Whatever British-Finnish outfit Hexvessel are stylistically, they are doing it right. Formed in 2009 by Mat “Kvohst” McNerney (yes, he of Code and Dødheimsgard fame) in Finland, Hexvessel quickly garnered the attention of metalheads who leaned exquisitely into left field territory while maintaining a “Hammer Smashed Face” persona. Or, maybe they didn’t care that Dead Can Dance, Coil, Arcana, Nick Cave, Kate Bush, and the like were of a different yet similar universe than extreme metal’s brightest darkest stars. Anyway, Hexvessel emerged with Dawnbearer in 2011, only to rapidly (and inexplicably) follow it up with five albums over the next nine years, the latest of which is the recently released Kindred on Finnish boutique Svart Records.
Fans of Hexvessel through and through, I figured it was time to fire up a few questions to the well-spoken, well-read, and well-universed McNerney regarding Kindred. Sonically at a different semi-morbid angle than last year’s All Tree effort, Hexvessel’s new material picks up the cosmic morsels of Coil/Bowie/Elonkorjuu/Tasavallan Presidentii and reveals them under a New Moon deep in the forests that festoon Pitkajärvi Lake. If this all sounds, well, foreign it’s because it’s supposed to be. Hexvessel are a journey into the unknown spaces of the inner self where things human and antediluvian stew unannounced and unhurried.
Read on as Decibel and McNerney step out of the dawn and into the light…
How did Hexvessel come into form? What I mean by this is you had several higher profile bands around 2009 that could’ve otherwise absorbed your attention and creativity.
Mat McNerney: Hexvessel originated as my solo music. I guess it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact time it came into being. Perhaps when I was 5-years old in about 1983, on the floor of our kitchen with a red Japanese radio/cassette player, singing along to Bruce Springsteen, or then later when I smoked my first joint to [The Doors’] An American Prayer. At the point at which the music and magic converged for me, Hexvessel awoke.
Part of the drive I had to release the debut album was a reaction to bands and the other music I had been working with up until around 2009. Up until that point, I had been working on music which had occult themes and a dark image, but wasn’t actually an esoteric practice. With Hexvessel, I was able to embody the art in a holistic sense. I never thought in terms of profile, and I knew that leaving everything to work on Hexvessel would throw me into obscurity. I welcomed that. Code and Dødheimsgard were other peoples’ bands, and their music that I collaborated on and they had a legacy and a certain fixed genre and set-up about them that I found constrictive. I was only ever trying to swim upstream in that environment. I learnt a lot in those bands and am grateful and proud of those years, but I had other plans that I wanted to realize in Hexvessel that were more personal. Hexvessel was my own music, and my own vision. Both a free spiritual journey alongside a musical odyssey with no boundaries.
I always felt that creating music should be “the great work” as Crowley describes it and for it to be a magical undertaking. “Plan a murder, or start a religion” as Morrison wrote, as making art should be the pursuit of destroying worlds to open new universes. Breaking on through to the other side. Hexvessel is a “quest to leave life overturned” (Slayer, “Born of Fire”). Singing in someone’s band, after that vision, just felt like a glass of water compared to a finely distilled, intoxicating moonshine.
Many have tried to categorize Hexvessel. Many have failed. Where do you see the band musically and aesthetically?
Mat McNerney: Hexvessel’s description has always been in the name. I would prefer that we don’t get categorized at all, because I tend to have an aversion to genres. It’s especially frustrating when journalists, record stores and artists create sub-genres that make no sense. I would simply say, if forced, that Hexvessel is folk music, psychedelic folk. Jefferson Airplane and The Doors through a black mirror. It’s introspective music, instead of outwards. Hexvessel invites you inside, to face yourself. Hexvessel has never been on-trend or of the moment, and so it’s always felt peculiar and weird. We call it what one journalist described as “wyrd folk”. It’s outsider music for the insider to go outside, which is inside. [John] Muir said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Mat McNerney: Symbols are important as message carriers. They awaken primal archetypes. In music, these are the doorways for spirits and the spirit-world. The symbol we often invoke is the tree. The tree is nature, the cycle of life and death. A tree sits at the center of creation and existence for many religions. It is a common focal point for mythology. Regeneration, birth and death and bearer of spiritual wisdom, the tree is the abode of the gods, and the source of hidden secret knowledge. A cosmic tree with roots in heaven and branches extending downwards, is both feminine and masculine, growing in three worlds of heaven, earth and underworld. Hexvessel uses the tree to symbolize an ancient belief in nature as the holiest of temples. The symbol of nature connected to our music is important for setting the tone, and preparing the ground for magic to take place. The shaman stands at the threshold of two worlds, and it’s a dangerous operation. You must think about ceremony and the symbols you use, so that people have the right doorways and paths to travel. The tree, in that sense is the ultimate symbol, as it will always lead you back to the most important aspects of life. Part of the message of Hexvessel is in what [Hermann] Hesse wrote; “A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life”.
Did you have a specific sonic goal in mind while writing Kindred? In some ways, the music feels a bit like the overcast conveyance Portishead were shooting for on “Over”, while in others it’s that delicate sophistication that King Crimson achieved on “Book of Saturday”. Then, it’s really something else, very Nordic yet somehow not at all.
Mat McNerney: I wanted the album to have reality and spirits. I wanted to have the sound of the world leaking into the music, and the sound leaking outwards too. In a song like “Bog Bodies,” for example, there are found-sounds from the studio and outside, there are mistakes and noise. It was recorded at the end of winter in Woburn, in the English countryside. The wind howled through the window cracks and keyholes. That’s all in the song. I want real-ness that allows the listener to feel and experience. When you write about a corpse that has lain in a swamp for centuries, it’s story untold to the world, you would want the person to be placed there, to hear the swamp singing. Songs are stories and the sounds should allow dreams to manifest and draw people in. You want the song to be about the listener too. The transformative point in every story is when you realize that the story is about you.
“Over” is a good reference, as that song with the bass distortions and the vinyl crackle noise has a desperation and “otherworldly” aura about it that we were going for on Kindred. I wanted sounds to be on the edge, to have a sense of the real, but not the professional. So that there would be an earthliness to it and of two worlds, spirit and physical. Portishead, in general, has always been an inspiration for me, because they have mixed sounds in a way that is both familiar and unfamiliar. It’s about playing with nostalgia in just the right way, so that people dream. It’s very cinematic thinking. I tried to get the takes that Beth Gibbons goes for, with there being moment and mood, not about perfection but about feeling. “Book of Saturday” is also an interesting one, because the guitar is in the room and close, but whimsical and down to earth, it has that laid-back and personal vibe, but then there’s the backwards solo and then the really ethereal violin from the spirit-world. This is a sound-picture I also thought about a lot with Kindred. The uncanny feeling of dreams is in their realness at times. The juxtaposition of the spirit-world opening and the familiar earthy universe around you. When you think about Kindred and what that word means, it’s about a community that allows a sense of wonder and the mystical to enrich your life. Family is a concept that encompasses the real-world and the spiritual, the ancient and the futuristic.
The Nordic aspect is perhaps the uncouth, Finnish way we perform, and the innate influences of my Finnish band. We’re not Scandinavian, though we share a lot of the same nature. Perhaps it has something to do with the development of society and the way religion spread, but there’s something different in the water. There’s also always been a very different way to how the Finns approach prog and psych music. Lee Dorian from Rise Above once said to me that no matter how much he loves old Swedish prog, it was those rare Finnish prog records like Elonkorjuu’s debut Harvest Time (1972) which really carried the goods when it came to being weird and far-out.
Tell me about the “Phaedra” video. I immediately think of an analogous image (or story) of Simo Häyhä, but perhaps you’re onto something else with the hunting of the fox and the word Phaedra, which itself translate to “bright”.
Mat McNerney: [Laughs] Even the least nationalistic Finn I have met can get all misty eyed over the name Simo Häyhä. But “Phaedra” is not about the Winter War. The video too tells another story to the song.
Central to the Roman epic tale of Phaedra, with it’s Greek tragedy, both song and video include themes on the law of nature that governs human behavior, our animal spirit; the idea that through death and rebirth we restore the cosmic order. Phaedra is my totem heroine, icon of the human spirit. We are wild animals and our place within this universe is to live and die according to nature’s rules. It’s no mistake either that Phaedra is also mentioned in two of the greatest transcendent musical works of all time; Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning” and Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra album. “Phaedra” is at the deep heart of Kindred, and she is both divine and human, decorated with blood. The only divine law that is not flawed is that we all must return to nature. We all must die. I wrote this song for my daughter after she was born. I want her to be a strong and fearless woman. The song is, in my own way, a hymn of power for her.
My personal favorite track is “Joy of Sacrifice”. It’s such an ominous yet beautiful song. It’s the kind of feeling when summer gives way to fall, when the wind starts to blow, the leaves rustle, and the sun’s warmth is fleeting. Tell us about how this song came together.
Mat McNerney: The bare bones of that song were written at our summer house. It’s a family heirloom, passed down to my wife and has a history to it. The building itself is quite ancient, having been part of an old log farm-house that was altered, cut and moved to it’s current location in a field in the countryside. I was playing my acoustic guitar while my wife and children played outside in the sunshine. That’s all there in the song, kept as simple as the feeling of being there, instilled in the playing. There is a lot of contemplation in the build-ups of the guitars, as they crescendo and fall that is intentionally seasonal, cyclical. I was thinking a lot about the great sacrifice of life, that happiness is based on strife and sadness teaching us the value and importance of joy. It’s a very ancient concept of offering up your sacrifice to mark seasonal change, to give thanks, to be humble. We celebrate the gifts of wisdom that nature imparts, as a way to know real joy, real value. It’s as practical as it is mystical. Sacrifice itself becoming a deep sense of joy and belonging. There’s something stoic about it. Kissing your child goodnight, every night, as if it is your last and celebrating every moment as a small death, because we know that this is a beautiful and essential element in life. There is no greater immortality than knowing that joy.
Out of all the Coil tracks to choose from, how did you arrive at “Fire of the Mind”? Were there other songs on deck for you to cover? Maybe something like “Slur” or “White Rainbow”.
Mat McNerney: I would love to do a Hexvessel plays Coil record one day. The song “Tattooed Man” is also one of the most beautiful songs ever written I think. Perhaps then we would cover other songs too, and “Slur” and “White Rainbow” are indeed also beautiful songs, along with “Are You Shivering” and “Paint Me As A Dead Soul” would be very exciting to re-work and tribute in our own way. I think the less song-like pieces would be the most challenging and rewarding. Perhaps I would be a little afraid that Coil fans are so passionate that it would be rejected somehow, and perhaps I also feel a little irritated at the idea, since I don’t want to risk ruining any part of my enjoyment of the mystery that Coil’s music holds.
Eliphas Levi said, “Hermeticism is the science of nature hidden in the hieroglyphics and symbols of the ancient world. It is the search for the principle of life, along with the dream (for those who have not yet achieved it) of accomplishing the great work, that is the reproduction by man of the divine, natural fire which creates and recreates beings.” That divine fire is the “Fire of The Mind” Coil speak of. Since Hexvessel is concerned with Hermetic magic, and we have been heavily inspired by Coil not just musically but the way they approached music as a magical rite, “Fire of The Mind” felt perfect in every way. We’ve been exploring the holy and the essence of the holy since our inception, and the song deals with themes of the life/death cycle and a sense of the profane, greater than our corporeal beings, of transcendence and existence. I think the song “Fire of The Mind” is a good example of the themes both Coil and Hexvessel share, that we can celebrate without it feeling that we’re simply covering a band we enjoy. That was the idea anyway. And we all know how dangerous ideas can be.
Mat McNerney: The recording is a celebration of Coil, with us playing it live in one take in a mental intuition. Even the most pessimistic person has to admit that sounds alright as a tribute to Coil. It adds to the song, in that people can go back to the original and enjoy it for what it is, and see our version as a tribute. I think that people understand that Hexvessel is operating in a way that has some connection to what Coil was doing. We’re not stylistically similar musically but we’re working on an esoteric, astral wavelength as well as making music. The music is a gateway and Coil was all about those doors of perception. But that’s what Kindred is about in essence. There’s a family of forces there that you can connect with and it’s about the art that accesses that energy and sharing it, and belonging to it. Our message is the community exists, we didn’t create it, but we’re part of it. It’s ancient and reaches far back and far forward past Coil and Hexvessel. A few die-hard Coil fans have said to me that if anyone can cover Coil, it’s us. That’s a compliment that I feel has something to do with much more than musicianship or competence, but to do with how we feel about our music and what it does. We are an invocation to Pan. John Balance said, “We call it the human animal. We’re visceral and we respond to sound and we respond to light, or we respond by panicking or having euphoria — or both! And those two, you know, can flip.” That could equally describe Hexvessel.
At first I thought “Billion Year Old Being” was an odd choice to open Kindred, but the more I get to the end of the album, the more it makes sense. Was the track order logical and easy to assemble or was there a fair bit of hair pulling, so to speak?
Mat McNerney: “Billion Year Old Being” was primarily written by our guitarist Jesse Heikkinen. He wrote the music and I wrote the vocals and lyrics and we arranged it as a band. He came into Hexvessel at the end of the All Tree session, so he played on some tracks on that album, but wasn’t able to input musically there. Jesse stepped in to replace our long-time guitarist Simo Kuosmanen, which felt like an impossible task when we were faced with Simo stepping out. But Jesse has his own completely different style and complimentary to the band in a totally different way but uncanny with how logical and right it feels. This is the first song that we worked on together and I am so happy to have another musical collaborator in Hexvessel with us. The whole band is very organic and works really well together now, with a deep trust and a shared artistic sensibility.
Having that song open the album was in a way a cleansing ritual, especially after the folk aspects of All Tree, and harks back a bit to the direction of When We Are Death perhaps. From there, the album takes a path into the inner forest, and doesn’t look back. I enjoy albums that are a journey and I wanted Kindred to be like that. I read a review where someone complained that it doesn’t go back to the heavier prog-rock of “Billion Year Old Being” after that on the album, but I think they miss the point. We were thinking about King Crimson and bands where the heavy rock is a tool used in the sound picture, and not the modus operandi. I think people forget a lot about dynamics and simply push the pedal to the metal, driving with the meter to maximum all the time.
As for the arrangement, yeah it was a challenge! I play the guitar on the song, and I’m not too technically proficient. Jesse is one of the most technically proficient players in his field in Finland, I think. So, there was a certain amount of sweat and flying by the seat of my pants. There’s some quite angular playing and tempo changes there in the song for us that took a lot of rehearsing, and some of us are old weird men who have been used to playing slow folk stuff a lot of the time! I think it worked out really well in the end and has some indications of where the next Hexvessel album might go. In a way, when thinking about the writing of the record, chronologically the album goes backwards track by track from the oldest to the most recent. There’s some sort of mirrored logic to that!
Lastly, do you think there’s something to the places you’ve lived in — England, Norway, and now Finland — that has influenced the way you approach or think about music, whether for Hexvessel or otherwise?
Mat McNerney: Yes, I do. Specific places have informed and inspired my music. Finnish swamps, Greek islands, Norwegian mountain vistas. I wrote a lot about our travels to Carnac in France with tracks like “Dues To The Dolmen,” and then our annual Winter solstice retreat to Avebury inspired a lot of All Tree. We have been to a few different sacrificial sites in Finland and every time we visit a place like that, I usually have some kind of impulse that inspires a lyric, sound or rhythm. I cannot create without stimulating that part of my creative mind which lights up when I visit ancient and powerful places, and river sounds, my footfall and noises are often things which inspire beats and rhythms of songs. We talk about “giving birth” to a song, and I think that songs are living beings. As Bowie once said, “I like my songs to awaken the ghosts inside me” and I like the music to conjure those ancient places. England and Finland are full of places that hold ancestral wisdom, contain ghosts, or hold a certain power to them. I feel that when I evoke them musically they stay with me forever. They are like coordinates to the portals to other dimensions, where worldly places access the beyond. I would like to be able to capture nature in my songs, to be able to bottle it and transport it from my mind’s eye to yours, but nature is transient and cyclical. The power of nature is eternal though, and the divinity of nature is immortal. I try to mirror nature with my music, and shift and change like the wind through the trees, so that we can access the heavenly otherworld, where their limbs protrude. “I’ve been here and I’ve been there and I’ve been in between.”
** Hexvessel’s new album, Kindred, is out now on Svart Records. Digital can be obtained through Hexvessel’s Bandcamp site (HERE). Physical copies can be found at Svart Records directly on LP and CD (HERE).