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Review: Retribution Body, "Baphomet"

By Steve Dewhurst

For Baphomet‘s creation, Matthew Azevedo decamped to Methuen Memorial Music Hall, replete with its 160 year old Great Organ and famed four-second reverberation.

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Retribution Body, “Baphomet”

Regularly assumed to be a representation of The Devil, the first known mention of Baphomet in fact dates back to the 11th Century and is thought to be a Western misnomer for Mohammad, the founder of Islam. Despite cropping up sporadically henceforth – most notably as an alleged figure of worship for the Knights Templar, at which point he was simply an engraved human skull – it was not until 1856 that the name received its now well-known face, that of the Sabbatic Goat, composed by the French occultist Éliphas Lévi not as a symbol of fear and fury but of perfect equilibrium – half human, half animal, half male, half female, half good, half evil and so on. “The flame of intelligence shining between his horns is the magic light of the universal balance,” Lévi wrote. “Humanity is represented… by this sphinx of the occult sciences.”

Although Lévi was well aware of his Baphomet’s superficial similarities to The Devil as allegedly worshipped by medieval witches, his opinion was that the supposed demon of yore was in fact merely Pan, “the god of our modern schools of philosophy,” and that the rituals so many were tortured and executed for actually represented a deep-seated connection to ancient Paganism. Aleister Crowley also took a shine to Baphomet, naming Lévi’s image “the hieroglyph of arcane perfection” and embracing philosophies of unity, liberty and light in his name, before a succession of misappropriations, misunderstandings and bastardisations led Anton LaVey to remark in The Satanic Bible, “It required little change-over to transform the horns and cloven hooves of Pan into a most convincing devil!”

Today Baphomet has been misused to the point most will judge his image as being that of The Devil. Since the early twentieth century when he began appearing in tarot decks, he has been traded upon in hoax exposés, popular RPGs, urban legends, conspiracy theories, and countless movies and video games, almost always with evil in mind. Thankfully, it is with the true meaning of Baphomet that Matthew Azevedo (aka Retribution Body) approached the creation of their latest LP for Full Spectrum: as earth-shakingly subterranean as some of these enormous drone pieces sound, the focus is on duality, poise and the achievement of divine awareness through the medium of deep vibrations, transcendent drones and subliminally stimulated temporal shifts.

For Baphomet‘s creation, Azevedo decamped to Methuen Memorial Music Hall, replete with its 160 year old Great Organ and famed four-second reverberation. The Great Organ, with its 6088 pipes, was paired with the artist’s custom synth rigs to balance acoustic with electronic, loud with inaudible, and composition with vibration. This put Azevedo in mind of Baphomet as well as resonating with their own neuro-divergent, non-binary identity, and the plan was set to make a record less involved with recreating the sometimes brutal physicality of a Retribution Body live performance and more in tune with deep contemplation. This is not to say that Baphomet doesn’t get loud, because it does – in places it gets damn loud. But having studied with the legendary Pauline Oliveros, Azevedo knows their way around a drone and how to reel one in. Not once in its lengthy running time does Baphomet ever feel like it might get away from the musician; the entire project is a masterpiece of poise, the result of hours of recorded material methodically pieced together to create a sonic reflection of its deific inspiration. 

Baphomet blooms gradually, with “The Astral Light of Universal Equilibrium” applying layer after layer of drone and rasping reverb to an oscillating base note of formidable depth. Elements slowly begin to splinter off and fill distant corners – you can almost feel the space open up, it’s forgotten recesses expanding – before the sheer weight of sound begins to overwhelm the hall. The only option here is to double back, to overlap and thus multiply on a separate plane – felt by all but accessible only to the appropriately attuned.

“Caduceus Ouroboros” calls upon the titular alchemical symbols and their joint importance relating to the union of opposites in Hermetic thought. It also, interestingly, connects to Carl Jung’s theories of anima and animus, or the presence of contra-sexual inner “souls” in the unconscious mind, with Hermes being symbolic of a fully developed animus – or female “soul” – in a male psyche. “[Hermes] consists of all known opposites,” pronounced Jung in Alchemical Studies. “[He is] a rearrangement of the heavenly, spiritual powers in the lower, chthonic world of matter… [and] the universal and scintillating fire of the light of nature, which carries the heavenly spirit within it.” As above, so below, as they say, and it if all rings familiar then it should do: take a look, if you will, at the crotch of Baphomet in Lévi’s representation, and note of what rests there. That’s right, it’s the caduceus of Hermes. 

These connections are not to be taken lightly. Azevedo identifies as non-binary and was especially affected by the inclusivity represented by Baphomet – perhaps seeing their own self reflected in the idol’s combination of opposites and, by extension, Jung’s perfect Hermetic androgyny. “Caduceus Ouroboros” is the shortest track on the album but fittingly the most balanced, allowing a circular drone to hover and lull as deep groans occasionally rise below – a purring ouroboric dragon, perhaps, beneath the winding serpents of Hermes. Certainly the track’s form represents a cyclic constancy, changing little from beginning to end, with the fact Azevedo fades out the recording providing the impression of its infinite existence within the space. It feels personal – organic even – as though it might rotate out from Azevedo as a kind of aura. Perhaps the drones represent what Jung called the lumen naturae, or light of nature, within which Hermes presents himself to those who strive with vigilance towards perfect balance, or perhaps one is the ignis fatuus – the illusion with which he seduces the misguided. That I’m considering any of this at all is testament to Azevedo’s skills of evocation as a musician.

“Solve et Coagula” is titled after the words engraved upon Baphomet’s arms, one of which points skywards, the other down to earth. They translate as “dissolve” and “coagulate” respectively and are read in a variety of ways, most prominently along the lines of purification and reformation of the soul. The track dots and bleeps into life, sending pulses echoing around the room like dispersed atoms. As they flit and multiply a spell of call-and-response begins that seems to suggest they’re trying to find each other across the ether and they grow more frantic as a deep, gooey drone rises to eventually swallow them. For the remaining 10+ minutes the drone overwhelms the space, growing to enormous proportions and unleashing waves that must’ve brought debris from the Memorial Hall’s ceiling. Most simply it represents the two sides of its title, but I can’t help imagining Azevedo stood amongst the gigantic waves of sound and the effect it maybe had on them. The feeling must be cleansing – a freeing method permitting the dissolution of one’s ego and the opposite of its slowly solidifying sonic signature. Likewise when viewed this way the flighty opening tones might become a source of frustration, relying on an enormous amount of focus in order to track, catch and connect them. There are paradoxes and contradictions like this all over Baphomet, which is, of course, exactly as it should be. 

The album’s title track runs a full half-hour, layering wavering drones and celestial organ chords over a persistent rattle that again recalls the image of Ouroboros. It is a slow, lumbering beast of intense presence that combines well the themes and sounds of the prior tracks and deserves full volume for full cathartic effect. The slightly menacing opening minutes may call to mind the devilish misconceptions most have of Baphomet and there is certainly a demonic edge to the way the base hisses flicker and stalk, like Eve’s snake approaching through the long grass. The track doesn’t change a great deal at all until over halfway through when an organ passage parts the dark clouds like a great shaft of light. It is weightless and almost heavenly in its arrival, giving a ritual feel and bringing about the realisation that this is Baphomet, this figure of acceptance and unity come to shine in the gloom for all who require his guidance. Suddenly the music, despite barely changing for the best part of half an hour, is given new life with this one bright stroke. It is refreshing, uplifting and completely joyful – a celebration of Baphomet and all he truly stands for, and a clear indication that we all could benefit from a better understanding of his much-maligned image.