Cast your inward eye to the jagged peaks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Sharp, cold, and snow-capped peaks reach upward for the sun and dominate all that sits below their grandeur. Far below these mountaintops lies a watery, chthonic world. Here is a place of vast caves, grottos dripping with moisture and hidden by impenetrable darkness.
The new Canadian group ARGONAVIS passes between these two worlds on their debut album “Passing the Igneous Maw.” Solidly built on a basis of death doom, Argonavis incorporates choral music, classical influences, and more to create an unexpectedly ambitious album. I spoke to the band’s anonymous main entity, for their first ever interview, presented here for your reading pleasure:
I’m going to break all my rules about avoiding this cliché question and begin the interview by asking about the band’s name, because I know it was chosen very intentionally and is a sort of lynchpin of the concept behind Passing the Igneous Maw. So, tell us, what is Argonavis?
Argo Navis was a constellation spanning the heavens visible to ancient astronomers of the Mediterranean. It was also known to Egyptians and certain tribal societies throughout history and prehistory. From the Mediterranean angle, it was understood to represent the ship Argo that carried Jason and the Argonauts of ancient Grecian lore on their journey to recover the Golden Fleece. Because of its vastness, modern astronomers deemed it too large to study empirically, and the formation was divided. The wheeling heavens have since turned and the celestial bodies which originally formed the constellation are longer visible to the modern eye. Merging the two words Argo and Navis to form Argonavis, we liked the archaic association; the phrase seemed thematically appropriate for a primitive doom project, while possessing phonetic appeal.
The album abounds with imagery from ancient Greek myth, and particularly elicits an air of the “journey to the underworld” and the self-transformation of the mystery schools. On the other hand we have references to regional geologic and other natural phenomena, seeming to place man as a tiny speck in the face of powerful natural forces. If these are thesis and antithesis, what is the resulting synthesis?
The central concept for Passing the Igneous Maw is death and regeneration. This primary thematic element comprises the duality between Katabasis, the descent, and Katharmos, its regenerative counterpart. Near the time when this release was conceptualized, I became transfixed with the historical uses of caves and moving water as liminal spaces and entryways for mortals to pass into Hell. From there, the motifs associated with Argonavis began to take concrete form. I visualized a sea vessel moving through an archway of fuming volcanic stone, traversing a subterranean world of death, and reemerging thereafter. I created the album artwork to reflect this imagery. In the painting, the ocean flows past rows of volcanic columnar basalt, like jagged rows of teeth, into the underworld. In the narrowing of the grotto’s maw, a river is formed. Fumes form upon the seawater’s contact with lava flows, becoming a boiling torrent of blood, the mythological, hellish Pyriphlegethon. This imagery is from the traveller’s perspective as they prepare to pass through the igneous maw on the pathway from doom to regeneration.
With respect to geological elements aside from this volcanic imagery, the Canadian Rockies are close to my heart, and in their honour, I allude to specific areas such as Wapta Falls, The Fortress (a mountain located in Kananaskis), and local flora such as the wolfwillow or silverberry. Carving the Wapta Gorge was written in reverence towards rivers and glaciers slashing through mountainsides like silver blades—inexorable, and destructive forces beyond control. We brought these visions to life through our promotional photo shoot by Pagan Fires Photography, in a frozen river gorge in the Canadian Rockies.
To specifically answer your question, the final synthesis occurs when all aforementioned constituents merge into one continuous, multifaceted cycle of death and regeneration. Reverence toward the unstoppable forces of death and entropy and the restoration which follows is the common thematic thread throughout a conceptually chaotic tapestry.
So is this cycle one that is to be understood and rejoiced in through all its peaks and valleys? Or is the goal towards liberation from this endless Samsara as the Buddha and the path of the ascetic would have it?
Samsara refers to a cyclical process of death, reorganization of matter, and reincarnation of energy into different life forms. It’s interesting that you bring this up, since it precisely summarizes what I am referring to in terms of death and regeneration, and how they may symbolically manifest in personal development throughout a lifetime. However, I talk about this more in terms of thermodynamics; entropy is constantly forcing all organization of matter into a state of decay and equilibrium. Life strains against this process, and requires tremendous energy input to maintain organization. For instance:
It tipped weighty totality, it disturbed the quintessential, entropic balance between vitality and demise to release the mountain’s destructive potential.
In this lyrical passage, I visualized the natural force of gravity leveling mountains and razing various life forms after millennia of resistance. However, the mountain is not entirely destroyed, the stones are not obliterated into nothingness, but its matter is reorganized into a different physical form…
As you recognized before, the album places humankind as an insignificant speck in face of natural forces. We are in no position to be assigning value judgements to natural processes. The many peaks and valleys which are savored and suffered are discovered and accepted as a necessary part of development in any of life’s domains; emotionally, artistically, professionally, psychologically, and interpersonally. To be clear, this is not a nihilistic sentiment; it is recognition that the process towards self-actualization is filled with many shattering moments. It is a summary of our belief that it is better to face those moments and develop resiliency and insight with each turn of the cycle, rather than becoming apathetic or blindly hedonic in face of inevitable suffering.
The descent into the underworld is a theme that is repeated over and over in myths of Indo-European origin (and likely many others I am not aware of). It always seems to have a goal of some kind, most often resurrection. Odin and Baldur, Hercules and Theseus, the stories of the Irish Echtras, Lemminkäinen and his mother, all the way back to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. As someone who’s engaged with these themes I’m curious as to your opinion on what is actually being sought after on these underworld journeys. A missing piece of ourselves perhaps? Curious that in all these stories, what is found and brought back is never quite the same as it was before…
In these stories, the characters descend into the underworld to defy death, or to seek resurrection as you mentioned. For instance, Gilgamesh journeys to the underworld to pursue immortality after witnessing the inglorious death of Enkidu, forcing him to confront and grow to fear his own impermanence. Unlike Gilgamesh’s approach, my intention for this theme is that the underworld and death are not actively sought out in a conquest to defeat the cycle of decay and regeneration. Instead, discovery of the passage to the underworld occurs however and whenever it may. Regardless of our conquests and intentions, we will come face to face with death and demise before emerging, having gained insight from this encounter. This developmental cycle is acknowledged as inexorable and eternal—respect toward its majesty and might is paid where it is owed.
Interestingly, despite their best efforts, the heroes’ efforts to defeat death failed. For example, after being denied immortality in his journey to the underworld, a serpent steals the plant that would restore Gilgamesh’s youth, ruining his final hope of halting death and decay’s encroachment. Gilgamesh finds that as a mortal he was ill positioned to reroute predestination with death as the inevitable outcome to begin with.
Within the duality of decay and regeneration, katabasis and katharmos are both necessary for continuous self-actualization. Defeating the cycle would disrupt its processes. Through avoiding the descent to the depths of suffering, we would likewise impede the subsequent ascension, stunting our development. In all instances, mythological or lyrical, the final revelation is that the descent to the underworld is not really about overcoming death, it is about the return to life.
I can hear many of the dualities discussed above presented in the music. We hear the punishing death/doom punctuated by operatic choral vocals, pianos and flutes. You’ve really managed to avoid one of the major pitfalls of the genre, that being lack of dynamics. I often find many death/doom or funeral doom albums sound like a few songs that are long for the sake of being long and the end result often doesn’t sound like a cohesively structured album. Passing the Igneous Maw certainly does NOT have that problem. I’m curious if that was consciously approached? Take us through some of the recording process, if you could. I know the album was recorded over a long period.
Thank you for the compliment, I’m glad this release can be recognized as dynamic, though it is still undoubtedly a patient listen. Passing the Igneous Maw was an organic entity, gradually taking place over time—the project was a living beast which proved to have a mind of its own. At first, I began writing riffs with the intended final outcome being a short, primitive doom/death demo. Argonavis’ second member joined, and as we developed the compositions together, it became clear that the amount of material would be better suited to a full length. From the backbone of conventional doom/death instrumentation, the songs were fleshed out with synth, trumpets, and choral vocal harmonies. These additional instruments were essential in the composition of the neoclassical tracks. Everything was recorded at home or in a small storage shed dead center of a field in the remote Gulf Islands. Samples were gathered from the Gulf Island’s grottos, coves, and marinas. All elements were spliced together before being mixed and mastered by the second member. Adding small details could be compared to splashing vibrant crimson onto an otherwise bleak canvas. Most of the albums that I have grown most attached to are dynamic. I have found that unexpected textures contribute to the impact, beauty, and enduring listenability of a release.
Through the process outlined above, we stumbled across our sound through trial and error. For subsequent releases, we begin with a clear vision which will guide the writing and refine the performance from the start, which I hope will further enhance cohesiveness.
I’m always happy to hear from other artists who appreciate obscure sampling and field recordings… often I find they contain a ton of significance to the artist themselves which is usually hidden to other listeners, like a sigil hidden and forgotten after its creation in order to make an impression on the unconscious mind. I think their whole becomes more than the sum of their parts in a mysterious, intangible way. Any thoughts on this hidden element in art?
I wholeheartedly agree. I have found that when my work is internally-driven, it is propelled by the greatest creative and emotional forces, and is more gratifying. I hope that in using raw, personally significant elements, the emotional resonance of the album is not lost through transmission between us as creators and the audience.
The narrative of the album outlines a series of personal experiences of adversity and victory. I use the cultural tradition of storytelling through allegory and archetype as a method of obscuring and guarding the highly personal nature of the lyrical content. In this sense, the album overflows with hidden elements. This could be thought of as a tribute to the usage of the same devices by the aforementioned mystery/alchemic schools and hermetic scripts. Wordplay and symbolism were commonly used in a chaotic system of references and codes:
“wherever we have spoken openly we have said nothing, but where we have written something in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth” (Rosarium philosophorum).
For instance, the image of the serpent has been evolutionarily coded into our collective unconsciousness as a common enemy of mankind, appearing as a malevolent archetype across history and cultures (you can check out the Theory of Preparedness from evolutionary psychology for more on this, it’s interesting and relevant to this idea). The serpent, specifically Rerek…the serpent fiend of Egyptian and Templar tradition, is allegorically referenced within the lyrics of Blazing Torrent to signify a common enemy of mankind, but also to signify a destructive adversary of my own. I truly believe that the inclusion of hidden elements in any work enriches the final product, and it is a device that I will always use.
I hope this has served the readers as a good introduction to some of the driving force behind the mysterious entity known as Argonavis… I will leave any last words with you and thank you for your insightful answers.
Thank you for the opportunity to recount and dissect some of the thought processes that went into this album. The interview was my privilege!
All band photography courtesy of Pagan Fires Photography.