Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Fiddles of Wotan

Over the past few decades, in the United Kingdom, and indeed in the EU in general, underground violinists have developed remarkable new sounds often guided by very unique, and sometimes questionable, ideologies. English violinist Matt Howden is the perfect example of an underground ideology that grew throughout the 1980s and into the present day, that is mostly associated with the Industrial, Neo-Folk, Gothic and Black Metal sub-cultures that emerged to some prominence in the 1990s: Heathenism and/or Paganism. The Heathen and Pagan scenes are a complex sea of contradictory camps, but they roughly range from extreme right-wing revolutionaries hell-bent on the dominance of the white race, to characters like Howden who appear to espouse a radical link to nature, spirituality and tradition that is not based in race politics, but rather based in a neo-Romantic reaction to the modern world, inspired perhaps by prickly, pessimistic and misanthropic so-called "apoliteic" (to quote Anton Shekhovtsov) conservative revolutionaries such as Julius Evola, Ernst Jünger and the like but not necessarily embroiled in the racial politics that these characters were involved in at the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed neo-folk music is often also called ‘post-industrial’ or ‘apocalyptic folk’ music, suggesting that it would be the music made by the survivors of the human race's own self-destruction. Howden features on several recordings by Sol Invictus, a band headed up by Tony Wakeford whose first foray into solo music territory after leaving the equally controversial Death In June was a harsh military industrial project Among The Ruins, named for Evola's book of the same name. Howden's violin features throughout Sol Invictus' explicitly Evola-inspired song Against The Modern World (which was also the name of Sol Invictus' debut 1988 album which features a more stripped-back violin-free version of the tune) - heard here live with Howden's unmistakable violin playing, wild vibrato, slides and all - also named for Evola's most well-known (for an obscure proto-Nazi radical traditionalist mystic that is) book 'Revolt Against the Modern World'. 

Before readers start freaking out and accusing this humble author of right-wing sympathies, it is important to note here that neo-folk and associated genres reflect a varied and complex sub-culture that is often erroneously blanketed with broad accusations of links to neo-Nazism and the New Right, true of some, but not all, including seemingly, Howden. Despite his own clear disdain for modernity, and links to characters like Wakeford who was allegedly formerly a member of Britain's far-right National Front, Howden has reacted to accusations from Antifa reactionaries and the like with a piece outlining his dislike of the right, 'Rite Against the Right'
There is much in common with Howden’s violin playing and that of the early underground violinists (Henry Flynt, Tony Conrad, Takehisa Kosugi and the like). It is minimal, trance-inducing, and is based around loops (digital rather than tape). Howden also embraces multimedia elements in his performances, working with filmmakers and using lighting and projections to enhance his solo appearances. With the new technologies afforded by digital loop stations and effects pedals Howden is able to create washes of symphonic violin and percussion – all created by tapping on the body of the violin and even rubbing his stubble-covered chin on the bridge – over which he sings deeply Romantic lyrics devoted to nature, the Goddess and the occult. Tattooed prominently on his left forearm – which faces the audience as he plays his violin – is a sequence of runes making a tree-like shape, a clear statement of his interest in Europe’s pre-Christian roots.

Sieben's new album, cover featuring Howden looking suitably Pagan and baring his runic tattoo to the camera.

 Neo-folk musicians are also generally fiercely DIY, and Howden is no exception. He produces and sells all of his own works via his website, touring regularly and seemingly making a decent living out of his work in the process.[1] This way of connecting with his fans as consumers fits in well with the ideals of many in the underground and definitely within the Pagan/Heathen underground, as Neo-Folk artists’ work is produced and distributed in a fashion not dissimilar to the Slow Food movement, encouraging customers to buy locally made products by producers who proudly display their indigenous origins right down to the very region from which they hail. 
            This love of one’s own land can evoke a variety of taboo images in the Western listener and I needn’t explain the reasons why here. In the twenty-first century, a love of folk and a romantic attachment to soil is a subversive concept. This is not to be mistaken with patriotism or nationalism, but more a kind of tribalism based in distant divisions of land and culture long shattered by successive wars and imperialist expansion (on the extreme end of the spectrum you have Neo-Folk related artists involved in the ridiculous, neo-tribal segregationist National Anarchist Movement). At a time where corporate greed fuels the death of cultures, ecologies and even entire species, it is perhaps no surprise that artists and musicians in the underground are embracing ever more extreme ideologies with which to haunt the current capitalist hegemony. Therefore it is no shock to find another violinist lurking in the depths of the Heathen underground, Meri Tadic. Tadic, who performs under the pseudonym Irij, walks a similar path to that of Howden. Indeed these musicians both have their work sold from the same mail orders (such as Steinklang), and often distributed through the same small independent record labels (such as Neo-Folk mainstay Gerhard Hallstatt's Ahnstern label). 

Tadic also performs as part of the highly successful Pagan Metal band Eluveitie, playing violin and singing epic and operatic vocals. In the confines of Eluveitie she creates violin parts that work as part of the traditional element crucial to Pagan Metal, playing largely upbeat lines of stereotypical Celtic fiddling. As Irij she creates something far more radical. Her work in this guise is a Flyntian (a term I use to suggest an element in anyone's work akin to Henry Flynt's influential extending of the vernacular music of the southern United States) extension of the music of her native region (the former Yugoslavia, she is Croatian). While Eluveitie represents the kind of Pan-Europeanism that has more in common with the Eurovision song contest than anything else, Irij involves minimalist vignettes of an ideal of home, of an idea of culture that is personal and thoroughly subversive.[3] To feel a link to the land, to nature and to strongly feminine and matriarchal symbolism is deeply radical and linked to the roots element of the word itself.

The runes appear once again on Irij's eponymous Ahnstern records EP release.

Heathen radical violinists like Howden and Tadic are European roots radicals who, like the Krautrockers before them, seek out a new/old musical style free of Americanisation and corporate globalisation. Like Flynt they seek an autochthonous expression of a specific culture, class and people that is not necessarily swathed in tradition, but rather a radical extension of it, by pushing its symbols and nuances into something other. The ideals of heathen underground violinists are not those of the vulgar nationalism often fallen into by elements of their sub-culture, but of a yearning to escape the modern world. 

[1] TheNetineti, "Niezła Kiecka - Sieben [Matt Howden]," (YouTube, 2009).
[2] Matt/Sieben Howden, High Broad Field (EU: Iceflower/Trisol, 2006), Compact Disc. This album is largely inspired by the landscape surrounding a village in an area of moorland just outside Sheffield called High Bradfield.
[3] Irij/Meri Tadic, Irij (EU: Ahnstern, 2009), Compact Disc.