Review: OSTARA – Eclipse of the West (LP/CD, Trisol Music Group)

IT seems hard to believe that it is now over twenty years since Ostara first burst on the scene and it was 1999 when I made the short trip from my home in South London to the old World Serpent Distribution offices in nearby Deptford and despite the ugly brick edifice that greeted all musical adventurers who arrived in search of sustenance, the box-filled interior in which these treasures were housed had already issued a wealth of Neofolk masterpieces by the likes of Death In June, Current 93, Nurse With Wound, The Moon Lay Hidden Behind A Cloud, Elijah’s Mantle and many others.

By this time, I had managed to assemble a large collection of WSD releases and was also in possession of two CDs by a band called Strength Through Joy. Formed by Richard Leviathan and Timothy Jenn, several years earlier, STJ had impressed me enormously with the military pop of The Force Of Truth And Lies (1995) and Salute To Light (1996). Both albums had been released on Twilight Command, itself a subsidiary of Death In June’s very own New European Recordings label. On this occasion, however, WSD part-owner Alison Webster happened to mention that Richard was involved in a new project by the name of Ostara and that the band had just released a 7″ single by way of its Osterraed moniker. It was entitled Operation Valkyrie. Naturally, I snapped it up right away and took it home with me. The song concerns the story of Claus von Stauffenberg (1907-1944) and his attempt to overthrow the Hitler regime in favour of a Conservative Revolution. I had been familiar with this historical episode for a good fifteen years or so, sharing many of its hopes and dreams, and the lilting guitar and evocative lyrics soon imprinted themselves on my mind and have remained with me ever since: “As Siegfried sinks in the ashen storm / Of Odin’s screaming muse of death / And Rheingold bleeds like molten lead / In the grey descent of Orpheus.”

The following year I had the pleasure to pick up a copy of Ostara’s first album, Secret Homeland (2000), and soon realised that the song that had sent me along that particular road several months earlier was just one of many classic recordings by a vocalist and songwriter who would later become a valued friend. I would even publish a collection of Richard’s wonderful poetry, Odes (2015), and soon discovered that the sheer dynamism, intensity and creativity inherent in his unique personality also came to the fore in online commentaries and discussions on matters ranging from politics and philosophy right through to sex and spirituality. One theme that appears time and time again, however, is the Spenglerian notion of decline. Richard does not merely set out to document the characteristic unpredictability of our times, he wholeheartedly embraces it. Over the course of the next sixteen years a further six albums followed, with Ostara switching from WSD to labels such as Eis Und Licht, Trisol and Soleilmoon in the process. These were Kingdom Gone ‎(2002), Ultima Thule (2003), Immaculate Destruction (2005), The Only Solace (2009), Paradise Down South (2013) and Napoleonic Blues (2016).

Four years after the last Ostara release, Eclipse of the West has appeared on the radar like a herald of the impending apocalypse and Richard has re-entered the fray with no less than fifteen new songs. The first of these, STORM AND STRESS, which is clearly a nod to the proto-Romanticism of Germany’s Sturm und Drang period, epitomises a sense of personal balance and perspective in the face of a prevailing nihilism: “Stars of dust and waves of light / Planets swimming through the sky / I don’t believe in God / But I still feel the Love.” One thinks of George Orwell’s remark about love enduring in a cold climate, or perhaps Rudyard Kipling’s advice about keeping one’s head when everyone around you is losing theirs: “Systems falling to decay / Flags of freedom blown away / But when I look at you / I don’t feel so blue.” Richard is known for his keen sense of humour, so one does tend to wonder if his tongue was stuck firmly in his cheek at this point or whether he is being deadly serious. Ostara has always retained that delightfully Nero-esque dimension in which things may well be collapsing around our ears but we shall nonetheless keep our dignity and celebrate life in the process. As Richard’s dreamy über-pop pervades your soul with its usual infectiousness there are no empty platitudes here, only a tragic realism in which one must resign oneself to the inevitable: “Daggers sharpen in your heart / Shadows play their lonely part / Roses they will bloom / But they are all doomed.”

With the onset of ALCHEMY, we have moved beyond resignation altogether and are being asked to take control of our own destinies: “Read the signs / Seize the iron of the times / Melting down to the fury / Kingdoms rise / And empires they decline / But in love we are born to die.” The underlying guitar rhythm is beautiful on this track, its catchy lyrics suggesting that like the Eastern notion of Saṃsāra there is really no real point to the endless cycle in which we enter the world over and over again. With its palm-beating jollity, the song evolves into an unhappy-clappy outing in saccharine-coated pessimism. Schopenhauer eat your heart out.

The title track, ECLIPSE OF THE WEST, challenges the myth of human longevity like never before, the failure of monarchies and republics a sign that everything is about to come crashing down like a house of cards. Richard’s interest in the Prophecy of the Last Pope is posited among the accompanying degeneracy of the times: “And the last Vatican cross / Fades to the pyres of Hell / And the Renaissance men / Grieve over their dead / And Olympian gold is lead / And the seasons are lost / To the neon dross / The stars are buried in red / And the moon blinds the sun / Eclipse of the West.” The sun and moon allegory also relates to the medieval concept that the solar power of the papacy has dominance over the moon of the secular realm as a result of the moon itself having to obtain its light from the sun, but here it has been reversed to the extent that the balance of power is threatened.

The fourth track, SONG OF SAUL, begins with a quotation from 1 Samuel 19:11: “If you don’t run for your life tonight, tomorrow you’ll be killed.” These words were uttered by David’s wife, after Saul had sent his guards to murder his rival. Subsequently, when David escapes Saul’s jealousy and fear of being captured by the enemy results in him taking his own life the Philistines recover his body, as well as those of his three sons, and then decapitate them and display them on the wall of Beth-shan. Saul was the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel and Richard’s lyrics, sounding upbeat and with a more rapid delivery, seem to employ this biblical parable as a means of conveying a sense of transmigratory redemption: “Soul won’t you sing / Will you come out of the wall? / That you’ve built for the light / Will you come out of the wall? / I could be like St Paul / On the path to the dawn / I could be like King Saul / Calling down the thorns.”

SONG OF PAIN takes the theme of redemption one step further and celebrates death as a state of fulfilment and desire, reciting the words in the way that a man might observe his own funeral: “Lay me down into that hole / Black hole / Lonely soul / Cold as a holy stone / The holy stone.” The figure is compared to Christ, Caesar, Alexander and Charlemagne, suggesting amid its carefully structured stanzas and diverse delivery that death is the great leveller.

The next song title, ST. JOHN ON THE CROSS, may sound like a curiously rearranged reference to the sixteenth-century Carmelite, but seems to revolve around the earlier life of the man who was an apostle and thus a contemporary of Jesus: “Steal into the night / Like the catcher in the rye / My faith in danger / My heart is like a knife / To you my hero / I bring the spear of Christ.” At the same time, the song has a Gnostic quality in that it seems to take account of the Apocryphon of John, a text which alludes to Jesus having provided John with secret knowledge. Richard appears to make a contrast between a false Christian message and a more controversial interpretation: “From your phoney revolution / I bring the revelation.” Jesus is not a saviour, in other words, but a prophet.

DYSTOPIA is a clever little song in its presentation of the age-old problem-solution dichotomy and how things designed to heal often lead to hurt. It begins as a depiction of a nightmarish and yet all-too-familiar present: “They will show you their Dystopia / That there’s nothing but yourself / Contained in your golden prison / Just another version of Hell.” The alternative future, on the other hand, seems just as bad: “They will show you their Utopia / They will lead down the path / Bearing torches of fraternity / You know it will never last.” I would like to think that I’m slightly more optimistic than Richard when it comes to carving-out something better in the ruins of the modern world, but he is right to point to the idealism that often leads the most well-meaning people towards a tyranny of their own making.

WAYLAND’S SONS is a triumph. With the jangling guitar reminding me of the end-of-times café culture of Robert Taylor’s Changes, the title is a clear reference to hero-craftsman Wayland the Smith and the words will certainly inspire those with an Odinist bent: “Where flesh becomes will / And thought becomes blood / Where storm is the eye / And rage is the flood / Where wolf leads the way / And Man is the god.” The chorus tells of fire and ice, of men who stand upon the ruins of our civilisation like Watchers, there to bear witness to the completion of one cycle of Tradition and the beginning of another. Ragnarok awaits: “Where wife becomes widow / And father mourns sons / Where beds turn to caskets / And sleep is for none / Where faith is an isle / On the cruel sea of pain / And love is the apple / On the field of the slain.”

Track nine, EL ENEMIGO, takes a more vindictive turn, but what seems like a glimpse through the eyes of an avenging misanthrope (“I will gatecrash the ball / I will burn down the hall”) soon develops into an ode to the volatile black spot that lurks in the complacent whiteness of the Yin-Yang. Life is not a bed of roses and you simply don’t know when your nemesis might be waiting for you around the corner: “I’m a taker / I’m a breaker / I’m a black hole maker / It’s metaphysical / It’s fate versus the will / I’m a joker in the pack / I’m a poet not a hack / The bearer of blows / A wound to the soul.” Ostara does love to challenge mankind’s one-sided pursuit of happiness, but we must never overlook the Rap-like humour of these lines and Richard certainly had some fun with his use of the term ‘hack’.

CITY OF THE SHADES reminds me somewhat of Ralph McTell’s Streets of London (1969), with the title perhaps implying that the slumbering inhabitants of our sprawling English capital are just as blinkered towards the plight of others as they have always been. Its a song about loneliness, isolation and, ultimately, battling against the constant spectre of self-destruction: “I see you standing / On the bridge / Veil of sadness / Over everything, / In your bare black coat / With your crimson smile / Filled with joy and tears / and endings, / Beauty borne upon / The embers of the dusk.” A tragic song, but delivered with genuine emotion.

The theme of despair continues with FIFTH HORSEMAN and whilst it would be easy to associate this title with the Apocalypse it may suggest that Richard is familiar with the Zbyněk Brynych film, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (1965). Whilst it deals with the persecution of the Jews under the Third Reich, the emphasis is on the psychological effects of state oppression itself. The song does appear to echo Brynych’s own sentiments: “I see birds drown in the ocean / I feel the furnace in the sky / I see the crown / Become the tyrant / I hear the chorus of the vile.” Interestingly, whilst the film deals with the Holocaust it deliberately refrains from discussing the furnaces that are usually connected with this part of history. Nonetheless, the image of the Fifth Horseman is invariably connected with fear and Richard is keen to present hope in the midst of despair: “I lie low in this blackest hole / The fate of life / To be alive / Shaping visions / For this darkened time / And the world goes down / Fading like a scar / In the heart.” It’s a remarkable track, possibly the best on the album, and whilst it does seem to hint at contemporary suffering it surely relates to the tragedies of the past.

Similarly, RUNAWAY HORSES is another Ostara epic that evokes visions of the second novel in Yukio Mishima’s famous Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Written in 1969 and influenced by J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a work that Richard name-checks on a previous track, it tells of a Samurai plot to topple Japanese capitalists. One of Mishima’s more common themes, that of seppuku, is also discussed in the song: “At dawn atop the sacred hill / I bow my head and make my will / Write my name in red upon the ground.”

The title of the thirteenth track, COLD BLUNT LOVE seems to raise the point I made about Orwell in relation to the opening song. During the course of his novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), Orwell used the term ‘love in a cold climate’ and the book is famous for its portrayal of dispassionate sexuality between the two main characters. I’m not sure that Richard consciously based his track on the novel, but I’m aware that one of his favourite novels is Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Death on Credit (1936) and Orwell’s work deals with the same corrupting influence of money. Here, at least, the lyrics dwell on the grubbiness of pilferage and self-loathing: “Forgive ‘til you forget / But I am not forgiving / In the veil of my shame / I must lie / To the world that you reject / The sacred flesh you bury / In the scar of your theft / Silver lined.”

The alluring strains of SIREN SONG are more reflective, almost a postscript for the violence that one finds in the previous track. Again, the concept of hope reappears, something unexpected for a music project that ordinarily concerns itself so much with tragedy. This is not to say that hope springs eternal, of course: “Hope is hope / Hope is hope until it dies / Take my hand / See it slide.” Blowing in the wind, the redemption offered by this minute scrap of human salvation is not an inevitability and hope itself must involve effort on the part of the suffering individual: “I cannot sing / I cannot dance for you.”

Finally, SAILOR OF THE BLUE may be another reference to Mishima, in this case his earlier novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963). Richard’s “Sailor of the blue” may be a reference to the book’s main character, Ryuji, who as a sailor is regarded as a hero by his gang. When he intends to marry and leave the sea for good, his associates plan to murder him on account of his ceasing to fulfil the role of a masculine hero and this may account for Richard’s use of the alternative term “Sailor of the grey”. Regardless, the concluding track serves as a fitting analogy for the album’s preoccupation with psychological turmoil in the face of a necessarily unsympathetic world: “Sailor of the grey / Wishing to be far away / Far away from the day / Bearer of the pain / Sailor of the grey / Drowning just to / Breathe beneath / Breath beneath the waves / Bearer of the way.” The blue and grey are two aspects of Richard’s efforts to portray the fractious nature of the human soul and when he sings the words “Know that I am gone / With the dark lonely heart” it conveys the bipolarity of mankind’s dark night of the soul.

Final thoughts? Musically, Ostara is rather similar to Iron Maiden in terms of the fact that you know exactly what you’re going to get, but although Richard Leviathan has developed a tried-and-tested formula you can never have too much of a good thing. With its sumptuous artwork, this album is intelligent, well thought-out and, moreover, a thing of beauty.

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