Island Of The Dead by Sopor Aeternus

While I’m significantly late on this it is now time to review Island Of The Dead!

This album was released almost a month ago but, because I’m a purist idiot, I refused to listen to it digitally until I had my hard copy. All of these pictures were taken after letting it sit for three days after it came in the mail. You know, because of the now global pandemic.

Individually numbered….!!!!! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

I can’t describe how happy this made me when I finally opened it. The happiness over receiving an individually numbered CD copy also brought my attention to other aspects of the presentation and delivery. I don’t know all the specifics of this, but hard copies of Sopor Aeternus albums tend to only be available through the band and record label’s website around the time the album in question is to be released. I read that Sopor Aeternus worked briefly with John A. Rivers who, in the world of goth music, is a fairly big name, having produced albums for the likes of Dead Can Dance, Love And Rockets, Daniel Ash, etc. As far as I know, I don’t think Sopor has ever come any closer than that to approaching major label representation.

In fact, when I search for Apocalyptic Vision Records online, it seems that Sopor Aeternus and The Ensemble Of Shadows constitute the majority of their output. This goes back to early albums like Ich tote mich…, Todeswunsch and the earliest known version of Es reiten die Toten so schnell, which makes me suspect that Anna-Varney Cantodea herself must have some kind of personal involvement with Apocalyptic Vision Records. Maybe I’m way off base, but if they were working with Sopor Aeternus since the very beginning then I think her personal involvement is likely. If the production and release of Sopor Aeternus music is Anna-Varney’s own personal labor of love, then it makes sense that hard-copies of their work would only be made in proportion to purchases if, perhaps, money needs to be saved for studio time, production costs, studio muscians, etc. So little things, the amount of detail put into the physical object itself…reflect a much more personal and deliberate touch. Which is why a hand-written 878 in front of the /1000 warms my heart.

Now for the actual music and lyricism: there isn’t a specific and obvious genre affiliation like there was with the death metal album Death & Flamingos but modern touches are distinctly present. Songs like Poison, DeathHouse, Saturn Rising and Nightbreed have noticeable new-wave and new-romantic influences. This shift in creative direction happens along with the preservation of the personal, memoir-style lyricism from Death & Flamingos. The lyrics here are very direct and have very personal \ conversational word and sentence construction and the vocal delivery has the same rawness as the previous album. Minotour has a conversational delivery similar to Kinder Des Teufels from Death & Flamingos, You Cannot Make Him Love You from Mitternacht and Something Wicked This Way Comes from Songs from the Inverted Womb.

The closing song, Goodbye, is very lyrically streamlined: when you read the lyrics in the booklet it looks like a personal note between two individuals, like something meant for someone to read. When Anna begins singing, though, the cadence and rhythm of her voice is perfectly musical. The same goes for Mourning, The Void, Saturn Rising and Cold. Mourning struck me as a little challenging at first- I actually didn’t listen to this album all at once, as a single body of work, the first time I heard it. Which will definitely effect the impression of each song. Anna-Varney Cantodea makes albums that are whole, distinct bodies of work, meant to be taken in as a whole. Now it feels like one of the most important songs on the album. Not least of all because of the lyrical stream lining mentioned earlier. The use of verbal repetition is different on this album- in fact, I don’t think lyrical repetition is used quite the same way in anything else by Sopor.

On Mourning, repetition is used in a way comparable to the function served by a chorus in an ordinary rock song, but still gives the rest of the more conversational lyrics room to define the overall tone. The longer instrumental sections also provide necessary atmospheric breathing room for the song to work. As a kind of orienting “center” to the album, this generous use of space is very justified.

Saturn Rising, while just as streamlined overall, is more of an equal split between conversational and conventionally rhythmic lyricism. The alternating slow and fast pacing and the use of electric guitar give the song a recognizable alternative-shoegazey feel. In fact, all of the electric guitar usage on this album reminds me of shoegaze.

The lyrics of Burial Ground are more rhythmic than conversational but retains the shoegaze flavor. Poison, DeathHouse and Nightbreed all riff on shoegaze but go a bit further into the land of straight up gothic rock. On that subject, Nightbreed is particularly satisfying. Very cheeky and angry and contains one of my favorite personalized lyrical bitch-slaps on the album:

I’m not your pal, your aunt or your mother!

You asshole, I’m your FRIEND!

But if all that is too much to ask for,

Then, please…don’t pretend.

If you don’t care to have me

In your busy and happy life,

Then don’t you dare

Say that you love me!

Go and

Tell that shit

to your wife

I love love love how she spits the words “Go and \ tell that shit \ to your wife” ❤

The new familiarity with direct, memoir-style lyricism and rock experimentation on both this album and the last one seems significant. Death & Flamingos and Island Of The Dead both sound more like direct and personal statements from Anna herself, as opposed to Dead Lovers Sarabande or Songs from the Inverted Womb which employed less literal narrative devices. This, in addition to the release of one album a year for three years so far makes these new works seem like an important moment in her artistic career.

After the release of The Spiral Sacrifice in 2018, Anna did an interview with the German LGBT magazine Seigessaule in which she said that The Spiral Sacrifice will “probably” be her last album. This made sense in that interview, as she described the 2018 album- which was in fact a reimagining of her 1997 album The Inexperienced Spiral Traveller -as a journey through time and a stock-taking. This made The Spiral Sacrifice sound like a grand, finishing statement, to say nothing of the fact that Anna is in her sixties and could hardly be faulted for slowing down.

Not only did Anna release new music in 2019 and 2020, but look at the contrast with the 2018 album. The Spiral Sacrifice is almost luxuriously introspective, poetic and slow-paced. I listen to it often while writing or drawing, as I do with Poetica and Ich Tote Mich. The Spiral Sacrifice was constructed with room for the listener’s mind to occupy the material alongside Anna’s presence. In the last two albums, Anna herself dominates all the space and is singing literally about herself in lyrics that make you hear her as both an artist and a private person. So far from being a final album, The Spiral Sacrifice appears to have marked the beginning of a unique chapter in the life of Sopor Aeternus and The Ensemble Of Shadows.

If ever I have the chance to have a hard-copy made of any book I write or video game I design in the future, this is the kind of personal touch I would want to add ^^
This image and the next one both give me a distinct Dead Lovers Sarabande vibe

Death & Flamingos by Sopor Aeternus

Last October, I became a huge fan of Sopor Aeternus and The Ensemble of Shadows when a close friend linked me to Sopor Fratrem Mortis Est on YouTube and the playlist continued with A Strange Thing To Say.  So I couldn’t help but be super hyped when Anna Varney-Cantodea released another Sopor album last February.  I read about it some weeks before it was due to be released and I instantly coughed up the fifty-odd dollars for a hardcopy to shipped to me from Germany as soon as it was available.  A lot happened between then and now, though, both with my living situation and (apparently) with the package itself.  After getting forwarded from another place, I finally got my hands on my beautiful, textured hard copy of Death & Flamingos.

I felt nervous about this album at first because this was to be Anna’s first frank step into rock.  Black metal, specifically.  She’s definitely did loud music before.  I mentioned A Strange Thing To Say and I found some more rhythmic, electronica-infused material that was originally supplemental to La Chambre d’Echo (currently available in the huge anthology called Like A Corpse Standing In Desperation).  I’ve also found that I really enjoy drawing while listening to her debut album, Ich Tote Mich, which has the original version of Do You Know My Name, which you might, arguably, compare to lo-fi industrial.  Might.  I also went through a phase of really enjoying Les Fleurs Du Mal, which was a stark departure from most of Sopor’s MO for a few reasons.  It’s definitely a loud album and her lyrics are way more light-hearted, snarky and raunchy than usual.  At the time that I heard it, I would have called it the Sopor album with the most “drag” or camp influence.

I suppose….it still might.  If Les Fleurs Du Mal hasn’t lost that title to Death & Flamingos, then the two albums are closely sharing it.

Not only does Death & Flamingos whole-heartedly embrace electric guitars and rock drumming, but it’s also very snarky and very conversational.  In the liner notes, Anna writes “This album is based on an interview.”  And it definitely shows.  Being the tactile weirdy that I am, as soon as I received this album in the mail I immediately took it out of the shipping box and carefully inspected the booklet, which is itself the CD case (thick card-stock cover, backing and spine, with a disc sleave at the end).  At first glance, the lyrics don’t even read like song lyrics so much as snatches of conversation.

The song Spellbound starts with the words “Ideally…well, obviously” and Kinder Des Teufels starts with “I never had my  tonsils removed”.  One of my favorite points of contrast here is one of the songs that I find particularly re-listenable, Coffin Break.  Opening lines: “I do take offense / I won’t excuse this point today / it’s such a hurtful thing to say”.  It’s instantly (well…almost?) obvious that this is framed as a response to something that was said by someone else earlier.  But it actually flows really well.  The Boy Must Die also has a few lines that sound “stream of consciousness” that actually turn out to flow quite naturally once Anna starts singing.

And I’ll get to the other songs soon enough, but for now, Coffin Break: the subject matter is, in a strict sense, a simple topic that I think a lot of queer people could relate to.  This being the lifelong messaging, both overt and understated, that we are diseased and insane and the lifelong struggle many of us have with it.  Speaking personally, I’ve lived with suicidal ideation as a regular fact of life starting from age thirteen or so until maybe about two years ago.  When a thought pattern sticks with you that long, it wears deep paths in your head and it’s influence can be felt long after the problem goes down in its intensity.  A certain kind of combative self-talk can be tempting for this reason, and sometimes, in the right circumstances, can even be helpful: if the whole natural world is against you and needs you to die, then why not stand your ground and kill everything else?

It’s not the least understandable thing to think if you’re trying to resist a lifetime of conditioning with little to no resources.  And the song Coffin Break is pretty much about that, exactly.  The use of camp is really successful in these lyrics as well.  As with most of the album, there are some really blunt rhymes.  Intentionally blunt, probably, and intentionally contrasting with Anna’s more expected poetric lyric construction: “Why should I put a bullet / in my beautiful head? / why not get rid of the vermin / and kill everyone else instead?!”.  Talking about putting a bullet in her “beautiful head” makes the subject matter approachable through a little bit of camp while also personalizing it: an idiosyncratic word choice that sounds unique to a person lends credence to the “I” in “why should I”.

Anna fleshes out the thought with:

If I had the power,

I would create the quiet earth

I would erase all human life

From this and every other universe.

 

On any given day

I’d push that button most happily…

Then Anna drops her singing voice and says, conversationally: ” ’cause I’m a homosexual.”  I’m sure this could be read very differently, but stuff like this really sells the blunt, memoir-like format of the album to me.  The snarkiness of that tone shift does what many other singers couldn’t do with a guttural metal roar.  The song (to say nothing of the album) is definitely a blood-letting, but this kind of humor enables her to show ownership (or mastery) of her pain while at the same time bluntly validating the whole reason for the internal dialogue.

This effect is also achieved in the first song with singing in it, Kinder Des Teufels, which is a pretty direct telling of a story many fans have heard Anna tell in one context or another: a traumatic and possibly dissociative out of body experience she had as a child while being anaesthetized.

In order to achieve the honesty that quality memoiring demands, one needs to be absolutely at peace with their vulnerability.  It’s best to lead with, not only the most painful thing, but potentially the most discrediting thing.  And the two tend to go together.  Often our most powerful experiences, both agonizing and ecstatic, are things we have a very hard time describing to other people.  And if you pull off the godlike task of describing it, then you’re faced with the more horrifyingly gigantic prospect of legitimizing it.  I hope you weren’t burnt out from all that self-interrogation you did just to be able to open your mouth about this, because we’re only just getting started.

The words that precede our first taste of the chorus seem to address this very anxiety.  After an outline of the surgical out of body experience, she says “I’ll tell you something far more interesting / childhood is a fleeting thing, / but trauma stays”.  She expects not to be taken seriously and uses this as an opportunity to emphasize why it is serious.

While this album is abundantly snarky, it’s not without earnestness.  The song Van Dem Tode Traumen Wir has some superficial sonic resemblances to a few different moments from Mitternacht, which has got to be the perfect opposite-equal to Death & Flamingos, being open and earnest in exact proportion to the combativeness of Death & Flamingos.  Tode Traumen Wir is a simple meditation on how your internal validation of yourself is more real than any outside validation, which moves on to album’s final songs, Death Waltz, Charnel House and Mors Ultima Ratio (to only name the songs that have lyrics).  All of which deal with the more angsty side of cosmic and social indifference.  Death Waltz and Mors Ultima Ratio are particularly tongue-in-cheek and campy about it, though, which is consistent with the album’s use of humor to take ownership of pain and anger.  I also just love that I now own an album that has the line “worms will eat your face” 😀

All in all, I’m very happy with this album, both on its own and as an elaboration in Anna Varney-Cantodea’s body of work.  Before I got this CD I was regularly listening to POETICA- All Beauty Sleeps, which sets the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe to music, while writing.  POETICA is also a very earnest album, so the difference of this new release hit me particularly hard.  Luckily, though, in a good way 😉

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.