Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble Of Shadows

The last few weeks have been a little rough on me.  I have ADHD and Borderline Personality Disorder, which means I have to be a little extra vigilant with monitoring my mental health and self-care.  And let us not forget Puberty Round Two, close friend and confidant of any transsexual in their first years of hormone replacement therapy (I’m going on year four but, erm, still.  My dosage was recently adjusted as per blood work).  Receiving my signed copy of Blood Communion in the mail caused a brief spike in excitement but didn’t really effect my mood in the best way.  I saw things in the characters Benedict and Rhoshamandes that made me dwell uncomfortably on bad decisions I’ve made in past relationships.  A close friend sent me a link to a song on YouTube, though, that cheered me up for the first time in days.  That little emotional bump was probably the spark I needed to write my big’ol text brick of a review for Blood Communion.  And that bump is named Anna-Varney Cantodea, mastermind of Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble Of Shadows.

You know something speaks to you in the right way when you start to return to things you normally enjoy.  That is, when you regain your ability to feel mental pleasure and satisfaction and you realize how deep your anhedonia actually was.  What specifically happened was that my friend linked me to Sopor Fratrem Mortis Est, and the playlist went on to A Strange Thing to Say.  I then proceeded to immerse myself in the brilliance of Anna-Varney when playing Bloodborne with the sound on the TV turned all the way down.  For the last week, Sopor Aeternus has been my go-to band, with occasional digressions into Cake Bake Betty and Francoise Hardy.

You also know you’re something of a special cupcake with extra special frosting when Sopor Aeternus, of all bands, opens a floodgate for your emotions and makes everything feel okay.  For those who don’t know, Sopor is popularly associated with sub-genres like dark-wave, dark cabaret and neoclassical and it is said that the memory of Rozz Williams of Christian Death was on Anna-Varney’s mind while writing the Dead Lovers’ Sarabande albums. Sopor Aeternus also takes strong direction from medieval European music and can run a gloriously chaotic mental, emotional and spiritual gamut.

I’m fascinated and often blindsided by the easy overlap of camp and earnestness.  In It, the character Richie Tozier has a moment of internal dialogue where he reflects on the thin line between what is funny and horrible.  It’s kind of like that.  I think part of that is, as a queer in a small rural community, self-loathing has often been very close at hand.  Especially for a transsexual.  Even now that I’m an adult who has been frankly out as trans for years with a supportive family.  Maybe I only feel like this because I’m pre-op, but gender dysphoria seems like something that’s always going to  be there, at least a little bit.  Do I actually believe that?  I try not to…I try hard.  Perhaps the delicate segues between self-celebration and self-effacement, humor and horror, also speaks to the thin divide between humor and anger.  Recognizing these things in another mind can be a vital safety valve.

This makes Anna-Varney Cantodea a new hero as both an artist and a fellow transperson.  To say nothing of the fact that the music of Sopor Aeternus is like an on switch for my mind.  As soon as I put on Es reiten die Toten so schnell or Mitternacht I’m probably seconds away from pulling out the journal to brainstorm or vent.  Es reiten die Toten so schnell is immersive and otherworldly, easing you in and out at the beginning and end and has a consistently elaborative emotional nature.  It’s very self-contained and each song builds directly on what came before it.  Mitternacht, though, is more manic and, to my ears, more personal.  Beautiful, La Prima Vez, Confessional, You Cannot Make Him Love You and If You Could Only Read In My Mind all gave me chills.  The alternating energy between the short and long songs and the long melodic sections with the louder parts also give the whole body of work a comfortable dream-like framing.  The dream-like nature is also supported by Mitternacht‘s covers of Bang-Bang and Into the Night.  For some reason, Anna’s rendition of Into the Night has a way of reminding me of the parts in Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels with Mia and Susannah holding palaver on the allure of Castle Discordia.

However, I heard those two albums along with The Spiral Sacrifice after I had heard the EP A Strange Thing To Say and I almost don’t know if I can go back to it.  Anna-Varney pulls off visceral camp exquisitely but there’s just something about her longer and more emotional albums that I just can’t stay away from.  Maybe it’s because so much of what she does comes from situating things within a specific body of work.  Each album is self-contained with a beginning, middle and end, which speaks to the novelist in me.  Which can make digressions like A Strange Thing To Say a little awkward to return to, as much as I love that EP.   I especially liked the video for the title track and how it elaborates on the song’s metal sensibility (her music is only occasionally inflected with metal).

I also plan on checking out Poetica (All Beauty Sleeps).  Anna-Varney Cantodea may be the first artist I’ve encountered to use the Edgar Allan Poe poem The Conqueror Worm, which I particularly like, as direct inspiration.

I think I’m also gonna end up having my will power challenged as I’m a total sap for owning hard copies of music and books.  I don’t shy away from the digital market but there really is nothing like holding a copy of something in your hand, and Sopor Aeternus puts together gorgeous bundles.  This is more special with musical artists that cultivate a direct relationship with fan communities as the more obscure acts are wont.  There is this unknown punk band in Pennsylvania called Gash that self-published an EP called Subspace a few years ago and I still have the packaging that it came in, with the hand-written address.  Granted it has my dead name, but there’s nothing quite like that personal touch from an artist you love.  Anna-Varney, similarly, cultivated support for the latest Sopor Aeternus album through Patreon with rather cool rewards for supporters.  So my crazy little collector’s soul will have to be reigned in before it bankrupts me 😛

I feel like a total groupie fan girl for adding this last part, but I love Anna-Varney’s presentation in interviews and her reflections on herself.  Por exemplo, she tends to get asked why specifically she devotes herself to the Hellenic deity Saturn and always refuses to answer.  This rings true to me: spirituality and devotion, when it’s part of an authentic journey of one’s soul, can be a deeply intimate and personal thing.  As someone who was raised with traditional ethnic spirituality, I can identify with this.  To make myself look like an even bigger fan girl, I’m impressed by the fact that she is, as of this writing, sixty-six years old.  As a transgender queer, the world can often seem like a treacherous and inhumane place.  Anna-Varney Cantodea has been living that life longer than twice the amount of time that I have, and at her age she seems so powerfully confident in her presentation and gender.  This warms my queer little heart to no end.

So thank you Anna-Varney Cantodea for being the hero that you are, in this world of Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and insane anti-trans bullshit in the gutters of the internet, in the mainstream of American thought and in the White House.

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