Broad vistas of aurora borealis-lit sky, the wild and rough Norwegian landcape and the depths of the cosmos are woven into an intimate, mysterious fairytale package on Vemod’s singular ‘Venter på Stormene’.
Hypnotic and strangely melodic, their harsh black metal centers on a shimmering ambience that glitters within its dark core, projecting a sense of magic and wonder rather than the more traditional hate and nihilism.
This might place the band outside the bounds of black metal altogether, in some eyes, but for Andy Cunningham it illustrates the form’s malleability and durability.
He spoke to the eloquent J.E. Åsli to find out what inspires him to make this beautiful music.
A Keen Curiosity
Perhaps a brief introduction to the band to begin with. When did you begin and what drew you to this style?
What sort of journey did you have to get to the point you are at now, creatively and in terms of your inspirations?
Thank you! Well, it was back in 1999 I started to write music after a few guitar lessons, and by the turn of the millennium I had compiled tapes of parts and pieces and had developed a fully fledged vision of a band and a concept that was my own.
Even though that was a very early and not very mature incarnation, it was still strong and clear enough for me to count the beginning of Vemod to the year of 2000.
I was young and I was obsessed with music. Those years were highly formative for me and I was constantly exploring, seeking out new bands, new styles, new expressions.
There was something about certain forms of metal that brought about a distinct sense of mysticism, and that resonated very strongly with me, and ignited something that felt like it had been with me since childhood, only now in the way of music, which was a whole new experience.
All those dreams and visions born then is what keeps unfolding and coming to life to this day.
This early stage and its influences culminated in our first demo that we released in 2004. My long-time partner E. Blix joined me the year before and it became more of a band; it went from mostly theory to more practice.
Black metal was clearly a driving force then, although we thought ourselves to be sort of outsiders to the whole thing and did not want to label our music so easily. The demo sold out soon enough but we remained in the shadows, so to speak, because it became clear to us that we wanted to spend more time before releasing something new.
We worked through all those years up to 2011 when we released music again. We went through many phases and transformations, both as band and individuals – too much to mention in detail, really.
I think the main point is that we had come back to a certain state of mind, bringing lots of new influences to the center, opening a larger world to explore.
‘Venter på Stormene’, your debut album from a couple of years back, stands out as something interesting and unique in the Norwegian black metal landscape. It is traditional, its influences can be heard clearly enough, yet it seems to have its gaze focused away from the typical devilish concerns of your peers.
While it arguably picks up the threads first woven by Burzum in its use of hypnotic repetition, the result is something more dream-like than harsh and hateful sounding. What sort of headspace were you in while writing and recording? Was it a conscious decision to sidestep the mores of the scene?
Thank you for that sentiment – I’m glad you feel that way about the album. I think you are quite right: our influences can be traced back to familiar territories, yet we always felt we were dealing with a very different mentality and mindset, thus approaching the work from a different angle, and subsequently I think also this can be traced, or at least felt, when listening to the music.
Some are able to pick up on it, like you, while others are not, and that’s the way it will be.
When we were working with that material and the recording I think we found something that would come to be fundamental to us. It is very hard to describe that headspace – or any headspace, really – but if I would try to put it simply, I would perhaps say it was a mixture between a sort of homecoming to old influences, inspirations and imagination, and a newfound open-mindedness and keen curiosity.
A place with a tremendous sense of hope and possibility – where anything can be explored. This, I think, might explain why there is both deep, heartfelt nostalgia and forward-looking, adventurous creativity to be found in our music.
This is, among other things, a defining characteristic of Vemod for me. A sort of “in-between-ness” – a very creative place, indeed.
In some ways you could say it was a conscious sidestep, but I rather think of it as a natural path for us, since it allows us to embrace what we feel is essential in a fuller and freer way. A more traditional framework and mindset would be much more limiting and certainly not satisfying for me.
A lot of bands know from the get-go what they want to do, so, be it consciously or unconsciously, they have already set an expiry date for themselves. They choose a style and set out to perfect it. That’s all well and good, because if you do that, you probably crave a certain vibe, and there’s likely a bunch of other people craving it to, so there is an audience and records are sold, everyone is happy.
Great. I get that, and take part in sometimes too, as a listener. But it would bother me deeply if Vemod was like that. Because then what?
It comes down to life and lifestyle in the end. I like to learn and I like to explore, both myself and the world around me – those two overlap, obviously – so it is only natural that my music will reflect this. I really don’t see that ending anytime soon. What better means to explore worlds, both inner and outer, than music?
The music often veers into delicate, somnolent non-metal territory, heightening the sense that it is not aimed toward the physical plane of existence. These digressions into soothing soundscapes work well in evoking a dream-state or a haven-like space. Is this music an escape for you?
As clichéd as it might sound, the overall feel of the album is one of yearning and nostalgia. Are you striving to regain something? Innocence? Childhood, perhaps?
Well, ‘escapism’ is often a negatively charged term, associated with turning away from responsibility in a “hide under your pillow and hope all the bad things go away” manner. If that’s what you apply to ‘escape’ then certainly not. In the deepest sense, I’m not sure that sort of escapism even exists.
The way I see it it’s just a different strategy when other things don’t cut it. I mean, many regard reading a novel as a complete waste of time, especially now in this productivity and efficiency crazed world we live in, but in reality you actually allow yourself explore a space where you can see things from a different angle, feel empathy with others, and in effect broaden your horizon in such a way that you might “return” to your own life and your own concerns better equipped to handle them properly.
I think music can work in a similar way, although perhaps in a more abstract and dreamlike fashion. It can effectively, although often subconsciously, open up the world and suggest possibilities to explore, paths to walk and futures to live.
So for me, in the end, it’s not as one-sidedly “otherwordly” as it might seem on the surface because it all has a very practical aspect to it as well. All this can be integrated into a life, and that is very real. This is why dreaming matters.
At this point, I’m not sure it would be very precise to say that I’m trying to regain anything in particular. Innocence is a concept I tend not to think so much about, since I view it as closely linked with that of sin, one of the more despicable features of Abrahamic religion and one I reject, so that’s a non-issue.
As for childhood, perhaps that’s somehow closer to the mark in a way. In childhood everything is perceived in such a fresh and undiluted way, where wonder and true amazement exists. There was a time earlier in Vemod’s existence, before maturing into what it is today, where it was much more nostalgia based, and we were restlessly searching backwards for something perceived as lost, without quite knowing what, or how.
I think this is something most people can relate to in some way or another, but it is difficult to find the language to describe these emotions. Music, however, is one such language, and I think we just went on until we found what we were looking for.
As mentioned earlier, something was found during the work with ‘Venter på stormene’, and today I feel very much re-connected and perfectly able to look forward in a constructive and healthy way.
That said, I’m always after establishing an even deeper contact with myself and with nature, which are of course sides of the same coin, and that’s why nurturing and cultivating this way of life is so important. So, it goes on. Music will be made.
While the music is melodic in its own way, it is still ‘grown-up’ sounding. It takes a bit of time and work to unravel those luscious melodies and it is far from radio friendly.
For all of the aforementioned dreaminess the songs are melancholic, an attribute reflected in the name Vemod itself, which translates as ‘sadness’. The lyrics reflect a sense of isolation and are rich with images from the world of nature. How is the emotion of sadness linked with nature, in your view?
Are we out of touch with nature as a race or is the natural world itself something you deem to be inherently melancholic? Is melancholy our natural state?
Those are very interesting questions, although ones not really possible to answer in any definite manner.
The lyrics may be evoking a sense of isolation in one way, as in turning away from the inessential, the noise of the world perhaps, to create a space where one can see and feel and cultivate clarity, essence.
So to me they are in fact pointing more towards a profound connectivity, not isolation. That’s a matter of perspective of course, and I’m glad they can be interpreted in numerous ways.
The natural imagery relates to that connectivity, because I feel more connected in a natural environment, plain and simple. As a modern, domesticated human being we are of course, almost all of us, born into this feeling of estrangement from nature, as if we were not part of it, which is of course not true.
Even if we aren’t wild anymore, I think it’s possible to re-establish that natural connection, that feeling of belonging on this planet. Art and music are just ways to reflect, meditate, nurture and play with that notion, among many others.
As for the name, some of the meaning is lost in translation. ‘Sadness’ does not cover the meaning of ‘Vemod’ – there is more to it, and especially for us. There is indeed a sort of melancholy there – of something lost or forgotten, or pain, hindrance – but also the courage and will to overcome and grow from it.
I don’t see how nature could be melancholic? And I don’t believe it’s our natural state, only one amongst a bewildering array of wavelengths on the spectrum of human emotion. It’s just part of the experience.
Storms Before Calm
The album’s title translates as ‘waiting for the storms’. What storms are you referring to?
Every possible storm. Again, the sense of being in between – between past and future, between night and day – the gathering of strength and resources to face whatever challenges lie ahead.
Also, for me, I think of being able to dream and imagine possibilities and by doing so changing the future to the better.
The artwork on the album is beautiful. It successfully captures each facet of the music. It also adds an almost child-like feel to the album in that it looks like an illustration that could have been taken out of a book of fairytales.
Please give us some insight into the piece, its illustrator and how much involvement you had in its creation.
The painting was made by a friend of the band. She is a rather private person and does not work as an artist, but agreed to do this cover for us, for which we were very grateful!
There were a few rather vague guidelines from us, but she could basically do whatever she saw fit for the music. Along the way we gave some feedback here and there, but it was clear from the start that this would work out splendidly.
The music and the painting grew together in a very organic way for us as we went through the whole process, so it definitely had an impact on the atmosphere of the album. For me it really reflects the feeling of the music so well, and this is also confirmed by the very positive feedback from others.
There are two recurring images that jump out across the album. The first one is that of water which you mention a couple of times in the lyrics and the other is the key shown in two photographs on the inlay? What is the significance of each?
The water is for me the poetic image that points to an ever-flowing movement, an unlimited transformational power and potential, and also the connectivity mentioned earlier. Every little drop will eventually be a part of the great sea.
The key is a multi-faceted symbol as well, but of course it usually points to the unlocking of something previously inaccessible. For me, this music, this form of art, is the key to unlocking certain areas of the mind, certain inner landscapes, which has proven to broaden horizons, reveal perspectives and all in all enrich my world in multiple ways.
The aurora borealis is a recurring visual theme across the band’s releases. It must be a massive part of the Scandinavian identity, whereas it seems almost mystical and unreal to those of us who have never witnessed it. What can you tell us about the phenomenon?
Does it hold any particular significance to the band or is it just an interesting visual? ‘Altets tempel’ sounds like it could be an ode to the Northern Lights. Is that a correct assumption?
Well, the aurora has always fascinated me ever since childhood, and I have several significant memories relating to it, deeply cherished moments captured in time. I think this goes for the rest of the band as well.
Also, for us, I think it has come to be a potent symbol for one of the fundamental aspects of the band, which is this overcoming of obstacles that we already touched upon; to shine in the darkness. It’s that, as well as a very rewarding and beautiful aesthetic, obviously.
The cold dark universe is another element you appear to use, at least in your live shows judging by the videos I have seen. Your music conjures images on both a micro and macro level in my mind’s eye.
While the fragile, sullen parts could equate with sleepy snowy landscapes they could equally be speaking to, or from, the cosmos. What message are you trying to transmit to the viewer with such imagery?
As always there is no direct message as such, but to use such imagery comes naturally to us since it helps us to communicate, or perhaps rather evoke a sense of this intermediary state, between the very small and the very big; the micro and the macro, as you say; the inner and the outer worlds; past, present and future.
Dark And Ethereal
While you class your music as ‘dark ethereal metal’ there is no getting away from the black metal tag. As a Norwegian band, currently operating within a highly fertile scene, how do you view your links with the originators of the style- and I’m referring specifically to the ‘second wave’ bands.
Do you see yourselves as torch bearer’s carrying on those bands’ legacy or is this something new and entirely different?
Well, we definitely feel that we carry our own torch, and nobody else’s, to put it like that. It wouldn’t be right to say that we’re carrying on anyone’s legacy, because we have our own intentions and our own visions. That said, the role that some of the so-called second wave black metal bands had in inspiring the music that we would come to make isn’t to be disputed.
It’s a musical link, however, and we left behind most of the non-musical “baggage” associated with black metal, I think. If you isolate the inspiration from black metal in Vemod, you’re left with the focus on atmosphere, no doubt.
Maybe we have allowed ourselves to take that atmospheric element out and have given it a new context, granting it the leading role in the play, so to speak.
While black metal perhaps use it as a tool or enhancer, to further propagate their chosen message or ideology, we place it at the heart of everything, giving it our full attention, and making no excuses for it.
All these things are matters of perspective. If someone sees Vemod as just another link in the chain of a tradition, that is fine with me, I can’t control that, but that is not how we ourselves see it.
As artists I think it’s important to define a purpose or at least shape a framework that is your own. Of course, nothing is created in a vacuum, and everyone is influenced by their surroundings to some degree, but that makes it even more important to reflect upon what you want to bring to the table.
For myself I can say that I have a very strong and emotionally charged intent with the music I create for Vemod. I’m not sure if I succeed in communicating this or if it comes across at all, but I know that this far, I haven’t come across similar intention reflected in the words or work of any black metal.
We’re just so far away from the typical ideological stances expressed in that genre. “Something new and entirely different” might be a stretch, but we definitely don’t feel like a black metal band.
What bands from outside of the spheres of metal excite and inspire you? Is there a similar mood or feeling you seek out in all forms of music or are you open to all musical styles?
Everyone in Vemod are open to all kinds of musical styles and expressions, and that’s one of the main reasons for feeling so hopeful about the future. It’s a constant exploration that luckily never ends. We’re all really into a wide variety of moods. It doesn’t make sense to just choose one and then stick with that forever. Music is too rich and abundant a world for that.
It’s hard for me to mention specific artists, because when I listen to music I just listen, I let it flow. I just let it sink into that inner pool where all the music goes. When I make something nowadays, I rarely know exactly where the inspiration comes from; I just draw from that pool.
I never make an effort to trace it back to its origin. I find that the whole process of creation becomes much freer and also fuller in a way. It becomes less of a patchwork and more of a whole cloth.
I’ve also been making music for Vemod for such a long time that it’s very easy to tap into that atmosphere that feels so distinctively like Vemod – it’s starting to become more self-sufficient in a way.
‘Venter på Stormene’ is a few years old at this stage so do you have any new music in the works? What can you tell us about that?
Oh yes. There is a lot of music. We don’t make any promises in this band because we are a very slow working entity, and I won’t reveal too much, but I can say that most of the material for the next album is ready. There is no lack of creation.
All the things around a new album takes a lot of time though, so I have no idea about when you can expect anything from us. We pay close attention to all kinds of details and often take a lot of time to think things through before we move ahead. This is how we work. We are very excited about the next step, I can tell you that much!
– Interview by Andy Cunningham ::: 15/02/17