Review & Interview: Grey Aura – Zwart vierkant
Grey Aura has been working for a decade, using black metal to construct stories that reach beyond the limits of a concept album. They describe themselves on Bandcamp as a “Gesamtkunstwerk Club.” Since their first full-length, Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie saylagien, ter werelt nooyt zo vreemt ghehoort, they have singularly pursued a modernist narrative of madness (more on that later). The band incubated the concept on two demos in 2017 and 2019, and very recently it reached its apotheosis: Zwart vierkant (“black square”).
Perhaps somewhat ironically, Zwart vierkant isn’t actually that angular. The jazz palette the band deploys, the psychological messiness of the Dutch lyrics, and even the mainline black metal elements are splattered expressionistically onto the framework of the album’s story. The music shifts from baroque sequences of acoustic instruments, layered horns, and agonized shouts to furious tempests of black metal blasts and riffs. Wijlacker and bandmate Tjebbe Broek, along with bassist S. (also of Laster) and a host of other featured musicians, thread catchy melodies, found audio, and even lounge-y passages into the fabric of the album.
Zwart vierkant is a masterpiece. Like the visual art inspiring its story, it can be baffling on the first go-around. But with each repeat listen, more details emerge—a touch of Spanish guitar (5:12 in “Maria Segovia”), a little Balkan swagger (6:15 in “El Greco in Toledo”). The sheer craftsmanship involved will be clear to anyone, regardless of whether or not this is your cup of tea. I suspect the loud, raw vocals might trip some folks up, but they’re appropriate to the album’s conceit (if you want those trve BM vocals, I recommend you check out Waerachtighe beschryvinghe).
I had the chance to interview Ruben Wijlacker via email about Zwart vierkant, the album’s creation and concept, and Grey Aura’s past and future work. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Thanks for interviewing with me! I’d love if you could first just introduce Grey Aura as a band and talk a little about your musical and non-musical influences.
Hi. Grey Aura is a conceptual black metal band. We formed in 2010 and have released two full-length albums thus far: Waerachtighe beschryvinghe… in 2014, and Zwart vierkant just a few days ago.
Our debut album [Waerachtighe beschryvinghe] deals with Dutch polar explorer Willem Barentsz’s third and final expedition to find a north-eastern passage to Asia in 1596–1597. Our sophomore album deals with a fictional 20th-century painter’s obsession with abstract art.
I have always found it hard to describe our musical influences. This is mainly because when we write music, we focus on the concept and the emotions and atmospheres connected to it. This makes for a very intuitive writing process, where we do not really have to speak about anything outside of the world we have created for our music.
That is not to say there are no musical influences at all, but they tend to seep into the music in a rather subconscious way.
When it comes to non-musical influences, there are plenty. Especially our last album was heavily inspired by art theory by writers/artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky. There are also influences from Arthur Rimbaud, Barbey D’Aurevilly, Georges Bataille, Gustave Flaubert, the Marquis de Sade, and Joris-Karl Huysmans. These are all writers I’d recommend to those who are into our music. Reading their works will expand your perception of the world we depict.
When I first heard this record, I had two main thoughts: 1) this is a very different album from Waerachtighe beschryvinghe, and 2) the cover reflects that—it made me think of Mondrian or Rothko, and the title seems like an allusion to Malevich. What role did art play in this record? Is there a narrative or through-line to follow?
That makes sense. The artwork was created by Sanja Marušić, a Dutch-Croatian artist from Amsterdam. We felt a very strong connection to her work and really wanted to use it for our music.
“Zwart vierkant” is Dutch for “black square,” which is the most important part of our concept. Piet Mondrian also plays a big part in it.
Our album’s narrative is taken directly from my debut novel De protodood in zwarte haren, which I released in collaboration with artist and friend Sven Signe den Hartogh in 2019. It is a story about Pieter “Pedro” van der Laan: a 20th-century Dutch-Spanish artist, who becomes obsessed with the work of Malevich and attempts to deconstruct physical reality through his art. There is more information about our concept on our website. I have also released a small book called “Proto-Death,” which contains an English synopsis of De protodood…, as well as translated lyrics, essays on artists and characters, blueprints and literary recommendations.
Are there any visual components to Zwart vierkant besides the colorful sleeve, or will there be in the future?
Time will tell. We would like to experiment with this during live performances, but unfortunately we have not had the chance yet. COVID-19 got in the way. Once we can perform again, we might incorporate performance art, projections, or art on stage. We have done this in the past, so it would be logical for us to continue this process of visual exploration.
Several tracks also appear on your previous two demos, which both came out pre-pandemic. What changed between now and then musically, and how else did COVID impact the band?
Interesting question. 1: Gelige, traumatische zielsverrukking was written quite soon after we released Waerachtighe…. As this way of playing was very new to us back then, we decided to experiment as freely as we could. This is something you can hear on the demo, as it contains quite elaborate sections of free-jazz improvisation, drone and ambient. It was a very strange demo, and a very strange time. I’d say it is the most experimental and feverish recording we have ever made. There were no rules or boundaries.
This was also the weak point of the demo, as it lacked structure and a sense of direction. Thus, when we wrote and recorded 2: De bezwijkende deugd, we decided to start writing ‘songs’ again. This resulted in a compact and relatively catchy recording, full of energy.
Our aim was to bring both components together for the full-length album. We reworked and rewrote nearly all of 1: Gelige… and rearranged some of 2: De bezwijkende deugd. I think the experiment turned out quite well: Zwart vierkant has a strange, demented feel to it, without losing its sense of conceptual direction.
COVID-19 impacted the recordings of Zwart vierkant only partially, as most of the instruments and vocals were recorded in 2019. It was really only some of the percussion and brass that was recorded during the crisis. The album was also mixed during lockdown, which gave us the time to reflect on the tracks. Unfortunately, though, we haven’t had the opportunity yet to promote the album in a live setting, which is something we are still really looking forward to.
Both on this and the previous LP, you and Tjebbe Broek are credited with foley. Are there any especially interesting techniques you used to create sounds on Zwart vierkant?
We actually recorded a lot of “scenes” we created for this album and invested a tremendous amount of time and money in them. However, as we felt like most of them interrupted the flow of the album, we cut a lot of them out. Maybe some of them will be released in the future, but probably not.
Contrary to Waerachtighe… which contained a lot of traditional foley (from coconuts on the streets, to stepping into cornflakes, to blowing into microphones and filling bathtubs with microphones in them), we decided to really fuse sound effects and actual music together on Zwart vierkant. We used pans and scrap metal to create some of the percussive sounds on some tracks. The more “traditional” foley would mainly be the footsteps in the cathedral we created for “El Greco in Toledo,” and the bar sounds of “Parijs is een portaal.”
Speaking of “El Greco in Toledo”: it is actually our most interesting song, in terms of non-musical recording. The entire song contains a subliminal “backdrop” of the cathedral’s sacristy, where part of the story takes place. This way, whenever there is a moment of silence, there is no static silence (or actual lack of sound), but the silence of the cathedral. It integrates the cathedral into our music. It may sound strange, but we believed adding this recording to our music gave it a certain charge, even if its quality is of more of a symbolic nature.
The Spanish dialogue that takes place during the song was recorded in Amsterdam, but the background noise is the actual Toledo Cathedral, which we traveled to in 2018. The cathedral was visited daily and actual routes for characters in the story were mapped out.
The birds sounds and people talking before the climax of the song were recorded just outside the Toledo Cathedral during the early morning. It was where Pedro would’ve stood before entering the building.
At various points in the song, a bell can be heard. This is the actual sound of the “one-armed clock,” which is an important part of the cathedral.
You refer to yourselves on Bandcamp as “feverish modernists.” Modernist elements are coming back in art and design. Modernist problems of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as income inequality and political extremism, are also unfortunately coming back. Talk to me more about the role modernism plays in Grey Aura’s work.
We believe that Modernism has certain qualities that transcend mundane problems. Especially the art of the Suprematists and De Stijl have certain spiritual elements that refer to a much deeper, divine reality.
Surely, both art groups were very involved in politics and would probably not have existed without the conditions they were born in (the rise of communism, socialism, modernity, the effects of large-scale industrialization, the Great War), but they offered a much deeper solution to those problems than politics ever could have.
It is this reality that we are inspired by and that we attempt to reach within our own music. Of course, we have political views as human beings, but we feel music and art can be a way to connect people in a much more profound way, very similar to religion.
All of your songs are in Dutch. Was this a deliberate choice or just by default?
We’ve always liked the black metal tradition of writing lyrics in one’s own language. It adds a certain cultural element to the music, which we enjoy.
Of course, for Zwart vierkant it was a hard choice. Writing in Dutch meant [fewer] people would be able to understand the lyrics, but as they are mostly shouted and barely audible anyway, we figured lyric translations would be just as useful as actually singing in English.
What’s next for the band? Are there other concepts you’re interested in?
De protodood in zwarte haren is the conceptual basis for Zwart vierkant and our upcoming third full-length. We are currently writing the material for [that] album, but it might take a few years before it is finished. We are quite perfectionistic, and we do not like to rush.
Of course, there are other concepts we will explore in the future, but for now, we are delving deeper into Modernism and the Black Square.
Zwart vierkant is out now on Bandcamp through Onism Productions.