New heavy music for Pagan Hearts

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New heavy music for Pagan Hearts

For modern Pagans – especially those practicing Ásatrú and Heathenry – heavy music options that somehow connect with their spiritual worldview often lean towards black metal, death metal, pagan metal and viking metal.

To the old heads who grew up on heavy metal when it was still heavy, much of this twenty-first century metal music seems less heavy than extreme, fast and intense. That’s not to say I didn’t spend many years obsessing over bands like Amon Amarth, Ensiferum, Heidevolk and Týr. I just started missing it after a while burden in traditional Black Sabbath fashion.

I also had my doubts about newer bands, for example in the wider black metal scene, who openly use pagan imagery as a marketing tool. Too often there is a whiff of ethnically and/or other right-wing ideologies bubbling beneath the surface.

Then one day I fell into modern doom, psych, stoner, sludge and similar subgenres. The heavens opened, and lo! – things were hard.

As it should be, the sound of the music was what grabbed me first. It wasn’t until later that I realized how many of today’s doom bands have pagan elements in their lyrics.

When the beat is heavy and the lyrics speak to Heathen my heart, does it matter if the band members themselves practice some form of paganism? In my interviews with Amon Amarth and the other bands mentioned above, it was clear that they were more interested in mythology than practice.

On the other hand, much of what we take to be key to our Pagan experience comes to us from non-Pagans. The Eddas and the sagas were composed and/or transcribed by Christians long after the conversion of Iceland. Saxon Grammar, Adam of Bremen, and other medieval writers who recorded myths and described rituals were openly hostile to the Old Way. The contemporary writers beloved by today’s practitioners, from Jacob Grimm to Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson, were themselves absolutely no practitioners. The same applies to artists such as Sequentia, who have recorded the Old Norse poems in musical reenactments.

Ultimately, what matters is how we receive, process, understand and celebrate the material.

I asked five of my favorite doom bands about their connection to pagan religion. Their answers varied widely. I highly recommend each of the albums below, all of which I’ve played over and over again since they were released in 2019 and 2020. In each case, I recommend a specific song for beginners.

The album titles are hyperlinked to their Bandcamp pages, and a playlist of all the individual tracks discussed can be found in the new featured playlist on The Norse Mythology YouTube channel.

I hope those who love heavy music will check out and support these wonderful young bands, all but one of which feature women as songwriters, instrumentalists and vocalists.

Eldor Bellu
The Spirit of Lonely Places (2019)

The band’s name is Old English for “life is evil, death,” a term found in Beowulf line 1676 in the phrase “aldorbealu eorlum” translated by JRR Tolkien as “the bane of good men’s lives”. The band describes itself as a “progressive heavy-psych quartet from the high desert of Boise.”

Vocalist and guitarist Travis Abbott had a lot to say when I asked him about any ties to Paganism.

I tend to draw inspiration from more nature-based ideologies that center the natural world and our relationship to it, such as Norse/Celtic mythology and Taoism. Along with this, such ideologies also seem to fully acknowledge the duality and complexity of humanity more than other common religious practices, which is a constant theme in our music.

Everything we do is somehow related to our (humanity’s) relationship with nature and the fact that most people are morally gray, which is something I think Norse mythology does an excellent job of exploring.

In Idaho, it was weird because it’s a predominantly white state. This makes it difficult to fully embrace Norse Paganism when most people here associate symbols like Mjolnir with such hateful ideologies. So my spirituality is based more on being in nature and that’s where I tend to embrace it more.

As someone who practices both Ásatrú and Kung Fu, while being completely opposed to white nationalist evil, I definitely agree with what Travis has to say.

For this white-bearded rocker, the gloriously ethereal “Sink Like Stone” is reminiscent of old Hawkwind in his A cosmic ritual top Travis’ hypnotically swirling guitar chords and crooning vocals create a melancholic and meditative mood with introspective lyrics.

Close your eyes to see inside
Fall behind to start again
The blade of an over-sharpened knife dulls
And no one knows where the highway goes

As bassist Rylie Collingwood adds her soaring vocal harmonies above, the setting sun bursts through descending storm clouds. So good.

The witch
Aradia (2020)
Fuzzed and Buzzed recordings

This top band from Toronto calls their music “heavy proto-metal psych sounds” and they’re not lying. Not to be confused with the UK band named after the same Swedish word for ‘witch’, this Canadian group is definitely getting into some heaviness.

Vocalist Kaylee explained some things to me.

The relationship I have personally with Paganism is rooted in an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, all-encompassing, direct-action way of going through life. While writing the full-length album, I was inspired by the Italian book Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. History is pure destruction of oppression.

Take the text (taken directly from the text) “And you will cause them to die in their palaces. And you will bind with power the soul of your oppressor.” Aradia was born of Satan and Diana with the specific purpose of empowering the slave class. These are the ideals that resonate with me and guide me in my work as a harm reduction worker and in my personal experience.

The song on the album I’m most obsessed with is the dizzyingly heavy ‘Nicodemus’. Kaylee’s powerful voice rises above heavy riffs and festive drumming that embraces the Saturday spirit and takes it to a new place of inspiring female power. Her mental strength is truly inspiring.

Book of spells
Magic and mischief (2020)
Southern Cross Music

If you worship at the altar of Motörhead, Thin Lizzy and Judas Priest and wonder what the love child of their heavy metal trio will sound like, here’s your answer. Fast-paced rhythms, harmonious twin lead guitars and fist-in-the-air vocals come together in a serious mix on this brilliant album from the Pennsylvania rockers.

Singer Nate Tyson told me he spent his early teenage years immersed in black metal and its “anti-Christian beliefs.” These days he does not consider himself a practitioner of any religion, but shares “many of the same beliefs” of paganism and “some forms of witchcraft”.

“Wands to the Sky,” the opening track of this modern classic album, blasts from the speakers with words of power.

In this time of threats and violence, who controls the night
We have to be careful

We must harness the powers we have been given
Time is critical

Dark magic aligns, for those who have lost their way!
Wands to heaven, for those who have betrayed!

Cult of death wizards storm at night
Evil, go along

Trust now in our elders, their wisdom and power
Our faith must be strong

Sometimes it takes me a few listens to really get into a new album by a new band. Spell Book hooked me in the first few seconds. Check them out!

Rough spells
Ruins at noon (2019)
Fuzzed and Buzzed recordings

Another great band from Toronto, Rough Spells combine energizing rhythms with wild vocal harmonies, enigmatically mystical lyrics and pagan song titles including “Ocean Mother” and “Children of the Moon.” I asked the quartet of three women and one man about their relationship with modern pagan religions.

We are definitely queer, so there is always conscious and unconscious mockery of our spirituality. But nothing is so formalized in our identity or practice.

Some of our source texts are Wicca spells that we draw inspiration from. This bleeds into the development of original spells. We use ritual objects in our practice, specifically crystals, candles and oils to encourage our creative energy.

Sometimes we reflect on and subvert basic Judeo-Christian concepts and memory. Another huge inspiration is setting intentions based on the lunar calendar.

The track “Chance Magic” rolls along with a classic Deep Purple feel that somehow echoes 90’s riot grrrl and features a ritualistic feel that echoes the mystery of the lyrics.

My suit is full of diamonds
It cannot fail, she reminds us
Her law, her law is threefold
Victory pours forth like a shining rain of gold

Many of you think this is a sin
And judge my inclination
There is nothing to fear, it comes from within
No bad intent, no bad intent

There is a lot to dig into this album.

Burnt oak
Drying Earth (2020)

This young trio from Dortmund, Germany describe their music as “Stonerrock influenced by Heavyrock, Blues and Doom”. The album features gorgeous front and back artwork by Maciej Kamuda that illustrates the five eco-friendly track titles: “Mountain”, “Swamp”, “Forest”, “Tide” and “Desert”.

Although I expected to hear about some form of earth-centered spirituality, the trio of Linda, Ben, and Freed were the most reserved of the groups I asked about Paganism.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much to say on this topic. None of us really care about spiritual or religious things.

That’s the way it is.

The music is as massive as the subject matter of the lyrics. On “Mountain,” epically huge riffs in the style of The Sword’s early albums surround haunting passages of oral readings from John Krakauer’s 1997 book. Up in the Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster and introspective vocals from Linda that rise above a quietly intense marching snare drum before the sledgehammer riff hits back.

Pagan or not, this is powerful music.

As someone who supports new heavy music and believes that its creators should be celebrated and compensated, I hope you will consider purchasing some or all of these fantastic albums in whatever medium you prefer.

You can follow the album title links to their Bandcamp pages and check out the featured tracks in the featured playlist on The Norse Mythology YouTube channel.

Long live rock!

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