Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Op. 32 is the first piece of music I can remember enjoying. In my mind, our little body is seated in a church at my grandmother’s funeral, four years old, listening to a walkman playing that suite. It was probably given to me by my parents to keep me occupied. I’m not sure what I was like at the time to make them do that, but that’s of no importance anyway. The Planets.
I consider Holst’s suite one of the most influential compositions in the 20th century, and I hear its echoes in so much later music, particularly soundtracks. Of course, even if there might be some truth to that, it runs parallel to my own chronological journey through music. If The Planets is the first work I attentively listened to, then of course it will in some way act as influencer and originator on whatever comes after on my life’s journey.
For his music, Holst was inspired by various astrological and esoteric connotations of the planets, rather than astronomical or classic mythological associations. I like to assume that the music was mainly inspired by channeling the former influences through his own imagination, perhaps with side impact from the outbreak of the first World War during the composition of “Mars”, the first of the movements Holst composed.
Fast forward with me more than a century if you will.
I find in my inbox an email with the above artwork—just look at it! Thank you Elijah Tamu—and the announcement that Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum are (once again*) collaborating on a celestial album, this time called Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine. By now you can imagine roughly what went through my head. Oh shit, this is a Planets work! Including Pluto, because after all that’s how people of our generation were raised. This is how you create a hype in my head.
*In 2013, the two bands released ‘Sol’, an album dedicated to the Sun, which also is a hybrid between a split and a collaborative album.
How then, do I talk about an album like this? Well, as best I can. Wanderers is a massive work: eight solo tracks (four planets to each artist) and a double collaborative track to give Pluto his proper due, together clocking in at two hours. Two hours of black metal. That’s intense, OK?
It’s intimidating to say the least to approach this album as a whole entity, both because of its length and its ambition. Holst’s suite last for about 50 minutes in most versions—in part because he skips Earth and Pluto—and can therefore also be approached as a reasonable accessible ‘whole journey’ to be taken in one sitting. Wanderers lasts more than twice as long, at a higher level of musical intensity, and is as such much more forbidding.
To say that Wanderers is impenetrable is off the mark. Its songs are approachable if you’re into this kind of melodic but occasionally very intense black metal. Within its realm it is not particularly musically unorthodox or challenging. But the concept looms so large. It makes me want to grasp it as a whole, consume it in two-hour mental journeys or else not at all.
I’ve tried it twice, and it works. During the second sitting last night I fell asleep halfway through, but that says more about my easy drifting than about the quality of the music or its ability to captivate. Because the artists take turns in presenting an interpretation of a particular planet, the differences between their respective personal sounds already create a dynamic. This is only made stronger by the differences between the individual compositions: like in Holst’s suite, each planet most definitely has its own personality.
This final point also helps me in accepting that I don’t have to listen to works like these as a whole. That’s true for Holst, too! It is not only perfectly acceptable to listen to one planet at a time—why wouldn’t it be, except according to my own strange mental standards?—sometimes it’s a more focused meditation than trying to engage with all of them in a fixed journey.
Now is not the time to relate what each planet does to me. I haven’t sat down with each of them long enough, or in isolation. Heck, that even goes for Holst’s work after thirty years. But I can give a few impressions.
I was crying in bed yesterday, for reasons we shan’t go into here. “Earth: the Mother” wasn’t the one who made me cry, nor did the hyper-aggressive Mars or wise Mercury, who came before. But she comforted me as I cried, as a real mother should. She is beautiful, familiar, a Mother of Infinite Sorrows who weeps for her every child.
Holst’s Neptune is an ambient creature of deep mystery, and possibly my favourite movement from his suite (see the very end of this piece for a bonus). Mare Cognitum’s Neptune, too, is “The Mystic”, but here expressed in a rolling, waltzing piece. The various lead guitar melodies spread throughout manage to bring this forth beautifully.
Pluto, as said, is honoured with a 23-minute double feature. The artists first collaborate on a long cosmic ambient piece to set the stage, and then launch into a majestic piece of icy cyber-black. “The Gatekeeper” is the perfect ending for this whole album. Pluto did make me cry. It is overwhelmingly fated. It speaks of thresholds and abysses, of that place in space-time where you are about to cast off old chains and embark on something completely unknown.
Because yes, unlike Holst’s work, this one has lyrics, though of course given the genre, you’d be hard-pressed to make them out. But Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore have things to say. It’s not just mythological or mystical musings. It is that, but it’s about climate change, mankind’s possible future among the stars. About destroying patriarchy and oppression, about the possibilities of religion, about love on a global and personal scale.
When I started composing this review in our head last night, I wasn’t sure how ‘positive’ I was going to (be able) to be about Wanderers. Like I said above, it seemed to be too big to grasp as a whole and say “this is a good album”. But it is. Writing my way through it, engaging with it actively, it really is. The ambition is great, but Ayloss and Jacob Buczarski (let’s call them by their names) pull it off.
“Impenetrable” is not the right word. No space is impenetrable. But it’s not easy to venture out into this one and experience what it has to offer. There’s work involved, energy to be expended, and not every trip will yield the same things. Do it anyway, because this is one of this year’s most important albums. To me, of course, but then again I have a long history with The Wanderers—because that’s what planet means in the first place. Wanderers across our heavens, bodies that seemingly defy the fixedness of the stars, personalities. But maybe the Wanderers will be important to you too.
‘Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine’ is out on 13 March on 2CD and digital through I, Voidhanger, and on triple LP through that same label in collaboration with Entropic Recordings.
Reviewed by Μηλινόη
Several years ago I dedicated a show to various kinds of dark ambient ‘space music’ and the concept of being lost in space. The entire latter part of it was an experiment in ambient layering consisting of various interpretations of Holst’s “Neptune”, ending with my favourite version of it in its entirety. It’s the 1970 performance with Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic and the John Alldis Choir, released by Philips. Not surprisingly, that one’s the ‘original’ version: the one I heard as a child. You can listen to the ‘Mass of Neptunes’ from around the 45 minute mark, or just binge the whole thing if you’re so inclined.