The Red Bull Music Festival is in full swing here in Los Angeles, with exciting upcoming shows from Robyn and the music from Red Dead Redemption on the way. Earlier this week, one of the highlights of the music festival came as a part of its concurrent film celebration Center Channel, hosted at East Hollywood’s Ukranian Culture Center, which is known for hosting everything from a Pyanska Festival to punk rock shows. This performance was particularly special, as it saw drone metal legends Earth provide their take on a live score for the 1920s-era Danish silent film Häxan.
For those that don’t know, Häxan was shot in a documentary style, exploring the topic of witch trials in Middle Ages Europe, mainly inspired by director Benjamin Christensen’s studies and impressions from the 15th century inquisitor’s guide, Malleus Maleficarum – which translates to Hammer of Witches. As the guide was written for German inquisitors, so much of the action – which is broken down between documentary-style segments and dramatic, horror-style sequences – is set in Germany.
The film has been released in various shapes and forms, including a 1968 version that runs 72 minutes and a more extended version from a restoration by the Swedish Film Institute. This version ran closer in length to the latter version, being broken down into seven segments that explored various aspects of Hammer of Witches, from the background of The Inquisition, to tests given to determine whether a person (more commonly, but not always, a woman) was a witch, the ins-and-outs of a witch trial, the emotional and physical torture endured by the accused in order to drum up a false confession and most shockingly, what they did with the witches after conviction.
Earth joins a storied history of live scores for Häxan. The film was initially released with a score made up of previously released compositions from the likes of Schubert, Gluck and Beethoven, with a 50-piece orchestra performing the score when it premiered in Copenhagen. That same score can be heard on the film’s 2001 Criterion Collection release.
While a 50-piece orchestra performing well-known classical compositions certainly provides a dramatic oomph to the silent film, Earth’s ominous experimental metal perhaps makes for a more suitable pairing. The at-times grainy black and white footage being layered with songs played at 30 BPM appropriately built tension, casting a feeling of foreboding into the largely packed house at the Ukrainian Culture Center.
Likely there are those thinking to themselves, “Yeah, but wouldn’t an hour and a half of drone metal get boring? It all kind of sounds the same.” They’ve probably never experienced a band with the dexterity, experience and musicianship of veritable genre legends. While there were themes coursing through every movement, no two were identical and each easily wormed their way into feeling like an intrinsic part of the film.
Yes, there was plenty of chugs followed by apprehensive seconds before the next note. But there were also plenty of times the band injected elements of classic scores, even at times creating an atmospheric, metallic sort of Spaghetti Western influence into the tracks. Adding texture and color to mix was Adrienne Davies, the band’s drummer and percussionist. With music so slow, she had plenty of time to add flourishes of percussion.
What was most amazing about the performance from Dylan Carlson, bassist Bill Herzog and Davies is that it was a completely custom soundtrack to Häxan. Unless the band chooses to record the score for release or decides to take this show on tour, it’s very well possible that this incredible piece of art was experienced once and only once for one night by a few hundred people. The level of care and dedication that the band put into their work is not just commendable, it’s quite astonishing.