Heathen Harvest: After building a solid foundation from a handful of underground demos, two releases for God Is Myth and a new album out on Profound Lore, Caina has rapidly become a name to watch in the UK's experimental black metal scene; their blend of the delicate and the pummeling adding a sense of mournful beauty that's often lacking in even this supposedly open-minded genre.
It seemed timely that Heathen Harvest should catch up with Andrew Curtis-Brignell, the man behind Caina, to ask a few questions about the origins and ideals of this unique project…
Caina started soon I bought my first ever guitar - the first I had ever played - in the winter of 2004, when I started university. I had the second of two massive emotional/nervous breakdowns about four weeks before leaving for Uni, so I bought the guitar as a kind of 'outlet', a tool for catharsis, knowing that I wouldn't be able to play drums.
HH: As Andrew notes, this sense of emotional out-poring makes up a large element of Caina's music and supplants the often forced and faux-aggressive nature of "orthodox" black metal with a feeling of absolute abandonment and loss. It's this cold, yearning atmosphere that also informs the project's name…
The name of the project is from Dante, which places me squarely in the Big Book of Black Metal Cliches. It's from the Biblical Cain; Caina is a frozen lake with the shades of betrayers frozen half in, half out of the ice - a place of absolute desolation. The breakdowns I mentioned came from what I suppose you could dramatise as a 'betrayal', and so that naturally inspired and informed the project that followed. Then you also have Caina's preoccupation with what I'd term 'outsider theology' (I dislike the immediate derisive reaction one receives when occultism or Satanism is the first name out of the gate) - Cain is seen as betrayer, but I see that whole parable as a cautionary tale of the dangers of theism; God betrays Cain, who sacrifices that most precious to him - his brother, after his first bloodless offering was rejected. God betrays Cain purely because he does not want him to set a precedent; after all, the taking of lives is surely the business of Gods and Kings...?
HH: This approach to musical inspiration, slightly skewed from the usual preoccupations of black metal, along with the instrumentation used in Caina's records has raised some eyebrows in the wider BM scene with Andrew's blend of styles (often claimed as post-rock meets BM by followers and detractors alike) confronting and challenging the rules of what is accepted in heavy, guitar-based music.
I am surprised by people's amazement to some extent. It often appears to be the result of assuming that the way I make music is the product of some contrived fusion of these two abstract concepts. I mean, can anyone really describe what 'black metal' or 'post-rock' is, accurately, in a single clause sentence? I highly doubt it. It's missing the point - I simply write the songs that present themselves to me.
HH: I mention that it seems to me that there's many more strands in Caina's music than, as mentioned, a "contrived fusion" of black metal and post-rock. Elements of bands as diverse as Spiritualized, Current 93 and Ulver seem to lurk just under the surface and this thought seems to strike a chord.
You're absolutely right in thinking that there are lots of other threads, because I don't think in that linear mono/duo-generic way, like "I'll do a black metal bit here, then a post-rock bit here, done
". I listen to a vast amount of music in all genres, often wildly disparate, and I like to think Caina acts as a totally organic filter for those different interests. I get extremely bored by music that stays in one place - for instance I can very rarely listen to the sort of black metal that just blasts and rages the whole time. There's no threat in it, no menace. When I write, I find that aggression only works when juxtaposed with something else - you shouldn't be able to get used to horror.
HH: This distilling of musical inspiration from a wide range of sources shows itself most readily when I ask Andrew to list some of his favourite bands; a list that may cause consternation and mild apoplexy amongst some of the more elitist scenesters...
As for artists I admire, I have all-time favourites - Swans
, Bruce Springsteen
, Death in June
- but in the last few years I've found and fallen for Joanna Newsom
, The Angelic Process
, C93, Stars of the Lid
and hundreds more. I'm also a huge fan of Rush
, something Chris from Profound Lore and I have bonded over.
HH: Non-musical influences are equally wide-spread, as Andrew explains...
In my personal reading I am quite voracious and diverse, but the stuff that influences Caina is mostly either cinema (My degree is in Film - Lynch
, del Toro
are favourites) or non-fiction - a lot of occultism, some philosophy, outsider archaeology, Forteana - but always taken with a pinch of salt. Caina is primarily an external manifestation of my inner processes, but these are the things that resonate with me.
HH: Caina's music can’t help but strike the listener as more "composed" than many current acts and this is especially surprising when you learn that Andrew is Caina's sole member. As a musician myself, I have to ask how he manages to hold all this together on his own.
The secret? Solitude, extreme concentration and an Olympic-swimming-pool-sized cup of coffee!
HH: This self-deprecation belies the complexity of the task at hand. It's common for single-man projects to rely, admittedly often to stunning effect, on simplistic and repetitive motifs. The classic works of Burzum or Xasthur's more modern-day hypnotic minimalism spring to mind as the archetypal examples. Andrew's answer to this is typical of Caina...
It’s difficult, particularly as I am not a huge fan of writing some of the more mundane or fundamental parts of the music, like bass-lines and drum patterns. It’s not necessarily that I find them ‘tedious’, but I do find writing the guitar and vocal parts much more rewarding creatively.
HH: It seems obvious at this point to ask whether other members could ever be added into the Caina line-up. This is something that Andrew has obviously thought about previously.
Someone else guiding or influencing Caina’s creative trajectory would be, for me, like someone else telling off my child, or suddenly asking me to walk a different way down the street. Caina is so much a part of me that I would feel in some ways violated by having another creative voice in the mix. I’d sometimes love to be able to put – for example – more technical solos in my work, and would need someone else coming in to do that. I just don’t think that the positive aspects would outweigh the negative. However, I have collaborated with another musician live (drummer Will de Villers), which I really enjoyed and would certainly do again. In the live context the addition of other players is a genuine necessity, which I don’t believe it would be in the studio setting. To be honest, I’m just too selfish! I'd love to do some more live stuff, but I find it extremely difficult to find suitable shows in the UK. I've only played live twice, and absolutely loved it – let's just say I'm working on it...
HH: We move from the how to the what as we talk about Caina's most recent releases; the highly limited "I, Mountain" (the first release on God Is Myth's 3"CD Lovecraft tribute series) and his latest CD, "Mourner" (released through Profound Lore). "I, Mountain" blends Caina's trademark sound with inspiration from the looming oppression of Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness"; the Antarctic setting of the tale being perfectly represented by layers of shimmering guitar. Lovecraft's work is something that Andrew obviously knows well.
Lovecraft is a big, big influence - although it's uncredited, I wrote the mini essay that accompanies all of the Lovecraft series CDs, and I think you can see the passion in it.
HH: For those that haven't been lucky enough to catch one of these 100-copy CDs, it's worth explaining that each of the Lovecraft Tribute CDs comes in a slimline box with a short-but-effective biography on Lovecraft. That Andrew wrote this comes as no real surprise to anyone who's spoken to him about the subject.
No other writer that I can think of comes close to creating literary visions that are not simply horrific, but so authentically alien and non-human as to be just on the borders of imagination and madness, and does it so eruditely, so succinctly, without resorting to childish raving.
HH: This links easily into Caina's sense of "Otherness", something that Lovecraft also entertained as a core subject in his writings...
I'm personally fascinated by the relationship between the internal and natural landscapes - the way in which we respond to nature. A couple of years ago my father and I drove up to the Scottish Highlands
, and there was a point about 50 miles away from Fort Augustus
that was so utterly incredible it has stayed with me even though I took no pictures, made no notes. It wasn't just beautiful, which it was, but was so vast and...ineffable that my only articulate thought was simply "this was not made for humans". It's that feeling I think Caina has - it deals with the struggle of human existence in a world made for better creatures.
HH: "I, Mountain", as well as being an excellent stand-alone piece, works nicely as a prologue to "Mourner", Caina's current record available through Profound Lore. "Mourner" takes Caina's eclectic to sounds to the next level and I start off by asking Andrew about some of the more esoteric instrumentation used on the record, a line of questioning that gains me a wry chuckle.
I take it you're not a fan of the Jew's Harp? I like it because it's a 'laconic' sounding instrument - very dry and ancient. And it provides 'acoustic' rhythm without fucking hippie bongos.
HH: ...Well, I did ask!
The varied and diverse instrumentation used on this record, the instrumental introduction features black-noise power electronics and tape manipulation whereas later tracks break down to Andrew's fragile voice and acoustic guitar, make me wonder how such a layered record is created. Andrew elaborates on the process:
Writing and recording is a pretty simultaneous process for me - there's very little division between the two. Songs normally start out as a repetitive mantra or loop in my head, which formulate over a few days, and then I sit down, get myself into a receptive state and just try and pour what's in my head onto the fretboard, then onto the recorder. Mourner represents about 7 months of my life, working alone, almost every day. I'm not the same person as I was when I started it - to be honest, I've gone through fucking hell, personally and creatively, making this record - it may be 'multi-layered and diverse', but I'm just thankful that it's not all over the fucking place - it could well have come out very wrong.
HH: "Very wrong" is certainly not what comes to mind when listening to "Mourner" especially if, like me, you're a fan of the more holistic approach to albums; apart from the stunning music, the album is encased in an elaborate deluxe digipack with some superb artwork.
It's solely the work of the stunningly talented Washington based artist Gentian Osman
. I found her on MySpace and not only consider her a genius and Caina's official visual interpreter, but a friend as well. She spent weeks researching the lyrics of the album and pulled all these subtle motifs from them - the minute seeds and flowers are Wormwood, which links to the album's last song (the beautiful and all-too-short "Wormwood Over Albion"), and to the album's concept as a whole. But I don't want to say too much about that - the listener should have to do some detective work, I think.
HH: Andrew's thoughts about the holistic to albums tie in very much with my own as he continues...
I hate the idea of a album being a 'collection of songs' for me it has to be an album - not necessarily a 'concept album', but it has to have a unified 'feel', a 'global design' linking the visuals, the words and the music.
HH: I put it to Andrew that the "Mourner" concept seems to have a very English feel. Not in some kind of pretend-Nationalist sense but more that it has an aura of ancient-ness that an American band (or even a continental European band) would be hard-pressed to achieve. It seems that I'm not far off the mark.
I agree with you that there’s something very ‘English’ about the record, and that’s entirely deliberate. Part of the theme behind Mourner is sense of despair about how the country is decaying; not as part of some reactionary, right-wing knee-jerk, but an acknowledgment there is a steady and consistent decline as far as violence and social responsibility are concerned.
HH: This leads back to Andrew's previously-mentioned inspirations which, paradoxically but suitably, come from that ever-present New Englander...
Caina is not a political project in any sense whatsoever, but a lot of the imagery of Mourner is harking back to an imagined, eldritch England, almost England as Lovecraft (never) saw it, but the way one can see it sometimes in England’s woods, its cliff tops and moors…
HH: Andrew continues to mention the myth of the Morgawr, a sea-monster sometimes seen off the Cornish coast and which is used as an allegory on the eponymous track. It's this understanding of English esotericism, the "hidden reverse" mentioned by Coil amongst others, which infuses the record with a feeling far beyond simplistic ideals of pride and nationhood. It's not unusual that this is a viewpoint shared by many "outsider" artists. Andrew seems to concur with this and his parting shot isn't lacking in venom for those that he feels are making sub-par music.
I’m probably pretty outspoken as far as the English ‘extreme’ scene is concerned. My general dislike for the metal scene in this country is well documented, and I won’t repeat most of my views here. It seems to me that a lot of our acts are content to be second tier rip-offs of more successful foreign bands, which disgusts me. To me creativity is more important than ‘success’.
HH: Whilst this might seem like a pretty bleak outlook Andrew counterpoints this by listing a number of like-minded souls which, if not related in style, all have that distillation of the obscure within their sound.
We do have some great underground Black Metal and Noise artists, though, people like Instinct
, along with a lot of other outsider greats like Crippled Black Phoenix
and of course classic artists like Current 93. Hopefully a few of us can pull together and improve the reputation of UKBM, even if some would argue that the last two abbreviations don’t apply to me anymore…
HH: Taken as "black metal" then that's possibly correct but then what is black metal these days? For every band regressing back to buzz-saw guitars and lo-fi production there's another looking to new boundaries to subvert. Is black metal simply a musical style or a feeling, something internal? If black metal is about denying boundaries and undermining the expected then I'd say that Caina is right at the forefront of today's black metal scene.
Even if most people might deny this then all you have to do is what every good journalist does and make up a new genre; United Kingdom's Brilliant Music should do it!