I walked away from my first visit to the Indianapolis Zen Center wondering if I’d been initiated into a cult. Despite practicing zazen for years, I was unfamiliar and slightly unnerved by the chanting ritual that started the group’s Wednesday night meditation practice. I was greeted at the door by three gray-haired and gray-robed white men, who offered a friendly but brief introduction that mostly consisted of pointing out the bathroom. Soon after, I was standing behind my cushion staring at a well-worn chanting book. One of the dharma teachers knocked out a methodical “tok-tok-tok” on the moktak, a hand-held percussion instrument. We began by repeating the line…
na-mu bul-ta bu-jung gwang-nim bop-he
…three times, interspersed with bows and prostrations. We continued on through variations on these tangled phonemes for 10 more minutes. My voice faded in and out of their three-part harmonies as I puzzled over how to pronounce the unrecognizable combinations of letters. I also hesitated because my fellow practitioners hadn’t explained that we were chanting about the bodhisattva of compassion—Kwan Seum Bosal aka Avalokitesvara, Kannon, or Guanyin—in phonetic Korean, and that I wasn’t pledging myself to a Midwestern Nxivm franchise.
There’s an amplified sense of occult power when you know you’re close to acquiring secret knowledge, a feeling that’s increasingly elusive as the all-seeing algorithm develops new and faster ways to disseminate information. When I first heard Timber Rattle, a cryptic band with unspecified ties to the Blue Ridge Mountains, California’s Grass Valley, and Upstate New York, I wondered if I was listening to someone else’s arcane cult initiation.
I was deep into the “devotional” tag on Bandcamp, and growing weary of digging in the seemingly endless digital crates of kirtan. The sound of rapturous hippies doing Sanskrit sing-a-longs, strumming away on acoustic guitars, and jingling hand drums in a suburban yoga studio is often a far cry—both literally and figuratively—from the sound of Alice Coltrane in the Sai Anantam Ashram.
Timber Rattle uses a comparable sonic palette, but the ritual comes across way heavier. The intertwined voices chanting and moaning on their 2013 phantoms of place album were just as indecipherable to my ears as Coltrane’s devotional singing, or the phonetic recitations heard in Korean Zen temples.
“he’eile moloa’a” begins with 30 seconds of silence before a slow throbbing tone emerges. This presages the arrival of a methodically-picked guitar and at least one—but maybe two or three?—reverberating voices that rise in mournful harmony. Soon a keyboard—or is that a harmonium? or Pauline Oliveros on accordion?—begins to sigh, adding another breath to the chorus, everything respirating into a hypnotic blur. The effect is like an earthbound Sigur Rós, or Liz Fraser gone Pentecostal: vocals without obvious denotative meaning structured into sentences of pure connotation. The language appears to be Hawaiian: “moloa’a” translates as “matted roots,” and is the name of the Kauai beach where they filmed Gilligan’s Island. I failed to find a translation for “he’eile” on its own, and the two words together only point back to Timber Rattle. The rest of the album’s 40-minute runtime covers similar ground. It was just the sort of unmarked backcountry seep of organic ritual trance that I’d hoped to soak in, after passing by so many soft-focus day-spa jams.
Several trails led away from phantoms of place. Before long I was puzzling over at least eight Timber Rattle albums, tour tapes, and two collaborations with lightning white bison, an artist working the same esoteric soil. Digital and cassette versions were spread across two labels from the Czech Republic, and the Virginia-based Burial Dance. Bloomington, Indiana’s Bluesanct Records handled the vinyl. Scouring the web outside of Bandcamp didn’t reveal much more, other than a brief 2015 interview with Potlista, a Czech ‘zine. The band’s 2021 album, god walks the dark hills, isn’t even listed on their Discogs page. Timber Rattle does not go out of their way to explain what they’re doing, and yet they’ve been doing it for a decade or longer.
The rest of Timber Rattle’s catalog offers variations on these crunchy pastoral drones and arboreal dirges. The collaborative releases with lightning white buffalo, grazing the storm floor (2017) and chrysoprase (2019), are more likely to harsh the mellow with grumbling guitar grind and subtle dissonance. These efforts bring to mind Ben Chasny and Al Cisneros’ sacred riff geometries, or Pelt’s clangorous trip-reports. Thinking in terms of Indian-Appalachian fusion, Timber Rattle’s vocal-heavy performances are a slow-crawling dhrupad complement to the frenetic violin and piano-heavy ragas that shimmer across Pelt’s most recent Reticence Resistance album.
Timber Rattle’s 2018-19 albums—animal water, high desert hymns, and the veil beneath the mountain beneath the veil—foster a mellower devotional sound, filling raga-like structures with mountain gospel signifiers and field recordings. The effect is both bucolic and gloomy, like forest-bathing in the dankness of a deep holler, catching a whiff of musk from a hidden den, or inhaling the scent of creosote under the heavy skies of a desert monsoon. The weight is undeniable, making Timber Rattle the rare band that can shift between the slow-burning radiance of Brightblack Morning Light’s ritualistic country-soul, and the mesmerizing crush of “tribal” metal that Neurosis initiated with Pain of Mind‘s “Takeahnase.” There’s also an analog with the syncretism of Phurpa, the Russian collective performing proto-Buddhist shamanic rites in line with Sunn O)))’s amplifier worship catechism. Practicing at altitude often produces feelings of spiritual ecstasy, hypoxic reveries regardless of whether the thin air’s provenance is Appalachian or Himalayan.
How does music produce a devotional effect? And how is that differentiated from the overlapping descriptors “ritual,” and “tribal?” The latter term is often more problematic. Neurosis has refined a sound on their own, in solo efforts, and with the Tribes of Neurot side project to the point where “tribal metal” usually just means “sounds like Neurosis.” If one isn’t identifying the style of a specific tribe, the adjective derives its meaning from exotic stereotypes and racist caricatures. But devotional and ritual traditions from Nyabinghi rhythms to 5Rhythms expand on the idea of ambient music as aural wallpaper. These sounds are incomplete without connection to some other activity, be it communing with spirits via ecstatic dance, passing a smoldering chalice, eating of the bread and drinking of the cup, or simply washing the Zen Center dishes. It shouldn’t fade into the background, but it also needs to complement your set and setting.
One can sometimes experience the devotional aspects of such music more clearly by giving up on efforts to understand the mystery. My taste in heavy music includes a lot of self-described “ritualistic death metal.” For my purposes the rituals in question are a lot more intense when left as abstractions of universal suffering, cosmic dread, or gastric distress, leaving any rote blasphemy or hyperbolic descriptions of cruelty lost in translation.
There’s a tendency toward overcompensation on the heavier end of the folk and ambient music spectrums where Timber Rattle might seem at home. Metal artists dabbling in acoustic guitars and repetitive synthesizers often distinguish their sounds as “dark folk” or “dark ambient,” which gives away too much. It also suggests that those musics were previously lacking in somber tones. If “Waitin’ Around to Die” isn’t filed under dark folk, then what does “dark” even mean?
Not that Timber Rattle makes it easy to go behind the music, or even sing along. The interviewer from Potlista asked some of these questions about the band’s use of language from the perspective of a non-native English speaker. The band member present, Adam Parks, clarified their intention:
I think [the lyrics] end up mostly being just a verbal exploration of the same things that the music is exploring. Land and bodies and life and death and magic and language and ritual and myth and space and cycles and animals and plants and food and poison, etc, etc… and our relationships to any and all of those things. I really like singing, especially with the harmonies, but the lyrics are intentionally kind of obscured, since the sound itself is more important to the music than being able to understand the words. I think the “meaning” can be real distracting.
There’s a reason why the dudes at the IZC didn’t offer me an in-depth explanation of Kwan Seum Bosal chanting. This particular Buddhist sect wasn’t a cult, but the Zen Center was an intentional community offering cheap rent. I ended up living there as a member of their religious commune for a couple years. One thing that I learned is that Zen isn’t about thinking your way into answers. It’s about experiencing the questions as they are, and sitting with the uncertainty that remains.
After a few more months of weekly practice, I suggested that we offer first time dharma room visitors enough context to know that we weren’t pledging allegiance to a guru or committing to any proprietary cult-branded body modifications. Linc, IZC’s 75-year-old guiding teacher, eventually agreed. He began to riff on variations of an idea expressed in Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake: Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn:
When chanting, or sitting, or bowing, even special practice cannot help you if you are attached to your thinking. Taoist chanting, Confucian chanting, Christian chanting, Buddhist chanting don’t matter. Chanting “Coca Cola, Coca Cola, Coca Cola…” can be just as good if you keep a clear mind. But if you don’t keep a clear mind, and are only following your thinking as you mouth the words, even the Buddha cannot help you.
Timber Rattle probably won’t be able to help you either. But they do offer the opportunity for accessing a variety of religious experiences without getting distracted by their meaning.
Daniel Chamberlin is an artist, yoga teacher, and Zen student in East Central Indiana. He’s also the host of the syndicated community radio program Inter-Dimensional Music, “North America’s gnarliest mix of heavy mellow, kosmische slop, and void contemplation tactics.”