2016’s Yodh cemented Mizmor’s place amongst the few artists in the rabbit hole of a genre that is blackened doom to have managed to enthral a wider audience. Sole member and multi-instrumentalist A.L.N. managed to perfectly intertwine the bleak ruggedness more commonly attributed to the Scandinavian wilderness than his home city of Portland USA with the funereal chasm of despair that contemporaries such as Bell Witch have unleashed in recent years. The project’s third full-length instalment, Cairn, sees Mizmor put everything on the table, inspired and brutally open, yet not exactly vulnerable. We caught up with A.L.N. to discuss the album and the themes that shaped a record that topped so many Album of the Year lists.
“The absurd condition of life exists in the world we live in, in that the fact is that mankind continually seeks meaning in a world that is inherently devoid of ultimate meaning,” A.L.N. tells us over the phone. The first thing that is instantly striking is how clear and methodically he communicates the message that runs deep throughout Cairn. There is no filler or padding to be found, either in the music itself, or the 40-minute conversation we are about to have. This is a man on a mission, who knows exactly the role that both recent and past life experience has had in shaping his creative output, and wants to make sure that any engaged listener is fully aware of the depth and meaning to his work. “A big theme of this album is clarity, in the past Mizmor has been quite lo-fi and obscure. It was mysterious and you couldn’t understand any lyrics, and they weren’t released because it was supposed to be veiled as I felt self-conscious about the subject matter. Whereas now I feel very confident about my point of view and I want people to understand the lyrics and subject matter, I want the themes to be known.”
That singular underlying theme is what lends the album its title, Cairn. The Gaelic word meaning a memorial or monument, usually in the form of a pile of rocks, but taken to grandiose levels on this occasion, rooted in the question humanity has been struggling with since we started to walk upright. “For me there are three options laid out in response to the revelation of the absurd condition of life. And that creates this cognitive dissonance and an existential dread, and you can either respond by taking a leap of faith out of those circumstances by claiming that there is absolute meaning, thereby believing in God and the supernatural. You can commit suicide because you’ve decided that life is no longer worth living because there is no ultimate meaning, or you can accept the situation for what it is in reality and live each day in the present, in the face of the absurd, and create your own meaning and seek to figure out how to enjoy your own life and carry on.”
This extremely functional “matter of fact” approach only works when you are as true to your convictions as is displayed in Cairn. “And so the idea of the cairns comes in for me that there really is only the third option that’s viable, because there is no evidence for the supernatural or for God so you must reject that. Suicide is also an escape out of the circumstance, it’s not truly a solution and it’s a sad situation so you must reject that, the only option that is left is that you must live in the absurdity that is life without God, and I wanted to erect giant monuments in this desert that I feel lost in, so that I don’t waste time revisiting these subjects after I’ve already in myself concluded that there is nothing to be had in these areas.”
Once you take this into account it becomes very easy to deconstruct the album song by song, which is fully intended. It suddenly become a celebration of enlightenment and making the informed decision, as well as a personal reminder of how you came to that conclusion in the first place. Opener ‘Desert Of Absurdity’ frames the premise for what’s to follow, the introspective uncertainty that creeps in and has you questioning the most basic of fundamentals. What follows is the rationale being applied, knocking down each argument, in the shape of a cairn until you come to the logical conclusion. “First I built the cairn to god, which was the first thing I ruled out in my life and my mind and that begs the question of whether life is worth living, so the second cairn is to suicide and this sort of linear reduction. And then, having ruled both those things out, track four (‘The Narrowing Way’) frames how one might walk the straight line that is life in the present and in the truth, so that if I’m on the narrowing way moving forward in my life and I have a moment of doubt or hesitation to where I’m tempted to believe in god or kill myself I can look back and see that I’ve already been there, and made conclusions about that so that I can continue forward in life.”
The cover art that adorns Cairn is another obvious example of A.L.N.’s pursuit of perfection, a glorious depiction of both the physical monument and the god it represents, titled “Time Immemorial”, it is a stunning work created by Polish painter Mariusz Lewandowski. “Yodh has [cover art from Polish surrealist] Zdzislaw Beksinski who is deceased and I wanted to continue in that vein, but I can only pick from a catalogue and I wanted to commission something that is unique to my themes. And so I became familiar with Lewandowski through Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper and I realised his style is similar. He admits he’s heavily influenced by Beksinski. So working with Mariusz meant I could have this insane surrealist dark depictions of the landscape and the subconscious, and he did a perfect job of depicting my themes.”
As with the rest of Mizmor’s back catalogue, Cairn is an album that its creator “wouldn’t expect to be accessible to everyone.” It’s somewhat of a cliché to say that it rewards repeated listens and your full attention, but it truly does. Even after this interview, which gave us a better understanding of the themes and a higher appreciation of the artistry involved more, more was revealed yet again on the next playthrough. Mizmor will be playing a few prestige shows, including Roadburn 2020, a relative rarity that will make the album more tangible and bring the concept to life and into reality.
Cairn is out now on Gilead Media.