Death, Reality and Religion: A Conceptual Analysis of a Post-Black Metal Masterpiece

Since time immemorial humans have wrestled with questions which, from what we surmise, no other creatures on the earth confront. How and why should we act around each other? What does this thing mean? Is there some kind of reason for us? Is there some kind of reason for everything? How did everything get started? 

These questions can, and do, continue ad infinitum. As these questions are posed each of us stakes a claim on what we think and feel, and we stick to that or change our minds as we are presented with different bits of information. It’s one of the wonders of being a human, and is a wonder that we need to continue to fight for all to have equal rights to explore (aka, fuck intolerance).

Heavy music, for me, provides a unique ground to pose (and sometimes attempt to answer) some of these questions. So, let’s jump into something together, shall we?

So Hideous released the phenomenal album Laurestine in 2015; from the point where I’m writing that is a whole six years ago. A whirl and blur from start to finish the record combines excellent blackened post-metal and sublime orchestral composition; released in the wake of New Bermuda and ahead of Møl’s Jord this record I think missed both the initial wave of “woooooah, you can combine black metal with other sounds to create something exceptional” and the more sturdy acceptance into the mainstream of bands that aren’t Deafheaven but play Deafheaven-adjacent music. As such I think most people missed out on what should be heralded as one of the most expansive, and exhilarating, releases of the past ten years.

Musically this thing is a tour de force, and deserves to be listened to just on that basis, but it is the narrative (because it’s a concept album, and a narrative concept album at that) which I want to focus on here and now. Laurestine explores the last seven minutes of an individual’s dying mind, and the journey they find themselves on between waking life and, well, not waking life. It weaves through the individual phasing in and out, reflecting on their existence previous to the point of the end as well as experiencing the reactions of those around, and ultimately some form of personal Valkyrie (the titular ‘Laurestine’) descending to untether them from mortality and take them to the beyond. The number seven plays a prominent role throughout the record, with seven tracks and frequent time signatures rooted in sevens (either seven quarter notes or seven eight notes mark numerous passages), serving to focus the mind of the listener on the ultimate descent towards death throughout the whole piece.

Lyrically everything is quite sparse despite the exploration the band stated the record was embarking upon. I think the point within this was to represent a couple of things; firstly the sparsity of congruent thought during death throes, and secondly the journey is one which is meant to represent the personal – an ineffable concept which can realistically only be conveyed through allowing the personal, or subjective, to buttress against it how it wishes. What I mean by this is that each word, each line, serves as a jumping off point for the listener to engage in their own embracing of life and death as concepts, and to flesh the gaps between each thought experiment thrown into the ether by the band.

First up, if the mind is active during the seven minutes immediately following body death (I don’t know if this is a real thing, and I’m not actually going to find out because I don’t think I want to know) what level of capability does it have to render consciousness of the world immediately around it, and beyond this what capability does it have in generating abstracted worlds not directly tethered to sense data around the body in which the brain is seated?

We start the record with lush, potent, pianos which fall away to a vicious tremolo-picked onslaught, resplendent with the roars of:

“I descend. Tumbling through the root a blazed with grey crested birds.”

Which is fucking VISCERAL. This individual has died. Dead. Here is their brain, however, triggering off some potent imagery. They find themselves falling down and through something, the root, which in this instance conjures images of the depths of the earth bedraggled with the core of nature/growth (so I guess, ultimately, existence and life). Grey crested birds exist everywhere in this descension, akin to a fire blazing throughout. 

Now I’m not going to pretend to know what the bird imagery is about, I’ve googled grey crested birds and I can’t necessarily find anything to do with death/representations of death/mythology. This leads me to the assumption that this is the direct experience of the individual as they move through their end. They are directly experiencing this vision and this realm. It has become their reality, for all intents and purposes. 

So the point of Laurestine here might well be to pass over the belief that during death a new reality is constructed for the dying mind – one which allows for direct experiences of that which had not necessarily been experienced during life.

Camera’s this way, lads.

Within the opening track ‘Yesteryear’ we are also informed that the individual is “a fraction of time in eternal trance”. So we can deduce from this that the seven minutes is not necessarily felt as seven minutes – the plunging through the roots could, conceivably, have lasted for an almost endless period. The idea here, I guess, is that as synapses end and cognition changes there is a degradation in the speed with which certain messages abound throughout the brain and that this is felt as a slowing of time, if the imagination continues at the same pace as it did throughout existence in some sense this could then enable entire lives to be lived throughout the final moments of this death. 

This is a thought/theme of various different sci-fi and fantasy works, and certainly the next phase of questioning that this is likely to produce within most (i.e. if a new realm is constructed which is the reality of someone is that actually their reality and if not does it really matter?) is dealt with in far too many works to mention. Anyone that was obsessed with The Matrix in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, like most people hovering the early-to-late 30s mark right now, will have flashbacks to waxing philosophical about this. 

For me, something which is really interesting about what the band are exploring is what the nature of death, and moving on from existence, can be for an individual and what role religious thought (and therefore what religion can be) plays into the point of death. 

To return to the lucid visions/world construction of the dying mind, I would like to argue that rather than putting forward a fully fleshed-out alternative reality the band are actually putting forward some kind of personal hell, purgatory or limbo that this individual inhabits. Now I’m not thinking that they are saying that this is what happens to everyone upon death, but that perhaps the character they have constructed (in order to best understand their end) is generating some kind of epilogue – something which enables them to understand their life as a life, but also represents an ending of that.

My belief that this is the case centres around the majority of the tracks leaning hard into imagery which basically illicits a feeling that someone has punched you unbelievably fucking hard in the stomach: 

“I’m wishing each sigh to be their last to watch the lights go out.”

This is probably the most impactful line on the whole record. It is fucking dark, and menacing, and heartbreaking and, what’s more, fortifies my position. You absolutely could suggest they are opening their eyes to the world around them, seeing their loved ones watching them and weeping, and I’d be open to it. This line however is couched around a begging for “Laurestine” to come and release the dying and their onlookers from something which has felt endless. There’s something bigger here than a simple hospital bed and death (yeah, maybe they’ve been hit by a car and there’s a big crowd around them but I don’t think so). The music is grand, there are repeated references to multiple individuals throughout the piece (“children’s steps grow fainter”) and it just feels like this is some kind of construction of the protagonist developed to almost torment them.

Why would this happen?

Within western society we are raised to fear death. Generally there are a couple of thrusts for this; one is societally we don’t have a good relationship with death, we like life and an absence of life is bad. I’m totally in on that – if someone told me my end was coming I would feel like fucking shit. The second main fear we have is something which is in play due to centuries of Christian thought pervading our society, namely that when we die there is a binary which occurs, we either go to hell or we go to heaven. Notwithstanding the handy feedback loop of Christ dying for our sins (so if we are penitent we should be all good and get to heaven) this binary endpoint is drilled into all of our skulls from very young, and is used to keep us as close to a moral position throughout life as is possible.

Trouble is, humans are animals, and like all animals they will do things which don’t necessarily fit into a conceived moral box, particularly when that morality as constructed by Christianity involves certain individuals not being allowed to love one another, sex before marriage being off the table and a whole host of other things which are ultimately in complete counter to human drives and desires. As such, all of us, even those who are not Christian or even oppose aspects of Christianity (albeit in a tolerant manner), have some kind of inner quake at the idea of death. Unfortunately, emotional constructs from youth and society are really difficult to get away from. It’s one of the reasons supernatural horror works even for people that don’t believe in the paranormal.

Nietzsche, who is a contentious philosopher to many, understood this aspect of society and saw Christianity as something which sought to inhibit what it meant to be human through the lens of it’s constructed “morals”. Writing in The Birth Of Tragedy he expressed his belief that Christianity was “nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed and masked by, dressed up as faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.”  It is difficult, I believe, for anyone to disagree with this. Perhaps linguistically challenging, the core point is that decrying acts which realistically cause no harm (from a human perspective) is some form of “nausea” caused by aspects of reality. I’m sure there are a great number of fantastic arguments from theologians and Christians which either counter this, or support what it states but express it in a manner which seeks to align some kind of godliness against the temptations thrust upon humans as part of God’s gift of free will. For me, I find myself ultimately agreeing with Nietzsche, that there is something wrong with a doctrine which shuns basic human drives where no harm can be highlighted.

What Nietzsche also did, however, was recognise many goods arising from religious belief, in particular the goods arising from much of Christian thought. He believed that it was important that these goods were separated from religion and laid down as some kind of basis for human interaction. This is where he embarked on what he termed the “transvaluation of values”, in other words taking the good stuff from “morality” and embedding it in an ultimately “amoral” framework, where there is no realistic universal “morality” but rather some human choices, and human constructs, founded on the basics of existing. I don’t think he successfully ended this project before serious mental illness ensued, but certainly it is a springboard that a great many have leapt from in order to help humans be better to and with and for each other.

To wheel back round to So Hideous, then, my argument is that the protagonist constructs their purgatory because they feel this is the correct ending to their life. Their mind, or the subconscious part of it (however you want to define that), jumps into constructing a way to say goodbye and “this is the end”. The process is, “How can I go towards this in the least painful, most logically tethered manner possible?” which results in some form of purgatory and retribution because of the latent emotions and understandings fostered in them throughout their life. 

For the dying individual, the retribution at the end of the purgatory is something which is reminiscent of ideas found in so many religions, and that is the idea of some kind of presence which leads one to death safely, be it akin to the Valkyrie taking Norse warriors from the battlefield into the halls of Valhalla, or the boatman Charon taking individuals across the river Styx. This presence is, really interestingly, not a god in a classical sense. As a character, Laurestine is entirely a construct of the band, and as I don’t think the band were creating any alternate worlds or mythologies that this record forms a part of, it is therefore a personal construct of the individual who is dying. I see this as something akin to Nietzsche bringing forward positive aspects of religion, and I could write further about this, but for me the band are making a really powerful point here which I’d like to explore in this piece (leaving the other point potentially for another time), namely that death is personal. Death cannot be something which we feel identically about to anyone else, and our death in the strictest sense will not be identical to that of anyone else. It’s part of the rich tapestry of existence; our non-existence is as diverse as our being here. The relief that the protagonist seems to feel, represented not only lyrically but through the magnificent strings soaring upwards towards the end of the record, is the relief of someone taking control over their end as much as over their living. In other words, we can only feel comfortable with our death when we accept that it is ours.

That is some morbid shit, potentially, but there is a reason I take this to be hugely positive. Understanding the inevitability of our death, and how personal that is, whilst we are living allows us to more critically engage in ourselves whilst living. If our death is personal, so too must our lives be personal – so we must live them as such. If we claim whatever it is that keeps us moving towards the end in the last seven minutes that our brains exist, then it is naturally the case that we claim the rest of our lives as ours too. The death is ultimately the ultimate stamp of “whoness” on a life which is developing “whoness” the entire time it exists. In other words, if death is the ultimate reflection on who we are, then it is also the ultimate reflection on who we are throughout the entire course of our progression towards that death. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Being And Nothingness, “He is always becoming and if it were not for the contingency of death, he would never end.”

The dying mind in Laurestine is Laurestine’s creator, and Laurestine as an acceptance of death and moving away from living is the definer of the dying mind’s existence. 

Words: Simon Young

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