Portland, Oregon’s Mizmor—often written as מזמור—continues his existential exploration of personal suffering through religion, nature, and life itself with a third full-length, Cairn, released via Gilead Media on Sept. 6. The album is a personal journey that Mizmor founder and sole contributor A.L.N. started with his previous two albums, 2012’s self-tiled and 2016’s Yodh.
“The first Mizmor album came out in 2012, and I made that album while I was still struggling, as a devout Christian, to maintain belief in God,” A.L.N. says about the beginning of the project.“I was overcome with doubts and depression and very close to losing my faith. I wasn’t able to pray and read the scriptures and worship God anymore. It was becoming too complicated and painful for me. So, the only thing I could think to do was to be honest with God and write songs. I started to write these songs just very much like journal entries. It’s where the Mizmor name comes from; it means ‘psalm,’ and in the psalms, you often have these prayers, these upward-directed songs or melodies. A lot of them are positive and full of praise for God, but a lot of them are wrestling with God and questioning God. So, I was very inspired by these darker songs, like Psalm 13, for example. I started writing my own, and I wasn’t doing it for anyone else besides myself. People encouraged me to put the music online and to make CDs. I made the album with no intention except to get stuff out through music.”
“Mizmor is completely my personal journal,” he continues, “and when I made that first record, because it was so personal and I was still a Christian, I felt embarrassed about it. It wasn’t for anyone except me, and I didn’t think that people in the metal world would understand this point of view. Metal’s very satanic and anti-Christian, and everyone has already figured that out for themselves, pretty much. I’m struggling about if I still believe in God, so I felt pretty embarrassed and self-conscious about that struggle. That first record was completely mysterious, so folks felt like they could connect with the sound of it well enough, but I didn’t want them to know what it was actually about. Over time, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with sharing what it’s about, partly because I’ve become more confident as an atheist and less embarrassed about that point of view, because it’s not based on magic.”
“The theme in Cairn is clarity and lucidity, and it’s in the lyrics; it’s also in the production quality,” he adds. “You can hear all the vocals, all the lyrics. That’s completely intentional. I want everyone to know what this album is about. So, that’s a big change over the last seven years of, like, bedroom black metal and wanting it to be completely veiled in mystery to having this more missional approach to atheism.”
Cairn was lyrically influenced by “The Myth of Sisyphus,” the essay by French philosopher Albert Camus. It contains a sympathetic analysis of contemporary nihilism and touches on the nature of the irrational.
“That book came into my hands because I was researching absurdity, just feeling like everything was so absurd, even in a comedic way sometimes,” A.L.N. says. “I was reading up on that, and I started reading about the myth of Sisyphus, rolling the boulder to the top of the hill day after day as his fate and punishment. That got me on a rabbit trail where I found out about the book. It just resonated with me super strongly, because he really gets down to the issue when he says that all of our experiences as mankind are absurd, because they’re in this world that it is devoid of ultimate purpose, and yet, we continually seek meaning. You could have either one of those things on its own and it wouldn’t be absurd, but having them both together is completely absurd.”
“There are really only three responses you can have to that situation,” he continues, “you can take a leap of faith out of the absurd into ultimate meaning by believing in God and thereby rejecting your circumstance; you can kill yourself, because you’ve determined life is no longer worth living if there’s no ultimate meaning; or you can accept the situation for what it is and live in the absurdity every single day. He just hit the nail on the head, and it really inspired me and helped me articulate the idea of the cairns, [manmade heaps of stones erected as landmarks or burial markers], as guideposts in my own life and inner thoughts and emotions, putting it into this landscape of the desert and appropriating this idea of the options you have with absurdity.”
The four tracks on Cairn are connected chapters that build on a philosophical journey into the choices that human beings need to make when they feel lost.
“The first song, ‘Desert of Absurdity,’ frames the premise of the whole album, which is that life is absurd,” A.L.N. explains, “and going on to ‘Cairn to God,’ again, touching back on the three options you have out of belief in God, suicide or living in the absurd, and that the only viable option is the third one. So, you have to put to death the other two if you really want to live freely and live in truth, which I think is really important, because this album is also about how there is meaning.”
“It’s important to define your own personal reasons for why you’re alive if you don’t have this illusory sort of ultimate meaning that you have in belief in the supernatural,” he expounds. “It also kind of touches on how an individual might go about living on, because it would be really difficult for a lot of people. It’s really difficult for me; it’s difficult for everyone. There’s a lot about belief in God and religion that I think is attractive, because it boasts that it answers these cosmic questions of why we’re here. It gives you an answer for where you’re going to go when you die and things that are comforting for these primal fears and anxieties that we have—but just because we have those fears and anxieties doesn’t mean that anything supernatural exists.”
“The last song is called ‘The Narrowing Way,’ which is where I see myself in life,” A.L.N. explains. “It’s about living on the path that is living in the present moment, in the here and now, in the face of absurdity, rebelling against the idea of God and the idea of suicide and continuing to live, although it’s completely absurd and, at times, very painful. The ultimate goal is to live a life of meaning and enjoyment, and the album affirms that. It’s not about death. It’s actually very much against suicide, and although the album is not fun to listen to in this way, because it’s really heavy, it’s actually really a positive thing, at least in my view.”
Cairn is very different from any other Mizmor album for that reason.
“I’d say that Yod his a lot gloomier,” A.L.N. admits. “At the very end of the album, it sort of hints at where [2017 single] This Unabating Wakefulness and Cairn would go. In the last song on Yodh, ‘Bask in the Lingering,’ it kind of hints at, “OK, we’re here. What do we do with that? Let’s try to enjoy our lives,” but it’s kind of eclipsed by the overall dreadful feeling of the album. I’d definitely say that Cairngoes forward on the path of enjoyment and hope. There’s still some summarization and lots of dread in there, and it’s still full of despair, as life is, but it’s trying to get the person, the individual, to focus more on the positive, as difficult as that is.”
Every song also has a prelude, a part written in italics that’s not really present in the music or in the vocals.
“In some books, you might have a little italic prelude at the beginning of a chapter that sets up what it’s going to be about,” A.L.N. says. “That’s the idea—and, actually, most of those get spoken in the middle drone section of the third song, [‘Cairn to Suicide.’] I’m a really longwinded person, and I always write too many lyrics. I did a different approach with Cairn, because I know that about myself, and I tried to write less lyrics and take things out and plan it out better, but I still ended up with just this little chunk that wouldn’t fit. So, I decided they were very good summarizing statements of what each song was about and that I’d just include them in italics at the beginning. I think that if you didn’t have any of the other lyrics and you just had the four italic stanzas, you could understand what the album is about in a really streamlined way.”
The album was recorded by A.L.N. himself, meticulously mixed by Sonny DiPerri, and mastered by Adam Gonsalves.
“I started learning drums when I was in third grade,” A.L.N. remembers. “My dad is a drummer, and he bought a drum set and I learned a little from him, and then, I took some lessons a little later on. I started learning to play guitar, I think, maybe in fifth grade. I use the guitar as a tool to write songs, and I just practice until I feel like I’m not playing it too shitty.”
“Writing a Mizmor song, I always write first on acoustic guitar,” he elaborates. “I’ve found, for myself, that I like the way that translates to distortion. I want to make sure it has this sort of more melodic, classical feel to it, so I write it on acoustic. Then, the hard part is I have to totally commit to the song structure before I start anything. The song has to be exactly written from start to finish, because I track drums first. I get the ideas of the melodies, the first chorus, the transitions, all that kind of stuff, and then, I have to program the metronome in all the right spots, sit down and play the drums, and then, it never moves after that. I commit very early on to a song structure, which is the part that freaks me out a little bit. Then drums get recorded, guitars get recorded, bass, vocals, and it kind of wraps up.”
A.L.N. took three months to record the album, and it was a long, arduous process.
“I took a lot of time to prepare for recording. I quit my job and just stopped working so I could try to make the best album I could make,” he reveals. “I’m always trying to make a better album than the last one and always trying to make an album that I would be comfortable listening to in 10 years, which I think is impossible but a good standard to set. So, I worked with the same mixing engineer and same mastering engineer as last time. I realized that any upgrade in quality needed to come from the source, needed to come from my recording and mic techniques, my performances and songwriting. Sonny DiPerri deserves huge credit in the overall sound of the album. It would not sound nearly as heavy and wide and nuanced and amazing if he weren’t involved.”
“I have to also mention Adam Gonsalves,” A.L.N. notes. “He always serves the mix rather [well] and just elevates it in complementary ways without really changing too much, but really, what he does makes it super, super wide and heavy, compressed in just the right way so that it really hits without you noticing.”
This concept is well-represented by the cover art, which was drawn by Mariusz Lewandowski.
“He is an amazing living painter, so I contacted him and commissioned the work,” A.L.N. says. “I gave him all the lyrics and explained what the album was about. He named the painting ‘Time and Memorial,’ and it’s a perfect expression of the song, specifically, ‘Cairn to God.’ The front cover is the God figure, and he’s holding this pyramid of light, which stands for superstition kind of. The prism where light goes in one side and a rainbow comes out the other—a rainbow is one of the old examples of something that mankind has deified and associated with God. It’s just a natural thing, but we wanted it to be supernatural. There’s lightning in the prism. Weather systems are very much that same idea. Honestly, I spent, like, an hour thinking about the pyramid and all the different implications it has for divinity and superstition. It’s a really, really rich symbol. It’s not a very overt one too, so you do have to kind of think about it.”
“It’s this cloaked God figure who is kind of tempting you to come toward this object of light,” he summarizes, “but the figure is on fire and burning down, and on the other side, on the back cover, you see the cairn.”
The pile of stones from which the album takes its name often marks a boundary, a route across rough ground, or the top of a mountain, and it is sometimes built in memory of someone.
“It is a literal concept that is in the record,” A.L.N. explains. “I build giant cairns in the desert so that when I walk forward on the narrowing way, when I get lost and confused and disoriented, I can look back and see those guideposts and remind myself to not retrace my steps, because I’ve already been there and come up with defined conclusions for those things. So, it’s very much a navigational, guidepost, memorial sort of thing that marks the death of these ideas in my mind.”
“This album is extremely personal,” he concludes. “It’s very much my journal, and it’s ultimately an individual experience.”