In Search of the Mystics

A quest to decode the evergreen esoterica currently flourishing in the music of the Northwest.

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“This is an everyday lesson in the damp, decaying, riotously fecund Northwest: The decomposition of dead things is what allows new life to grow.” —Matthew Offenbacher, “Green Gothic”

One day after the rainiest September day in Seattle recorded history, I drive into the forests of Tacoma to meet a black-metal band. After circling soggy gardens and a strange pagoda in Point Defiance Park a number of times, I realize that I’m terribly lost.

“We’re way past all that, deeper in the woods,” Michael Korchonoff tells me over the phone. “We’re next to the rhododendrons.”

Passing through a thick tunnel of interlocking firs and cedars, I find the band Alda waiting for me, standing in the rain.

Korchonoff, Alda’s drummer and vocalist, shakes my hand. He apologizes for the clandestine rendezvous before instructing me that we’ll actually be going even deeper into the forest for our chat. Jace Bruton, Alda’s guitarist, says I can hop into his pickup.

Bruton is a burly, bearded Texan transplant to Washington. He talks with a good-ol’-boy twang, but has the aura of a Buddhist monk. Elk-hunting manuals and metal CD’s are strewn about the cab. Bruton does all the hunting for Alda, singularly in charge of bringing meat back to the rural Pierce County property the band lives on and farms together.

Last weekend, Bruton’s father shot a bear with a hunting bow. The guitarist quartered the bear, and the band has been enjoying the meat. It’s a nice break from the elk, salmon, and trout Bruton usually brings in, says bassist Stephanie Knittel. Although the group’s food supply isn’t completely self-sustaining yet, that’s the ultimate goal.

On the ride over, Bruton briefly explains the ecological hunting practices he abides by, guided by the literature of David Petersen, a well-regarded elk-hunting philosopher.

During Alda’s performances, the band often places the skull of an animal Bruton hunted on a bed of tree boughs within a circle of old-growth bark. It’s a deeply spiritual ritual for the band—a way to honor the animal’s sacrifice for their sustenance and to bring a piece of the wild to the cities where they play. According to the members of Alda, the folk-influenced black metal they create is almost secondary to the band’s larger purpose: to express the intense connection they feel to the Cascadian bioregion and the natural systems that sustain them.

When we get out of the truck, Bruton leads us all down a nonexistent path, swatting aside branches and sneaking through underbrush. On the backwoods trek, Korchonoff and I start to chat about the cover of Alda’s album Tahoma. Created by Korchonoff ’s sister, it’s an impressionist painting of salmon flowing downstream from Mount Tahoma—the native Lushootseed name for Mount Rainier—as a human skull and fish skeletons rest quietly on the riverbed in the corner. As Korchonoff explains, the cover symbolizes the living network that surrounds us: the water, the salmon, and the mountains.

Above: Alda, in the forests of Point Defiance Park, where we met up to chat.

The band members grew up together in Eatonville at the base of Mount Rainier. They moved to Tacoma after finishing school, but quickly felt alienated by urban life, where people “don’t trust each other, and have no respect for where they live,” as Korchonoff explains. To cope, the band drank themselves into a depressive haze and began to abuse drugs. After these episodes, they often found themselves back at home in Eatonville or in the woods. Realizing they hated city life and longing to return to a simpler way of living, they moved to the property they now live on, 40 miles outside of town.

During my conversation with Korchonoff, Bruton stops a couple of times to examine fresh deer prints on the trail.

"The place we’re going to is a place we used to come to a lot when we lived in Tacoma,” Korchonoff says before abruptly stopping in his tracks.

A bewildered look comes over his face.

“What the heck? Somebody lit a fire here?”

The base of the enormous tree in front of us is charred black. Its roots are damaged—gnarled, withered, and coated in fresh ash.

Bruton bends down and feels around in the soil, searching for clues. He pulls up a burnt piece of cardboard with half of the Corona logo on it.

“Some fucking idiots partying probably lit a fire and had no idea what they were doing,” Bruton says staring at the cardboard. “This is what we were talking about—because of the proximity to the city, you get sketchy people doing fucked-up things like this.”

We move on to another spot—a small, damp clearing with a mossy fallen log where we finally sit down.

"So," Korchonoff says, folding his hands. “What did you want to talk about?”

T he English word “mysticism” is derived from the Greek word μυω, which means “to conceal.” It’s a broad term, used to describe the secretive, esoteric nature inherent in Jewish Kabbalah, healing crystals, and Led Zeppelin IV. Like many young people in 1971 pondering what the hell ZoSo meant and whether or not Jimmy Page actually worshipped Satan, I found myself in a similar situation in modern-day Seattle.

I began to notice that much of the music and art of our region seemed to contain an undercurrent of—for lack of a better word—mysticism. What fascinated me was how independent these musicians and artists were of one another.

Metal bands, rappers, psych-rockers, throat singers, painters, and performance artists that had no connection beyond shared geography all seemed to be evoking the same things: dark wildernesses, forgotten esoteric concepts, and shamanistic coded rituals.

I never suspected these people to be Jimmy Page-style Satanists, but I often wondered if they were pagan. Druids at the very least.

These Northwest mystics all seemed to be pointing at some larger, meaningful thing floating just out of reach—an evergreen obelisk of truth that I could decipher if there weren’t so much damn coastal fog in the way. It felt as though these artists were trying to tell me something very important, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

So I embarked on a quest. I reached out to many of these Northwest mystics and asked them to elucidate these mysteries. I asked them, very simply, “What does it all mean?”

I was pleased to discover that despite their varying degrees of separation and stylistic differences, they had very similar answers.

The following is an account of my quest, which I’ve subdivided into three convenient “Branches of Northwest Mysticism.” Note that the musicians and artists interviewed do not subscribe to these branches. Rather, they are intended as a way to organize the overriding principles these artists expressed, which, as you will find, all point to the same larger concept.

Above: Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie, looking at some trees.

“Hello. I am a self-mythologizer. That’s just how it is. I am responsible for a fairly tall stack of records and CDs full of songs about my own metaphorical adventures and wriestling matches with big questions, songs that usually take place in a romantic, fictional nature.” - Phil Elverum, Dawn: A Winter Journal

Phil Elverum is a wonderfully strange human. He wears flip-flops no matter the season, and often strikes the yogic Tree Pose when he performs, a stance in which one foot is placed firmly on the opposite leg’s inner thigh.

Elverum is perhaps the most prolific of the Eco-Mythologizers who have sprung up in the Northwest: people who sacralize our wildernesses by layering dense, moss-covered myth onto them. This mythical Northwest serves as a setting to explore a sort of deep, sometimes spiritual understanding of ecology and the part humans play in our very large natural systems.

In his songs, Elverum always sings in a kind of hushed coo, like a timid bird. What happens behind that coo can vary wildly, from soft acoustic-guitar strumming to ear-explodingly loud lo-fi metal, depending on which era of Elverum’s 17-year career you’re listening to.

Elverum pressed the beautiful handcrafted LPs in his Mount Eerie project himself—one of which comes with an enormous foldout poster of a drawing of a man in a foggy forest landscape. It holds the record for the world’s largest album cover. When Elverum sings, it’s often from the perspective of some sort of nature spirit. In his “black metal” album Wind’s Poem, it’s the wind; in his most recent, Ocean Roar, it’s the ocean. Sometimes he sings to the place he lives, Anacortes, as in the song “The Place I Live.” His songs are incredibly wordy, stream-of-consciousness liturgies about Elverum’s place in the natural world.

Place is a concept Elverum gets reverent about.

“Place plays a lot into what it feels like to be alive,” he tells me over the phone from his home.

“Making these songs about place and trying to get people to acknowledge this connection in themselves to where we are and where we exist and where we’re from—those are heavy things that we typically go about unaware of in our modern world.”

In Dawn: Winter Journal, a long memoir bundled with one of his records, Elverum details his wistful 2002 trip to northern Norway, where he intended to live in a cabin on his own, Thoreau-style, in an attempt to align his fantasies with his reality and discover some sort of overarching nature-truth. He mostly spends the book complaining about the guy who recently stole his girlfriend, and how cold it is outside while chopping wood in the near-Arctic. But there are occasional glimpses at revelation:

I am starting to get a feeling for this place as ‘A WHOLE’ with me IN it rather than a participant in a game or a spectator. I am connected in ways I’ll never comprehend . . . in fact, it’s pointless contemplating about it because even right now it’s all happening. We (meaning me and everything I could see) are doing this (meaning me and everything I could see, or feel, or whatever, you know) together!

This sort of joyful bewilderment at the reality of ecology and natural systems lies at the heart of Elverum’s mysticism, which actively romanticizes the landscape to mythological heights.

“I’m uneasy with it, and also, at the same time, I’m really into it,” Elverum says. “I’m not a spiritual person, and I’m not into some sort of formalized spiritual system, but my angle is: This planet that we live on, and these animals that we are, is crazy amazing. There’s definitely a sacredness to the wild that I feel is worth focusing on. When I put a personality behind the wind, the ocean, or whatever element in the nonhuman world, it’s just a shortcut to that sense of wonder.”

These strange tales Elverum tells about himself, the surrounding wilderness, and his pilgrimage to Norway made him in many ways a Northwestern Led Zeppelin to me as I grew up. Even though all his deep lore is just a story, it acts as a very helpful frame to think about much bigger things. Big questions that are more easily wrestled with in a “fictional nature.” Questions like “Why am I here? What is my place within this place?”

My friend Ben told me about a show he saw Elverum play in Olympia with the band Wolves in the Throne Room. According to Ben, it ended with a Christmas tree from WITTR’s set being thrown into the audience. The tree was promptly ripped to shreds. Elverum confirms this.

“I feel a special kinship with Wolves in the Throne Room,” he says. “I do think we are very similar in the kind of ‘making sacred this place where we live’ and finding ways of connecting to it in a deeper way.”

Wolves in the Throne Room are one of the few Northwestern bands with an even thicker mysticism than Elverum. In the metal community, uttering the name “Wolves in the Throne Room” is very much like saying “Voldemort” in the Harry Potter novels: It can instantly hush rooms, elicit intense debates, or draw cultlike adoration. Or sometimes a mixture of all three.

According to the biography at wittr.com, the band was conceived by Nathan Weaver “at an Earth First rendezvous in the Cascade mountains of Washington State.” Nathan and his brother Aaron then “moved to a dilapidated farmstead on the outskirts of Olympia, WA. The creation of their farm-stronghold, called Calliope, would be intrinsically linked to the development of Wolves in the Throne Room.” On this farmstead, the two allegedly live a simple life, chiefly composed of organic farming and late-night black-metal dirges about the Earth.

Whether or not the group’s backstory is true is somewhat irrelevant—the concept is a sticky one: Nature is powerful, and we’d best respect it. Maybe you should even move to a farm. Even though it’s difficult to make out anything WITTR are singing about (or, I should say, screaming about), the ideas still filter through. The “Cascadian Black Metal” they make has been incredibly influential conceptually and sonically in the metal world. I spotted a WITTR sticker on the back window of Michael Korchonoff from Alda’s car.

These values are actively lived out at the Yule Gathering in Olympia, a festival Alda has taken part in for the past two years. The band members all agree these are among their favorite shows. Held on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, the Yule Gathering collects many of these ecologically conscious metal bands in a space appropriately named The Hall of the Woods. I have never actually seen the place, but various rumors state that it had a tree growing through it, that it once belonged to a sacrificial hippie cult, and that a grimoire detailing its fetid history exists somewhere (Korchonoff says his friend claims to have read it once).

This is where Alda got to play with many of the bands that initially sparked their own eco-spirituality—bands like Fauna (whose members perform wearing animal hides while sometimes handing out meat they smoked themselves) or Echtra. Many of the bands at Yule engage in some sort of nature-reverent ritualism, steeped in a self-created mythos.

Despite the occult overtones, the idea girding the Yule Gathering is the same as Elverum’s overarching idea: We are all just a part of a huge ecological system, and it’s important to recognize our tiny, wondrous place within it.

Also, modernity kind of sucks.

Above: Kung Foo Grip in front of the cosmos.

“It’s the end of all time, there’s nothing to do/If the world should die, then what do we do/About nothing at all?” —Kingdom Crumbs, “Much Ado About Nothing”

When I meet hip-hop group Kingdom Crumbs, the first thing we talk about is Grand Theft Auto V.

Jarv Dee, one of the group’s four rappers, just got the game and has been terrorizing San Andreas gleefully with the aid of cheat codes. Fellow MC Jerm D starts laughing about his past GTA exploits—exploding cars, rooftop rocket-launcher sessions, helicopter hijackings.

A half-hour later, our conversation remains just as apocalyptic. There’s less laughing, though.

“The year the album dropped, there was all this 2012 shit—it was a huge fucking deal,” Tay Sean says after swilling some PBR, surrounded by his crew in a booth at a local bar.

“They made a Hollywood movie about it. I never take those things at face value, but you know, you start reading about the Mayans and Nostradamus or whatever.”

Everyone in the group goes quiet.

“It’s not like ‘Yo, I believe the world’s gonna end,’ ” Tay Sean says.

“It’s just like, what if?”

Kingdom Crumbs are just one of a fascinating crop of Seattle-based hip-hop artists who are using highly cryptic, cosmic, esoteric language to confront the forces leading humanity to its seemingly imminent demise. Like the Eco-Mythologizers, these Cryptic Apocalyptics are creating their own unique coded universes. While the forests of the Northwest may play into them, these worlds are culled largely from ancient histories, New Age metaphysics, and a hybrid of science fiction and science fact.

The members of Kingdom Crumbs are whip-smart; throughout our conversation, they cite Greek history, neuroscience, anthropological studies, Dogon stilt dancers, the star Sirius B, crop circles, the I Ching, and the ancient civilization of Khemet. All these play into the dense landscape upon which Kingdom Crumbs have built their kingdom. A thorough academic exegesis of the group’s self-titled first album could be a 6,000-word article of its own.

“When you start researching this stuff, and when you start seeing this recurring pattern in all these different cultures over a long period of time, you start to realize there must be something to this stuff,” Tay Sean says. “It’s triangulating that information and figuring out what’s truth.”

Listening to Kingdom Crumbs, a lot of triangulating is necessary. The group drops esoteric knowledge and mystical truths like other hip-hop groups drop the word “swag.”

Right off the bat, from the opening line of Kingdom Crumbs, you know you’re in for a ride:

“A higher consciousness is linked intrinsic/We’s flyin’ mystic/Now homie that ain’t science fiction/That’s scientific,” Tay Sean says before the group descends into its cloudy, extraterrestrial world of hidden knowledge.

The root of all this mysticism should sound familiar by now. It started with some “big questions.”

Jerm D grew up in the church, and was always interested in his purpose, where he came from, and why he was here. Through the years, that search led him to history books, where he found Egypt popping up frequently. The stories of the technological, architectural, and spiritual achievements of the Egyptian and Moorish civilizations fascinated him. According to the books, Egypt was the cradle of civilization, even though Greek culture often got the credit.

Above: Kingdom Crumbs. Photo by Andrew Rutherford.

Jarv Dee also happened to be a self-taught scholar of Moorish civilization when he met Jerm D. Meanwhile, Tay Sean’s personal search for the answers to these big questions led him even further back in history, to the cosmic origins of humanity. When the three met (soon to be joined by fourth member Mikey Nice), their parallel quests for knowledge all clicked.

As they began to compare notes from their studies, the group started to feel that historically, a lot of knowledge was hidden. Very deliberately.

“For example, with the burning of the library at Alexandria,”  Tay Sean says. “In the Dark Ages, there was a serious effort to suppress esoteric knowledge. Anything that wasn’t mirroring whatever kind of Christian shit that was going to go into the Bible was suppressed.”

“Anything that was going to hurt their business,” Jerm D adds. “That’s what Catholicism was: a business. You can’t have people being awakened with free access to knowledge if you’re going to keep them in bonds.”

“It’s about social injustice,” Tay Sean concludes. “It’s about misinformation. It’s about people trying to get over that. That’s both something that’s happening currently, that’s happened historically, and that has landed us in the precarious place where we are now in this world.”

The guys have a point. It seems like there are a lot of things we should have figured out by now.

“I like using mysticism in my music because it’s a way to sneak the wake-up pill to people, to subversively get them to unify and agree before they even know what it is,” Jerm D says. “It’s about awakening that higher consciousness without getting on that soapbox, because that doesn’t work. You know, like Shabazz has to hit you with the super-sneaky. Only those who are initiated can know.”

The lyrics of Shabazz Palaces, the Seattle rapper Jerm D is alluding to, are even harder to decipher than Kingdom Crumbs’. Shabazz’s rhymes read like the mad scribblings of a space prophet sent to Earth to warn us about . . . something. The group’s MC, Ishmael Butler, also claims a cosmic origin, rapping that he is “new off the space ship, dipped in punctuation” in his song “Recollections of the Wraith.” Shabazz Palaces’ song titles read like alien fortune cookies: “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” or “Swerve . . . The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding).”

Ishmael Butler, the man behind Shabazz Palaces, never gives up anything in interviews, batting away writers who attempt to probe the cryptic madness of it all. He has dropped hints at his visions through his music videos. One in particular—by art collective The Black Constellation, a collaboration between Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction created as an ode to Seattle science-fiction writer Octavia Butler—opens up the sort of world the two groups seem to see in their mind’s eye.

In the video, a group of vibrantly dressed people of African descent traverse a lush, futuristic world, devoid of familiar structures or shapes (except for a singular car). The people seem vaguely alien, mostly expressionless, wearing clothes of unfamiliar styles and cuts. They wander knowingly, harvesting food from the forests and communing at nightfall for dancing and an odd hand game that appears to be some sort of energy-channeling ritual. Meanwhile, Butler and Tendai Maraire, Shabazz Palaces’ multi-instrumentalist, stand wearing a sort of hybrid turquoise scuba mask/Egyptian headdress.

It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of cinema, a look into a naturalistic utopian future that might exist after current systems inevitably crumble—a future that seems to be built on this hidden knowledge, something people knew long ago but was suppressed for one reason or another. Butler herself often explored this kind of speculative fictional future. In the “Lilith’s Brood” series, aliens named the Oankali come to save humans from the nuclear war that has almost wiped us out. The main protagonist, Lilith, a human woman, has children with these aliens, who become destined to integrate the human and alien societies and rejuvenate our broken Earth.

Kung Foo Grip, a hip-hop group out of Kirkland, shares these post-apocalyptic, utopic visions. They frequently rap about the concept of the “Indigo Children,” the New Age idea that certain children are born possessing subtle supernatural abilities.

Kung Foo Grip’s most recent album, Growing Up in the Future, is an excellent, anxiety-ridden examination of what it means to be young in our dire world. “The ozone’s running out of clean air/Ain’t nobody wanna be here/But where would we go if we leave here?” raps MC Eff is H on the album’s title track.

Like Kingdom Crumbs, Kung Foo Grip makes it feel as though a consciousness shift is necessary, if not imminent. “Indigo Children is our generation, a generation where we have to wake up. Imagine a world where you’ve got a lot of interracial mixing. A time in the future where there’s no separation. Where people are on this different level of thinking, way more advanced and conscious than past generations. It’s a utopian world,” Eff is H explains.

Jerm D is completely on board with the Indigo Children concept. (Kung Foo Grip and Kingdom Crumbs are friendly and have played shows together). Even though they talk about it in their own separate, cryptic ways, it’s the same idea.

“Our Western culture doesn’t have a lot of solutions or options for getting in touch with that natural, spiritual realm,” Tay Sean says. “Our music is about providing that solution, that bridge to a spiritual world in the West. It’s necessary because in everyday life we’re realizing that the solutions we have in the West just aren’t working. People are getting obese, they’re dying, or you’re a slave to your job.”

Above: Emily Pothast and David Golightly of Translinguistic Other and Midday Veil, pictured in their home.

“As far as ritual today. We’re sort of engaged in ritual all the time. They tend to be more secular. You know—checking your e-mail. Getting coffee in the morning. They’ve become mundane. There’s a tendency to want to put that mysticism back because we’re so devoid of anything like that here in the West. Everyone is looking for something like that.” —Randall Dunn, producer and multi-instrumentalist for Master Musicians of Bukkake

Alan Bishop is sort of your archetypical "crazy uncle"—a bald, hunched-over imp of a man, rarely found without sunglasses on his face and a cigarette in hand.

This is exactly how I found Bishop the first and only time I’ve encountered him, when I stood behind him in line for a grungy bathroom at a DIY music venue. Bishop’s Seattle-based world-music label Sublime Frequencies had been a favorite of mine, particularly a scene from one of its “ethnomusicology” films, Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway.

It depicts a busker in an open-air Moroccan market absolutely wailing on an electric oud, a traditional Middle Eastern string instrument. The sounds the man makes are nothing short of sheer wizardry—thunderbolts of joyously malevolent riffage that put Black Sabbath to utter shame. An enormous crowd surrounds the man, who sits accompanied by a batshit-crazy hand-drum ensemble slapping out clamorous, heady polyrhythms. It’s an incredible thing to behold: a mass of people gathered to experience this trance-inducing, ritualistic Sabbath shred.

This is the sort of thing Bishop lives for—notorious for the world travels to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East that found him and his brother Richard in various unbelievable circumstances, like performing alongside Indonesian fire-breathers in the mountains.

These travels, along with his Lebanese, Freemason upbringing, formed the basis not only of Sublime Frequencies but of his band Sun City Girls. Comprising the Bishop brothers and drummer Charles Gocher, Sun City Girls blazed an insane path through the underground-music world from 1979 until Gocher’s death in 2007. Over their 50-album career, Sun City Girls created a bonkers pastiche of raga, Arabic, African, and Indonesian music blended with punk rock, jazz, beat poetry, and confrontational performance art. A typical Sun City Girls show might have involved kabuki makeup, ethnic masks, psychobabbling in completely made-up languages, and crowds getting alcohol thrown at them or poured down their throats.

After their start in Arizona and their surreal world travels, the Bishop brothers eventually settled in Seattle, the city where I found myself standing behind Alan waiting to pee. I awkwardly tapped him on the shoulder and introduced myself before bringing up the electric oud scene.

Bishop put his lit cigarette in his mouth and grinned. “Well, kid, if you like that racket so much, I better see you fiddling around with a goddamned electric oud sometime soon."

And with that, he slammed the bathroom door behind him.

Later that night, a cloaked, masked Bishop joined the headlining band onstage, a local group called Master Musicians of Bukkake. The heirs apparent to Sun City Girls, MMOB is a group of world-traveled musicians who throw together an infinite number of cultural influences to churn out their particular brand of heavy, droning psych music. When they perform, a copious amount of fog is pumped onstage and various totems are held aloft. Everyone wears black robes and turbans, and one person is usually wearing a giant horned mask of a Tibetan Bonpo spirit or an enormous headpiece fashioned to look like the Hindu goddess of death, Kali. All things considered, the show that night wasn’t far from the electric oud scene.

About a year after that encounter with Bishop, I’m at a coffee shop with Randall Dunn. Sitting across from the stately, bearded man clad entirely in black, I realize that this is the first time I’ve actually seen his face; usually it’s hiding behind 100 pounds of fog or one of those turbans or headpieces. Dunn is one of MMOB’s founding members, and easily one of the foremost shamans in my journey through the world of Northwest mysticism.

I’m here to ask Dunn about something in particular: ritual.

The concept of ritual worked itself into almost every conversation with the artists and musicians I spoke to for this piece. “Ritual," like “mysticism,” is a very vague term. It can mean anything. It can also mean nothing at all. And that’s sort of the point.

“Our rituals are completely empty vessels,” Dunn says. “A lot of the ritualistic aspect that people probably think we take seriously is more of an empty vessel for us to discover ourselves. It’s to encourage people to have an internal dialogue about important things through this sort of modernistic, Dada approach. We hope it points people towards these more meaningful traditions that they’ll investigate themselves.”

As many artists I interviewed echoed, the postmodern mish-mash approach to ritual by this particular branch of Northwest mystics seems born of a desire to instill some sort of meaning in our dull, individualistic lives. At its worst, it functions as parasitic appropriation. But at its best, it’s a fascinating metaphysical gumbo that can literally induce a potent, transformative trance.

These are the Trance Ritualists.

Above: A member of Master Musicians of Bukkake, wearing a Tibetan Bonpo mask. Photo by Allison Scarpulla.

“To me ‘ritual’ could mean a lot of things,” Dunn says with his hands folded. When Dunn speaks, it’s in the manner of a measured, thoughtful professor. “In the context of a rock band, ‘ritual’ is somehow related to burning incense, or fog, or some sort of environment that seems pseudo-religious or pseudo-spiritual. It’s so people can feel like they’re participating in something that has more meaning than, say, going to Chop Suey on a Tuesday. I think that’s great—wanting to participate in music in a higher realm is always good.”

Dunn has traveled the world and performed with musicians in places where music still holds a very powerful spiritual place in the culture. While Dunn apes this sort of tradition, he readily acknowledges the sleight of hand involved in what MMOB do. In that sense, Dunn is admittedly indebted to Sun City Girls, who could be considered the forefathers of this branch of Northwest mysticism. MMOB knowingly dub their music “post-colonialcore.”

Alda can create offerings with their elk skulls; Shabazz Palaces can wander the forest in turquoise Egyptian headpieces; MMOB can whirl about in Tibetan masks shrouded in fog. But in the end it’s all referential. It’s all empty. Yet these empty rituals are meant to point to something that’s not empty—to something bigger. Something beyond words.

The home of Emily Pothast and David Golightly is sort of like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for psychedelia: mandala wall hangings, giant plastic chairs shaped like hands, and an actual library of esoteric, mystic texts that include original copies of historic illuminated manuscripts.

The couple founded Translinguistic Other, a record label featuring what can loosely be defined as “psych bands” from the area. In reality, the link among them is less genre-bound than conceptual. Many Translinguistic Other bands are interested in this concept of ritual. Pothast and Golightly also have their own band, an amazing krautrocking group called Midday Veil. (Their last record was produced by Dunn).

Midday Veil’s songs probe deep into the cosmos, questioning the nature of reality and perception. Pothast is a witchy presence onstage, often wearing flowy black dresses and entering trancelike states that make her eyes bug out during her sermonistic tunes. She’s a self-taught student of Carl Jung, the psychiatrist who plunged deep into his own mystic visions after he broke ties with his more uptight contemporary Sigmund Freud. Pothast cites Jung’s work often in her lyrics.

But, all things considered, for her the lyrics aren’t really the point. “You know, it’s The Translinguistic Other,” Pothast says. “It’s bumping into that thing that you can’t talk about. It’s that experiential, wordless thing.”

“Music is one of the few things that gets at that—that thing you can’t talk about with words,” Golightly adds.

When Midday Veil hits everything right, Pothast says, her body becomes an instrument. The other band members confirm this: When everything works right, they are very much engaged in a trancelike state. The group is possessed by some wordless force that speaks through them.

“I mean, that’s just the definition of good music,” guitarist Timm Mason says. “The best bands are the ones that have that center to them.”

Midday Veil’s shows feel like rituals. There is fog. There are hypnotic rhythms. People in the audience act unusually. During a show in Denton, Texas, Pothast said, one particularly entranced audience member came onstage and began grinding up on a monitor, exposing her genitals to the band.

“That was literally an unfolding of the lotus,” Pothast laughs. “But when things are all working, there is this actual unfolding of eternity that happens on top of everything.”

Like Pothast, Olympia-based musician and visual artist Arrington De Dionyso is a student of Jung and his mystic visions. Growing up in Spokane, completely on his own he stumbled upon his ability to throat-sing in the style of the Tuvan people of central Asia. When he performs, he growls and howls like an animal, creating otherworldly vocal sounds you wouldn’t know humans were capable of.

De Dionyso’s band, Malaikat dan Singa, creates what he calls “trance punk.” In his own words, he makes “trans-utopian world music for a world that exists in fever dreams and hallucinations”—a “channeling of ecstatic states, and a confrontation with the sublime.” His music is an attempt at glimpsing these utopic states, visions of better worlds that can only be achieved through . . . whatever it is he does.

Inspired by his accidental foray into the world of throat-singing, De Dionyso traveled to Indonesia and engaged in actual musical ritual with native musicians. These rituals transgressed the sacred and profane—a marriage of the spiritual realm and pop music. At a recent lecture at the Henry Art Gallery, Arrington showed video of one of these rituals, The Indonesian Horse Trance Dance Kuda Lumping. Dancers in horse costumes prance about as performers crack whips around them. Meanwhile, De Dionyso, wearing loose-fitting Indonesian trousers, skronks away on his sax along with the native musicians, creating a sort of mind-melting hypno-jazz that descends deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole as the ceremony progresses.

“When I’m onstage and I’m throat-singing, it feels incredible. It’s like taking 10 yoga classes all at once,” De Dionyso says. “There’s an ephemeral energy-channeling that happens . . . something that comes from outside of yourself when you are engaged in this sort of ritual performance. Occasional glances into the sublime.”

The utopia the Trance Ritualists envision doesn’t grow from a fictional wilderness as it does for the Eco-Mythologizers or emerge from a cosmic realignment as it does for the Cryptic Apocalyptics. Rather, it comes from within—from a sort of wordless inner discovery that springs from the potent seeds of our current culture, where traditions and symbols from disparate times and places intermix on the Internet, available for anyone to explore. Pothast’s esoteric medieval manuscripts, for example, were ordered online. De Dionysio’s upcoming trip to record with more Indonesian musicians was funded thanks to Kickstarter.

But for some, like Fungal Abyss, inner discovery through the wonders of the Internet can be shortcut by potent hallucinogens.

The Seattle band’s album Bardo Abgrund Temple (on Translinguistic Other) was recorded completely improvised under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms; the band locked themselves in a Tacoma studio and just went for it. The result is fascinating—a surprisingly together psych record that swells and crumbles in intricate symphonic movements. Despite planning nothing, the band created a cohesive record.

“Everything that we do is ritualistic,” explains Ben Thomas-Kennedy, Fungal Abyss’s drummer. “Sometimes the ritual itself can be more important than the actual thing. Our practice space is our temple, and it’s adorned so the environment is a player in what we’re creating. We come here, get really stoned, and make music together.”

“Mushroom trips are a way of unlocking that,” says bassist Dorando Hodous. “It’s a way of unlocking a higher consciousness, and a way of connecting. With Fungal Abyss, when we play, it’s transcendental. It’s beyond words. I’ll snap out of it and not even know what happened.”

For Fungal Abyss, as for many of the bands interviewed here, topography is a huge player. Besides being a cradle for potent ’shroomery, the Northwest’s massive trees and mountains also force the band to confront this connectedness on a day-to-day basis. Hodous’ job as a commercial driver often finds him talking with out-of-towners, who gawk at the forests that speckle our highways, about the region’s natural beauty.

“I mean, you’ll never completely understand it, but the place we live in just naturally makes you want to ask questions about the truth of things. About how things are connected, and how it all works. The ritual is just one way of engaging in that and understanding that,” Hodous says after taking an enormous bong rip. “I mean, you look at a huge, old, ancient tree . . . it’s just natural to want to seek its wisdom and ask it some questions. You know—what were the prehistoric dinosaurs like? What’s the nature of reality?”

Whether these empty rituals are rooted in world cultures, esoteric medieval texts, or enormous bong rips, they are all meant to point toward this larger, more inclusive idea of community—a spiritual sort of connectedness that these invented, rootless traditions can engender.

“The real ritual and the real thing we should be engaged in is creating the environment so more of this can be created,” Randall Dunn says. “It’s all interdependent. We’re all in our separate camps and doing things on our own, but we’re all talking about the same thing. You tend to forget interconnectedness in a secular society, but as human beings, we’re all interconnected.”

S ometimes that interconnectedness sneaks up on you. Near the end of my mystic quest, I took a weekend trip to the Olympic National Forest with a friend, where I found myself staring at an enormous tree. It sat in the middle of a dramatically verdant island of ancient fauna in the Hoh Rainforest, home to some of the highest biodensity on Earth, rivaling the Amazon.

Every inch of the tree was covered in green moss, orange fungus, and alien-looking sprouts growing tumultuously atop one another. Even after studying ecology in college, I look at intense natural systems like this and have no idea what relationships all these organisms have with one another. The size of the tree and the complicated network of life in front of me made me feel very small.

The scene also made me think of a line from the essay “Green Gothic” by local visual artist Matthew Offenbacher. The essay explores our unique Northwestern preoccupation with ecology in art through the lens of Stephenie Meyer’s tween romance novel Twilight, which takes place in the same park I found myself standing in.

“The dilemmas Edward and Bella face echo those of much of the art which engages the history and ecology of the Northwest landscape,” Offenbacher’s essay posits. “What do you do if you love a monster? What if you are a monster, an ethical and moral creature who happens to be an abomination?”

Considering the scope of the damage humanity has wrought on the world, it’s hard not to feel like a monstrous abomination sometimes. When Kingdom Crumbs talks about envisioning the end of the world, you know what they mean. Sometimes it makes you want to escape and completely start over, Alda-style.

These Northwest mystics, despite their outwardly Zen aura, all had an anxious awareness of the poor state of things when I spoke to them. These people are deeply concerned. All our conversations were punctuated by a quiet, sad knowingness that the systems currently in place aren’t really working.

It makes sense that these artists are inspired by the one system that does seem to work—the ecology of the Northwest. Whether in a literal sense, like the Eco-Mythologizers; in a coded puzzle, like the Cryptic Apocalyptics; or in a postmodern mish-mash, like the Trance Ritualists, all these mystics seem to find spiritual solace in an ancient, timeworn, and seemingly hidden concept: interconnectedness.

If it works for the trees in the Hoh, let’s hope it will work for us.

ksears@seattleweekly.com

 
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