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An Interview With Panegyrist

I’m going to be uncharacteristically brief in this intro for two reasons. First, the interview that follows is a bit on the long side, so the less I ramble up front here, the better. Second, the band gave such in-depth, fascinating, and engaging responses to my questions that I really just want to get the fuck out of the way and let them have the floor.

So here’s what you need to know about Chicago-based black metal(ish) band Panegyrist. The self-described ‘avant-garde esoteric metal’ quintet of Brendan Maine (guitars), Elijah Tamu (vocals/lyrics/guitars), Vincent Ippolito (guitars), David Cramer (keyboards/vocals), and Paul Moore (bass) released their debut full-length Hierurgy back in May on I, Voidhanger Records (order here). If I had to describe the album in one word, I’d choose ‘awe-inspiring.’ Given a few more to work with, I’d say that it’s dense, challenging, deeply spiritual, and completely unlike anything else you’re going to hear this year. There’s also no possible way that anything I say about Hierurgy will come close to doing it justice, so here – just listen to it while you continue reading:

The other thing you need to know is that Panegyrist will be gracing the stage at the Barracuda in Austin, TX the weekend of of September 28-29 as part of this year’s edition of Red River Family Fest, alongside Woe, Imperial Triumphant, Abstracter, Wild Hunt, Uada, Dispirit, Entheogen, FIN, Panzerfaust, Adzalaan, and more still to be announced. Get your tickets here if you somehow haven’t already, and then check out my interview with the five members of Panegyrist below.

Indy Metal Vault: So for starters, thanks for the interview. Hierurgy is positively stunning, and much like Slaves B.C.’s recent Lo and I Am Burning, it’s also giving me some serious Catholic school flashbacks – I’m looking forward to delving into it. The album has been out for a couple of months now – what’s the reaction been like so far? For the most part, do you feel like people are getting what you hoped they would from it?

Brendan Maine: Overall, the response has been pretty positive. Some people think it’s a bit out there, but honestly that was our intention in the first place.

Elijah Tamu: Thanks for the chance to do this interview and for your words about the album. We’ve been getting lots of positive reviews, which is very much appreciated. I’d like to see more people engage with the actual spiritual content of the music, but I realize that’s a more demanding thing to ask. It would be interesting to see more responses, positive or negative, from the occult sectors I regularly engage with. The album isn’t as dark as what’s expected on those circles, though, so I definitely understand why it hasn’t been as widely circulated or commented upon in those places. So be it.

IMV: I wanted to ask about this at some point, and since it seems like a natural follow-up to that first question: you posted a lengthy message to the Panegyrist Facebook page a few weeks ago refuting the idea that you’re a Christian black metal band. I won’t ask you to rehash the entire statement, but my main takeaway after reading it is that you seem to object more to the band’s music being forced into an ideological box than you do to the particular ideology. Is that a fair reading of it? You do also say, though, that you feel an ‘increasing disconnect’ with the Christian black metal world. Obvious differences in musical approach aside, how would you differentiate Panegyrist from a band like Reverorum ib Malacht, who appear to embrace the ‘Roman Catholic black metal’ tag?

ET: Thanks for taking a thoughtful approach to this. I don’t want to equivocate about the fact that I am a professing Christian, and I see no disconnect between my art and my religion. In this sense, the music is absolutely Christian. I’m not usually very impressed by the spirituality of bands, metal or otherwise, who try to make a distinction between their personal faith and their artistic work—as though these were two spheres operating on the same level, so that they could be kept separate. Faith doesn’t work like that; it operates on an absolute, all-permeating level. It must touch, burn, and transform all areas of life—art included.

This is precisely why black metal in particular means so much to me; the black metal that is most real is born from that same all-or-nothing impulse. The blackness isn’t just a thematic exploration, but an expression of a numinous Darkness that has actually been encountered. Usually when Christian bands try to use the aesthetics and stylistic elements of black metal, I get the sense that they’re playing an uncomfortable balancing game that doesn’t actually allow the energies of black metal to flow toward their natural telos. It’s like they want engage with dark aesthetics, but they aren’t sure why. And this gives the impression of insincerity, or, at the very least, of something that doesn’t actually know what it is. With very few exceptions, bands professing to be Christian black metal usually end up shortchanging both Christianity and metaphysical Darkness; neither of these things is allowed to actually freely be what it is.

The pursuit of a true Christian Darkness that has nothing to do with gimmicks is a much more difficult and treacherous task. Most Christian metal bands aren’t going to be comfortable with where that path would lead—and with good reason. But after many years of prayer and soul-searching, this is where I have decided to go, in good faith that my Lord walks beside me and approves of the path. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). This is true. But it is because I have meditated on the theme of God as radiant blackness that I more deeply love his light. We are familiar with associating God with height and brightness, but what when we look into the Abyss? What happens when we return its gaze unflinchingly? Those are the questions I am interested in.

Most Christian black metal, despite its protests, doesn’t actually want to be black metal. That’s fine; it doesn’t have to be. I just don’t like these games. I’m not ashamed of the faith I profess, but I don’t want Panegyrist to be associated with the Christian black metal social circle. I don’t want to play that game. You mentioned Reverorum ib Malacht’s embrace of the “Roman Catholic black metal” tag, and I think this is actually a very different thing. There isn’t an already-existent “Roman Catholic black metal” scene, so they’re not aligning themselves with an in-group. They’re forcefully creating a space for themselves, and I have a certain respect for that. But there is already a “Christian black metal” niche, and we won’t play by its rules, nor do we wish to be perceived as adhering to them.

For that matter, I don’t even think that Hierurgy is a black metal album, as I’ve said on a few occasions before. Black metal is what I personally feel compelled to create in the future, but this album is something different. Collectively and in spirit, we aren’t a black metal band; we’re a group of musicians and friends who I firmly believe were brought together for a purpose orchestrated by the hand of the Lord. We created something, and we’re proud of it, but I don’t want to pretend to be something we’re not. I see black metal as a devotional life-path, but that doesn’t mean the other band members approach it that way. And that’s okay. We’re doing what we’re supposed to. This was all supposed to happen. I’m a vessel.

IMV: From a musical perspective, Hierurgy is a pretty damned remarkable album. I think that even referring to it as avant-garde black metal is a bit reductive. It really sort of exists in its own musical space – to such an extent that I would have never guessed that it’s the first release from a band that (assuming Metal Archives is correct, which is always dicey) has only been together for a year or so. How far back do Panegyrist’s roots actually go? Have any of you played together previously, or was it more a case of you all gelling really quickly as musicians when you came together?

BM: Panegyrist began when I started writing raw black metal riffs inspired by Emperor in the summer of 2015. My intention was to create a traditional black metal project with Elijah Tamu on vocals. We got together the winter of that year and started working on the songs I already had written, and the music started to go in a much different direction. I originally wrote with a lot of tremolo-picked dissonant chords, but when Elijah started writing more complex melodies, I arpeggiated the underlying chords for greater clarity. This evolved into the dual-guitar polyphony that you hear on the album. Paul’s bass counterpoint added a third voice to the mix. David’s academic background in composition added yet another dimension to the music with his keys and second vocal parts. I had worked with Vince on various other projects in the past and he really helped to pull things together at the end of the composition process. The album was pieced together over a period of two and a half years. There was only one writing session where all the members of the band were present at the same time. Each member’s years of experience on his instrument lent itself to us having a successful collaboration, and allowed us to write the music that we did.

Paul Moore: I played with Brendan in my first band, which was about eight years ago. After that band was done, I didn’t have much contact with him for years. When Panegyrist was in need of a bassist, he reached out to me and I met with him, Elijah, and Vince. They showed me some live demos, and ultimately, I decided to play bass on Hierurgy.

Vincent Ippolito: I think the idea for it originated when Elijah and I set out to write some kind of dark, progressive metal, but I quickly became inundated with studio responsibilities before we could even see a song to completion. Brendan (whom I was working on some studio recordings for) expressed interest in the same type of project as well, so they started meeting regularly. I didn’t actually come into the picture again until an amount of material was already written, and I was mostly on consult for drums and production until pre-pro stages. From there the whole album really became a piecemeal effort, chipping away at it bit by bit until it was complete. After that experience, we’re really hoping to harness some of that gel energy for the next record.

IMV: I’ve not seen any songwriting credits for Hierurgy aside from Elijah having penned the lyrics. In terms of the music, the overall complexity of the songs makes me guess that your songwriting process is fairly deliberate. However, there are also some passages, like “The Void is the Heart of the Flame,” that have a sort of searching quality (if that’s the phrase I want) that feels more extemporaneous. How collaboratively do you write the music?

BM: Our music-writing process is very collaborative in the sense that we generally write our own parts, but we also offer analysis, feedback, and direction to each other.

PM: The process of writing my bass lines was very collaborative (we wrote my lines after the guitar parts were done). I don’t usually play black metal, so I would usually ask what they were looking for at a certain part and work off of that feedback. Parts where I am harmonizing with the guitars typically consisted of myself and at least one other person on their guitar trying to pin down the right notes for me to play. Also, it should be noted that some bass parts were written before I joined, but the majority were done after I came on board.

ET: Most of the writing and arranging was done very meticulously, but David’s experience with improvisation allowed for some of those extemporaneous elements you noticed. The piano solo before the ending section of the title track was improvised. It was actually one of several different improvisations David recorded. When we listened to them all, that particular solo stood out as having that special element we were looking for. You mentioned “The Void Is the Heart of the Flame,” and that’s another one of the songs where David had more improvisational freedom with his piano parts.

IMV: For me, the vocals are easily the most striking thing about Hierurgy. They really do run the gamut from liturgical-sounding cleans (“Hymn of Inversion” really reminds me of a Catholic mass) to black metal rasps to choral sections, etc. You told Invisible Oranges that the process of deciding what style of vocal to use over which musical passage is mostly intuitive. Since you have two vocalists, though, what’s your process like for arranging those layered/choral sections?

ET: While I do the harsh vocals, David and I split the clean vocals between us. During the composition stages we worked these sections out together, bouncing melodic ideas back and forth, and making adjustments.

David Cramer: My role in the writing process has been to help write melodic and harmonic content to support the lyrics. We wanted to make a dramatic contrast between my clean vocals and Elijah’s growls and screams. The writing process for these layered vocal usually went something like this: Elijah would lay out what lyrics should be covered over a particular section, then we would notate and determine what sort of rhythm best supported the text, and then later we would write pitches, intervals, melodies, harmonies.

IMV: I could probably ask at least a dozen questions about the lyrics on Hierurgy, but I’m going to limit myself to two. First, according to the PR materials, the album deals thematically with the idea of ‘theosis,’ or the transformative process by which the individual gains union with God. Even though I went to Catholic school, I’m severely lapsed – I look more to philosophy for comfort and wisdom than I do to theology. One of my favorite philosophers, though, is Søren Kierkegaard, whose writings were very much grounded in his Christian faith. I don’t know how familiar you are with his work, but the idea of theosis reminds me of Kierkegaard’s ‘religious stage’ of human development, where man basically transcends earthly desires and bonds to give himself over to and/or become a part of something larger than himself. Is that close to what you mean by ‘theosis’?

ET: My engagement with the theme of theosis draws heavily from Eastern Orthodox theology, where God is understood both in terms of his essence and his energies. The divine essence is that which is God qua God. It is God in distinction from creation: above, beyond, and unsearchable—absolute transcendence. God’s energies, however, are his imminence; the phenomenological spectrum through which he can be known. I myself am not God, but the very fact of my relational interplay with God means that I am also not wholly other from him. We remain different from the Godhead in terms of essence, but we can be united with the Godhead through the divine energies. As Saint Athanasius of Alexandria boldly said of Jesus Christ, “He became Man that we might be made God” (De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, LIV).

One of my favorite illustrations of theosis likens it to iron in a forge. The iron takes on the energies of the fire, beginning to glow as it heats up. The red-hot iron remains distinct from the fire itself (i.e., in essence), but if it is taken out of the forge and touched to dry kindling, the kindling will catch fire. In this way the iron “becomes fire” and does the work of fire. Likewise, the person who undergoes theosis will, by their simple presence, be a conduit for the transforming alchemy of God—even in the mundane tasks of life. As above, so below. The sayings of the ancient Desert Fathers tell of a certain Abba Joseph whose fingers blazed like fire as he raised them to heaven, proclaiming the immortalized words, “Why not become all flame?”

I’m glad you mentioned Kierkegaard. His conception of the religious stage of life is indeed connected with all of this, because it is all-consuming and Other-focused. His book The Sickness Unto Death has been one of the most influential writings in my life, a major catalyst in an avalanche of spiritual transformation that was set in motion several years ago. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to do the art and music that I’m doing now if it hadn’t been for those years of intense upheaval and reforming. In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard lays out in the starkest terms the severe demands of a life of faith. As he argues, all that is not faith is despair. In fact, when we are at our most comfortable, we can actually be in the deepest despair—doubly so because of our willful ignorance. Conversely, finding ourselves in despair over the seemingly insurmountable challenge of true faith is precisely when we are closest to attaining it. Everything is inverted, everything is dialectical.

As spoken in mystical revelation to Saint Silouan the Athonite, “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not!” Even here, the deepest peace can be found. It’s interesting to be writing about this now, because this week I’ve found myself plunged deep into another one of those rare, paradigm-altering abysses from which you never emerge the same. I can’t say a lot about this right now; I only know that it’s very real, and that my Lord is showing me things I had not in my heart truly believed to be possible before. Death to the hungry ghost of the ego; life through self-forgetfulness. May I forget myself and be given more wholly to love of God and of others. Even as I write, I feel a familiar physical sensation somehow both like fire and water radiating from within my chest. Let it flow!

IMV: The other thing I find interesting about the lyrics is the way you weave together material from a variety of different sources. For example, “Hymn of Inversion” incorporates parts of Jonah 2: 3-6, “The Void is the Heart of the Flame” quotes from the Liturgy of the Eucharist from the Catholic Mass, and ‘”Idylls of the Cave” seems to draw at least partial inspiration from Plato’s well-known allegory. There are also lyrics written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Instead of asking you to unpack any of these allusions or explain the passages—though you’re certainly welcome to do so, should you wish—I’d rather ask this: if you were to put together a reading list for those listeners wanting to learn more about the inspirations behind the lyrics, what would you tell them to read?

ET: The title of “Idylls of the Cave” is actually a reference to Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, which was written in 1620 and was influential in the Scientific Revolution. This work marked an explicit turn away from classical metaphysics, and, as a side note, I’m not actually supportive of everything that’s come about through the so-called “Enlightenment,” despite having a deep appreciation for the achievements of modern science. The title of the song doesn’t actually have to do with modern or classical epistemological systems, but with matters of the heart. In the Novum Organum, Bacon identifies four “idols” that lead to misguided beliefs among humanity at large. The “idols of the cave” are erroneous inner beliefs that are specific to the individual: “For everyone has [. . .] his own special cave or den which scatters and discolours the light of nature” (Aphorism 42). The Panegyrist song plays upon and inverts the idea of the classical poetic “idyll.” It’s a violent cleansing of the idyllic temple of false conceits, a harrowing of the self.

“Ophidian Crucifix” has quite a few layers to it. Here are the translations and verse references of the Hebrew and Greek. The final Hebrew-Greek sentence splice carries a lot of meaning, given the contexts of the passages each phrase is taken from.

וַתִּפָּקַ֙חְנָה֙עֵינֵ֣ישְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened” (Genesis 3:7 )

Ὃτιεἶδονοἱὀφθαλμοίμουτὸσωτήριόνσου
“For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30)

וַתִּפָּקַ֙חְנָה֙עֵינֵ֣ישְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened…” (Genesis 3:7)

… kαὶἐπέγνωσαναὐτόν
“…and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31)

This song also contains meditations on the horizontal and vertical axes of the cross, paralleled by the alchemical symbols for salt (a circle bisected by a horizontal line) and niter (a circle bisected by a vertical line) and the theme of “fixing the volatile.” Together, these provide a vision of the dialectic between limitation and transcendence. Some time ago, a friend sent me an article from Orthodox Arts Journal entitled “The Serpents of Orthodoxy.” I was struck by how perfectly it fit with the lyrical themes in “Ophidian Crucifix.” It explores serpent images in Orthodox artwork and artifacts, from the caduceus-motif in the bishop’s crosier to icons of the crucifixion. In connection to Moses’ staff and the bronze serpent, Saint Gregory of Nyssa makes the startling pronouncement that Christ “became a serpent,” and “Ophidian Crucifix” plays upon similar themes, envisioning Christ as the actual perfection and fulfillment of a certain Serpent archetype. The first Serpent offered prematurely-seized gnosis at the expense of life; Christ, lifted upon the cross as a second Serpent, offers both life and gnosis—the fruit of both trees.

For those interested in knowing more about Eastern Orthodox theology, Andrew Louth’s Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology is a good beginner-level overview.

Regarding alchemy, I will state clearly that I do not practice any kind of magic. It’s extremely important to me that my engagement with alchemical concepts falls within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and does not stray into syncretism. It’s my deeply help belief that Christianity channels a supernatural power greater than any magical system, and I have experienced the direct manifestations of this. From within my dogmatic framework, I have nonetheless found the Hermetic metaphysical tradition to be an incredibly beautiful and insightful paradigm for understanding the processes of transformation in the soul and the world.

Though modern scholarship is skeptical about the veracity of an unbroken chain of wisdom tracing back to a historical Hermes Trismegistus, I think many of the spiritual concepts are simply true. Aaron Cheak’s writings are well-researched and insightful, and his article “Circumambulating the Alchemical Mysterium” gives a very nice introduction to the various historical threads of Eastern and Western alchemy. I have also shared his article “The Hermetic Problem of Salt” with many friends. Here Cheak offers a fascinating philosophical-historical look at the relations between the concepts of salt (body), mercury (spirit), and sulfur (soul) throughout Western civilization. He culminates with a non-dualist understanding of the material and corporeal, even drawing on the Apostle Paul’s theology of embodiment and resurrection. Cheak writes of “the Hermetic application of [the principle of salt] to the aims of hieratic alchemy: the transmutation of the physical corpus into an immortal resurrection body: an act of spiritual concretion in which the body is spiritualised and the spirit corporified.”

For a Biblical account of this, see the entire section of 1 Corinthians 15:35-57. Paul writes, “The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; [. . .] it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:41-44, NIV).  The concept of salt as “red sulfur” appears in the lyrics of Hierurgy‘s title track to denote the idea of a perfected state of body, soul, and spirit.

For further reading, the twentieth-century Perennialist writer Titus Burckhardt’s Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul gives a good overview of Hermetic metaphysics. There is of course also the body of foundational texts, of which The Emerald Tablet and the Corpus Hermeticum are most well known. Again, my engagement with these themes is filtered through my religious doctrinal commitments, so I don’t embrace every concept wholesale. There are some significant divergences.

IMV: You recorded Hierurgy at Swift Road Studios, which your guitarist Vincent owns. How long did you actually spend in the studio working on the album? Did you mix and master it yourselves as well?

VI: If you count the time that we spent in pre-production, then I would say 16 months. As I said before, it was a very piecemeal process to ensure that everything fit together in the way that we imagined. From the time of recording final tracks, then it would eight months. It was recorded across three different studio locations, including No Fear Records in Rybnik, Poland where Marcel Szumowski recorded drums with Krzysztof Lenard. It was mastered by Colin Jordan at The Boiler Room Mastering in Chicago. I really enjoyed the touches he put on the Austaras and Heavy Element records that I produced in the past. His process really allows for a dynamic master that truly breathes with the mix. This production was incredibly complex due to the prevalent dissonance in the arrangements, so there was a lot of musical information to account for in the mix.

PM: I was only present during the recording of my parts. I went to the studio after work on a Friday night, and Vince and I worked late into the evening. I believe we finished two songs that first session. I came back the following Saturday afternoon and we finished the remainder of the album.

IMV: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask one question about the album art. Even though you’ve only done a handful of covers, Ikonostasis is quickly becoming one of the most recognizable artists in metal, both for the amount of esoteric symbolism on your covers and for your distinctive visual style. I’d be surprised if you worked digitally – what is your preferred medium? Are you willing to unpack any of the symbolism on the cover of Hierurgy?

ET: Well, thank you. That’s certainly high praise—though I’m just a prism for my Lord’s radiance. He’s the source, the inspiration, the fire, the light, and the darkness.

Regarding media, my work is all ink and gouache on paper, with the occasional use of gold leaf. Lately I’ve actually been using coffee instead of water as the solvent, and that adds some interesting subtleties and tones. I’m often a little hesitant when it comes to explaining the symbolism in my work, because I think it’s important to first let it communicate wordlessly, intuitively. But this artwork has been out there for a little while now, so I’ll comment on a few things. It’s an image of the transformations of the soul. The three faces correspond to various aspects of inward and outward contemplation. The gold leaf section contains alchemical symbolism for maceration, purification, and the Philosopher’s Stone—corresponding to the stages of nigredo (black), albedo (white), and rubedo (red) in the Great Work. The golden halo is also the face of an astrolabe, a tool that can be calibrated to various astronomical bodies for navigation. The arm of the astrolabe is pointed toward the light source, which in this case is Phosphoros, the light-bearing Morning Star—ultimately Christ.

The four classical elements are present in various manifestations. Both the wings and the fiery crystalline structure are connected with the red sulfur that I mentioned earlier. A little while ago a friend showed me some illustrations from alchemical manuscripts depicting a small sun within a flask containing a small ocean, and I think that corresponds well to the crystalline sulfur image—which is also a heart of sorts. This can be understood as the creative spark of divine fire within the prima materia of nature and the individual.

IMV: Panegyrist is going to be on the bill for this year’s installment of Red River Family Fest in Austin on September 28-29. I’ve been looking around online, and I’ve not found anything to indicate that the band has played live before. What can attendees expect from your set? Will you be doing any other shows leading up to or after the Fest?

VI: We are working with our network to book a couple shows in the Chicago area before the Festival for sure. Since this past year we have all been very eager to get this band in a live environment, and we’re diligently working to bring a tight performance to the stage.

ET: I’m looking forward to engaging with the prayerful aspects of these songs in a live setting. As commonplace as it’s become for bands to call their performances “rituals,” that’s exactly how I see this. I attended Red River Family Festival last year, and it was incredible: a large, high-caliber lineup with tight performances. I also made some good in-person connections with folks I’d only corresponded with online before that. I’m looking forward to this year. Incidentally, I also created the official flier art, which hasn’t yet been revealed—something to watch for.

IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. I like to leave the last word to the artists – anything else you’d like to add?

DC: Hierurgy is about the profound mystery of what it is to come into contact with divinity. I would encourage all of our listeners to listen to the album with the transcript of the lyrics close by in order to get the full drama. Thanks for listening!

BM: Thank you for taking your time to conduct this interview. Look forward to us playing live in the coming months as we bring our live ritual to the stage. We hope to create an atmosphere of awe and wonder through our invocations.

VI: Thank you so much for having us!

ET: Thank you very much for such insightful questions. I’ve enjoyed this. I send the love and fire of my Lord.

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2 comments

Ian Lovdahl July 27, 2018 at 10:51 am

Wow, what an interview. I really enjoyed Panegyrist’s new album, but I feel a greater sense of appreciation for the subject matter after reading through the band members’ answers. Especially for “Ophidian Crucifix”, that song rips. I, Voidhanger has been putting out top-shelf albums this year.

Reply
Clayton July 27, 2018 at 10:57 am

Thanks, Ian! They are indeed a remarkable band, and Elijah is a very special sort of musician and human being. Much food for thought in this one.

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