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A Demon The Colour Of Cosmic Energy: Oranssi Pazuzu Interviewed
John Doran , May 26th, 2020 07:20

John Doran speaks to Finnish band Oranssi Pazuzu about cosmic horror, grooving with the machine and what it means to be a black metal band (when you aren't)

At the end of 2019, I wrote a feature for the Guardian explaining why I thought that Sunn O))) had created one of the defining sounds of the preceding decade, and how they had effectively helped critically habilitate the once reviled heavy metal genre. After reading the feature, handsome gentleman of reverberant drone, David Terry took exception to my thesis (as is his wont) and said something to me along the lines of, ‘Fair enough, but Sunn O))) aren’t a heavy metal band, apart from the fact they have long hair and wear leather jackets.’ He then went on to say, accurately, that his band Bong trod a similar path to Sunn O))) and they considered themselves to be psych rock.

One of my favourite cities in the world is Istanbul. The first time I visited was 20 years ago this month. I spent several days just pounding the streets, in between visits to Yerebatan Sarnıcı, Sultan Ahmed Mosque and Mihrimah Sultan Hamamı. But mainly I just wandered about following my nose, which eventually led me to take a ferry across the Bosphorus between Karakoy and Kadikoy, where I had a grill and a soda before making the return trip. And, ever slow on the uptake, it was probably only a day or two later that I realised that I’d left Europe and spent the afternoon in Asia, without even realising it. Although why would I have noticed, given that nothing particularly looked that different?

With all due respect to everyone who cares about this kind of thing, I think, now more than ever, it’s a fool’s errand policing or even demarcating genre boundaries. Sunn O))) - arguably - are a heavy metal band simply because they say they are, because they have spent decades embedded in that milieu, because they have consistently collaborated with heavy metal musicians and, yes, because they wear leather jackets and have long hair. It’s like being confronted with a Jake and Dinos Chapman mannequin of a schoolboy that has a penis for a nose and an anus for a mouth and angrily asking, ‘Why is this art?’ The answer is self-evident. It can be found in an art gallery, it was made by professional artists and it has been sold to Charles Saatchi for a seven figure sum. Getting mired in outrage at the boundaries of genre prevents some people (though not David Terry, I must point out!) progressing to the punchier and more pertinent second question: is it good art? Is it good heavy metal? Does it have a purpose?

Oranssi Pazuzu are one of my favourite contemporary ‘black metal’ bands. And I’m putting those scare quotes in myself because - despite the long hair, despite the leather jackets, despite the time spent embedded in that milieu etc. - I’m not even sure you can even call them a heavy metal band in 2020, let alone categorise them as black metal. However, I’m not going to get bogged down in the what-they-are debate. I’ll leave that to the true kvlt young men with the strong domestic maternal bonds, the low tolerance to soap and water and the internet routers that glow red hot all day long. Oranssi Pazuzu are one of the greatest heavy, psychedelic, metallish bands in the entire damn world, partially due to the fact that they resist easy classification and don’t really sound like anyone else.

When I speak to guitarist and singer Juho ‘Jun-His’ Vanhanen and bassist Ontto, they seem sanguine about the BM tag, which perhaps reflects the fact that when they formed in Finland in 2007 they were unusual outliers and they’ve only gotten progressively weirder and less compartmentalised since. Ontto says: “I don’t think we’ve ever been a black metal band per se. We love black metal but we are a psychedelic rock band and we are fans of psychedelic music. We were really enthusiastic about black metal ideas and we wanted to incorporate those into our music, so in the beginning that’s how this perception of us came about.”

Juho expands on the idea of a special black metal ambiance that appeals to the band, while wanting to draw attention to their wider magpie tendencies and recombinant strategies: “The atmosphere of black metal and the rawness of the production is really interesting and that has been the main point of connection for us. We have always asked, how do we achieve these things? But we’re not just into black metal. For example we’re into 90s noise rock as well. I feel as a guitarist that there are a lot of similar things you can do in both of these styles, soundscape wise. I think the similarities are pretty close.”

Both musicians make a point of praising the avant garde chord structures that rip through the recorded work of the Jesus Lizard like shards of torn sheet metal. The abrasive clangour of Duane Denison was even unique in a bristling field where bands continually went head to head trying to develop non-standard ways of playing electric guitar, and is perhaps not surprising when you consider his background was in hard jazz fusion and modern classical guitar playing. I mean, that is one thing that early 90s Mayhem and The Jesus Lizard have in common, this dizzying distance they had suddenly created from blues rock.

Juho adds: “But not just that… there’s the harmonic structure of the songs as well. What they do is more dissonant than jazz even.”

Onnto, in the interest of balance, brings up the idea of repetition and hypnosis, naming both Loop and Circle as major influences. Loop, have long been the Velvet Underground to the 21st Century heavy psych scene - a group all but ignored in their day but highly influential on a certain sort of musician. Circle are a group you hear fewer musicians name-checking - despite their sky-splitting brilliance - and I wonder how much their upcoming collaborative album with Richard Dawson will change that. However, before I first heard of Oranssi Pazuzu a decade ago, if anyone had said to me, ‘There’s a Finnish band that combines extreme metal, krautrock and psych rock’, I would have said, ‘Circle!’ without a pause. It’s weird that Oranssi Pazuzu combine the same elements but then don’t really sound anything alike.

Juho says: “We have listened to early 2000s Circle a lot and much of the repetitive, hypnotic riffing we owe to them. I think especially in Finland people know them for that, so we owe some of that to Circle. Sometimes, on the Rakennus album, they sound like a machine. They are a groovy machine. That was something we really wanted to take but a bit heavier.”

So far you could be forgiven for wondering why I even bothered to bring the black metal shibboleth up but there is one very obvious way in which Oranssi fit the bill and that is in Juho’s incredibly parched, necrotic yet reverberant vocalisations. He shrugs: “Yeah, sure. To be completely honest, how it went was that we wanted to have vocals that didn’t sound human, to give our music an alien feel, so there would be an element that you couldn’t quite identify with.

“You would hear our music and think that maybe the voice used to be human or it was a voice with human-like characteristics.. but clearly it wasn’t. I like that there is something you can’t relate to in the vocals and I love that about black metal vocals in general. It’s the vibe I get from vocalists such as Atilla Csihar [Mayhem, Tormentor] and Nocturno Culto [Darkthrone]. It pushes you away as it attracts you.”

While the pair don’t rule out taking the vocals into a different area in the future, Onnto says that it is “cool” that they have this particular creative restriction in place and that it “binds” with the magical and necro atmosphere of OP’s music, and both of them talk about this aspect positively in terms of it being a necessary colour on their palette.

Above and beyond the dank, forbidding and cold atmosphere plus the ‘1% of the 1%’ extreme metal vocals, there are other connections to black metal but we are now wandering into the realms of the non-musical and the abstract. Personally one obvious link could be called spiritual or philosophical, although this may be a romantic projection, as my ability to understand Finnish, beyond the use of cut and paste and Google translate, is non-existent; and the idea, speaking generally, of there being a consistent philosophy and/or spirituality of black metal that has existed unchanged since Bathory’s Under The Sign Of The Black Mark is nebulous at best.

There are some comparisons to be made though. Juho says: “The ideas that come to me when I’m composing or due to the atmospheres we are creating tend to relate to the fact that the universe is simply disconnected from my ego or id. It has no conception of my thoughts or plans or even the entire evolution of life on Earth. These things are not cared about anywhere out there. I might be made from the same stuff as the planets and stars and I am literally unique, but this uniqueness only exists in relation to my immediate environment and my consciousness is ultimately not important. This idea does instil a sense of humility but at the same time if you experience this idea during your life, evolution has led us to the point where you have been gifted the chance to find your own path in life and your own meaning. I have interpreted this to mean: choose your own path, stick to it, do not listen too much to other people and organised groups of people.”

He pauses and laughs: “And this is what I think about when I’m composing music. Onnto, what about you?”

The bass player adds: “One thing we talk about a lot with the other guys in the band is the idea of existential dread. It is always present in our music. It is the idea of staring into the abyss and knowing that soon you will vanish. That’s the depressive side of it. [LAUGHS] But also there is something liberating in this kind of existential thinking. That is an aspect of black metal that is really important to me. Many people are saying that our music isn’t so black metal. And they are right, it isn’t. There are not so many recognisable black metal elements in Oranssi Pazuzu but the idea of forming our own band was in order to present our own musical philosophy, which is way more important to us than copying a load of elements from the history of metal and using that to create a black metal record.”

He doesn’t continue because he doesn’t have to: this attitude is, ironically, way more black metal than that shown by any metal band wanting to make what is essentially conformist continuum music. But for me, beyond issues of existential clarity, throat shredding vocals and a miasmic haze of pervasive dread issuing from the speakers, the way in which Oranssi Pazuzu really take their place in the whited sepulchres of black metal, is the fact that they are a consciousness-expanding, ego-dissolving, time-distorting, rupture-engaging psychedelic band - and this is something that has, to a certain degree, been lost from the scene.

Black metal, of course, has never really sounded like Sgt. Pepper’s or a Grateful Dead bootleg but at its roots it is ritual transcendent music concerned with psychedelia pitched at a very austere tone, and at a very cosmic scale. Over the years this idea of black metal as a consciousness altering artform has fallen away to a certain degree (although this is probably prejudice on my part and would no doubt be objected robustly by such bands as Watain). But when Norwegian black metal was born nearly 30 years ago, it really did feel like the equivalent of a critically injured person having a vision of the numinous just prior to death… and mainly that has been lost in a somewhat codified and macho boilerplate assault of protools enhanced blastbeats and pompous operatic mither. After all, something that is a featureless and forbidding wall of sound, can’t by its nature leave any psychic room for the listener to expand into. But if one looks back at Under A Funeral Moon, Transilvanian Hunger, ‘Det Som En Gang Var’, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Von’s Satanic Blood demo, the Grymyrk demo by Thorns and Drawing Down The Moon by fellow Finns, Beherit, then one is fully immersed in an abysmally transcendent state.

Onnto nods enthusiastically: “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I think it is maybe something that a lot of these bands have lost but in the earlier material there was this kind of atmosphere. For example if you listen to early Burzum it has this kind of hypnotic effect, the chord patterns are very repetitive. The chords are really spacious and cosmic, and it creates a grandiose view of things. It’s really connected to the fabric of space, there’s an existential thing going on there. I also don’t like bands that are only attacking with blast beats. It’s something that is only effective if you do it for a little while. I can’t really listen to an album from beginning to end if it’s just blastbeats. Unless it’s by Darkthrone and then I’m OK with it.” [LAUGHS]

Juho adds: “There needs to be a space that opens up so you can stand there in awe and watch things around you. And that is important for our music as well, when there are these hypnotic spaces where you can look around you and you can suddenly notice that you are standing in a grander place than you previously realised. You can observe new things around you with fresh eyes instead of just being assaulted by noise.”

The band say that they are often transported by their music in the jamming stage of writing, with Onnto saying for him the experience of being lifted outside of the quotidian is “compulsory” to him feeling satisfied with a new composition and Juho refers to the experience specifically as “magical”. The way that Juho explains it makes the experience sound analogous to the ketamine trance - a dissociative step outside of the self to observe with the kind of objectivity that would normally be barred - and agrees that it is similar to the states other people reach by meditation or psychedelic drugs: “Music reveals things to me. It doesn’t mean it will fix me but it can make me go outside of my mind so I can observe my thought patterns with some objectivity. For me the whole meaning of our music is very psychological.”

While all of Oranssi Pazuzu’s back catalogue is worth exploring I definitely think that their latest album Mestarin Kynsi, which came out on Nuclear Blast this Spring and Värähtelijä (2016) are their most startling releases and give the impression that a future trajectory may see them part ways with the black metal tag entirely. Of course, just because a heavy band mix elements such as dub, minimal techno and electronic beats into their music, isn’t necessarily cause for celebration. The last three decades of metal have been littered with experiments that shouldn’t have got beyond the drunken pub conversation stage. This century alone, I’m sure many of us would like to be able to forget various attempts that have been made to fuse metal with dubstep. At best these headbanging attempts at Cartesian synthesis can feel like a guilty pleasure in the heat of the moment, a well intentioned bit of fun that leaves everyone a bit shame-faced a few months down the line. But what Oranssi Pazuzu do isn’t crossover music. Take for example ‘Kuulen ääniä maan alta’.

Referring to the pulsating, techno-influenced centrepiece of their new album, Juho puts it simply: “When you’re using a sampler I think it is a fresh idea to incorporate it into the band and have everyone play with it, rather than just introducing it after the fact. The biggest thing that could go wrong for us would be if we introduced a dance element at a later stage without thinking, ‘What is the purpose of this sampler?’ Many bands add such elements on pro-tools after the song is done but it’s too late to make it work if you don’t groove with the machine.”

Oranssi Pazuzu’s name means The Demon Of The Wind With The Colour Of Cosmic Energy and is a loose reference to the Mesopotamian being that possesses Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. The idea of an orange demon is something of a red herring however, as the band aren’t in that Satanic mould, they’re much more HP Lovecraft in outlook but even then, as much as they ‘suffer’ from cosmic horror, their music is too wondrous at times to have too much to do with HPL’s cowardly, xenophobic shuddering in the face of an indifferent cosmos. With their allotted time Oranssi Pazuzu are pounding the streets, leaving the main thoroughfares behind, they’re dipping down alleys, crossing bridges and taking ferries. They’re in the process of leaving their home territory for good, letting their instincts guide them ever further away from home.

Mestarin Kynsi is out now on Nuclear Blast