Death gives life meaning, it is said. And plenty of it fuels the heart of Twilight Fauna’s breathtaking album The Year the Stars Fell. Atmospheric black metal merges with Appalachian guitar strumming and folk song structure throughout said album. Plus, the tremolo picked riffs and steady barrage of fill-ins is certain to invoke ghosts of folk/pagan sorrow the likes of which has rarely been breathed life into by metal.
Twilight Fauna is comprised of Paul Ravenwood on guitars and vocals, and Josh Thieler on drums. Both musicians explore the gravely gold aural textures that coincide with loss, that convey heartbreak in the manner of bereavement and despair. It is a full-length album not to be missed by fans of atmospheric/folk black metal in any similarity to Panopticon amongst others. Throughout the runtime, come sounds of cicadas and spitting fire. The Year the Stars Fell is beautiful, passionate, and brimming with emotive quality. For Lost Souls by Cvlt Nation in the month of March, 2017, I interview the two musicians who call themselves Twilight Fauna. My soul is touched with the sound of melancholic tremolo-picking and cymbal crashing, the slight strums of the strings and snare bashing in tribute to the natural forces that move us and overpower us.
The Year the Stars Fell is rife with melancholic aural textures from plucked strings and contrasting guitar strumming, almost suggesting that life and death are at the root of this album’s primary inspiration. Tell us what concept drives the recording. Is it a celebration of live given meaning by loss.
Paul: It’s very much about death and loss. When I first started writing this record, to put it bluntly, I basically felt like my life was coming apart. I had just lost two people that were close to me, one right after the other. I lost our family farm shortly after that. These were all aspects of my life that really grounded me to a sense of place, they gave me a sense of safety. They defined me in a lot of ways. When the things we hold dear are ripped away so quickly, it can feel like the very stars are falling. And for a period of a few years, it very much felt like that to me. There’s been a couple years’ distance between writing it and the LP coming out, and to be completely honest I’m just now getting to the point where there are moments where it feels like I’m back on solid ground. So this album is literal in the sense of being a summation of all that, but in a way I hope it is also celebration of life because having gone through all that I’m still here. Forever changed, but still moving forward.
There’s some folk music on the album that features lyrics with very vivid imagery. Was it intended to portray how music is cathartic regionally? Are people indigenous to a locale also known to use music to celebrate the memories of loved ones who’ve passed?
Paul: There’s definitely a long history of mountain music being about loss and sadness. A lot of times when folks hear old bluegrass or folk songs, they pay more attention to the tempo, which is usually upbeat, so they assume it’s a happy song but if you read through the lyrics they’re usually sad as hell. That’s because folks wrote about what they knew, and life in the mountains is hard. That’s as true a hundred years ago as it is today. I’m sure there is a certain emotional catharsis in singing about that, but also it’s a keeping alive of the memories of those that are no longer with us. There is a storytelling aspect to it that I hope carries over into what we do.
Many of my impressions on the album come from the depressive metal and atmospheric metal that is utilized fondly here. Does the album cover also hold great metaphor for what drives The Year the Stars Fell conceptually? Tell us about how the artwork coincides with the music on the album.
Paul: A lot of the artwork for past Twilight Fauna albums has been nature or historical scenes from around my home in Tennessee. I wanted to link my music directly to the landscapes that inspire me. But this record theme wise is so much about my own story that I made a conscious decision to put myself on the cover for the first time. I wanted the artwork to reflect how personal the album is. So that’s me in the field behind my house during an incredibly private moment. Not really the kind of moment people typically see band wise, but I wanted it to be a reflection of the private moments that the album is about. It’s my life laid bare in a lot of ways. Also the birds we used for the inserts were amazing. The weekend that Josh spent at my place tracking drums, a pair of falcons kept circling. As we were hanging out on my porch between takes I snapped a couple photos. It felt natural to use them for the insert, in a way they chose us really. I don’t want to get too metaphysical but there is something poetic about a pair of creatures like that showing up out of nowhere and hanging out with us the first time we recorded together. It was one of those moments where it felt like the universe was trying to tell you something, and when she speaks I try to pay attention. I had just moved into a new place at that point, and we ended up coexisting together for the rest of the summer. I spent quite a few mornings drinking coffee and watching them hunt rabbits in my garden. Once late autumn rolled around they moved on for warmer pastures.
This is the first time Josh Thieler is introduced as a member of the band. How did you guys work out what style of drumming to utilize for the album? Does the drumming during intense sections in the music also give credence to strong emotions that drove the songwriting.
Josh: Since Paul has been doing this for so long by himself and it was such a personal album, I really thought he would be very controlling of the drums that I played for the album. That was not the case. He seemed fully confident that I felt what these songs needed and allowed me to play to my own strengths and experiment with the essence of the songs as he wrote them.
Paul: Bringing in someone to handle drums was something I had wrestled with on and off for a few years. I knew on this album I wanted to do a complete 180 from the minimalist drumming on past albums, I really wanted them to reflect the chaotic moments I had experienced. I’m a competent drummer but not anywhere near Josh’s ability. He could bring ideas to the table that were beyond my skill level and writing ability. It didn’t make sense to bring him in, then chain his hands and force him to do exactly what I would have done. So I gave him all the room he wanted to do his own work. And in terms of why Josh specifically, TF is such a personal project, it’s a big part of my life, something I’ve poured myself into for years, so bringing someone else into that wasn’t a decision based solely on how well he can drum. I needed to make sure it was someone who I could trust and who felt like family. I could tell from how Josh’s band Slaves B.C. operates, it’s not just playing instruments together, it’s a family that takes care of each other. Ultimately, that was more important to me than how fast he could play. Twilight Fauna is such an important part of my life, it wasn’t so much bringing in a bandmate as it was adopting a brother.
This appears to be quite a personal album for Paul Ravenwood in particular. How does Twilight Fauna approach the idea of cathartically expressing one’s emotions during the writing of music versus depressive metal bands who seek to invoke dissimilarly self-destructive lyrics and concepts?
Paul: I’ve always strived to make Twilight Fauna an honest reflection of the human experience. Life has its highs and lows. Sometimes it takes you to dark places, and every so often there are beautiful moments that are usually far too fleeting. Even though this album is more focused on the dark side of that, I’ve always tried to capture both the highs and lows. Life and our decisions can be self-destructive, but they can also be creative. I would never want to corner myself into writing about one of those and not the other. It wouldn’t feel authentic to my own experience. I think that too often depressive/suicidal lyrics are over used in an attempt to give bands an edge, a lot like how you see so many write about Satan. If you’re Satanic or depressed and that’s how the writing comes out then go for it all the way. But that’s not been my own life experience and it’s not what inspires me.
Do you guys already have plans for the next Twilight Fauna release? If so, what can we expect from it?
Josh: We have already done quite a bit of recording for future releases. Paul came to stay with me over New Years and we got a bunch of stuff done. We will have more coming very soon. As far as the music itself, I feel like the direction has evolved slightly. Paul and I are collaborating more, experimenting more, and growing stronger together musically. I can tell you that some of this stuff coming soon is some of my favorite music I have ever been a part of.
Do you look back at the inspiration behind The Year The Stars Fell and agree that the music helps close another chapter in life as musicians and as individuals? What do you both agree is the highlight to the creative process involved in the making of this album?
Josh: For me it was being able to step into the habitat of another musician and be made welcome there. It was such a privilege to contribute to something as meaningful as this record is to Paul. I went into it excited to help a musician I loved and respected, and I came out of it feeling as though we were brothers in a shared appreciation for creation and music.
Paul: On my end it definitely feels like the closing of a chapter of my life. I had touched on some of the things on this album on past works, but as I was working through everything that happened this album very much became about trying to express all of that in one place. So in that respect it was about trying to come to terms with my struggles and move beyond all of it. This becoming the most collaborative record I’ve done, and not only with Josh but other folks who helped bring these tracks together, seems very much appropriate because there are people that helped carry me through some very dark moments. When you lose your family and your home, you create a new one. And that’s very much what I did. And in the process ending up opening new doors and having new experiences, both good and bad, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. So this record isn’t just a piece of music to me, it’s a testament to the whole process of losing even the stars, but creating new paths and forging on.
What albums helped inspire the mood in writing music for this album? Was the focal point of the album already potent enough to inspire writing the music without other bands’ music setting the mood for you guys to be creative?
Josh: The first time I recorded with Paul, I drove down from Pittsburgh, PA to Johnson City, TN. I basically followed the Appalachians the whole way down, so that definitely helped me get in tune with the spirit of the music. Paul had written and recorded the songs without drums, so I was able to listen to them in the car on the way down. I alternated between the tracks that would become “The Year the Stars Fell”, Paul’s older releases, Sigor Ros, Deafheaven, Silencer, ColdWorld, and old Darkthrone. But for me, the biggest inspiration for my drumming on “The Year the Stars Fell” was Paul himself: from getting to know him online beforehand, to being in his house, drinking his moonshine and talking around a fire he had built. I didn’t really know what I would do on these songs until meeting Paul himself, and it then all came together.
Paul: I listen to music for several hours each day, usually a mixture of older folk music and black metal so I’m sure those make their way into Twilight Fauna in one way or another. Something I’m really proud of is the straight bluegrass song on this record. That’s something I’ve toyed with for a long time and finally came about through a collaboration. Very often I’ll host friends at my house that are amazing bluegrass musicians. We’ll usually make food, drink a bunch of beer, then they’ll pick some traditional songs. It’s so different from the music I make style wise, but I see what I do as an extension of older mountain music. So these last few years those gatherings have had more of an effect on me musically, and personally, than a lot of what I listen to record wise. So to be able to collaborate on a bluegrass track with one of my oldest friends, someone I grew up with, and who specializes in that kind of folk music is a real highlight for me. In a lot of ways, older, sad traditional tunes fuel me a lot more than black metal. That track is a better representation of that than just about anything else I’ve done.
Do you agree that Twilight Fauna has a distinct sound and style from other bands that play even remotely similar to you? What sort of experimentation makes sense to incorporate in future albums?
Paul: That’s a hard thing to answer because it’s hard for me to step back and objectively separate myself from what we do. I can’t really compare it to others because I’m lost in the day to day aspects of doing it, if that makes any sense. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously said, “alright lets try to sound like X”. I’ve always just written what comes naturally and how it comes out is how it comes out. In a way I get so lost in the daily minutia of writing small parts, it’s impossible to plan ahead. Somewhere along the way I can eventually step back and say “this is something I can stand behind” or “I don’t like what happened here” and we’ll scrap it and start over. As far as experimentation on future albums, I’ve definitely gotten more proficient at traditional instruments like the banjo and dulcimer, so I’m using those to a greater extent, but in a lot of ways the rest of it is just as much a mystery to me as it is to people who listen to the records. We’re all exploring this path together.
How does black metal portray melancholy in spite of the music tending to be rather heavy and abrasive? Do you guys feel that there was a concerted attempt at playing melancholia without having to soften the music until it starts to sound like Barry Manilow?
Paul: I think there’s things that can be done from a technical standpoint like using major chords versus minor chords, or changing the vocal delivery to be more upbeat and less strained. But part of it is kind of indescribable and really up to the listener to decide how it makes them feel. You can write something with the standpoint of it being the most pained, saddest piece of music you’ve ever heard, but for a whole variety of reasons that can translate into hope for someone else. That’s a part of what makes emotional music so special. People mold it into something that speaks to their experience. If I write something from a dark or melancholic place, and someone sends me a message that says “I was going through something and your music helped get me to somewhere better” then I’m completely good with that. So in that regard, I don’t really have expectations of whether someone hears a piece of music as abrasive or melancholy. Because at the end of the day, it’s what they bring to the table that will control that. I don’t even really think of it in terms of trying to make a part more beautiful or more sad. Or more folk versus more black metal. It just kind of flows out of me however it’s going to, and I let it carry me with it. I hope some folks who listen take that same approach and see where it takes them. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered, it’s that you never know where life will take you.