Black metal duo Vanum first made waves just a couple years ago when they released their debut, Realm of Sacrifice, on Profound Lore Records. While there was some degree of hype surrounding the core members' prior works in Ash Borer, Fell Voices, Predatory Light, Vilkacis, and Vorde, the album itself was strong enough to transcend the "members of" narrative and launch the band into its own space beyond the dreaded "side project" tag.
With Vanum's newest work, Burning Arrow, prepared for imminent release to coincide with their first European tour (opening for Ash Borer, naturally), we're excited to share all three tracks as a full stream. The lush works from Realm of Sacrifice are given a worthy companion here in the form of a leaner and more urgent beast. What is left when stripped to a purer core is something more ferocious and classic in sound, yet it still retains the atmospheric qualities and passionate, burning energetic pulse that unites all work created by Vanum's members in their many projects. I was able to get Kyle Morgan and Mike Rekevics of Vanum together for a conversation about inspiration, struggle, and the unifying concept of black metal as spiritual war that ties together all affiliated projects. Along the way we even found time to discuss our favorite Bathory records and the importance of creating without compromising. Stream the album below, and read on for a serious chat with two of American black metal's busiest artists.
Noisey: Let's talk about title of Burning Arrow . What does it mean to you?
Mike: I came out to New Mexico to record this album with Kyle. I recorded it here at his house, actually. I had a large chunk of the lyrics written. They were partially written, but not entirely completed. While Kyle and I were driving from the Albuquerque airport up to Santa Fe, I looked up at the sky and saw the constellation of Orion. A lot of the lyrical themes of the record, as a lot of my lyrics do in general, deal with a personal struggle. There's a sense of spiritual purification of oneself through struggle. It's both an inner struggle, and implicitly, it's an outward struggle. I don't live in a hermetic, monastic vacuum where things exist with no context. Something about seeing this hunter in the sky stuck with me. I kept thinking of this watcher, this warrior, looming in the eastern sky at that time of night. It resonated with the lyrical themes of struggle within oneself and viewing it on a larger scope. It was an illustration of what I was trying to deal with. The mythology of Orion is that he was a hunter who was killed. He was reanimated and made immortal in the night sky. In the sense of achieving immortality through death, I found it deeply resonant that it presented itself to me while I was trying to finish my lyrics and preparing for the sessions. It fell into the place and helped shape the completion of the lyrics. I was thinking of the image of Orion. In some images, he's holding a shield and a lion's pelt. In others, the same stars that would form the shield are depicted as a bow. I think of that as a more adversarial image of Orion. This archer, this hunter holding the bow with a burning arrow. The constellation of Orion is even fixed into the album art, forming the structure of the skull that graces the cover.
Mike: That was the theme that had already dominated a lot of the lyrics I was working through. There was this alchemical idea of nigredo, the sol niger. The black sun. This idea within alchemy, is that the nigredo, or the death's head, is the substance to which everything must be diluted before anything can be done. There must be this black formless void before you work to create gold, before you can make anything. Before you build upon yourself, you must destroy everything and reduce it to death. Once you have this substance, then you can grow and build. In an alchemical context it's fascinating. In a psychological context, Jung was drawn to the framework of alchemy as an illustration for his ideas regarding individuation. The establishment of self is based around the sol niger as the "dark night of the soul." It's the destruction of what you think you believe and what you think you are. It's necessary to come to any sort of mature and sincere sense of self. It's the baseline from which you must construct yourself. These concepts were what I was working with lyrically and psychologically coming into the album's recording. Seeing Orion up in the sky above us, I couldn't help but start creating this confluence between the ideas. Something I noticed as a continual theme with sound and titles in your art is that there's this theme of destruction. On Realm of Sacrifice there's this internal sort of inward purge, while your work on Burning Arrow feels forceful and very driven outward. Going from introspection to altering the space around you is one step, but where does one progress from that?
Mike: I think that people's biggest stumbling block, both as artists and as human beings, is being blinded by pride. When you think you've got something figured out and you say "okay I've got this and I don't need to do that work anymore." I try not to be destroyed by my own pride, so it's an ongoing process. It's not that I've torn myself apart and am perfect. I think these things come in cycles in terms of my own inner work as a human being. As a musician, it's similar. In this moment it made sense in terms of what we're both excited about musically and how we felt as individuals and musicians to release outward. It doesn't mean that this is ultimately all we have done. We aren't the ultimate warriors destroying all. Not to say that we won't just be forceful and outward, I just don't know. We may look inward after such a period of chaos, it's entirely possible and perfectly healthy. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know. Kyle: That was the most Mike Rekevic-ian response ever. Five minute build up to "I'm not quite sure." Mike: I mean, it's all possible. If we need to make a new approach, we will. Ultimately, the trajectory shouldn't be seen as entirely linear. They're not causal or sharing the same momentum. So it's two fixed-points in space rather than a line.
Mike: We're still mapping out what may happen next.
Kyle: The concept that we're dealing with here directly ties to the tone or tenor of the music itself. This is a more forward, triumphant sounding record. It's sensible for the conceptual end of things to match that.
The forcefulness of it seemed perfectly aligned in both time and feeling as a follow up to Predatory Light's tour with Mortuary Drape last year. Not that the sound is identical, but there's a shared energy.
Kyle: Totally. It's more of a classic, early black metal sound. This was more influenced by the Hellenic scene, Rotting Christ especially, [and] even some of the later Bathory that gets ripped on. Blood Fire Death, sure but there's definitely some… Mike: Hammerheart! That might be my favorite black metal album ever. Definitely my favorite Bathory.
Kyle: We were arguing about it earlier. I think mine is still Under the Sign of the Black Mark. [Mike] is more of a Blood Fire Death man, but they're all really good. The synths in this album are more buried, but they reminded me of the massive vocal arrangements on Hammerheart. It's orchestral without being outright symphonic. At first I didn't hear keys at all. It took me a minute to realize they weren't real voices.
Kyle: Well they are. I mean, I used a Mellotron for this, so it's all samples filtered through fucked up old tapes. There's a density in production that reveals itself over time rather than being bloated with layers. Burning Arrow is more muscular than just overpowering and huge. How different was the process for this one?
Kyle: The first one we recorded in the Bay Area with Andy Oswald, where he has his own studio. We did the basic tracking in a really nice studio and then holed up in Andy's own studio for the rest of it. It was in more of a professional studio environment as Profound Lore was involved with that and we had more of a budget for the release. We'd been talking about a new record for a while. As we firmed things up for this European tour, it lit the fire under us to make and complete it so that we'd have something new to share. The options were either to spend a ton of money out of pocket or find a way to do this ourselves. I live in a hundred year old adobe house. The walls would probably make Steve Albini jealous. We essentially turned my house into a studio. What really made it different from the last one though, was that we did the basic takes that really required Mike and Andy here first. We did drums and Mike's vocals, but then I was able to spend a bunch of time on my own over the next month or so plugging away at the guitars, bass, synthesizers and my few vocal parts. I was layering and layering it all. I was able to be more of a perfectionist. There's at least four tracks of guitars at all times. I could make it damn near perfect since we had no hourly rate for me recording in my bedroom. Then Andy mixed it and Dan Lowndes mastered it, making it complete. It worked brilliantly. As a fan of black metal, production can be such a weird thing. If it's too clean, it can be a problem, but it's great when an album sounds really full.
Mike: For me, I think of Hammerheart, again. It's just such a massive sounding album. Or Rotting Christ's Triarchy of the Lost Lovers. It's such a perfect record. Clean production that doesn't neuter the music or make it too slick. There's nothing artificial. It's a way of accomplishing something organic while embracing fidelity. That's the goal. Kyle: For me, it's less about black metal even. Tonally speaking, at least, for the drums I was thinking of early heavy metal. Early Mercyful Fate and the first couple Slayer albums were the kind of tones I wanted to get out of this. Obviously we aren't playing that kind of music, but the sound is huge. Another thing I find captivating is that rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and make it "big and new," you're just making black metal and making it incredibly well.
Mike: That's entirely accurate in terms of my own views and approaches to black metal in this project and in my others. There's a place for innovation, but there's this concept of distillation. I'm not making a salad. I'm not throwing in bullshit from the side to make it weird and new. I'm throwing in what I need. I want to cook it down and really see what is essential and what I can learn from that. What really makes this valuable? I want to keep burrowing deeper into that core with my work. With Vanum, Vilkacis, or even with the more far out sounds I make with Vorde. The approach is to play classic black metal. As weird as that may get, the essence must still be there. I'm not trying to redefine black metal. I love black metal. I love this music and I want to develop a deeper understanding and get more of a personal hold on the essence of this art form. Kyle: We may draw influence or structural ideas from outside sources but we don't need to outright borrow the sound itself into black metal. We're not trying to take something else really for the sake of saying we did it. A common phrase associated with Mike's work is "black metal is spiritual war." I'm curious if you could explain that a bit more thoroughly. What is spirituality to you and how does it imprint itself into your art?
Mike: I guess I speak in terms of the spirit. I'm not speaking in terms of orthodoxy. When I speak of the spirit, I speak of the self. The essence of the self. The core of any individual being. I can only ultimately speak for myself. I'm trapped in my own flesh prison. I'm not saying what anyone else is or what their reality is or what it ought to be for all of humanity. For me, it's something I observe. You can look at pagan black metal or Satanic orthodox black metal. The core of it is a spiritual struggle. That is something that is essential. You read what Euronymous said. When asked what makes black metal he said "it has to be dark and it has to be Satanic." That was what made his black metal what it was. You can listen to a dozen different bands from different places and you won't get the same thing. You can listen to Mystifier, to Mayhem, to Master's Hammer, or even Blasphemy. These bands don't sound alike but there's this adversarial struggle that they embody. It's a struggle against systems of spiritual repression. I think what it ultimately comes down to is that black metal needs to be a struggle. It needs to course through it. If you're playing rock 'n' roll with blast beats and tremolo, then I don't give a fuck about what you're doing. It's not meaningful to me within the black metal idiom. Within this framework of art. I don't give a shit. If I wanted to play rock 'n' roll with makeup, I'd be doing something else. For me, that sense of wild, passionate pain. This primal scream of self against a world that seeks to destroy the self is essential. Maybe I sound like some pretentious fuck, but that is what underpins what I'm doing with black metal. It has to hurt. This is war. This is not fun. I'm not going up there to peacock around on stage. I want it to hurt for me and I'd like for it to hurt for the audience. If they're willing to join me in this rite then by all means. I'm not willing to compromise on that. I've taken to reminding the audience of that live with Vilkacis. I say ithis is what this is. Take it or leave it.i Kyle: I won't rephrase everything Mike just said, although it's largely how I feel as well. I think in addition, there's this spiritual core of what is driving us to do this and what drives us to do this in the way we are. He touched on the performance aspect. This is physical war, too. I'm not going up there to play through some 5150's set to "1." I want to hurt myself and other people with volume and harsh frequencies. I want to be in pain to some degree after a set. It needs to be this immersive, harsh experience. I'm not playing this sort of music for it to be in the background either live or on the recordings.
Finally, as a band that's done so few shows, why launch things off with a full European tour rather than something stateside?
Kyle: It worked logistically, since I'm in Ash Borer and it's something that requires people to fly any time Vanum does something. Vanum's drummer's in New York and our guitarist is in Santa Fe so for anything to work it needs to be lengthy enough to offset airfare. It made sense also since we've all toured together between Mike's tenure in Fell Voices and Ruin Lust. Ash Borer isn't interested in package tours with a random opening band. We want to curate something that makes sense and to spend time with our friends. Mike: Playing with like-minded people matters. I'm not making a living off this. I'm not making enough money to ever imagine compromising. I have no illusions about playing arenas and having this be a retirement plan for me. I'm doing this because I want to do it and I'll do it on my own terms. I can do it with like minds and with friends and allies. That's the only way I want to do this, to be honest. When Ash Borer started talking about this tour with their new record, it just made perfect sense both logistically and emotionally. Kyle: We're both in so many bands that we want to give equal weight to them. We don't favor any one band, but we can't just do a month-long tour for each of our four bands in a year. If we can find a chance to double it up, then that's ideal.
Ben Handelman is on Twitter.