Running with Russian Blackgaze

The soundtrack to bettering myself is 4,426 miles away

Like every January smuch, I’ve succumbed to the new year’s resolution gambit.

It is becoming a nearly annual tradition that I try and uproot my life and behaviors with the changing of a page on a calendar. This New Year’s Day was vastly different, given the current state of global affairs, but it rang in the same tired traditions. A small toast, a new planner, and a goal to be better.

I’ve talked about this briefly before, but I have a complicated relationship with fitness, the body, and health. I’m not a fit dude, never really have been, but I haven’t been overly “un-healthy” in my eyes. I’m a pudgy white kid bred in Tennessee and raised on sweet tea and pie, who then found his way to Wisconsin where one can suffocate in calories by way of cheese curds and brews.

As a youngster, I played some team sports in the form of basketball but gave it all up to punk around on a skateboard. I played a lot of drums and found myself in the marching band. Fun fact, I auditioned for the prominent UW Madison marching band and made it through to the last rounds before not getting a spot on the drumline. My inner Nick Cannon was crushed, but my pudgy exterior was relieved.

Throughout college, I began to run and off. I lived in a densely populated area and absolutely hated being “active” in front of others. The social anxiety kicks in and your brain tells you that everyone is laughing at you and thinks you are a fraud for attempting to better yourself. I didn’t disagree!

After college, my family unit moved to a quaint little neighborhood along the shores of Monona Bay in Madison. This was the perfect opportunity to begin the love/hate journey of bettering my physical health. I actually got pretty good at running and had a not-terrible mile! I’m not going to disclose the time of my mile, but it was a personal best (and that is all that matters).

I was also very active in biking to and from work, which was downtown, and found myself biking to events around town. I was talking to my wife recently and we both agreed that the year after college where we both not in school, gainfully employed, and only had a cat to take care of was the most idyllic and serene time in our recent lives. Now, we’ve got a dog, the same cat, and a little person to manage on top of all the other BS adulthood stuff.

Now, it is 2021 and the outside world has never been more enticing. Despite what you may think, I’m becoming increasingly not online and loving it. I read books and play video games and turn my phone off. It’s great.

Throughout the summer of 2020, my wife and I found ourselves randomly driving to places, walking to places, and just being outside, much like everyone else. There’s a lot of data out there about how the whole outdoors industry is on the rise (peep this) and I predict that this turmoil we’ve gone through is going to continue to impact the need to be outside and unplug.

The desire to better myself physically has been on and off since the birth of my son. Much like any new parent, you start to think about your life as finite, your need to be around for the long haul and maybe don’t sit on your butt all day! Even it is small steps towards being aware of your health and checking in on yourself towards whatever goals you have, big or small, and holding yourself accountable.

This is why I started, you guessed it, running again.

Health is on everyone’s mind. The future, be it our country, economy, planet, is on everyone’s mind more than normal. Both things have culminated with me strapping on some old Nikes and hitting the trails.

Music is obviously very central to most of my existence. so where does it fall in this running regiment? Truthfully, I find listening to music very distracting while running. I try and air drum or keep up with the tempo of the songs, which can shift given the playlist and I can’t find a good pocket to be in. This is insanely frustrating given the fact that finding a groove is drumming 101 and it is like running with a rock in your shoe.

I have more recently found my favorite type of music to run to, Russian Blackgaze.

Blackgaze is a combination of black metal and shoegaze. Both are genres that exist to create walls of sound, with the shrieking dark vocals of black metal being more geared for the grim and the fuzzy, loud pillars of sonic assault being attributed to shoegaze. The combination is an overwhelming attack on the auditory sense. Songs ebb and flow, crescendoing and erupting for minutes on end.

Olhava describes itself as Blackgaze from the shores of Ladoga. This body of water is both a freshwater lake located outside of Saint Petersburg, the title of an unincorporated community in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin and the name of their most recent full length.

Lodoga has been my go-to for running because it acts as a white noise machine. The relentless blast beats and unintelligible vocals stretch on for multiple minutes. Songs lose the sense of being a song and become more of a movement within a larger piece, taking on multiple moments such as “Ageless River I - V.”

The album focuses on eternity, the wilderness, and our place within the world. Lyricist Alexander Yordaki laments about spring, the loss of love, and a plea for new warmth in life. Waves of emotion crash along the cold shores, now personified by Olhava’s ardent instrumentation.

Beginning a run in the middle of a Northeastern Wisconsin winter is a plea within itself. The first day I went running this year there was snow fog draped along the horizon. The trail was mostly cleaned in the middle, by both municipal operations and other travelers. Hoarfrost (what a great word) crystallized much of the greenery and the only sound besides my own crunching feet was the Olhava’s cinematic soundscape.

I can’t meditate. I’ve tried. I don’t do super well with yoga as I’m as nimble as concrete, but what I have is a sense of escape through these dirges that begin to cross the double-digit minute length threshold. There is such catharsis in the barricade of sound created. It is transportive and mesmerizing. I am able to focus on nothing and everything at once. I feel no need to keep up with the tempo as it is an ever-stretching march. I can’t distract myself with inner thoughts because the sheer volume of this album is an obtuse barrier, blocking and shielding my mind from itself.

The Norse have this idea called Friluftsliv (pronounced “free-loofts-liv”). It’s essentially an embracement of the outdoors despite frigid weather. I didn’t see my first real snowfall until I was about 14, living in Wisconsin. Winter was a mundane, grey time of year growing up in Tennessee, but my embracing of the cold has grown stronger each year. Yes, I’m that idiot that will wear shorts outside even when it snows. No, I don’t wear shorts when it is below 30 degrees.

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I don’t want to paint with a broad brush when it comes to the cultures and outlooks of the American Midwest, Scandinavian countries, and Russia, but there’s a comradery amongst the cold. We have to live in it, the dreariness is going to be here for a few months, so why not get outside and make the best of it?

More recently, I have been slacking a bit on the running side of things, but I’m going to keep pushing myself to get out there and breathe in the cold air. It’s a slap to the senses and a reminder to push myself. I’m glad I’ve found some solace in a niche Russian genre and I like to imagine that there is some pudgy Russian father on the other side of the world, pushing themselves, cranking blissful Deafheaven, and taking it one step at a time.

Finders Sharers,
John McCracken

p.s. - I hope you’ve enjoyed the new quick columns going out on Fridays under the moniker - Friday’s fast five. Here are the last two sent out. Don’t forget to share!

p.p.s. - I am a glutton and I started a new newsletter called The NEWcomer. It is a place for independent news in Northeastern Wisconsin. Stories about politics, culture, art, and more can be expected. Feel free to check it out and thanks for supporting my insanity.

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