Witch Switch

Below is one of the best album-covers I’ve ever seen. It’s a triumph of subtlety and simplicity:

Burning Witch, Crippled Lucifer (1998)

The American blackened doom sludge-sters Burning Witch used Sorgen / Sorrow (1894-5), a painting by the Norwegian painter Theodor Kittelsen (1857-1914), to conjure an atmosphere of despair and darkness. Here is the original painting, skilfully combining snow, darkness and despair:

Theodor Kittelsen, Sorgen (1894-95)

But while the painting and album are good examples of less-is-more, the album is also an example of less-and-more. Part of its power comes from the contrast between the simplicity of the wandering figure and the complexity of the scripts used for the band’s name and album title:

Crippled Lucifer (detail)

Usually images are more detailed than writing. Here it’s the reverse. And while you can easily read the writing, despite its complexity, you can’t “read” the figure, despite its simplicity. Kittelsen’s skilful simplicity raised questions that can’t be answered. Is the figure male or female? Why is it sorrowful? Where is it going?

Well, you can say where it’s going in one sense: it’s walking from left-to-right. And that made me wonder whether the album could have become even starker in its contrasts. If you’re literate in Norwegian or English, you naturally read images from left-to-right, because that’s the direction of the Roman alphabet. On the album, you read the figure and the writing in the same direction. They contrast starkly in other ways, but they don’t contrast there. So let’s try making them contrast there too. Compare these two versions of the cover:

Crippled Lucifer (original cover)

Crippled Lucifer (figure-and-snowscape mirrored)

I think there’s something emptier and more despairing in the mirrored figure, walking from right-to-left. On the original cover, the figure is in some sense walking into the future, despite the weight of sorrow it carries. As we read from left to right along a piece of writing, what’s to the left of our eye is the past, and what’s to the right is the future. The figure carries the same implication. And because the figure moving towards the highly-complex-but-perfectly-intelligible band-name-and-title, there’s almost an implication that its story will be told, even if it’s moving towards death or suicide.

When the image is mirrored, all that disappears. Moving from right-to-left, the figure seems to be walking into the past, not the future. It’s no longer near or moving towards the complexity-and-intelligibility of the band-name-and-title. It’s abandoning the world more strongly: there’s no hope, no future, no implication that its story will be told.

I think the same happens, though less strongly, when the original painting is contrasted with a mirrored version:

Sorrow (original)

Sorrow (mirrored)

The contrast is less stark because, unlike the album-cover, there’s no complex patch of writing in the painting and the figure is moving away from what writing there is: the artist’s signature in the bottom left. In the original, the figure is abandoning identity and intelligibility by moving away from the signature. That’s why I’ve removed the signature in the mirrored version of the painting. It would be anomalous on the right, whether or not it was mirror-reversed, and it would be anomalous if it stayed on the left.

Finally, here’s a photo of two musicians in Sunn O))), the band into which Burning Witch eventually evolved:

Sunn O))) in black robes

In the original, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson are walking from right-to-left. Here’s a mirrored version for comparison:

Sunn O))) photo (mirrored)

I think the original photo has more power, because the robed figures are walking against the grain, as it were — against the direction in which our Roman-alphabet-conditioned eyes read a photo.

Cry’ Me A Shiver

It’s not true that Cryogénie are best experienced live. That would imply their music can be experienced some other way. It can’t. The live experience is the only experience. And it’s guaranteed unique. These French avant-gardists aren’t the only band to hand out earplugs on the door, but they don’t do it for the conventional reason: that they play so loud.

In fact, they don’t play loud. They don’t play soft either. In the conventional sense, they don’t play at all. Here’s an interview from 2008 with Tïurbeau magazine:

Tïurbeau: I’ve got your latest album in front of me now. Words fail me.

Alexandre: And us too.

François: As usual.

Tïurbeau: Then one has to ask: why do you bother to release albums?

Alexandre: We see it, you could say, as a little ritual, something solid, something material––

François: Something permanent.

Alexandre: Yes, something permanent, to mark the occasion, that will remain with our audience. Often, we hear, they will buy an album after they have attended a concert, as a souvenir, almost. And they will truly play it!

Tïurbeau: They will play thirty-seven minutes of silence?

Cryogénie, Nix Sonica (2008)

Cryogénie, Nix Sonica (2008)*

François: Yes. The silence creates a space, a kind of opening in the present, for memories of the concert.

Alexandre: Yes, for memories, exactly so. Although, of course, in one sense we have pride in the irreproducibility of our music, in another sense we are recording every moment we are on stage. On the brain.

François: On the brains of the audience.

Alexandre: We are recording memories.

Tïurbeau: And the albums are designed to trigger the memories?

Alexandre: Trigger?

Tïurbeau: Bring the memories back.

Alexandre: Ah, yes, exactly so. The albums are a focus for memories of a concert.

François: Almost talismans.

Tïurbeau: In a magical sense?

Alexandre: Yes, why not? For us, experience is the ultimate magic. In the moment, but also in memory.

Tïurbeau: And does this relate to the sensory restrictions of your concerts, the way you try to turn down some senses in order to heighten the sense you are seeking to stimulate?

François: Yes, exactly so. Earplugs.

Alexandre: No aftershave, no perfume.

François: And please shower carefully before you attend.

Alexandre: Yes, shower carefully. And we ourselves, we will take care of the light. Remove it, make the scene very dark. You are not at a Cryogénie concert for pleasing your ears, your nose, eyes, mouth. Non, vous êtes là pour la chair!

François: Oui, pour la chair.

Tïurbeau: For the flesh.

Alexandre: Yes, the flesh. And how do we stimulate the flesh when we may not use another mode, not exploit another sense? No vibration, no infra-bass even. Then what?

François: Yes, this was the question we faced in our formative days.

Tïurbeau: And the answer…

Cryogénie, Rois du Froid (1996)

Cryogénie, Rois du Froid (1996)**

Alexandre: The cold!

François: Cold.

Alexandre: Please remember a question in the Gay Science of Nietzsche: Ist es nicht kälter geworden?

François: “Has it not become colder?”

Alexandre: And we want, if you attend a Cryogénie concert, for you to say: Ja! Oui! Yes! Kälter, kälter! Plus froid, plus froid! Colder, colder!

Tïurbeau: The triumph of the chill?

François: Yes. Triumph of the chill!

Alexandre: I don’t understand.

François: [Explains briefly in French]

Alexandre: Ah, yes, a triumph.

Tïurbeau: And with the concept came the name?

Alexandre: Yes, and so we had our name also. Cryogénie. With several meanings. Cryogénie is “creation of cold”, but also, for us, “genius of cold”, “spirit of cold”. Remember the concept of ritual. Our concerts, you might say, are rituals of cold, invocations of cold.

François: And: “If it’s too cold, you’re too old!”

Alexandre: Yes, so it’s said. Of course, in truth we welcome all ages, but if you are in poor health, perhaps better not to attend.

François: Nevertheless, visits to the pharmacy surely increase after we have passed through a city.

Tïurbeau: How cold do you go?

Alexandre: Ah, we prefer not to speak of that. No numbers, no statistics. You are there for the music, not to watch le thermomètre.

François: We get cold enough for our purposes.

Tïurbeau: That sounds rather sinister!

François: Yes, perhaps so. But would that not be the ultimate experience, to die pour une grêlodie, for a grêlodie?

Tïurbeau: Grêlodie?

Alexandre: It’s a joke, un calembour, a mixing of words.

François: A pun. In French, grêle is “hail”, you know, the little balls of ice, and mélodie is “melody”, of course, and so you have grêlodie, for a tune as performed by Cryogénie, a tune of ice, a tune of cold.

Tïurbeau: But not literal hail?

Alexandre: No, not literal. Though sometimes the breath of our audience will freeze and fall as a kind of snow. It makes a sound, that, a very delicate sound, le chuchotement des étoiles, comme on dit en Sibérie.

François: Yes, the whisper of the stars, as they say in Siberia. But of course, no-one will hear it, if they have followed their instructions.

Alexandre: Earplugs in!

Cryogénie, Blanchette (2003)

Cryogénie, Blanchette (2003)***

François: But the snow, the breath-snow, can be felt on the skin as it falls. This is acceptable, though it is an indirect effect of our music, not something we have planned for.

Tïurbeau: I have felt it. In the middle section of “Frissonique”, particularly.

Alexandre: Yes, and in “Bruitmal”.

François: When the framplifiers are cooking, as you might say.

Tïurbeau: Framplifiers? Can you explain for the benefit of our readers?

François: It is from froid and amplificateur. Framplicateur, framplifier. Amplifiers of cold, or generators of cold.

Tïurbeau: That is one of the most widely discussed aspects of your music, isn’t it? Your equipment.

Alexandre: Yes.

François: Yes, certainly.

Tïurbeau: But you’re rather secretive about it, aren’t you?

Alexandre: Yes!

François: You discuss, we are sphinxes.

Tïurbeau: Silent?

François: Yes. We have our – what is the term? – our trade-secrets. It’s not in our interests to expose our techniques. Nor in yours, we think.

Tïurbeau: You want to preserve that air of mystery?

Alexandre: Yes, precisely so. The experience is more strong when you don’t understand.

François: Like magic.

Alexandre: Yes, magic. We perform a ritual. The invocation of the cold. We invoke the cold and we throw the cold, we throw it on the audience.

François: Waves of cold. Cryorrhythms. Chords of cold, congelations, grêlodies, chills, thrills, rivers of shivers. That is the Cryogénie experience.

Tïurbeau: But there’s some serious technology behind the experience, isn’t there?

Alexandre: Yes.

François: Yes.

Tïurbeau: And you’re saying no more?

Alexandre: Yes, no more.

François: It’s not in our interests to explain. Or yours.

Tïurbeau: Nothing?

Alexandre: Nothing.

Tïurbeau: Not even a little?

François: Well, maybe a little. We had problems, in the early days, with unwanted noise, from the equipment.

Alexandre: Just a little.

François: I mean, if you think of a refrigerator, there is noise, of course. And we didn’t want noise, we wanted silence, pure silence.

Tïurbeau: A blank canvas, sensorily speaking?

François: Yes, a blank canvas, for us to paint with cold. So there was that problem to solve. The noise, unwanted noise.

Tïurbeau: And you solved it?

François: Yes, I think we did.

Alexandre: I think so.

Tïurbeau: But the earplugs are still necessary?

Alexandre: Yes, necessary, we think. Because, of course, with silent equipment there is still the movement of people, our movement on the stage, movement of the audience.

François: And the whisper of the stars, with some other effects. There are many things to create noise at a concert. We cannot eliminate them all, or we choose not to, because the earplugs are in themselves symbolic. To use them, you say: “See? I choose to close this door, this sensory mode.”

Alexandre: And you give yourself to us, to Cryogénie, to exploit another sense.

François: To submit you to our chill.

Tïurbeau: Esclaves du froid?

François: Yes, very good. Slaves of cold! But equally we are the slaves.

Alexandre: Yes, esclaves du froid. I like it. Perhaps we will write a song of that title one day.

Elsewhere Other-Engageable:

Rois du Froid — Cryogénie’s official site

*Sonic Snow.
**Kings of Cold.
***Little White One.