'Henbane – hyoscyamus niger. A potent alkaloid toxin and hallucinogen. A traditional ingredient in witches’ flying ointment. Henbane was used by the Roman priestesses of Apollo to provoke prophetic visions. It’s also the title of this new release from the Russian-Israeli musician Vera Shapiro (a.k.a. Agnivolok) and Vadim Gusis (a.k.a. Chaos As Shelter, who also plays in Agnivolok, along with Igor Krutogolov). Henbane compiles the earliest recordings of Agnivolok alongside early Chaos As Shelter tracks. This material dates back to the later 1990s, and this album was previously release in 1999 as a bootleg album called Belena, although this is the first authorised release. Henbane is evidently a bit of a preoccupation for Agnivolok, as the 2006 album Cherries also featured a track entitled ‘Henbane’, which was included in the Looking For Europe neo-folk boxed compilation. A different version of this song also appears on Henbane, under the title ‘Belena’ (which is the Russian name for henbane).
Henbane includes five tracks by Agnivolok, alternating with four tracks by Chaos As Shelter, and the album opens with Agnivolok’s ‘Volka’, in which Vera Agnivolok’s heavily processed vocals belt out a stirring folk tune against a spaced-out, swirling backdrop of ambient atmospherics and insistent, heartbeat-like drums. Chaos As Shelter’s ‘Alien’, is indeed quite alien-sounding, with cold, isolationist dark ambient evoking interstellar vistas, something like Sleep Research Facility or Kammarheit.
Agnivolok’s ‘The Heart And The Hunter’ opens with reverberating beats clattering away through a deep ambient void, which follows on neatly from the previous track, underlining Chaos As Shelter’s vital contribution to Agnivolok’s music, but the track then transforms into a lovely, lilting piece of neo-folk, with a wistful flute melody and strummed acoustic guitar. ‘Purgatory’, the next Chaos As Shelter track, is gothic-tinged dark ambient very much in the vein of Cold Meat Industry projects such as Raison d’Être or Atrium Carceri, with monastic plainsong chanting wrapped around dry, rattling beats, though a novel melodic twist is added via slowly building guitar strums.
‘Belena’, the version of ‘Henbane’ featured here, is sparser and colder than the version on Cherries, which featured warm accordion drones and Russian folk instruments. For ‘Belena’, Vera’s sweetly melancholic folk singing sends lonely echoes through a soundscape of cold ambient tones, like a child singing in the dark to keep from getting frightened. There are also traces on ‘Belena’ of the ritualistic metal percussion that I associate with Chaos As Shelter, because of albums like Dawn Syndrome. ‘The Sacrifice’ is Chaos As Shelter’s darkest piece on Henbane, with a baleful primordial drone surrounded by a nightmarish cacophony of chattering, shivering industrial ambient, shifting restlessly from channel to channel like a tiger pacing a cage.
Agnivolok’s ‘Black Forest’ is nostalgic folk, with soft accordion and distant, reverbed vocals subtly underscored by ambient drones – the ambient element is much less obvious here than on earlier tracks like ‘Belena’, although it’s still there. ‘Silver Lips Of Tomorrow’ by Chaos As Shelter is the album’s longest track, and it employs more metal percussion from bells and chimes, as well as deep, purring bass drones and fragmentary melodic passages. The album closes with ‘Volka Volka’, a reprise of the first track with the folk elements of the sound buried under layers of sinister hissing respirations, rattled percussion, and ambient atmospherics.
Overall, I preferred the Agnivolok tracks to the Chaos As Shelter works here, maybe just because they are musically richer and more involving. The Chaos As Shelter tracks, presented as they are here, interspersed with the Agnivolok tracks, sound like Agnivolok stripped of vocals and folk instruments, rather than full compositions in their own right. It’s good that this early material has been made available now, but it would be even better if there was a new Agnivolok release to look forward to. Her last album appeared in 2006, and her music offers a unique, distinctive blend of neo-folk with eastern European ethnic influences, lyrics suffused with surrealism and magical realism, and industrial ambient.
Henbane is a limited-edition release of 1000 copies, and it comes in a jewel case, with a colour booklet containing some cryptic monochrome photos of sculptures. I’m not really sure how these visuals relate to the music, and it would have been useful to have some printed lyrics and translations, as on Agnivolok’s Cherries album. I really like some of her surreal poetic imagery, for instance these lines from ‘The Golden Skull’:
Stars are falling around wolves-bears,
Stars are strewing my drunken body.
The booklet cover features delicate botanical illustration by Tanya of Dust of Roses and The Eastern Front, whilst the disc label has a painting by Agnivolok herself, who’s an accomplished artist as well as a musician.
And if Henbane leaves you eager to hear more of Agnivolok’s work, the good news is that The Eastern Front have made both her previous releases, Cherries and Sculptor, available in full as free downloads – check out the label’s website. Although of course that way you won’t get to appreciate the albums’ very nice packaging. And at the other extreme, there’s a very limited deluxe boxed set of Cherries and Sculptor available, which includes an original drawing by Vera Agnivolok.'
Written bySimon Collins @ www.monkeyhouse-recordings.co.uk
Agnivolok & Chaos as Shelter - Henbane (2009) [HQ]