Art of Darkness: Wrekmeister Harmonies
Wrekmeister Harmonies came to Brooklyn on a gloomy day in May for an afternoon show at Saint Vitus, a Greenpoint venue that wears its metal identification proudly. The bar is adorned with Satanic altarpieces and other occult paraphernalia; you could likely get a decent education in the genre just by listening to what the bartender plays on the house speakers between sets. Metal is certainly one of the streams that converge in Wrekmeister Harmonies's music, but it still seemed a mismatch to see the group in such a temple of metal-dom. The band’s diverse influences also include drone and classical music; 2015’s Night of Your Ascension featured a reworked madrigal by composer Don Carlo Gesualdo. Still, while it might not be the dominant musical strain, metal nevertheless has an outsize presence in the band’s figuration, owing as much to the heaviness of the music itself as to bandleader J.R. Robinson’s consistent tendency to explore darker subject matter in his songs.
The madrigal in Night of Your Ascension’s title track forms part of a composition that seeks to address—indeed partly dramatizes—Gesualdo’s murder of his wife and her lover. This is paired on the album with “Run Priest Run,” which takes as its subject the death of Father John Geoghan, a priest and convicted child molester who was murdered in prison. Whether it’s the heavy distorted guitar on “Night of Your Ascension” that signals Gesualdo’s violent act, or the screaming vocal on “Run Priest Run,” these songs share musical elements with other Saint Vitus acts more firmly rooted in the metal genre. When I spoke with Robinson on the phone before the Brooklyn show, he discussed his use of such elements as a means of approaching the themes that surround his source material. “When I want to convey a certain emotion,” he said, “an emotion of horror, darkness, despair, violence, then yeah, heavy music comes very much to hand. It’s an essential tool for conveying those emotions.”
Horror, darkness, despair, violence—these are not themes you tend to find in much of contemporary music; or at least, few musicians address them in the head-on way Robinson does. The prominent exception, of course, is the metal genre, where it’s natural to find bands explicitly concerned with such ideas. Even if many bands’ approach has a cartoonish aspect, the fact that these issues come up regularly means that for all the occult hokeyness of its décor, Saint Vitus was in many respects the most suitable venue for Wrekmeister Harmonies, since here there is nothing extraordinary—from a generic or musical standpoint—about a band tackling such themes. Here, what makes Robinson’s project extraordinary is simply the depth and thoughtfulness with which he does so.
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When Robinson formed Wrekmeister Harmonies in 2006, the project’s first iteration found him performing sonic templates in unconventional venues such as museums. By those standards, May’s matinee show wasn’t so out of the ordinary, but it was a bit odd to think of seeing the group when it was still light out. With a while yet before start time, not wanting to sample one of Saint Vitus’s ecumenically-themed beer-and-shot specials (“El Cardinal” = Tecate and tequila) I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood.
The night before the show I hadn’t slept much. This, together with the chilly aberrant weather and the odd start time, had me somewhat on edge. Unnamed dread is another of the emotions that find expression in Robinson’s music. I walked over to the Pulaski Bridge and up the stairs to road level, hoping to get a view of the new Kosciuszko (no luck), then over to the park at the end of Manhattan Avenue overlooking Newtown Creek. The dreary weather reminded me of March in Georgia, an uneasy time of year. The heavy chill of winter is gone, but nothing is blooming yet, the air is gray and damp, neither hot nor cold, and it can last like this for weeks, such that you begin to worry that spring won’t ever come, that nothing will start growing again, and that instead you’ll be caught in this blank non-weather forever.
Walking back to Saint Vitus I caught sight of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, who would be opening for Wrekmeister. Hunt-Hendrix’s band, Liturgy, has drawn the ire of black metal purists for its supposed lack of authenticity on the one hand—the hipster critique—and on the other, for a manifesto Hunt-Hendrix penned in which he calls for a move away from the “nihilism” of European black metal and towards the “affirmation” of what he describes as “transcendental” black metal. In terms of openers, there was an intriguing duality here. Hunt-Hendrix’s esoteric, abstract understanding of his music stood in clear contrast to the grounded, concrete historical and literary influences behind Robinson’s.
For Wrekmeister’s latest release, 2016’s Light Falls, Robinson drew on the writing of Primo Levi, the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor. Robinson told me, of encountering Levi’s work, “That just shook me. I was completely blown away by the ability that Primo Levi had to simply coolly detach [from] this horrible, horrible experience and observe it in a very scientific manner—because he was a scientist, he was a chemist, and he was able to take the thing and not judge his captors and not judge his fellow prisoners and yet explain in a very detailed and honest way.”
The track showing Levi’s influence most clearly is the album’s climax, “Some Were Saved Some Drowned,” its title a nod to Levi’s book of essays on life in the death camps, The Drowned and the Saved. The song portrays the scenario literally, its narrator a castaway addressing his comrades in the water. “It's a ship / I can see it about a mile away,” he begins, though with that title it’s clear from the start that not all of them will be able to hang on long enough. “Did you feel it? / Did you feel your life slipping away?”
Light Falls is a new direction for the group in a number of ways. After bringing thirty-plus musicians together for Night of Your Ascension, Robinson pared down to a five-person ensemble for the new record. The songs themselves are also shorter, each clocking in at around seven minutes, a departure from the single album-length composition Then It All Came Down (2014) and Ascension’s two extended tracks. “It makes sense to evolve,” Robinson told me. “You take something like Night of Your Ascension [...] exploring two different individuals, and then with Light Falls it started changing to more emotional elements, trying to distill that message into more feeling.”
As part of that more emotional approach, Robinson included the highly personal “Where Have You Been My Lovely Son?” about the recent increased distance between him and his son. As he explained, this was a way of amplifying the impact of the Primo Levi-inspired material. “I wanted to personalize the emotion, you know, [with] the Primo Levi reading and researching. All the experiences that Primo Levi had, I wanted to refract that through a prism of my own experience, because Primo Levi, If This Is a Man is just so personal, it’s the most naked, personal work that I’ve come across, and I wanted to run my own experience through that.”
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After a few false starts and some petulant passive-aggression towards the sound guy, Hunt-Hendrix played a short set of what I would call medieval metal video game music. Using a laptop, guitar, and effects pedals, he built up steadily shifting layers of drones—though it’s probably more accurate to call them pulses. The tones never resolved to a tonic but rather seemed to develop endlessly around some unknown center, like the successive iterations of a chaotic equation. This music was as impressive as it was impersonal and unsettling.
When I’d spoken to Robinson, he talked about the new material he and bandmate Esther Shaw, touring as a duo, had been trying out for an upcoming record titled The Alone Rush. The new songs draw from George Monbiot’s essay “The Age of Loneliness Is Killing Us,” as well as on Robinson’s reading on palliative care for the dying. “We had also relocated ourselves out to a really remote area of the Pacific Northwest,” Robinson explained, “and so I wanted to explore this idea of dislocation and detachment, but yet we’re all of us subject to this connectivity through social media...It’s inescapable, but is that connectivity, you know? What does it mean when you’re dislocated from society in whatever way you choose, whether it’s a physical dislocation or an emotional dislocation? What does that feel like to be at the end of your life and looking at that?”
Robinson and Shaw began their set with a slow transition into “Light Falls I—The Mantra,” the opening track on Light Falls. The band conveyed a sense of patience, something you can glean partly from their tracks’ extended running time but that coalesced for me quite clearly here at Saint Vitus, the sense that they were going to give the song as much time as it needed to develop. When the time came for the song to grow heavy, the impact was huge. Tension and release, loud-soft-loud-soft—post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor might well have milked these dynamics for more than their worth, but that doesn’t change the enduring power of well-earned catharsis.
The last time I had seen Wrekmeister Harmonies, the band was performing Then It All Came Down, a composition that called for a dozen-plus member ensemble. At Saint Vitus, Shaw managed to build the same level of atmosphere on her own, with voice, violin, keyboard, and some percussion. Robinson played guitar and keyboard, cueing Shaw to guide the songs where necessary. Projected behind the two of them was Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man. Brakhage was an experimental filmmaker whose work ranges from the diary film style of his contemporary Jonas Mekas to documentary investigations like The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, which looks unflinchingly at autopsies performed in a Pittsburgh hospital. One of Brakhage’s most purely experimental films, The Text of Light, consists of abstract montage footage shot through a crystal ashtray. What would seem to be a film of limited, narrow aesthetic focus is arguably the opposite. A quote by Johannes Scotus Eriugena, oft-cited by Brakhage and included in Anthology Film Archives's program notes on the film, states: “All that is, is light.”
In this range of material I see a shared link with Robinson’s work. Taken together, Wrekmeister Harmonies’ oeuvre is an argument that certain dark areas of the human condition can indeed serve as the subject matter for art. This is an argument for more in-depth exploration of those areas, but it is an aesthetic argument as well. Attendant with the idea that everything that is is light is the assertion of film's power as a medium that can capture that totality. Robinson has similar ambitions, but has trained his focus on the negative of Eriugena’s formulation. Wrekmeister Harmonies' music explores all that is when light falls.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is a writer, translator, and musician. He lives in New York City.