Ruben Wijlacker is the guitarist and vocalist for Grey Aura, whose album, Zwart vierkant, made quite an impression. In an interview with TMW in the spring of 2022, Ruben openly shared his vision for the music, and the stories behind the songs, in such an intensely thoughtful and emotional way, that there was no question I’d be keeping an eye out for anything else the man chose to create.
What’s more, Onism Productions (who released the last Grey Aura record) is one of those labels that grabs your attention. Extremely consistent, Onism, in releasing notable black metal that exists comfortably slightly outside the commonplace. The original press release for IJdelheid’s album, Unholy, explained the project as follows:
“For his debut full-length album, Ruben takes the listener on a dark, ethereal and unique trip that traverses its own path along the edges of goth, post-punk, neofolk & shoegaze. Dream-like vocal layers entwine with subtle guitar work in captivating pop structures, whilst evocative lyrics and imagery hint at the contrasting underlying darkness. For fans of Swans, Nick Cave, Current 93, Slowdive & Agnes Obel.”
Serena and Vuk talked a bit about a double review of Unholy, which ended up being a set of observations that took the form of questions. The album struck several chords with them, and they felt that discussing each track with the man who created them was for the best. Ruben kindly agreed. Not surprisingly, what he had to say added even more depth to an already extremely profound listening experience.
Release Title: Unholy
Label: Onism Productions
Release Date: May 7, 2022
Genre: Dark Folk/Ethereal Post-punk
TMW: Hi Ruben. We can’t thank you enough for taking the time to do this with us. The work you’ve done on Unholy is just wonderful. Wildly unique and expressive, and we’re very interested to hear about the influences and inspirations that shaped it.
To begin, in addition to how this project came about for you, what can you tell us about the name you’ve chosen? “Ijdelheid,” translated from Dutch, means “vanity.” Is this the origin?
Ruben Wijlacker (RW): Hi. Yes, “IJdelheid” means “vanity“, although it can also refer to “futility” or “transience.” The duality of the word is one of the reasons I used it. Secondly, I’ve always liked the ‘IJ’ digraph and wanted to have a band name with it in it. It’s one of the things I like about the Dutch language.
TMW: The way this song begins sets the tone for moments that follow throughout the rest of the album. Outside of the reverb-drenched guitar, the droning vocals give the song almost a Gospel sound. Solidifying towards the end with the addition of an organ. A very elegant sound.
Shortly after the 2-minute mark, the song is uplifted into something very light. The change from the somber-sounding voices in the beginning to this is slightly jarring, and it completely changes the mood of the song. It sounds as though a dark, negative feeling has been conquered. Was this the intention? What is it that the voices are quietly singing?
RW: That’s a tough question to answer. I wanted the song to have an ethereal sound. It was inspired by Russian Orthodox church music, and I wanted it to have that profound, mysterious atmosphere. In my mind, I kept thinking of it symbolizing a musical entrance to a ‘Temple of Sadism’: giving blasphemy and ugliness a divine character; thus dissolving concepts of good and evil.
As you noticed, the second half of the song sounds considerably lighter, and I repeatedly sing “Through the dark night of the soul,” which is a spiritual phenomenon in which one experiences absolute darkness, anxiety, or estrangement. In many historical cases, such experiences are followed by a spiritual awakening, which could explain the change in atmosphere in the song. I suppose that by seeing through the duality of human constructs and embracing what is feared or loathed, one is raised to a higher state of being.
TMW: Before getting into the lyrical content, tell us more about your guitar sound here. That quick staccato fits surprisingly well with the vocal melody, almost like tear drops falling into an ocean of emotion. There is a playfulness about it, which takes away some of the sting to what seem like quite dispirited lyrics.
RW: I wrote most of the album around that guitar sound. It’s created through palm muting and reverb, which gives it a pizzicato effect. Getting that sound was the result of some simple experimentation: a few years ago I bought a reverb pedal (Hall of Fame 2) which I intended to use for Grey Aura live shows. However, I ended up never using it on stage and decided I could maybe experiment with it on an IJdelheid record. I ended up liking it so much that I used it on most of the album’s tracks. It does sound quite playful, and I wanted the album to have that quality to it.
TMW: This track has a very 80s feel to it. I love how vast it sounds. We hear the echo from the vocals, but there is also some kind of synth there in the background to add to this dreamy atmosphere. This is such a pretty track, and I am always a sucker for digging into the words behind the music.
RW: Yes, I agree. It does have an 80s feel to it. The sound of this track was quite heavily inspired by Enya’s Watermark-era. The lyrics don’t make much sense on a rational level. I wanted them to have a dreamlike quality and not any specific narrative. They were inspired by Lautréamont’s ‘Maldoror’, which feels like a dark, twisted dream.
As with most of the album, the darkness contrasts with dreamy playfulness.
TMW: This song nearly brought me to tears the first time I listened. This was before having an opportunity to read the lyrics, which prove doubly well that this narrator has a complicated relationship with love. I must confess to not being sure if he isn’t just talking to himself. He seems so certain and yet so confused.
RW: “Justine” was inspired by the 1791 Marquis de Sade novel ‘Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue’, in which the protagonist, a virtuous young girl, gets confronted with countless sexual horrors. I wanted the song to be about love from the perspective of a sadist, in this case, an almost godlike figure, who takes away everything from this person he sings to and leaves them with ‘only light’. I suppose the track could be viewed from a spiritual perspective as well, referring to Jesus’s ‘Deny thyself’: once every material possession and acknowledgment of personal suffering is rejected, ‘only light’ remains.
- Southern Masquerade
TMW: This is a fun carnival ride of a tune. It sounds like the ride broke down and we’re trapped; surrounded by chanting black cloaked apparitions.
The muted plucking, in the beginning, sounds like I’m sitting in the seats of a ballet, if that makes sense. It feels very delicate and as though I’m waiting for dancers to take to the stage. The gradual layering of voices is super cool.
RW: Thanks for the kind words. I feel like both of you got what I was going for with this track. Reading your interpretations was fun.
- Floating Crowns
TMW: First of all, the lyrics tell such a harrowing story. I would really love to hear more about its background, and from what point of view it’s being told in your song.
Secondly, the vocal harmonies coupled with the crescendo in the music, you really get a sense of floating. The guitar mimicking drops again, but voices come in waves… building from all directions. Very well done.
RW: This song tells the story of a small village, in which the inhabitants drown their loved ones (seemingly for no logical reason at all). It was inspired by various historical events, such as medieval witch trials, 18th-century vampire beliefs, and other superstitions. I wanted it to have a heavy, dramatic atmosphere and a somber climax.
The lyrics are also about recurring nightmares (in this case the victims’ ‘floating crowns of squirming hair’), which is something I have experienced quite often during the past years. It fascinates me that my mind repeatedly shows me images, which must live in my subconscious mind and occupy quite a large part of it.
- The Onset Of Grand Decay
TMW: Much of the album, as you pointed out on social media, was inspired by the work of Agnes Obel. It’s peppered throughout, particularly on this song and “Kiss The Prophets.” Obel songs like “Broken Sleep” or “The Curse,” for example, have a similar progression to them. What else can you tell us about her influence on your songwriting?
RW: I love Agnes Obel. I wouldn’t say she influenced my music in a direct way (like perhaps Enya did), but the dreamlike, melancholic quality of her music is amazing. I will take your comparison as a compliment. Thank you.
TMW: We’d also like to point out these lyrics as exceptional:
“I feel so lucky to be in the dark
Crawling through gutters: the future graves of man
I see what is to come and I enjoy
The onset of grand decay”
There are, most likely, multiple ways to interpret this line. I take it to mean the narrator is at peace with his place in the world, and if it’s all coming to an end he is going to enjoy the view. But it could just as easily be read sarcastically as if he’s resentful of his perceived purpose. Is there intentional neutrality to your concept here?
RW: The protagonist of this song is fed up with the decay and decadence of modern society. He is happy with his place in the gutters and gleefully awaits the end. The lyrics were inspired by the misanthropy that is traditionally found in a lot of black metal, which is the music genre I have been playing for most of my life. I thought it would be fun to experiment with such themes in a completely different genre, especially because the song in itself is quite dreamy and even sensual.
Of course, there are multiple possible interpretations, which is hopefully always the case with good lyrics. Once again, the lack of material possessions and longing for the destruction of physical reality is present, which, by the way, is also one of the main themes of Grey Aura’s Zwart vierkant.
I wouldn’t call myself a misanthrope, but the concept interests me and I enjoy reading about it.
- Kiss The Prophets
TMW: This is a beautiful song. Swirling with both agony and hope. Again the theme of being at peace with the moment you’re in seems impossible to escape.
“In deep waves of thought
Our minds become numb
To the sparkling and twisted night sky
Honing the nails meant for our hands”
Absolutely spectacular imagery, coupled with atmospheric clean guitar work a la Explosions In The Sky or Hammock. It feels like a resolution of sorts. Is your character dying, perhaps? Or is something within him moving on to a new place?
RW: I’d say the lyrics to this song were written with a similar mindset to that of “Gathering”: there is a dreamlike, surreal quality to them, which is not supposed to make much sense on a rational level. There are themes of sex, the dissolving of the individual ego, and the creation of a more universal consciousness. The night sky (the unknown, the force behind nature, God) creates and sharpens “the nails meant for our hands”: we are crucified and must (symbolically) die as individuals so that something more profound can come in our place.
TMW: I’m reminded a great deal of both Nick Cave and David Sylvian here. The music itself sounds like a David Lynch film, and that fascinates the shit out of me! Please, tell us what you can about the way you end the journey you’ve taken us on.
RW: “Afterlife” was the last song I wrote for the album. It was inspired by Rembrandt’s paintings of old men and the feeling I got from looking at them. It once again refers to the death of the Self (“Drape the earth with my flesh, for my soul is in heaven”) and a willingness to give up everything. I intended it to balance between despondency and acceptance, hence the constant shift between minor and major chords.
You can listen to Unholy in its entirety below: