Before Stephen O’Malley became the Prince Royal of all things droning, he had already unleashed two ep’s that had the potential to profoundly and agonizingly slow shake us up, nurturing us with boils of phthisis and atrophy. You’ll probably found the way to Sunn 0))), KTL and other cronies, but does the same count for the addictive and captivating, foursome of paranoiacs named Burning Witch?
The wiry monster – a fleeting creative movement, ungraspable and unable to become a product – functioned as a vehicle that reformulated doom and broached sources of vitriol during the late nineties of the past decennium. It tried to show ‘a glimpse of something obscure deep within’.
Monk’s cowl O’Malley in 2001 gave an interview about Burning Witch to Noise Magazine – from which White Heat is the burning phoenix – in which he indicated that “Burning Witch played live and recorded for about 3 years with no recognition, it seem that only today, 3 years after the band has split, that the reciprocation of our efforts is being realised and recognised,”. Oh yeah, eat this: it was one of the few, and according to us, the last Burning Witch interview, ever!!
When the interview was published we admitted that it was with a lot of disinformation we started the interview. We were at that time still convinced that Burning Witch was alive and that O’Malley was involved in the post-industrial Ain Soph, on which he declared that he had “never been involved with (…), although they have created some of my favourite albums. The only connection I have had with Ain Soph is through one interview with Descent and designing of their self-titled CD on Elfenblut (spin off of Misanthropy, red).”
Good news: the two blazing eps, Towers… en Rift.Canyon.Dreams, not in the least driven by the charismatic eruptions of vocalist Edgy 59, is collected for the second time by Southern Lord on Crippled Lucifer. On the first version – with subtitle Seven Psalms for Our Lord of Light – there was one song of the two sessions missing. The regaining of our talk with O’Malley celebrates this re-release of a re-release, which features also the song Rift.Canyon.Dreams (from the 12” split with Asva), and Communion and The Bleeder from the today – frustratingly – quasi unfindable split with Goatsnake. It arises as a 2-cd, from which some of the stuff is already available through the BW-myspace.
Burning Witch seemed O’Malleys mean to get a grip on his shady objectives. Our love started in our then favourite record store Rataplan where Jan Vincke – if possible, even more shady than Burning Witch and aware of our addiction for lethargic riffs – pushed an lp in our coarse hands with the wavering words: ‘buy without questions’. The illustrious, malicious Rift.Canyon.Dreams became more supercharging with every turn.
SOMA we already knew form the semi-legendary Thorr’s Hammer (two rr’s, Thor’s Hammer is Polish NS black metal) and from the enigmatic Descent Magazine (RIP 1999), which had an enormous influence on our first half-arsed journalistic steps.
Thorr’s Hammer released the tape Dommedagsnatt as the fourth release on Moribund Records, which was re-released on cd by Southern Lord. That 1998 release was the label’s maiden voyage and included an extra live song. The band had teenager Runhild Gammelsæter aka Ozma (later in Khlyst) on vocals declaiming her Norwegian words, sounding like an overdosed Tom Waits doing death metal vocals. We would go too far if we said that the band, which also featured Greg Anderson (Southern Lord, Goatsnake, Sunn 0))), Burial Chamber Trio, Teeth Of Lions Rule The Divine), James Hale (Subharmonics) and Jamie Sykes (Atavist, 3d House of Beef, Wardrums, Codename F.A.D.G.E.), was a lab for later Burning Witch recordings. Therefore the music stood too much on its own and besides that, The Witch was less implemented in early traditions. But the quality riffs were accordingly. In the filthy pages of Noise Magazine we showed docil with the naive words: ‘If you don’t know them, just search for their albums, don’t do it for them… just do it for yourself…’
The band on Towers… consisted out of O’Malley playing guitar and by now known from such acts as Sunn O))) (the most obvious), KTL, Khanate, Lotus Earters, Aethenor, Teeth of Lions Rule The Divine, Sarin and Ginnungagap, and we do forget some of them. Greg Anderson was only a short member of this quartet of paranoiacs. After he left LA to start his alarming Goatsnake (in which other BW and later Asva member G Stuart Dahlquist would later appear too), he dismissed the band. Dahlquist was the one who inserted the subharmonics to Burning Witch. With our favourite producer, Steve Albini the debut album Towers… was recorded in September 1996. As the band’s ‘official myspace’ declares ‘this recording symbolizes the momentous kinetic violence in the songwriting, added to the uncanny timing rythm and performance.” On successor Rift.Canyon.Dreams, which was recorded in the winter of 1996 and 1997, it says that it “was composed, flowing in a more hynotic droning direction, and more visual than before. Previous to the groups lay to ice in march 1997, this session was set to tape, this time with engineer Aaron Evil behind the helm and B.R.A.D. fulfilling percussive damnation. RCD is a fusion of ambience, celestial and impression, and pure doom power. Edgy 59’s vocals shine as a beacon of darkness in a tower of light, thundering waves of distorted drone pounding at it’s walls. Epic.” We couldn’t have described it more accurately.
After Burning Witch’s discharge two gigs were performed in autumn 1998, one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles. Significant Other was composed during these sessions, but was never recorded and obviously never released. Another one never released was the song that was meant to be the title track from their second release. Besides some appearances on compilation-albums Burning Witch also delivered a hard to get split CD & LP with Goatsnake in 2000 for Hydra Head, Aaron Turner’s label.
We also made a mistake with the released albums, as we had the idea that Rift.Canyon.Dreams was Burning Witch’s debut album. Fortunately the guitarist helped us out: “Well first off, physically Crippled Lucifer (seven Psalms For Our Lord Of The Light) is a compilation of two albums; the Towers… LP and the Rift.Canyon.Dreams LP (which are basically two EP’s, red). Towers… is definitely the more terrestrial version of Burning Witch, sounds and ideas in a more straightforward way. Rift.Canyon.Dreams always seemed to me to be after the earth was cracked, looking through to the other subspace moments. Really, I think that RCD is a much more important work by Burning Witch even though it suffers in the production aspect versus the previous material. Lyrically it shifted towards a more important extra-dimensional space when I couldn’t tell if Edgy’s love/hate songs were about his wife or his habits (probably both).” The fantastic Towers lp was already released as a cassette. About the blatant mistakes we politely ask you to just fuck off: we hardly discovered the World Wide Web and what we found there on BW was very little. We had to make some guesses.
The drawing Stephen used at the front of the Rift.Canyon.Dream is from Harry Clarke, an Irish illustrator form the early 20th century, who worked with stained glass and as a book illustrator. His illustrations for Goethe’s Faust probably belong to his most famous work and could be seen as psychedelia avant-la-lettre. O’Malley also sought inspiration for the sleeve-design for Solstice‘s New Dark Age, that was released on the legendary Misanthropy Records. “The illustrator on the cover of (…) Towers… is Stanislav Szukalski, a Polish artist of the 20th century. He developed his own complex, if uncanny, theories on evolution with magical undertones that I found pretty inspiring. I’ts quite esoteric in a way. The cover design (I designed all of the Burning Witch titles, save the split with Goatsnake) is simple, a hand opening a flaming eye. It’s a common metaphor for insight, enlightenment (or search for it), deeper though, etc. The ultimate reason why I chose him, is because he is one of my personal favourite artists, I even have tattoos of some of his drawings.”
A glimpse of something obscure deep within
At the beginning of the interview we asked O’Malley if he could give a definition of Burning Witch? He said that “.. these sort of abbreviations of sound ideas are worthless except for in the case of advertising, promotion, etc. I have heard Transdimensional drone doom, Suicide doom, True blackened doom, Molasses sludge, etc. each more or less ridiculous. I think it’s slow heavy music playing around with time and its influence on the performers as well as setting up altered mindsets during the performance, or amplifying those who pre-exist. I think it was a play on magic and movement in a way.”
We used to see that members of commercial bands – yes, we emphasised that this is not equal to big sellers – were playing a role, being an actor. We asked O’Malley if he saw musicians as performers? “For me the least appealing is a musician whom is craving fame and attention through their music, this is more along the “actor” method you mentioned. I think that a musician craving for money is different than this although its pretty similar, and one may lead to another. If the element of personal value in the music is concerned then who is anyone to criticise the musician’s methods? This is my limited opinion.” He was aware that it’s not about cutting things off, inserting it into the music, and loose it forever, which we suggested with our question that followed. “It’s rather opening yourself or your ideas further and giving a glimpse of something obscure deep within. Hopefully, this can be a learning process for the creator through these methods as well. I can go far as it ends up being therapeutic for me to do this, by “opening the vent” in myself through making music and sounds it leads to fulfilment which I can’t achieve by any other methods I have found so far. So, consequences on myself are actually higher the less I do this, and less the more I give.”
What are the implications on the listener?“Only speaking as a huge fan of music of all sorts I can say that this personal aspect is usually the most interesting and valuable quality of real music. I think many musicians are afraid to put their own character on their sounds, to stamp it with their personality for fear of rejection, or not being understood. I absolutely cannot relate to this idea as it seems to go completely against the whole point of the creative process.”
In the weeks before the interview with O’Malley we read an interview with Therapy? – yes, we still did that at the time being. We saw these guys as losers, as a direct consequence of them being proud that, after several albums and artistic choices under pressure of their record-company, they again choose their own direction. We even wondered if age mattered if you want to conserve integrity in this process of creation. It seemed that it does in the way of questioning. “Does age matter to what? (…) In general I think that with more life experience of course this brings more understanding, but this doesn’t always necessarily have to do or relate with age.” Anyway, O’Malley gave a very nuanced insight in truthfulness, “I wouldn’t think of Therapy? as losers simply because I have no idea what their original intent was by putting themselves in the music bizz situation. Actually I would admire the fact that they are able to resource the root of what they are doing once more. None of the bands I have ever been in have had a chance of even thinking about working on a major level, it has always been more limited than that. This is not something I regret either, although I can’t give an accurate assumption of what it’s like to work this way, as I have no experience there. I’m sick of judging other artists and musicians based on their aspirations or success. The only position that matters in life I think is where you are with your mind.”
Unsettling and bizarre
Some journalist from the shores of state metal, have pointed out to Edgy 59’s vocals as a way of trying to adjust a dark sound to the quartet. The vocalist’s screams of anguish and torment of course darkened the sound, but all in all in was the only inserts that could be legitimated and visa versa. Making the sound dark and gloomy was quite the opposite of accident and fortune “(…) Of course vocals are used to adjust, or rather enhance, sound in bands such as Burning Witch but it’s not their sole purpose. They have their own place which is nowhere for me to comment on, being a guitarist. My personal opinion is that Edgy’s vocals were the most important part of Burning Witch, he gave it unsettling and bizarre inhuman chill.” Edgy varies metaphysical almost early Ozzyan melodic singing with hulking shrieks in the middle of the minimalistic riffs (O’Malley), excessive drum parts (Jamie Sykes, later replaced by B.R.A.D.) and the dragging bass (G. Stuart Dalquist).
We asked about the activities of the different members and, wondered how important Burning Witch was for every member at that moment. Second half of the question was one for the dustbin, as we now know. In retrospect, it is interesting to read what O’Malley had to say about his occurring activities. Some of the stuff he talks about, has already awfully gained respect and recognition. It also seemed the momentum for artistically breaking loose, delving deeper into everything doom, drone, minimal and experimental. “Currently I am creating music with a group called SUNN O))) which also includes Stuart Dahlquist of Burning Witch and Greg Anderson of Goatsnake. We have released 2 albums this year and recently recorded a third effort. Beside this I have been creating sounds with James Plotkin (ex-OLD/Scorn, etc) and Aaron Turner (Isis/House of Low Culture), but nothing beyond initial recordings have been completed/decided as of yet.” O’Malley surely disclosed the first steps of what would not much later become the electro-acoustic experimentalism of Lotus Eaters. “Stuart is also playing with Goatsnake although I think that may be on hold at the moment as he is having some severe legal problems. Edgy has a group called Sinisstar based out of Los Angeles whom he created with the producer Bob Marlett. Currently this group is signed to Geffen Records but has yet to release an album as far as I know, although they have one song on the soundtrack to the film “Heavy Metal 2”. Jamie Sykes has moved back to his native Leeds by now and is playing music with a group called Enchanted whom have released a few demos. Previous to that he was participating in a group called Corvus Corax for a time, amongst others. I am unsure of B.R.A.D.‘s activities.” We can say that the latter, who’s full name is Brad Mowen today is playing with splatter rockers The Accüsed.
Cultural negativist and pessimists as we were, we asked O’Malley about his opinion on the consumer society or “the throw away culture’ as you wish. We came to that point when dining in a restaurant, it seems. To confirm our little theory we drew attention on the use of disposable cups, non-returnable bottles and nappies to throw away. Hey, metal or not. Anyway, we saw similarities in the way music (and art in general) was generated and consumed. We would be more prudent today. Anyway, we wanted to find out if the Burning Witch-addicted is a brutal consumer too? “Well, in order to live in that culture you must also think that way, something that I cannot understand at all and never have been able to. I think this can also be explained in a number of other easy ways (to generalise): short attention spans, short ideas, programmed minds, incapability of independent thought, money as god, success as worth, etc. Look at any early Swans album and you’ll get my point. It’s hard to say on world-wide terms and I personally can only try to better my own position and those of loved ones, it’s enough to worry about. I have no idea what the average Burning Witch-lover is like… almost each I’ve met is completely different but I guess they all probably have some patience hahahahah!”
All this negativism was the perfect bridge to the notion of timelessness. We posed that music and art in general has to carry this timelessness and wanted to know if O’Malley could name five albums that he considered as timeless? “Personally I don’t find a requirement of timelessness in art, it’s enough to make an impression. I think this is the most important quality. Timeless albums in my opinion: Miles Davis / Get Up With It, Earth / Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version, Coil / Musick To Play In The Dark & Time Machines, Godflesh / Godflesh, Lynyrd Skynyrd / Street Survivors. These are all timeless to me because they created original ideas in my mind, the sounds always are fresh and the characters involved all hold incredible charisma. Although I think the idea of timelessness is as illusionary as the idea of time itself. Perhaps when art/music reaches the idea of timelessness then it is actually separated from the commonality of the time (or lack of) infected/obsessed world.”
We have to admit. At the time of the interview we were in full crisis. That’ll be at least the idea that you’ll get when you read the full article at our myspace. After years of delving into that bubble that is/was metal we had enough of the macho-behaviour of the bulk of the metal-audience. You see, there wasn’t too much obvious crossing between metal and other styles of music at that day. Today it is common to see gigs with varying styles and bands, and musicians from a broad range of scenes dishing each other musically. O’Malley didn’t take the edge of our little bites to the metal audience, that we found very dumb and stupid then. We questioned if O’Malley considered Burning Witch as a metal band? “Burning Witch was for sure a metal band, a DOOM METAL band, but we never had anything to do with meathead macho male attitude. These values are at once subhuman and impressive but I would have to say that I don’t personally find them within myself too often unless whiskey and lycanthropy are involved. Macho attitude usually relates to breeding and protection of one’s territory, two things I am not particularly concerned with. There are more fulfilling attitudes to think about.”
The link to philosopher Schopenhauer was easily made, we thought. In ten sentences we wanted to say that an individual’s character, goals and aims never change, only the external aspect of the attitude. The latter can / shall be deformed by finding other ways to achieve its goals and aims. O’Malley’s comment: “Wow, I think this is correct in some cases. In other words people learn the most effective way to achieve their aims through knowledge and experience. I think this is the whole importance of growth and development of skill. Are you proposing this to be a detrimental quality? It’s actually a pleasure of human experience. To transfer it to Burning Witch: to me being in the band seems in retrospect to be parallel to a period in my own life where I was facing and then trying to cross the abyss of self and self-knowledge. I didn’t know what I was doing or how to really start but still I was trying to search and one of the ‘torches’ I had was that band. Today I realise that the search is as strong as ever but it’s not necessary to direct this in such a dramatic way. Whatever I am searching for is way more complicated than that I realised.”
Article by Peter, 2008