Journeys in the dark

When I was a small boy – probably I was eight years old – my grand-father produced for my birthday a board game. This was no ordinary board game, however; this was Heroquest. Opening the box was like opening a portal into another world, like lifting the lid of the Box of Delights. One of the most powerful and evocative smells I know, a smell familiar to anyone who has bought an expensive boxed game over the last twenty-five years, is the unique aroma of plastic and freshly cut card that I first experienced on entering that case of wonders.

heroquest-imageFor those who are unfortunate enough to have missed this foundational monument of modern western culture, Heroquest was a game produced jointly by Milton Bradley and Games Workshop. It is what, in the ugly jargon of the console age, would now be called a dungeon-crawler. And, like many who encountered it at roughly the same age, it profoundly and permanently altered the chemistry of my brain. To be fair, I was already precociously steeped in fantasy. My first literary memories (of books without pictures) are of my mother reading The Hobbit to me at the age of 5, and the first books I read alone were the Chronicles of Narnia. Around the same time, my father revealed to me the complete radio series of The Lord of the Rings which he had kept secreted in some arcane vault since recording it when first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1981 (these tapes – which still survive – were complete with the original synopses, cut from The Radio Times and inserted into the cassette boxes).

This, of course, was fundamental and I was soon at home amongst dwarves and orcs and adventures undertaken in caverns deep beneath the mountains. It inspired a love of landscape, myth and fantasy which has endured to the present. What was different about Heroquest was that it opened doors that hitherto had been closed – it was sensory, tactile, inhabitable. It hinted at expansive worlds beyond the confines of the game, worlds populated by tangible sculptural representations of their myriad denizens. It affected me so profoundly at the time that I can still remember seeing the faces of weird creatures in the dark spaces between the trees. The night became alive with ideas that existed just beyond the limits of the real world and to me they seemed at the point of breaking through.

Sadly, modern fantasy has lost a great deal of its charm thanks to mass market commodification through online computer games, the rise of Games Worskhop as an aggressive share-holder owned business, and mega-budget Hollywood franchises. Back then, fantasy was weird and underground, unregulated and uncodified: spontaneous, creative and free. It is ironic that the success of Heroquest was partly responsible for that mass-marketisation of fantasy and the demise of the independent model shop. I often mourn those dark caves of mystery, their cabinets crammed with dusty miniatures whose obscure forms and inexplicable origins spoke to unfettered recesses of the imagination.

For many people, the love of archaeology was sparked by Indiana Jones or Time Team. For me and, I suspect, a surprising number of others, it was fantasy that first offered me my first glimpse of the inside of a hoary tomb, a ruined city, a forgotten mine shaft leading into the deep places of the world, a rusted blade, a mouldy manuscript.

Whether the mines of Moria or the Bastion of Chaos, these were the paths that led me down into the dark.

Væsen and the Golden Age of Illustration

I have wanted to share this superb animation for a while. Released in Denmark in 2012, Væsen is a wonderful homage to the Golden Age of illustration and animation, including the early work of the Disney studio – Snow White and Pinnochio in particular. Those films pulled in influences from a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century illustrators. One artist who worked for the studio in those days, the talented and versatile artist Gustaf Tenggren (1896 – 1970), developed a style that drew heavily on the work of artists like John Bauer and Arthur Rackham (he in fact succeeded John Bauer as the illustrator of Bland tomtar och troll, the Swedish fairy-tale annual). It is a tragedy that he would later destroy many of his fabulous early paintings and go on to pioneer a flat and sterile approach that would dominate in children’s illustration for several decades.

Gustaf Tenggren

 [An example of Gustaf Tenggren’s early style]

Væsen was made for the Animation Workshop, a Danish institute dedicated to film animation and related industries. It is all the more remarkable for being the work of a group of third-year undergraduate students (for detail about the making of the film and its creators, click here). The quality of the artwork is fabulous, but what is most arresting is the weird atmosphere and myth-allegorical sub-text of the film paired with influences pulled from a number of golden age illustrators – most notably Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham, John Bauer and Ivan Bilibin. This era of illustration, perhaps more than anything else, solidified the visual language of European folklore: dark forests, radiant spirits gathered by dark reflective pools in mossy groves, eyes and hands peeping and creeping from the boles of rime-scoured trees, mushrooms sprouting from every crevice. Sarah Maitland tried in Gossip from the Forest to make a case for the forest as the womb of the fairy tale, suggesting that the origins of fantastical story-telling are bound up – ‘tangled’, as she would put it – with the arboreal experience. It is a seductive idea, and feels instinctively true. But I wonder whether this association has rather more to do with the enduring popularity of Rackham’s ink and watercolour evocations of Grimm’s tales than with any real relationship between trees and the genesis of fairy tale in Britain; a brief survey of Katherine Briggs’ Folk Tales of Britain reveals a surprising scarcity of woodland settings in our own domestic story-telling. It may well be that this imagery of fairy tale, mediated to a large extent through the pervasive influence of Disney in childhood, has become foundational for the western imagination; it is bound up with the powerful emotional conductors of childhood nostalgia and a longing for a natural world that probably never was.

I’ve collected a handful of images that represent a group of the most famous illustrators of the Golden Age. Their influence is most obviously felt in the work of a small number of contemporary illustrators who keep the spirit of the tradition alive – Ian Miller, Alan Lee, Tomislav Tomic, Julek Heller. Tomic’s art in particular, with its clear allusions to Dürer and Brueghel, is a reminder that the genealogy of this sort of illustration is a long one, running back beyond the origin of the printed book to the fantastical marginalia of the medieval calligraphers.

Atlantean Kodex – The White Goddess

WhiteGoddessIt is rare to encounter an album that has the potential to alter the trajectory of a genre.

The previous full-length release from Atlantean Kodex The Golden Bough – was remarkable for its intellectual depth. The title of that record refers to Sir James Frazer’s monumental work of comparative mythology and anthropology of the same name. Published between 1890 and 1915, the final edition ran to twelve volumes. Frazer’s work is a remarkable compilation that – alongside the theories of Marija Gimbutas and Margaret Murray – laid the groundwork for the modern pagan movement, the tropes of folk horror and much of the public understanding of the roots of ancient folk practice. Any time that reference is made to sacrificial kings or ancient fertility rites, the ghost of Frazer is hovering somewhere nearby. It is also true that Frazer’s theories have been utterly discredited by several generations of scholars. As long ago as 1970, William Chaney’s book Sacral Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England – a work that drew heavy inspiration from Frazerian ideas – was generally ridiculed (unfairly in many cases; it contains a number of fascinating ideas even though the overall thesis is undoubtedly incredible).

Atlantean Kodex acknowledged this sullied academic legacy in the sleeve notes to The Golden Bough, but asked the listener to accept the Frazerian legend as a thought-experiment; by leaving rational objections behind, and embracing the dark dream of Europe’s mythic past, the listener was offered the opportunity to reconnect with some of the magic that saturates the heritage of the West. Most interestingly, AK began to weave into this the rich fabric the threads of Christian theology and superstition that have to a great extent defined European culture. The song Temple of Katholic Magic was the first concrete expression of this idea and evokes to extraordinary effect the smell of incense in dark crypts and the splash of coloured light through stained glass windows. This theme is elaborated on with The White Goddess, an album which builds in every way on the foundations of its predecessor.

The title derives from the poet Robert Graves’ famous book of the same name. Like Frazer, to whom Graves was enormously indebted, Graves’ ideas have been rejected as untenable fantasy – regardless of their value as poetry – by modern scholars. Once again, however, AK use the metaphor of the White Goddess as a means of entering into a semi-allegorical exploration of death and rebirth as the unifying European myth. In particular, the place of Christianity within the confluence of ancient European beliefs and practices is made prominent. Graves felt that he was building on what Frazer had left unsaid, stating explicitly that “[w]hat he [Frazer] was saying-not-saying was that Christian legend, dogma and ritual are the refinement of a great body of primitive and even barbarous beliefs, and that almost the only original element in Christianity is the personality of Jesus.” Atlantean Kodex draw on this idea more or less directly at various points throughout The White Goddess, particularly on Sol Invictus , a mighty hymn to the Winter Solstice:

It is particularly important and surprising because, despite the darker emphasis of this album compared to its precursor, it is an inherently optimistic and inclusive vision that AK set out here. Beauty, optimism, melancholy, death, glory, majesty and mystery all have their place on The White Goddess. It is an approach that reveals how myopic and creatively bankrupt much heavy metal that treats of mythological themes has become. It is a fact that the rich seams of myth, history and folklore that AK exploit have generally only been explored in any depth by Black Metal artists, some of whom have responded to this material in profound and sophisticated ways (Enslaved, Negura Bunget, Primordial). But it is also undeniable that Black Metal is defined by a negativity that is deeply limiting in its emotional range and, therefore, damaging to its artistic potential in the long-term. And it is also true that the subject matter has too easily been perverted by this negativity to a poisonous racial nationalism that has compromised otherwise outstanding musical projects (Burzum, Walknut, Nokturnal Mortem).

Consider these sentiments expressed by guitarist Manuel Trummer in 2010 in an interview for the website Metal Crypt:

“Sargon [Interviewer]: Your lyrics seem to promote a Pan-European Renaissance and revival. While obviously not specific, this theme does have a lot of resonance today, when many people feel European culture is threatened by immigration and cultural diffusion. Do you agree with that sentiment?

Manuel: No, I don’t. The history of Europe is a history of immigration. Starting with the stone-age tribes, the peoples of the bronze-age, the indo-european peoples like the Celts and later the Slavs and Teutons, the Romans of course – Europe has always been a melting pot of different peoples. So where do you draw the line? Immigration is nothing new, but something quite natural. Europe will only profit from immigration as its culture will become even more diverse, rich and plentiful. But: people may lose orientation in this new plurality. That’s why we need to look to our roots. We need traditions to stabilize our lives in these fast-moving times, something to cling to when all around you is on the move. And we need education, we need to teach the younger generation where there roots are. If we forget who we are and where we came from, we will have serious problems pretty soon. It’s not about which nation or which ethnic group is “superior”. It’s about accepting the differences between the various cultures living in Europe and learning how to live with them in a peaceful, civilized and tolerant manner. By heeding these classic virtues of Europe originating in the ancient Greek democracies, we can also make sure that there’s no space for religious fanaticism, stonings of young girls, discrimination or war-mongering like in other regions of the world.”

A Black Metal artist, constrained by the restrictive parameters of the genre, would rarely if ever feel able to express sentiments like these regardless of personal conviction. Those fiercely policed boundaries are one reason why, despite infantile claims to ‘trueness’, much of the Black Metal pose, as embodied by Euronymous and those who followed, is dishonest and self-deluding. To encounter a musician inspired by ancient European mythology and folklore who can speak intelligently and positively about immigration and tolerance is to hear a fresh breeze in the trees, a cool wind blowing from the Bavarian Alps.

I don’t wish to write a formal review of the contents of the record. Plenty of others have already done so, and a trailer for the album can be viewed here:

The points of reference are still evident (Manowar, Bathory, Solstice), but increased maturity and confidence mean that this release establishes the AK sound as unique and unfettered. Each of the five long songs is artistically distinct, each offering a different emotional perspective on the themes of the album. There is no superfluous material, not a second that has not been thought over and crafted to reflect the band’s vision. The same care extends to the visual presentation. Created by artist Ben Harff, the fully illuminated and hand-drawn booklet is a beautifully crafted artwork in its own right. This is artwork that enriches the music it illustrates in a way that is rarely attempted and almost never achieved.


The White Goddess redefines what traditional heavy metal – Epic Metal – can be. It has the potential to do for that genre what In the Nightside Eclipse did for Black Metal, resetting musical, lyrical, aesthetic, intellectual and emotional boundaries. And yet, in every one of these dimensions it remains inescapably and unmistakeably ‘Heavy Metal’. Unlike the post-black-metal phenomenon – whose pioneers have either systematically deconstructed their heavy metal identities out of existence (Alcest), or been left with a rump of heavy metal elements that are at best obsolete and at worst irritating (Agalloch) – Atlantean Kodex have managed with The White Goddess, just as Emperor did with Nightside, to up the atmospheric intensity without changing the game. This is not to say that this shift hasn’t been coming. Bands have been taking their inspiration from early Manowar and Bathory for some time, with increasingly sophisticated imagery – Doomsword, Wotan, Crom, Grand Magus. UK based Solstice have been particularly important for Atlantean Kodex both in sound and in thematic content. The album New Iron Age, in particular, is an overlooked classic that should be recognised as a seminal moment in defining a new Epic Metal. Newly released material is promising. Solstice, however, have proved themselves too erratic, too eccentric and too unproductive to claim the crown for themselves. It is their protégé – Atlantean Kodex – that have pulled together all the threads of this burgeoning scene and crafted an epoch-making release. It is, moreover, an eloquent response to all those who decry traditional heavy metal as crude, naive, laughable and riddled with pubescent fantasies of big muscly guys and their equally anatomically improbable women-folk.

This is Heavy Metal for grown-ups; the dawn of a New Iron Age is breaking.