Sopor Aeternus and the Ensemble of Shadows
Cultfigures, we all know some of them. Do they also exist in the gothic scene? Yes, by example in the figure of the German Sopor Aeternus ("the Eternal Sleep") and the Ensemble of Shadows. The core of the group is the singer Anna-Varney Cantodea. The Ensemble are the spiritual entities who provide the inspiration for the wonderful and at the same time morbid music they make. An encounter with a tormented soul.
On the many photos of Anna-Varney that are to be found on the Internet, we see a tortured eccentric full of piercings, long nails, a whitechalked face and an androgynous appearance. Sometimes we see a male head and body, often with camouflaged genitals. In recent work then again, Sopor looks very feminine.
The decor consists of catacombs with tombstones, coffins, candlesticks and dusty, pompous interiors. This provided visual artwork, designed by Sopor himself, is deliberately chosen and fuels the mystery surrounding the eccentric musician. Even after a career of almost twenty years there has never been a live performance or public appearance of him. A well-thought-through marketingstrategy of the underground label Apocalyptic Vision?
We won't get a clear answer soon, but the music and the handful of interviews that Anna-Varney has given over the years may give an idea of this intriguing figure.
'Daughter of the fifth sex'
There is a transgender element to be found in Sopor. The search for his sexual identity is a constant one in his work. It is often a source of pain which he tries to process in the music. In the 'Drama of Geschlechtlösigkeit (part 2)' he sings, on the cheerful melody of Chim Chim Cher-ee from 'Mary Poppins': “bin weder Mann, noch bin ich Frau, bin irgendwo zwischendrin, ich weiss nicht wohin ich gehöre, weiss nicht was ich bin".
Although the aversion for his physical masculinity is very present, his spiritual beliefs keep him from considering an operational change. He is into the tradition of the Navajo Indians, in which four sexes are acknowledged: the man, the woman, the man-woman and woman-man. Anna-Varney sees himself as "a daughter of the fifth sex”, referring to the above tradition. By adding this mysterious, fifth sex, he wraps his true identity in even more clouds. When he was literally asked about his sex, this was the answer: "I am simply Anna-Varney, also known as (S) he with the S in brackets. Well, the old question: Are you a woman or a man? To which the answer is: Yes, of course!"
What music should we expect from the very talented Sopor? Although gothic undeniably describes the whole, it's still a collective name for a variety of styles. A specific label for the music of Sopor Aeternus is neoclassical darkwave. This style is characterized by dark and melancholic lyrics, often put in an orchestral style jacket.
Elements from the opera world - the use of choirs for example - are not banned. With Sopor we get baroque elements and dark poetry, but also electronic influences. It wouldn't hurt the whole as soundtrack of a Tim Burton Film.
The lyrics are alternately in German and English. Anna-Varneys versatile voice can let us hear a crying, moodiness vibrato, but also knows to cut and beat as an angry, digested by heartache aunt. And no matter how dusty the scenes appear in the portraits, the more vivid is the music or the love with which it is composed.
That the songs sound a bit classic, has got to do with the chosen instruments and complex arrangements. Blazers and strings are often present. They are supported by a slew of percussion instruments and often flooded with enchanting bells or bells. Death Bells, if you will.
Heinie and Grim Reaper
Back to the themes of Sopor music. That Anna-Varney is into men is clear. But his relation to men is difficult, however. Titles with playful names such as 'Some Men Are Like Chocolate' and 'A Little Bar of Soap', in which he wishes to be a piece of soap so he can slide over everyone's heinie (slang for 'ass'), are misleading in that sense. The quest for this love is just as the one for his gender, not easy. On the album 'Sanatorium Altrosa' (2008) is 'Consider this: the true meaning of Love', the organ point. It is a call for unconditional love. Sopor aims to a boy and asks: "Do you also have the strength to be there for me till the end? Would you have courage, live for me? Would you defend me against the world, fight the doctors playing God?" The questions are framed with classical bombast and propelled by a pulsating, military drum.
If he can't find love among the living, Sopor doesn't stay away from the gay-erotic necrophilia. In the song 'Collision', we are in the darkest dreams of the tortured soul: "Leaning my face against his flesh, I place my hand gently upon his belly, I can not believe that I do actually consider this again, I must refuse to share my bed now with a carcass of a man!“
Sopor Aeternus also knows his classics in the gothic genre. He adores, among others, the black poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. Poems like 'The Conqueror Worm', 'Eldorado' and 'The Sleeper' are put to music by him. The use of harpsichord in this last poem, together with minimal percussion and a few strings, honors it.
Furthermore Sopor does covers, such as 'Modela Est', the Latin version of the Kraftwerk classic 'Das Modell'. Also, 'Bitter Sweet' by Roxy Music was very original.
There is a certain three-fold in the work of Sopor Aeternus. He mixes music, poetry and the visual aspect to a personal cocktail. The visual is especially evident in the release of his albums. Almost every record is a little piece of art and is released in a limited edition. The CD is usually a box full of unique goodies, including signed photos, pins, project-related t-shirts, meticulously detailed lyricbooklets, et cetera. A new photoshoot and even YouTube trailers have to stimulate curiosity. Three years ago the first DVD appeared, with a few video clips to show. Footpace there is more openness to be noticed. Hopefully that trend continues.
All that's too dark, too melancholy or too depressed to discover? "There is beauty into darkness.” Sopor Aeternus is the living proof of that.