“Blight Witch Regalia” is a genre-bending triumph.
Cicada The Burrower’s Blight Witch Regalia has been in the works for years. Setting aside the actual process of making the new album, the narratives it wrestles with have spanned the duration of Cameron Davis’ life. Davis, the Madison-based mastermind and singular driving force behind Cicada The Burrower’s genre-stretching metal, isn’t one for stagnation. Over the last several years, Davis has released records across three key projects: Cicada The Burrower, Devour Every Star, and Hallowed Hands. During that same time, Davis also undertook a medical transition to embrace her identity more fully as a trans woman.
As Davis’ understanding of herself began to evolve, the limits of her music were pushed further out, ultimately culminating with Blight Witch Regalia, which was released on April 7. A searing amalgamation of black metal, chiptune, trip-hop, ambient, and a variety of other musical touchpoints, the album is a dizzyingly joyous run through musical discovery, with the narratives at its core reflecting on Davis’ own growth. Within seconds, Blight Witch Regalia‘s opener—and title track—makes it abundantly clear that the record won’t be your traditional black metal affair. At first blush, “Blight Witch Regalia” is more closely aligned with ambient psychedelic pop than anything to do with metal, though there’s a sinister element lurking just out of reach, even before Davis’ scorched-earth vocals kick in. Abrasive, enticing, and incredibly singular, “Blight Witch Regalia” announces the record as one that demands attention.
Everything Davis has been doing in Hallowed Hands (a project that has swung from dark metal records to chiptune records) and Devour Every Star (a project whose listed influences have included both Ulver and DJ Shadow) are seamlessly enveloped into Blight Witch Regalia‘s fold. Jazzy detours, blackened trip-hop, bright, warm synths, and blistering metal all coalesce into a chaotic, mesmeric hybrid unlike anything else coming out of not just Madison, but anywhere. Through the record’s eight tracks—only one of which runs longer than four and a half minutes, and even then just barely—Davis packs in a lifetime’s worth of ideas, somehow corralling them into something that feels fluid. Honesty plays an integral role in Blight Witch Regalia, from both the musical and narrative senses, combining Davis’ interests and experiences in a way that positions the album as something of a manifesto.
At the heart of Blight Witch Regalia lay the album’s two wildest tracks: “Make Still This Beating Heart” and one of the record’s advance singles, “Aries, You Ripped The Child Out Of Me.” Both are epic in nature, despite clocking in at just a touch over four minutes each. There’s an enormity to “Make Still This Beating Heart,” especially, that’s profoundly gripping. “Aries, You Ripped The Child Out Of Me” is an extension of that profundity, with each track registering as an expression of intimacy, despite grandiose scopes that traditionally lean more towards spectacle.
Blight Witch Regalia doesn’t play by a pre-existing set of rules or conventions. Davis continues to determine her own musical boundaries, and pointedly obliterates a number of traditional ones in the process. Nowhere is this clearer than on “Crescent Moon Smile,” the album’s closing track. Opening with a wide-eyed piano figure run through a noise degradation filter, “Crescent Moon Smile” establishes an aura of sprightly melancholy. It’s one of the many instances of should-be paradoxes populating Blight Witch Regalia, speaking once again to Davis’ penchant for making ostensibly disparate elements function together. A cutting backbeat adds a sense of nervous energy that flutters around the track, before a moment of pause gives way to one of the album’s most memorable moments. Davis leans hard into some extreme metal halfway through the track, building intensity by increasing the volume of the brighter, ambient synth melodies, providing an emblematic moment for the range of Davis’ own humanity in the process.
There’s a staggering amount of inventiveness at play across Blight Witch Regalia, ensuring there’s never a dull moment for listeners. Albums that revel in the unexpected can occasionally feel overwhelming but Davis’ command over craft and structure help Blight Witch Regalia feel surprisingly accessible, even when it indulges in harsher genres. Davis’ willingness to be open with her audience has brought about some genuinely exciting territory for Cicada The Burrower, and Blight Witch Regalia is an astonishing showcase of the project’s scale.
Davis sat down with Tone Madison in March to discuss her transition, the making of Blight Witch Regalia, a desire to honor the important parts of her lived experience, deconstructing and connecting genres, and how she differentiates her various projects.
Tone Madison: Can you take us through how you came to music and your artistic development beyond that introduction?
Cameron Davis: My introduction to music didn’t really start until around my junior or senior year of high school. My buddies got really into Guitar Hero and wound up going on a wild tear, starting a band of their own. I felt a bit left out because I didn’t know an instrument at the time. So I picked up the guitar and immediately got into black metal thereafter, which fully alienated me from that group.
Honestly, at this point of my life, I’m at a bit of a crossroads. For the better part of a decade, I committed myself fully to getting better at music. At least insofar as being able to express myself through music. That led me to trying to combine different styles that more accurately express my personal experience, which, for whatever reason at this point in my life, is a mix of trip-hop and black metal. There was a moment in time where I really went full hilt with it. I had a spreadsheet and I would put in two to three hours a day to practice, or [for] songwriting. I’ve definitely mellowed out since. [Laughing.]
Tone Madison: And that mellowing out is the crossroads?
Cameron Davis: Yeah, a lot will change, especially when you’re medically transitioning. I don’t really see myself so strictly as a musician at this point in my life. I feel like I spend a lot more time working out and baking than I do writing music. I’ll still shit around on a piano every now and again. I haven’t really made anything since last year. I’ve got a few projects in the works but nothing new to me, at least.
Tone Madison: Were there any intentional changes that you made to your musical approach between your 2021 album Corpseflower and Blight Witch Regalia, beyond mellowing out a bit?
Cameron Davis: Yeah. When I first started working on this album, I got it in my head to make a Corpseflower II, so more swing-jazz, AOR black metal stuff. I wrote four or five songs and it didn’t hit for me, it felt insincere. I had experimented a little bit with a blackened trip-hop sound in one of my other projects, Devour Every Star. In my mind, when I first started working on this LP, it was really more a Devour Every Star record than anything. But the more I worked on it, the more I fleshed out, the more I realized it was really an extension of what I look for when I work on the scale of a record. Where it’s more about my personal experience. It’s more artist therapy than anything else. I would say the biggest differences were my approach to the lyrical content and how I went about writing the album. Usually when I write an LP, I’ll write the songs and then the names will come for the song titles and everything else will follow.
For this one, for whatever reason, I had all the songs sorted out in my head. The song titles, what I wanted them to sound like. In a narrative sense, this was a much more involved record than my past work. Regarding the lyrical content, what I did was, looking back, a little bit silly.
I took two books from when I was younger that I identified with before I’d figured myself out as a trans woman. The Chronology Of Water [by Lidia Yuknavitch] and this one surrealist text called Dark Spring [by Unica Zürn]. Very messed up, not okay to read. I wouldn’t recommend it, honestly. But all the same, the way that book communicates the idea of dissociation, depersonalization, derealization, really resonated with me on a deep, personal level. I wound up going through both of those books and pulling sentences that I found myself very personally relating to, insofar as my own experiences. I took every sentence, chopped them up into individual words, threw them all in a jar, shook it up a few times, threw it on a table and rearranged the words until I had something that was in my voice.
That was much more personal than what was there initially. Then I took all the words that I used, threw them back in the jar, and set them on fire with some lavender rosemary salt and a bit of my blood. Then I hit myself with a little ash Wednesday when I recorded vocals and I wound up screaming all that stuff in the basement of my cooperative, naked. But there was something to it that felt… I don’t know, but it’s definitely helped me work through a lot of things. Insofar as Cicada The Burrower being a therapy project for me, this was definitely successful in that regard.
Tone Madison: Is the more explicit emphasis on your own personal history one of the things that helps you differentiate between how you allot your material between your various projects? Are there other avenues where those projects are explicitly impacting each other?
Cameron Davis: The things that distinguish the projects for me isn’t so much the music as it is the subject matter. For Devour Every Star, though I only have one LP under that name [Antiquity, released in 2021], it’s really more about me honoring interpersonal connections that I no longer have. So that record, in a literal sense, is a weird dystopian record. It’s about a kind of sci-fi thing, but subtextually it’s about me grieving the one romantic experience I’ve had in my life, and the loss of that. The trauma that I carry as a consequence of it.
With Cicada The Burrower—from [the 2017 album] The Great Nothing forward—those albums are about my own personal growth, my frustrations, my deepest, most earnest feelings in the moment. It has less to do with past events, though a few definitely do creep in, especially the traumatic ones. But they’re important ones, all the same. Ones that I want to honor. For Cicada The Burrower, it’s more focused on me than things I no longer have. One of the reasons why I took Blight Witch Regalia in a less aggressive direction, and a more trip-hop oriented one, was because of something I recognized in myself as I medically transitioned, which was the connections I make with other people. How I’m able to interact with other people more absolutely, and how I’ve personally managed to overcome a lot of the tendencies I had that kept me from meaningfully interacting with others.
There’s a loose thread that connects [Cicada The Burrower] to Devour Every Star, but Devour Every Star is more like me visiting a grave. Cicada is more like me trying to figure myself out a little bit better.
Tone Madison: Being that Cicada is connected to you figuring yourself out, did that impact the timeline of making Blight Witch Regalia? How long did the record take from inception to release?
Cameron Davis: Blight Witch was definitely the record I’ve spent the most time on, just in terms of general hours. Writing it, production, the whole shebang. Usually, I’ll just bang out a record in a month or something. I have a real manic episode and then kind of get it done. This one was different, though. I think a lot of it came down to how complicated the subject matter was for me.
I think I started it around October or November of 2021. I finished all the instrumentation up [in] January or February [of 2022] and then sat on it for a spell, picking it back up again in the spring, summer to write and record vocals, which took about a month. From that point forward, it was just me dead-eyed starting [at] the project, trying to get the production to sound exactly how I wanted it to sound. That definitely took a lot more time than I hoped it would. I was definitely procrastinating a bit. A lot of that record is more vulnerable than the last one I released, which was really a coming-out record for me, in many ways. It was kind of scary to get that done and put that whole project out there.
Tone Madison: Were there any ways you felt you changed as a person over the time of that process?
Cameron Davis: Beyond the physical, I would say I feel a lot more grounded and settled in my feelings. Like, we’ve all gone through puberty before. That’s a hectic time. It’s weirder to go through that again in your 30s [laughing]. I’m less surprised by the changes when they do come. Definitely when I was working on Blight Witch, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope of difference in the way I thought and how I perceived other people. How I experience attraction, even. The whole spectrum was a lot of difference in change. And there’s kind of a grieving process in that, just because of how much change I wound up going through in such a short time. I feel like where I am now compared to where I was when I did the last scream for that record, I’m definitely more sure of myself. I’m definitely more capable of having vulnerable conversations. I’m better at opening myself up more to other people.
Tone Madison: You touched a bit on the order of your process before as it pertains to titles and material, but do you have a specific tracking process? What programs were you working on?
Cameron Davis: By and large, whenever I start a song, it starts with the drumming. That’s a foundational element to music and so much of the extreme metal I find myself listening to seems completely allergic to a danceable beat, which I think is a mistake, honestly. I would always start there and then add a singular melody and think about what I would need to build it out, maybe add an additional layer, and then I’d work out transitions. The last thing before doing anything vocal-wise, I would record bass guitar. I guess it helps me to write bass when I have a very restrictive melody to play off of, and if the beat’s already there, then I can work off of that and excite it a little bit.
As far as what I was using to record, a lot of it was done on my MacBook. Logic Pro. I think there were four plugins that proved completely vital and necessary to this LP. Spitfire Labs, the free synth software? Banging. Love that stuff. So versatile and all-encompassing, especially for the specific atmospheres I’m trying to approach. Besides that, I use the BBC Symphony Orchestra for all the horns and strings on the LP. This one free plugin from Izotope called Vinyl, which was really good for creating a worn-out, degraded sound. The last one is this cassette sim called SketchCassette.
I was having a conversation with my buddy Gary from Texas. He plays in a whole bunch of bands [Cara Neir, Gonemage, Homeskin, others]. I was talking with him about his recording process. The way that he produced has this really worn-out tape quality to it. It felt like I was revisiting a very exciting time in my personal exploration of raw black metal. I asked him how he was able to pull that sound and he recommended SketchCassette. You can really degrade things. I think on one of the songs in particular, it was a mistake. That song I really just uglied a lot of melodies with as much of the ripped-up cassette effect I could provide it with. It was nice. Those were the big four.
I also used this one guitar effects plugin, I think it’s called Neural DSP. The Nolly one. They have a good bass guitar thing. That’s really the long and short of what I wound up using for that. I’d work out an individual melody with the keyboard and then just play off it, until I found something that felt palatable.
Tone Madison: Circling back a touch, you were commenting on how extreme metal seemed allergic to brighter, danceable elements. Was incorporating those into your work something that was brought about by a more academic intention or is it a natural reflection of your own tastes?
Cameron Davis: It’s a sound I’ve been chasing my entire music career. I spent like five focused years trying to get myself to a place where I could combine those things in a naturalistic sense, where it didn’t feel like a gimmick. When I think about the kind of extreme metal that excites me, it’s always the stuff that sounds like it’s coming from the perspective of a person who doesn’t listen to metal at all. Like, they kind of created the sound on their own almost. If you had an indie-pop musician write a grindcore record, I would want to listen to that. That’s kind of where my mind is at in terms of what excites me in that regard. Zeal And Ardor, for example, that’s a project wherein it’s like, “OK, this is a mood. I can get down with this.” Even though that guy is definitely really into extreme music.
I guess the reason why I pursued that one was black metal in its most reductive form, that doesn’t speak to who I am as a person. It would feel disingenuous for me to put on a cloak and get a real xeroxed copy of a woods photo. I’m just not that nerdy [laughing.] I’ve never killed anyone and I don’t want to. And I don’t want to set a building on fire. I want to fight people, sure, but I don’t want to cause a ruckus or anything.
I feel like mixing those different styles of music, jazz, black metal, trip-hop, ambient tones… it does a better job of communicating who I am on a fundamental level. I wound up playing [Blight Witch Regalia] for a close friend of mine and they told me that it sounded like me. That might be the best review of my music I’ve ever gotten. That’s sort of the point to it, for me. I want people to know me on a personal level, even if I never meet them. Having a wide breadth of influence felt like I was using all of the tools in the toolkit, instead of using a hammer for everything.
Tone Madison: Given how time intensive the recording process for Blight Witch Regalia was, did you have any immediate plans for a follow-up or are you giving yourself a chance to breathe between projects?
Cameron Davis: I’m always thinking of ideas, whether I want to or not [laughing]. If you want to talk about all the things I’m working on, I’m working on a proper full-length for a project I’m in called Hallowed Hands. I dropped a full chiptune record [Side Quest] last year under that name. This one’s more like our earlier stuff, cut with that newer LP.
For Cicada, I have a few things coming together for that. I don’t really know when that record’s coming out. I feel like I need to take a step back for a year or two, at least, and just live a little. I know that I want to call the new record I want to release after [Blight Witch Regalia], Wet Heroin Sorrow. I don’t really know what it’ll sound like. I wrote 30 seconds of music a couple days back. First time I wrote anything since March of last year. I don’t quite know what it’ll be. I know I want to write a record about my rabbit that passed. That was a very important creature in my life. I want to honor that in some way. I don’t think I want to make another Blight Witch Regalia. Whatever comes next is maybe not going to be a natural progression but different. I like the idea of doing something that has the atmosphere and intent of black metal but without any of the convention. So I’m going to have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to pull that off [laughing].
Tone Madison: Was there a significance to the phrase “Wet heroin sorrow”?
Cameron Davis: The original title of “Aries, You Ripped The Child Out Of Me” was actually [Wet Heroin Sorrow]. It was a song I’d been trying to write for seven years. It’s an extension of the themes in Blight Witch, but maybe a bit more grounded. It has less to do with a drug and more to do with identity. I’ll probably focus on similar themes, but it’s definitely going to be something less dreamlike. Or more. I don’t know. There’s something about the number three that I’m very into, it comes up a lot in Blight Witch. Everything from the production choices to the lyrical content is caked in threes. Wet Heroin Sorrow was just a title to a thing I want to make. It feels like a personal combination of words. There’s some weight to it for me.