The Primer: Occult rock

Channelling the magick of Aleister Crowley and the neo-paganism of witchcraft, occult rock is the sound of rock ‘n’ roll’s secret society. Edwin Pouncey reads the runes on its acolytes from Black Widow to Aluk Todolo.

WHEN ASKED FOR his opinion about rock music in the 1990s, the late Anton LaVey, founder of California’s Church of Satan, replied that it was “the last big burp of Christianity.” LaVey loathed rock music, especially the so-called Satanic rock that many assumed he would have embraced. “Rock groups are being sold,” he sneered, “as has Satanism, on brand names rather than content and rock, like Satanism, sells.”

This potent mix of rock music and Satanism, alongside other ideas taken from the vast pantheon of the occult, had been selling records since the late 1960s, a time that saw a full-blown Western revival of interest in areas of alternative or hidden spiritual knowledge. Many young people in the UK had been first introduced to occult themes through Hammer horror films or reading Dennis Wheatley novels, and those wanting to dig deeper found their way to the cabbalistic works of Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Grant and artist Austin Osman Spare, all of whose writings were suddenly available after decades of neglect. The soundtrack for this sudden surge of interest in the occult was initially pop and rock music, from The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown’s ‘Fire’ (Brown anointing himself the “God of Hellfire!” with a lit brazier strapped to his head) to folk singer Donovan’s ‘Season Of The Witch’, through to The Rolling Stones whose dance with the devil kicked off with ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and Their Satanic Majesties Request before running the voodoo down on ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. But there were numerous other musicians, however, on the fringes of the music industry who felt they had something to contribute to the phenomenon. Among this outer circle of occult rockers were Zior from Southend; Leicester’s answer to Black Sabbath, Black Widow; shadowy lone experimental rock musician Lucifer from Colwyn Bay; and Coven who hailed from Chicago. Electronic music was especially suited for occult related projects, the most famous being The Zodiac’s Cosmic Sounds, where psychedelic Moog interpretations of the zodiac’s 12 astrological signs were further coloured by narrator Jacques Wilson’s cosmic pronouncements.

If occult rock has an ambassador it is Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. In 1970 he instructed that the run-out grooves of Led Zeppelin III should be inscribed with the Crowleyan Thelemic texts “Do what thou wilt” and “So mote it be”, a move that cryptically announced Page’s devotion to the workings and ideas of magician Aleister Crowley. Page, it could be argued, was sending out a magical spell in the form of a vinyl record. He has been reluctant to publically discuss his interest in Crowley and magic, but in 1975 he agreed to talk to William S Burroughs for Crawdaddy magazine. Topics ranged from Page’s acquisition of Crowley’s Boleskine House in the Scottish Highlands, his interest in Moroccan trance music, and how he was aware of the power in mass concentration at a rock concert, and the possible dangers that could result if not properly controlled. “There is a responsibility to the audience,” he told Burroughs. “We don’t want anything bad to happen to these kids — we don’t want to release anything we can’t handle.” Page was not alone in his enthusiasm for Crowley’s system of magick and its possibilities for change. On his 1971 album Hunky Dory, David Bowie cited Crowley in the opening verse of ‘Quicksand’, while Daryl Hall, of soft rock duo Hall & Oates, confessed to spending considerable time studying Crowley’s magick prior to the delayed 1980 release of his Robert Fripp produced album Sacred Songs.

Rock’s interest in the occult was taken to an entirely new level with the rise of black metal in Northern Europe during the early 1990s, where allusions to Satanism became a standard, and almost routine, part of the music’s vocabulary and mythology. That genre is too vast and sprawling to cover in depth here, but mention should be made of Norwegian group Mayhem who were among the innovators of the movement. According to original bass player Jørn Stubberud (aka Necrobutcher), the group originally took their cue from punk rock, and the Satanic motifs they adopted reflected a desire to outrage authority and pay tribute to UK metal group Venom. Their debut album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas saw the group burrowing deep into the darkest corners of their psyche to emerge with a sound abuzz with Satanic snarl and — assisted by the inclusion of Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar — a lingering sense of ancient ceremony that has carried through to the present day.

Alex SandersA Witch Is Born (A&M LP 1970) 

Black WidowSacrifice (CBS LP 1970)/(Repertoire 2x CD/DVD 2015); See’s The Light Of Day (Black Widow 2xCD 2012, rec 1969–72) 

CovenWitchcraft Destroys Minds And Reaps Souls (Mercury LP 1969) 

In 1951 the UK Parliament repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1753, an outdated law that made it a crime to claim that one possessed magical powers or practised witchcraft. This decision sparked an occult revival that exploded during the late 1960s and early 70s, attracting many new converts to Wicca, the neo-pagan religious movement based on Western European pre-Christian belief systems that former civil servant Gerald Gardner introduced to the UK in 1954. One early disciple to Gardner’s ‘old religion’ was Alex Sanders, a self-styled psychic from Manchester who (he claimed) was taught witchcraft by his grandmother. Sanders had also learned the art of showmanship from his music hall entertainer father, which he put to good use when it came to promoting himself as the King of the Witches. His profile was further raised by the release of the film Legend Of The Witches about Sanders’s coven in 1969, and the following year saw the release of A Witch Is Born, which presented a full recording of “the solemn initiation of a new member into the ancient Craft”.

Narrated by former Reveille magazine reporter and author Stewart Farrar, the somewhat theatrical commentary guides the listener through the various ceremonies required to become a sanctified member of their witch cult. The second section documents another initiation rite in a similarly dry delivery, over which are piped various Wagnerian overtures to add an atmosphere of drama to the proceedings, ending with Sanders solemnly bidding farewell to the lords of the watchtowers. Although A Witch Is Born was probably released to cash in on Sanders’s media success, it remains a fascinating document of witches’ practices.

Sanders’s real contribution to occult rock, however, was his tenuous association with Leicester progressive rock group Black Widow, whose songs and stage act included satanic and occult themed motifs. Their most famous song was ‘Come To The Sabbat’, a hard rock invitation to their audience to discard their clothes, soak their bodies in secret oils and join them at the traditional witches sabbat as (we are promised) “Satan’s there”. At one point vocalist Kip Trevor calls out to a demon called Astaroth, the Great Duke of Hell who is part of the evil trinity (the others being Beelzebub and Lucifer).

The group were serious in their study of the occult, at least according to woodwind player Clive Jones, and Sanders advised them that they were in grave danger of evoking a she-devil through their stage performance. Their debut album Sacrifice reveals a group that, unlike rival contemporaries Black Sabbath, were aware and precise in their use of occult ideas — onstage, a magic circle, sacrificial dagger and skyclad dancer were incorporated into the performance. The definitive Repertoire double CD set includes the group’s 1970 appearance on the German TV rock show Beat Club to promote Sacrifice, which leaves a bruising impression on the memory. A recent Italian rarities compilation, awkwardly entitled See’s The Light Of Day, includes a live recording which was made the following year in Milan.

If Black Widow had a US equivalent it was Coven, a psychedelic rock quintet from Chicago. Debut album Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls puts its tarot cards on the table with a cover that shows group members sporting inverted crosses while caressing a skull, together with a gatefold depicting a naked woman splayed across an altar — the intended sacrifice for Coven’s ‘Satanic Mass’ at the end of the album. Before getting there, however, Coven unleash a strong set of oddly arranged acid rock songs with evocative titles such as ‘Coven In Charing Cross’ and ‘Dignitaries Of Hell’, with lead singer Jinx Dawson coiling her serpentine vocal round the lyrics like some demonically possessed version of Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick.

They save their most provocative offering right until last, a 13 minute closing track where every occult trope (including a backwards reading of the Lord’s Prayer) is summoned up in a re-enactment of a Black Mass ritual. In truth it’s the campy obverse of Sanders’s initiation recordings, and pitted with laugh-out-loud moments, such as when the high priest orders the neophyte in a booming, imperious voice to “Kiss the goat!”.

Do What Thou Wilt: The Satanic Rites Of British Rock 1970–74: Various (Electric Pentacle LP 2011) 

Lucifer:Dance With The Devil (Stoned Circle 2x CD 2015, rec 1972) 

Neither Coven (because of their US origin) nor Black Widow (perhaps due to their major label status) made it to Electric Pentacle’s grey-area 70s occult rock compilation Do What Thou Wilt: The Satanic Rites Of British Rock, but the raw and passionately involved music from those groups that were chosen makes for heady, yet essential listening. Crafted from rare acetates, forgotten 45s, mouldering tapes and other slipped discs, the sounds here range from the proto metal and pre-punk of Camelot and Grind to the pagan psych of Wooden Lion whose witchy rocker ‘Rise Of The Moon’ seductively snakes into the memory. Central to the spirit of the collection is Lucifer (aka musician and experimental filmmaker Denys Irving) whose black, brittle experimental curse ‘Fuck You’ has lost none of its taunting power to shock and outrage, an unrepentant lustful rant, spewed over a talon picked electric guitar that is screaming to be put out of its misery. His two self-produced albums were distributed by mail order, through ads that he placed in the music and underground press of the day. The back cover of his debut Big Gun album carries Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt” quote, to which Irving has added the command: “Burn all other records”

Now gathered together on Dance With The Devil, all the existing Lucifer recordings are finally available, including the soundtrack for his obscure biker film Exit that he originally released in a plain yellow card cover. Made up of electronic music, spoken word and some insanely heavy electric bass passages, the mood is defiantly uncommercial, twisted around an indecipherable message of alien bleakness that continues to remain a tantalising mystery.

Aleister CrowleyThe Evil Beast (Cleopatra LP 2011) 

ChakraScarlet Woman (Marabo 7″ 1976) 

Graham Bond:Holy Magick (Vertigo LP 1970) 

John ZornIAO: Music In Sacred Light (Tzadik CD 2002); Moonchild: Songs Without Words (Tzadik CD 2006) 

For many the mere mention of Aleister Crowley summons up images of the self styled Great Beast 666 whose black magic workings caused him to be vilified by the press who pronounced him “the wickedest man in the world”. But Crowley was a great thinker and poet, whose religion Thelema (the Greek word for will) has attracted successive generations of disciples to take up one of its principal doctrines: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law, love under will.” Based on his Book Of The Law, a poem in three chapters that, according to Crowley, was dictated to him by an extraterrestrial intelligence called Aiwass, this creed dictated followers should find and follow their own true path. The other key Thelemic doctrine states that “Every man and every woman is a star” — a tenet that was instantly attractive to writers, artists, musicians and, of course, magicians. Through this beautiful, poetic statement, Crowley was urging every human being on the planet to recognise that they could take control of their own “true will” by following their personal orbit, and not allowing anything, or anybody, to interfere with its trajectory. In a world that was then being constrained by strict social morals, Crowley was making a stand for individualism, a demand that would be loosely recognised in the 60s as doing your own thing.

Crowley was a keen self-publicist, and to get his ideas across to a wider audience he recorded himself in the 1910s reading on a variety of subjects. Along with recitations from Doctor John Dee’s writings concerning his ceremonial magic system Crowley enthusiastically reads his own poetry, the best examples being ‘La Gitana’ from Konx Om Pax and ‘The Pentagram’ from his last book Olla. Recorded on wax cylinders, the quality of the audio is poor, but Crowley’s energy and spirit remain electrifyingly potent, with his booming voice occasionally sounding Churchillian in stature. Cleopatra’s latest version of this historically important artefact ensures that the Beast roars on into the 21st century.

‘Scarlet Woman’ by Chakra is an early example of occult rock, performed by modern devotees of Crowley’s teachings — the most significant member here being heir apparent Kenneth Grant who, after being expelled from the American branch of Crowley’s occult order, the Ordo Templi Orientis, set up his own Typhonian Ordo Templi Orientis. As well as Crowley, this new order embraced the work and ideas of artist/magician Austin Osman Spare and horror writer HP Lovecraft. Grant solemnly intones a chanted lyric influenced by Crowley over an acid damaged guitar in the hope that Chakra’s brimstone infused performance will prompt the goddess Babalon to make her powerful presence felt.

Another Crowley disciple, who went on to believe he was his son, was jazz organist Graham Bond. Famous in the 1960s for his group The Graham Bond Organisation, with future Cream players Ginger Baker on drums and bass player Jack Bruce, Bond went on to form Graham Bond Initiation with his wife in 1969, and in 1970 the more ambitious Holy Magick ensemble.

The side long ‘Holy Magick Suite’ that opens the Holy Magick album is, as its title suggests, a seriously played-out ceremonial piece, made up of 14 parts of improvised jazz that, along the way, has some fine Hammond organ playing from Bond as he urges something to materialise from out of the darkness that was slowly closing around him. But Holy Magick failed to ignite the public’s imagination, and when his new group Magus also failed to take off, he committed suicide by throwing himself under a London underground train at Finsbury Park.

US composer, musician and occult scholar John Zorn has also found inspiration in the Crowley phenomenon, and his IAO set is a Kabbalistically composed tribute to the mage that also alludes to film maker Kenneth Anger. Its seven movements shift between hypnotic exotica, tribal drum patterns, electronica and a spectral choral work for female voices. The real meat of the piece however materialises in its raging death metal onslaught, its razor-edged guitar sound and backwards masking vocal adding an extra occult rock thrill. On Moonchild, named after Crowley’s novel published by Mandrake Press in 1923, Zorn includes elements of avant garde dramatist Antonin Artaud’s Theatre Of Cruelty and composer Edgard Varèse’s liberated orchestral constructions to his already boiling cauldron of musical improvisation.

Jimmy PageLucifer Rising (And Other Soundtracks) (jimmypage.com 2012, rec 1972)

Bobby BeausoleilLucifer Rising (Arcanum Entertainment 2xCD 2004, rec 1967) 

Lords Of ChaosThe History Of Occult Music: Various (Prophecy Productions 2002)

Technicolor SkullTechnicolor Skull (The Ajna Offensive 2011) 

Magickal underground film maker Kenneth Anger was acutely aware of rock music’s alluring power over an audience, and set out to court rock musicians in the hope they would become involved in his projects. In 1972 he contacted Jimmy Page to ask him to compose a new soundtrack for his slowly gestating film Lucifer Rising. Originally Anger had hired Robert ‘Bobby’ Beausoleil to supply the music, but he had since been jailed for the murder of Gary Hinman as part of the cult activities surrounding Charles Manson’s Family — Beausoleil had also allegedly stolen the 1966 version of the Lucifer Rising footage and refused to reveal its location. Page considered Anger’s proposal an opportunity to experiment with different sounds and instrumentation, and to capture something more in sync with his personal interest in magick, and its ability to transform the mundane into the miraculous.

As well as his trademark guitar bowing, where he would drag a violin bow across the strings and flourish it in the air like a magician’s wand, Page introduced a synthesizer, sitar, percussion and ritualistic chanting into the piece to create a work bristling with an undercurrent of sulphurous supernatural threat, with voices heard mouthing dark invocations in the shadows. While Anger’s original vision was for Lucifer to be interpreted as a ‘light god’, a warrior for the incoming Aquarian Age, Page’s musical portrayal summons up a more sinister sounding entity, replete with horns, hooves and swishing synthesized tail. The intended soundtrack was shelved, only to emerge decades later as a box set on the guitarist’s own label.

Meanwhile, Anger turned again to Bobby Beausoleil, now serving a life sentence at California’s Tracy State Prison, and asked if he would resume work on the soundtrack. Beausoleil responded by forming a prison group called The Freedom Orchestra. The Arcanum set reveals Beausoleil’s symphonic rock approach, where the full dazzling grandeur of the project, coupled with the juxtapositions between the interior and exterior worlds that Anger successfully achieved through his astonishing film, are more finely delineated.

Also included are recordings of Beausoleil and his earlier group The Magick Powerhouse Of Oz, featuring the first Lucifer Rising recording session in 1967. Recorded live at the Straight Theater in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, during a screening of rushes for the film, the mood is improvisational rather than ceremonial as raw shards of acid rock guitar become entangled in a loose web of free jazz skronk.

Footage of Beausoleil and The Magick Powerhouse Of Oz performing live can be seen in Anger’s 1969 short film Invocation Of My Demon Brother, where the full impact of his ritualistic approach to film making explodes on the screen. Intercut with found footage of US soldiers jumping from helicopters in Vietnam and scenes of the Rolling Stones performing in London’s Hyde Park, the film is a disjointed collage of magickal ritual, Crowley references and psychedelic sorcery that ends with the image of a fetish doll holding a sign that mystifyingly reads”Zap you’re pregnant that’s witchcraft”. Central to the creepy atmosphere is the eerie electronic soundtrack by Mick Jagger (included on the compilation Lords Of Chaos: The History Of Occult Music), a slowly rotating synthesizer loop that snarls repeatedly, gradually building into layers of blocked sonic sludge. Jagger’s sonic curio, sounding like something that Wolf Eyes would be coughing up decades later, underscores the singer’s then flirtatious sympathy for the devil.

At the L’Étrange Festival in Paris in 2012 Anger appeared with Los Angeles artist Brian Butler as Technicolor Skull, performing in front of a screening of Invocation Of My Demon Brother. Anger feverishly fingers feral blasts of noise from a theremin while Butler lets rip with guitar feedback and electronic squall. Although it lacks the demonic intensity of the original, their attack is suitably ritualistic and a distinct sense of cabalistic ceremony hangs in the air when they leave the stage.

Blue Öyster CultBlue Öyster Cult (Columbia LP 1972); Tyranny And Mutation (Columbia LP 1973); Secret Treaties (Columbia LP 1974); Imaginos (Columbia LP 1988) 

While many are unfamiliar with their work outside their 1976 chart hit ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’, the early studio albums of New York heavy rock quintet Blue Öyster Cult are littered with occult references and esoteric symbolism. Both their self-titled debut and its follow-up Tyranny And Mutation feature stark futuristic cover artwork by architecture student Bill Gawlik. At the behest of the group’s manager/producer Sandy Pearlman, Gawlick included the inverted sickle symbol of Saturn or Kronos (the alchemical symbol for lead) in his designs, and this would become the group’s permanent logo.

Blue Öyster Cult and Tyranny And Mutation were monumental introductions to the group’s proto-metal vibrations, but it was with third album Secret Treaties where BÖC displayed their true occult leanings, again under the direction of Pearlman. The album, partly based on an imaginary book entitled The Origins Of A World War, boasts a cover with the group assembled around a Messerschmitt ME 262 Second World War jet fighter that has touched down on some undisclosed city square. Even more sinister is the back cover, where the aforementioned jet plane (bearing the group’s logo on its tailfin) has been abandoned, with the German Shepherd dogs that guitarist Eric Bloom was holding by the leash on the front cover now ritualistically slaughtered. The entire cover suggests a historical timewarp where some evil rite has been enacted for reasons unknown. The album’s themes of mechanised war, forbidden ritual, alien alchemy and rock ‘n’ roll’s dark side finally come to rest on the fevered Lovecraftian dreamscape of ‘Astronomy’ — a song that would later resurface on 1988’s Imaginos.

That album, described by Pearlman as “An interpretation of history — an explanation for the onset of World War I, or a revelation of the occult origins of it” is a complex, multifaceted project whose narrative reveals the Blue Öyster Cult to be alien beings and incorporates supporting roles for Elizabethan court magician Doctor John Dee and 16th century scholar Martin Delrio. The album’s highlight, however, is the updated ‘Astronomy’, with its shrouded salutation to the Dog Star, Sirius, in a verse that drips with cryptic mystery and imagination. It is Blue Öyster Cult’s pinnacle achievement, a point where they create the illusion of taking rock music beyond time and space.

Sabbath AssemblyRestored To One (The Ajna Offensive CD/LP 2010); Ye Are Gods (Svart/The Ajna Offensive CD/LP 2012); Quaternity (Svart CD/LP 2014) 

Founded in London in the 1960s by ex-Scientologists Robert and Mary Ann DeGrimston, The Process Church of the Final Judgment was a religious group who worshipped Satan and Lucifer alongside Jesus and Jehovah in the belief that both could be unified within one’s self, rather than shaming one while glorifying the other. Originally devised as a splinter group from L Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, the DeGrimstons’ Process Church was soon dismissed by Hubbard. Members of the Process, wearing black capes with silver crosses hung round their necks, and sporting a badge that showed the horned head of the Goat of Mendes (the god of the witches), were urged to stalk the streets of London for donations, hawking copies of their glossy magazine The Process which featured contributions from Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and George Clinton, who included Process texts on two Funkadelic albums.

Writer and former art director of The Process Timothy Wylie’s 2009 book Love Sex Fear Death: The Inside Story Of The Process Church Of The Final Judgement allows an insider’s access into the workings of the Process, revealing its various ritual, together with reproductions of musical scores and lyrics sung as part of a ceremony known as the Sabbath Assembly Mass. It was this material that attracted former No-Neck Blues Band member David Nuss (aka Xtian/Christian) and ex-Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice vocalist Jex Thoth to approach Wylie about performing them. With Wylie’s blessing, Nuss and Thoth set about arranging the songs, aware that the original unknown composers had meant them to be performed as devotional works. They did this with solemnity and sincerity on Restored To One, released under the name Sabbath Assembly, reigniting the Process flame with confident arrangements that fanned it into an inferno, with Thoth’s siren-like vocal luring the listener through the portals of the Church.

Restored To One is the best of the three Processean albums that the group assembled. On Ye Are Gods and Quaternity Thoth has been replaced by Jamie Myers, another strong presence, but one whose vocal approach to the material is lighter and witchier. She is joined by no less a figure than Genesis P Orridge, credited as Sacrifist, whose perfect English reading voice bleeds wearily through Nuss’s tightly strung instrumental net, like a cross between Aleister Crowley and Quentin Crisp. The final album of the series Quaternity is distinctly more rock than Church choir, but the dramatic ‘The Four Horsemen’, a side long track of Processean ceremonial music (including quotes from John’s Book Of Revelation), makes for an impressively grand finale.

Andrew Leman/HP LovecraftThe Hound/The Music Of Erich Zann (Cadabra LP 2015); The Lurking Fear (Cadabra LP 2016) 

Rudimentary PeniCacophony (Outer Himalayan LP 1988) 

Although largely ignored during his lifetime, Howard Phillips Lovecraft is regarded today as the greatest writer of the modern horror story. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos series of stories, based on the idea that mankind was being manipulated by an ancient alien race of extradimensional gods and monsters, were by the 1970s finding a new and wider audience looking for something darker and stranger than Tolkien to feed their heads. In the 1970s spoken word label Caedmon commissioned Scottish actor David McCallum, famous for his Illya Kuryakin character in the hit 60s TV series The Man From UNCLE, to read a selection of Lovecraft’s stories that would be released as three LPs. McCallum’s sturdy readings of Lovecraft’s tales are proficient but lack the fear factor and sense of cosmic terror that elevates Lovecraft’s horrors above the gothic mystery tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

More recently, the Spoken Arts label Cadabra have launched an ongoing series of readings from Lovecraft’s writings, issued in limited edition vinyl editions with luxurious cover art and sleevenotes by noted weird fiction scholar ST Joshi. The label’s choice of reader for the project is actor Andrew Leman, whose startling interpretations of The Music Of Erich Zann (1922), The Lurking Fear (1923) plus The Hound (1924) take in the playful eccentricity of Lovecraft’s prose, relishing its eldritch language, and seem to urge the listener to gaze in wide-eyed terror at the unnameable horror reaching out to them. The breathless intensity of Leman’s performances, accompanied by unsettling, miasmic electronic scores by Theologian, occasionally sound like he is singing the texts, as if he were the vocalist for some Lovecraft obsessed death metal group.

Metal musicians from Black Sabbath to Metallica to Mercyful Fate have found Lovecraft’s writings rich sources of inspiration. But one of the best examples of Lovecraftian rock comes from longrunning anarcho punk project Rudimentary Peni, whose Cacophony album is a psychotically charged masterpiece that pays homage to the man and his ideas, while splicing in jagged splinters of damaged autobiography. Mainman Nick Blinko summons up a swarm of monster riffs and multitracked disembodied voices to create a terrifying (yet thrilling) tribute that twins Lovecraft’s troubled life story with his own, equally precarious existence.

SkullflowerCirculus Vitiosus, Deus/Circle Of Serpents/Valley Of Scorpions (Turgid Animal 3xCD 2008); Taste The Blood Of The Deceiver (Not Not Fun LP 2008) Strange Keys To Untune God’s Firmament (Neurot 2xCD 2010) 

Occult rock is a mercurial, volatile musical zone where anything can, and usually does, happen. Musicians evolve, shed old skins, shuffle into new shapes and cast different shadows. For his part, since 1986 Matthew Bower has transformed Skullflower from a nihilistic free noise attack unit into a more concentrated and focused ritualistic force. After a succession of impressive albums for such labels as tUMUlt, Crucial Blast, Heavy Blossom and Utech, in 2008 Bower unleashed his mightiest release to date, a potent, hand-crafted triple CD box set that its creator described as being, “for spirits that can tune to the bleak, gorgeous vision that Skullflower has been channelling since tribulation”. Complete with a hand painted runic symbol decorating the box lid, a sheaf of cryptic drawings, sigils and illuminated documents pushed inside and the looping, seductive power pull of the music, it seemed that Bower’s intent was to re-establish himself as a kind of cunning man, or folk magician, of noise.

Taste The Blood Of The Deceiver underscored the conviction of Bower’s old religion conversion as he and guitarist Lee Stokoe supposedly performed a rite of sorcerous desecration at a local church, with the invocation of a principal demon called Beleth, whose sigil they had erected on a banner above the church altar. While not as extreme as the wave of church burnings sparked by Scandinavian black metal bands in the 1990s, it just as effectively demonstrated Bower’s anti-Christian message to his followers. A further blasphemous bulletin was issued two years later with the solo double CD On Strange Keys To Untune God’s Firmament. Bower plucks at electrified strings and passionately pounds percussion, occasionally uttering a chilling gust of looped vocal that pierces through the surrounding darkness. From beneath layers of squealing feedback and industrial noise, the full impact of Skullflower’s pagan drone, amplified through Bower’s guitar treatments, materialises.

Aluk TodoloOccult Rock (Norma Evangelium Diaboli/The Ajna Offensive 2xCD/2xLP 2012); Voix (Norma Evangelium Diaboli/The Ajna Offensive CD/LP 2016) 

A part of occult rock’s success and acceptance within the underground rock fraternity must be credited to French power trio Aluk Todolo who, since their formation in 2004, have levitated the music to new heights of aural ecstasy. They create vast plateaus of instrumental rock, where reality slides into an abyss, as the tight mesh of their sound wraps around you. There’s a similarity with Asahito Nanjo’s High Rise splinter group Musica Transonic, in that both groups play high volume rock that could be considered psychedelic. But whereas Musica Transonic’s guitar pyrotechnics sprung from the seed of 1960s power trios such as Cream and Blue Cheer, Aluk Todolo are more like Japan’s Fushitsusha — they make music that is more studied, spatial and spiritual, rather than just emitting a continuous blast of distortion and blare.

The monumental Occult Rock is a two record set whose title signals the inspiration for their transcendental mix of black metal, psychedelia and 1970s German experimentalism. Its eight long tracks act as a musical rite of passage, an induction into the group’s shifting, shadowy world of shimmering guitar storms and percussive thunder.

You emerge from Occult Rock exalted and exhilarated, as though you are now in possession of ancient knowledge. But Voix almost manages to eclipse it, with a further six charged meditative mantras, complete with a cover that apes the elongated type design that Aleister Crowley used to decorate his selfpublished edition of Konx Om Pax. It should be read not as the group showing off their references, but as an invitation — to step out of the darkness and into the radiating beam of their pulsing strobelight.

© Edwin PounceyThe Wire, August 2016

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