New York-based dark rock mavens Vajra (pronounced “vaag-rah”) have returned. The long silence between debut album Pleroma (2012) and the group’s remarkable new album, Irkalla, was the product of a rigorous touring schedule and a complex confluence of unexpected life events that paused vocalist / visionary Annamaria Pinna’s prolific (and profound) songwriting output. Indeed, the creation process for Irkalla pushed forward in the darkest shadows and the most brilliant of lights. That this drive, ambition, and perseverance originate and radiate outward from a self-sufficient—not corralled by a record label—vehicle like Vajra is not only inspiring but mind-bending.
“We have the freedom to musically, lyrically, and visually explore what we are driven to explore, and to release what we decide to release when the time is right,” offers Pinna. “It’s a combination of instinct and business. We usually release on auspicious days. For Irkalla, each release also will be released on a day that is a derivative of three in terms of numerology. For Pleroma, it was the summer solstice. In terms of content, I see us as travelers who go outside the bounds of a sense-based perception to catch a musical or lyrical idea and then translate it to the material realm. When we get out of our own ways, we are translators or conduits for energies that move through us. Honoring what comes through is important for us.”
Pinna’s complex puzzle of lyrics, music, and themes are always in constant kaleidoscopic motion. While some pieces of Vajra’s musical picture come together with relative ease, others take time to marshal into place. The push and pull of the process isn’t nested in time per se. The songwriting (and overall aesthetic) comes together through surreptitious cosmic provenance and sheer artistic will. An album, like Irkalla for instance, isn’t merely the sum of its parts. To wit, Vajra recently released (and internally-produced by bass player Dave Sussman) the video for “Maya,” the first of several stunning singles. They operate as separate but part of Irkalla’s whole.
“Things shift and move throughout the album depending on the song and each moment within the song,” Pinna reveals. “More concretely, we attempt to weave a tapestry of melodic rock with dark ritual experimental interludes. Perhaps the music and lyrics of Irkalla reflect an esoteric space to explore the dark night of our souls. What is important is that the music may provide a portal to go on a journey. The journey will be different for each individual. My musical heroes have done this for me.”
Throughout Irkalla, Pinna and bandmates Sussman (bass), Al Javier (guitar), Mark Collom (guitar), and Jimmy DeMarco (drums/percussion) conjure music from a diverse panoply of threads. At its core, Vajra can be called dark rock, but the spectrum isn’t always pinned to the tinges of the abyss. Throughout the journey on Irkalla, Vajra paint with vibrant reds (“Maya”), splash blues and greens (“Irkalla”), project arboreal greens (“Wind”), and weave autumnal oranges (“Crown or Crucify”). This is possibly a natural outcome of Pinna’s perceptional condition called Synesthesia, but more likely the varied influences coming into the Vajra camp.
“The influences are varied,” affirms Pinna. “I lived in India for five years, Italy for a summer, NOLA for three years, and San Francisco for a couple of months. My dad was a monk before he met my mom. I’m a yogi and mediation person, and I have this condition called Synesthesia, which affects how I process music. Nature, life, art, Tarkovsky, von Trier, Kubrick, Lynch, philosophers and consciousness astronauts (e.g., Terence McKenna, Alan Watts, Baba Ram Das, Joseph Campbell, etc.), mysticism, the occult, history, dance and politics are influences. Musically, Tool, A Perfect Circle, Om, Classical Hindustani, Alice In Chains, Duran Duran, Black Sabbath, Deftones, soul music, The Mars Volta, etc.”
Conceptually, Irkalla is the first part of a trilogy exploring the various levels of consciousness. Not the medical definition, but rather the philosophical (Eastern and Western) and esoteric. The use of the Sumerian word, “Irkalla,” which is a mythological Underworld of sorts for which there’s no return, is both metaphorical and literal. The trials and tribulations Pinna experienced while writing Irkalla appeared overlapping and ceaseless. Her own personal Hell. Similarly, the lyricist wanted to also venture into the lowest level of consciousness as theme entwined throughout the album’s six snake-like songs. The metaphoric association to the ancient Underworld also plays out in the bonus tracks on Irkalla, where Vajra deconstruct their influences and spirit animals into a three-part music ritual dedicated to the Shadow Queen (her Sumerian name is Ereshkigal and her Greek counterpart is Hekate).
“Irkalla focuses on the lowest level of consciousness,” Pinna says. “It is the base, material, selfish, ego aspects of ourselves (i.e., the ego-driven, lie, cheat, steal, aspects of the self). It is the place that we must shine a light and acknowledge before we move to the next levels of awareness. Also, I’m obsessed with the Sumerian history right now. I was contemplating Goddess energy, and when and what prompted what I see as an imbalance between the masculine and feminine energies. I was wondering what it really meant to have a God and why it was considered, by some, a ‘He.’ I’m also interested in what is behind the concepts of heaven and hell.”
Irkalla was produced by New York native Daniel ‘Sahaj’ Ticotin (Ra, Mötley Crüe). Pinna was introduced to Ticotin in 2018 after both were on different spiritual missions while in India. The twosome hit it off as former expats and with similar interests in music. The majority of the sessions were captured in Los Angeles, with keyboards and some harmony vocals being put to proverbial tape at Pinna’s home studio in New York. The drums were also tracked in upstate New York at a different studio by session drummer and long-time friend Blake Fleming (ex-The Mars Volta). Based off his impressive work for non-album single, “The Mirror,” Vajra again hired two-time Grammy winning studio ace Camilo Silva. Between Ticotin’s sage experience as producer/mixer and Silva’s deft mastering job, Irkalla, with all its hidden caves and spectacular peaks, sounds positively explosive.
For sure, Vajra have the future pegged to today with the launch of the riveting “Maya” video and the broadcast of their striking Tas Limur (Volto, Tool) designed cover art. It’s from here that the adventurous outfit will continue to unfurl angels and demons, light and dark as they prowl into the release of Irkalla on new indie Thunder Cult Records on January 15th, 2021.