Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Review and Interview: Zeena Schreck and her debut Bring Me the Head of F. W. Murnau

    During the summer of 2015, the skull of German silent film director F. W. Murnau was stolen from his tomb.1 Remnants of wax from lit candles present at the scene spurred the hypothesis that occult work was afoot while the macabre nature of Murnau’s stolen skull drew parallels to his legendary horror output, in particular his influential expressionist film, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922).

    Shortly thereafter, inspired by the event, multimedia artist Zeena Schreck announced a “sequel to Radio Werewolf’s mystical, musical piece Bring Me the Head of Geraldo Rivera” that would be appropriately titled Bring Me the Head of F. W. Murnau.2 Five years later, Bring Me the Head of F. W. Murnau (BMTHOFWM) was released in March of 2020.

Bring Me the Head of FW Murnau
Cover art for Bring me the Head of F. W. Murnau by Ben Vaughn Zeitlin


    BMTHOFWM marks the first studio release proper of Zeena performing music solo. Prior to this EP, Zeena had been a part of many musical collaborations and projects, such as Radio Werewolf, and had released some of her live ritual performances, such as her appearance at Wave-Gotik-Treffen, on compilations and YouTube. Per Zeena in regard to releasing a concept album instead of an album of her ritual performances:


I definitely have future recording plans which will be in the areas of dark ambient and ritual music. [T]his first solo release was experimental in the sense I'd never done such a precise theme as concept album like this before. I like working within specific parameters though. Even in past recordings, when it might not seem obvious, I've almost always had in mind a particular framework within which to create the music. But this album was much more of a specific theme than I would normally do.”3

    BMTHOFWM certainly has a thematic laser focus, concentrating on Murnau and some of his films, while capturing a certain silent film aesthetic, though paradoxically, with sound. Zeena pulls this feat off – a silent film with no images but instead with sounds – by incorporating elements of field recordings, minimalist-industrial, exotica, spoken words, and incantations, in conjunction with the brilliant German expressionist/Caligari style artwork that emblazons the release’s cover art that evokes some of the classic horror posters of the era.

    Though Murnau is the subject of the EP, the filmmaker did not have a strong influence on Zeena at the beginning of the project:

[Murnau was] not a huge influence. It was only his films Nosferatu and Faust that I had known and really liked since childhood, when they'd play on late night TV. I knew he'd worked with the occultist artist/architect Albin Grau on the sets for Nosferatu but working with an occultist doesn't automatically make you one. There is also the tie-in of my last name being the same as the actor who played Count Orlok, Max Schreck, in Murnau's most famous film Nosferatu. I'd also remembered the scandalous rumors about his untimely death that my godfather Kenneth Anger wrote of in Hollywood Babylon, rumors which, by the way, I've since learned weren't true. But aside from these things, I hadn't much knowledge of his life prior to embarking on this project. I know far more about him now.

Originally, I'd planned that this [release] was only going to be a single; not more than a two-track novelty piece inspired by a quirky event. But then, as I began researching more about Murnau and put flesh on the bones of this project, certain metaphysical portals started opening up. More material for more tracks developed than could be narrowed down to just a single. Yet I didn't want this to be a full album either. So, the logical middle ground was to make it an EP.”4

    Through the process of researching Murnau, Zeena also visited the director’s home and his grave, gathering field recordings that would be incorporated into the compositions of BMTHOFWM:

[I] intermingled various sounds from both locations in just about every track except the opening one, ‘Letter to Mother.’ Some of those field recordings were used in a straightforward manner, such as a fox barking, birds singing, the sound of some machinery or a metal gate clanging. Those can be detected fairly clearly enough. But other sounds used, I distorted in the editing to achieve certain auditory effects.

When I visited Murnau's grave, for the photo shoot to the CD, I was focused on getting the photos but hadn't intended on capturing field recordings at the same time. I'd already compiled field recordings taken at the former Murnau house in Berlin, which coincidentally happens to be right in my neighborhood. In addition to that, I'd painstakingly searched for specific samples corresponding to the exact years of Murnau's creative life and his death, such as the sound of the precise year and make of the car he was in when it crashed, leading to his death. Or a snippet of a song that would've been popular at parties in Hollywood that he may have attended. Things like that.

Back of album photo of Zeena at FW Murnau's grave by Lance Anderson

So, getting back to the cemetery field recordings: It was only by fluke, while taking photos at Murnau's grave, that my camera accidentally engaged the video record. It wasn't until later that day, when downloading my data from the day's shoot, I realized I'd inadvertently gotten some unexpected and pretty interesting sounds while at the grave. Luckily, there was still time to mix those in before the final edit and mastering. For some unknown reason, I've always had strange energy clashes with electronic devices; something's always malfunctioning with them in my case. I've come to expect these ‘accidental’ recordings of environment sounds, with both my audio recorder and my cameras video setting. Whenever it happens, I always discover something interesting, humorous or just uncanny and bizarre that gets added to my sound library. This reveals how much is occurring all the time that we humans normally filter out but which, when cut out of the normal flow of everyday life, can be wonderful auditory meditations. I'm sure that those unexpected sounds at the cemetery made a difference in enhancing an underlying eerie quality to the whole thing.”5

    Zeena’s field recordings directly tie into her concept of “sonic necromancy.” These field recordings she gathered communicate an additional essence of Murnau that would not have been present otherwise:

Sound art differs from conventionally composed music in that soundscapes are generally thought to be like paintings done with sound rather than matter. They may or may not necessarily tell a story. In this case, however, there is story. Between many years of magical ritual practices, as well as early-life theater and film training, which includes techniques in character development, sense memory and improvisation, a fusion of disciplined training in all these areas creates conducive conditions for summoning of the dead. While my magical training and ritual experience is probably more generally acknowledged than my theater training, I mention the latter only in relation to this music project because I'm playing various characters or roles throughout. Whether we are hearing Murnau's own thoughts in the opening and closing tracks, or the female Angel of Death who's come to usher Murnau away from this worldly experience, or the ‘bardo beings’ who inhabit the intermediate state between the end of one life and the beginning of the next. All of those voices are different characters revealing different levels of metaphysical existence and understanding.”6

    If BMTHOFWM sounds like a multifaceted release, it is because it certainly is. Though the EP only contains six tracks and clocks in at roughly 18 minutes, it is compact in its sound design, atmosphere, and ambitious scope.

    The first track of the EP, “Letter to Mother,” has Zeena reciting a letter Murnau wrote to his mother against a background of crashing waves. In this track, Zeena channels her aforementioned acting chops, mimicking a deeper voice that would be Muranu. It is a somber recital that sets a melancholy mood that permeates the release.

    Track two, “Ill Omens,” runs with this melancholy with a peppering of something menacing or foreboding. It is a track that is minimal on sound, but high on atmosphere. Closing one’s eyes, one can picture an old film with a scene of tiptoeing through a cave or a dimly lit forest, illuminated day-for-night style, while a Harryhausen-esque monster waiting to emerge from the shadows.

    The third track, “A Drive up the Coast,” chronicles the last moments of Murnau as he died in an auto accident while traversing the Pacific Coast Highway near Santa Barbara in 1931. The track begins jovial, with organ music composed by Zeena that evokes a funfair or a period appropriate party in the background. Sounds of an open car window woosh by before (spoiler alert!) the sounds of accelerations, followed by a scream, tires screeching, and a crash.

    Track four, “Tabu,” is a reference to Murnau’s final film, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) that was released shortly after his death. An early tiki film, the story depicts two lovers, Reri and Matahi, as they try to escape Reri’s fate of being made into a sacred maiden for their island’s deities. The first half of the song is the most industrial-sounding music on the EP, with some minimalist piston-percussions. The last half of the song switches gears to the exotica genre, with primitive drumming and shakers, that channels the likes of Martin Denny and Les Baxter. Over the music, Zeena, reaching into her experience of performing incantations, recites the same decree that was uttered in Tabu that denoted Reri as forbidden, and not to be touched by any man.

    “The Phantom Bridge” is the EP’s fifth track and this one digs right into the vampiric roots Murnau is best known for. A spoken word track, Zeena recites some of the inter titles from Murnau’s Nosferatu which in turn were taken from Stoker’s Dracula. The music in this track is, as the title suggests, ghostly, with spirituals wisps, shackling noises, tiny bells and chimes.

    The EP’s final track, “Endlich Daheim,” is perhaps the most ambitious track on the album, that not only underscores Murnau’s career, but demonstrates Zeena at her most artistic. Prior songs on the EP has Zeena reciting texts from other sources while “Endlich Daheim” contains both original organ music and lyrics by Zeena, sung in a haunting and beautiful style. A sound of a 1920s projector starting up beings the track with the music proper evoking the feelings of being at a funeral - Murnau’s funeral - with Zeena’s poetry acting as a eulogy.


Publicity photo of Zeena at FW Murnau's grave by Lance Anderson.

    The end result is that BMTHOFWM is a superb solo debut for Zeena and an excellent experimental release all around. Atmospheric, haunting, and magical, but also cinematic and fully versed in filmic pop culture that it celebrates. Born from a macabre act of stealing the skull of Murnau, the EP easily could’ve embraced grotesquery or morbidness, but instead the CD comes off as sincere. Aside from these observations, Zeena herself had her own goals for the release:


“Well, after a few years of unexpected obstacles, as well as unexpected serendipitous occurrences which led to creating much more material for this than I'd originally planned, I guess the main thing I wanted to accomplish was getting it completed at all! Jokes aside, the fact is, there's still someone out there who has taken and kept the skull from Murnau's grave. This is at the heart of the project. I wanted to pull all of the unusual elements surrounding this case together into one cohesive creative expression. The music in this project is created to facilitate opening the mind to all possible questions surrounding that event, and even to, on a transcendental and metaphysical level, provide even bigger answers.”7

    Five years after the act, the mystery of who absconded with Murnau’s skull remains unsolved. Of course, thoughts have drifted to Schreck as a possible culprit, which she both playfully and adamantly dismisses: “[S]ince many have already jokingly asked me – let's nip this in the bud right here – NO, it wasn't me!”8

Artistic composition of Zeena Schreck.

    Sincere thanks for Zeena Schreck for allowing me to interview her for this writeup and providing the images. All images used in this article are copyrighted by Zeena Schreck and used with permission. More information about Zeena and her projects can be found at the following websites and social medias:


Website: https://www.zeenaschreck.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ZEENA.Official.ZeenaSchreck/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/zeenaschreck_art/

Bandcamp: https://zeenaschreck.bandcamp.com/releases

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/ZeenaSchreckOfficial


Endnotes


    1. Nigel M Smith, “Nosferatu director’s head stolen from grave in Germany,” The Guardian, last modified July 14, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jul/14/nosferatu-director-head-stolen-germany-grave-fw-murnau.

    2. “Coming Soon From Zeena Schreck: Bring Me The Head of F.W. Murnau,” Heathen Harvest, last modified July 21, 2015, https://heathenharvest.wordpress.com/2015/07/21/coming-soon-from-zeena-schreck-bring-me-the-head-of-f-w-murnau/.

    3. Zeena Schreck, email message to author, June 16, 2020.

    4. Ibid.

    5. Ibid.

    6. Ibid.


Bibliography

Coming Soon From Zeena Schreck: Bring Me The Head of F.W. Murnau.” Heathen Harvest. Last modified July 21, 2015. https://heathenharvest.wordpress.com/2015/07/21/coming-soon-from-zeena-schreck-bring-me-the-head-of-f-w-murnau/.

Schreck, Zeena. Bring me the Head of F. W. Murnau. KCH KCHCD01. 2020. CD.

Smith, Nigel M. “Nosferatu director’s head stolen from grave in Germany.” The Guardian. Last modified July 14, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jul/14/nosferatu-director-head-stolen-germany-grave-fw-murnau.



Sunday, March 8, 2020

A Savage World: Review of Awen’s The Hollow in the Stone

Released late in 2019, The Hollow in the Stone is American neofolk outfit Awen’s third and newest studio album since their 2014 release, Grim King of the Ghosts. Released right on the eve of Awen’s fifteen year in operation, The Hollow in the Stone is the band’s most refined, polished, and ambitious album to date. The album is mixture of distinct, yet associated styles – neofolk, post-industrial, narrative spoken word – arranged on the release in a seamless, cohesive fashion. This balance of styles has not gone unnoticed by fans of the band, with Erin Powell, figurehead of Awen, stating “stylistically we have maintained a combination of folk and industrial elements for the last several albums, whereas some projects seem to just focus on an all acoustic instrument sound. I’ve had feedback from people over the years that they appreciate this mixture of sounds from us.”

Cover art to The Hollow in the Stone


The Hollow in the Stone contains thirteen tracks, two of them being intro/outros, with the rest being original compositions, with only “I am Stretched on your Grave” being a traditional song, rearranged by Katrin X. Guest appearances are a trademark of Awen, with long time alumnus b9 InViD of Et Nihil appearing once again, along with a first time appearance of Jerome Reuter from ROME. “Perversity of Joy,” “Brigid the Dark, Brigid the Light,” “Hawthorn Rod,” “The Death Of Reynard,” and “The Hollow In The Stone” constitute the album’s neofolk offerings. “Englyn for Blodeuwedd,” “In the Heart of the Corpseknot” and “The Sickle and the Setting Sun” are the industrial/martial-industrial tracks on the album while “I am Stretched on your Grave” adds an ethereal sound to the mix.

The neofolk tracks are exceptionally well executed, with Powell displaying a fondness for “Hawthorn Rod” that he feels shows all facets of Awen coming into play. The song is an excellent duet between Powell and Katrin X, with catchy and seductive guitars that lures a listener in. “Brigid the Dark, Brigid the Light,” which is about the Irish goddess Brigid, captures the same romantic neofolk elements.

Awen live, 2019. Photo by Karl Hendrik


“Morrigan” is an unexpected surprise on The Hollow in the Stone and a tremendous delight. A departure to traditional Awen songs of the past, “Morrigan” is a spoken word track. Awen has come close to flirting with the genre on prior releases in songs such as “Sacrifice” from The Bells Before Dawn, which is more akin to an NSK speech or a Praise the Fallen-era VNV Nation track, and “Dream of an Omen,” which also contains bits of the spoken word formula, yet still feels more like a song than a narration. Instead, “Morrigan” is a narrative, third person perspective, dark fiction, spoken word short story. In the tale, an unnamed protagonist travels though a dark forest with a sinister steed and happens upon the mysterious titular Morrigan at a stream. It is an encounter that will not bode well for the protagonist. “Morrigan” demonstrates that Powell is a master orator, and Awen should consider releasing more songs, or even a one-off album, of narrated stories. As Cadabra Records has shown with their luxurious vinyl releases of readings of H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Thomas Ligotti, there is a niche market for dark spoken word albums set to ambient/industrial soundscapes. Awen, who have repurposed poetic works before (as “Empire, Night & the Breaker” from The Bells Before Dawn which uses the poetry of Breaker Morant) is the perfect outfit to release even more tracks in this vein.

For fans of ROME who are not familiar with Awen, but are interested in checking out the album due to Reuter’s appearance on the track “The Death Of Reynard” (or perhaps due to Awen’s appearance on ROME’s Le Ceneri Di Heliodoro) are in for a treat as Reuter’s distinctive, hypnotic voice is put to excellent use on the neofolkish song. The song showcases a great mixture of both ROME and Awen.

Excluding the outro “Cyfraith Dyn,” The Hollow in the Stone ends with “The Sickle and the Setting Sun,” and what a way to end. The song is an excellent representation of Awen’s aggressive-side of their music catalog, and if this were the 90s-2000s, “The Sickle and the Setting Sun” would be the album’s first MCD single, complete with remixes and multimedia tracks. The song is an apocalyptic-pop, bombastic tune. Powell’s voice booms over thunderous drums while Katrin X’s vocals seethe the song’s title in a call-and-response fashion. The opening lyrics “the symbol of the setting sun / cruel crescent that severs grain and chaff as one / the punishing steel / once cut, it’s done! / the sickle and the setting sun” sets the stage for the subject matter of the song, drawing imagery from neofolk tropes, and yet uniquely applying to Awen, creating an anthem of sorts for the band. The sickle has been an iconic implement used by the band, especially during live performances with Katrin X brandishing them, drawing parallels to, say, how Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle did during the May Day celebrations in The Wicker Man. Powell further elaborates on the meaning of the sickle to Awen:

“Katrin does use a pair of antique sickles with a contact mic on them in studio recordings and live performances. It is an interesting symbol to me. Agricultural, but also urban and modern in the context of 20th century political iconography. We read that the ancient druids used a golden sickle to cut mistletoe in their rituals. The shape of the blade is a crescent moon, which has many interesting connotations throughout the ages and different cultures. The severing blade, life from death.” 

Awen live, 2019. Photo by Karl Hendrik


The album concludes with “Cyfraith Dyn: which echoes the sound of the album’s intro track, “Cyfraith Natur.” Both tracks act as opulent bookends to the album.

Though it has been five years between the release of Awen’s second album, Grim King of the Ghosts, and The Hollow in the Stone, those years were not idle ones for the band. The time period saw numerous live, split releases (such as 2016’s European Crusade 2015 with Et Nihil and 2017’s Abyssus Abyssum Invocat [Deiance in Dallas] with Boyd Rice) and a handful of tours and live appearances. Awen’s accumulation of prestige over the years is evident in the band’s new home on the legendary Trisol label, making them bedfellows with renown acts such as, ROME, Clan of Xymox, L'├éme Immortelle, and Project Pitchfork. Per Powell, the move to Trisol came about during their concert in Frankurt in 2017:

“Alex, the label owner of Trisol, was at our concert in Germany when we played with Boyd and played as Awen as well as Fire + Ice for Ian Read. Jerome Reuter was also there, and I invited him backstage to meet everyone and gave him his first Neofolk Bullwhip! He later recommended us to Alex, who was already impressed by our performance. We decided to make the move from OEC to Trisol then.”

The end result of Awen’s signing to Trisol is the release of a beautiful and ornate vinyl edition of The Hollow in the Stone. Matching the artistic acumen demonstrated in the music proper, the physical release of the album is equally lavish. Limited to 500 units, The Hollow in the Stone is pressed on transparent vinyl, with lyrics to all the songs printed on the inner sleeve, all housed in a sleeve with unsettling (in a Giger sort of way) artwork, adopted from photos taken by Powell. Those without a vinyl player are taken into consideration as a CD with all the tracks comes packaged with the album. All in all, a luxurious release, both in regard to the packaging, but also to the music within.

The Hollow in the Stone


Post The Hollow in the Stone, the future looks as bright as the setting sun for Awen, with plans of a new albums already in the works. Powell tantalizes:

“We are working on a new album currently and have the foundations for ten songs so far. This record does not have a title yet. Expect several acoustic songs, but also an array of industrial percussion including oil drums and scrap metal. I have a concept in mind for the album, with a rambling piece of guitar music that runs like a river in between all of the other separate songs, like a subplot in a story. I think this element will only be heard on the vinyl edition, and the CD version should feature the tracks without it...making a different listening experience between the formats.”

Track List:

Side A

01. Cyfraith Natur
02. Perversity Of Joy
03. Brigid The Dark, Brigid The Light
04. Englyn For Blodeuwedd
05. Hawthorn Rod
06. In The Heart Of The Corpseknot

Side B

07. Morrigan
08. The Death Of Reynard
09. The Hollow In The Stone
10. Ravenna
11. I Am Stretched On Your Grave
12. The Sickle and the Setting Sun
13. Cyfraith Dyn

Awen official Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AWENTRISKELERECORDINGS/
Bandcamp Page: https://triskelerecordings.bandcamp.com/