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Track Premiere + Interview: Crown of Asteria – “Arçura”

Central Michigan isn’t exactly widely known for its black metal scene. In fact, aside from Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland (seriously – that’s how they stylize their name) in Frankenmuth (aka Michigan’s ‘Little Bavaria’), which advertises itself as the ‘world’s largest Christmas store,’ and a handful of breweries, I’m not sure central Michigan is widely known for much at all. However, tucked away in the tiny village of Bancroft, MI – which has a total land area of 0.58 square miles, and a population of 545 as of the 2010 census – is perhaps the most creatively dynamic, absurdly prolific, and sorely underrated solo black metal projects in the US: Crown of Asteria.

Since the release of her first demo in 2013, Meghan Wood, the musician behind Crown of Asteria, has been responsible for nearly thirty full-lengths, splits, singles, EPs, and collaborations, across a variety of genres: black metal, ambient, neo-folk, and experimental releases that don’t fit neatly into any one category. The one thing they all have in common, however, is that they’re uniformly excellent. Regardless of which style she’s working in, anything Wood produces is more than worth an investment of your time.

That being said, 2018 has been an uncharacteristically quiet year on the Crown of Asteria front. Aside from the odds-and-ends Seasonal Remnants compilation, which is basically comprised of lo-fi field recordings, Wood hasn’t released any new material under the Crown of Asteria banner this year. For the sake of comparison, there were five Crown of Asteria releases in 2017 and nine in 2016. If anyone has been impatient about the lack of new music this year, though, take heart: when The Ire of a Bared Fang drops digitally on December 21 -aka the Winter Solstice – that relative lack of production will instantly make sense.

Simply put: The Ire of a Bared Fang is the most ambitious, most complex, and easily the best thing Wood has ever done as Crown of Asteria. Even those who are devoted followers of the project are likely to find plenty of surprises within the album’s just-over 60 minute runtime. We’re honored to be able to premiere “Arçura,” the first preview track from The Ire of a Bared Fang, here today at the Vault. I was also fortunate enough to have a wide-ranging conversation with Wood about the history of the project, the new album, her relationship with Red River Family Records (who will be releasing The Ire of a Bared Fang on cassette early in 2019), and several other topics besides. Check it out below, along with our exclusive premiere of “Arçura.”

Indy Metal Vault: So first off, thank you so much for the interview. From the first time I heard Crown of Asteria, I’ve felt a special sort of connection to your music. I’m in Indiana, but just barely. I live about two miles from the state line, and aside from grad school, I’ve lived in this general area my whole life. I’ve seen a lot of Michigan – from camping in the various state parks and spending time at Lake Michigan to taking drives in autumn to simply enjoy the colors. So your music resonates with me in a way that black metal from other regions never will, even though I’ve never been to Bancroft. However, it sounds like hardly anyone has been to Bancroft – what I’ve read online makes it seem like it’s the size of a postage stamp. Can you talk a bit about the place you call home and the influence the region’s geography has had on you and your music?

Meghan Wood: I am happy the music resonated with you. There’s not much in Bancroft, as in the actual town. Blink and you will miss it. A bar and a blinking light. However, it’s a tiny village that is home to forests, rivers, lakes, and lots of wildlife. The Shiawassee River is probably one of the more notable attractions. It runs through the outskirts of the town and holds much history with traders and the Native Americans here in Michigan. I believe the area from Saginaw Bay down to Detroit was inhabited by the Sauk and Fox tribes during the 1600s. The Fox tribe was known for being fierce warriors, and France wanted them completely eliminated during the First and Second Fox Wars. They would have had to use the Shiawassee River for their endeavors.

Down the road from me, the river flows over a dam, which is now a usual walkabout spot for contemplation and stargazing. I have come face to face with bald eagles, osprey, foxes, and coyotes, not to mention deer. Especially in September when the mists roll in, plenty of influence from the transitions of the seasons there can be found in the music.

Bancroft belongs to the Shiawassee Township, which holds most of the area’s history as a whole. Fur trading was well known here, as well as many pioneers coming through the Grand River Trail. One legend from the Shiawassee River has to do with the land adjoining the Che-won-der-gon-ing reservation and a place then-called Pinda-ton-going by the Indians (meaning the place where the spirit of sound or echo lives). Every Summer and Fall, some of the old Indians would make a sacrifice to the river, believing a spirit dwelled in a hole there. This was to ensure luck in hunting, fishing, and overall health.

Bancroft doesn’t have the grandeur or the Alpenglow of mountains, nor the powerful lure of the ocean, but what it does have is a subtle, quiet, hidden wilderness – a contentment of small acts of nature. It makes one appreciate little things. Its charm is that as an individual you choose what your wilderness is. I personally have my own secret hovels that invoke the same awe as anywhere else. These things influence CoA and myself greatly.

IMV: Aside from the geographic connection, I think the thing I appreciate the most about Crown of Asteria is that I genuinely never know what to expect when I hit play on one of your releases: black metal, neo-folk, ambient, covers of maritime folk songs, experimental releases – virtually everyone is a different experience. Was that your intention when you started the project back in 2011, or did it evolve as you spent more time doing Crown of Asteria? Where does it come from – a creative restlessness, or something else?

MW: I really didn’t have much of an intention initially other than to express my appreciation for Nature. I follow the Muse, my emotions, and inspirations. Creative restlessness is a good way to put it. That and I just like creating and trying new things

IMV: I knew that Asteria came from Greek mythology before I started writing these questions, but I had no idea how many Asterias there actually are in Greek mythology until I started researching for this interview. Which of the eleven actually inspired the project’s name? I’m guessing it was either the Titaness of oracles and falling stars, or the daughter of Helios that married a river god. Or maybe the one who threw herself into the sea along with her sisters and was transformed into a kingfisher? Like I said, too many options.

MW: The Titaness of Oracles is the correct one. Asteria was the Titan goddess of falling stars and nighttime divinations, such as oneiromancy (by dreams) and astrology (by stars). She was the mother of Hekate (Hecate), goddess of witchcraft. She was chosen because she envelopes not only the feminine aspect of the project, but the themes and my interests in the occult, metaphysics, mysticism, and nature under one guise.

Originally, Greek mythology was far from what was intended as a representative image for the band. It felt overused and not exactly what I was looking for. So I kept researching, and, for whatever reason, Asteria kept coming into my line of vision and focus. I looked into it more in depth and found out that it actually was closer than I thought to my thoughts and ideas. The biggest determining factor was that she had connections with Hecate, and she was another one I was hoping to somehow invoke in a name without using it. Having that blood connection to a Mother/Daughter was a powerful force of wisdom, and both of their images can be traced to darker arts, to a wilder feminine aspect, witchcraft, and healing. To me, it has a Plutonic overlay that governs a natural inclination to constantly go through changes for the betterment and healing of the self from the depths of the soul. It seemed appropriate to have all the symbolism correlate to the material created under this project, as I felt it represented things I was going through in my life as well.

IMV: Even though you technically ‘formed’ Crown of Asteria in 2011, you didn’t release your first demo until 2013, and since then you’ve had more releases than I really want to count. There’s nothing in your intimidatingly vast discography that I’ve heard—and I’ve listened to the majority of it—that I’d be like ‘yeah…you can probably skip that one.’ How are able to maintain that level of productivity without sacrificing quality? Do you throw out a lot of half-finished ideas/failed experiments, or do you tend to keep working songs until they’re up to your standards?

MW: I have creative disciplines to help me stay focused in terms of productivity, mainly writing ideas down and keeping notes in books. As for quality, I’m not sure how to answer that other than I always try my personal best to convey my ideas and make sure my intent and emotions are coming together. Intent is something that is increasingly important: why am I doing this, why am I writing this way, or why should this be here or there? These questions help me to remember to keep checking in with the self as I go along to make sure things are resonating correctly. Some material isn’t always like this, though. Some I generally just create because I want to and that’s it, and I allow it to be free-form and flow wherever it wants to go.

I tend to keep failed experiments or ideas around. I’ve learned you can always come back and work on them. You never know what might happen.

IMV: Given the variances in your sound from one release to the next, I tried to take a closer look at your lyrical themes to see if I could find some sort of unifying element, but there’s just as much variety there: Icelandic folk tales, Finnish witches, Anishinaabe and Algonquian mythology, offerings for the Celtic festivals of Beltane and Imbolc, and events/people from the Great Lakes region, just to name a few. In general, I feel like there are two sides to your music: a spiritual one that draws from Wiccan, pagan, and indigenous traditions; and one that’s intimately connected to Michigan’s landscapes and history. Is that a fair assessment? Or do you not really make those sorts of distinctions with your music?

MW: That is a fair assessment. Earth-based mysticism and eco-spirituality, if you will, are the backbone of Crown of Asteria. I have always had an attraction to Nordic and Celtic lore, which led me down a path of devouring anything I could find on the theological, cultural anthropological, and anthropological philosophy-based subjects in their stories and myths. I enjoy the rich history of each.

Finnish Karelian Magic and Witchcraft are big interests of mine, and one or two releases contain influence from that, along with the Finnish Bear Cults. The way they held the animal so sacred made an impact on me specifically when I was reading up on some history for Karhun Vakat. Speaking of which, I watched a very moving film called The Hammer of Ukko, which is based on Finnish mythology and their ancient connection to Nature, and how modernity has skewed its importance in their culture. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a while.

I’ve been drawn to Finland specifically from a young age. Here in Michigan, we have a large population of Finnish lineage in the North and the U.P., and I feel it adds to my interest and makes it a little more personal in a way as Michigan has many similarities to Finland. Divination of Nature in these cultures is also so powerfully intriguing to me, such as runes, ogham, and the Druidic zoomorphic art, and the powerful connection to animals and the symbolism they attach to each.

As for the Native American-themed tracks, it’s hard to not be fascinated by their beautiful stories when living in Michigan, as the whole state holds so much history here for them. All this knowledge, however, comes directly back to Nature and how people interacted with it.

My own personal culmination of beliefs, ideas, and personal anecdotes throughout CoA can also be found within the literature that has made a significant change in my thinking and outlook. The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung is a journey of rediscovering the original unity of Nature and the spirits therein. Jung speaks about our loss emotionally and mythically with the natural world and the accumulated wisdom of our species through our evolutionary experience. Another is The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. This book tells of humans’ place in the world and their relationship not only with other people but also with animals, plants and other natural objects. It asks how we have severed our ancient reciprocity with the natural world and how we might recover a sustaining relation with the living breathing earth. Further reading I highly recommend is Earth Wisdom by Glennie Kindred. She reminds us to appreciate the intelligence of all life. Her tone and delivery is so warm and inviting. I feel I have found many great teachers through literature that have helped my own brand of belief grow, which CoA in turn reflects.

IMV: There are a couple of releases in particular I want to ask you about. The first is Arctic Fever, your dark ambient/spoken word collaboration with Swedish poet Katie Metcalfe. It’s an incredibly striking, deeply affecting work, and because of its subject matter, I think it’s a truly important one as well. How did that collaboration come about?

MW: Katie approached me about the collaboration, I believe. I had been acquainted with her work through a blog she runs called Wyrd Words and Effigies, which celebrates dark artists and all that is strange. She is a poet, writer, and photographer I have come to love. Katie is a multi-passionate being that has been an absolute pleasure to work with, and really is such a kind, inspired person. Our shared interest and passion for environmental and animal conservation is what brought us together for this deeply touching and inspirational piece of art. She was interested in the more ambient side of my work and believed it would weave well into the poems.

I was so stricken by the intensely raw, honest, and truthful words she presented that I can say without a doubt it really left me in a state of emotional upheaval that would make me stop completely and walk away to collect myself. Some tracks really did depress me, and it was hard to play passages over and over again while mixing tracks. It really is something that will be cherished above anything I’ve done, and I have her to thank for that. Hopefully, it spreads a message of how fragile the climate and environment is, and is a catalyst for a change in thinking.

 

IMV: The other is your recently reissued split with Damphyr, Northwest/South by No North. On Crown of Asteria’s Facebook page, you call it one of the “strangest” releases you’ve been part of and admit to being “not exactly 100% happy” with your half of it. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with it since the reissue, and both of those statements surprise me – in fact, I’d rank “Isle Royale” up there among my favorite things that you’ve done. You touched on this a bit on your FB page as well, but what made Northwest such a strange and difficult release for you?

MW: Well, looking back, it’s not that I hate them. I just wish I would have arranged things better and recorded things differently. One could say a comparison of newer works and Northwest make me feel it wasn’t good enough, or I should have spent more time on the Kamloops track [“48°5′6″N 88°45′53″W”] specifically. It was strange because I wasn’t sure how Dhampyr and CoA would correlate sides with one another. There are more abstract similarities that bring the music together than something that might be more apparent, in my opinion.

I was unsure if it was too far-reaching because it’s much more experimental, but in the end, we made it work, and it’s a unique piece of artwork.

 

IMV: Okay…it took me a bit longer to get here than I’d anticipated, but you’re preparing to release a new full-length called The Ire of a Bared Fang. I’ve listened to it a lot since you sent the most recent mixes to me, and I’ve come to two conclusions. First, I think that from start to finish it’s the best thing you’ve ever done under the banner of Crown of Asteria. Second, I think it’s also the most surprising thing you’ve ever done. It starts off on stylistically familiar ground with “Instinct (Intro),” but when second track “The Ire of a Bared Fang” started I thought I had accidentally set my player to ‘shuffle’ and it had started playing Chaos Moon or Ævangelist. It’s much more aggressive, both musically and vocally, than anything I’ve heard from you before. It also sounds really angry, which isn’t an emotion I ordinarily associate with your music. At nearly 23 minutes, it’s also a remarkably sustained blast of rage, broken up by those really cool sounding effects-laden mandolin sections. Since it’s so unlike anything else I know of in your discography, where did that song come from?

MW: I pushed myself very hard on this track in particular. It means quite a bit personally, and I really tried to keep my expectations high while working. There was no slack given and it was approached with an ‘either it’s going to be 100% or nothing’ perspective, even more so than usual. After working with Katie on Arctic Fever, the pain from the unfortunate facts about the Arctic, and the sacred native cultural traditions being lost to the destruction of land and natural resources stayed with me. So with that in mind, I wrote this song from the perspective of a temperamental natural force that governs over natural spaces and animals, with the rage being justified after repeated warnings given to us about our impact on the earth. The song just sort of happened. I can’t recall what exactly drove me in that direction to make it heavier than usual, but it was just another opportunity to try something new. Once I handed it off to others, they added their own talents to the track. Balan’s [Botanist, Palace of Worms] mandolin and slide guitar really brought in a new dynamic, and I was extremely happy with how it worked so well with the music and took it to a new level.

IMV: The other two lengthy tracks on The Ire of a Bared Fang, “Arçura” and “Realm Weaver,” have what I’d almost call a shamanistic feel to them – which is fitting, since the Arçura is a shape-shifting woodland spirit that protects forests and wild animals in the shamanistic Turkic mythology. Since a lot of your releases have overarching themes to them, is there any kind of narrative or thematic unity to the songs on the new album? The song titles seem to indicate a narrative, but I could also be looking for something that’s not there.

MW: No, you are correct. There is a sort of unity within the album. It’s about being able to tap into the temperamental force of the wilderness. It doesn’t necessarily always enjoy our presence, but how it reacts depends on our actions and disposition within its realm. So I was trying with each track to show different guises that it may appear in. From the force itself unable to be controlled or contained, to it being within itself in the natural surroundings, created as an ancient deity, and then brought through a human conduit.

IMV: In terms of the mix/production, The Ire of a Bared Fang sounds fantastic – clear enough that all of the many nuances of the music come through, but not so clear as to sound sterile. Given how prolific CoA has been, I’m guessing you have the whole DIY recording thing down to a fine art. What does your recording setup look like at this point? How much has it evolved over the years?

MW: It has been a long journey and a ton of work to get to this point. I recorded the demo on a handheld Zoom H2, with a Randall guitar amp that was on its way out. So there was no way could I make mistakes without having to replay a whole section. Then I would import it into Audacity from the removable SD card.

It was a painstakingly exhausting experience, but I had no idea what I was doing and that’s all I had available to work with. I wrote the demo all the way up to Great Freshwater Seas in Guitar Pro, and that is also how I would program and write my drums and synths.

Then I ended up getting some USB mics and started recording directly into Audacity. I think I did that for North and a couple releases onward, but I mixed those in FL Studio. Around the time I was working on Sol, my laptop started acting up and wouldn’t let me use FL Studio, so I got some acoustic drums and played those on a couple releases that I recorded with one USB mic. Eventually, I got FL Studio to work again and kept that and the Audacity setup all the way until Great Freshwater Seas, and then my laptop died. So when I was able to get a new laptop I got Pro Tools, a new Shure 57, and an MXL990 mic. I use that today, and I’ve been fortunate enough to get much better software to use with Pro Tools for mixing.

I program my drums with Superior Drummer and an Alesis midi keyboard and use that for all synths, etc. Guitars are played through an Orange CR120.

IMV: In terms of physical releases, you’ve worked with quite a few labels, and your release histories are occasionally interesting to untangle. I only want to ask specifically about one, though: your 2013 debut was released under three different names and with two different track lists by two different labels: Tridroid released it as both Demo MMXII and Through the Birch and Beyond the Lakes, and Red River Family Records issued it as Hymn of the Northern Bowers, which had a cover of Ulver’s “Høyfjeldsbilde” in place of “Through the Birch and Beyond the Lakes.” If I’m not mistaken, they all came out in 2013 as well. What’s the story behind that?

MW: My memory isn’t serving me well here. I think Tridroid sold out of the demo initially then did a repress under a different title. RRF wanted to release the demo, but I think I asked if I could include that cover and it replaced “Through the Birch and Beyond the Lakes.” Therefore, it was released with a different title.

IMV: Speaking of covers, you have a penchant for picking unexpected songs to tackle: the strangest choice was probably the cheeseball Tom Jones classic “She’s a Lady” that was a bonus track on the digital version of Rauðskinna, but you’ve also covered The Ramones, The Misfits, Zola Jesus, and Cradle of Filth. Are those covers mostly just you having some fun, or do your song choices have a deeper meaning than that?

MW: Those are absolutely done for shits and giggles.

 

IMV: And speaking of Red River Family Records, your relationship with them has probably been the most enduring of your musical career – especially with label co-owner Ravnblod, who you’ve collaborated with on both Crown of Asteria and his project Smother. How did you first connect with RRF? You just finished your contributions to the upcoming third Smother release, correct? I’ve heard the finished instrumental track, and it’s shaping up to be my favorite installment of that project yet.

MW: I think RRF asked if I wanted to release the demo. They seemed to really enjoy the material and CoA as a whole, and it was an amazing feeling to have it be appreciated like they did. When North was finished, I released it though RRF as well, and they let CoA become one of the “Family” members. They have always been super supportive of my work and never wavered on releasing material. CoA owes them many thanks.

More recently, though, Ravnblod approached me about his project Smother and gave me the artistic freedom to try some ideas out on his second release, Chapter II: A Corpse of Wood and Stone. He thought what I added went well with his vision and sound, so I was asked to add onto the newest album, which personally I’m very excited about. Everyone involved did such a great job with their parts. I can’t wait for it to be released.

As such, I asked Ravnblod to play bass on The Ire of a Bared Fang. This is the first time I’ve had bass on a release. I’ve also extended that invite to future CoA material as well since he really added a new depth and sound to the music. Ravnblod and RRF have been so helpful in this musical journey, very professional and caring. It’s great to be represented by them, and be alongside all the other great artists they truly stand behind.

 

IMV: Okay…this is getting pretty lengthy, so it’s probably time for me to start wrapping up. 2018 was a relatively quiet year by your usually prolific standards, with just the Seasonal Remnants odds-and-ends compilation coming out prior to The Ire of a Bared Fang, but after hearing the album it’s really easy to understand why that absorbed most of your musical focus. Do you have anything in the works yet for 2019?

MW: Well…aside from CoA I did have a busy 2018 with other projects and guest work, which was great. I do have a handful of things lined up for 2019. The one I’m most excited about is a brand new project I wrapped up in September, which will see a release either in December or January.

IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artist – anything else you want to add?

MW: I just want to say thank you.

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