Smiles of Blood :: On Sound Baths, Liberation Through Hedgecraft, and the Healing Power of Righteous Heavy Music

When one is invited to attend a “sound bath,” it can be tricky to figure out what to expect. The ancient-sounding term can apply to experiences that are soothing, spooky, saccharine, or often some combination of such vibes. 

Sound-bathing can mean sitting in a pew at Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel for Sunn O)))’s high-volume meditation practice, letting one’s thoughts dissipate into the band’s prismatic banks of fog, inhaling and exhaling their breathable frequencies. It’s also an accurate term for lying supine in a bourgie shala while a yoga teacher whispers “every act of kindness has an infinite echo … e c h o . . .  e c h o . .  . ” and effervescent psytrance pulses through curling tendrils of Nag Champa. 

All along this spectrum one encounters nebulous but occasionally valid claims of sound’s healing properties. If the term “sound bath” is hard to define, clarification on what qualifies as “healing” is even more elusive. Is the barefoot EDM bro in vigorously patterned pajamas actually repairing my DNA with his binaural beats? If my health insurance covers chiropractic, then why not a Life Metal massage from Anderson and O’Malley? And is there value in a sensory experience even if it’s not quantifiable as beneficial to your health? 

Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze is a self-described “aggressively antifascist, antihierarchy, and anticapitalist” black metal trio from Colorado. Their 2019 debut album Offerings of Flesh and Gold is “for the downtrodden and the disenfranchised,” a collection of ritual motivational music to bolster the spirits of the occult anarchist as well as “the single mother who holds down multiple jobs and can’t afford health insurance.” 

The album opens with five minutes of methodically vibrating frame drum, throat-singing, weighty organ drones, and finally a guttural invocation … 

From the cacophonous roar, beauty springs.

A blood streaked rose rising from a pile of shit.

We dance as the drones film us, 

And the only thing higher than our spirits are the flames.

The stage has been set, and the gathering erupts in a frenzy of conspicuous black metal signifiers, blast beats and tremolo picking that rises and falls like the icy gusts of wind endemic to the kvlt habitat. Each time the gale recedes in swirls of feedback, the ritual’s foundation of keyboards, ceremonial percussion, hushed chanting, bonfire field recordings, and isolated guitar lines, is revealed. Sometimes a sound bath does it’s healing work with gently brushed crystal bowls. At other times, maximum volume yields maximum results. 

Offerings of Flesh and Gold stands out from the black metal horde both in theory and practice as music that is far more expansive than the didactic blasphemy of many of their peers. Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze recognizes something radical and feral in the practices of compassion and solidarity. It’s a work that raises questions about the role of aggression, of righteous anger, in healing rituals. 

This is music for those of us who may feel alienated on our mats when the teacher tells us that we’re beautiful beings full of strength and light. Are we holding the pose wrong if we’re still feeling like a frail and nasty creature, full of tar? It all depends on whether today’s practice is about escaping from your head, or making peace with the void pulsating in your chest. Trying to find a remedy for what ails you, or letting it be and practicing what Zen teacher Ezra Bayda calls “experiencing equanimity in the midst of discomfort.”

Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze’s headphone-ready black metal offers an opportunity to sit in stillness amidst frenzy, to tend to the thousand cuts of petty bureaucracy and to assuage the psychic distress of living in a time of endless war. Throughout 2019 guitarist and bassist Dylan Rupe’s side projects—Oneiromancer, Seedspore, and Evergreen Refuge—took the pastoral organic textures of Offerings of Flesh and Gold and drew them out to the side-long durations familiar to the classic New Age and underground ambient tape scenes. 

Oneiromancer is the most esoteric of the three: Radiance begins with 15-minutes of field recordings that could be mistaken as Irv Teibel’s 1974 classic “Gentle Rain in a Pine Forest”, but for the distant gong that shimmers through the dripping foliage. The 51-minute composition documents a solitary ritual, as keyboards and slow chanting rise through the chattering birds and pitter-pattering precipitation. True to the DIY spirit of liberation through hedgecraft, the initial run of CDs and cassettes was accompanied by a black candle and a pouch of mugwort, white sage, and lavender. 

Seedspore distills these essences into the most traditional collection of the three. Woodsmoke is on par with similarly organic-minded contemporary ambient projects such as those regularly appearing on the Inner Islands or Aural Canyon labels. We begin and end with field recordings of a crackling fire: In between an interlaced flow of meandering acoustic guitars and drifting synthesizers is only interrupted briefly by a thunderstorm. 

Evergreen Refuge is the most panoramic of Rupe’s guises, expanding elements from each of the aforementioned projects into longform compositions not unlike the work of Tuluum Shimmering. Skyward, released in March 2019, places Robbie Basho’s six-string mandalas on altars of blackened shoegaze, or “blackgaze,” a sound heard in slightly more domesticated forms on albums from Alcest and Deafheaven. The most recent Evergreen Refuge release is a double album that arrived at the very end of 2019. With Reflection/Resolution they drop electronic equipment almost entirely for nearly two hours of interlocking cycles of guitar, glockenspiel, frame drum, singing bowls, and harmonium drones. It’s soothing at first, but the power of the experience – as with the sitting meditation they reference throughout the liner notes – is durational: Rupe’s hypnotic arpeggios “seem to go on longer than what we might be comfortable with,” they write. In doing so the project engages with the repetitive healing methodology of chanting sutras in the dharma room, or watching rainbows in curved air. 

“Why does it feel that way?” they ask. The listener’s experience of the music is offered as an answer to the question, a tool for slowing down and giving “the proper space and attention to each moment.”

It’s not unusual to hear similar language at the beginning of a sound bath, but many self-anointed healers assume that we’re all in the room for the same reason: to chill out, to avoid the anxiety, anger, or depression that often feels like the only sane response to our suffering. While well-intentioned, such relentless positivity isn’t always true to the radical concepts at the heart of mindfulness practices like yoga and Zen, ideas that are often left behind in the process of appropriation and commodification. There is value in these works in part because they present a course correction: It’s a dose of dark, downward-sinking yin to round out the bright and floaty yang energy that characterizes so much contemporary mindfulness experience. 

It’s healing music for those who look to continue the fight, even if our battle is to simply not be a jerk. Or at proper volume these sounds can become anthems to replenish inner forges so that we might, as in the final words on Offerings of Flesh and Gold, “melt the thrones to cast bowls and spears / So man may know the true god, themselves / And none shall ever go hungry again.”

Daniel Chamberlin is an artist living in Muncie, Indiana. He’s also the host of Inter-Dimensional Music, a broadcast of “heavy mellow, kosmische slop, and void contemplation tactics” on WQRT Indianapolis and Marfa Public Radio in Far West Texas.

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