In Haunt

- By Emily Oldfield

Experience the sounds of Wilderness Hymnal and prepare to have your mind opened, altered.

Wilderness Hymnal is an experimental music project from British-Venezuelan musician, producer and artist Javier G Wallis, who has been based in Manchester for many years – shaping sound and visual artistry to explore urgent themes at the forefront of human life today: climate change, environmental destruction and human violence.

His new album as Wilderness Hymnal - Anthropocene - was released in November 2018 and further pushes into exploring ecological uncertainties and the human impact on our living, breathing world through nine genre-jumping tracks.

‘Anthropocene’ after all is the term used to describe the era of mankind’s time on earth and track titles such as ‘Altar (Wilderness)’, ‘Meltwater’ and ‘Sulphur’ suggest the turbulent physical reality of this.

The album was launched with its live performance at Manchester’s Northern Quarter venue AATMA, following which audience members described the experience in terms as profound as – “Capable of changing the atmosphere in the room… like the whole audience were being plunged into the heart of a Nordic forest.”

Audiences will soon again be able to experience the immersive music of Wilderness Hymnal live for themselves, as Javier is due to headline a hauntology experimental music and performance night as the first night of Not Quite Light festival in Salford 28th March. This will include plenty of material from the new album.

From the depths of psychedelic drone in ‘Verguenza’ to the beat-driven ‘Aorta’ with its almost metallic plunges, and the chilling notes which cut through ‘Bone Script’, Wilderness Hymnal certainly creates an eclectic range of sound.  Yet a unity still lies in the well-crafted communication and deeply human resonance.

Javier also infuses his work with a strong visual sensibility – and live performances often feature expressive makeup, lighting and stage-setting. In terms of the album itself, the cover not only features vivid artwork, but the download is also available in a bundle which includes an Earth Positive eco-friendly t-shirt, designed by occult artist Bethany White.

Who says music can’t connect our ears with the environment? Emphasising that these matters are far from a niche issue, Wilderness Hymnal’s creativity shows how it is a dark, deep point of thought for us all.

From expansive post-rock to dramatic piano passages and unsettling interludes with a psychedelic feel – this is music which moves across a number of layers – made here in Manchester but unfolding a universal relevance. Here at HAUNT, we decided to speak with Javier himself to find out more…

Hello Javier, please may I ask – why the name Wilderness Hymnal?

“Hello Emily - thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

“‘Wilderness Hymnal’ emerged out of wanting an evocative name to release music under that would both act as a kind of mission statement for the sound, and give listeners an idea of what to expect – I was inspired by (ambient black metal band) Wolves in the Throne Room to try and conjure something ancient and wild.”

Rather than just ‘songs’, I feel like your music opens up whole soundscapes. How would you describe your approach to making music?

“My approach varies - some songs arrive fully formed as improvisations (like ‘Bone Script’ from this record), while others take more coaxing over time. Overall, I’ve found the easiest approach is to try and pull myself open emotionally, and be as playful and intuitive as possible.

“A lot of these songs emerged out of creating specific atmospheres in the studio, and building them into contorting shapes. Once I have core ideas, melodies and structures, I will also hammer away at songs, or rewrite, until they work – it’s quite rare that I abandon an idea (for better or worse...).”

How would you react to your music being described as ‘Gothic’ and how does the Gothic influence your work? Do you think a culture of the contemporary Gothic still exists?

“I think there has been a reclamation of the value of the ‘gothic’ in recent years, in musical terms at least, after the run of cheesy goth metal in the ‘00s. I would welcome the idea – to me ‘gothic’ describes an unflinching examination of the less palatable, more ambiguous aspects of ourselves, and humanity at large. Maybe even the brutality of nature, and the universe.

“There is a kind of grandeur in that, and hazy and gloomy music, art and cinema do inspire me – Anna von Hausswolff, Dead Can Dance, Scott Walker, Leonora Carrington, Aronofsky, as examples. I also grew up Catholic, and the architecture and power of ritual spaces has stayed with me, even though I’m no longer religious.

“I think an interest in those themes remains, definitely – see artists like Lingua Ignota, Chelsea Wolfe, Drab Majesty, Zola Jesus and those already mentioned. Plus the more widescreen edges of post-metal, black metal and doom, even. I think many people feel a connection with the catharsis of that nowadays.”

Congratulations regarding the new album Anthropocene! The word itself suggests a consideration of the human impact on the world; how did you use this to inspire the album?

“Thank you! It’s been a few years in the making...

“I set out to conjure specific environments with this record. Songs were deliberately developed in lyrics, sounds and feel to evoke landscapes – forests, glaciers, craters. I have a background in ecology, so I have always felt strongly about wild places, flora and fauna. I find it hard to ignore the acceleration decimation of the natural world. Many of the songs orbit around the idea of human psychological trauma as the microcosm of this wider devastation – a symptom, even. Others tackle it more directly. We won’t escape the unmaking of the world we evolved in...

“I could have called the record Meltwater. Instead, Anthropocene neatly summarises the space we find ourselves in. I wanted people to research the word and realise the deeper implications for us.”

Can you tell us about some more of your creative influences? I sense an environmental anxiety and sense of foreboding. Why is facing dark themes like this important?

“Catharsis has always been the biggest attraction to music, for me. I had a rough time as a child, and music was a lifeline. I also really like contrasts, creating altered states and spaces through art and sound, evocation and the uncanny.

“As for environmental anxiety and foreboding... I think that expressing these feelings is the only way to stay sane. If society at large buries its darkness instead of naming it and dealing with it head on, compassionately... I think we’ve all seen what happens next.
I always think of Carl Jung on this topic: ‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious’.

“It’s a part of us. Acknowledging our darker selves affords us far greater say in how that acts upon the world.”

Do you think music can be an agent of social change – and would you like your music to be listened to as so?

“Any source of rational hope is valuable. I don’t know if this record could act as an agent of change, but the more people speak out then I suppose, and I hope, that’s what can feed a movement... I recommend looking into the work Extinction Rebellion are doing right now.

“If my own personal anxieties with this record can help ring alarm bells for people to realise the seriousness of our present situation and take radical action... I would be ecstatic. It would be very meaningful to me. But in the end, interpretation is up to the audience.”

Previous material (with the band) seems to have a more metallic edge. How would you say your approach has changed for this album?

“This album is much more refined – I was a lot more confident, focused and intentional coming into making this record, and a far better singer. I allowed more harmony, and played with more overt electronic influences. Drone definitely plays a bigger role. And in some ways, I think it’s even more metallic – just expressed within a wider frame, with more ideas to interact with. Flashes of doom metal and black metal crop up, with a wink.”

How has Manchester and the cityscape shaped your work?

“Manchester has been something of an incubator – I’ve been here my whole adult life, and I have met a lot of people whose creativity and energy have been really nurturing and inspiring. Also shout out to (now defunct) math-rock band Oceansize for being my impetus to move here, and the musical communities around our DIY venues - Band on the Wall, Brighter Sound, Texture (RIP) and the LGBTQ+ community for their impact on me personally, as well as on my work.

“But we are losing our old mills and grubby rehearsal spaces – the city is driving almost solely towards aggressive residential development with little regard to cultural, arts and community space (let alone green space or renewable energy solutions). These are the things that truly allow culture. Otherwise we just become isolated workers in sterile boxes. So I’d urge readers to get involved on a community level, to fight for our city as well.”

To find out more about Wilderness Hymnal and the music, visit the website and also Bandcamp.

Photography with thanks to Samuel Andrew Fenton

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