Sopor Aeternus and the Ensemble of Shadows

Sopor Aeternus

This week’s weird artiste makes most other so-called Goth bands look like posers by comparison. Anna-Varney Cantodea is so Goth she never performs “in front of humans,” preferring instead to save her striking, vampire/Butoh appearance for eerie photo shoots and the occasional blurry music video that flickers like a faded silent movie print. Her music is so Goth it defies easy categorization, mixing neoclassical, darkwave and synth-rock elements into long, lugubrious songs that occasionally erupt into densely orchestrated bursts of melodrama that would do Danny Elfman proud. She’s so Goth that her “band,” the Ensemble of Shadows, is apparently her nickname for the ghosts and restless spirits who crowd around her and provide inspiration for her work. Sopor Æternus is, in short, probably the Gothiest musical project ever.

Anna-Varney was born male and now identifies as a transgendered female. She took the name Varney from a 19th century Gothic horror novel, later adding the more feminine Anna and eventually the surname Cantodea, Latin for “I sing, Goddess.” She grew up in Frankfurt, Germany and her birth year is commonly listed as 1952, which would make her 61 or 62.

As a child, she had a vision of her future self in a train station, which she described thusly in an interview: “an ageless creature (of undefinable gender), all dressed in black, with a beautiful, kind of pennate black mohawk.”  By 1989, the year she first began making music as Sopor Æternus (Latin for “eternal sleep”), she had apparently modeled her appearance on that childhood vision.

Her early music mixed baroque and neoclassical acoustic instruments with synthesizers and drum machines and was generally categorized as darkwave or a then-popular German Goth-rock subgenre called Neue Deutsche Todeskunst (“New German Death Art”). But aside from sharing themes of death, despair and the occult, especially vampirism, Cantodea’s music bore little resemblance to that of her contemporaries. After parting ways with an early collaborator named Holger, she worked, by her own account, in near-total isolation, battling chronic depression to compose her music and only enlisting other musicians when it finally came time to enter the studio. She’s continued to make occasional use of synths, but mostly her work now is richly orchestrated chamber music, heavy on strings, horns and more exotic instruments like dulcimers and harpsichords.

Since releasing her debut album, …Ich töte mich…, in 1994, Anna-Varney has released about a dozen Sopor Æternus albums, plus EPs, singles, remix collections and a box set of rarities and demos. Many of her releases come in elaborate, limited-edition packages, accompanied by books of lyrics, stories and photographs—if you search “Sopor Aeternus unboxing” on YouTube, you’ll find at least a dozen videos of fans lovingly removing the shrink wrap from their prized copies of her work. Her latest album, Mitternacht: The Dark Night of the Soul, is due out Sept. 23rd and can already be pre-ordered in one of four different packages, offering various combinations of books, CDs, vinyl and T-shirts.

Anna-Varney remains fairly secretive about her personal life, but she does regularly advocate LGBT causes, veganism and animal rights. She’s really into numerology, specifically the numbers 2, 11, 13 and 4, although she won’t explain what they represent to her. She also won’t explain her interest the Roman gods Saturn and Jupiter—she uses a combination of their astrological symbols as a glyph she calls Jusa on all her records, and they appear frequently in her lyrics (especially Saturn), but it’s unclear whether she feels a spiritual connection to them or simply finds them useful as metaphors for death and rebirth.

She’s a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe (having set many of his poems to music, including an entire album’s worth of them on 2013’s Poetica: All Beauty Sleeps) and Rozz Williams, the lead singer of the goth-rock band Christian Death, who took his own life in 1998. In fact, she just visited Williams’ shrine at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery here in L.A. earlier this year. She wrote a blog post about it in which she mostly talks about how much she hated L.A., which I guess shouldn’t surprise me, since everything about her music and appearance pre-dates nearly every aspect of this entire city. Still, I hope next time she’s here she’ll come for Dia de los Muertos, or visit the California Institute of Abnormalarts, or the Museum of Jurassic Technology. L.A.’s a great city for Goths, if you know where to look. But I digress…

We’ll leave you with a few samples of Sopor Æternus’ Goth-tastic music and videos. First up: 2010’s “A Strange Thing to Say,” the first part of her A Triptychon of GHOSTS (or: El Sexorcismo) trilogy. Much of this video was shot in, of all places, Montana, at a ghost town called Bannack. The carousel is in the decidedly non-ghostly Montana town of Missoula, where we can only imagine the townspeople were really confused to see a woman dressed up like Gary Oldman’s Dracula riding the plastic ponies.

Next: “In der Palästra” from 2007’s Les Fleurs du Mal, probably her most famous release. Incidentally, in case you haven’t guessed by now, the warning at the beginning of many of her videos advising that “it’s naturally fabulous, but shows NO signs of humour” is itself a bit of a joke. Many of Sopor Æternus’ best songs and videos have a definite element of camp to them.

Still don’t believe us that some of this stuff is supposed to be funny? Fine, we’ll leave you with “A Little Bar of Soap.” Slippy, slippy, slimy!

We owe thanks to many readers for helping introduce us to the tragic charms of Sopor Æternus: Andres, Rembrandt, Michael from Mexico, Cr0w, Denny, jeanbannon and I’m sure we’re forgetting a few. For someone who never performs live, Anna-Varney has quite the legion of devoted fans.

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More Brandt Brauer Frick U.S. tour dates (minus the Ensemble)

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Well, they still won’t be dragging their full 10-piece ensemble around the country, but Germany’s techno/classical crossover crew Brandt Brauer Ensemble will be playing a few more U.S. dates in addition to their previously announced gig at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors series in New York City. These will feature only the BBF trio, so don’t expect any harps and tubas playing dance music. But if you like crisp German techno with touches of (pre-recorded) chamber music instrumentation, you’ll probably dig these shows anyway.

Here are the full dates:

7/31 – Washington, DC – U Street Music Hall
8/02 – New York, NY – Lincoln Center: Only US Full Ensemble Date (w/ The Bad Plus)
8/03 – New York, NY – Santos Party House
8/04 – Montreal, QC – Osheaga

More West Coast dates soon, guys?

New Mike Patton live album coming July 3rd, featuring the music of Luciano Berio

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By Mike Patton’s prolific standards, he’s been keeping pretty quiet of late. We haven’t heard any new music from the lead singer/screamer/vocalese-generator of two of our favorite weird bands, Mr. Bungle and Fantomas, since last November’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers, his soundtrack for the film of the same name. But come July 3rd, Patton’s months-long silence will finally come to an end with the release of Laborintus II, his live rendition of a piece by the Italian experimental composer Luciano Berio. And based on the clip below, it is weird shit indeed.

Berio wrote Laborintus II in 1965 to mark the 700th anniversary of the birth of Dante, who wrote a little poem called the Inferno that some of you may have been forced to read in a comparative lit class at some point. Apparently Berio himself performed the piece in 1972 with a blow-up doll and old car tires gracing the stage. Patton, in collaboration with the Belgian-based Ictus Ensemble and the Dutch choral group Nederlands Kamerkoor, plays it more straight—so don’t expect any Mr. Bungle-like hijinks here. In fact, he pretty much just recites poetry in Italian and leaves the ominous wailing to the chorus. (You can watch the whole performance on Vimeo if you’re so inclined. But that sorta feels like cheating, doesn’t it?)

Laborintus II comes out July 3rd on Patton’s Ipecac Recordings.

Hoity-Toity Techno: Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble Making Their Debut U.S. Appearance at Lincoln Center

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If you happen to be in New York City this August and you like your techno served with a side of pretentiousness, have we got news for you. The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble is bringing their live chamber music/techno fusion to Lincoln Center’s summer “Out of Doors” series. Finally, New Yorkers can listen to techno played live, with no drum machines, while they’re sitting down—just like nature intended.

If you’re not familiar with the BBF Ensemble: They’re a 10-piece band from Berlin who play (mostly) acoustic instruments like harp, cello, tuba and live percussion, but use them to create a blippy sonic palette not unlike minimal techno. If that still leaves you scratching your head, just watch some of the live video at the end of this post and you’ll get the idea. We’re still not sure if it makes the music any more interesting than actual techno, but it should definitely make for a unique concert experience.

The Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors series is free and slightly less hoity-toity than their usual schedule of opera, ballet and classical music, but it will likely still attract a stuffier crowd than, say, the Sahara Tent at Coachella. Also on the bill that night: avant-jazz trio The Bad Plus doing a “re-envisioning” of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. By the way, combining the words “avant-jazz,” “re-envisioning” and “Stravinsky” in the same sentence literally causes NPR subscribers to pass out as if from some kind of high-culture whippit.

The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble play Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Thursday, Aug. 2nd. Did we mention it’s their debut American performance? Well, it is. So feel special, New Yorkers. Like you don’t already.

Here’s the BBF crew in action in Vienna. Enjoy.

The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble

It might not be obvious at first, but the distance between classical music and techno isn’t that great. Both are predominantly instrumental forms of music. Both layer sound in complex ways that go far beyond melody, or sometimes do away with melody altogether. Both think those avant-garde minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley are pretty dope. Techno and classical may play in different sandboxes, but they definitely share a shovel occasionally.

Still, the lengths Brandt Brauer Frick go to in order to combine the two genres seem a tad extreme. The first time we heard about these German cats, they were still pretty much building their minimal techno tracks the old-fashioned way: with lots of loops and programmed beats, albeit ones based mostly on acoustic sounds. But they were clearly interested in playing with people’s expectations of how such sounds are created; in the video for their track “Bop” (pictured above), they cloned themselves several times over to create an imaginary orchestra, playing the track’s hypnotically repetitive piano, percussion and even a well-timed rain stick with robotic precision.

But not content to stop there, BBF went ahead and created a ten-piece chamber orchestra called the (wait for it) Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble to recreate their tracks live, with no loops or programmed sounds at all. Even after watching two videos of the Ensemble in action, I still can’t decide if it’s a cool idea or not. I mean, on the one hand, it’s pretty damn impressive that these musicians—including a harpist, cellist, trombonist and whatever you call a tuba player (tubist?)—have the restraint, rhythmic sense and technical prowess required to produce the layered, percussive sounds of techno with mostly acoustic instruments (they sneak a Moog in there, but still). On the other hand, well, isn’t this what drum machines were invented for? I’m just not sure if it adds anything to my enjoyment of the music. It’s like watching a master sculptor carve an IKEA table.

But judge for yourself: Here’s a clip of the BBF Ensemble rehearsing a handful of tracks, including two (“Teufelsleiter” and “606 ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll”) from the first BBF album to feature the Ensemble, Mr. Machine, which is out on !K7 Records next month. What do you think…brilliant techno/classical fusion, or pointless technical exercise?

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Edmund Welles

Ever since Kronos Quartet tackled Hendrix back in the ’80s, classically trained musicians have been trying to prove that their cellos and oboes are more than just museum pieces, good for wheezing out dusty old “Concertos in B Flat Minor” and not much else. So they trot out string quartet versions of Radiohead, or even Lady Gaga medleys for bassoon, and…well, okay, the Lady Gaga bassoon ensemble, the Breaking Winds, is actually kinda cool. But they’re the exception. Most of this stuff just sounds like a slightly classed-up version of Muzak.

So when a friend and reader named Josh (sup, Josh?) suggested that we check out his buddy’s “heavy chamber music” quartet, we have to admit, we were skeptical. Classical musicians doing heavy metal covers? Apocalyptica covered that territory 15 years ago. Moving on.

Then we actually heard Edmund Welles—which is a band, not a person (the name is a Monty Python reference…I mean, not that I would know that without having to look it up…okay, maybe I would)—and, well, let’s just put it this way: The bass clarinet is an inherently weird instrument. Put four of them together in one group, and it sounds like a chorus of demon cats in heat fighting over a chicken bone. A demon chorus whose eerie caterwaulings just happen to occasionally assemble themselves into passages from Pixies and Nirvana songs.

Edmund Welles is the brainchild of one Cornelius Boots (his given name? if so, his parents rule), who first conceived of the idea of an all-bass clarinet ensemble back in 1996, the same year Apocalyptica was giving Metallica the all-cello treatment. Boots liked heavy metal, too, but he also liked alternative rock, jazz, traditional American folk music, and even good old fashioned baroque classical music, the stuff the bass clarinet was invented to play in the first place. And he was determined to combine all his affections into a single, pulsating mass of bass clarinet awesomeness. This was such a uniquely weird concept that Boots worked on his Edmund Welles project in solitude for several years before finally assembling enough fellow bass clarinetists to begin staging public performances.

In 2004, the group released its first album, Agrippa’s 3 Books, which Boots himself has described as “Muzak for conspiracy theorists,” “inspired by occult philosophy and heavy metal music.” In addition to an original multi-part movement with titles like “Asmodeus: The Destroyer, King of the Demons,” the album also featured covers of songs by Black Sabbath, Sepultura and (no, really) Spinal Tap. They’ve since released a second album of original material called Tooth & Claw, which has cover art that would’ve made the late great Ronnie James Dio smile. Is the bass clarinet the Woodwind of the Beast? Well, now that you mention it, that’s kinda what it sounds like.

Inevitably, Edmund Welles have gotten the most attention for their covers, especially a very solemn reading of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Their original stuff is weirder and ultimately much more interesting, but we’ll give you their version of “Creep” here in the hopes that it serves as a gateway to some of the harder stuff. Sort of the way your local Philharmonic does “The Nutcracker” every Christmas in the hopes that you’ll buy season tickets and come back for some Bartok and Stravinsky.

P.S. Did we mention that Cornelius Boots has also released an album of “sound, not music” called Sabbaticus Rex, featuring “spontaneous, sustained sound structuring” with Japanese flutes, gongs and Tuvan throat singing? Well, he has. Just thought we’d throw that in there.

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