INTERVIEW: An in-depth conversation with Theophilos of Serpent Column (2017)

‘Ornuthi Thalassa’ the debut album from Serpent Column is a masterwork of modern black metal inspired music. It remains one of the most intricate and expressive extreme metal albums of 2017. Though mystery surrounding creators within the black metal ecosystem is often superficially compelling, what draws me back to this release is its detailed conceptual vision and the personal ‘outsider’ philosophies reflected within its inspired artistry. What makes ‘Ornuthi Thalassa’ special is its singular torrent of consciousness that feels both organic and forcefully ‘metal’ backed by a true epic poetic edict expressing the end of civilization. Through my own communication with Serpent Column guitarist, vocalist and writer Theophilos aimed at elucidating the themes and concepts of the album it became prudent to explore the genesis and ethos of his impressive work.

GB: Can you start by exploring what brought about Serpent Column as a project?

THEOPHILOS: Serpent Column began after a long period of training and writing. Certain motifs predate OT by many years. Learning material by Suffocation, the Finns (Sargeist, Horna, and Vitsaus), and Kayo Dot provided me much of the machinery to write OT, though I did not know it at the time. I probably wouldn’t have set out to record the finished material if it wasn’t for an outside intervention.

The bulk of the writing occurred after series of auditory-induced seizures – for lack of a better phrase – I experienced, which subsequently dilated my sense of sound a hundredfold. After the strongest one occurred, in which I felt a gushing forth from my forehead – and which left me with the ability to have total perception of a piece of music and also every sound in a physical environment at the same time – I was left unable to function for quite some time. A couple months later, I began writing the bulk of OT on guitar.

A long study of Homer and Heidegger led me to reject the aesthetics of our polis. You can understand OT as a reaction to postmodernism in art – although the aesthetics of our work will change radically over time in ways that cannot be clearly foreseen.

Were those ‘seizures’ the impetus to create, for fear of lost senses? Or inspiration for a ‘return to the cave’, to create for the sake of sharing what enlightenment you’d felt/experienced? 

A whole new range of phenomena, and also intensity of phenomena, became available. There were no intentions to begin with – again, the process is something like instinctual stumbling. In our time and place, there is absolutely no source of guidance for this sort of thing.

Ornuthi Thalassa’ has a clarity, a focused energy that resembles a project ‘masterminded’. Did collaboration begin before the album was conceived, drafted? How did Serpent Column first form as an entity?

Collaboration did not truly begin until after the guitars were finished. Serpent Column formed by accident and necessity. The other half helped with the architecture to begin with, but did not end up taking on more roles until it became clear that working with session musicians from a distance was not viable, and I had a truly gifted musician and engineer to work with. Of course we are looking for the right talents to add to our partnership and ease the burden of my role in particular – but we are still in the woods.

I have a lifelong obsession with visionary, obsessively-detailed masterworks conceived mostly by one person, such as Kayo Dot’s ‘Choirs of the Eye’, Bruckner’s 8th symphony (highly influential on OT’s structure), Dark Souls, and DsO [Deathspell Omega]. Obviously from SMRC [‘Si monvmentvm reqvires, circvmspice’] onward you can detect the signature of a megalomaniacal genius.

Hasjarl [of DsO] is my first master. He is the Charles Ives of black metal – a genius who does exactly what he wants without having to consult the public or corrupt patronage. He is the only living example I have (save for, perhaps, Toby Driver – though his work is not comprehensively visual, textual, and musical of the same quality on each plane like Hasjarl’s).

What inspired the lyrical content and symbolism of ‘Ornuthi Thalassa’?

See my previous answers. Minor influences include Hesiod, Nietzsche, Sumerian mythology (Humbaba), and Milton (for style and diction).

Note that we work exactly the opposite of DsO – for us, the music absolutely comes first.

On every front (and the lyrics are no exception) OT is an attempt to baptize the receptive listener in uncivilized ways of understanding in preparation and cultivation for the scorched aftermath of our civilization. The Iliad is crucial to OT, because it is a mind-shattering window onto one of these worlds.

The story of OT is told from the standpoint of this ancient yet futural orientation, and is supposed to model its unfolding. Biogenesis, the birth of man and his ancient standing in Being and orientation towards beings, his fall into civilization, and possibilities for reorientation and rebirth as well as the preparatory annihilation of our polis (which is self-inflicted, if the 21st and 22nd centuries are scorched the meatgrinders of climate catastrophe, mass migration, and genocide I suspect they will be, save for a technological miracle and/or the birth of technogod…ornuthi thalassa [ὄρνυθι θάλασσα], “rise, ocean.” Yet the polis does have a pretty good shot of producing a more stomachable dystopia, which will nonetheless be intensely dystopic. The best shot it has is a world like Children of Men with a paltry universal basic income).

The vocal arrangements are another beast. In order to avoid ‘Jane Doe’ syndrome (inchoate but arranged, text barely integrated) and ‘Aspa’ syndrome (DsO is so literary that it is of the utmost importance that ‘Aspa’ awkwardly fumbles through the lyrics as they appear on the page with few exceptions), we opted for the following: arrangements that follow the text in a more flexible language. They’re mostly Ancient Greek glosses of the text (see booklet or send me an email if you are interested).

Is dystopia possible before self-annihilation and the consequences of nuclear war?

In all likelihood we will never lite the nuclear fuse – it’s the solar fuse, and its aftermath, that OT deals with.

That dystopia has been here since the late 19th century, but got especially demented since full neoliberalism kicked in. Neuromancer (and Gibson’s entire oeuvre) is one of the greatest observational works of our time. A world of people sitting around in existential rot, hopelessly addicted to vicarious technology… Incomprehensibly massive gulfs of difference in quality of life between a handful of nihilistic plutocrats and everybody else (interestingly celebrated in Diocletian’s “Beast Atop the Trapezoid”)… Complete abnegation of the social contract, making even feudalism seem preferable… These are all part of today’s world, and will likely be permanent fixtures of the social landscape. Wehe dieser grossen Stadt!

The album has a very organic, poetic unfurl to begin with and later lyrically shifts toward engaging the listener as it progresses. In lieu of diluting the listener’s curiosity about the album’s symbolism itself, can you talk a bit about what releasing ‘Ornuthi Thalassa’ to the public means to you?

The riffs should be enough. That unfurl, I hope, can even be felt in the music.

Few things intrigue me more than examining how admirable guitarists express their ‘philosophy of the riff’. What was your personal approach on OT?

Necessity. Nothing in OT is extraneous. It is more like a painting or a sculpture than actual music, partly because everything accreted around the guitars. That’s also its worst flaw.

Our current philosophy, which you will see unveiled in the years to come, is feel and fluidity first. Form, most importantly, will no longer be constrained by an eye towards totality.

Better writers than I posit a great deal of ‘classical’ music influence and structural dynamic in ‘Ornuthi Thalassa’; Each movement seems conscious of carrying central melodic themes through the piece without obvious ‘callbacks’ seen in typical romanticism. Can you speak to your methods of composition? In terms of guitar riffs and transitional movement, is the final product formed organically, or carefully labored for effect? How do you approach writing guitar music?

I strive to unlock new abilities – this usually happens with more training, which starts with instinctively seeking out things to absorb. Eventually, I start on a song that I don’t yet realize will be a song, push it to the brink of exhaustion, move on to another, and then circle back. Most of everything on OT was written in pairs first, and then updated in tandem from a god’s eye view. Sometimes the recurrence of themes is accidental.

You’ve referenced influences extensively so far, but can you speak to your typical metal/non-metal listening habits?

I rarely sit down and listen to metal or other “genre” music, because it is extremely rare that something rips AND is fully worked out at every level. Listening is contextual. I’ll put on Hate Eternal or Suffo or fucking Cephalotripsy or Brodequin and do some conditioning. Maybe I’ll listen to the first couple of Ulver records, Owl’s Blood, Branikald, Blut aus Nord’s ‘Memoria Vetusta I & II’, some Arckanum (who greatly inspires our vocal arrangements), Pagan Hellfire, Horna, Hades, or Paysage d’hiver when the weather turns very cold… The only metal I devote total attention towards is DsO, and perhaps Ulcerate (to a lesser degree – they don’t set out to make gesamtkunstwerks, since they are a traditional band).

[for non-metal] The same applies – there are gems everywhere and for every purpose. I’ll meditate to Kevin Drumm’s ambient works and Celer (Evaporate and Wonder and that hour long c-side they released a couple years ago in particular). Tim Hecker is good for driving. Bach’s concertos, fugues, and other forms are good for focused listening – same with some of Beethoven’s symphonies, Bruckner’s 8th, and a few other gems here and there (Kayo Dot ‘Choirs of the Eye’ is perhaps my favorite work of art, period – eclipsed only by ‘Paracletus’). Ligeti, Coltrane, and Miles Davis’s weirder works are good in many respects. Rarely I’ll revisit 90’s screamo (Portraits of Past and One Eyed God Prophecy in particular). Same with early 2000s mathcore (like The End’s first record, Botch, Coalesce, As the Sun Sets).

I have pursued music until hitting bedrock. For a couple years, I listened to nothing but meterless ambient, noise, and related sub-genres. Truly indigenous-minded “folk” music interests me highly, but the real stuff is very, very difficult to find (like Master Musicians of Joujouka and Hukwe Zawose…I am particularly interested in women’s call-and-response songs, which I suspect is a way of insanely deep cultural preservation: like Niekku – Helise heliä metsä and Bachir Attar – Alallia (About the Night). Anthropologists or musicologists with an interest in such things are urged to send me an email).

How would you characterize yourself as a music listener? For example I’m the eternal analyst, inspired by both emotional resonance and made inquisitive by artist’s higher conceptions.

Things have their context. Some things are meant to be the object of obsessive, solitary contemplation. Other things have st00pid pit riffs and lend themselves to dead-lifting and deep hits from the gravity bong. Both poles should be part of a life, and hopefully a work of art.

Are you a well entrenched ‘fanatic’ or is black metal simply the most necessary label for your music?

Certainly not. This is not “genre” music.

Have further releases reached conception yet? 

We’re far past that point for the next two.

Ornuthi Thalassa’ has been available digitally since July. Any plans for CD and Vinyl issues? 

OT vinyl out now. CD is possible.

Any live performance aspirations?

Absolutely not – who would be there to play it? And just the two of us…our music isn’t like Inquisition or Bone Awl. But above all, we are against rehearsal after a release. It’s counterproductive. And when our task is finished around 2025, hopefully we dissolve before overstaying our welcome.

I really appreciate the illumination and discussion, thank you.

Thank you for your interest.

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Theophilos can be reached at serpentcolumn@gmail.com

‘Ornuthi Thalassa’ is available digitally at Serpent Column’s Bandcamp

Get the Vinyl release through Fallen Empire records.