Neon Lights and Oaken Leaves
It is a long standing tradition among my circle of friends to meet at least once a month at a friend’s home in a rural area and spend the evening drinking beer, talking and listening to music together. Music has always been our most important shared interest and the countless hours we’ve spent indulging in the astral spheres of sound have been an integral part of my youth. Over the years, the range of different styles and genres of music we explored has steadily increased. Where once we began as stern worshipers of 2nd wave Black Metal, spending whole nights listening to the complete works of Bathory or Burzum, our repertoire quickly expanded into classic Heavy Metal and Thrash Metal. The diverse soundscape of Black Metal also reinvigorated a lingering interest in traditional music and soon we enjoyed German and Scandinavian Folk tunes, Neofolk and classical composers like Bruckner, Dvořák or Mussorgsky. From there we have taken trips into Post Rock, Electronica and nowadays it’s not that uncommon if a meditative piece of orchestral music is followed up by a specific Rap tune or a classic Pop song. Seemingly dissonant breaks like these are often dispelled by concluding the night with a joint singing of Wandervogel tunes accompanied by guitar.
So when we recently got together and the first bottle of beer was opened to the sounds of Richard Strauß‘ Alpensinfonie, the second “Prost!” resounded over the din of the new Bölzer album, the third was accompanied by the droning of Russian Witch House, the fourth by a frenzy of Finnish Sleaze Rock, and the fifth saw us returning to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, I started ruminating about what it was that made this whole clamour of different styles seem to fit together so naturally, so properly aligned next to each other. How could our hearts be stirred in such similar ways by shrieking electronic guitars, orchestral scores and humming synthesizers alike? I quickly realised that there was a certain common sensation, a palpable atmosphere in the air, that bound together our personal little symphony of different musical styles: Nostalgia.
A Longing for Home
This unmistakable feeling of loss and longing, the lingering sensation of missing something very important and blindly reaching for it in every sound, every picture, every movement, wanting to return to a place never visited before, I consider to be the defining sentiment of our generation. We are born into a fallen world lacking any true reason, higher cause or spiritual guidance. We live our lives feeling that we are purposely being denied something essential, that there has to be something more than this bland routine of work, consumerism and base entertainment shoved down our sore throats. So we try to escape and seek refuge in the past or the future – Fantasy and Sci-Fi novels, video games, comic books, LARPing what we consider to be the glorious past or a possible dystopian future – all of our entertainment desperate attempts to return to a “true home” beyond the grey shores of mediocrity and sameness.
Such sentiments are not exclusive to our generation, though, and I would go so far as to consider Nostalgia a defining theme of European literature and sentimentality. The Greek expression can be translated as “a painful longing to return home” and is perfectly captured by the German word “Heimweh”. It is the central theme and propelling motivation in one of the most important works of Western literature, Homer’s Odyssey, the epic tale of the Hellenic hero Odysseus, whom the gods deny the return to his wife and son in Ithaca after his victory in the Trojan War. During the 19th century, the Romanticists particularly cultivated a pervading sense of longing for distant worlds, dreams and the past in their literature and symphonic poetry. The most important epic to portray this sentiment in the 20th century, downright brimming with it, is without a doubt J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Not only is the book designed to feel like the recording of a collection of ancient tales handed down through generations, but every fiber of its mythic world is infused with Heimweh and a subtle painful memory. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is truly a fallen world and merely a shadow of its former glory and splendour: The age of paradisal innocence is long since faded and only dimly remembered by the elves, who now leave the shores of the world to rejoin their gods in the West. Humanity has fallen from grace and is now ruled by cruel technocrats and magicians exploiting the resources of the world to fuel their soulless armies from within their sombre watchtowers. The remaining free peoples of the continent have long forgotten their rightful king and slowly waste away in apathy, their rulers corrupted by greed and selfishness… Does any of this feel slightly familiar?
Trapped between Past and Future
So, much like our forefathers and spiritual predecessors, we children of the dawning 21st century are constantly haunted by spectres of the past, all the more so because we can plainly see the dullness and mediocrity of our own “reality”. These phantoms naturally come to life in our music. Our desperate Romanticism is coupled with a pessimistic disdain for our own decadence and crystallized in the raging rhythms and haunting melodies of Black Metal. The disappointment of the Post-Punk/Industrial era eventually intermarried with a traditionalist mindset and revitalised the spirit of European music amid the concrete gorges of our cities through Neofolk. We even go so far as to romaticise our own childhoods (mostly the 80s/90s) and try to recreate the gaudy aesthetics and atmosphere of our favourite movies and video games of that period through genres such as Synthwave. Far more important than the strict adherence to a specific style or mindset seems to be the desire to “return home”, to clutch tightly every semblance of nobler times. And thus we go on creating all kinds of simulacra of the past, while fearfully but nonetheless determined marching towards an uncertain future. Until we reach its grey havens, we will keep on dreaming in the shadows of neon lights and oaken leaves.
“What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home”
– Annie Lennox, Into The West –