Valerie Katherine Dorr: better known to metal audiences as Ascaris, the voice of esoteric black/death metal duo Ævangelist. Much like her partner in musical blasphemies Matron Thorn, she’s not an easy person to get a read on. On a certain level, though, that just seems to be the Ævangelist way – layered in artifice and obfuscation, rooted in elaborate self-mythologizing, willfully enigmatic and deliberately inscrutable. Ævangelist ask a lot of their listeners, both musically and lyrically, and tend not to give very many clues as to where to begin deciphering the mysteries within. Even during moments of uncharacteristic openness, such as Thorn discussing the recent illness that nearly claimed his life when I interviewed him in September, one gets the sense that they never truly remove their masks – instead, they offer only the briefest (and mostly likely calculated – nothing in the world of Ævangelist happens by accident) of slips.
Of the two, however, Ascaris has always seemed the more accessible, even though her lyrics–which are dense with allusions, heavily veiled references to deeply personal experiences, and sprinkled with foreign words and phrases–are anything but. Unlike Thorn, whose real name I only learned earlier this year, her name is more commonly known, as is the fact that she was not technically born as Valerie Dorr. Out of respect, I won’t use her deadname (thought that too can be fairly easily found), but almost exactly two years ago–in the often times confrontationally heteronormative, hyper-masculine culture of metal–Valerie Dorr came out as transgender, and started Hormone Replacement Therapy a few months after.
Given my tendency for overly-analytical, occasionally florid prose, our loyal Vault Hunters may reasonably expect me to say something here about Val’s bravery in coming out in a time when toxic masculinity seems to be the norm in virtually all facets of American society (not just metal), or romanticize the way that she’s channelled years of emotional turmoil and trauma into her work with Ævangelist. Hell, there’s even the temptation to engage in a bit of amateur psychoanalysis. However, I’m not going to do any of those things, for two reasons:
First, a disproportionate amount of the public discourse about trans individuals in this country seems to portray them as either a political issue or a symbol for something instead of as human beings. Ergo, if I were to discuss Val in within the context of some sort of larger narrative or as an archetype of some sort, I’d feel as though I were robbing her of her agency – there are more than enough cis/hetero men (and women, for that matter) doing just that already.
Secondly, at this point I consider Val a friend – even before starting this interview, we bonded over a shared appreciation for critical theory and mutual tendencies towards emotionally self-destructive behavior. I think that a large part of the reason she’s comfortable being so remarkably open in this interview stems from that friendship. This is her story – I’m not going to say anything here that could be construed as trying to take ownership of it myself. And yes, I readily acknowledge the inherently problematic nature of a cis/hetero male giving a trans woman a platform in which to share that story, but I fully believe that story is so important that I don’t mind weathering whatever storm of feminist rage may come my way as a result.
Shifting topics, the ostensible reason for our conversation is the impending release of Ævangelist’s fifth full-length Matricide in the Temple of Omega, which I, Voidhanger records will be releasing on November 16 (preorder here). It caps what’s been a remarkably busy year for the duo: they’ve already released a reworked and remastered version of their debut EP called Oracle of Infinite Despair MMXVIII, the Aberrant Genesis EP, a compilation called Veneration of Profane Antiquity, and another full-length entitled Heralds of Nightmare Descending. Those releases are among the many topics Val and I discussed as we’ve gone back-and-forth via Google Docs over the course of the last four weeks, the results of which we present in the lengthy conversation below.
Indy Metal Vault: When I first started thinking about how to approach this interview, I was almost conceptualizing it as being in two parts – one with Ascaris, the vocalist in Ævangelist, and one with Valerie Dorr, the individual behind the Ascaris persona. When I talked to Matron Thorn recently, though, he definitely balked at my use of the word ‘persona,’ making the point that there really is no ‘persona’ aspect to what the two of you do in Ævangelist – or at least not in the same way that most black metal musicians take on stage names and personae separate from their day-to-day existences. So that seems like a good place to start here. How much of a boundary is there between Ascaris and Val? How much does one feed the other? Or, like Thorn, do you not really make that distinction in your mind?
Valerie Katherine Dorr: We are both one and distinct at all times. We are not separate as hypostases; we do not have separate experiences, separate intent, or needless to say separate substance, but we yet have separate purposes.
IMV: An appropriately cryptic response to a somewhat abstruse question. I do want to try to demystify that a bit here, though. You may be best known for Ævangelist, but that’s far from the sum total of your musical activities: you were in quite a few bands before Ævangelist, and you’re still actively making music outside of the band as well – a lot of experimental/improvisational jazz as of late. I’m guessing, however, that on a certain level Ascaris has always been a part of your ousia, even if it didn’t fully become manifest until Ævangelist (so much for being less abstruse). Can you roughly pinpoint when you started becoming aware of that facet of yourself?
VKD: They largely receive being/reification through naming and function, but some of the core differences are a long-running thread. The nakedness I was as simply “val” singing soft emotions through Sappho’s poetry and my own in the improvised “folk” music duo I was half of from 2009 to 2017 is not, in essence, different from the inverse I display as “Ascaris.” My coming-into-self through actualization as val there and v. in another work in 2009 was a first step to reclaiming the self I had nearly lost to subsuming myself in the wild (though that chthonic unity was absolutely irreplaceable) after my direct cognizance in 2004. She is the demonic, the trapped, and the possessed–a mask that reveals. There is a frenzy and softness within, all one, that is far more the essence of it all than any passing glint of the perceived material reality. I rarely enjoy making music in itself–but self-negation in that context is the purest self. That other self is not just “materially” one flesh, but it is the spiritual allowed freedom.
In that sense, there is little to no difference between the control of extant composition as a ritual path to divinity (Ævangelist) and the deliberate choice to leap into the madness of divinity-in-improvisation with no anchor but the space between god and herself. Derek Bailey’s inimitable commentary on the necessity of discomfort between musicians in improvisation was a step toward that gnosis. That discomfort, though, is the ragged edges of a scattered flame meeting again–and only the barriers between carnescence and emanation prevent the revelation of that true disconnection in unity.
IMV: I’ve been a bit recondite in the way I’ve worded these questions up to now, but since you mention your ‘coming-into-self’ and ‘direct cognizance’ in your previous response, as well as singing Sappho’s poetry under your real name, this seems to be a good spot to perhaps start moving away from that. “Ascaris” isn’t the only latent (for lack of a better way of phrasing it) facet of yourself that became manifest later in life. Since I don’t know how you feel about your deadname (or the term ‘deadname’ for that matter), I won’t use it here, but I’m guessing that ‘direct cognizance in 2004’ was your realization (or acceptance) of yourself as Val. I think most Ævangelist fans are aware that you’re currently transitioning, and even though I’ve only seen a handful of your lyrics, it’s very difficult not to attempt to read them all through that lens. Even an album title like Matricide in the Temple of Omega or song title like “Omen of the Barren Womb” seem like allusions to your transformational process. Before I ask any kind of personal questions about it, though, I’m curious as to how (if at all) that influenced your creative process. Was there a similar sort of actualization in the recognition of ‘Val’ as there was with ‘Ascaris’ on any kind of level?
VKD: Ascaris is still me, though as Ascaris I have had freedoms and hindrances that don’t exist elsewhere. Largely, lyrically, I’ve always referred to myself in truth. Little things seep out: none of the more explicit references appear before Enthrall to the Void of Bliss, but arguably the constant theme of abasement and sacrifice in the first person from the earliest works is connected to the role of Woman as scapegoat, altar, vessel of the sacred, victim, and object-not-subject.
lay my aching body
in the dead city below the earth
make me a gift
“Nightmare Flesh Offering”
Moreover, the drive to apotheosis, the denial and divestment of mortal/material/flesh, is both a work toward Divinity through gnosis (the great work) and away from the revulsion of the wrong-flesh on another level–the diamond-obsidian feathered self is not a masculine and is not for the masculine.
my arms condense to diamond state
obsidian my feathers, broken glass
thorns in my side that call forged memories
to the nothingness I collapse
She/I grow/become across time; by the time we reach Matricide, I have wildly more complexity:
dix-sept mes limbes, gesticulant au divinité
[17 my limbs, gesturing before the divine]
“Serpentine as Lustful Nightmare”
Even simpler connections became constant over time; by Enthrall, I regularly referred to myself casually as in my right incarnation: even as simply as a reference to “my skirt” in “Arcanæ Manifestia,” or as indirect-explicitly as
wherein his silence unravels, my emptiness drips
a bound body lies shaking beneath twisted hips
that which is greater lies within but without
I am exhausted
Possibly the most direct discussion of the topic is in a song we’ve performed only since I began transition, “Gatekeeper’s Scroll.” The entire piece is an indictment of the action of the Craftsman in carnescent forgery, though of course another may take the hymn for their own; the sung-then gurgled section in particular is a direct antimaterial/misotheist curse against the sculptor of wrong flesh:
my left fist is upon the pulpit of hate
my bare thigh calls out for punishment
my wings are clipped in the name of GOD
and I am misunderstanding in the flesh
IMV: I’m glad you brought up lyrics, because I wanted to get there at some point. What you’re saying here reminds me of some of the things that Laura Jane Grace was saying about her older lyrics around the time that Transgender Dysphoria Blues came out. I’ll admit that I’ve never really listened to Against Me! – I’ve liked the few songs I’ve heard, but I was well out of my punk phase by the time they were gaining notice – but I read a lot of her interviews because she was basically the first high(ish)-profile musician that I was aware of to come out as trans (though I’m pretty sure Mina Caputo of Life of Agony came out a few months before Laura Jane – I just don’t recall that getting the same sort of attention). In one of those interviews, she talked about lyrics from earlier Against Me! albums like the second verse on “The Ocean” from 2007’s New Wave, where she didn’t try to obscure the references to herself ‘in truth,’ as you phrased it:
And if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman
My mother once told me she would have named me Laura
I’d grow up to be strong and beautiful like her
One day, I’d find an honest man to make my husband
We would have two children, build our home on the Gulf of Mexico
I suppose it could just be a coincidence that you both used your lyrics to explore these themes and facets of your identities before starting your transitions and coming out, but your lyrics also seem far too deliberate for any of those references to yourself in truth to have subconsciously ‘seeped out.’ What was it that made you feel – safe? comfortable? not sure what word I want here – enough to include those thing in your lyrics before coming out as trans? Was this something that you just started with Ævangelist, or does it go back further than that?
VKD: Laura has always been more direct than I. I never had much interest in punk, though we’ve talked about AFI before, and I’ll always go back to a grind/powerviolence trip gladly. I’ve tried, but Against Me! doesn’t quite fit in me.
I understand from a friend who mentioned it recently that Mina coming out let Laura feel she could. I’m not incredibly aware of that stuff, but I couldn’t help but be envious. At the time of this writing, it’s been two years since I properly came out to everyone. I’d had no heroes to feel safe in and no hope for fixing the body I hated. I didn’t meet a trans woman of my age and class until Bradley Tiffin (Haunter) introduced me to Antemia Kavillari (Will of the Whore, artist and musician who has since worked with Ævangelist live along with Brad) and I suddenly realized some form of being alive was something I could reach.
For me, it’s not so much that anything’s slipped out without control as that it came forth as a matter of fact through the reality of self rather than as a topic of conversation. In the same manner that, as Simone de Beauvoir put it, “one is not born, but becomes, a woman,” one does not become a woman, but simply is. Only the truth recognizes itself.
I was, in fact, more direct in other contexts and earlier. There is a set of my work that reflects, even years later, fragments of how much it shook me when I attempted to have a relationship with an approximately straight girl, though–if I could write that in this direct prose, I wouldn’t need poetry.
my breath, shuddering, lingers
in a white lark’s ear
and echoes back the wrong name
shadows of slits in legs
The most directly I ever addressed my pure frustration was a 2012 song:
make me into moss and
let me change-
curved and soft
like the ground below me
a green-copper hue
making my home from bark
Allusions were . . . very dense at that time. Anne Carson’s faithful translations of the physically-tattered remnants of Sappho’s poetry were a huge influence on this–those physical spaces illuminate something special, especially when performed freed from the regular meters that control work like Ævangelist. Obviously a more mystic-obscurantist tradition plays a role here, but the intensely personal and the time-freed immediacy of natural language reach a truth of self that does not allow for lies, even when others cannot see.
IMV: So if it isn’t too personal a question, where did the name ‘Valerie’ come from? I’ve seen you joke on a couple of occasions about how many transgirls named Val you know, and how you all have different backstories.
VKD: One of the great mysteries! Mine is a little odd; I may only delve into strange tongues to a limited degree through Ævangelist, but language is an ongoing fascination of mine, thanks to my parents. They exposed me to their own collection of languages and related literature, particularly German, and gave me some time in school with Japanese (which slipped entirely from my grasp) early on. My father’s interest in Tolkien and other fantasy primed me with a desire to create worlds, and when his training me in the basics of Esperanto encountered the beginning of my school French, the natural thing to do was to construct a language for my own fantasy setting.
All that slid into place perfectly when I started dating my first boyfriend (ever tell someone you love them in a language you made up?) just before tenth grade. Aside from . . . the usual teenage stuff, we continuously wrote fiction together. I recommend externalization of self through characters for anyone growing up. Valkyr happened to work out perfectly in the setting’s language for a girl who was something like a war demon between the Valkyrie reference and the meaning “din of battle.” The real moment was gradually realizing I only really wanted to write for her, and I haven’t entirely left there since the person I dated next started calling me Val and she for myself.
IMV: Since we’re getting into some really personal territory here, it’s probably worth noting for our readers that you and I have become friends over the last few months, and we’ve been known to have long, theory-heavy exchanges via Messenger. We talked recently about essayist/trans activist Julia Serano, right before I taught an essay of hers in one of my comp classes. More recently Serano’s been writing against something called ‘Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria,’ which seems to me like an attempt to argue that transexualiy is somehow contagious among adolescents – which sounds like the same sort of pseudo-scientific psycho-babble bullshit that gave the world ‘conversion therapy.’
VKD: It’s absolutely fucking nonsense. It’s the people who spent her entire life telling Allie Dellinger from Unorthodox to stop being so girly and then turned around and said they always saw her as a boy when she actually came out. It’s shitty people trying to justify their willful denial. Yes, anyone’s outside perspective on someone’s gender may be completely off. Someone coming out as transgender will often seem sudden–that’s the whole idea of not being out beforehand. Hell, yes, people may absolutely suddenly figure out they’re trans when they learn it’s a thing after struggling with the feelings behind it for years. There’s always a world going on within someone. They know who they are. Yes, people spend time figuring things out, and yes, sometimes people revise how they identify what’s going on. But they are more qualified to identify it than an outsider. I absolutely advocate people spending time, reaching out to people knowledgeable in trans issues, etc., but frankly, it’s a person’s own decision.
IMV: And it all happens through fear and misinformation, which is how it generally works. You’re currently transitioning, and from what you’ve told me about the effects that HRT has had on your physical, emotional, and mental states, it really doesn’t seem to me like something a person would decide to go through with on a whim. Are you willing to talk a bit about your experience with transitioning?
VKD: HRT is absolutely serious business. I’ve talked privately with a non-binary person struggling with how to medically work toward comfort with their body–not a hasty decision. I personally struggled for years. The people I’ve known who went rapidly from that moment of realization to the decision to act did so in the context of familiarity with the process through friends, and none of them regret it. But it’s definitely not easy.
Personally, transitioning (medically and socially at once; both were relevant) violently ripped away decades of coping mechanisms. I’m still learning to deal with my body as MINE instead of discarding it as a burden. Faults that are painful in “this body” can be worse in “my body”– being in touch with emotions and self is not painless. Many details of dysphoria have in some ways become more acute without that buffer of numbness, even while the details of my body become mine and trigger dysphoria less.
Hormones strongly, directly affect emotions. I’ve gained all sorts of freedoms without androgens in me. The moment-to-moment functioning of my mind feels more like my mind rather than my mind trying to function in a hostile matrix. It’s so much easier for me to leave anger behind and to step out of confrontations that made me miserable before. I’m so much softer now than even the soft Valerie I’ve always been. But I’m emotionally dependent on my estradiol levels.
Since I inject estradiol once a week, the levels peak several hours after and drift downward across the week–and it varies. And when they hit the bottom, the same psychological effects can hit me that can hit cis women shortly before menstruation, because the hormones are doing the same thing. I’ve spent days in bed on bad weeks sobbing. I can cry at all now, which is the greatest blessing I’ve ever experienced, but it’s far more common for me to experience non-gender dysphoria. There’s no doubt that the chemical increase in my ever-present major depression that comes from increased estradiol contributed to my first actual period of near-suicide near the end of last year, after a lifetime of mild ideation.
Of course, the direct social impacts of transitioning are horribly painful. I was lucky enough not to lose any family. I was lucky enough to have a trans partner who actively tried to deal with our changing relationship. But so much changes. When I became simultaneously less and more emotionally broken, it changed the way he experienced me emotionally. When my body began to smell like mine, years of hardwired emotional connection through smell left. Dealing with other people made it harder for him to be around me. The ways I became more open were, I think, profoundly uncomfortable to him, and finally feeling ALLOWED to pursue more traditionally feminine habits and interests made our relationship heterosexually alienating in ways it had never been. I’m . . . not willing to talk about all of this, but a stable relationship even with understanding and positive intent turned into assault and abuse from my partner because of change, even with the decks stacked in my favor.
I know you didn’t want to ask about genital issues, but I honestly think some of the refusal to discuss it has lead to worse misunderstandings. It’s not good. I’ve honestly gotten worse and worse over the years. Oh so desperately do I look forward to severe risk of opioid addiction and spending the rest of my life maintaining a wound in a partially healed state. Sex is a fuck. Even my best sexual moments are made strange by working around shit that’s just. . . completely out of place. I was unwilling to have sex for years, and I’m actively experiencing trauma from having it forced on me, particularly now that I’m not pretending “consenting out of guilt” is consent. Existing and simply walking is a mess because even with my skills, maintaining the tuck that helps calm my mind when it’s working limits my range of motion. I used to run when my body was all dysphoria, just trance out listening to Blut Aus Nord, and now I avoid that and climbing and other joys because it legitimately triggers meltdowns.
IMV: And I think a lot of folks don’t take things like that into consideration, preferring to think of trans individuals as a political issue. You’re first and foremost people, but with a set of anxieties the majority of people will never comprehend. My guess would be that most trans people are too worried about being attacked in a public restroom to even consider assaulting anyone else.
VKD: That’s very much the situation. We’re force radicalized, politically, by opposition, but many of us go in just trying to be humans. I’m watching the woman (who is about to start HRT) who runs a trans metal Facebook group suddenly realizing that without that privilege, suddenly political differences become a real issue of personal safety, and she can’t just live and let live with people abetting attempts to destroy her hope for the future. And absolutely, which isn’t just to say we have no bad apples, but trans kids have destroyed their kidneys because they refused to take the risk of urinating in public bathrooms. We are far more afraid of you than you are of us.
IMV: Since I’ve been wondering how to bring the conversation back around to Ævangelist, this may be a good spot to do that. Even though I’ve been following the band since 2013’s Omen ex Simulacra, I had absolutely no conception of who the two individuals behind the project were until later – probably not until your appearance at California Deathfest in 2015, and I still had no fucking clue what to make of either you or Matron Thorn. In fact, after I saw the pictures there was a part of me that wondered if there was some sort of performance art aspect to what you were doing on stage: a fairly androgynous, ethnically ambiguous guitar player mostly wrapped in muslin (maybe?) and a tall, bearded vocalist wearing a long peasant skirt. I’ve heard various accounts regarding the response to your set there, but I’m more curious about why you chose to present yourselves that way. As random as the world of Ævangelist may seem at times, I know nothing the two of you do is ever by accident. Was that performance simply an attempt at ‘authentic’ (I hate that word) self-representation, or was there some degree of provocation involved as well?
VKD: Honestly, it was freedom. I had been wearing skirts in normal life for nine years then, only stopping when I let myself feel constrained to a proper form in my first significant musical/spiritual working, Velnias. The first time I wore a skirt with Ævangelist was an impulsive decision (divining of numen?) at Hells Headbash earlier that year. We’d embraced the priesthood entirely with one mask, veils throughout, and inked sigils, but the rest was left at “wear black” and I simply chose the skirt I would have worn in my normal life rather than the pants I had also brought. I’m not yet sure why this coincided with the beginning of my tradition of ending our workings with American hymns, but the divine may yet be in there somewhere.
IMV: I always get Hells Headbash and California Deathfest confused – I can never remember which came first. Which was the one where the reaction was largely hostile? I’d imagine the Headbash crowd would have been a lot less receptive to Ævangelist on the whole, regardless of your stage garb. How in the hell (no pun intended) did you end up playing that? It was your first show, correct?
VKD: Hells Headbash. Though honestly I don’t think I’ve played any other fest that had a running thread of insecure right-wing metal fucks giving commentary on their opinions of violence against women on a forum.
Honestly, it’s the simple fact that HHR released an edition of Writhes in the Murk. I assume that was rooted in their connection to the murky threshold between black and death–for a bit there “cavernous death metal” was a thing and our wash of auditory filth got us lumped in with that. Honestly, except for being all the wrong kinds of people, there wasn’t anything intrinsically out of place with us playing songs like “Halo of Lamented Glory” and “Pendulum.” I do wish I’d managed to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” without blaspheming, but it took until Red River Family Fest in 2017 for me to manage a hymn intact.
We’d actually done a whole short tour and another (small, awful) fest before that–the morbidly curious can find footage on YouTube by the ever-faithful Frank Huang of our headlining set at Saint Vitus on that tour. Those who want to see us with the drum machine and feel my discomfort with my body pouring off me. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to watch. Amazing performance from ][ (bass), particularly performing the guest vocals he’d done on the album versions of “Helix Covenant” and “Halo.”
That fest, which should probably remain unnamed, was awful–at that time, it was the only time I interceded with business talks after the promoter’s muscle called Reuben a faggot. I informed the lovely man that not only did he not speak to my guitarist that way, but that I was the faggot. Wonderful.
IMV: I want back up a bit to what you said earlier about constructing your own languages. There are…well, there are a lot of things that both fascinate and confuse the fuck out of me in regards to Ævangelist, but none more so than the relationship between the two individuals at the heart of the tumult, Ascaris and Matron Thorn. I think a large part of that stems from the fact that, much like something out of a Greek myth, Ævangelist really seemed to emerge fully formed on your debut EP Oracle of Infinite Despair, and that form was (and largely still is) so impenetrable that it almost seems like you’re making music within the context of a language that only the two of you understand. How long did it take that particular musical language to form? Does your relationship go back further than the formation of Ævangelist in 2010?
VKD: It does. We met at the Heathen Crusade festival that used to happen in Saint Paul in 2008, Reuben appearing as part of Chaos Moon (they were touring with Benighted in Sodom and Frostmoon Eclipse at the time) and I in Velnias. That tour (which Velnias joined for a few dates) directly led to Reuben asking me to play bass for the next Benighted in Sodom tour in January 2010, and Jon Nicosia (Noctis, Omens, ex-Lycus, now live Crowhurst) and I spent the whole tour complaining about boring black metal and listening to brutal death metal. Maybe a week after the tour, Reuben messaged me about doing primitive death metal, I suggested we use it as a vector for my gradual descent into Christian heresy, and things just . . . happened. The “good news” has gotten more pure-impure and our musical orthodoxy has gotten more and more tenuous.
IMV: I suppose we should get around to talking about the new albums at some point, especially since Ævangelist has released a lot of new music this year after a few years of relative quiet. Aside from your song on the Codex Obscura Nomina split with Blut Aus Nord, you haven’t released anything new since 2015’s Enthrall to the Void of Bliss. From what I understand, Heralds of Nightmare Descending and Matricide in the Temple of Omega have something of an intertwined origin, correct? I’m vaguely aware that Matron Thorn has something of a habit of sitting on music for a while (like the long rumored triptych of EPs for I, Voidhanger, for example, or the completed version of Dream an Evil Dream II, which has been on YouTube in instrumental form since May 2016) and then unleashing a slew of things all at once. Does “Aberrant Genesis” share that intertwined origin as well, or is that from a different period?
VKD: Dream II has been finished for almost two years and a few more works are close to complete. The triptych was ongoing for some time, but aside from some of the vocals was I believe largely done before Enthrall. “Aberrant Genesis” came to be between the completion and release of Enthrall and was ][‘s last guest vocal contribution to Ævangelist. Some of the words winding through the works in question, fittingly, address the process:
for untimely creation
the slithering light
is a shroud on the abyss
I trace the embers of skinshreds
as we recoalesce into imminence
immanent post-divinity . . .
“Dream an Evil Dream II”
Strangely enough, these offer something of a hint at what is happening–a complex relationship of stabs at gnosis, revelation, and healing.
The newest albums are part of one process. There is at least another full-length album conceived as a unit that was part of the Verwandlung intended as album V. Heralds of Nightmare Descending is the adult form of the second entire incarnation of V and Matricide in the Temple of Omega is the third, roughly. All work shreds and recoalesces. I fully believe that these things, even as anachronisms, become public when they need to.
IMV: You’ve shared your lyrics for both Heralds and Matricide with me, and the care with which you construct them is pretty obvious – both in terms of your use of language and the recurring images/themes that run through them. However, you don’t publish them anywhere online or as part of the album packaging, and your vocals aren’t generally up front enough in the mix for the words to be intelligible, so I’d wager that roughly 98% of Ævangelist fans have no clue what you’re growling and howling about. Since you’ve already mentioned the personal nature of some of those lyrics, there’s an interesting duality there in the way that you’re exposing parts of yourself but hiding while you do so.
It reminds me in a way of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, where the narrator’s physician grandfather only saw bits of his patient/future wife through a perforated sheet with her father hovering closely nearby, forcing him to get to know her literally one small piece at a time. I guess my question here is why take all that care in composing your lyrics and then deliberately obscure them? It’s not like your poetic style is remotely straightforward – the ‘meaning’ behind the lyrics is already pretty damned obscure anyway.
VKD: «Comment la femme peut-elle, étant la vérité, ne pas croire à la vérité ? Mais aussi bien comment être la vérité en y croyant encore ?» (How is it possible that woman, who herself is truth, does not believe in truth? And yet, how is it possible to be truth and still believe in it?)
Derrida’s Spurs, in handling Nietzsche’s bizarrely distant ahh “celibate” views of women and truth with the aid of his closeness to Cixous, hits upon the way that these «… éperon [s] protéger contre la menace terrifiante, aveuglante et mortelle (de ce) qui se présente, se donne à voir avec entêtement : la présence, donc, la contenu, la chose même, le sens, la vérité – à moins que ce ne soit déjà l’abîme défloré en tout ce dévoilement de la différence.» ( . . . spur[s] as a means of protection against the terrifying, blinding, mortal threat of that which presents itself, which obstinately thrusts itself into view. And style thereby protects the presence, the content, the thing itself, meaning, truth–on the condition at least that it should not already (déjà) be that gaping chasm which has been deflowered in the unveiling of the difference.) The very stylistic points which thrust like rocky points into the harbor protect us from overwhelming truth, that we might see it. Even for myself, that “white ink” Cixous speaks of is too dark-blinding to reach at once without veils–in H.C. for Life, That Is to Say . . ., Derrida quotes her as writing “At my command the hemorrhage of time stops . . . ” and it is there that we find the million veiled fragments that are the only outer view of that feminine internal “labyrinth.” It is impossible to see clearly that which is “black.”
IMV: If you don’t mind, I do want to delve a bit into some of your lyrics. I noticed two recurring sets of imagery when reading the lyrics from Heralds: bodily decay and flowers, and I can’t help but wonder about their interconnectedness.
For example, like these lines from “Deluge”:
my breasts, my limbs marked with petals
the falling stain of rubine harvest
my mind conquers the spinning spectacle
and the spirits flee before my voice
Or these from “Heralds of Nightmare Descending”:
black-clad windows brace me
my arms wither
my voice exhales
I AM ONE AND MY BLOSSOM STAINED
Granted, I don’t know how old the lyrics are, but you started transitioning a little over a year ago, right – testosterone blockers, estrogen replacement, etc? Did that somehow inform the imagery you used on Heralds? Can you unpack the lyrics a bit?
VKD: The lyrics on Heralds all came into being in August 2018, which was an auspicious 17 months into HRT. They absolutely refer to my healing flesh–somewhere tucked away on a hard drive I have someone’s thesis on the flower as a metaphor for femininity and womanhood, and it’s startling how pervasive that metaphor is throughout different cultures and periods.
Both of these are tied up in blood as well; one the falling blood without and the other, blood rising from within. Several times I’ve drawn from traditional initiation rituals of girls and their symbols, and blood, flowers, and bloodless whiteness of girlhood all appear in plenty. Aside from his unfortunate, perhaps naive, allegiances, Mircea Eliade shines, for a man, unusually worthwhile insight on the personal, individual nature of a woman’s becoming in the social-material in Rites and Symbols of Initiation.
For me and my sisters, coming into flesh is also a withering, a growing, and a death-flowering.
IMV: Another thing that I find striking about the lyrics for Heralds is all of the references to the mouth, tongue, throat, and voice – particularly since you mentioned earlier an inability to be direct about certain things in prose. We share a fondness for Derrida. In his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,” he coined the term ‘phallogocentrism,’ a portmanteau of ‘phallocentrism’ (the privileging of the masculine) and ‘logocentrism’ (the idea that only speech/language can signify external reality and create ‘meaning’). In doing so, he essentially pointed out that both language itself and meaning are gendered male. This inspired the ‘French feminists’ to write about the need for an Écriture feminine – a sort of writing that privileges experience over meaning. Hélène Cixous coined the term in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” where she makes the assertion that women need to write in ‘white ink’ (a reference to breast milk).
Okay…after that long-winded bit of background, here’s my question: while I certainly wouldn’t suggest that Cixous was a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, her conception of Écriture feminine does seem to complete the binary that Aristotle and his ilk started with their original conception of logos: language can either be masculine or feminine. While I’m not sure if you’d refer to yourself as non-binary, I can’t help but wonder how having a trans identity might complicate a person’s relationship to language within that gender-binaried context. Do those references to the mouth, tongue, etc. in any way reflect a personal struggle to find a language in which to voice your own experiences?
VKD: I don’t read “The Laugh of the Medusa” as trans-exclusionary. I think one of the common talking points of the TERF tendency, “male socialization,” is something both they and to some degree a number of other cis folk misunderstand. [A note: my partner in particular reminds me not to speak for everyone, so bear in mind these are specifically my experiences]. I absorbed every fragment of female socialization that came my way, with the added chains of that external “unbeing.” I absorbed the patriarchal demand that I stay silent and submit to another’s needs to my own undoing. I absorbed demands that I make myself attractive and see my own worth through that lens, made more painful through my physical inadequacy and inability to do it “right.” I absorbed even the complex conflicting idea that “feminine” interests were worthless and I should strive to throw off my bonds through access to “masculine” pursuits–and take them for myself. I absorbed cultural images of submitting myself to a man’s protection at the same time that I absorbed the ideal of sisterhood and the tender fulfillment of sapphic intimate bonding. I’ve discussed before how out of place I felt in groups of men treating me like one. For me, male socialization is something men go through. Period. I was not one. I learned, even unconsciously, what I was meant to be as a woman through every moment of my exposure to other humans as a child. I was bound and I was gagged and still couldn’t fill male roles except as defiance of patriarchy and self-worship.
My language is, as she put it, a labyrinth, and it is, as she put it, gagged with pollen. The controls may lay differently on me through outside perception, but they lay on me and try to muffle me just the same. A cis woman being told feminine expression is meaningless and trifling and that they should submit to the gag, to the male image of us, is no different from what a trans woman experiences in all those respects–and still we may often only hope to find shelter among our sisters. TERFs make the mistake of seeing that gag on us and thinking we bear it to silence all women.
IMV: As for Matricide, there seems to be some sort of narrative going through those lyrics. Is it a kind of concept album? If so, how does “Serpentine as Lustful Nightmare,” which we’re premiering along with this interview, fit into that narrative? If I’m not mistaken, the concept was developed by Thorn and then given to you to flesh out via lyrics, correct?
VKD: Thorn did indeed create an outline for narrative this time. On Omen, he spoke of the abyssscape–on Writhes, of enlightenment through sin. This is his first album-spanning narrative, rather than speaking to me of more isolated images.
Matricide is a somewhat of a misdirection–rather than the murder of a motherhood, the moment in question is the end of birth. The central moment and figure are the voidrooted emanation of an unnamed æon who acts in some senses as both syzygy and cancellation to the demiurge. Whereas he dulls flame through crafting the material in defiance of the divine spark, she is flame and first an end to biological creation, then forced heat death and unraveling of the material.
I’m often disinclined to overemphasis on the working of the æons. I see it as a detriment to clear view of the numen. Thorn works in a more materialized abyss–you’ll see his references in the ringing of the æon death knell, monoliths in the abyssscape, the mirror of Eden, and the like. That discomfort-dialectic between his narrative and my hymns, shining in tangent through his “male gaze” interpretation of Matricide’s æon as the unbirthing mother and object of lust meant a difficult path for my working, despite its external congruence with my own incarnated life at the time–I often wondered if the æon drew from an interpretation of me, and over the course of the narrative she shifts from the unfamiliar and male-misunderstood form centered on the womb to the emanation of myself.
“Serpentine as Lustful Nightmare” covers the Matricide æon’s transition from force to worshipped end-divinity. The male gaze is incredibly apparent here; the path this takes is through what Thorn describes as a lust dream. This is also, paradoxically, the moment on the album when I take Her being as my own and throw off the yokes the Matron attached to the pre-text.
our arms in hers, our faces to the void
spoiled flower of dysfunction enthralling
æon of carnescence, æon of miscarriage
slipping beauty of excrescence and denouement
our death her life, our shaking her song
bright-dark emblem of entropy beckoning
æon of silk shining, æon of emptiness
one true divinity singing perfect end
cygne-serpent d’ivoire, de dissolution
cette ange dépouillée chantait dissonance
ailes des anges noires ma diadème
realité mon enfant de sang discontent
que mes aspirations brillent imparfaits
votres rêves fleuriront seules dans mes horizons
dix-sept mes limbes, gesticulant au divinité
bredouillent du nul qui résultait
Her-my voice begins in French–that shifting tongue changed my relationship to thought enough for me to recreate that emanation without without that obscuring other. That which languishes in the man’s view of the womb in English is replaced with black and white feathers and true apotheosis, possessing the null as my own.
IMV: For some reason, I’ve been hesitant to bring this up – perhaps because Ævangelist seems to have this whole self-mythologizing thing happening that I’m half-afraid to delve into – but there are allusions to multiple world mythologies throughout both Heralds and Matricide – from the Greek of “Narcissus” to the Ethiopian catoblepas in “Heralds of Nightmare” to numerous less specific references to goddesses. Is that simply a poetic device, or do you somehow find it easier to write about these personal things by placing yourself within the context of these myths?
VKD: We surround ourselves with mirages, phantasms, and realities every day. Our images of self, of others, of everything within and without that are mutable, hallucinatory, imagined–you, Clayton, may as well be a sphinx. Sometimes it is best to see that.
Moreover, there is something of numenous reflection in myth and self; I’ve occasionally summed up Ævangelist’s lyrics as “the relation of the self and divinity,” and it only makes sense to step into exploration of Bataille’s liminal worlds through the children of past seeking. The familiar-unfamiliar is the goal of gnosis. The catoblepas rearing upon arms in “Heralds” presents an unknown danger–the paralysis that normally lies only in theory strikes against man.
IMV: Okay…we should probably start wrapping things up here, before I need to start looking for a book deal. I don’t know how involved you are with the artwork on Ævangelist’s releases, but both H.V. Lyngdal’s cover for Heralds and Haley Deanna Johnstone’s art for Matricide are perfect and amazing in their own unique ways. Can you talk about the process of selecting or developing the art for either release? Given how carefully you control every other aspect of you output, I’m guessing that extends to the artwork as well. Did you or Thorn work directly with either artist on a cover concept? I find Matricide’s art particularly intriguing because there’s an aspect of the male gaze to it that’s completely absent from the art on any of your other releases.
VKD: Visual art is always Thorn’s doing, as the hymns themselves are always mine. Matricide is the first time an artist has worked with the intent of the work in mind rather than sliding naturally into parallels.
I certainly think you’re right. I’m curious myself about the process; did Ms. Johnstone struggle with the same process of extricating the self that I did? She certainly would have worked with the base concepts Thorn had, working with him, rather than the Cixous labyrinths I fought to speak past that pollen gag. That uncanny stranger on display may yet reveal something set against the storm.
IMV: What’s the live status of Ævangelist these days? With Matron Thorn now living in Finland, I’d assume that complicates doing anything that might resemble touring. I’ve seen whispers about some possible festival dates in 2019 – anything you can talk about at all?
VKD: It’s an ongoing struggle for practical reasons, as it always has been. We have beautiful people to take up the spark anywhere–honestly, I’d love any success we have at playing in Europe purely for the people we would burn through.
The simple fact is that without an external force to get us somewhere at the right moment, it’s nearly impossible. We simply don’t have the resources on our own–the working class is chained through many channels in the material. It’s not a great jump to connect the trap of the material itself to the trap of finance and commerce.
IMV: Thanks again for taking the time and energy to answer these questions. I always like to leave the final word to the artists – anything else you want to add?
VKD: Everything is change. You will see a more broken, a more gleaming face in each moment to come. Make sure that you are the same.