With Covenant Festival – Vancouver’s inaugural three-day celebration of extreme underground music – just a week away, we invited Paulus Kressman, founder of festival headliner Rites of Thy Degringolade, to discuss his creative work, the reinvigorated life cycle of the band, and the unique legacy of Canadian war metal.
At first glance, one might stumble over the unfamiliar French term for “collapse” or “downfall”, but the archaic quality of “dégringolade“ is well-suited to the character of the influential war metal outfit from Edmonton that quietly retreated a decade ago. After three full-length releases of relentlessly chaotic black metal that made a lasting mark on extreme metal, Kressman says its retirement was a natural step, as he felt he had accomplished everything he had set out to do with the band and it was time to undertake new collaborations and explore other ideas. (He declines to list interim projects so not to detract from Rites, but mentions a forthcoming project to be called Amphisbaena. “Stay aware for such an entity, I believe it shall speak volumes.”)
About the resurrection of the band, Kressman says, “(I)t seemed Rites was always there, through years of literally not thinking about it or having a strong yearning to return to it, and I knew we always could. The material has stood the test of time and not grown old and bland to me, whereas some of the (other) material I did in between has. This spoke volumes unto me. I encountered Wroth (guitar/bass, backing vocals) one fine evening and we had a simple discussion of the matter, and thus new life born into an old shell. 10 years can age a fine wine rather well!”
The cohesive personality of RoTD’s sound may be attributable to Kressman’s role as sole composer, meticulously apprehending the entirety of his vision:
“I always, at the beginning of Rites, wrote as if it was a full band situation, not simply as a one-man band. I would compose the foundation of the song from a writer’s perspective, not giving initial thought as to what the accompanying instruments’ roles would play for the most part. This would lead me down the line, step by step, almost having a group of exactly like-minded individuals adding each integral part of the puzzle until it was complete. Of course the group of like-minded individuals was only one person. I had many lengthy discussions with myself, usually coming to a unanimous decision in the end.”
His valuation of personal experience echoes the ideals of Romanticism in a way that is, by now, familiar to fans of black metal. “The ability to lose oneself in oneself is a great and powerful tool to harness, the things to be achieved and learned are endless and cannot be taught or learned from others. Only you can give this to yourself. Perhaps that is pure satisfaction.” Removing himself from the distractions of urban life proved to be a satisfying and productive decision for both the recording of the band’s second album, Totality.
“(A)t the time I had had enough of the city for a spell, I decided to try a one year removal of myself from the city and found a simple house to dwell in, I wrote the TOTALITY album there in that year. This is when I asked Wroth to join me, he made a great effort and did the trek out there to each rehearsal, we worked endlessly on it. Up until that point more or less I had been working alone. A new head in the fold proved to be quite productive and I believe much for the better. When the recording was complete, ’twas back to the city for me. I have been here ever since. That album would not be as it now stands if I had not taken those measures.”
Kressman says that challenging circumstances and reflections on dark subject matter also provide fuel for songwriting: “Burying your own father at 18 years of age, I promise you, can lead one to this very road on which I walk.” Nevertheless his personal philosophy is pragmatic and recalls the work of author and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins: on the creative appeal of chaos, violence, and similarly dark themes, Kressman maintains, “The entire vast universe in which all matter exists is in a state of change at all times; whether or not you wish to view this as progress or regression makes no difference. Ask the person next to you if the thought of a million atomic warheads simultaneously detonating sounds like violent chaos. That is what the universe has been doing and shall continue to do so, ad infinitum. That is just nature, and the natural state to which all matter is infinitely subject. Period. When I ask myself that very question, the answer is rather comforting – the knowledge that this chaos is inside everything and to fear or deny it, not embrace it, is foolish.”
Artists often express the inspiration for their work as stemming from an inherent need to create that supercedes social, political, and economic conventions: the artist is compelled to create whether or not one’s work is accepted, encouraged, or rewarded. Asked if creatives are, in that sense, at war with society, he says that in his own experience, “There have been years in which each day does appear to be a war waging to one degree or another between me and the outside. The somewhat ironic thing about said struggle is: that which creates such a struggle in the first place also ‘cures’ or ends the battle, because in the end I always win and continue to create regardless of what the outside society continues to follow, say or think.”
With Edmonton as the home to authoritative acts like Rites of Thy Degringolade and Revenge – not to mention revered genre veterans Blasphemy headquartered one province away in British Columbia – the western provinces in general appear to have been a crucible for war metal; but, Kressman says, this does not imply that it has mass appeal to Albertans. “Living here it seems, or seemed, the norm. I believe the crown does belong to Blasphemy of course, they were innovators and paved the way, so to speak. Those seeds were planted, so I am told, by Conqueror and my past band Sacramentary Abolishment over 20 years ago now. I believe it had an influence on those growing up here and on a global scale, to see it as a ‘Canadian sound.’ I can’t really say why to be honest, we were rather young and that is what came naturally for us at the time.”
In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes’ classic treatise on government and the social contract, the author describes the state of nature as a chaotic war of “all against all”. In closing, Kressman emphasizes that, ultimately, the natural order is of less relevance than one’s actions within it:
“Nature has always had a hierarchy to it, thus man is subject to said hierarchy. This is where law, governing parties and social structure come into place. It can be argued, rather weakly perhaps, that this set of paradigms or laws should or could fall. They always seem to do so for short periods – this is when conflict and war arises either internally (civil war) or nation against nation. In the end I must agree with the term “a war of all against all.” The infinite cycle of the universe dictates unending strife between all things. The manner in which they act, and the varying degrees of struggle is inconsequential. What is of the utmost importance is how you shall choose to partake in the current age of quarrel, how you shall enlighten yourself, and what you leave behind as your creative uniqueness that only you were able to bring into existence. THIS IS THE END!