire. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Suicide, and to a degree early Sonic Youth. In fact, “Rookslierten, flessen” is extremely reminiscent of Swans. At least to my ears. Might you have gotten some inspiration from artists like Michael Gira and Lydia Lunch?
RW: I’d say there is a similar mindset. No-wave artists approached punk rock in a similar way to how we approach Black Metal. We’ve always felt black metal is a logical breeding ground for experimentation or strangeness: something a lot of elitists try to deny. From its very inception, black metal bands have been pushing musical, ideological and conceptual limits. People tend to forget that bands like Bathory, Celtic Frost or even Mayhem were quite experimental and strange when they released their early records. In that sense, I’d even say that we are continuing what a lot of these artists started: a fearless approach to experimenting with dark sounds, exploring dark and transgressive subject matters, and rejecting any sort of artistic rules.
VUK: While we’re on the subject of influences, speaking directly of the experimental side of Black Metal, I’m reminded of bands like Imperial Triumphant, Deathspell Omega, and Harakiri For The Sky. But then songs like “El Greco in Toledo” and “Het Schuimspoor van de ramp” sound more revelatory, on the cusp of overwhelming almost, adding elements of uniqueness, particularly in the vocal delivery, that I can’t quite put my finger on. Is this ambiguousness intentional, or is there a bit of an improvisational component to the way you and Tjebbe (Broek) created this work?
RW: We don’t really improvise. When we write, we focus on the concept, and then try to create an atmosphere that fits with that particular part of the story. Of course, there will be similarities to other artists here and there, but we don’t talk or think about such things when we write. Instead, we discuss the things we want to evoke within ourselves and the listener, and start working on sounds from there. Even the relatively strange parts of our music are usually already in the back of our minds when we write them. They naturally seem to appear and find their place within the composition.
The writing itself is always done by the two of us. We really need to be in the same room, playing at the same time. Sometimes Tjebbe will come up with a couple of chords, and I will add something to those chords, until there is a proper riff. It really requires the two of us to be on the same page. As we become more experienced, the writing process becomes easier and more intuitive.
VUK: Going back to what you pointed out regarding Georges Bataille’s notion that a violent wake up call is a necessary prerequisite for spiritual or metaphysical awakening, how else does this manifest in Pedro’s journey, or conceptually throughout the album?
RW: There are various ‘wake-up calls’ in the story; some are more obvious than others. Pedro’s parents run a wine company with the Segovia family. One day, both families are brutally butchered inside their home, because they are unable to pay off their debts to a German loan shark. This sudden outburst of senseless violence and death could be seen as Pedro’s first confrontation with the Abstract (the death of physicality, or, perhaps, God, in a more profound sense).
Other wake-up calls are the encounters Pedro has with the various women in the story. First there is Maria Segovia, who is Pedro’s lover before she is killed. The two of them have nightly sadistic rituals, where Pedro sneaks up on her, pushes her on her bed and beats her.
Béatrice Charron, a young French woman who emanates sexuality and lust, is another one. She is more seductive than Maria Segovia, yet ultimately unsuccessful in her attempts to fully seduce Pedro. Charron’s character is based on the ‘femme fatale’ of 19th-century Decadent literature.
Lastly, there is Claire ‘Chauchat’ Sophie Petit. She is Pedro’s final lover. As she is more subtle and approaches Pedro’s idea of a ‘perfect woman’, she manages to fully drag him towards ideas of extreme love, where his ideas of passion and art melt together into a single destructive force.
VUK: Bataille is a fountain of extreme ideas. At times this extremity is only apparent due to their rather surprising simplicities. “A kiss is the beginning of cannibalism,” for example. He writes a great deal about eroticism, and the shapes of things found while peeking through the cracks of the ordinary. Two things, I believe, that are quite present throughout “Zwart Vierkant.” In fact, one could argue, the cover art itself (a wonderful image created by Sanja Marusic) can be seen as an extension of eroticism, specifically discovered by an understanding of the abstract. Is this an intentional correlation?
RW: I’d say so. Sanja didn’t specifically make the artwork for us, though. It went like this: one day, a friend of mine showed Sanja’s art to me on his phone, as he was helping us find a fitting art direction. As soon as I saw this specific artwork, I knew that it had to be our album cover. To me, it really has everything: from the sandy, southern atmosphere, to the abstract, intimate composition of the two human beings. Over all, the artwork has a very estranging, dreamlike quality to it, which I admire and deeply relate to. I think it is a perfect match with our music.
To come back to Bataille: yes, in my personal opinion the artwork reflects some of his ideas, too. The sense of two human beings melting together, becoming lost in an abstract ecstasy, is one of the core concepts Bataille writes about in his book “L’Érotisme.”
To keep it rather brief: Bataille states that we are fundamentally discontinuous, and, through acts of extreme transgression (violence, murder, eroticism etc.) can reach a state of continuity, causing us to fuse together and fully lose our sense of self. Bataille notes this can be dangerous, which is the reason our society only allows very limited and organized forms of transgression (war, prostitution, sacrifice). Otherwise, we would lose ourselves in an absurd frenzy, which would keep us from having an organized and productive existence. In “De protodood in zwarte haren’ and ‘Zwart vierkant,” Suprematist art is seen by Pedro as a way to explore the aforementioned discontinuity. Pedro then becomes obsessed with it and attempts to create the most extreme art ever, by destroying the physical world, and, ultimately, himself.
Those who are interested in reading more on this subject, should pick up “L’Érotisme,” my book “Proto-Death,” or look into limit experiences and transgressive literature in general.
VUK: I would like to ask you about some of the lyrics, if I may. I’m not entirely certain if they’ve translated correctly from the Dutch, but a couple images in particular fascinate me!
- In “Het Schuimspoor van de ramp,” I love the following:
“Behold the soft female shape, that, akin to a magnetic oasis, attracts and seduces. She moulds reality with her sea-hands, for she is the sea. She is the proto-death in black hair. A harbinger of the arts. A shadow of easy morals.”
- And in “Parijs is een portaal”:
“Everything dissolves in the crowd. The shouting and yelling blow like dust through the drunkenness, and fertilize the pulsating mass. The fool keeps life inside, and these raised glasses press against soft lips.”
These are so incredibly descriptive, and with the “Parijs” lyrics in particular, they fit so well with the music. Would you mind elaborating on the poetic nature of these lyrics?
RW: While the “De protodood in zwarte haren” gives the reader the story, the lyrics really delve into the underlying themes. In the novel, characters often represent metaphysical concepts, or certain states of being. The three women in the story chronologically symbolize Pedro’s descent into abstraction.
The part from “Schuimspoor” you are referring to, is about Béatrice Charron, the second woman of the story. Her body and personality are described by Pedro as “cold as the sea.” In the lyrics, Béatrice Charron is not just a beautiful woman. She is a gateway to transgression, perversion and abstraction. This is how Pedro subconsciously sees her; this is her role in the story. The lyrics are poetic, yes, but they lay bare his reality:
“You must know that everything that has a manifest side, also has a hidden side. Your face is quite noble, there’s a truth in your eyes with which you grasp the world, but your hairy parts underneath your dress are no less a truth than your mouth is.”
“Parijs” is, in many ways, another love song to Béatrice Charron. It is about the old night cafes of Paris, where rituals of eroticism were often birthed. One could imagine how the drunken shouting, the rhythmic movement of intoxicated life, has a unique way of altering the behaviour of those entering the cafe; immediately planting seeds of transgression in their minds, making them ride the wave of unconsciousness. Pedro, who is often referred to as “the fool” or “the squint-eyed seer,” loses himself in this atmosphere, and thereby in the sexuality of Béatrice Charron. By the end of the song, he has fully immersed himself into the darkness of this environment:
‘Here, far from home: night itself becomes a residence’.
VUK: Regarding the cover art of your album, the idea of “two human beings melting together,” this made me think of a short film by Jan Svankmajer called “Passionate Discourse.”(I will link that below, just in case you’re unfamiliar) By extension, that made me want to ask how film has influenced your music. It is certainly a cinematic experience, bringing to mind all sorts of moving pictures. Is there a filmmaker that checks all the boxes for you, related to Grey Aura?
RW: Interesting. Thanks for sharing that. I saw “Passionate Discourse” a long time ago, but never consciously connected it to our music. Now that I’ve watched it again, I understand your comparison.
I can only speak for myself on this, but I’ve always been influenced by the work of directors such as Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé. Both are very good at confronting their audience with transgressive imagery. Movies such as “Seul Contre Tous,” “Irréversible,” “The House that Jack Built,” and “Nymphomaniac” are very inspiring to me.
Another director I deeply admire is Stanley Kubrick. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a mind-blowing movie. “De protodood in zwarte haren” actually contains a small reference to the intermission scene in that movie: halfway through the book, there are six empty pages with just the word “Intermissie” on them.
VUK: It seems to me “Zwart vierkant” in a live setting would open up all sorts of opportunities for you to express the concept you’ve created. What are your plans for performing?
RW: In the past, we’ve had performance art during our concerts: a friend of ours would lie on the stage for nearly twenty minutes in a tight suit, revealing only the shape of his body. People thought he was some sort of doll, but halfway through the performance he stood up and started moving. This was really intense; it made people either very afraid or laugh out loud, because they didn’t understand what was going on. The contrast between these reactions was quite interesting and inspiring.
We would love to do something like that again. We’ve also had ideas of filling the stage with black squares, or having performance art take place in the audience while we play. None of these plans are final yet, though. We are still working on them.
VUK: I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to answer some questions. It is a remarkable album, to say the least. What does the remainder of the year hold for you, and are you working on any other recordings or stories?
RW: Thank you, too! As the Netherlands is slowly coming out of the COVID-19 Crisis, we are trying to get our live band back together. The coming months will likely be spent rehearsing material and preparing for future performances.
We are also working on our third full-length album. As “Zwart vierkant” only covers the first half of “De protodood in zwarte haren,” the next album will focus on the second half. In this part of the story, Pedro travels to Utrecht and joins an art collective. It is with this art collective that he attempts to fully realize his plan: the destruction of the physical world.