Ildjarn – The black sheep of black metal (a word on the namesake)

In order to build something new, sometimes it is necessary to destroy that which is old. If black metal destroyed the mores of production values, song structures, crumbs of appeal for the listener, then the work of Ildjarn was undoubtedly the logical conclusion to this project. Talentless hack to some, misunderstood genius to others (me), Ildjarn married raw black metal with ambient and noise, reminding us that beyond the wall of sonic extremity, jazz, punk, metal, electronica, all become virtually indistinguishable from one another. Youth cultures based in music eventually end up wallowing in static noise by one route or another.

Ildjarn first appeared on the scene playing in Norwegian death metal outfit Thou Shalt Suffer, along with Sammoth and Ihsahn who went on to form Emperor. Like many Norwegian death metal projects of the early 1990s, the musicians quickly disbanded or renamed to pursue the exciting new direction that Norwegian extreme metal was taking. Old Funeral, containing at different times Varg Vikernes and members from Immortal, Enslaved were originally called Phobia, and Darkthrone whose debut ‘Soulside Journey’ remains an intriguingly atmospheric death metal release. Ildjarn’s musical direction after Thou Shalt Suffer could not have been further from his former band mates speaking strictly within the sonic remit of early black metal.

EP’s and demos abound, his self-titled debut dropped in 1995 and went pretty much unnoticed. Given the state of the material on this album it is not surprising no one was paying attention, consider the rich musical tapestries that were released that year by the likes of giants such as Immortal, Gorgoroth, Satyricon and Dimmu Borgir (Stormblast is a classic ok, and I won’t have anyone say otherwise).

I mean…what is this music?

There are twenty seven tracks on this album, all around two and four minutes in length, none of them change tempo, and none of them use more than three chords. Unlike other artists touting lo-fi production as a virtue, manipulating it to aid the music, this album seems tailor made to alienate listeners of any disposition. The drums sound like a single dustbin lid being modestly patted with a chopstick, the guitars like they are played through a practice amp relentlessly chewed by cats over a thirty year period. The vocals are of course distorted, recorded through a coat-hanger with tights stretched across it. Nothing about this music is meant to appeal to any listener in possession of sanity. It is not harsh enough to be considered grim black metal of the ilk Darkthrone were aiming at, not brutal enough to appeal to the grindcore school. It is not just alienating music, it is alienating in the most understated and dare I say pathetic way.

With that in mind, the question is why? Well, there is the occasional shift in tone, the occasional key change, the occasional hint at melody, even the occasional clean vocal passage of almost meditative chants. These all too brief nods toward music amid the hour’s worth of static offers a respite that in the context of an attentive listen strikes the ears as powerfully as the final cadence worked into a grand symphony, a mighty crescendo, or the finale of an epic overture. In the meantime the obscene simplicity of this music comes across as a kind of parody of conventional music. We recognise all the familiar building blocks of a song, but they are all contorted into an abyss of basicness, played to chronological absurdity. Musical elements we usually enjoy are reflected back at us, distorted into a hideous monolith of vacancy.

I concede that in the eyes of some critics this analysis comes across as a search for sense where none is to be had, but so determined is the music of Ildjarn in sticking with this general approach over many years – long before the dawn of the hipster and their ironic calling cards – that I decided to make it a side project of my life to look for some semblance of meaning in this music.

Subsequent releases followed a similar philosophy, although considerably more aggressive on ‘Forest Poetry’ and ‘Strength and Anger’. It was inevitable he would apply this approach to ambient music as well. ‘Landscapes’ released in 1996 is a double album stretching well over two hours that does little to justify two minutes of playtime. Those moments of clarity scattered throughout his debut are present on ‘Landscapes’, but they take an age to unfold, so long in fact that the stupor one is dragged into means they are simply missed. Although, given the title of the album (and every single track on the album), it does a very good job of replicating the experience of staring at a largely static natural landscape for hours on end, the only discernible change being the gradually shifting light. The philosophy behind this album was much the same as his black metal work: ‘If you want minimal, harsh music with lo-fi production then you shall have it. If you want sparse ambience oozing with atmosphere then you shall have it. You shall have these things and only these things. You shall not have even a postmodernist nod to the traditional virtues of *music*. Give me the worst amp and microphone you have, and the closest thing to a drum-kit that’s not a drum-kit, and I will show you the true face of raw black metal.’

In the mid-1990s when the majority of Ildjarn’s work was released, black metal had barely begun to build something new on the ruins of conventional music before Ildjarn insisted on tearing its foundational works to the ground again. The rise of raw black metal in the following decade – largely originating in the US, largely vacuous, largely a result of the hipster’s interest in this music – this misses the point of Ildjarn’s work: the statement can only happen once; it is lightning in a bottle. The point has been made, there’s no meaning to be found in repeating variants of the same point.

Many critics agree that Ildjarn’s best work was produced with long standing collaborator Nidhogg, which leads me to wonder how much creative input Ildjarn had into their collective projects aside from playing the instruments. Much of this music was collected together on the aptly titled ‘Ildarjn-Nidhogg’ compilation of 2003. The music here is on more familiar territory for raw black metal fans, repetitive, trancelike, it displays a surprisingly astute knowledge of composition, and the subtle use of percussion in this simple, atmospheric music.

Their second collaboration took these ideas even further, with additional clientele, and apparently warranted a new name. Sort Vokter’s single release ‘Folkloric Necro Metal’ dropped in 1996, and is the closest thing to conventional black metal that Ildjarn ever worked on. The similar trancelike riffs under basic mid-paced blast-beats are offset by wafer thin guitars and harsh vocals. These are punctuated by ambient passages, some dark, some surprisingly euphoric, this music feels closer to the picture of nature that much Northern European black metal was aiming at; cold, indifferent and so very lonely.

A string of demos, compilations, and EPs were released continuously in the background, showcasing the more accessible side to Ildjarn’s work (when compared to the material on his full-lengths). The man himself remained mysterious, a straight edge vegan recluse living in remotest Norway, rarely giving interviews, and of course never performing live. The official disbanding of this project was announced on his website in 2006, simply stating that no new material would be released under this name. In 2005 we were gifted the apply titled ‘Ildjarn is Dead’ compilation, a comprehensive two disc collection of his demos, EPs, previously unreleased material, noise and ambient experiments; for the Ildjarn aficionado it’s all there. But after this there was radio silence for some years.

Ildjarn (left), Nidhogg (right)

In 2013 ‘Season of Mist’ announced that it would be releasing his first three full length albums, a welcome occurrence for the historian who sees value in this artist’s work. As it turned out this was a precursor to a new split EP with Ukrainian black metal staples Hate Forest. The EP itself was so-so material from both artists. But it later transpired that Ildjarn had no involvement with the project whatsoever, and the music on the first half was actually the handiwork of Nidhogg operating under the Ildjarn name, something Ildjarn presumably gave the go ahead for. Or, a more intriguing theory is that ‘Ildjarn is Dead’ was more than just an amusing title for the anthologies. Maybe it was a declaration of Ildjarn’s intention to commit suicide. So closely did he work with Nidhogg that he may have done this with every intention of allowing Nidhogg to continue working under his pseudonym in order to maintain the legacy.

Whatever the truth, I do like the idea of granting the symbol of an artist – their name and therefore the essence of their work – more significance than the person themselves. After all, the symbol is what we truly love, and if two or more artists band together under it, they arguably have an equal say in the future direction and meaning of said symbol, especially if one of them dies.

***

So why ‘Hate Meditations’? The name is lifted from a twenty minute ambient track found at the end of some versions of ‘Strength and Anger’. In name and sound it is the most pronounced statement of Ildjarn’s intent, this is terrible music that does not want to be listened to, but all the parts that make up this whole are lifted from the same basic components of more palatable raw black metal. We must destroy that which is old in order to create that which is new.

In Descartes’ meditations, he broke down his epistemology until all that was left was the most basic and fundamental truth he could find, in order to build something new from this truth. He came to the conclusion that nothing about his sitting in his study could be certain because he could be dreaming, or deceived by a malicious demon (now known as the Matrix). So what could he be certain of? He concluded that the only thing that was certain was that he was doubting, and as doubt is an activity of the mind it led to the immortal ‘I think therefore I am’ declaration. Of course, all this established in terms of epistemology was that he was a non-physical entity capable of thought, with extension in time only insofar as the activity of doubting its own existence was taking place (My man Nietzsche later blew this one out of the water by pointing out that this statement does not make sense in some far Eastern languages, where the concept of thought and thinking does not necessarily need to be attached to a thinker. So what Descartes was really saying was: ‘there is thought’ or worse: ‘a sentence is being uttered’).

Of course from this foundation Descartes attempted to build. Through tricks of language and ultimately positing God as the protection against any malicious demon who wished to deceive us, his epistemology has now been widely discredited. It is disputed whether the use of God in his philosophy was there simply to keep the Spanish Inquisition happy in the wake of Galileo’s trial. But the methodology has remained attractive, much like Socratic dialectics. It was rigorous, scientific, analytical, and arguably the dawn of modern philosophy. Descartes slew the dragon of Aristotelean metaphysics and brought intellectualism into the light of the modern age. We must destroy everything, and build from what is left once the smoke clears.

This has nothing to do with this corner of the internet. I mention it to recast the meaning of the word meditation in the readers mind. The music of Ildjarn remains poignant for this reason. A tedious, grating, alienating rumination around the same idea over and over again until grains of clarity are syphoned out. From the compost of mundane repetition, the tedium of eternal recurrence, some sprouts of intrigue are bound to grow, even if accidentally. A meditation – rumination might be more appropriate – given sonic life through the music of Ildjarn, a destruction of previous musical assumptions that can only take place once. The ultimate question of who builds in its place – and what is built – is left hanging for those who will undoubtedly miss the point. Ildjarn’s music is the daily tedium of human thought rendered in sonic form. Moments of clarity and revelation are extremely rare and sometimes occur only once in the life of a human mind if at all, and they are all the more precious for this, much like a key change in the middle of an Ildjarn album.

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