By Valentine Wolfe
Full disclosure: we’re a heavy metal band, and a Gothic heavy metal band at that. To write music about death, in this case, might be as cliché as it gets, but as a wise woman (Jillian Venters) once said “embrace your clichés”. And in the summer of 2016, that was our intent, more or less: we were wrapping up a project that was inspired by 19th century cabinets of curiosity and taxidermy, and we were planning our next project, which we’d decided would be 19th century mourning, spiritualism, and ghosts.
At this point, we were also in mourning; one of our mentors and best friends had passed away, quite unexpectedly. We had no idea this would be the first loss of many; over the course of 2016—2017, we lost 9 people we loved, people who had changed our lives forever.
While music has always been therapeutic for both of us, this was new and terrifying territory.
Further disclosure: we’re a heavy metal band that has no guitars or drums. We’re a metal band with a female vocalist, which is increasingly not as crazy as it would have seemed in the 80s or 90s. We’re a heavy metal band that’s primary instrument is one usually associated with classical and jazz music: the double bass. We think it’s safe to say we’re comfortable pursuing our own path, even into terrifying territory.
Pursuing our own path is how we found Death and the Maiden, The Order of the Good Death, and the Death Positive movement. This happened as a result of an artistic aim, as Schubert fans we were thinking about using his song, Death and the Maiden, as a source of inspiration to tell our own story of grief. That’s how we found Death and the Maiden and when the second death of 2016 happened (our bassist’s sister died, young and quite unexpectedly from a rare and undiagnosed genetic disorder), we were feeling quite on our own as baby death-positives.
The collection of songs we produced, The Elegiac Repose, became our music with a purpose. We wanted to heal, to grieve, to find an honest foundation about loss, and we thought that if we needed those things, perhaps the people listening to our music needed it too.
The first song Sarah, our lead singer, composed for The Elegiac Repose was Sorrow for Eternity. This song is an angry, primal cry when confronted with the death of a loved one, also equally angry at the perceived need to bear this news with dignity. There’s a plan and all that. Not dead, only sleeping. In other words, a cry of rage against the hollow platitudes of the death-denial culture we share.
In therapy, you learn it’s OK to not be OK: Sorrow For Eternity is a song that functions as the first part of that process: acknowledging that this is not OK.
Sorrow For Eternity wound up being the keystone to the rest of the album. Each new song was reflected back into its mirror, from the overall sound of each song to the emotional impact of the lyrics and performances. We were determined to explore our states of being through music, with this song acting as our psycho-pomp, reminding us that yes, this is a hard burden to bear, and some days will be better than others.
“We were determined to explore our states of being through music.”
The next songs were composed in a flurry of activity as we sought solace in music. The Sin Eater became a kind of symbol of death for us: we avoid death at all costs, we shun, we deny, we pretend, and in the Sin Eater’s case, we despise…and we found that quite ironic considering the Sin Eater’s function was to ease the transition into the afterlife (we’ve talked about the Death Positive movement after shows, and we usually frame THAT discussion as such: regardless of what you believe will happen after, your death is certain. So let’s talk…)
Taphophilia is one of Sarah’s strongest death positive sentiments. It further expounds on the afterlife thought we just shared, that is, no matter what you believe might happen, here’s what we know will happen. As such, Sarah’s lyrics work as commentary on the barriers we have faced, and maybe some of you have faced, when discussing death positive concepts:
Porcelain Creature was a song created later in the process: we both imagined a shattered doll, held together with golden glue, as in wabi-sabi. For both of us, this became a powerful image of grief and its effects. Good as new is an illusion; there’s your life before and your life afterwards. And we also used the lyrics to comment on what we started calling the “acceptable mourning time period” in which after the usual seize the day exhortations, you find yourself slowly, treacherously being expected to be…better. We both firmly believe this to be a symptom of death denialism.
Melancholy Is The Devil’s Bath, conceptually, is the biggest remnant of our original time capsule plan. What it became was our take on things gothic as a gateway; we’ve always felt that music or literature that encourages curiosity is a good thing. Sometimes, when we share our death positivity and interests, there’s that knowing smirk and banal observation of “well, you’re goths, so duh…” We find this somewhat infuriating.
Within that context, Sarah sings:
Death and the Maiden began as our love letter to Franz Schubert and turned into our love letter to deadmaidens.com. There’s a whole poem by John Clare inserted into the middle section, and on the surface, the plot of our danse macabre concerns a personification of death taking an interest in a young woman at a funeral. Only at the end do we reveal that the Maiden and Death are the same entity. The transformation that occurs, lyrically, also mirrors our own transformation: from mourning and shattered to death accepting and…well, less shattered. In subsequent live performances, we’ve felt that the transformation also echos our experience with death positivity: from initial explorations, to affirmations, to finally, the need to share this concept, far and wide.
“Death and the Maiden began as our love letter to Franz Schubert and turned into our love letter to deadmaidens.com”
Softly Shall You Sleep is the last phrase spoken to the Maiden by Death in Schubert’s song. In many ways, it’s a coda to the previous song, Sarah’s brooding piano and wordless vocals expressing the essence of the famous quote “Where words fail, music speaks”.
Prospero’s Farewell is, taken from the famous epilogue to The Tempest. Following the death of Braxton’s sister, he found himself listening to this speech several times in the evening before bed. Taking a hint from his subconscious, he asked to Sarah to set the words to music. Prospero’s Farewell is rife with musical symbols as a remembrance to Braxton’s sister: it shares meter, motive, and a variation of a chord progression with two songs from his sister’s favorite band. Lyrically, these words were of great comfort as he imagined them spoken by ones who died before.
Making that connection would not have been possible without the work of the death positive movement.
Last Kiss, the finale, acts a summation of our view on what it means to be death positive: we all have to say goodbye one day. Our lives are precious because they must end. And we don’t find this morbid or creepy, we find this beautiful. For us, and for most of you reading I suspect, to be death positive is to be life positive.
“Our lives are precious because they must end.”
For us, finding this community inspired us to imbue our music with purpose; music became our therapy again. And we wanted to work that way for others, too.
The Elegiac Repose was released on September 1. Since then, we’ve invited people to ask us about the Death Positive movement and to share their feelings with us after our shows: there has been laughter, tears, and the all-too-common “but I thought it was illegal not to be embalmed!”.
The 19th Century historical aspects didn’t completely fall away, however. We worked with an amazing visual artist, Aristotle Pramagioulis, and we decided to display the lyrics as Mourning Cards/Announcements. We still believe this presentation encourages curiosity, and as we keep performing these songs, we hope this curiosity encourages engagement with your own mortality.
After all, now that we found all of you, we DO know where these thoughts come from!
Formed in 2006, Valentine Wolfe is the combined effort of Sarah Black and Braxton Ballew. Imagine Sarah Brightman being backed by Francois Rabbath shredding through a Marshall stack at midnight. Having dubbed their music “Victorian Chamber metal”, the duo have synthesized a love of metal, classical, and industrial, infusing them with a Victorian sensibility that evokes the likes of Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe.
Ethereal soprano vocals of Sarah Black are buttressed by the thunderous growl of Braxton’s electric upright bass, the two coalescing over pounding rock and electronic grooves punctuated by a maelstrom of synthesizers, keyboards, and sound design. Their work has attracted the attention of rock audiences, goth enthusiasts, theatre composers, and con attendees all up and down the east coast.
Their previous releases include The Nightingale: A Gothic Fairytale, is an dramatic adaptation and reinterpretation of both The Emperor and the Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen and Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats, set in a sinister Poison Garden, based on the Alnwick Botanical Gardens in England, where every single plant can kill. 2016 saw the release of A Child’s Bestiary, nine tracks of macabre oddities from the imagination, an exploration of a grotesque menagerie, lurking under the guise of a child’s innocent rhymes.
Their most current release is The Elegiac Repose, nine death positive songs of grief, mourning, and loss.
Visit them online at valentinewolfe.com