Celestiial is the “forest doom” project of Minnesota’s Tanner Anderson, who used to play guitar for area atmospheric black metallers Azrael. On his second full-length Where Life Springs Eternal he’s joined by Agalloch’s Tim Glen (percussion) and Jason Walton (bass). It was recorded by Fog’s Andrew Broder and mastered by Walton. Spring Eternal takes the dark naturalist elements of 2006’s Desolate North — and album I wrote about a couple of times, once referencing Flying Saucer Attack, Brightblack Morning Light, and Burzum in the same breath — to a headier, heavier, more towering, and even more compelling space, while keeping in the delicate sounds of streams, rain, birds, rustling leaves. As you might’ve noted via the updated approach on the 2008 split with cohorts/labelmates Blood Of The Black Owl, there are additional textures, a larger dynamic scope. It’s an album to listen to with the windows open — something I’ve been doing regularly this Spring. I spoke with Anderson about Where Life Springs Eternal, Azrael, the past, the future, and the Minnesotan forests that inspire his work.
STEREOGUM: “Spell Over Still Water” opens the album with an industrial feel — a wave of water mixing with noisy clanging. What are those sounds? What’s the idea behind the track? Its claustrophobia contrasts with the more natural and spacious feel of the rest of the collection.
TANNER ANDERSON: I thought it was necessary to convey something static and open to interpretation considering the artwork in the album itself. I usually still have the sleeve in hand when I begin playing something. The images of the Northwoods and, specifically the North Shore, are typically represented as gentle and serene. I wanted to immediately convey the more violent nature of the waves against the shore, the storms and the subtle beauty and allure of this region. This piece attempts to represent the anticipation and energy behind a coming storm. The sounds were achieved by bowing cymbals off the kit. We layered the individual tracks of the cymbals, Andrew Broder put the tracks through distortion/loops and Jason and I played a low drone over it. I want to say here that I’ve never used synthesizers or anything like that. All the sounds and swelling harmonies are guitars or harp. I’ve read so many reviews since this album came out mentioning “keyboards” and it bothers me to no end.
STEREOGUM: In their titles, Desolate North and Where Life Springs Eternal conjure/connote very different sets of emotions and forces of nature. How did you approach the albums differently? And/or in the same ways?
TA: The entirety of Where Life Springs Eternal was improvised. Various sections were rehearsed and then arranged during the recording. The album focuses on slow, repetitious and reflective movement not removed from the sounds of nature within it. You can hear silence just as much as breath in the instruments over the static pulse. The repetition of ice-melt, the thawing of soil, the early signs of life and the first storms that drive the isolation of winter away from us are the musical themes that we wished to achieve on this recording. It was a continuation of the developing theme from the recording of “White Depths Dove the Red Eyed” on the split with Blood of the Black Owl in late 2008. Desolate North was a re-release of the Ashen demo with three more unreleased songs from that era. They were recorded seven or eight years ago now. I don’t know what to say beyond dirty, gritty funeral doom that was more like a rehearsal of ideas than a thematic and conceptual work.
STEREOGUM: The album has a positive title — life springing eternal… — but the longest, weightiest song on the album is “Great Storms Carry My Sadness.” Can you explain how they fit together?
TA: The only way I’ve achieved anything in my life was by challenging and confronting myself and my surroundings. You shed the dead leaves to nourish the soil beneath you. The title “Great Storms Carry My Sadness” implies that sadness is being carried. Not dwelled in. It was a way for me to release disconsolation from myself. That the storm would carry that feeling along its course. The vocals and the storms are the sounds that are most natural and powerful on the recording. They meet one another with the same energy.
STEREOGUM: Outside of Celestiial, what’s your relationship with nature? Are you specifically invoking a certain Minnesotan forest? For instance, was “Songbirds Depart Through the Passing Near The Garden” inspired by something you actually saw? It’s clearly very specific. Or nature in general?
TA: I feel that Celestiial is an honest and personal response to my relationship with nature. You’re right assuming that these titles are specific to place and experience. I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by nature. I grew up in the country before moving to a slightly less rural part of Minnesota as a teenager. I always enjoyed time in the woods alone as well as camping and hiking. My family encouraged that always. My father used to guide camping trips in the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park. My mother used to be a “musher” (sled-dog racing), and she has a PhD with a focus on environmental education. She also plays the harp. I’m predictable offspring. Except I’ve also spent a majority of my artistic life focused on music and its relationship to nature and experience. As far as a specific forest or something like that, I do feel drawn to Quetico Park and the Superior National Forest as well as Olympic National Forest.
STEREOGUM: Throughout the album there’s a focus on rain, water, waterfalls, etc. In the beginning of the album it’s more of a storm, but then we get the sound of a river intermixed with song birds, etc. Is this a conceptual record? Does the album move through these “Great Storms” to a happier aftermath? Nature’s cycle.
TA: I think every other question I’ve answered has explained the theme of the album. But, no, there isn’t any further concept from beginning to end as far as some journey from point A to point B. It’s more like one continuous thought or exploration of the themes regarding spring, water, life and growth.
STEREOGUM: Can you discuss the idea/feeling behind “From Elm Blossoms A Rose”? It strikes me as a transition.
TA: It was intended to be a transition between the two larger works. The sounds of the storm fade into a stream. I don’t really know how to explain this without getting so personal that it loses all context to a listener. Before going into record this album, I ended up injuring my back outside my house and had to go to the emergency room. I’ve only had to go to an emergency room once before when I was chopping wood with an old axe and it split with the handle flying up and breaking my nose. Pretty amazing, haha. They prescribed 650 mg of Percocet to me every three hours for six days. That may or may not have inspired this song. To be honest, the whole recollection of that week before recording was a blur as I was bed-bound listening to the first Ceremonium album and Ensemble Alcatraz. I woke up from a bizarre dream about someone I love and, in a haze, put this together loosely and then recorded it in the studio the following weekend. I think it perfectly splits up the two, longer works.
STEREOGUM: The album ends with “Songbirds Depart Through the Passing Near The Garden.” A garden is tamed nature. So are we watching a bird move through “man made” nature back to the wild?
TA: I never thought about it like that. I’m surprised how many people have related themes of man vs nature to this album or some post-apocalyptic theme. I’ve read reviews where the first track was man moving away from the industrial world (because of the harsher tones) into the natural world. These ideas never existed when we created this album. This song really is just a simple departing piece to close the album. There is nothing I’m trying to imply beyond the scene described and experienced. It’s good to hear things like this though. It’s a reminder just how much the listener takes a more active role in minimalist expression. I do believe this music relies heavily on the listener’s creativity and relationship with it. Who am I to get in the way of that? There is a great quote of Jean Cocteau where he stated, “an artist cannot talk about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.” I think it applies here. If you believe this is the theme, it is. I might argue more about how we define “nature” with that idea. If something is tamed nature, it still is “nature.” It’s just the end result of human nature’s interaction with it.
STEREOGUM: How are the nature sounds/field recordings captured? Were you (are you) ever into Jewelled Antler?
TA: Most were recorded from two small condenser microphones in a single unit. A simple stereo recording that can be doubled, EQ’d and panned on a recording to create more dimension. I do capture my own field recordings but I haven’t actually done that for a few years now. I used recordings done by friends who spend time with them. Although I did steal most of the loon samples. On Desoate North I actually used an Ojibwe bass flute to pitch the harmonics with reverb for a lot of the calls. When I was a teenager, I could to just set-up my 4-track on my parent’s deck with a condensor to capture the storms and birdsongs. I haven’t invested in a new unit to record these sounds. It’s on my list though. I’d like to find time to do that more but it’s harder and harder to find the time these days.
The two most common bands people tell me to listen to are Jewelled Antler and Stars of the Lid. I’ve heard Jewelled Antler and some recordings by Glenn Donaldson more recently because I was so sick of hearing about it and not hearing it. I prefer the material recorded under The Ivytree more. A great listen. But I don’t see any immediate connection there to what I do beyond the field recordings. The musical influences seem pretty removed from what I try to accomplish with Celestiial honestly. I feel more in touch with the influences of the Swiss band Mordor who were more industrial/drone as well as artists like Leif Elggren, John Luther Adams, Fungoid Stream, Juhyo and a lot of more obscure death/doom from the early ’90s. I also studied medieval improvisation and folk music of the Isles for hammered dulcimer and harp for years. That influence is obvious in a track like “From Elm…”
STEREOGUM: You did Desolate North on your own. What was it like working wit Tim Glenn and Jason Walton? How did it come about?
TA: Tim Glenn has been involved for a while now. We were both hired to perform live dates for a local death metal band. That’s how we met initially right around the time Desolate North came out. We clicked instantly. Jason has been a friend for a while now. Through discussion he offered his contributions to Celestiial in 2008 and we gladly welcomed him. I’m looking forward to working with this line-up on the next album as well as the addition of another valuable contributor.
STEREOGUM: Why did you leave Azrael?
TA: To pursue my own projects. It wasn’t some conflict of interest or personal issues or anything like that within the band. They were both really supportive as well. I would have liked to have recorded Self Goat with them but I left shortly before the recording because I knew I wasn’t going to stick around. It was just time for me to start fresh again and focus on my own music.
STEREOGUM: I know you favor relative anonymity, but do you plan to go on tour for the new record? Or perhaps play some random shows? If so, will Tim and Jason join you?
TA: At the moment I’m more interested in recording the follow-up to “Where Life Springs Eternal” which should take place this summer. This will be a developed and “musical” response to the last album which was basically an anti-riff, stream-of-consciousness approach. I’m not opposed to the idea to playing live and I never have been. I just can’t see it happening in the immediate future. Tim and I rehearse regularly. But Jason, Tim, and I have our respective bands outside Celestiial to focus on. And they’re all “live” bands. That complicates things. Perhaps after the next album is completed we’ll have that discussion.
Where Life Springs Eternal is out via Bindrune. Here’s the aforementioned 30-minute long “Great Storms Carry My Sadness” and the transitional “From Elm Blossoms A Rose” in their order of appearance:
If you’re in the NYC area tomorrow, come check out Alcest, woe, and Have A Nice Life, organized by Haunting The Chapel (me) and the Blackened Music Series (Adam).
Also, while mentioning NYC-area metal-related happenings: I’ll be DJing Sunday night at Rites Of Spring, an event I put together with Björk, Tyondai Braxton, David Longstreth, and Alex Ross to raise money for the relief effort in Haiti. It takes place at the Bushwick DIY space, Above The Auto Parts Store. You can get more info here. As Alex mentioned, expect a mix of “Thai soul, doom metal, Justin Bieber, and, of course, nude Stravinsky.”