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Since October of 2018, I’ve been going back and forth about whether to write this article or not. It was certainly one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. But, would it be interesting to This Is Darkness readers? Initially, I decided that it was best to just leave the experience to myself and those I visited. But, as the months (years?!?!) go by there have been various contexts in which I wanted to talk about the trip, but it would be totally puzzling without a proper explanation. So, alas, I’ve decided to share my trip to northern Sweden with our readers. A quick word on the photos included. All photos were shot by myself, unless they were one of the candid shots by Åsa or Pär. I don’t know if it was humbleness or a lack of foresight, but we didn’t take a single proper group photo while I was there, so I’ve included a few of the candids, I hope you’ll see the same friendly and comedic value in them as I have!
Vildmarksvägen running through Stekenjokk, Sweden.
When I started writing about dark ambient music in 2015 for the Terra Relicta Dark Music Webzine, I began contacting anyone and everyone within the dark ambient community that would speak with me. It wasn’t long before I began to slowly build friendships with some of these people, beyond the topic of their musical projects or labels. I have gotten life advice, meditation advice, political advice and more from people from all parts of the globe. Some whose beliefs, languages and upbringings far differ from my own. I’ve always considered myself a “worldly person” and have taken great joy in learning about the lives and cultures of those in the farthest regions of the world, past and present.
But, one friendship for me has stood out ahead of the rest. I pretty rapidly learned that I had damn near everything in common with Pär Boström of Hypnagoga Press, Kammarheit, etc. And the things that we didn’t already have in common, we often recommended to the other, with positive results more often than not. Pär opened me up to a world of music, cinema, writing and photography that I didn’t have access to growing up in the U.S.A., surrounded by suburban Americans. The fact that Kammarheit was one of the first dark ambient projects I really connected with (on a musical level) made the friendship all the more meaningful.
Three years later, we had spoken for probably hundreds of hours through Facebook Messenger. But had never heard each other’s voices once. In the fall of 2018, Pär Boström and his sister Åsa Boström (of Hypnagoga Press and Hymnambulae) decided to help facilitate my travel to Sweden. They knew that I was just coming out of an incredibly rough patch of my life (and as fate would have it, headed soon back into another…), and we all agreed that it would be beneficial to spend some time together, brainstorming on possible ideas for the future as well as critiquing one another on the paths we were taking with our projects.
I partially didn’t want to share this trip publicly, because it was predominately some good friends finally getting to spend some real-life time together. But we did speak about This is Darkness and Hypnagoga Press matters, some in great detail. But I must emphasize that none of this was a quid pro quo sort of thing, where we were attempting to trade in coverage. We just legitimately care greatly about each other’s projects and all wanted to take some time together to see if we could come up with interesting new ideas to push our works forward in fresh ways. I also didn’t want it to appear that I was blowing through money traveling the world. That’s not the case, this was a truly unique experience and not at all the usual for me. My only previous trip outside the U.S. was to Rome in 2011, which was the other great moment of my life, and paid for almost fully in scholarships/grants.
I went from BWI (Baltimore) to Reykjavík (Iceland) to Stockholm (Sweden) and then a final one hour flight, on a much smaller plane, to Umeå in the mid-northern region of Sweden. Upon arrival, I finally actually spoke to Pär for the first time ever, in person in actual spoken words! Luckily, we didn’t immediately realize that we expected someone different of each other! That night we went to a wonderful little pub in downtown Umeå and met up with Åsa Boström, Kenneth Hansson of Altarmang and Kenneth’s girlfriend.
Åsa proved to be the “sage personality” I had expected. In all my interactions with her, she has always seemed to be an incredibly wise soul. In terms of business sense as well as cultural and esoteric. After meeting Pär and Åsa, any nervous feelings I had about traveling 4,000 miles to visit two people I had never “actually” spoken to before evaporated. They both made me feel at complete ease, right from the start.
I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Pär and Åsa, but Kenneth Hansson was still a total mystery to me. I don’t think I’d ever spoken to him, even online. Anyone that has seen pictures of him in the Altarmang promo images must also be very curious about the man behind the “rolled-back eyes” and perfectly waxed mustache. I would really like to properly interview Kenneth in the future, since it’s clear that his input in Altarmang is a mystery to most people. I think it is appropriate, for now, to leave that mystery in place. Suffice to say, Kenneth is as mysterious and eccentric of a person as one might imagine. He didn’t disappoint!
Much of my 10 day trip to Sweden was centered around the city of Umeå, and mainly Pär’s apartment, which was perfectly fine with me. We had plenty of time to get to know each other better. I also had a chance to browse his impressive collection of rare music, zines, books and flyers from the first 20+ years of the post-industrial/dark -ambient scenes which I had missed out on, and which are all but unrecoverable at this point, without access to someone’s collection from that period. I was able to sit down and read through all the old CMI catalogs as well as zines like the currently-active Noise Receptor and the long-retired Spectrum zine, both by the power-house Richard Stevenson. I will likely be sharing my thoughts on the new release of the Spectrum Compendium in the future, which I consider a must-have for anyone interested in a time-capsule into the history of the dark ambient scene of the late 90s – early 2000s.
I was able to browse through the many boxes of Pär’s original artworks as well as a few handfuls of Åsa’s art (literal handfuls, Åsa’s works are often quite large and heavy!), all of which I greatly enjoyed! I found her style of art especially fascinating, how she uses bits and pieces of material from history and crafts it into something new and beautiful, yet still rustic and mystical. I am very much looking forward to the world slowly learning more about how Åsa fits into Hypnagoga Press, as more of her personal works begin coming to light.
Pär sent me home with quite a few original treasures of his creation, some of which are waiting in a box for a proper place to mount them, while others are proudly adorning my bedroom walls now.
One unique and spectacular aspect of this visit was my witnessing of Pär’s personal studio space. He saw fit to show me a few of his “tricks of the trade”. I witnessed, up close, his unique and interesting “shipwreck device”. And I had a front row seat to the creation of a few improvised tracks. It was truly magical to be present for this, especially considering that I have been to exactly one proper dark ambient concert, in person!
The pinnacle of this trip was the journey Åsa, Pär and I took, several hundred kilometers north, to the beautifully barren realms of Stekenjokk. Being early October, we were able to visit this place one week before access was closed for the winter, as this section of the country gets so heavily bombarded with snow (which can reach up to 7m/23′ in this region) that it would be financial suicide to attempt to keep the roads cleared. Åsa drove us north along the beautiful Vildmarksvägen, or The Wilderness Road in English, at a leisurely pace. I was able to fully digest the sights, sounds and smells of the far northern reaches of Earth as we crept ever closer to the arctic circle, which was about 60-70 miles further than our northernmost destination on the trip.
We stayed at a nice little lodge just outside Stekkenjok, in the tiny town of Klimpfjäll, in a cabin which looked out over a beautiful lake, with snow-covered peaks on its far shore. I felt a peace in this place that was more potent than at any point in my life. If I hadn’t already fallen in love with Scandinavia, this place surely would have done the trick. That night we spent a few hours brainstorming on new ideas for our various projects, comparing recommendations and critiques, and generally enjoying the sublime location in which we stopped for our night’s rest. The next morning we traversed the road through Stekenjokk and followed the Wilderness Road slowly back to the south. I took TONS of photos while in Stekenjokk. Pär and Åsa also took a ton of photos themselves. They hadn’t been to this place in many years either. You will find edits of several of our photos from this trip adorning the cover art of the second TiD compilation as well as the inner panels of Aindulmedir – The Lunar Lexicon.
As we continued down the Wilderness Road, Åsa took a short detour across the Norwegian border, just so I could say that I had entered that country! I took the opportunity to walk down to one of the many many lakes from the road and wash my face in the cool Norwegian waters.
After dark that night, and several hours before we arrived back in Umeå, while stopping to fill the car with petrol, Åsa pointed to the sky. I was witnessing my first sighting of the Aurora Borealis! We quickly got the hell out of town and pulled over along the highway, where I could stand in the pitch dark of the night and stare up into that beautiful hyperborean sky and bask in the radiating energies that danced across the atmosphere. A place like this makes one realize why Scandinavia has such a rich religious heritage. It seemed that the gods were truly bestowing a gift on me that night, and on my journey to/through Sweden as a whole. As we continued driving back toward Umeå, I tried to never let my eyes leave those magical northern lights until they had all but disappeared. I tried capturing them with my camera once we got back to Pär’s apartment, but my night-time photography skills are shit, and most of the show was over anyway or obscured by the luminescence of Umeå.
I came home to my apartment in Laurel, Maryland from this journey with a renewed sense of the wonder and magic of our planet. When Åsa shared a few podcasts about the Quareia magic course with me in November or December, I had already begun to slowly decide that maybe there is a bit (or a lot) of magic in this world, which I had long since forgotten in my rebellious teenage years. Now four months into my Quareia apprentice training (update: well that’s on hold for now) and six months into my return from northern Sweden, the magic of that journey still resides in me. The renewed feelings of wonder that can be found in the nature of our planet were welcome, and have not yet evaporated, and hopefully never will.
If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would fly to northern Sweden, to meet some of my very best friends, people which I had never spoken to once with my voice or in person, and experience such a magically and emotionally enriching journey, I would have laughed in your face. My point is that some of the people who we have the greatest connections with on this planet may be very very far away, in places and speaking languages totally foreign to us. After some of the darkest experiences of my life, I came out of 2018 with a renewed interest in life and the magical energies that flow through it. Never short-change yourselves. Never think that the world has left you behind. The most important experience of your life could be patiently waiting right around the corner.
Written by: Michael Barnett