In the home studio of Vancouver-based ritual ambient/noise musician Harlow MacFarlane, there’s a striking painting of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional deity Cthulhu looming over a small town. You learn volumes about MacFarlane when you discover that it was painted for him for his 35th birthday by his mother.
“She introduced me to Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith when I was eight or 10 years old,” the now 40-year-old MacFarlane explains. A visual artist himself, he has recently been working on his own series of devotional drawings of the “Great Elder Things and the Mothers of Abomination”, also including Yog Sothoth and Nyarlathotep.
The Straight is visiting MacFarlane in the basement of his East Vancouver home. The walls are covered in video-store posters for horror and science-fiction movies, from the revered, like Phantasm and They Live, to the obscure, like the forgotten Clive Barker adaptation Transmutations. These reflect both MacFarlane’s love of genre cinema and his long involvement as a makeup/prosthetics man in the B.C. film industry.
MacFarlane has worked on TV shows like Fringe, Falling Skies, and Stargate, and on locally shot features like the remake of The Fog and The Cabin in the Woods—though that is the less personal side of his work.
His parents—occultist publishers who put out books by the likes of Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare—helped shape his influences in terms of cinema, as well.
“They would just bring home these Beta releases of Halloween or Friday the 13th and I would be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to stay up and watch this!’ And they’d go, ‘It’s probably going to give you nightmares.’ ‘Ah, that’s okay!’ ‘Well, if you can handle it…’ I think Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the first film where they were like, ‘I don’t think you should watch this, this is too heavy,’ and I still snuck in the next day and watched it.” He shrugs. “They were kind of hippie-ish, so I had a pretty relaxed social relationship with them.”
Though MacFarlane was never used in a ritual, his parents’ interest in the occult rubbed off on him.
After a tenure in the early 1990s as bassist for Edmonton-based black-metal band Cremation, MacFarlane returned to Victoria, then known as one of the “capitals of the world” for Satanism. There, he briefly played bass for metal band Conqueror, and began his first solo venture into noise, Funerary Call. He also got involved with “a group that was getting together on a weekly basis” to share what they’d been reading and experiment with ritual magic. It was a diverse gathering: “One person might be into traditional Satanism, one person might be more into Crowley-type stuff, but everybody had a common interest in darker forms of magic.”
Rituals would sometimes incorporate elements of the theatrical. “Anton LaVey talks about the psychodrama of ritual,” the musician-occultist recalls. “Is it really necessary to wear robes and have the black ritual chamber, and have everything be so ‘Hammer horror film?’ I don’t think so, myself, but it definitely puts you in a certain mental state, and makes things more intense.” In 1994, for the first time, MacFarlane “improvised synthesizer stuff in the background to enhance the mood” of a ritual, which he describes as being fairly “dark and vicious”, true to his music at the time. It wasn’t an official Funerary Call performance, though since then MacFarlane has occasionally blurred the line between ritual and music.
Recent Funerary Call releases, like 2012’s Nightside Emanations and Fragments From the Aethyr, tend to be more meditative than MacFarlane’s early tapes, but his characteristic darkness and interest in the occult remain in evidence.
So too with the music of Sistrenatus, a second solo project that MacFarlane started after relocating to Vancouver in 1999. “Funerary Call was a bit of a product of the environment in Victoria, where I was doing this group magic stuff. When I first came to Vancouver, I was living in the ARC building [on Powell Street]. It’s more urban, it’s not so ‘Innsmouth’, so it didn’t feel like the Funerary Call thing would be coming from a pure place anymore. Sistrenatus is more a product of living near train tracks!”
Fittingly, the first Sistrenatus release, Division One, sounded less like music for an occult ritual and more like decaying industry and tortured machinery. It found MacFarlane his first real success in the world of avant-garde and noise music. “I got lucky, where Justin [Mitchell] at [U.K. label] Cold Spring heard the first demo I made and went, ‘Oh, this is great! I love it,’ and put it out.”
Since then, MacFarlane has appeared on more international labels than Canadian ones, including the French labels Hermétique and Semen and Blood, Poland’s Fluttering Dragon, Australia’s Fall of Nature, and U.S. labels Crucial Blast and Malignant.
His newest project, coming out on vinyl via U.K. label Aurora Borealis, will be released under the name Grey Towers Stone Temples. “The name, and maybe some of the landscapes I’m interpreting through the music, came after I was reading some of Clark Ashton Smith’s poetry one night,” MacFarlane says. “I fell asleep, and I had a dream of characters talking about something being ‘over there beyond the grey towers and stone temples’, and it resonated.”
He describes the project as being “a little more retro and spacier than my other music—though it still has a cold, harsh overtone”. Composed largely on a Moog synthesizer, Grey Towers Stone Temples owes a particular debt to the music of ex–Tangerine Dream member Conrad Schnitzler, and to the soundtracks of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. “Their music is so simple, but it really hits a chord—and it obviously connects from when you’re a kid and loving slasher films. It has a special magic about it.”
So does the music of Harlow MacFarlane—though it’s magic of a darker sort.