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Raagnagrok
Man Woman Birth Death Infinity Peter Bebergal , February 7th, 2014 06:03

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Occultism in the oughts is going a bit off the rails. Psychonauts are mixing their DMT with chaos magick and conjuring Lovecraftian elder gods (all three activities that Lovecraft would have likely despised). Ancient alien theories are making a comeback and Satanists are trying to get statues placed in city halls. All of this is well and good. Anything that continues to perpetuate the weird is okay in my book, but does it all have to be so artless? Thankfully there are islands where folks are using these ideas and images to actually create something, to reflect on the human experience, to deepen our relationship to myth and metaphor. It doesn't matter if you are an arch-druid or a Christian; If you are literalising myth, you are doing damage. So when something like Raagnagrok's Man Woman Birth Death Infinity comes along – an album that finds a group of musicians knowing how to be both playful and artful while grooving on an occult wavelength – it is worth taking special note.

According the liner notes for the album, the music is a result of a Quartermass-like experiment with a strange stone or gem that responds when subjected to "broad and narrow range frequencies in Pythagorean clusters". The resulting sounds are the supposed foundation for the musicians Mark Pilkington and Zali Krisha to craft an album around. There is nothing like a mysterious artifact at the center of an album to inspire a listening that is reminiscent of what it was like in the 1960s and 1970s when we pored over our albums looking for clues to some esoteric knowledge. It is the rumors of Paul McCartney's death, the obelisk on Led Zeppelin's Presence, the hidden occult wisdom in Roger Dean's artwork. But more than that, it is the pop culture that all this inspired and was inspired by, from aliens to Dungeons & Dragons, the Necronomicon to Ralph Bakshi's Wizards. But never minding all of that and how well Raagnagrok play in that sandbox, the music stands all by itself.

Analog synths oscillate and drone around guitar and sitars, resulting in a classic expression of Kosmiche. It's what New Age music could have been if it didn't take itself so seriously and allowed for a little accident and noise to bleed in. The opening track 'Elephanta Gateway' propels the whole effort forward with a little Fripp-inspired guitar work. 'Man' is peppered with Forbidden Planet-like effects and 'Women' goes the other way with a terrific fuzzy guitar dominating the piece.

The next three tracks, 'Birth', 'Tenebrae', and 'Mount Pelle' seem particularly improvised, but most of the album could be heard in this way. Pilkington is having fun with what must be an enviable collection of electronics and synths while Krisha meditates over his guitar. This lends itself to a wonderful tension between the two and again is reminiscent of stories where some ancient alien power makes itself known in the modern world, bringing with it some new technology that looks like magic. A lot of current synth-based experimental work can easily be likened to a soundtrack, and while this is often the intention, it sometime undermines the ability of the songs to exist as singular investigations into a mood or idea. Man Woman Birth Death Infinity feel like individual sessions in an alchemists lab, or better yet, two magicians scrying music out of their shew stone. The medium is the same, but the messages from the other side are all unique. Coming through from the other side each time is a different entity with a different name offering a different bit of information. And like any good occult-inspired art, the nature of that message should be opaque, enigmatic. Even the titles of the songs are mere symbols. Listen to the music, contemplate the emblem, find your own daemon.

'Death' and 'Infinity' are stand out tracks, and with closer 'HJD' (Heliocentric Julian Day?) the whole thing is brought to an hour of sublime listening, but with a wink and nod to the influences that make something like this possible. Pilkington is best known for being the hierophant of the terrific Strange Attractors Press and an important advocate for underground culture and music. But this is not the underground of Feral House and transgression, of conspiracy theories and black magic grimoires. This is the underground where occult and esoteric ideas are turned into narrative, consciousness exploration and – as on this wonderful album – art. Raagnagrok spins a story of Rosicrucian mysteries and weird science in their presentation, but the result is something that embraces and transcends those pretensions. All contemporary occultism should be so honest and bold.