The notion of contrast is a foundational element to all that is substantial. The negative space begets the bodies alive within it, and the darkness of void only makes the light held inside shine that much brighter. This law of contrast extends to virtually all facets of our existence: political, artistic, and social, to name but a few. But there are moments when this law is highlighted, even challenged, when we are confronted with something or someone that defies what we would normally expect or understand.
In the past few years, the work of Elijah Tamu (working under the banner of Ikonostasis) has risen swiftly like a skybound bolt of lightning to the forefront of not only the world of underground metal, but art enthusiasts in general. Across mediums, Elijah’s work has been stirring the attention of many to be turned his way. Both in the way of his visual works as a strikingly talented painter, as well as musical endeavours through his black metal project, Panegyrist, Elijah possesses a unique voice that originates from a divine well, rather than infernal.
Identifying as a creedally Orthodox Christian seems contrary to also working within and being an avid lover of black metal. This very duality raises the question of contrast within art and soul.
Over the course of many months of correspondence, Elijah welcomed alongside some healthy conversation on his magnificent canvas craft, illumination and contemplation of both his faith and his place within the music landscape that, almost unanimously, seems at odds with his own beliefs. But like anything of any measurable depth, there is much more beneath the surface as seen from the outside.
This interview stretched far into the aethersphere. So much so that we will have to break this into 3 parts. Prepare to absorb the enlightened words that follow.
“It feels like the right time to reveal at least some of the story,” Elijah states. “I’ve been open about it in other interviews, but as some context for those who don’t know, I’m a devout Christian and it’s impossible for me to discuss these things without reference to this.
“I started doing art at a very young age, and during high school I began to really develop my abilities. However, during college this was choked out by other responsibilities, and I entered into a period of dry years where I produced almost nothing. In the first few years after college I felt adrift and directionless, weighed down by oppressive clouds of dread, spiraling introspection, and depression. My faith was still intact, but it seemed dry and withered: an ideological structure that continued to offer a moral framework for my life but didn’t deliver on any promises of flourishing. During this dark time I also felt a pull toward black metal, but aside from some peripheral dabblings I chose to stay out of that world. The reasons for this caution were religious in nature; I sensed a darkness and a power in black metal that went beyond mere aesthetics. Some will call that superstitious, but what do I care? My worldview has always been of an older order; the modern or post-modern reductivism that grants validity only to material or psychological explanations has never been convincing to me. I experience the spiritual plane as a real and tangible thing.
“On Good Friday of 2015 I experienced what I might describe as the breaking of a curse. During the evening service at my church I went to the bishop and asked for prayer, describing to him the cycles of hopelessness I was trapped in. The bishop said he sensed a demonic presence lodged somewhere in my throat and asked if we could pray at the baptismal font. He immersed my head in the water, and when he brought me out again he said I could “cough up” whatever it was that was lodged inside me. I coughed: an act of faith, despite a skepticism that was also present. And as I stood there dripping water, an immense relief and joy flooded me. Earlier in the service, before I went with my bishop to the baptismal font, a stranger I had never seen before approached me, and I remember love radiating from her like sunlight. She said that God had told her specifically to come and pray for me. I don’t remember what she looked like, because in my memory I can only see a golden radiance emanating from her face, and the light obscures her features. I’ll never forget that evening: shadow and water and the most beautiful light.
“In the months following that night, I saw distinct changes in my spiritual life and thought patterns. There was a marked joy and freedom where there had once been stagnation and despair. This all happened around the time I was finishing up a six-month intensive spiritual formation program based on Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises. The breaking of the curse and these times of deep prayer unlocked new depths inside me. It felt as if inner pathways were opened to allow the living current of my Lord’s Spirit to flow more freely within. The first time I physically felt my body inhabited by fire was when I was praying with a friend. It was a distinct somatic sensation, like a churning pillar of flame or a river of lightning coursing through the space behind my ribcage, setting my body trembling. I was acutely aware that I was not alone in my body, that another life was inhabiting my space. It was frightening in the sense that I felt I had become a gateway to a torrent so powerful it could rip my being apart—and yet I trusted.
“When I was confirmed at my church that year, my bishop prayed over me and asked for God to bless my artistic work. He specifically prayed about receiving an anointing for artistic work and painting: that I would receive an ability to paint intricate details and convey beauty. I thought this was perhaps a little strange, since at that time I hadn’t considered doing art in anywhere near the capacity that I am now. But things have a funny way of converging, I guess.
“On Good Friday of 2016, one year after the incident at the baptismal font, another piece fell into place. As I sat in the evening church service, I remember suddenly having a sensation like electricity surging through my hands. I entered into a kind of altered state, and again there was the distinct sense of the living presence of the Holy Spirit occupying my body, accompanied by a shaking that I couldn’t control. A friend was sitting next to me, and afterwards she told me that the word “anointing” had been running through her mind earlier in the service. The phrase was persistent, so she started praying for “anointing” for me, whatever that meant. It was then that I had started feeling that intense electric sensation, though I didn’t know she had been praying for me at the time. And she didn’t know that just the day before I had prayed a very specific prayer about anointing in relation to the spiritual work that I wanted to do in my music.
“There’s another piece to this story too. By this point a strong friendship had developed between me and Jonathan, the bassist-vocalist of the band Lo-Ruhamah. Their 2007 album The Glory of God has been one of the most spiritually formative records in my life. Knowing of Jonathan only through his band’s music, I had found him on Facebook in 2013 or 2014 and we then began a long correspondence that has resulted in a truly special friendship. We talked in depth about the strange connection that both of us had sensed between our shared Christian faith and black metal. Jonathan had a much longer and more involved history with black metal—a long, dark night of the soul that he himself had walked through. After my spiritual breakthroughs, through prayerful consideration I sensed that the time was right for me to begin exploring black metal at a much deeper level. As I did so, I encountered a wealth of esoteric artwork that instantly struck a chord with me: works by Denis Forkas Kostromitin, Benjamin Vierling, Timo Ketola, and many others. I decided to begin painting again. Jonathan really liked my first painting and asked if I would be interested in painting the cover for the second Lo-Ruhamah full-length. This was in 2016; the music had actually been composed and mostly recorded around nine years earlier, but a slew of complications had hindered the completion. Now Jonathan told me that they had finished the album and finally decided on a title: Anointing. This album was much darker than their previous material, and its lyrical content is a hellish journey in itself. For the artwork, I had to reach deep in what was actually a pretty emotionally taxing effort, but in the end I came out of it with a feeling that I had created exactly what I was supposed to. Sometimes you have to walk through the abyss before you can shed light.
“Anointing was released in 2017 on I, Voidhanger Records, and that marks the beginning of my artistic path opening up on a public level. When I paint, I speak a language of death, transformation, and rebirth. I speak these things with conviction because I’ve tasted that water and can’t turn back. The very act of painting was one of the many things that was reborn in my transformation; never before had I known such a direct sense of spiritual purpose behind picking up a paint brush. Something fundamental shifted. Yeshua! Christos! The true Morning Star burns in the temple of my heart, and I offer myself like a stained glass window to make known this hidden light. Christ, secret sun of midnight’s depths, radiate through me! I’ve been given an anointing; I pray I carry it faithfully.”
Such experiences speak to the sincerity of one’s belief, and the raw power of what that belief causes (or allows) him to perceive and experience. As Elijah delves further into explaining the complex template that makes up both his art and his faith, it becomes obvious that one cannot be spoken of in absence of the other.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about the concepts I’m trying to convey, and I often have long, in-depth discussions with the bands I work with. With each piece, it’s an honor to be able to provide a web of symbols that hopefully stays with the band, integrating itself into their frame of reference as they seek truth. Creating a personal iconography or symbol-language is often an important part of the spiritual journey, and if I’m able to act as a channel of Christ’s energies and truths with my additions to the symbol-vocabulary that a band collects along their journey, then I’m glad for it. One of the frustrations I have with the increasing use of complex esoteric imagery in underground metal is that a lot of the time it’s just there for purely aesthetic purposes, and there doesn’t seem to be much thoughtfulness behind it. Now, I’ve of course sometimes done art for bands who don’t have a particular spiritual focus, so I say all of this with an acknowledgement that the lines are blurry. What I can say is that I always make it a point to create my art with the same prayerful receptivity to the leading of my Lord’s Spirit, regardless of what project I’m working on. So it’s always a spiritual exercise for me.
“There’s usually a bunch of sketching that happens before I actually start painting the final piece. This is a time when I meditate on the themes and actually pray for God’s guidance in the formulation of images. Pictures form in my mind, and they subsequently transform as I consider other complementary aspects to the themes at hand. Sometimes the raw images that appear in my mind become the springboard for further meditation, and I begin to see hidden connections I wasn’t consciously aware of before. I think of the process as an unfolding conversation with God. Sometimes he reins me in when a particular line of thinking begins to move me in a direction that’s different from where I’m supposed to go. It’s both creative and guided; I don’t know exactly how to explain it. I don’t feel as though I’m just an inanimate or mechanistic instrument in the hands of a dictating power, but at the same time I feel as though I’m being guided toward the uncovering of a particular constellation of meaning that has always existed. To flow with the Tao is to be in harmony with its (his) current, but within this harmony freedom is also possible. I can harmonize with the Tao as I choose, weaving endless permutations of melody upon the cantus firmus, though there is always a structural elegance to this dance. There is a law, and that law is love.
“But let’s return to the concrete aspects of creating art. Once the initial ideas are solidified, it becomes very calculated, as opposed to stream-of-consciousness. A lot of my work involves precise geometrical patterns and symmetry, so there’s a high level of layout sketching that I do before beginning with the color. I always have all the outlines and details pencilled in. Even with the actual process of painting, I’m very controlled and naturally inclined toward precision. One of the things I’m working on developing is allowing the paint to have more freedom. Some of my favorite sections of the paintings I’ve done have been areas where I’ve used wet washes, allowing the colors to swirl and dance in ways that I can’t fully control. Those places end up with such beautiful gradients of tone, and they’re the places where I have the least amount of control. There’s a lesson to be learned there. It brings to mind what I was just talking about regarding freedom and the Tao. I also find that each painting is a learning experience; I’m constantly faced with the challenge of trying to create visual effects that I haven’t done before. This is particularly true when I’m trying to capture luminescence—how light emanates from a source and reflects off of different objects and surfaces, and how shadows are cast. There are often times when I feel stuck and don’t like the effect I’m achieving; I use these times as opportunities for prayer, seeking guidance on how to move forward. Then I often just seem to stumble on techniques that work beautifully and create effects I hadn’t imagined. This leaves me with a profound sense of gratitude.”
And while Elijah’s muse and well of inspiration is directly, irrevocably rooted in Christ, there will remain for many the question of how, or why, he continues to plum the conceptual depths of the macabre.
“No belief system is worthwhile if it avoids taking a long, hard look at the realities of death, darkness, and evil. I want truth, not sentimentalism. The message of Christ confronts darkness head-on and transcends death by taking up the very emblems of death and using them for a new purpose. Is not the cross itself a symbol of death? In its original context, the cross represented the very worst that the ruling powers of the world could do to a person. In embracing death, Christ took the full force of sin and death onto himself. They did their worst to him, and yet he could not be held down; the secret of the inverted cross is precisely Christ’s conquest, his triumph over the inferior weaponry of the world. Having thus triumphed, Christ has command of both the inverted and upright cross; neither form has any power over him, and they instead become weapons in his hand, serving his purposes. Turning the cross upright again, we lift it in the same manner that the skull of a defeated enemy is raised on a spear as a battle-standard. O, death where is thy sting? Why should we fear death? As initiates in these mysteries, the twice-born in Christ are free to speak the language of darkness and death, so long as we do so in a manner guided by our Lord. When appropriately wielded, these things become tools in our hands. “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23, ESV). But I also stress that I am not free to use these things however I please; instead I invite the Spirit of Truth to weigh my words and actions and guide my decisions. I am free because I am not free. I am liberated precisely because I am not my own but have been bought with a price (see 1 Corinthians 6:20).”
The rigors of introspection and re-evaluation that come with Elijah’s interaction with the black metal world and culture might seem unnecessary to others who share a love of Christ. For them, it might seem an illogical grinding of opposing forces, even futile to try and harmonize them. But for Elijah, that very conflict is a valuable catalyst for spiritual fortitude, and the art that is born of that friction stands as ever more illuminating “beacons to the spirit”.
“You asked an insightful question—whether the inherent tensions involved in my work serve an illuminating function for me personally. Yes, absolutely. The path I’ve chosen regularly puts me between a rock and a hard place, and this has forced me time and time again to lay my ambitions, fears, and uncertainties at the feet of Christ. It’s forced me to face my own arrogance and cowardice. On a few occasions it’s forced me to examine my belief system more deeply, when my views have been significantly challenged by others. Most importantly, it’s taught me more and more about what it means to serve Christ alone, regardless of what others think of my decisions. I haven’t yet come under heavy fire for any of my decisions as an artist, but that will likely not always be the case. When the wind and waves become stronger, will I have the singularity of vision to keep my eyes on my Lord and walk across the waters that would otherwise drown me? That kind of devotion is beyond my own power to simply will into being; after all it is Christ who is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2, ESV). This is how my love for my Lord is grown, solidified, and proven: with eyes and heart fixed on him, the Source. Nothing else matters in the end.
“I will continue to plant “beacons to the spirit” for as long as I’m on this earth. Right now I’ve been given the gift of being able to do this through art and music. If my Lord calls me another way at some point, I will follow. One day I’ll have to leave everything behind anyway, so I choose to hold my blessings with open hands, not clenched fists. Detachment is a much-needed spiritual discipline. For the moment I believe there’s continued work to be done here: a black and holy work.”
Join us for the next Chapter of this conversation with Elijah Tamu in due time.