Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: Theophonos Talks Mirror in Darkness and the End of Serpent Column
This is the 48th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: Serpent Column
Album: Mirror in Darkness
Favorite Song: "Warlords of the World to Come"
The Bare Bones: Mirror in Darkness is the second full-length by one-man black metal project Serpent Column.
The Beating Heart: People picking up instruments and using them to convey extreme emotion is a fairly catch-all and still quite accurate descriptor for many of the artists I have covered in this series. Sometimes those emotions come from bleak personal feeling, sometimes from the urge to create a new form that fits those feelings, and sometimes something much larger in scope. With their second album Serpent Column created a shockwave that ran through the extreme underground, one that, I think, can be explained by the fact that it seemed to draw from basically of all of those separate expressive traditions in order to create one cohesive, and, if I may, beautiful shooting ray of pain. It had the urgent angst of mathcore/hardcore, the nihilistic destruction of black metal, the wall-of-sound, shifting-earth quality of death metal, and the emotive edge of screamo. It was, and remains, one of the most deceptively beautiful albums in recent memory, and another stellar part of the Mystiskaos collective/label that has been previously encountered in the AOTD series via interviews with Wormlust and Skáphe.
Which is why I was more than happy to chat with Theophonos, the band's main driving force, about that album and its place in his artistic path. Unfortunately it was also a chat wherein I discovered Serpent Column is no more. Only partially unfortunate, however, since it seems there's plenty of more music coming from Theophonos, whether under the Serpent Column name or not.
As always, before we get to my exchange with Theophonos this is my chance to encourage you to check out the rest of the Albums of the Decade series and Pillars of the 90s interview series as well our kinda-dead, kinda-alive podcast (YouTube, Spotify and all that) and/or our latest compilation album MILIM KASHOT VOL. 3, and read our 2021 AOTY list. Also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, Tiktok and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, if you like what you see here (for whatever reason). Thank you for your time and support. On to Theophonos and Serpent Column.
Do you remember a moment you had with a song or an album that really changed what you thought about music / scared you / excited you, especially as a younger person? Granted it might happen more than once, and might still be happening, but I guess I'm thinking of an earlier moment like that that you remember.
Sure. There's a passage in "The Manifold Curiosity" by Kayo Dot where there's several vocalists reciting something. There's a lot going on in that passage (samples of pages turning, other "sound objects" that are harder to triangulate). The voices sync up intermittently, and it all culminates in a really beautiful moment with all of the instruments. The stereo field just kind of populates and transforms in a way that's like sitting outside and watching something natural. It's a really incredible passage.
That it is a beautiful section, and a beautiful album. And I'm interested in a couple of things, first of which is this idea of listening to something "natural." And the Kayo Dot passage is a great case in point, because Toby Driver is such a compositional force, and so careful about how sounds fit (or don't) with each other. And so in that way one would say he isn't natural at all – it's very wrought, and intentional, and painstaking. So I guess I'm asking how do you achieve "natural" when so much thought is going into the music? And if "natural" is something you're interested in with your own work?
Well, you don't. You're doing something that's ultimately the product of your (or others') decisions, even if a lot of instinct is involved.
Yeah, I guess I'm asking about the effect. Why is it that some things, say that passage, feel natural? Is it because it's a bit chaotic? Or the found samples? Out of order?
It’s just a passage you can engage with on many levels. It promotes rather than forecloses. Basically it sounds great when you’re high.
Ha. Interestingly that's a category I haven't thought of that would fit 100 percent of the albums I've chosen for this series.
Well, it’s an honor then.
Other than the fact that you were particularly struck by that moment, is there a way in which you can identify its influence on your work as a musician? A reason why, as some who are now making music, that section might still inform what you do today? Musically obviously there's a lot of difference, but something you try to replicate maybe in your own way?
Well, that passage (and Choirs of the Eye in general) didn’t particularly motivate my work with Serpent Column as, say, Si Monumentum by Deathspell Omega did. I didn’t think it was feasible to achieve something like the former, so it didn’t have as much of an impact. Yet it certainly showed me what was at least theoretically possible if I had enough disposable time to cultivate my skills in such a way.
Which is interesting because I think most people listening to Serpent Column would assume that it's a high-skill kind of music. Or are those not the same skill?
They aren’t. Marshaling over a dozen types of acoustic instrumentalists – that just wasn’t in the hand I was dealt for Serpent Column. There’s a lifetime of resources and chance involved in a thing like that. I’m truly glad it all lined up for someone as gifted as Driver.
One of the things that I've picked up in the context of Serpent Column and specifically with Mirror in Darkness is a whole bunch of mathcore/screamo, which, I think, one does not usually link to ritualistic, maximalist black metal. So while this is I guess on the other spectrum from KD, is that brand of Botch/Coalesce/Knut manic energy part of what you do?
Sure, it was an influence growing up and there are a few obvious moments influenced by hardcore on every Serpent Column record. But it’s mostly incidental. A few groovy breakdowns and minor seconds doesn’t make you mathcore-influenced. But prior to recording Mirror, I had just learned most of Deathspell Omega’s Paracletus and The Synarchy Of Molten Bones on guitar, which taught me more interesting techniques like economy picked melodies utilizing all strings, stacked minor fifths, and tremolo picking in groups of three over a slower even meter to effect speed. Nobody really talks about those elements in the context of Serpent Column or even Deathspell Omega, or even more interesting elements like the accompanying texts – it’s all “dissonant this, mathcore that.”
I just raised it because I seem to remember you mentioning something about stupid-smart in the music you appreciate or the music you aspire to make. I can relate to that myself. But I seems to me that bands like Botch, for instance, kind of represent one way of doing stupid-smart. Say, "stupid" chords but used in a smart way. So not really just the incidental breakdown, but more of an attitude. I wonder if that applies (albeit differently) to Deathspell Omega as well. That amid all the grandiosity there's also, maybe, something simple or "dumb."
For sure. Today I’d say something like there is nothing less effective than a metal band that forgets they still have to play good music. And fuck all this over-intellectualization of shit like death metal, like it's craft beer – go back to categorizing rappers. Things have to come down to a gut level. I can’t speak for those French douchebags, but – and this is more of an opportunistic observation that galvanized my work rather than a critique – you can’t listen to them without the text. I mean, you can, but it's like watching a foreign-language film with no subtitles. It’s liturgical and literary music, being liturgical and literary first. That’s a key difference between our bodies of work. I aspired for something that prioritized the purely musical elements, almost to the point where it could be (and eventually was) independent.
If I may keep the Deathspell Omega / Botch thing going for a minute, these are also two bands or two kinds of bands for which disappointment or bereavement or a certain out-of-placeness seems to be key. But in very different ways. For mathcore bereavement is very personal and at times also kind of ironic. For a band like Deathspell Omega it's almost the opposite – impersonal, perhaps cultural, and dead serious. Where do you fall on this? Is your own mode mourning ironic and personal or does it have that feel of scope?
Where did I fall on this? Modern industrialized civilizations are giant open air prisons. They mostly suck to live in. Serpent Column always dealt with this, and I turned more inward and self-expressive during the final records. I think I was more angry, alienated, and suffering than mourning – though I do mourn my years spent at university. They were a reprieve from living under this bullshit.
Can you trace around which album this shift inward happened? Was this a result of a kind of philosophical shift or was it manifest in the art before you understood that that change was taking part?
It happened over time. I was living through acutely stressful periods and going through major changes as I was writing and recording, so it's difficult to tell. The years between 2017 and 2019 are overall difficult to recall.
I have a background of reading literature, and in that tradition there's a very strong tradition of rejecting modernity, especially evident in certain modernist writers in the beginning of the twentieth century. And while I see the value of that critique it also sometimes is accompanied by a kind of adoration of the past that I'm never that comfortable with. Especially since that past always seems as shitty if not more than the present. So, the way you see it, is this more of a comment on how things are or maybe a desire to link up to a tradition of doing things (art?) that really has no footing in any time or place, let alone the present?
That was a response to your question about bereavement. Serpent Column engaged with several anti-modernists out of pure interest in the psychology of lost ontologies. On the surface, there is so much potentiality, richness, and beauty there, especially for artists. Yet I am not at all comfortable with regression either. After a certain point, I moved on from all the pain, alienation, and all the neckbeard-adjacent bullshit. That's why I'm speaking in the past tense about Serpent Column – it's actually been over since 2020.
What do you mean by “over” since 2020. Was the last EP the last release?
Yeah – Serpent Column is over. At the moment, I'm finishing something under Theophonos. It's the name I took for Serpent Column under Mirror in Darkness, meaning "god-murderer," and it suits the material I've recorded since 2020. It has a lot of that record's themes in it, as well as reflections about that period. Depending on what happens, I may release a few records under that name, and perhaps under yet other names in the future. But there's no possibility of continuing under Serpent Column.
Why? Because it was a vehicle for something that isn't there anymore?
Precisely. It would be the wrong decision, internally, to continue something like that. It just wouldn't do justice to the project.
Maybe there's part of the artistic process that just has to involve some kind of rubbing up against something. Whether that happens because life runs against you and sometimes you feeling out of sorts or not fitting in. Which interestingly makes SC not fit in with a whole lot of current black metal. It sticks out.
Speaking for myself, I have a strong intuition. Couple that with isolation and a strong pain tolerance and you have the disaster that was Serpent Column. And good, I wanted nothing to do with all of that anyway.
And one of the things that stick out, relevant both to Mirror but to later albums too, is how often you switch it up. Change is important. Does that make sense?
That was a crucial part of the ethos. I adored how, for instance, John Coltrane, Toby Driver, or Deathspell Omega could reinvent themselves with (usually) incredible results.
Reinvent from album to album or within a track? Or both?
Over time. It was intriguing for me to look at a brilliant avant-gardist's work and go: "Ok, but what the fuck did they do to make that leap happen and how can I effect that in my own work?"
What's the answer when it has to do with your music? When do the leaps come?
Internal revolutions, usually affected by arrays of new skill sets. It's a lot of hard work and extremely time-consuming. If you want to know how I got from Ornuthi to Mirror, well, I actually had said this earlier – I had just learned how to play most of Paracletus and Synarchy. A lot of other things occurred as well, but adding what I learned there to my musical vocabulary was absolutely crucial.
So this kind of links up with what you said about Toby at the beginning, that the gap or leap is based in skill and in learning more about the instrument. More than, say, unlearning or just trying stuff out (Which kind of feels like jazz – work hard on the standards before you can break away).
Skill is crucial depending on what you want to accomplish, and it can also be just exploratory. But there are millions of extremely skilled musicians who have no desire or current ability to express themselves. That is another skill set.
Ha. Just wondering, seeing that Mystiskaos is such a collaborative-prone collective, was there ever a thought of doing something with any of them?
In 2019 I was assisting Hafsteinn [Lyngdal, of Wormlust, MM] with arrangements for a couple records he has not released under any name, but there is nothing currently in the works. I'm not interested in working on another black metal project at the moment, so no.
I usually end these by asking if there's anything about the album in question that the artist is especially proud of. But I guess that becomes a bit more complicated given your current relationship with the project. But, given that and given the anguish that's associated with that album, is there anything on it or with it that you feel holds up well still?
It's not at all complicated – these are just the facts of my life. I don't like to listen to my work after I've let go of it, but – like everything I did under that name – I believe that I did the best job I possibly could have given the circumstances and resources at the time. And I was always faithful to its aims, even if the costs were steep.