While I generally keep my music podcast A Darker Shade of Pagan from getting entangled in the daily workings of The Wild Hunt, every once in awhile I like to alert my readership of some great Pagan and Pagan-friendly music that I come across. Since I just posted my ADSOP top ten of 2009 show, I thought I would share what I thought were some of the best albums that speak to the Pagan soul from the past year. Consider it a gift-giving guide to the Pagan in your life dissatisfied by what usually passes for “Pagan music”.
ADSOP’s Top Ten Albums of 2009
What do you get when you mix a shamanisitic throat-singer with the mystic sound-scapes of former Trance to the Sun guitarist Ashkelon Sain? You get an intense and world-bending album of darkly meditative compositions that explores an Aztec worldview (the album is sung in Nahuatl). Many albums promise to bring you on a ritualistic journey, but few bring the goods. “Atlan” does, but be warned, this isn’t some breezy guided meditation, but an intense full-immersion into Soriah’s explorations into his own ethnicity and heritage. Harsh yet gentle, at times both hypnotic and jarring, this is a unique album. One that wonderfully inhabits a sound that is both dark and “pagan” in scope. Well worth checking out.
I like to go on and on about The Wicker Man soundtrack, it’s one of the touchstones for A Darker Shade of Pagan, a way to explain the aesthetic and mood I often try to evoke. Many bands have taken inspiration from this film, but few make me take notice, or use that as a jumping-off point into even stranger and darker places. The Hare and the Moon is one of those bands. An unsigned UK band, they utilize traditional folk songs, but marry them to spooky soundscapes, almost militaristic drumming, odd and esoteric sound samples, and understated female vocals. The result is a wyrd marriage that references Coil almost as much as it does The Wicker Man. Why these folks haven’t been scooped up by a proper record label yet baffles me. Get clued in now so you can say you knew them when.
Some of my favorite artists from 2008, like Fern Knight and Silver Summit, didn’t release new albums this year, but thanks to the folks from the band Arborea we have this benefit compilation to tide us over till 2010. Featuring tracks from the aforementioned bands, along with other ADSOP-friendly artists like Mariee Sioux, Marissa Nadler, and Alela Diane (among others). It not only serves as a nice overview of the current Indie-folk scene, but it also supports a great cause, as proceeds from the sales of Leaves of Life will go towards the World Food Program. So you not only get an album of great music, but you also get to see your dollars going to charity, a sure win-win! Oh, and the music is top-notch as well.
I’m not the biggest fan of metal, but the burgeoning genre of Pagan folk-metal has been slowly growing on me. The best of the pack this year, so far as my tastes are concerned, has to be the Swiss band Eluveitie’s “Evocation I: The Arcane Dimension”. Picture if Faun or Omnia started out as metal-heads and you get an idea of the sound (which they call “Celtic Helvetian pagan metal and folkmusic”). Dual female vocals mixed with gruff metal-guy vocals that places a bit more emphasis on the “folk” than on the “metal” for this record. Oh, and the Pagan side of things? Pretty darn solid, as you can see from the lead singer dressed as Cernunnos on the cover. If, like me, you are curious about folk-metal, but don’t know where to start, this album may be a great place. Why not start with watching the video for their first single “Omnos”.
There is a lot I could say about Lisa Hammer’s (from the band Mors Syphilitica) wonderful new solo album “Dakini”, but perhaps the following quote from the artist really says it all. “The intention behind this cd was to create music for ritual, meditation and sex. Ideally, all 3 at once. It was designed to carry the listener away from the manifest world and into a deeper space. The Indian ragas correspond with times of the day, so the CD represents a condensed 24 hours, which is perfect for ritual, or any emotional and spiritual trip. The medieval songs are matched with Indian ragas and tribal drums, Appalachian folk music, Middle-Eastern drones and opera to bring the four directions together, North South East and West. It’s a cultural and spiritual mix, all blending together in one CD. Each of the songs has its own meditational/trance-inducing quality, regardless of its origin.” I honestly don’t know what I could add to that, other than to say she’s right, and the album is excellent work.
I’ve been following the Hungarian Pagan band The Moon & The Nightspirit since their first album, and they just seem to go from strength to strength. After the musical quantum leap of their last album “Rego Rejtem” (which means “I conjure magic” in Hungarian) Agnes Toth and Mihaly Szabo’s fruitful exploration of their homeland’s music and folklore continues to deepen and mature with this release. This is no place-holder, but an expansion of a strong and ever-confident musical voice. This is one of the most talented openly Pagan bands operating today, and they deserve a much wider audience among Pagan music lovers. I can’t wait to see what they do with their next album.
I doubt I’ll have to work hard to convince you that Bat For Lashes (the musical outlet of singer-songwriter Natasha Khan) is worth checking out. Her album “Two Suns” was shortlisted for this year’s Mercury Prize, and she appeared on David Letterman, garnering her plenty of mainstream attention. She’ll no doubt be on plenty of year-end lists of popular taste-makers everywhere. So let’s talk instead of how Khan mixes indie-rock, New Age tropes, Kate Bush-isms, and drum-machines to craft a meditation on how we live in two worlds at once, the spiritual and the material, and how that conflict creates the tension necessary for great art. It is, as Khan puts it, “the philosophy of the self and duality, examining the need for both chaos and balance, for both love and pain, in addition to touching on metaphysical ideas concerning the connections between all existence.”
After 2007’s excellent “InfraWarrior”, Monica Richards first solo outing, which explored themes of eco-spirituality, female empowerment, and myth, I wondered where her main project, the darkwave band Faith & The Muse would go. The answer it seems is “East”, and “Ankoku Butoh” is an immersion in Shinto, drums, and a “sonic atavisms for the warrior within”. This is a powerful and driving record that displays a band reinvigorated and at their creative peak. My only lament is that this came out so late in the year (October 31st) so I haven’t had the time to live with and explore it as I’d like. But still, this is a quality album, and should rightly be in the collection of any goth-Pagan fan worth their salt. Oh, and the album isn’t just an album, but a CD-DVD-Book set that is a work of art in itself.
It could have been a disaster. Two long-standing members of Unto Ashes left the band, and songwriter-singer Michael Laird was left pretty much on his own to decide if the project was going to continue. Isolated, he went on to craft what may be the project’s strongest outing in years. Drawing deeply on strains of Neofolk and dark ambient, “The Blood of My Lady” is a darkly meditative work that careens from hushed ballads to stomping militarism and back again. Alone, Laird has pursued the ultimate work, union with the goddess, she who is “everywhere and nowhere”, an album of “thirteen spells conjured for The Lady”. If you listen closely, you can sense that She has heard his call.
To call this solo project by Karin Dreijer Andersson (one half of the amazing Swedish electronic music duo The Knife) “dark”, or “mythic” makes it sound too small. Just another musician dabbling with sound-scapes and Jungian tropes. It would be better to say this is a primal heartbeat from our inner core. A place where we lose the ability to quantify a thing or expression and instead we fumble along with made-up terms like “synth-druid” or “tribal electro weirdness” to express how synthesizer-created music can touch places usually reserved for drummed fire-trances or high-ritual. Fever Ray is Karin, and Karin is inhabiting the mythic core of humanity on this album. It is holy, pedestrian, lonely, loving, and dark. The darkness of sadness and loss, but also the dark of potentiality, of the coming birth. This my favorite “pagan” album of 2009, though I doubt she would classify herself so, such labels lose meaning when you travel deep enough.
You can download my latest podcast, featuring songs from all these albums, here. I hope you’ll explore these releases, and perhaps find some new music to love. As always, apologies to all the other artists who released great albums this year, I only have room for ten.