Music needs its mavericks to provide a bit of spice and excitement and to occasionally shock us out of our musical comfort zones. Manchester-based Wilderness Hymnal (aka Javier G Wallis and Michael Kelly) does that in spades with the left field take on a prog-infused journey though epic and dark sounds that defy pigeonholing. In the leadup to the release of their Anthropocene album (you can order it here) we caught up with main man Javier to find out what led to the creation of such a stunning and inventive album.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s the story behind Wilderness Hymnal and how would you describe your sound?
My name is Javier G Wallis, and I’m a visual artist, singer and pianist living in Manchester.
Wilderness Hymnal started as a solo project in about 2011 because I couldn’t find the kind of weird metal band that I wanted to play in, so I started learning how to write full-band songs alone, but built out of pianos, organs, synthesizers instead of guitars. I had picked up this stupid idea that pianos can’t be heavy instruments and wanted to rip that up completely (and then I discovered Diamanda Galás …).
The name was a mission statement, inspired a bit by Wolves In The Throne Room – I wanted to evoke huge natural spaces, but then as the songs started to form, I found there was a lot of pain about nature in them, too.
My sound? Psychedelic death piano, maybe?
What motivates you and inspires your music, aesthetic and vibe?
Extreme emotions. Folk horror. Genetic memory. Brutal nature. Whatever Björk is wearing. The vibe is quite intuitive. A lot of the music I make feels like I’m channelling something.
It’s a big mix, really. I like contrasts, and I’m always looking for ways to build intensity and darkness on a large scale. Bits of other artists I like tend to creep in. Alcest, Dead Can Dance, Fever Ray and Jeff Buckley are all big inspirations.
What’s the theme behind your new album, Anthropocene?
The harms we inflict on ourselves and our children, and the ways those are intimately connected to the harm we are doing as a species: Capitalism, climate breakdown, ecological collapse. We have inherited a poisoned chalice…and there are those of us with a dark personal inheritance, too. I wanted to connect up and contrast the larger and smaller scale of those things.
Did the lyrical concept come first, or the music?
They coalesced around the same time – I improvise a lot, and some songs arrive whole, or come in fits and starts. Often lyrics are the first thing I have. Here, I wanted specific songs to evoke specific environments – for example, with Meltwater I aimed for cold, cavernous and glacial, heating up. That dictated the structure, instruments, sounds, textures as well as the lyrics.
There’s a real sense of breaking musical boundaries on Anthropocene. It certainly doesn’t respect even the conventions of post-rock. Was that deliberate?
With music, I focus most on sounds and instruments for creating a specific mood – other than operating in a generally dark and near-metal space, I don’t really consider genre that much, except maybe as a technique, or a painter choosing a palette of colours. Seeing it at a distance that way makes it easier to make things hang together – even when you’re pitting a piano against Blastbeats.
I don’t really even see what we do as post-rock… it just seems to be a broad enough catch-all to place the sound in. An open spirit or adventurousness? Maybe even…’prog’?
What’s up next for Wilderness Hymnal besides the new album? Any upcoming gigs, other releases on the horizon, side projects?
We are launching the new album at Aatma on the 29th November. I’m also performing solo at the UK Young Artist Takeover in Nottingham next February. Otherwise, my guitarist Michael Kelly and I have been working on some new songs together for his Calaca Strides project, which I’m really excited about – it’s like desert psych-folk. The songs are really dark and heartfelt – I’m digging even deeper.
Photo by Samuel Andrew Fenton