Faith Dismantled: How MIZMOR Found A New Purpose in Existential Absurdity
Reduction to absurdity, God ground to powder, Scattered in the wind, the sand beneath my feet. Never to return, a lotus cannot slake.
Few bands in metal capture the raw anxiety and dilemmas of existence like Mizmor. The solo endeavor of ALN, the wholly doomed black metal entity began to reach a wider audience with the release of 2016's Yodh through Gilead Media. Long-form blackened doom and drone isn't the easiest pill to swallow, especially when it's fed through the lens of an existential crisis. Yet, Mizmor captures a feeling that is often hard to describe and that ensnaring demands attention. Yodh was objectively one of the best and most engrossing titles of 2016. Now, ALN returns with another full-length album entitled Cairn.
Cairn returns to the realm of lost faith and existential exploration. This time with an exit strategy. ALN has been at the helm of Mizmor for seven years vigorously documenting his struggles with a God that consistently failed and the purposeless vacuum left in the wake of its deterioration. Cairn brings that turmoil full-circle by revisiting those memories and laying out ALN's grief one last time. It's a summary and a solution for his future—a new purpose.
The album's second track, "Cairn to God," is the edifice constructed in memory of a comminuted Christ, reduced to ash. In the album's scheme, it's the casting out of a guiding force and a reminder there's no need to ever return to that part of life. The 18-minute monolith is unnerving as ALN details his realization of God as a by-product of man's questions with once-unknown answers through his diverse vocal range.
Through extensive strides in production, that diverse vocal range is greatly more apparent than in previous Mizmor records and presented in the highest possible fidelity. It's a deliberate strategy employed by ALN for this record to symbolize coming out of the shadows and into a more present platform to discuss his struggles and story. For the music itself, and particularly "Cairn to God," the vivid imagery ALN creates in conjunction with clearer audio recording brings the narrative to life in the minds of listeners. It's a newer, clearer, and more resilient Mizmor that surfaces on Cairn.
Cairn arrives on September 6 through Gilead Media. Listen to an exclusive stream of "Cairn to God" and read an extensive interview with Mizmor's founder, ALN. Later this Fall, Mizmor will be going tour with fellow Oregon doom band, Hell. Dates are listed at the conclusion of the interview. Follow Mizmor on Facebook and Instagram.
The subject matter of Mizmor’s music is deeply profound and I think more people grapple with this idea of losing faith and tackling one’s existence more than they care to admit. It’s a very challenging notion and it’s often suppressed. You’ve done quite the opposite with your music. What catalyzed you to express your feelings through Mizmor?
ALN: That’s a good question. There’s a lead up to the big moment for me—a slow burn of sorts based on how I was raised. It was an Evangelical Christian situation. As a teenager, I was in and out of buying into that idea. By the end of my teens, I mostly thought I knew I didn’t believe in that idea. When I was a young adult, 19 or 20, I had a conversion experience that was personal, and it was not my parent’s religion anymore. For some reason, I felt it found me personally and struck me in a new way.
I took it on as an adult seriously for the first time for a couple of years and moved to Germany for six months. I went to a bible school and studied it; I was really serious about. I thought it was, no pun intended, the literal gospel. I had struggled with depression for a while already, but while I was over there, my depression got really bad. To this day, it’s the worst it’s ever been. So, I had this personal wrestling with God about why that would happen to me and what I need to do to change that.
That wasn’t the end of my faith, but I had a hard time reckoning with what I saw in the real world: what I experienced in my life, what was described in the scripture, and what was promised. There was a slow process after I returned home dealing with doubts about my faith and continuing to struggle with depression before I slowly started to walk away from the idea. It was becoming insanity to me—trying the same thing over and over again, yielding the same result.
Before I completely walked away from the faith, I made the first Mizmor record just for me. It was a diary of prayers—in prayer format—literally addressed to God. It was so unbearable for me then that I had to make this music to process what was happening inside.
When I was a Christian as an adult, I fell in love with the person of Christ in the gospels—at least in western, Evangelical Christianity—or the brand of it I was taught. You get to tap into this personal relationship with Christ based on this indwelled holy spirit that you receive upon salvation. I really felt like I had this new best friend and love of my life that I fully believed in. It wasn’t as simple as figuring out I believed something different. There was a real heartbreak involved. I was overcome with mourning, so I started making that music.
You mentioned a lot of people do relate to dealing with these big cosmic, primal questions. At the time, I felt kind of embarrassed because, at least in the metal world, people don’t really talk about this. You’re confronted with blatant Satanism and anti-Christianity. In the metal world, it seems like everyone’s got that figured out. It’s been obvious to them since day one. I didn’t really know how many people in the metal world or potential listeners could relate to this subject.
That’s all really insightful. The statement you made about how metal has this inherent anti-Christian, Satanist approach, but that is not what your music is at all. It’s very much—the word you used was “mourning”—it’s very much a mourning of your experiences and this relationship with Christ that you ultimately lost. When did this relationship with Christ start to degrade?
ALN: The relationship with Christ started to deteriorate when I started writing that first record. I was kind of getting the last of it out. I was still being “discipled” by a mentor within the church. I was still meeting with him and he was helping me with what I was going through. I told him about the music I was making. He basically told me, “Go ahead, it’s not working for you. Stop praying, stop reading the bible, stop worshipping. It’s just a negative experience for you and it sounds like what you describe as the closest relationship to God is this music you are making. Even though it’s this extreme metal, press into that.”
That was the last meeting I had with him. I didn’t want to do that anymore and that was the advice my Christian superior gave me, and I did that and it’s turned into what it is now and I haven’t looked back.
I read there is no real seeking to write Mizmor’s music, but it kind of billows or builds up until you really can’t hold onto it. I guess within the last year or so is when Cairn really started to come about. Is there anything in particular that brought on this billowing of emotions and feelings?
ALN: Not specifically. It was a slow process for me—slower than normal. There was something brewing inside me, but I struggled to articulate it for a while. I knew that I had something new to say—some new form of struggle to articulate—because Mizmor has been around seven years now and I’ve spent all of that time reiterating the fact that I’ve lost my faith.
I’m really not interested in talking about that anymore in terms of my albums because that’s old news. How many different ways can I say that? So that’s just the starting place for what the album is about. I didn’t really quite know what to say yet.
The last thing I released was “This Unabating Wakefulness” and that song is about enduring and living on. It’s about anxiety and insomnia on a personal level but a lot of the things I write have a big wider lens to them. For me, God doesn’t exist anymore, which for a lot of people (myself included), is a huge factor in what gives their life purpose. On that song, I’m wondering, “if that is not what my life or my purpose is then what the heck am I doing here? What is this whole life thing I am choosing to do?”
That’s kind of the foundation I built for Cairn—this living on. I still couldn’t quite figure out how to say what I wanted to say until I read this book The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an experience like this but sometimes you read a book, watch a show, or listen to a song and it totally takes the words out of your mouth. I had this shocking experience reading this book because it was so spot-on.
This book is about absurdity. He’s an absurdist philosopher and his book is about the absurd premise of life which is that mankind continually seeks meaning in a world that is inherently devoid of ultimate meaning and that premise is completely absurd. Either one of those things on their own is not absurd but when you live in a system where both of those are guiding laws, that is completely absurd, and an individual can have one of three responses to this situation.
You can take a leap of faith out of the absurd into ultimate meaning by believing in God and thereby reject the circumstance. You can commit suicide because life is no longer worth living if there is no ultimate meaning to it, or you can accept the situation for what it is and live in the absurdity every single day.
That really resonated for me and is exactly what I want to say. I built upon the inspiration I received from that book and Cairn appropriates those ideas. It pictures the individual in the desert—the desert of absurdity is the title track—and the idea is that you built these giant memorials. A cairn is a stack of rocks—it’s a really old way of memorializing and creating monuments. It’s a very ancient, human way of marking your presence and your path.
In my mind, I built big cairns to the death of the idea of God and the death of the idea of suicide so that I can find my way in the desert and go forth living without retracing my steps. If I get lost and confused I can look back and see that I’ve set a guidepost up for myself to remind myself not to return there because there is nothing to be had in those areas.
So, Cairn is really about figuring out how to live your life in the present moment and enjoyment. It is anti-God and anti-suicide, and actually a very positive affirmation of life even though it sounds very grim and it’s a very heavy subject.
That… That is huge. That is really powerful and really well thought out. Listening to this album the first couple times and going through it and reading through the lyrics, I had this notion it was almost a summarization of where your music has been to this point. Hearing this—with Camus’ work and how you built it into this desert idea—I guess “huge” is the only word I can use for it right now. That’s really powerful stuff you’ve created…
Yeah, absolutely. Where did this idea of a desert come from? Did it just seem like an appropriate setting?
ALN: It’s still inspired by Camus. He evokes the imagery of the desert in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Okay, I see. This track Metal Injection is premiering, “Cairn to God,”—you have an astute and imaginative way with words and that combined with what you’ve told me about the desert setting—it seems like this casting off of God into an arena and shaking this of weight happens through almost empirical evidence and more tangible, more concrete ideas. Were there concrete ideas or tangible evidence that you saw or experienced that cued you to shed God?
ALN: Yeah. It was a few years-long journey for me but simply put: I don’t think there is any evidence for God. I think when you read the bible and you take it mostly literally—you believe that Jesus was God and everything it says is true—and you try to line that up with what you see and what evidence is presented to you in the natural world in biology and evolution. What you experience in yourself in a subjective way, for example, the promises of God and Christ. The peace of God will surpass all understanding and your heart’s in Christ Jesus, and you never feel peace in your heart.
I think there is a whole plethora of natural, obvious reasons and internal, subjective, personal reasons that I just could not swallow the entirety of. In the specifics of my own case, it led me to view religion more holistically and the idea of God. It was years long. It would take a while to list all the reasons. It just doesn’t hold up… It’s false.
It’s never truly resonated with me. Faith is a beautiful thing and if it’s what drives people then that’s what I like to see. I like to see people with purpose, but at some point, man didn’t have answers so it built something more powerful than itself. As we’ve aged, evolved, and grown—we’ve become savvier with the tools we have—I’ve never understood why this man-made construct which we continue to believe is bigger than us is still so present as we have found answers.
ALN: I would absolutely agree with that. It makes me think of a line in Cairn—in “Cairn to God” near the end—that uses the word “spandrel.” That is an architectural term that has made its way into evolutionary biology. A spandrel is a space that appears between two archways. In the evolutionary biology world, the idea is that there are these things in us like our intelligence and our agency that have produced by-products that don’t need to be there.
For example, humans are really good at our agency of attributing effects with a cause. If you heard a rustling in the bushes, you would infer that there is something in the bushes—maybe it’s a predator—and you need to protect yourself. I think that we’re so smart that this concept has been transposed in a really foolish way in that we deify the natural world because we think there needs to be something behind it.
With Mizmor’s music, especially Cairn—I’m glad you said something about this earlier—it does almost feel like this closing of a chapter. You’ve summarized the last seven years. You’ve put into words the places you’ve been, and this is coming full circle. “Okay, I have chosen not to submit to God, I have chosen not to submit to suicide, instead I am going to walk through this desert and take on whatever comes next.”
I think that’s a great way that you’ve chosen your purpose and you’ve chosen to express it this way instead of doing something destructive.
ALN: Each song has a little stanza in italics at the beginning that’s not actually a lyric to the song. It’s kind of a preface. The stanza that’s at the beginning of the last song, “The Narrowing Way,” it, for me, summarizes Cairn and what my point is in a specific way for my own personal life. That stanza says, “The vulnerable universe Strikes a human chord – Resound. Relate. Create.”
It is my ultimate conclusion for my own life—for what gives me meaning and how I’m going to go on. The idea is that you have openness, honesty, and vulnerability about where you’re at and what your experience is. In this way, your life experience resonates through you like an instrument. You give off the sound of how that makes you feel.
As I’ve found—which wasn’t the case at first because I kept the project so mysterious—I’ve had all of these amazing, life-giving conversations with folks at Mizmor shows or by email with people who have survived religion and want to talk about that. I’ve realized there is a huge relationship component to the experience of being open and honest and resonating your experience. Sometimes, a conversation like that doesn’t result in anything. Sometimes, it is a pleasant conversation or can lead to a friendship, but it’s always positive. It creates this sort of loop and that has been really huge, beneficial, and inspiring which is a game-changer. It makes me want to be more open about my experience—be more missional about the concept of Mizmor.
The last word is “create.” I think for people like me who have been traumatized or for people who have mental illnesses—really just for people in general, but specifically for those struggling—having a creative outlet is very important if you’re able to do that. It doesn’t need to be music; it can be anything. Being able to put your experience out there and feel all the stuff you fully feel. Get it out and share it, talk about it. That’s given me a new sense of purpose.