Thy Invocation of Hell Reprint

thy-invocation-of-hell

Malaysian label Afterlife Productions has restored and reprinted Southeast Asia’s first black metal zine, Thy Invocation of Hell. It’s packed with interviews from tons of legendary bands, all conducted in their early and formative years, before wannabe rockstar egos and commercialism took hold. Buy it. From the label’s Facebook page:

Continue reading Thy Invocation of Hell Reprint

This Ain’t No Fantasy: A History Of Punk’s Most Iconic Band, The Misfits

cliff_burton_-_metallica_-_misfits_shirt

Metalheads tend to be wary of punk, recognizing it only for its role as an influence on metal. This attitude obscures the fact that the best of punk is worth exploring on its own terms and merits, starting with perhaps the greatest influence of punk technique and heightened aesthetics in that genre, hardcore punk‘s The Misfits.

Continue reading This Ain’t No Fantasy: A History Of Punk’s Most Iconic Band, The Misfits

Conqueror – War Cult Supremacy (1999)

conqueror - war cult supremacy

Conqueror wanted to be a part of the “scene” but did not have musical ideas. The band discovered that the muddied sound of early Beherit and Blasphemy circa Fallen Angel of Doom could be used to obfuscate their dearth of ideas. Furthermore the hostility between the Norwegian scene and the rest of black metal could be amplified under false pretenses while not offering any truly satisfying alternative themselves. Basically, point to candy assed pop drivel like Dark Funeral but go to the other end of the spectrum entirely with a paper thin wall of television white noise with a drunken chipmunk howling nonsense. Conqueror’s “music” is structured which ironically stands contra to the concept of all out war. A little anarchy would at the very least allow the essence of battle to bubble up from the pot. Instead it’s a tame morass of very low effort grindcore riffs and mostly incomprehensible low E-string noodling. The best that can be said about Conqueror is that J. Reed has an identifiable sound.

Continue reading Conqueror – War Cult Supremacy (1999)

Morte Macabre – Symphonic Holocaust (1998)

morte macabre - symphonic holocaust

Article by Johan P continuing Death Metal Underground’s progressive rock coverage.

Morte Macabre is a collaboration between members of the Swedish prog revivalist groups Landberk and Anekdoten, who joined forces to create progressive rock that is equal parts beautiful and disturbing. Their only album – Symphonic Holocaust – is a real treat for those who enjoy creepy music in general, especially 1970s Italian horror movie soundtracks. It is a tribute to the darker side of 70s progressive rock, with reference to Italian groups and composers like Celeste, Goblin, Museo Rosenbach, Fabio Frizzi and Riz Ortolani. An explicit Red-era King Crimson influence permeates the album as well.

Continue reading Morte Macabre – Symphonic Holocaust (1998)

Root – Zjevení (1990)

Root Zjevení

Article by Lance Viggiano

Root’s Zjevení updates Merciful Fate from Halloween to haunt by exorcising the clownish camp while maintaining their high degree of theatricality. A textural treatment gives speed metal riffs a spectral significance that allows for it to have expressive power in dreary dungeons at midnight lit only by a faint moon that is slowly swallowed by black vapor. Tonally and thematically, Root sets the stage for later Greek acts such as Varathron and Rotting Christ to further develop this music through melodious – relatively speaking – ambience which expelled punk’s poltergeist.

Continue reading Root – Zjevení (1990)

Sarcasm – Burial Dimensions (2015)

Sarcasm-Burial-Dimensions-44488-1

Article by Corey M

Burial Dimensions is a compilation of releases by Swedish death metal band Sarcasm, featuring six demos (released between 1992 and 1994) and a full-length album (also recorded in 1994, but first officially released in 2011). For most of this review, I’ll be talking mainly about the titular full-length album when I use “Burial Dimensions”, and not the compilation as a whole.

As for the compilation as a complete package – It has cool cover art and all the demos you could want, but they sounded redundant to me, though in full disclosure, I was unfamiliar with Sarcasm before getting this release, and didn’t know any of their demos before listening to this compilation. Fans will no doubt find more value in having this large collection of demos on two CDs, even though casual listeners may not spend much time listening to them. The full-length features the best songs with the best production quality, so I focused in listening to it the most.

Some listeners might be able to guess that Sarcasm are Swedish by the first riff, and most of the musical techniques they use had been well-developed by 1994, so this album is more about refining a craft than innovating. Except for a few incongruent flourishes, Burial Interludes is mostly sinewy, sometimes fluttery death metal, but melodically bears resemblance to some contemporary heavy metal-influenced black metal like Rotting Christ’s Thy Mighty Contract, with a lot of tense, enigmatic harmonies and an emphasis on keeping songs flowing smoothly throughout dynamic transitions between high- and low-intensity passages. However, due to the band’s admirable unwillingness to shift dynamics too quickly, some of the more low-tension parts in songs drag on for too long, dispelling the sinister insinuations of the more intense passages as we are lulled by comfortable but impotent consonance. These soft sections subvert the dark spirit that these songs aim to conjure, and are almost always too off-putting to ignore. Examples include a brief break for a female operatic vocal to take over a song which is otherwise made of imposing, sharp riffs, and some dull segments that showcase an unmotivated (and unmotivating) lead meandering over a melodramatic chord progression. These parts always sound insincere and drag the album down because other parts of the songs really rip into you.

The production of Burial Dimensions is raw (and the demos sound considerably worse), with some gnarly analog compression and heavy reverb on everything, giving the sensation of the sound being squished and distant. This isn’t necessarily bad and allows the guitars space to grind through high and low frequencies, giving the rhythm guitars a dangerous-sounding, shredded, spiky texture. In many riffs, a second guitar will pick out a higher-register harmony that stands separate from the rhythm guitars by having a distinct echoing tone. Usually following the rhythm fairly closely, the second guitar is also sometimes used for counterpoint melodies, and at times these are very effective at bringing out the full impact of the riffs, especially when the bass guitar splits from playing in unison with the rhythm guitars and all three guitar melodies hit you from different directions in three-part harmony. Sarcasm can create an impressively broad and rich sound with the three guitars being utilized this way, but during the worst parts of the songs, the counterpoint will be played in some such off-kilter way that doesn’t synchronize intuitively with the rhythm guitars and some strange harmonies emerge, negatively altering the flow of tension that is channeled so well during the more simply-structured passages.

Sarcasm sound amateur at worst, mainly due to the artificial melancholy that butts in and trips up a series of otherwise engaging riffs. Some of the better examples of riffs that really take you along for a ride begin the songs “Through Tears of Gold” and “Never After”, but frustratingly their momentum falters when one of the more flaccid, weepy progressions intrudes with clean guitars and soft synthesizer washes. “Pile of Bodies” and “Scattered Ashes” both begin with slow, chunky riffs that menace and lumber, but eventually either song gets bogged down in slowly-strummed reverb-drenched chords and leads too timid to venture far enough from the chords to inspire much sense of wonder or foreboding.

All considered, this album probably never achieved wide recognition because of the incongruent dynamics which can leave you with a sense of ambiguity about the whole experience. If you listen closely, you’ll hear lots of cool-sounding riffs scattered throughout, but they are offset by the sappiness that inevitably kicks in during any song’s development. In this way the amateur nature of the band works for and against them; when they get into energetic and fearsome riffing, the sensation is both threatening and mystical, but their inability to maintain tension while focusing more on the mystical than the threatening aspect means that each burst of strong riffs is undermined by a stretch of weak soloing or ostentatious gimmicks.

If you are a fan of Sarcasm, this release is right up your alley; you get some upgraded album art and a collection of demos in their original condition (not retouched or remastered, as far as I can tell). If you are not a fan but curious to see what Sarcasm are all about, I strongly recommend finding some of the music online or streaming it and giving it a close listen before making the decision to purchase. Personally, I don’t see any lasting replay value in Burial Dimensions; Sarcasm are just one of the many death metal bands that fell by the wayside during the ’90s heyday, and for good reason. If you are really itching to hear some death metal from the ’90s with lots of black metal-esque melody and heavy metal leads, compare this album to Necrophobic’s The Nocturnal Silence, which is a perfect example of how these influences (black, death, and heavy metal) can merge fluidly and efficiently. And Intestine Baalism beat these Swedes at their own game with 1997’s An Anatomy of the Beast, which does a better job than Burial Dimensions of combining raw and evil-sounding riffs with dramatically melancholic lead melodies.

Deafheaven – New Bermuda (2015)

Deafheaven - New Bermuda (2015)
On a less rigorous, and slightly looser site, my thoughts on New Bermuda could be expressed as something along the lines of “whatever”. The music here has been performed before by a cavalcade of metal-themed indie acts, each more individual and revolutionary than the last, yet stunningly conformist for their efforts. Deafheaven enjoys rather more media attention at the moment, even sometimes drawing our attention for their little escapades, but they’re pretty much cut from the same fabric – a few hints of loud guitars and blast beats to liven up boring sugary pop stretched far beyond the limits of its songwriting.

The stylistic deception is pretty shallow, to be honest. I found it mildly amusing that the album began with a few minutes of more overtly black metal flavored material, which was then abruptly cast off in favor of the basic rock riffing and reverb textures that Deafheaven seem to so particularly enjoy. It returns every now in then in case you forget you’re supposed to be listening to the future of black metal, but I can confidently say New Bermuda relies more on the band’s rudimentary modality (major-minor ad infinitum) than their rudimentary dynamics to occasionally wake up a sleepy listener when the soothing, inoffensive guitar strumming has lulled them into a dreamless slumber. The drumming in these sections gradually devolves into basic modern rock downbeats and timekeeping, as if to represent your transition towards a drowsy (indie) state of mind. That probably wasn’t the intent, but the idea that it could’ve been is dangerously tempting.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who tries to fall asleep to music, but were I to treat this as a collection of lullabies, it would still be fairly underwhelming. That it has loud sections at all is counterproductive for insomniacs, but even those are rather predictable in how they play out. The straight ahead black metal sections consistently move sluggishly under the blastbeats, with a vocalist who has learned but one type of shriek and a few basic vocal rhythms. Given how Deafheaven is marketed, that these sections sound like an afterthought is problematic. Maybe the album would be better if it was divested of the clearly unwanted black metal, but then you’d be left with just another unwashed (but charmingly patchouli and spice scented) post-rock/emo/indie-pop album essentially indistinguishable from all the others and guaranteed to gather dust after something newer and more exciting comes out.

I slept well last night. What about you?

Extreme metal, old and new

Asteroid impact

Guest post by William Pilgrim

A reader recently posted a comment asking my opinion on modern extreme metal bands like Teitanblood and Ascension. We often take it as an article of faith that modern metal is a fallen genre that parted ways from the aspects that made the heyday of this music so glorious; indeed, it is almost a guarantee that any random second or third tier album from the early years of the genre will compare favourably with the current wave of practitioners.

But why should this be so? Forget about the intangibles for just now; elan vital, vir, passion, and spirit, as much stock as one puts in them, are ultimately amorphous, unquantifiable entities. But to the discerning ear, the very manner in which this music is played contributes greatly to the nurture and propagation of these ideas. But let’s not leave it at that even; the manner in which music is played is the result of an outlook on life and the world around us, a perspective that originates inside the mind with very distinct inspirations and goals assigned for itself. At least it should be so for the genuine musician who is willing to pay tribute to something greater than himself rather than be just another among the flock vying for whatever holds his fancy in the moment. When looked at from this angle, song writing and the musical techniques involved therein become offshoots of a state of mind. The difference between old and new then becomes the difference between states of mind that are separated by time, culture, and upbringing.

On the surface – and this is a broad generalization but it holds for the most part – new extreme metal bands lack definition and detail in riffs. Consider the most recent Teitanblood album Death and contrast it with something as universally unheralded – deservedly so in many quarters – as Krabathor’s debut Only Our Death from 1992. Teitanblood, hugely influenced as they are by the war metal of Blasphemy, attempt to paint broad swathes of atmosphere through repetition as opposed to the many-toothed, serrated approach to songwriting that Krabathor and others from that pocket of time display. The former lulls the unsuspecting listener into a trance-like state by concealing its lack of songwriting virtue through synthetic extremeness, but the second approach usually contains more thought, effort, and dynamics, and mimics the constant upturning and redressal of values that great death metal strives towards.

caspar_david_friedrich-the_wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

Old death metal as a combination of romanticism…

Edvard Munch - The Scream (1893)

…and expressionism

Bands like Teitanblood prioritize mood over content and coherence

Bands like Teitanblood prioritize mood over content and coherence

Borrowing terms from the schools of art and retrospectively applying them to metal, we can then say that old death metal is a curious but potent blend of romanticism and a nihilistic expressionism, on more or less equal footing: romantic in self-awareness, expressionist in revealing the horrors of the mind, and nihilistic in rejecting established values in favour of new belief systems. A band like Teitanblood, on the other hand, can be said to belong to an impressionist state of mind, the word impressionist signifying in no way any relation between Teitanblood and purveyors of that stream of thought in the arts. Instead, impressionism is used here merely to suggest the preeminence of mood over content, and the blurring of the music’s outer edges to the point of dissociation.

One might say that even undisputed classics like Darkthrone and Burzum used the repetition mentioned above to make their point, but the important thing to remember in those bands’ cases is that repetition was used as a story telling device to travel between distinctly realized book ends. Many modern bands seem to lack the roughest notion of what it means for a song to have a beginning and an end, and how islands spread across the length of the song can be used as “hooks” to hop from one spot to another, but always with the ultimate aim in mind: the song is God and everything else superfluous. Hear the song posted below from Ascension, a band many supposedly educated fans claim to be the second coming of the genre. Then contrast it with the Kvist song that immediately follows. Hear them back to back so that the dissonance stands out in stark relief.

Hear how the entire body of ‘Vettenetter’ is geared towards safeguarding the primacy of a greater idea, an idea that is directed outwards as opposed to the redundant, self-absorbed mannerisms of the Ascension track. The feelings Kvist induce in the listener can be classified as “romantic” in the truest sense of the word, a mixture of awe, beauty, human insignificance, yes, but also the perpetual struggle to understand and realize a greater meaning to our place in the world. As opposed to Kvist’s romanticism, however, bands like Ascension are entirely hedonistic, which by association implies a pathetic solipsism. The self is greater than the whole, the moment is greater than eternity, live now while you can, however you can, for who knows what tomorrow will bring?

This isn’t just abstract wool gathering; Ascension’s solipsism manifests itself in the carelessly strewn-about rock star solos, in the abrupt shifts in tone, in the complete absence of a unifying theme, and ultimately in the absurd, conceited belief that what they’re doing is in any way or form of artistic merit. Where Kvist intentionally dwarf themselves in humble tribute to the magnificent life-giving forces of nature, Ascension are like ghosts trapped between worlds, with no sense of who they are or what purpose they presently serve. Their concoction is cynically designed to appeal to Everyman, meaning the lowest common denominator in listener intelligence. A little of this, a little of that, take a potluck lunch home and you’re bound to find a bone to gnaw on. World Terror Committee, indeed.

Which of the two is the greater evil? Teitanblood’s impressionism, cheap and disoriented as it is, can be understood on some level as a honest effort from poor students of the metal genre. That is not to give it more credence than it deserves nor does it mean that it shouldn’t be called out for its many weaknesses or for its fans’ sheep-like mentality. But it’s only a matter of time before these bands are consigned to the dustbin of obscurity because of their self-devouring approach to music.

Bands like Ascension, however, work on the principle of fast-food equality, but through mechanisms subtler than what Cradle Of Filth and Dimmu Borgir employed twenty years ago. On the surface, they appear intoxicating to simpler tastes, shiny exterior, ersatz evil and all. They even go some distance in mimicking the sound of their elders, only to douse jaded listeners with buckets of icy cold water. Most listeners don’t care, however, and these pathetic tidbits are enough to guarantee the Ascensions of the world a name in the “new underground” for the foreseeable future.

The greater tragedy, however, is that these bands signify the death of the mind, and this is evidenced in the class of discussion that occurs around them and their music. To sensitive ears and minds, there is no higher emotion that a plastic, cookie-cutter band like Ascension is capable of eliciting, but by their subversive nature and by being infiltration points into this music for all the wrong elements, bands like these present the greatest danger to metal. That should no longer be considered an exaggeration, because for every new kid that discovers old treasures, ten more will flock to an Ascension and will eventually use the same strategies when they come to make music of their own, not knowing any better. After all, noise when amplified enough will always drown out quality.

Deverills Nexion releasing A Sinister Tarot on Ajna Offensive

deverills_nexion-the_sinister_tarot

Cult ritual ambient/discovered sounds band Deverills Nexion will release its upcoming The Sinister Tarot – A Musickal Working, Instruments Modern and Voice LP with a 12 page A5 booklet via Ajna Offensive later this month. Consisting of ritual formatting to instrumental and natural sounds, the music of Deverills Nexion fits in with bands such as Lull and Lustmord who create background ambient, although with an occult flair.

The LP will be distributed in Europe by The Sinister Flame (email them to reserve a copy), and is also available from the band website. The band describes the work with the following press release:

The Sinister Tarot is a variant of the “standard” tarot. It is described fully in the Order of Nine Angles’ key guide to practical Satanism, NAOS. Each track is an interpretation in sound of a specific card (from the major arcana only for the purposes of this “album”).

The musick herein can be seen as well as heard, being a spontaneous manifestation expressed through the magickal meditations of each element, associative and dissociative, linear or otherwise. The musick, like that of the individualized tarot cards of the sinister deck, being self-divined, self-made, self-sourced to a largely personal degree, still has immense relevance for others as it further informs and enriches the egregore of the Septenary path that is ONA.

With visualizations in sound of:
Col Cruachan, the hill of the wizard (1. The Magickian)
Forest tides (4. Lord of the Earth)
Inversely twisting oak gibbet (12. The Hanged Man)
The geryne of Satan (8. Change)
Sisters of the starry mere (10. Wyrd)
Ere the dancers depart (19. The Sun)
A Deverills man at the Bladud’s Head (20. The Aeon)
The glade of flowery broken skulls (3. Mistress of Earth)
Bestride a corpse with my face (14. Hel)
A curious long barrow view, one of many (0. The Fool)
Dawn’s flow (17.The Star)

Unholy Prophecy

schoolbus

The forest warmed as the late afternoon sun stroked it from above. Insects rose out of their protective hiding place in the underground and ascended thermals into the high trees where birds pursued them. Far from the solar fire too bright for humans to glance into the sky at all, a school bus surrounded by dead leaves hid under the canopy of light-absorbing leaves.

“Christ on sandwich bread,” said Dennis as he vaulted into the bus. He looked around and realized he was speaking to an empty space. Shrugging, he began preparations for the ritual. He took one of the wax-streaked dimestore candles from the ad hoc plywood shelving where the driver used to sit, and put it on an old kitchen table that was propped up in back between sofas. Lighting it, he cleared the leaves and bugs from one seat, and perched on it to enjoy the ninth cigarette of the day. As he was finishing, the emergency door at the rear of the bus batted open.

“World’s gone crazy,” said Mark Reissdorf, with his inseparable best friend Thomas Nagel in tow. They each took seats on one of the four sofas that formed the seating area at the rear of the bus. Dennis and Thomas gathered dead and fallen branches, cramming them into the fire pit as Thomas wedged a newspaper from his pocket between them. Soon a fire blazed and smoke leaked from the bus into the woods.

Finally they heard more footsteps through the leaves and Mark leaned out the door to give Sam a hand in. Sam stood taller than any of them, but also carried extra weight, the consequence of being both the bullied youngest sibling in the Bormanns household and as a result, the one his mother soothed with treats. He dug around in his insulated vest and found a plastic sandwich bag which he flung onto the table before them. “It’s from Canada,” he said. “Where’s R?”

Thomas shrugged, and Mark and Dennis made me-too motions with their eyebrows. Sam grunted, then began rooting around in the bag.

“It’s not time,” said Thomas.

“Shut up,” said Sam. He towered over Thomas, but the smaller boy held his ground. “We have to stay true to the ritual. Defenders of the Faith.”

“You’re right,” said Mark, holding the syllable for just long enough to crucify it with a short word as if punctuation: “Fag.”

They all started giggling at that point. Then the front door of the bus opened — only R used that one — and he stepped in, chilly in his sweater and jean jacket. Where the other boys had long hair, R had none whatsoever. He had in fact shaved his entire body only because he discovered that it freaked out over 85% of the people he encountered on a regular basis, where tattoos and piercings hovered in the 60s, drug use in the 50s, and casual sex in the teens. When R stepped into a room, most people recoiled in fear. He loved that.

Mark threw more wood onto the fire, which now blazed up in the fire pit and filled the bus with smoke. R took a bong and a bottle of Old Valley Road bourbon out of his backpack. Sam tossed in the bag of weed. Mark pulled out a handful of pills and a knife, and Thomas tossed in a bag with traces of cocaine. R — his real name was Ron Carpenter, but he told everyone in freshman year that his name was actually DLANOR and he was from Sumeria, so no one trusted any name he gave — pulled out a key from his pocket and unfastened the padlock on the plywood box. Inside was a portable stereo. He plugged in his off-brand MP3 player and cranked the volume to ten. No one mentioned the week they had spent burying wire to snake a line off the nearest streetlight, nearly a half-mile away, but they all swelled with pride at the ability to have their music in this remote place.

The sounds of Hellhammer filled the bus. They simply did not trust any music or — well, anything — from any more recent time. The 1980s was when it fell apart. People like to talk about what a great decade it was, but really it must have been a terrible decade, like looking out your window to see a tsunami of Ebola-infected sewage coming your way.

The ritual had begun.

“Today was unbearable,” Thomas said, taking his privilege as the physically weakest in what had become a combination support group, revolutionary meeting and occult rebellion. “Let me tell you all about it.”

***

His day began, he related, with going to his high school and sliding into his first class in a stupor of boredom. The teacher did not even notice, having a rubric which demanded she cover a certain amount of material per minute, and confronting late students only interrupted that. He performed the minimum, being half-awake at the time, since he had spent most of last night roaming the empty places of an adult world he did not understand or wish to enter. When his parents settled down after a few mixed drinks, and his brothers and sister were camped in front of the TV, he grabbed the packet of cigarettes they kept in the kitchen drawer and headed out. He just walked: through the parking lots, across the empty roads, trying doorhandles in buildings, down the alleys. If anyone had a problem with it, he had his flick knife and used to be a star on the track team, so it would be a fair combat at least.

“You can’t sit there,” said someone in his second-period English class. Still groggy, he asked why. “All the football players sit here.”

“Fuck off,” he said. It was his favorite retort to people, who he would like to murder with great pain and cruelty, but in his inner heart he knew what he really wanted to murder was the world. The all of it. The ugly parking lots everywhere, stupid triplicate forms, waiting in line for morons to tell you what to do, brain-dead churches and politicians and the people who followed them like sheep, and everyone else strung out on booze like his parents or heroin like his friends from the past year. They were all cowards. Thomas was a small kid and he knew that if one of the football players made an issue of it, he would be at a major disadvantage. But he always fought back, leaving them with enough wounds that they thought twice about trying again, a wisdom he learned during the early years of bullying in elementary school.

Instead, Danny the Irish-Polynesian football player came into the room, took one look at Thomas taking up the first seat in the front table, and turned to the kid who had warned Thomas and punched him in the shoulder. “Good job keeping my place for me,” he said and stormed off.

More football players came in. A couple threw books at the kid who failed to guard the place. No one else sat at the table. Thomas shrugged it off, and sat through the class. He heard whispers behind him but ignored them as the usual screwing around of idiots. Then Mr. Danforth heard a knock at the door and went into the hall to talk with the fat piggish administrator who had a form for him to sign. Thomas had just settled into the lull of the background hum in his brain when an unstoppable form hit him from behind, knocking the table forward against the wall and sending Thomas crashing into it. Right before he smashed his head against the edge, he tightened his hand around his pencil and instinctively stabbed upward. A howl came in response and more books and papers crashed to the floor as the table slammed into the teacher’s desk.

“What the hell is going on here?” said Danforth, coming back into the room with a sheaf of papers to muddle over later during a bottle of discount white wine. Two students stood covered in blood in a snarl of wrecked furniture and ruined papers.

“I, uh, fell,” said the kid who had warned Thomas, with Danny standing right behind him. But Danny had blood pouring from a wound in his armpit that looked suspiciously like a pencil.

“He stabbed me,” said Danny, pointing at Thomas. Danny eyed him warily. Thomas wanted him to attack again, so he could strike with the pencil. Again and again. Murdering his parents, his teachers and the people who designed this ugly, boring, codependent place.

“I didn’t move,” said Thomas. “You must have fallen on me. I guess you just stumbled on a pencil too.”

“Well what were you doing sitting in my seat?” Danny finally managed.

“There are no assigned seats. Get over yourself,” said Thomas.

“Thomas, why don’t you ever just go along with what people want?” asked Danforth. “Go to the office. Marsha will take you. Danny, go to the Nurse.”

The nerdy kid who had warned him scoffed. “Told you so,” he said.

“At least I’m not a suck-up to jocks because I’m a mouth-breathing nerd,” said Thomas. “You’re as dumb as they are. Just math-dumb not football-dumb.”

“Fuck you, Thomas,” said the kid.

“You go to the office too,” said Mr. Danforth.

Marsha walked ahead of them carrying the yellow slip of paper which said they were rejects. “You really know how to make a small incident a big one,” she said. “Why didn’t you just do what other people want?”

Thomas sighed. “Because other people are usually crazy. Most people wanted the new dam built that flooded the woods, most people wanted the new road that makes town loud, most people actually like that stupid class, and most people watch football and drink Coors Light. I can’t do it,” he said, and suddenly felt a little bit weak.

She turned to him and he saw her eyes, a gentle blue, had faded. “You better get to the Nurse,” she said. “I’ll tell Danforth you were bleeding. That’s true, at least.”

Lunch had been no different. Some guy in a Polo shirt wanted to take his chocolate milk, and Thomas used one of the jiu-jitsu moves he studied on the weekend and threw him. That was a problem, since behind him was a chair and behind that, a glass window. Both shattered as the unlucky dumbshit went sprawling. Thomas did not get to finish his chocolate milk. As the campus cop escorted him from the premises, he caught Marsha’s eye. It looked worried and amused. He shrugged and bowed ever so slightly, which caused laughter at her table. Most likely they were making fun of him.

He went to his job at the movie theater after that. Clean the floor, they said. He took several dozen wet floor signs, found a movie that would not be out for another hour, and swabbed the whole floor then began drying it. A woman exited the individual theater and Thomas took her arm and guided her around the wet floor. “It’s tricky,” he said.

“Is that blood all over your face?” she asked. Thomas shrugged. He noticed she did not go into the theater and the next thing he knew, the manager was tapping his arm. “Why is so much of the floor wet? We’ve had a complaint.”

“I swab it down first, then get it all at once with the bucket,” said Thomas. “That way I’m not putting dirty water back on the floor to swab the next section.”

“Why don’t you just do it–” said the manager, but Thomas finished his words. “– like everyone else. My way is more efficient. I can show you — ”

” — No, no,” said the manager absent-mindedly. He was short like Thomas and Thomas always liked him for that, and hoped he had found a beautiful short wife. This guy was better than most.

“You know what, I don’t give a shit,” said the manager. “You’re going to have to go home because we had a complaint.”

“Even if it’s a… uh… ah… not really true one?” said Thomas, searching for words.

“Yes, because if someone else complains, I look like a stupid asshole,” said the manager. “Your whole goal is to not make me look like a stupid asshole.”

“Even if it’s less efficient?”

The manager threw up his hands. “Yes… I mean, no. Do what is efficient. Just don’t cause complaints. Like, next time, use an empty theater.”

“Right,” said Thomas. On his way out, he passed Marsha. “Going to a movie?” he asked.

“Going to visit my Dad,” she said, and pointed to the door he had just left. Thomas slapped his palm over his face and when he looked up she was gone.

The only saving grace came as he exited the kitchen area behind the concession stand. “Hey, Tom, wait up,” said Mikey, who wanted to be called “Mike,” the longest-haired of the crew. “Can you swap a bud for some blow?”

“Better be the real deal,” said Thomas, feeling for a moment more grown up than his milktoast parents who never did anything dangerous like drugs, crime or violence.

“Hell yeah it is,” said Mikey. “Hey, I heard you served that Danny guy in class today…”

***

“Jesus, what a lot of drama,” said Mark.

“Jesus would have hated all of those people,” said Dennis. As the token Christian in the group, or so it was suspected, they tolerated him like they might a homosexual: warily. Dennis was pretty sure he was not gay but sometimes he wondered about Sam. Not like it mattered, he thought. A gay guy who was not a stupid asshole would be OK, but most gay people would be stupid assholes, because most people were stupid assholes and no one got a pass.

Sam shrugged, busy packing weed into the bowl of his custom modified EZ-rip bong. First he painstakingly separated weed from stems, the fresh herbal scent enveloping him like a memory of flowers, and reduced the weed itself to dust. He then intermixed this with blonde tobacco he got at the local tobacconist by swiping it and then buying enough lighters to cover the cost, paying for them, but leaving the lighters behind. He wouldn’t steal from Mr. Walton. The guy was OK — he actually looked up what Sam could buy at his age and applied the letter of the law. “If you ask me,” Walton had drawled, “We don’t need any of these frickin’ laws. But they don’t ask me.”

“What about you, Sam,” asked Dennis.

“Long day at the computer store,” said Sam. He had dropped out of school, then taken the GED, then gone on to work at a local computer parts store. Now he fixed computers for little old ladies and businessmen alike, and was generally appreciated for his attention to detail — forestalling future secondary complications — although it was universally noted that his manner was diffident, almost standoffish, in the way of people who distrust socialization itself.

Mark passed over a joint he rolled with some of the dirt-cheap weed he got from his cousin who grew it in the hills. It would get you high, like a 40 oz malt liquor would get you drunk, but it was such a blunting and numbing experience that it seemed to replace fun with a grinding duty to be wasted.

“Theme of the day was barriers,” Sam began after a few moments. “I fixed a computer, then all of a sudden, things were wrong.”

***

“Did you get that laptop set up?” asked his boss.

“Yeah,” said Sam. “Needed a memory upgrade. Got it. Want me to install the usual anti-virus and repair software?”

“Sure,” said the boss, and disappeared between the shelves. Sam got to work. This one was more interesting than usual: two layers of security, and many cryptic files named only with alphanumerics in incremental form, like 1C5AFE3C0D1F.docx, stored in a generic folder. This one looked like a mess. He set about making a system backup, then preparing to install the suite of software that shielded the machine against hacks, spoofs, viruses, subversions, and errors.

He was about halfway done when his boss reappeared. “Ah,” Sam heard over his shoulder.

“–what?”

“Not that one. You can’t look in there. Just package it up for delivery.”

OK, thought Sam. He slid it onto the thin metal shelves and filled out the ticket, then turned back to his other tasks. But the memory tormented him: all those files, obviously inscrutable for a reason. Why? And the high security — for what? One did not lock doors beyond which lay only the mundane. His mind spit out a plan before his ego could approve it, but then he found himself drawn to it, cursing his lizard brain for having come up with such a perfect attack.

He dashed through the next computer, filled out the form, and slid it on the shelf, dallying next to the cryptic laptop which he plugged in to the wall, linking a network cable to its port. Then he re-arranged some bags, dropped his keys, straightened up again and left before the boss could get off the phone.

Back at his workstation he quickly fixed a point of sale machine in from a subscriber, then used it to sneak along the network and send a wake-up signal to the laptop. Then he ran a program that snaked past its security and showed him the file system. He began to download the mystery files. As he was opening the first file, he heard the door chime on the front door, seventy feet away. He paused as a voice burbled at the counter.

Walking as if heading to the stash of tools near the front, he got a glimpse of the check being handed over. His mystery laptop. The guy who owned it looked boring, reserved, maybe even a little bit withdrawn, but not paranoid as he expected a spy or criminal mastermind to be. Sam had other problems however. Within a half-minute his boss would reach over to the laptop, and have to unplug it and possibly explain to the customer why. Sam stepped back into the doorway of the loading dock, where he knew no cameras were, and lit a cigarette, blowing smoke into the fire alarm.

As the boss racked up the cost and entered the credit card, an ear-splitting siren blared through the store. Sam ditched the cigarette in a nearby flower pot. As employees rushed toward the door, he walked to the counter, then dropped his wallet. Straightening up halfway, he hunched over the machine and yanked out both cables, letting them drop, then joined the others outside.

“Weird,” said the boss. “Must have been a smoke test.” As it turned out, one of the new employees had inverted a power connector and popped a capacitor, which was accepted as the source of the smoke. The customer left, happy, and Sam wandered outside to pitch out the cigarette. When he came back to his desk, the boss was waiting for him. “We have lots of these high security jobs,” he said. “Here are another four that need doing today.”

It became a longer day than Sam intended. Toward the end, as he waited for one machine to restore its operating system, he peeked into the files he found. Columns of figures, debits and credits, on a weekly basis. He shrugged, but then looked closer. There were duplicate files for each week, but the numbers were not the same, and even without much life experience Sam knew he would rather pay tax on the second set than the first.

The boss came back inside. “Listen team, we’ve had a bit of a shakeup. I need you three to take weekend shifts, and shifts during the week are getting halved.” Sam realized his only chance to keep his salary was to take weekend shifts, so he doubled up on those as he penciled himself in to the sign-up sheet. Still, it felt unfair. The stroke of a pen and his weekend was obliterated. The voice of his boss and someone at least would be out of a job, since the total hours might support two workers but not four. And he thought they had been doing well?

His eyes slid down the counter and to the open door of the office. The computer in there might have answers. Maybe even double sets of numbers. As if sensing his discontent, the boss walked over and pushed the flimsy door shut, locking it.

Indirectly, the lowered hours brought him great fortune. Arlo sold him a fat bag of Canadian weed for a good low price, since he now needed money to hit the clubs and he would not get it from his four-hour shifts. These guys are all screwed, thought Sam, as he walked into the parking lot. He nodded as he passed the boss getting into his car. “Thanks for taking those shifts,” he said.

***

R stoked the fire. “Those are some of the most bum-ass days I’ve heard of it,” he said. “All I had was a short day at work, then wandering around looking for drugs for you guys, and playing guitar.” He showed the calluses on the ends of his fingertips.

He worked at a place that installs solar panels. When he got really stoned, R (his mother called him Ronald, before she passed on from unspoken-of ailments) talked excitedly about solar cells. How they work by allowing photons, which are particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, and these then form a flow of electricity. How much energy is stored in each. But then the moment fades and R is back to his sullen, defiant self, like the rest of them both detesting the time he is in now and fearing them more obligatory adulthood to follow.

“I thought you were studying for your license?” asked Thomas.

“Not today,” said R. He shrugged and Thomas returned the gesture.

Inside the bus, the cheap portable stereo blared on, both more background noise and a focal point which like a string running through random objects, tightens and pulls them together into a story, with each piece revealing the reasons for its presence and the action implicated by its effect on the other objects in the string. As twilight settled on the world, it turned all colors to gray, as if it were revealing the actual lack of interest, sincerity and purpose to it all, Dennis thought.

The bong came around again. Thomas and Sam did a line, then dropped the dust into the bowl and inhaled it with the smoke. A glass of vodka floated from somewhere. “Good stuff,” said R. “Tastes more like rubbing alcohol than diesel. That’s how you know it’s quality.”

“About the same for me,” said Mark. “Went to school, fell asleep in all but two classes, then went to work where I stocked groceries for four hours, then I’m here.” He reached into his backpack and pulled out a bottle of cooking sherry, then added it to the table. He had scored that from a heap of expired goods.

“The best drink is a free drink,” said Dennis, eyeing the bottle. “I’ll tell you mine, but you have to promise not to laugh.”

***

Dennis got schooled at home. This was a condition of his parole, involving an incident with a car going too fast with alcohol, marijuana and underage women in it. He was proud of the arrest, really, and hoped to wipe it from his record at 18 and go on to, like his father, settle into a comfortable business and make an unchallenging life for himself. One night late in the evening, surrounded by the cathedral shapes of the campfire, he had wandered into a lysergic chasm and faced his inner self, and realized what he found was more like the shuffling obedience of his father than the wild maniacs he imagined he socialized with.

First chapter was photosynthesis. Dennis liked this because he found it fascinating how light could fuse together carbon and water molecules to make sugars, the building blocks of all life. The leaves in these trees came from a diet of sugar created by sunlight, rain and the carbon dioxide he and other living things exhaled. He got too into talking about that, because his mother cut him off and changed to a different subject.

His mother, embarrassed as always by her son’s failure to be a responsible citizen like his older brother Randall, made him recite the material he had memorized and then presented him with the least of life’s delights, the pre-printed test from the back of one of his history books. He had an OK grasp of the material, he thought. “Now?”

“It’s a weekly test and I won’t be able to give it tomorrow,” she said.

OK. He gave it his best shot, and felt pretty good about it, but when he came back from the kitchen where he got a soft drink, his mother was shaking her head as she ticked red marks down the page. “This isn’t good enough,” she said. He saw the grade: 61, or a D.

“Can’t you just, uh, give it a little bump?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “If I do that and you go back to school and fail, they will think I acted against the court’s instructions and I could get in trouble. You just were not good enough, Dennis. This will set you back a week before you can get back on track.”

He knew he was supposed to panic. There were a dozen weeks remaining however. “Fine,” he said. He sat there until she gave him something else to do, and when she petered out at about the same time Mrs. Taggart came by with the latest gossip from church, he slipped out the back door.

The court ordered him to stay busy, a state policy being “idle hands do the devil’s work” but not officially so, and this mandated his appearance at a job for life burnouts like himself. The Helping Hand thrift store hired people like Dennis to receive and sort donations, then sell them to well-meaning suburbanites for money that went into a hilarious anti-drug program that Dennis had suffered through, laughing and groaning in equal doses internally as choked his way through interminable days of videos and group activities.

Dennis wanted to get on register. At the register, he could listen to the radio, even if it was just alt-country, and stay away from the dirty back yard where they heaped up the stuff they could not sell before shoveling it all into the dumpsters that would get towed to the county landfill once a week. He asked Maisie, but she said his skills were not up to speed. “You need to be at least as fast as David on the keys,” she said. “You’re just not doing well enough.”

Grumbling a bit, but not too much, he spent his shift unloading stuff from the cars that stopped in the front driveway and sorting it out. He had gotten pretty good at it when Sean his supervisor flagged him down. “You’re not including children’s clothes in the instore pile? Because we can’t use those anymore, new state law.”

“I didn’t hear about that,” said Dennis.

“It’s on a circular in your box,” said Sean. “You know, in the employee area in back. Except I can tell from looking at it that you haven’t checked it for a week.” Sean was a few years older, definitely bigger and stupider, but always seemed to do things that pleased the adults, so he was super and Dennis was… well, gopher. Odd jobs man. A guy you trusted to do only really simple stuff because otherwise he would screw it up.

Dennis shrugged. “Are you sure you’re even cut out for this job?” said Sean. “I mean, asking as a friend, maybe you should be doing something else. Something where you’re able to keep up. I wouldn’t want you to, you know, feel left out.”

Left out. That summarized the sensation well: standing alone in the heap of junk, cast off from the lives of people who had matured past it or died or moved, looking for children’s clothes to cast aside and just knowing that Sean or Maisie would stare at it for ten seconds and find the one set of My First Non-Waterproof Pants or whatever and they would tell him again how he was no good at it. Dennis worked the heap until his shift was over instead, then took his final break to overlap with the passing of the hour, and left over the back fence, his box still stuffed with all the printed notices and neurotic whining these people felt they had to send to everyone even though fully half the staff could barely read.

He sneaked into the lot surrounding the school. Mark was on the roof, smoking a cigarette when he was supposed to be sweeping up the gym, a punishment for a prank involving a firecracker and a toilet several days before. Dennis waved, but Mark did not see him. Dennis as usual experiences the cold shiver of sensation that perhaps here he is not good enough either, or that they know he is either slumming it with them or they are slumming it with him, the nerdly dork who has done many things in life, none of them right. He sighed and walked until he was just about beneath the outer wall of the school.

“Dennis,” came a voice from behind him. He turned. Sean bore down on him with wide strides. “You forgot to clock out,” he said. “Maisie sent me to make sure you weren’t doing anything you’re not supposed to.”

As the lecture went on, Dennis shrugged at Mark on the roof, who by now has taken notice. Mark pitched aside the cigarette, and gestured with his hands: closer to the wall. Dennis backed up so that he and Sean were parallel to the wall, then stepped to his right until his should nearly touched the brick. Unconsciously Sean did the same. Dennis looked up to see Mark inching closer and lining up, then tossing over the water bucket he used to mop the gym. The heavy plastic bucket pitched forward as if ready to soak Sean, then straightened so that its bottom faced downward.

I should warn him, thought Dennis, but something inside him shrugged. Not good enough, Sean. The bucket hit Sean on the top of his head and although only a quarter filled with water, knocked him out cold.

“Give me five and I’ll be out of here,” Mark called on down.

As they went through the woods toward the bus, Mark rubbed his cold hands together. “Sure was good to see a friendly face. You guys are the only ones who understand just about anything. That school is so retarded it thinks it’s a genius, when really it’s a fat blob waving its flippers at the sun.”

***

Inside the bus there was silence. Then: “Heavy,” said Thomas. R agreed, passing over the joint.

“So,” he said. “I lied. I took my commercial license exam today, and I totally failed it. Too much smoking weed, not enough boring book. I took a walk along the river after that, looking for floaters, but as usual this town let me down.”

“Sucks, man,” said Dennis. He punched up the stereo with something new, an old recording by an obscure Finnish death metal band. The energy pulsed through the bus just as the beer, liquor, wine, dope and coke flooded their bloodstreams. But even more, they had finally forgiven each other for the failings each had exhibited that day.

Above them the roof of the bus made small metallic sounds as it gave up the heat of the day. Now that the sunlight had diminished and people could again look toward the sky, the trees emitted a cooling mist and scent of earthy wholeness created from the conversion of water, carbon dioxide and sunlight into sugars. The forest takes in the sun that would kill them if exposed directly to it for too long, the water the rest of the world cannot use, and makes them into new life with the breath of people like these lost boys and angry men in the bus.

The alcohol and drugs converted tension into relaxation, if not hallucination. But as the music gained power, it converted their rage into a love. First of metal itself, then of the world that can produce such music, and finally of truth itself — the truth they find in this music, and imagine must exist outside of it somewhere else — that reduces the lunacy and irrelevance of their days into a nuisance occupying its proper role, like that of ticks and leeches, not the most important thing ever as authority figures want it to be.

As the forest quieted and hallucinogens seeped into their brains the music seemed louder. They were travelers in a world of icy power chord riffs and gurgling roars, temporarily passing through a clearing where a 1950s schoolbus rusted under the ancient trees. Its light spread farther as the light faded from the day. R fell out of the bus first, laughing with intoxication, pulling Mark after him. Thomas leaped out next, then Sam, with Dennis almost piling on top of them.

Soon they were circling in the light cast from the opaque windows of the bush, swinging each other in circles and colliding like atoms transfering electrons, passing energy along in a new form as it escaped the ashen world where all momentum dies.