Serpent Ascending – The Enigma Unsettled (2011)

serpent_ascending_-_the_enigma_unsettled

Showing up on the metal radar somewhere between the third Therion album and the single release that Winterwolf put out, The Enigma Unsettled combines Scandinavian death metal with the more nuanced paces of doom metal and the subtler harmonies of instrumentally adept heavy metal. The result creates an atmosphere like a more listener-friendly version of Darkthrone Goatlord, building rhythmic intensity that it discharges through the unraveling of several threads of melody into a final statement of clarity and purpose. Guitars vary between death metal styled tremolo riffing and heavy metal style percussive offbeat riffs, creating a tension like a feral beast racing over land and through water, but these integrate similar rhythmic purpose and avoid the disintegration of song into component parts. Vocals take the hoarse and chanted approach, sounding like the calls of a demonic entity through a wall of distortion; these are probably the immediately recognizable weakest link. Inventive song structures, familiar riffs in new styles, and a tendency to have all parts of the song relate to each other and through multiple layers at the same time make this a well-sought listening experience for underground metal fans.

Desecresy – The Band of Liquid Evil

Finnish death metal band Desecresy grew in recognition over the past half-decade but still finds itself overshadowed by the obvious Swedish death metal tributes and other shallow pitches to the purchasing sensibilities of information overload numbed fans. This band has more to offer than many realize, crafting death metal in the old school style but with the sparse melody and emotional mood tapestry of a doom metal, even slowly and cautiously introducing some newer influences so that it never loses its old school appear at its core, in its spirit and its intent.

Sounding very much like a submerged horror launching itself on humanity, Desecresy came about in 2009 from the ashes of previous bands. It consists of two members, Tommi Grönqvist and Jarno Nurmi, who somehow produce this massive sound on their own. As a result, Desecresy does not play live but has built an audience by putting out successively improved albums, although which is the best may depend on taste as these are highly idiosyncratic and expressive works. They are also remarkably consistent in that the sound the band forged on its first album continues through its third but not unchanged, only added to and refined, so that it grows organically.

This band successfully evokes the sensation liquid evil rising from the depths through its death-doom attack. Its death metal uses rhythms like those of Bolt Thrower merged with the powerful two-layer riffing of Abhorrence, possibly influenced by early Paradise Lost and the second half of Burzum “Key to the Gate,” with other influences such as Fleshcrawl and Incantation for its dark and doomy passages. Its distinctive technique of melodic lead rhythmic riffing overlaid on dirge power chord riffs makes Desecresy instantly recognizable, and creates an atmosphere more like a doom metal band or traditional heavy metal without the friendlier rock trappings of such band. On top of this float strongly enunciated death vocals that guide the developing feast of riffs and unique song structures.

Arches of Entropy (2010)

desecresy-arches_of_entropy

The first Desecresy album shows the band attacking their sound from the most traditional death metal viewpoint. These songs attack from a mid-paced death metal standpoint, and then build on that with successive riffs that grind against one another in the Bolt Thrower style, leading up to the atmospheric riffing with melodic leads stitched over it like silver linings of clouds. Vocals take a gruff and bassy enunciation of death metal vocals that is difficult to correctly sequence but here the timing is both impeccable and vague, adding an air of mystery. As the technique is new, it sometimes overlaps in memory, causing these songs to seem indistinct, although when listened to separately they stand out. These songs have a groove, but instead of being centered around stretching between offbeat notes, it starts on an offbeat and drifts into cadence, creating a feeling of entering a dream. Of the Desecresy albums, this may be the most idiosyncratic, owing much of its perceived randomness to attempts to stretch this style in ways that most bands would not envision. Its mood evokes early evening on a dry clear night, when the wind murmurs through the leaves and strange noises echo from the surrounding mountains, a noisy organic voice arising amongst them which promises certain doom and, within it, adventure.

The Doom Skeptron (2012)

desecresy-the_doom_skeptron

For its second album, Desecresy attempted to introduce more of a death metal sound as contrasted to the melodic-layered half-grind of the first album. At the same time, the band experimented with making its songs more distinctive and so tried to vary tempo, notes and rhythms radically. The result sounds more like an Immolation album with an Asphyx plus Carnage vibe, in addition to the aforementioned influences. This provides a more energetic album and isolates the melodic doom parts between different sounds, which makes this album an interesting and varied listen like driving through unknown countryside. The intensity of it however lost some of the doom appeal, and this seems to be the least atmospheric of all the albums, but also the most satisfying to those who enjoyed the later years of death metal. The Doom Skeptron carries the intensity of the first into a more confrontational vein, and brings out some of the implicit conflict in these songs in more abrupt collision. Presaging the next album, this work also makes more use of simple melodic patterns to create a sonic backdrop for riff change. If the American influences behind Desecresy make an appearance, it is here that they stand out the clearest and to the greatest impact, although the droning resonance that makes this band appealing to doom metal fans also makes itself known. Best enjoyed on bright days at top volume from a distance.

Chasmic Transcendence (2014)

desecresy-chasmic_transcendence

Most bands decay as the years go on. Not so with Desecresy, who on this album integrate the grinding approach of the first album with more of the doom and black metal influenced atmospheric pieces which now dominate songs instead of relying on a sandwich of death metal to make them pop out. As a result, like Burzum Filosofem, this album induces a mood of suspended disbelief and then sinks further into it, creating like Summoning an environment where melodies seem to extend each other across songs because they are similar in parts but different in end configuration. On Chasmic Transcendence, Desecresy show a more fluid rhythm and more high-speed tremolo death metal riffing to drive it, and also start borrowing patterns from the newer post-metal bands like Cult of Luna, but very carefully adapt these to old school underground metal melodies and riff structures instead of becoming alternative rock like every other band who has tried this. In the Desecresy universe, riffs talk to one another to create and shape a transition between moods like an architect assembling a design, and the result showcases both the resonant emotion from melodic rhythm leads — now focusing more on internal harmony — and combinations of riffs evoking a labyrinthine passage between physical obstacles toward internal learning, like the best of adventures. This album provides excellent listening on nocturnal escapades.

The odd state of metal in 2015 is that many of the best bands are acknowledged by those who can understand them, but this is a small group, so they seem overshadowed by larger bands that appeal to the bread and circuses type. However, Desecresy has been steadily gaining momentum for its elegantly designed and thoughtful music that refuses to sacrifice the raw guts of death metal to make an atmosphere, and as a result portrays the type of desolate conflict that we expect from dystopian literature, but in sonic form with the riffs like serpents taking the form of the things we fear in our dreams and see shadows of in the reality around us, rushing at us from a yet indeterminate future. With this musical power, Desecresy presages the next age of metal, along with other pioneers like Sammath, Blaspherian, Demoncy, Blood Urn, War Master and Kever. The spirit of the old school lives on by refusing to emulate the past, and instead carrying forward its ideas in the abstract with implementations specific to the bands, in this case the fertile imagination and dark prophecy of Desecresy.

Demigod/Necropsy – Unholy Domain (1992)

demigod_necropsy_-_unholy_domain

This collection of Scandinavian metal shows these bands migrating beyond their speed/death roots into death metal and struggling to implement their most ambitious ideas. Demigod launches the split with its “Unholy Domain” demo which displays songs that later made it onto Slumber of Sullen Eyes but with more muted-strum riffing, divided syncopation in placement within tempo, and over-active drumming. Like the early works of Possessed, these twin seven-inch recordings show bands emerging from the older paradigm but not yet able to grasp the full implications of the new. Demigod does so on a structural level, where Necropsy assesses the riffing style more accurately. Together these form a historical document of much interest to those who find the separation of death metal from heavy metal as a pivotal moment in the history of the genre.

Demigod leads off the split with its “Unholy Domain” demo which shows later songs in a more downstroke, muted-strum heavy form that consequently has less fluid tempo changes and as a result, misses somewhat on the dark atmosphere which Slumber of Sullen Eyes created. However, the formation of the songs reveals itself through how these riffs interplay, with the strummed riffs occupying space so that others can take the fore, showing which themes are dominant and which are merely supporting. This reveals Demigod without the pervasive atmosphere of enigmatic doom that defined the later album, but instead shows them as a band striving to place interesting riffs into combinations which brought them together as more than the sum of their parts.

Necropsy, on the other hand, unleash what may be the best recording of the band because it lacks the self-consciousness of later releases. It does not attempt to be hard, but resembles a three-way cross between Morgoth, Powermad and Asphyx, plodding through doomy passages and picking up the rhythm with speed metal riffing before building to a classic death metal melodic confrontation between internal themes. Much of this carries the same murky atmosphere as Darkthrone Goatlord, but with more internally-reflective syncopated riffing in the style of the first Deicide album, albeit slower to fit a mid-paced approach much like early Kreator. This recording shows the creativity of this band achieving a result that is not completely formed, yet shows direction more clearly than the more artificed later versions. Together these two recordings make a compelling view into early death metal.

Terrorizer/Nausea – Split Demos (1991)

terrorizer_nauseau_-_split_demos

For those who did not get a chance to own the original demo tapes, or simply desire them on a newer and more robust medium, this disc consisting of the Terrorizer demo from 1987 and the Nausea demo from the following year reveals the grindcore and punk giants at approximately the time when the classic World Downfall was released. These two bands share personnel, but take radically different approaches: Terrorizer adopts the angular riffing and cadenced percussion of metal, where Nausea keeps the syncopated guitar rhythms and open initial intervals of punk. For those who have heard the Terrorizer release, few surprises await on the demo, which essentially showcases the same tracks in a slightly less focused form with less vocal savagery. However, these songs also have more space to breathe, which makes this demo often a better listening experience than the album, which in the Morbid Angel style concentrates on hard-hitting tight composition and production, at the expense of some of the organic restlessness of the original.

Nausea on the other hand provides simply what every person wishes their punk bands would sound like, much as Slayer did the same for metal. This unruly music spills out of boundaries and transgresses every convention while remaining simple and keeping songs focused around a rhythm and vocal hook that makes them hummable while remaining savage. It sounds more militant than the Euro-punk of the day and more like the Cro-Mags from New York, but like a metal band zeroes in on the changes between riffs to achieve a kind of theatrical-Wagnerian effect, which takes punk from the verse-chorus loop into a kind of presentation that gives depth to its alienation. Full of energy and yet pointed toward a goal that is more personal artistic outrage than ideology, Nausea takes the basic outlook of punk and turns it up while making it more listenable than the spotty, erratic and often haphazard bands of the later punk era, or worse, the “post-hardcore” bands that combined random riffs in carnival music or dinner theater style.

Released as a split demo tape in 1991, these recordings see the light of day again with this 2012 CD re-issue by forces unknown. Sound quality remains good although thankfully the re-issue has not been remastered or had volume fiddled with in any way, which preserves the tone and room sound of these demos. This means the listener must adjust the dial; you suffer (but why?) because this is a better outcome than sterile reproductions which are more convenient but destroy depth of sound. These do not sound like a nostalgia trip, but more a journey inside the inner 17-year-old of every listener that likes intense music that sounds like it came from a garage or backyard party with a message that perhaps few will understand but many will enjoy.

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.

Brett Stevens granted a Honoris Causa title of Doctor of Heavy Metal

honoris_causa_heavy_metal_doctorate

 

There are a few people out there who get it. These individuals, able to see beneath appearance to the structure of reality far more than the average, understand not just what things are but how and why they are what they are. They do this not for the fame or money, since those come to people who weaken meaning in order to benefit appearance that rewards pleasant oblivion, but instead because understanding our world is a fundamental desire that advances us as a species. These are the people who get burned by the angry crowd for “witchcraft” for having discovered new ideas that threaten the order of society as it is, making people look foolish for relying on the old when a better way is available.

Dr. Martin Jacobsen is one of those who looks beneath the surface and discovers, like heavy metal, the difficult questions of reality that humans prefer to bury under waves of social control, pleasant illusion and comfortingly bourgeois products. In the truest spirit of both education and outsider music, he explores that areas where society has said non plus ultra (“go no further”) because they reveal fundamental contradictions in many of the assumptions upon which our civilization relies for its sense of well-being and that it is pointed in the right direction. Unsettling, dark, morbid, nihilistic, feral, atavistic, self-negating and amoral, these spaces confront us with what most of us view as the problem to which society is a solution, namely all that disturbs us about the conditions of life itself. Society offers us salvation from threats and deliverance from want, but also grants us on an existential level a sense of purpose that is more important than the conditions of life which make us doubt ourselves and our purpose. Society sells comfort on a mental level as well as a physical.

Thus it is a great honor to be presented with Doctor of Heavy Metal certification by Dr. Jacobsen, whom I consider one of the highest authorities in the field capable of doing so. As a recognized scholar of metal in this mode, I am able to continue my writing and journey of discovery into this rich genre of music which has rejected both The Establishment and the counter-culture in its pursuit of truth at a lower level than the social categories, feelings and desires with which most of us paper over the disturbing aspects of life. There is not much recognition for those of us who attempt to unearth the real beneath the surreal and yet profitable, but being recognized by others whose work we esteem in this field may be the best of all. Thank you, Dr. Jacobsen, and my wall will wear this with pride, as will my metal soul.

N.B. signature digitally removed for security reasons.

“Selling out” is as real as entropy

metallica_-_their_money_tips_the_scales_again

“Nothing gold can stay,” Robert Frost famously wrote, referring to the tendency of all things in life to break down and become eroded versions of themselves. In addition to the obvious tendency of aging and death, we moderns have become familiar with the term “entropy” for the proliferation of possible options that then then renders choice almost impossible. Underneath all of this a more virulent tendency lurks, which is the human habit of destroying everything we encounter, including — especially — our own best creations.

In heavy metal we think of this through the decline of bands from excellent and striking to a version of what we already know is popular, like the steady unraveling of Metallica from the band that made Ride the Lightning to a country-fried version of Motley Crue or Led Zeppelin. We see it other places as well. For the last two decades, I have relied on a certain British company that makes teapots as a source of reliable gifts. People friggin’ love a quality teapot. But a few weeks ago, the company was sold, and the MBAs moved in and quickly figured out how to add a stylish handle to the teapots and make them of cheaper material and less of it, translating into fragile and less-effective teapots.

This parallels what happens to interesting movies from Highlander to The Bourne Identity which is that after an interesting premiere, the sequels emerge and they are of not only lower quality, but outright stupidity. The decision-making and leadership choices behind these movies are just of a radically lowered degree, such that if the first movie was a genius the followups have the abilities of a moron who works as a bureaucrat. For example, The Bourne Identity gave us a fast-paced and intricate but interesting script which maintained the emotion of a character lost in a world where he has no roots, but the sequel managed to not only hit every Hollywood cliche but present them in a series of improbable scenes which were clearly derived from better versions in the earlier film, all while creating the emotional flatline that is the result of cardboard characters and nonsensical motivations. We might even target Star Wars which, after an initial foray which mixed humor, sci-fi, religion and a classic quest narrative, dove into the edgy but pointless followup and then threw in the towel and headed for the gift shop and standard Hollywood dreck with the third.

It would be nice to be able to blame Hollywood, whether of the movie or music industry variety, but the grim truth is that this pattern shows up in more than teapots and speed metal. It appears anywhere humans attempt to organize themselves. The large tech companies who were visionaries and rebels a generation ago are now stodgy corporates, albeit with the appearance of being insightful and life-positive, whose products are designed to manipulate us to buy more of their high-margin offerings. Even the most necrotic of underground metal bands fall prey to this syndrome, but for miniscule amounts of money and fame, suggesting that the classic narrative of “selling out” — changing your sound to be more like Motley Crue or Led Zeppelin, both rock/metal hybrids that allow people to purchase edginess of metal within the familiar and non-threatening music of the herd, like jeans or Jack Daniels or other “extreme” products that in fact reflect extreme conformity — is incorrect and money and fame in itself do not explain the motivation for this choice.

Considering the nature of this problem as universal or nearly so, it makes sense to analyze it at a level lower than the reward itself, and instead to look at motivations. People are fundamentally social creatures; we are pack animals, allegedly at a higher level of evolution than the apes but retaining their most fundamental behaviors (and if you disagree, I’ll hurl a turd at you while beating on my chest and howling). We motivate each other with social guilt and shame, but that is only the stick; the carrot is that we offer inclusion to others who do things that please us, and create “heroes” out of those who do what many of us find appealing. This is the underlying mechanism of the sell-out, which is not so much profitable — since it exists as attempt without certainty of reward — as it is sociable.

When Metallica switch from “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to “Nothing Else Matters,” they are offering a simplified version of their edgy sound that more people can understand. This gives everyone the warm fuzzies, since it offers peace through pacification of others, and makes Metallica appear more altruistic and friendly. It also retains the surface appearance of extremity, which lets ordinary conformists play the charade of extraordinary (and possibly visionary) non-conformist without any risk to themselves, since what they are actually doing is buying a product which is just another flavor of the same ordinary rock everyone else litens to. Selling out is offering a product that is designed to please more people by giving to them what they already think they want, and by not challenging them, allows them to confirm their status as having valuable lives without raising the bar and forcing them to exceed their normal, self-interested and self-referential or narcissistic behavior. When you see something good go bad, it is almost always the result of this phenomenon, which consists of self-interested producers expanding their market by lowering the different-ness of their product, and in turn allowing the social group to feel pleasant illusions about its togetherness.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

tinker_tailor_soldier_spy_movie_poster

Compared to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy most films appear to simply be extended commercials with music videos for the emotional parts. Telling the story of Soviet infiltration of the British secret services through an interlocking series of clues, this film takes the approach that Agatha Christie might use for one of her cerebral murder cases and applies it instead to international espionage. It will never outsell The Avengers because in this film, every detail is part of the mechanism that builds up to an intense finale for its ultimate revelation. Even more damning, themes in this movie illustrate human narcissism, how the West was destroyed by the same individualistic self-interest that made it strong, and the importance of honor, loyalty and truthfulness.

Gary Oldman stars as John le Carré’s character George Smiley, modulated from the outsider nerd in the book to a methodical and highly analytical man who finds much of society around him to be short-sighted and erroneous. Like the best characters from literature, he endures civilization as it is but upholds it as it is at its best, creating a worldview that would approve of the mythological analysis of the human soul as found in Slayer lyrics or the darker days of grindcore. Exiled from his position at MI6 because of his refusal to endorse a new and magical source of Soviet secrets, and passed over by those who built careers on it, Smiley hunts for a “mole” or double-agent who is compromising British intelligence whenever it tries to operate in enemy territory. Unlike those who have taken over his former role, he searches through the type of logical analysis and study of the relationship between details that made sleuths like Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, the Continental Op, Phillip Marlowe and Miss Jane Marple legends in their field.

Sadly for most modern audiences, this film requires attention. No detail is spurious and every scene follows from the systematic and interlocking pursuit of details. In addition, the filmmakers layer that story with parallel themes of love and loss, loyalty and motivation, and strength of character versus the tendency to appeal to pleasant but erroneous notions that receive the aplomb of journalists, politicians and the faceless voting masses. While its logicality deserves praise, the emotionality of this film in bringing out the loneliness of its characters and the equal isolation of the struggle for truth, as not a motivator but a shaper and revelation of personality, enhances a solid story into an epic one. The acting is brilliant without being self-absorbed — no one in this film looks like they are acting, or resembles other characters they have played in other films — and the soundtrack is minimal and on point, the cinematography both bleak and elegant, and the directing and editing show a perfect sense of timing that both preserves atmosphere and cuts out anything but the powerful. Of the films made in the 2010s, this will either be the best or in the top three, because movies this intense rarely come along at a rate of more than a handful per generation.

Taco Bell Diablo Sauce

taco_bell_diablo_sauce_666

Those of us who survive in the concrete jungle or the suburban desert live as we must, which often means foraging within the realms of junk food. This in turn means, because too much of junkfood is merely a conduit to “the beetus” or other early death, to have strong preferences for some junk food over other types. Many of us remain enthusiastic fans of Taco Bell because, despite the high salt content and imminent violent defecation, it remains relatively simple, unsullied and realistically-priced compared to the over-sugared varieties of junk food found at the burger joints. It also eschews the pomposity of “down home goodness” and “hippie health food wisdom” which mark, even in small doses, places like Chipotle and In-N-Out.

As part of its ill-advised campaign to be “more competitive,” which is scurrilous nonsense since it has already captured its self-selected target audience of drunks, college students, scat fetishists and budget-conscious consumers, Taco Bell has made tentative stepts toward expanding its menu to include more varied tastes. As a long time observer, I believe this contradicts business wisdom which would be to instead serve its existing constituency such that it expands, instead of trying to capture audiences from other businesses who are more adapted to what those groups expect. However, it has in addition to some hilarious missteps — the soggy Doritos-in-a-burrito was more than gastronomically dismal — this has brought a number of useful experiments, including the new Diablo sauce. From the beginning, this product faces a steady climb because those who really like hot sauce enough for it to be essential with a fast food meal probably have their preferred poison on hand, but it also may gain an audience of those heading past the sauce counter for some slightly new experiences. Much like the market for spicy sauces sold separately, it navigates a fine line between over-processed and sweetened sauces, and perennial favorites like Tabasco which balance spice with flavor such that one tastes more than spice or the sugar, aromatic spices and fruit extracts added to soften the blow or at least give it an ironic, contrarian or contradictory identity (“it’s a hot sauce, but unlike the others, it has fruits and flowers”).

The first taste of Diablo Sauce, as warned by our local Taco Bell proprietor, is of intense spice. A glance at the ingredients shows that it picks up from where Fire Sauce left off but uses a more intense pepper base, feeling like simultaneously more black pepper and a habanero or more concentrated jalapeno-serrano mix. The result, while warming and very useful to pick up the intensity, falls short on the spice-flavor balance: unlike Tabasco, it is more hot than flavorful and, while it avoids the odious boutique spice flavors that insist mixing mango and cloves with Scottish bonnet peppers somehow makes a “new” taste, it also fails to bring with it the optimized mix of flavors that fire sauce does. Perhaps this means that Taco Bell caved to the extremists — who might be conveniently visualized as drunk bearded men with bandoliers full of specially-bred spicy peppers — and forsook its commonplace wisdom as to what its audience desires, which can be summarized as “spicy Southwestern” since Taco Bell borrows more from Tex-Mex than Mex and more from California Tex-Mex than Tex-Tex-Mex.

The question always presented itself as to whether Taco Bell would make a more spicy Fire Sauce, or a spicy sauce, and the sense I get is that they aimed for the latter while guarding their flank with some inclusion of the former, which runs a risk of pleasing neither group. I suggest they defer to interface: mild, medium and fire are variants on the same flavor, and Diablo should be too on that basis, with the possibility of simply adding a “habanero sauce” (or equivalent, since a concentrated jalapeno-serrano or jalapeno-japones mix will achieve the same result) as an addition to the Diablo sauce. Perhaps this was the intent, since of the eight of us eating the three who appreciate spicy food the most ended up using a 2:1 mix of Fire:Diablo sauces to great effect. In any case, it was a joy to experiment with this new flavor and, while it may not be the end-all for spice fetishists, for those who have the time to mix it in with other sauces it makes for a powerful addition to the Taco Bell palette.

Blaspherian – Allegiance to the Will of Damnation

While most of the world has gone nuts trying to make black metal into a blasphemous yet trendy extreme, Blaspherian go back to the roots of the death metal genre. Allegiance to the Will of Damnation uses the simple riffs in complex formulations that made bands like Morpheus Descends and Asphyx favorites among the old school.

Nodding to the American punk tradition, Blaspherian also employ a number of one- and two-chord rhythm riffs that ride an unsyncopated rhythm into bounding, pummeling heaviness. Vocals resemble the occult rantings of Sadistic Intent or Resuscitator, and song pacing calls to mind the spirit of the aforementioned Asphyx. At its heavier moments, this EP will appeal to those who enjoyed early Obituary or Infester.

While it does not work to distinguish itself in style, this music gains a voice of its own by how it combines the artifacts of the past and finds a new voice for them within that style. This expression, while somewhat chaotic as first releases always are, surges forth with a voice of its own despite keeping itself firmly anchored in the old school tradition. In that, it succeeds where others have gone nuts over style and forgotten substance.