Chasing Ghosts: An Interview With Begräbnis

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Interviews

Today's guest-writer is Courtney Brittan, friend of Kaala and someone we're very excited to have contributing. If readers want to contribute, contact us on our facebook page and let us know!

Initially, the thought of approaching any member of this unholy trinity must be far from anyone’s mind when the anonymous druids shuffle onto the stage and the hypnotic droning bass resonates in the chest cavities of every member of the crowd, enclosed comfortably in total darkness. In the center of the stage She stands and begins to speaks with a voice still covered with grave dirt, a voice that carries our minds to some other realm. The realm, presumably, from which they ascend (or descend?) to perform this ritual once every few moons. That netherplace might be the deep stone well in which She was drowned some two hundred years ago, or a small one-room in a generic apartment block in suburban Saitama with a “Welcome” mat out front and laundry fluttering in the breeze on the landing. No one can say with any certainty, for the Oracle speaketh not to the common rabble without good reason.

The ritual -- an out-of-body shamanistic doom metal experience that intimately reminds each of us of the inevitability of our dying alone -- begins and then ends. No time has passed, because whatever realm to which she takes us exists outside of time. An hour could have passed here in the real world, or ten, or five minutes. It’s impossible to tell. When the ring of the sleigh bells replace the eerie alien whine of the theremin, it’s time to take one small step backward and out of the upside-down, back to where you came from, and reorient. Different, calm, and maybe cleaner.

Afterwards, the crowd realizes to their surprise that they are not passing through planes of existence on a journey to the world of the dead but are, in fact, at a live house/bar in Nakano. Drinks are ordered, conversations resume, merchandise is sold. There’s a flux in the crush of people standing at the small, smoky bar, a contraction and then expansion, almost like it’s breathing in and out, and from flux oozes several droopy layers of a silent, black-clad and black–hatted figure into the inky night. The apparition defies laws of linear perspective and somehow vanishes into the night without growing smaller or receding into the distance first. Truly, the Oracle liketh not working the merch table.

“Begräbnis” is a somewhat uncommon and old-fashioned German word best translated as “burial”, but not in the sense that the Oracle and her druid envoy regularly find themselves in hasty need of a remote wooded area and a shovel or, failing that, an abandoned mine shaft. This is not the sort of thing that happens en masse during spats of cartel violence, epidemics, or more recently, Purges. Rather, “Begräbnis” is exactly the opposite, and refers exclusively to the ceremonial aspect of permanent internment. “[Sou]”, the corresponding character, appears prominently above their logo like a label or brand, embellished in and flanked by Runic letters and staves. Written in Sharpie on their 2013 Neunundvierzig demo, which has an interesting intro track that reminds me of the whimsical Nothing and Nowhere, Birthday Massacre darkwave of my adolescence, is simply “[shoushiki]”; literally, “funeral”. Usually Japanese bands refer to everything from the act of performing to their set list as a “live”, but this band maintains the appointed title: “Thank you for coming to our funeral. The next funeral will be held on…”

The resonant droning is the perfect pace to lull you into a trance, but has enough rhythm, highs and lows, to maintain your interest and give you a sense of it progressing while simultaneously distorting the passage of time. Last April I first witnessed the rites intoned at Koenji UFO Club and I stood next to the speakers to absorb the fullness of the effect. There are a lot of different ways and reasons to call something “a good show”, but that was the first time I had ever found myself mesmerized, like the blind and willing follower of a cult, and markedly less aware of my surroundings until it was over.

Enigmatic and theatrical, Begräbnis maintain the image, maintain character and stage presence, and command total silence from their diverse but equally immersed disciples. The bass resonance and wonky electronic noise are automatically afforded a fuller quality by this self-imposed, church-like quiet. For me the image – no, the experience - is an almost hallucinogenic impression of a pitch black night sky in the middle of nowhere, devoid of stars, utterly lonely but with Stonehenge visible and glowing in the faint light of some barely-discernible, hovering thing above.

Some moons ago we were at Alps in Shinjuku for an afterparty and when we were all a few drinks in, the big reveal came: the two cheerful, friendly guys we’d been talking to, Harima and Kyo, said something along the lines of,“You know that’s us, right? With the hoods?” and it was like a pleasantly surprising plot twist you’ve been waiting for your favorite characters to put together. Needless to say, I was excited. “Ohh! Oh my god! You’re the druids?!” It was very much like the feeling we got when the members of Intestine Baalism were showing us pictures of their cats and small sweater-wearing dogs, but competitively, trying to get us to say which was the cutest. There at Alps, the unmasked druids were similarly delighted by our astonishment. Missing all this was their Oracle, Fumika, who had disappeared into the night hours prior and in almost supernatural fashion, which she has the tendency to do. My earlier vision of her disapparating hadn’t been a dream or hallucination. You can tell she’s not the type who mingles or has any interest in drinking 200 [yen] beers with a raucous, slurring, and moderately incoherent rabble until 2 or 3 in the morning, even though one would suppose the middle of the night would be the most natural time for her to be active.

Later, after a series of careful consultations and bloody offerings, I found out her disappearing is a result of her unwillingness to contradict or ruin her spectacular stage presence, which is, according to her and literally everyone else who’s ever seen her, “like a ghost or something”. She’s serious and devoted and has settled on “uncouth” to describe how the carelessness of wrecking their image would strike her and their faithful followers. Harima and Kyo pressure her to be more social, but she responds by chiding them for their failure to understand her goal of maintaining the artistic vision they all work so hard to successfully present. It is, after all, a performance art of a different type and caliber than you usually see at a basement venue.

Matt, Kaala founder and show producer who had until recently booked a lot of their shows, had the distinct impression that Begräbnis was Fumika’s project, as I think a lot of us assumed. But this is not so: the older and more outgoing druid, Harima, started it and recruited her. Fumika used to be more into the hardcore and punk scenes in Sendai, had one other band with two other women and, somewhat shockingly, has never liked metal. She also seems to have a lot of understandable hostility toward people who are shallow about the musical aspect of what they do and are more interested in socializing and messing around - “douchey guys and bands are shallow and douchey forever,” she proclaims simply – because she was like that once, too. Ultimately, people need to look inward, figure out what they want, and produce something of quality or at least in earnestness, or she won’t waste her time with them. The Oracle liketh not your dalliances and shenanigans.

Despite this, the ambient, spooky sound of Harima’s project appealed to a deeper aesthetic within Fumika. But she has never identified with metal nor associated with “metal” guys who all seem to wear the same stereotypical “black leather jacket and camo pants” uniform, nor thought that there was much of anything in that scene for her. Japan is a very cliquey place, like an onion comprised of countless rings and levels of social circles, and I am not surprised that as a female musician Fumika has felt pressured, annoyed, marginalised, and excluded from some of those circles that are clearly her own territory. This is why I enjoy her aggressive, misanthropic attitude and deem her hostility “understandable”. I feel the same way, and I’m not from a society that ranks below most of the developing world in gender equality and lacking even the corresponding words to translate and use the term.

I ask if she has ever heard of blackgaze, and she says she’ll have to check out Ghost Bath and a couple of other bands I suggest. She likes that I approached her after their set during Blood Rite Vol. 12 at Moonstep in a disco-era sun dress with blue flowers in my hair and is surprised and encouraged by the fact that there are many more varied subgenres of metal than she realised and that a lot of people don’t feel the need to conform to the stereotypical styles of which she had long ago grown so very weary. This all strikes me as beautifully complex: someone who everyone takes for an extremely introverted mystery and who absolutely could not care less about what anyone thinks pouring so much creative effort out in public. And she doesn’t really know why she’s chosen something so theatrical, or why it chose her. “I’m calmly on my way to my ideals, so sometimes I temporarily content myself with my performance, Fumika explains. True to form, she adds “but I’ll never feel satisfied. It’s like chasing a shadow without a shape.”

Last month Begräbnis released a three-track split EP with Danish drone/doom band Sol, which you can preorder from the Weird Truth Productions webstore. Like their Facebook page and check the Kaalendar so you know exactly where in the land of the ethereal doom to be for the next funeral. You can follow Courtney on her instagram page.