“The Dialectics of Mythos and Modernity” – Interview with Marcus Stiglegger [Vortex/MARS]

Photo by Carsten Hopf

Vortex’ “As Gods Fall” album, released by Cyclic Law, was undoubtely one of the highlights of dark ambient scene in 2018 – we at Santa Sangre loved it as well (you can read our review here). So we decided to contact Vortex’ mastermind, Marcus Stiglegger who – as it turned out – has a lot of interesting things to say. We speak about his past, present, and future. About movies… Enjoy.

If I’m not mistaken, it’s been over 10 years since our last interview. Would you dare to compare today’s “version” of yourself – as a musician and a person – with that Marcus who’ve recorded “Seven Pillars”?

Hey, you are so right – it has been 13 years since „Seven Pillars” was released on Athanor. For me personally that was a completely different time in my life. I was still searching for an artistic identity and tried out different concepts. My private life was pretty troubled – this is different now, I am happy to say. But I am still into the same topics I covered with :Golgatha: back then, just from a slightly moved point of view. I am a lot wiser than in 2006 – I hope, ha. Also I have found musical collaborators who really share my perspectives and are skilled enough to create pieces of an ever evolving master project about the dialectics of mythos and modernity.

Personally I still consider “Seven Pillars” as one of my favourite albums released this century. How do you see this album today?

It makes me very happy you say that. „Seven Pillars“ covers one of those fascinating individuals of the 20th century – Thomas Edward Lawrence. In his mission to unite the Arabian tribes during the First World War and the subsequent betrayal of his efforts he was involved in and reflects the beginnings of a cultural conflict that is still present today. :Golgatha: was named after the hill in Jerusalem where all three monotheistic religions meet. The idea was to explore these problems through conceptual albums. “Seven Pillars” and “Sang Graal” were the albums with the strongest concept in that respect. Thus I am still very proud of how “Seven Pillars” worked out back then. I haven’t heard it for quite some time…

It was always difficult to describe :Golgatha: as on all released albums the project was deriving from many different genres: dark ambient, neofolk, neoclassical, ritual ambient etc. And maybe I’m wrong, but I feel that it could be one of the reasons that :Golgatha” has ceased to exist – that with all these influences the main idea of the project has been diluted somewhere on the way. How would you refer to that? Perhaps there were any different reasons?

Here I can not completely agree. :Golgatha: was always content-driven. All albums followed a very clear and defined concept that was discussed in the liner notes and inspired the respective sound of the music. All mentioned genres were present, and this mixture was what I always liked about this post-industrial subculture. Listen to Coil, Current 93 or even SPK and you will find a surprising mix of genres. The tendency to focus on one specific sound only came along with the popularity of the genres in the late 1990s. Apocalyptic Folk always featured noise, samples, martial elements, ambience – beside some decent melodical folk songs. Check out „Wall of Sacrifice“, „Horse Rotorvator“ or „Thunder Perfect Mind“. Very unlike later neofolk records. This was what I had in mind. Also :Golgatha: had always been a very spiritual affair for me personally: very pagan, very shamanistic. The end of :Golgatha: was sealed with one of our most elaborate albums: “Horns of Joy”. I realized that I was completely alone with my ideas and feelings. I deliberately ended the band after a concert at Vienna. What I had in mind I had to take control of personally. So the mission was completed. I am still a bit sad that “Horns of Joy” did not reach the audience it should have reached and was one of the commercial failures. It is still available so…

Currently you got two projects, Vortex and MARS; both are much more focused and anchored in specific genres (Vortex – dark ambient; MARS – neofolk). Because of that, is it easier to work with them than it was with :Golgatha:?

MARS and Vortex are two different faces of the same ideas – and both are strongly based on :Golgatha:. In fact the „Cycles” CD by :Golgatha: can be seen as the first Vortex album. Also „The Waste Land“ could be seen as the birth of Vortex and :Golgatha: alike. Yes, it is easier to place concerts with either a pagan folk band or a dark ambient ritual act – for as I said: genres are more important today than in the past. Yet again I tend to let the energy flow during the creation process, and folk as well as black or doom metal elements find their way into both bands now and then… Also MARS is a proper duo. My influence is 50%. Vortex may feature several guests, yet it is completely controlled by myself. :Golgatha: worked as a band for a very short time and then fell apart for I was the only person loyal to its idea. At least from my perspective.

Photo by Sebastian Kiener

The musical differences are obvious, but I’d like to ask you what are the ideological/conceptual differences between Vortex and Mars?

MARS is the band of Oliver Freund and myself. We know each other for many years, crossed swords in kendo training and later started rehearsing and recording the music we like. MARS is completely song based, with many different influences. Lyrics and music are written by both of us. Our common interest is the influence of mythology in our everyday life. We started out with Roman mythology and finally stayed with Germanic lore. The name MARS is taken from my first name Marcus, meaning ‘dedicated to the war god’. We are bards of ritual folk music creating a very acoustically based but harsh sound.

Vortex is more of an intelectually driven concept. It started with my fascination for Vorticist art – thus the name – and moved on to the dialectics of mythos and modernity. The climax was the ‘mythical trilogy’: „Kali Yuga”, „Moloch” and „As Gods Fall”. All these concept albums deal with the influence of ancient myths and gods on modern culture and were wonderfully released by Cyclic Law, a label which I consider perfect for my concept. I share a lot of interests with Frédéric Arbour, the label boss, and he understands my concepts completely. Also our musical collaboration on the bonus CD of „As Gods Fall” (Visions-remix) clearly shows that symbiosis.

Vortex is also very inspired by film soundtracks and it came as a very satisfying coincidence that several film makers asked me to do soundtracks during the past years. The most elaborate is the film music for the Berlin underground film “Dark Circus”, soon to be released on DVD.

Is Aeterna still active or is this project a history now?

No, Aeterna had to be terminated for it was a very personal project by my ex-wife and myself. To me it seems very ill-fated and I only casually get back to my old sounds and some of lyrics of that era. But Aeterna is a closed chapter.

How do you decide which Vortex music goes to Cyclic Law to release and which goes to your Bandcamp as the difference between the two is pretty stark?

Oh, that is an interesting observation. But the reason is very trivial: Cyclic Law markets the main and recent albums, while on my Bandcamp I offer obscure, early and rare recordings to the die-hard fans. If you are interested in the evolution of Vortex, visit https://vortexdrone.bandcamp.com/. You will also find the soundtracks there.

Photo by Alex Czech / http://www.photophobia.eu

“As Gods Fall” is the third and final chapter of the mythical trilogy (began with “Kali Yuga” and then followed by “Moloch”). And while the first two segments were of more metaphorical character (“Moloch” had even this peculiar “urban” feeling), “As Gods Fall” is like a direct, almost cinematic illustration of Ragnarok. Could you describe the significance of all the chapters of the trilogy?

In the early 90s I studied cultural anthropology. And later I went on several journeys to India, Southeast Asia, North Africa, America and Scandinavia. On all of these journeys the myths were always alive and very present. This inspired me to find a musical expression of this intermingling of past and present, of history and mythology. All three albums were inspired by specific trips to Kolkata, New York City and Copenhagen. All three albums deal with a metaphorical as well as a very concrete reading of these topics. For me there is no real difference. But you may be right in the sense that „As Gods Fall” is the most complete, powerful and complex of the albums. I see Ragnaroek as a metaphor for the current downfall of our cultures with the very slight hope of a rebirth from the ashes of the apocalypse. The third part is the one I am most satisfied with, it is exactly as I hope it would be, also due to very carefully chosen guest musicians who did a great work. I hope to continue this path in future.

The album was critically acclaimed within the postindustrial community and I guess it won’t be easy to surpass it. Do you already have an idea for another Vortex endeavour?

You may be right. It will be hard to reach that level again. But I have confidence in a new concept with the working title: „Towards the Innermost Sun”. This album with deal with the solar mythology in different cultures, driven by the oncept of C.G. Jung’s „Nachtmeerfahrt“ – the personal spiritual journey through the abyssos. Again it will be a very cinematic and ritualistic, and I have invited some very fascinating guests. So stay tuned. I hope Cyclic Law will be able to release it on solstice 2020.

The Norse mythology is obviously very important to you. I’d like you to say something about your personal relationship with The Old Gods. Does it concern you also on the metaphysical/religious level?

Definitely yes. My interest in Norse mythology has started in my late teens. I read the Edda along with other mythological texts, devoured the books by Edred Thorsson and Freya Aswynn. I always felt the power of the Futhark. But my key experience was when I stayed at the Sinai desert to meditate in 2009. One morning I was visited by two ravens which inspired another diving into Odin’s realms. It stayed with me ever since. I constantly work with rituals and symbols which have become part of my everyday’s life. Also I consider Vortex performances as live rituals. They are part of my spiritual world.

After “As Gods Fall” I suppose it is time for another MARS full length? Or perhaps you’re planning any other surprises for the fans?

Unfortuantely times are rough for underground music. It.  is not easy to sell physical releases in a satisfying number, covering the production costs. Releasing music became a luxury. So there is no urge to follow a certain release plan. As soon as an idea or a concept comes up, a new album might be built – slowly and continuously. The last MARS album „The Seeker”(FolkWorld) is still there and it was created over a long period of several years. But as you ask: There is an idea called „Revolt!”Inspired by Albert Camus’ book “The Rebel” this cycle of songs will circle around the idea of the “man in revolt”. Like before, electric guitars will be even more present on this album. But there is nothing fixed besides an idea and four songs by now…

How do you see the postindustrial community these days? How would you compare it to the times when you’ve started your musical career?

To be honest I started my musical career as a DJ for gothic and industrial music in 1991 in the Rhine-Main-area of Germany. The German scene back then was very diverse but increasingly vivid. I saw the rise of the Wave-Gotik-Treffen at Leipzig as well as I (co)organized several concerts and festivals with bands from the Cold Meat Industry and Tesco labels, I came to know many musicians personally before I stared creating music myself. When I started in the early 2000s to actually compose music it was not hard to find a suitable label. Athanor, Tesco and Cold Meat were in full bloom then. But times changed around 2010. Festivals disappeared, CDs were selling less, mailorders became more picky or closed down. A younger audience was even absent or only interested in certain aspects or genres. There still is a scene, mainly consisting of the same persons I met on concerts twenty years ago, but it is pretty underground again. Streaming did not do well for ‘our’ genres in my opinion. For Spotify listeners it will just be a random dark ambience, never a specific album with great artwork and interesting liner notes. „As Gods Fall” works much better on double CD than as a stream. The visual aspect is very important and an organic part of the artefact. If you listen to one or two Vortex tracks in a dark ambient playlist you will never get the idea…

Ok, I need to ask this – you recorded the :Golgatha” albums under the Christoph Donarski alias. What was the reason? And why that Polish sounding name?

That is a very good question and I will answer it once and for all: I was building my academic career back then and aimed to separate my music from my other work as a film scholar. Also we appeared masked in the beginning which created some interest. The pseudonym was inspired by several sources, but mainly a pun on Donar/Thor and ski/sky. The Polish relation was not intentional. With MARS I incorporated my real name into the band. Today I am much more conscious about the meaning and value of my art. I even played live on the same events where I gave lectures on film history before etc. There is no need for a pseudonym. What is my personal work now can be identified and I am happy about it.

Apart from music, you’re also a scholar of film studies, the author of several publications on the theory of cinema (generally speaking). Is this how you make a living while the music remains important, but still just a hobby?

That description is correct. I am a scholar of film aesthetics, theory and history in Germany with many books out (my first English language volume will be out 2020). I am professionally teaching film studies in German universities, and internationally before (Clemson/USA, Wroclaw/Poland, Klagenfurt/Austria). This is how I make a living. Music is my hobby.

What is the main point of interest within your film studies?

My foci in film studies are the seduction theory of film, media mythology, genre theory, body theory of film, and cinema and historical rememberance. I published books on Akira Kurosawa, on body horror films, Dario Argento, David Cronenberg, fascist aesthetics in popular culture and more.

What do you think about the condition of contemporary genre cinema? Personally I find it better than ever in the last 20-25 years.

In my opinion film is the most complex and advanced art form (thus I create music, ha!). I have high respect for film makers of the past and present, within genre contexts or else. A proper genre cinema as back in the classical era of Hollywood does not exist any more. What we now have are hybrids, transformations and mixtures of classical genres building something new. Genre has become a self-conscious discourse with films by Tarantino, del Toro or even Ridley Scott. So yes: I would agree, genre cinema has become exciting again by breaking the boundaries. And films like Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” and “Arrival” can be considered as high level sophisticated genre cinema.

What’s going on in the German cinema these days? During the last couple of years I found Christian Petzold as one of my favourite modern directors. I also loved „Victoria”, „Das Letzte Schweigen”, „Grüße aus Fukushima”, „Wer wenn nicht wir” to name just a few. Also the TV series like „Deutschland 83” and „Berlin Babylon” („Dark” is a bit overrated to me)… I have a huge expectations towards „Der Hauptmann” as the reviews sound more than promising… But are there any movies or movie makers worth attention that are not very popular outside Germany?

Oh yes, especially when considering Austrian directors like Andreas Prochaska (“The Dark Valley”) as well. I really appreciate „Der Hauptmann” which is a daring and pessimistic film, dealing with the German past and recent European right wing tendencies at the same time. There is a German noir thriller called “Zwischen Den Jahren” I can recommend. And philosophical psychosexual thriller called “A Thought Of Ecstasy” by my friend RP Kahl, featuring Deborah Kara Unger from Cronenberg’s “Crash”. Also check out “Wir Sind Jung, Wir Sind Stark” and “Kriegerin”, two films on the neonazi problem in former East Germany. Personally I like “Wild”, a film about a suburban woman falling in love with a wolf. And if you want to know about the Gangs of Berlin, watch the series “4 Blocks” by Austrian director Marvin Kren. If you like dark ambience in films you must see the witchy psychodrama “Hagazussa” by Lukas Feiglfeld with a soundtrack by MMMD.

It is the beginning of January 2019, so I need to ask you about your favourite music of 2018?

For me personally 2018 was musically not that exciting. I am still listening to the albums of 2017 I guess… I liked the soundtrack of “Wind River” by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, David Eugene Edwards / Alexander Hacke „Risha“, „Hugsja“, Nordvargr „Metempsychosis”, King Dude „Music to Make War to“, Apoptose “Die Zukunft”, Inade “The Nine Colors of the Threshold”. I am regularly listening to Amenra, Wardruna, Chelsea Wolfe, Fields of the Nephilim, Johann Johannsson, Lana del Rey, Chrysta Bell, Leonard Cohen and many more.

And the best movies you’ve seen last year?

Here are some aof a very strong year: “First Reformed” (Paul Schrader), “Suspiria” (Luca Guadagnino), “Roma” (Alfonso Cuarón), “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (Yorgos Lanthimos), “Hold the Dark” (Jeremy Saulnier), “Hostiles” (Scott Cooper), “A Beautiful Day” (Lynne Ramsay), “Der Hauptmann” (Robert Schwentke), and more. I also loved “Twin Peaks 3”.

Any particular expectations about 2019 in terms of music, cinema and your personal life as well?

2019 will be a busy and exciting year for me – I hope. I am planning spirtually motivated travels to the Pyrenées and to the Californian desert. Also I will publish two books and am going to (co)write an English language volume on the film “Cruising”. I am looking forward to collaborating with my symbiotic partner Nadine, Oliver from MARS, as well as Alina from Lamia Vox, Peter from Leidungr, and Marc from Nam-Khar. I am also producing supplemental material for Bluray releases like the German version of “Irreversible” (Studio Canal) or a German Krimi Special (Severin Film, USA). There are many concerts coming up (Dead Can Dance, Behemoth etc.). Vortex will appear on the Phobos Festival in Wuppertal (Germany). And there will be more…

That would be everything. Thank you Marcus for the interview and I wish you all the best in 2019.

Thank you very much for your interest and the evocative questions. Good luck for your magazine!


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