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.

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On Appreciating Music and Reverse Engineering

04 Apr 2012, Athens, Greece --- April 4, 2012 - Athens, Greece - The famous ''Antikythera Mechanism'' is the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator.The ''Antikythera Shipwreck'' exhibition takes place at National Archaeological museum in Athens. All antiquities recovered in 1900-1901 and 1976 from the legendary shipwreck off the islet of Antikythera, South of the Peloponnese will be presented for the first time in a temporary exhibition. The recovery of the shipwreck itself was the first major underwater archaeological expedition. It was undertaken by sponge divers with the assistance of the Greek Royal navy(1900-1901). The wreck is dated aproximately in 60-50 BC. (Credit Image: © Aristidis Vafeiadakis) --- Image by © Aristidis Vafeiadakis/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Music analysis and judgement (of any of its attributes or as a whole) can be done from different vantage points and with different emphases. Generally speaking, there are a few main approaches that are common in pop and metal reviews. Some judge it by its production qualities and its popularity, that is, mainly as a marketable commercial product. Others that are inclined to “feeling” the music will base their reviews on technically uninformed emotional impressions of the music. Others with a limited but comprehensive understanding of the technical will judge music as if it were a contraption, even being able to separate emotional impressions from material achievements of music. These are broad categories but individual reviewers usually fall in grey areas in between them with stronger tendencies towards one or another.

DMU’s approach has traditionally been one of judging music as romantic-era (19th century) literary and music critics would: an attention to evocative results as a function of technical means with a holistic emphasis. What this means is that what is most important is the final and total result and not the individual merits.  Additionally, we focus on the lasting evocative power arising from a layered and technically (at the composition level) competent work that moves beyond the technicality itself while not disregarding the musical balance it provides. In music we see the construction of Gothic cathedrals and not modern skyscrapers.

A useful analogy can be made between detailed music appreciation and reverse engineering in software engineering. Some might jump at the thought of comparing the two since “music is not a computer program” but these are nonsensically reductionist complaints. Anyone who truly understands how an analogy works knows that the source of its power arises from the insurmountable distance between the two obviously disparate objects being placed beside each other. The distance and disparity only serves to bring to the fore and underscore the characteristics we are interested in, achieving greater clarity by a negation of the irrelevant. The objects are not equated, they are superimposed. More precisely the main object under analysis is transposed into the space of the second one being used as an analogy.

To understand reverse engineering we must understand the order and direction of original construction. A vague idea is conceived usually behind a foggy screen since the builders have not yet figured out the details of how they will bring this into reality. Then, a step a time and usually with deviations from the original concept, the “material” shape of the concept comes into being. At the other end, when we are presented with a piece of software to reverse engineer, that is to say, to analyze and understand in terms of its parts, what we can see is the materialized concept only. The first step is to understand what this piece of software exactly does as we do not know how it was built. We get to understand what it does by categorizing input and output relations, which direct us towards an understanding its behavior in different situations — different contexts. The result of  a successfully reverse-engineered software program is a piece of code whose compiled object behaves the same as the original one in every conceivable way possible. This code is most probably different from the original one, but this is irrelevant since the importance of this code is the understanding and reproducing of the final piece of software. Original software building moves from details and into the solidification of a vision. Reverse engineering moves from the solidified vision and into the details.

In other words, what matters most is the total end result (as in music or software engineering) and not the judging of parts for their own sake (but only in relation as to how they affect that end result). This is why it is important as an analyst to move in a backward manner. But for this to be valuable, the person must understand this holistic result first, and this is only achieved through study and knowledge. This is comparable to the analyst of software who needs to not only see the input and output relations but understand higher-level concepts and probabilistic tendencies derivable from those. In the same way the analyst of music must through his own lenses and knowledge grasp a picture of the whole in its relations between harmony, rhythm and melody derive a map of sequences of movements and balances.

Going from the general to the specific enables us to keep a holistic view in focus. It helps us place the sum of the parts over the individual parts themselves. Trying to pick out the traits first and then judging the whole by making a recapitulation of these is not only obfuscating the whole which some with a more limited understanding judge to be impossible to put in objective terms but can be deceiving of just what the true quality of this work actually is.

To illustrate this point we can observe how appreciation of many so-called progressive acts is carried out. The positive reviews of these usually entail a shopping list of traits to be filled. Tempo changes, signature changes, contrasting moods, variety of instrumentation, instrumental competence, catchy and captivating melodies perhaps, too. An album like Dream Theater’s Images and Words fits these requirements to the letter and yet the result is a messy carnival train wreck that expresses nothing in particular precisely because there is no view of the whole in mind as a musically-balanced entity, but only as a sequence of cool moments.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh3c0eys-8o

This phenomenon can also occur through ignorance of what music constitutes. This happens in pop and the so-called symphonic metal, which I will re-baptize with a more honest name: metal-like pop, or just metal pop. In this vein, an album like Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful is received by its fans and judged primarily in terms of how catchy it is. How effective its hooks are and how much they will like its melodies. Arguably a more musically honest affair than the pseudo prog of Dream Theater, this reduces music to only one of its many aspects and judges the whole by its effectiveness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewd0z6fJbR4

Finally, I would like to mention the often mis-appreciated Obscura by Gorguts. Ignorant and pretentious journalist twats like Anthony Fantano spewing almost nonsensical and musically irrelevant descriptions such as “intense technicality”, “noisy surprises” and “dizzying structures” of Gorguts’ music in Coloured Sands represent the epitome of the post-modernist hipster’s appreciation of the band’s music. While popular arguments in favor of Obscura include how “technical” it is (while most fans barely even grasp what this actually entails, they think it has to do with how difficult it is to play or hear), how foreboding its atmosphere is while remaining “brutal” (an obviously superficial judgement of quality) or even worse, how “original” (by which they mean different) it is. They’ve basically reduced a masterpiece to “difficult to play and listen to, brutal and quite different from most stuff out there”.

The merits of Obscura are far more subtle than that, as are any real merits resulting from true excellence. The degree to which it sounds superficially different comes from a use of the riff that I would call mystical. That is to say, the riffs and their harmony here no longer represent what they traditionally do, but they remain significant in terms of the operations they build in the context of their neighboring riffs. They stop being translucent symbols that show the way into a harmonic and melodic conclusion and they become opaque, acquiring new meaning — a specific musical function dictated by their author– determined by their positions at different moments that instead causes the mind to reach that conclusion on its own through coherent indirection and dissimilitude of expression within a consistent language. In this, Obscura is the death metal counterpart to Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXpnR695uj4

Stepping away from the dynamic picture that music is and listening for the total results and relations in the big picture enable us to know exactly what to look for as explanations for these. In a way it implies focusing on an interplay between the subjective (our impressions of the whole) and the objective (the music structures themselves) to locate music — itself an expression of beauty, to which the dichotomy of objective and subjective is inapplicable — somewhere in between.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Q3LeWKYyCQ

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A tentative list to get into death metal

TheSoundofDeathMetal

Getting into underground metal styles has never been a straightforward thing for anyone. The exception might be the Cannibal Corpse crowd that approach this music as fix for a certain mood, but see little beyond the most sensual appeal of the music. For those actually trying to appreciate the music anywhere beyond the surface either in a technical manner, it’s significance or the experience it provides beyond simple monochromatic sensual indulgence, the path consists of several steps in not one path but a multitude of paths that conform to the singular state and journey of each listener.

The present list does not attempt to give a template that will fit all as that is impossible. It is simplistic in its attempt to generalize and exemplify. The most important starting assumption is that the listener is at least fond of traditional heavy metal or hard rock in the worse case. I tried to avoid using of overtly offensive gateway bands like Craddle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir or Arch Enemy but these should not be completely discarded as possibilities to enable a smooth and pleasant transition into death and black metal.

For this example of a road map towards understanding and appreciation of death metal I have distinguished five different steps with suitable albums as follows:

I. Easy-going quasi death metal

  1. Carcass – Heartwork
  2. Entombed – Left Hand Path

II. Welcoming and easy-to-understand simple death metal that is only complex on a local level and so can inspire a sense of technical wonder in the listener while maintaining mood.

  1. Death – Spiritual Healing
  2. Adramelech – Psychostasia
  3. Demigod – Slumber of Sullen Eyes

III. Excellent, but mostly on a technical level, with raw power and refinement in style, solid and well-produced albums that do not transcend their technical aspects

  1. Morbid Angel – Covenant
  2. Cryptopsy – None so Vile 
  3. Vader – Litany 

IV. Authentic, representative of the core of the death metal spirit while being original

  1. Demilich – Nespithe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjutXYAwc_0
  2. Deicide – Legion
  3. Suffocation – Effigy of the Forgotten

V. Completely past appearances and technical infatuation, almost on the spiritual level of true and good black metal

  1. At the Gates – The Red in the Sky is Ours
  2. Immolation – Unholy Cult
  3. Gorguts – Obscura

 

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Trey’s and Mike’s best: the Abominations of Desolation

ma86

Conceived in rehearsals between 1984 and 1985, Abominations of Desolation was completed and recorded by 1986, showcasing the most concentrated and solid (in composition) release either Trey Azagthoth or Mike Browning have put out until now (or likely to ever release, for that matter). I hesitate to use the word refined here as that would imply a correcting of minute details at every level, which this album obviously does not posses. The next three albums make use of this material and refine it in different ways and distinct directions, filling out the rest of the albums with some good ideas and mostly filler.

On Altars of Madness, the most significant changes to the music besides the studio production (including tone and what no) and vocals were to tempo. The composition of the songs themselves remained the same.  Basically they were played much faster and the drumming was made more “tight”. The new songs that were not taken from Abominations of Desolation were essentially inferior filler, although the songs were not necessarily bad, just not as good as the earlier material. There are two things to be said regarding the tempo changes. On the one hand, Altars of Madness is mandatory study material for any true fan of the genre and even more so for the aspiring death metal musician because it is a textbook example of excellent technical accomplishment of flexible death metal compositions. On the other hand, accelerating so much destroyed the original character of the songs which no longer sounded mystically infused with darkness but rather comically colorful. The tempo also obfuscated the structural features rather than highlighting and exploiting them, lending a flatter and more pop-oriented sound that emphasized hooks in the middle of a maelstrom of madness.

In 1991, Morbid Angel released Blessed are the Sick, which sees the band attempting to regain the spirit they lost in Altars of Madness in search of a more professionally competitive tone and production. The early songs used in this album were not as distorted, retaining their original aura, but they were re-recorded with very soft and mellow guitar and drum sound. The new songs composed for the album also matched the dense atmosphere and dynamics of the older songs. A concept orientation was adopted and the result was the artistic peak of Morbid Angel, presenting the highest refinement of the material in balance with a whole-work oriented album rather than a simple collection of songs. Here we find the best of Azagthoth’s collaboration with Browning meeting the best of Morbid Angel’s later work.  While Altars of Madness came out as slightly comical, Abominations of Desolation seemed dark and serious about its occult nature and Blessed are the Sick made a serious attempt at recovering that.

Then came Covenant, the last album to use seminal material from Abominations of Desolation. This album is a strong attempt at bringing the best from the two previous albums, it is Morbid Angel attempting to summarize, solidify  their voice, carving a new path after having released their magnum opus. This is always the most difficult album in a classic band’s career. It often results in an emphasizing of technical aspects while the band tries to discover how they can continue after they have achieved greatness.  The result is often undeniably outstanding material that lacks spirit. It happened to Yes after Close to the Edge,  the greatest and most ambitious organic expression of who they were. Becoming self-referential in Tales from Topographic Oceans and then, not knowing where to go artistically, Yes used the best of their technical abilities to produce their technical highlight: RelayerCovenant is Morbid Angel’s Relayer.

I am tempted to say that the best work these two artists ever did was together. It is a pity that personal problems had to come between them. Same sad story of Celtic Frost’s, who also never reached its early heights after the dynamic duo at its center separated. It is hard to tell how each of these artists complement each other, but judging from their projects away from each other we can observe that without Browning, Azagthoth becomes streamlined and even sterile, while without the latter Browning indulges in an adventurous music full of life that is unfortunately musically crippled by a lack of discipline and organization. Perhaps this is also related to a merely technical appreciation of Mozart by Azagthoth and the excited yet musically uninformed admiration of Rush on Browning’s side.

Complaining about the production and tone in Abominations of Desolation and overlooking the whole composition is like missing a great book of classic literature because you do not like the cover and the font in which it is written. You can complain about the font, but the font is not the organized information that literature is. So it is that production values do not make up what music is, only a medium. This does not mean that we should not criticize this, but it seems to me that it is over the top and superficial to say that, for instance, Altars of Madness is superior because the tone and production is better there. In fact, since the best songs in that “first” album are taken from Abominations of Desolation, and the rest are second-rate filler in comparison, I would say that in terms of content this early output is the best release to ever come out under the name of Morbid Angel.

The extent to which the artist’s belief in what he says and does, and how much he is actually familiar and imbued with the material, affects the final result of the music. While the young band fervently believed in the Ancients and the Arabic magic spells referenced in their lyrics, the more “mature” band only held on to these in a more tongue-in-cheek, ironic or perhaps metaphorical sense. Abominations of Desolation concentrates and summarizes all the power Morbid Angel had to give at that point which unfortunately only dissipated in future releases. This 1986 release, and no other, is the embodiment of what Morbid Angel is.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9G-NAKOg6E

 

 

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Raping of Sacred Assholes: Nocturnus – The Key (1990)

thekey

A cult classic of death metal, Nocturnus’ The Key often elicits outwardly moderate yet intense praise from connoisseurs of the genre. Reading online reviews and commentaries on the album one realizes that these praises are based on a three points. The first is the prominent use of keyboards throughout the album, then there is the ubiquitous, ripping guitar solos and last, its supposed resemblance to Morbid Angel, which is mainly based on the fact that Mike Browning took charge of the vocals on Nocturnus but also on the so-called thrash/speed-death amalgam this style is supposed to be. Let’s shoot each of these down one at a time.

The much-mentioned “pioneering” death metal with keyboards is an example of how too much of the metal critique is bent on praising novelty. Not only is the use of keyboards in the album amateur but it is often gimmicky, half of the time being out of place, the other half being completely extra and unnecessary — not strongly integrated into the music except in a very few places (“Neolithic” has a gesture in the solo section that shows promise). There are very good reasons why you do not hear keyboards often in death metal, and it goes beyond the fact that most death metal musicians are not learned enough to integrate them and would rather just make “pummeling and brutal riffs”. Style has to accommodate instrument choice. As it stands, The Key only crams keyboards wherever it can, but it is little more than a gimmick. Overall, a metalhead should look up to In the Nightside Eclipse for a better example of keyboards in underground metal.

On to the much lauded guitar solos in this album. What can I say? Besides being mindlessly infantile and trivial in their transparent scale runs, the solos throughout this album are, like the keyboard sections, often out of place and come off as being only superimposed on top of the rest of the music rather than composed within it. On their own and apart from the discussion on whether they fit into the music or not, it is not the messiness of the solos but their complete lack of character that would give one a good reason to ditch them and never think about them again.

Regarding Nocturnus sounding like a “Morbid Angel on steroids” or “an improved version of Morbid Angel”, we can say it comes from extremely superficial comparisons and a complete lack of discernment concerning composition quality. While Nocturnus perfectly exemplifies the brand of speed metal that wants to be death metal but is not quite there yet, early Morbid Angel was known as “death-thrash” only as a result of the audience’s ignorance. In this respect and given that The Key was released in 1990, when death metal had already solidified as a genre, we can say Nocturnus’ music is retrograde gimmick.  The distinction between the death metal of Morbid Angel and the harsh, late-speed metal of Nocturnus lies in the phrase construction of the first that becomes the central development of the music, while the latter produces riffs to carry the voice that end in hooks. Death metal is progressive-symphonic phrasal music, speed metal is still heavy metal of a pop nature. Rather than compare them to Morbid Angel it would be more fitting to compare them to that other famous retrograde and gimmicky act called Death.

All in all, The Key still captures the imagination despite its amateur character and its great faults. I believe the reason for this is that in spite of its immature musical notions, its concept is very clear and this comes through in a very strong manner, outshining the blunders it houses. For the sake of metal, its future and the education of the audience, it is important to give albums like this their correct place. This is enjoyable and fun in much the same way that Sharknado is. You know it is silly, you know its appeal comes from its exaggerations and awkwardness, but a focused awkwardness with a clear idea in mind.


 

Masturbate on the throne of god
Crucifixion of a thousand saints
Stakes are mounted with the heads of angels
Nocturnal spells are casted,
Heaven begins to bleed

–Havohej

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National Day of Slayer

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01:  Photo of SLAYER  (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

UNITED STATES – JANUARY 01: Photo of SLAYER (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

The International Day of Slayer (IDOS) began in 2006 when a group of Slayer fans decided to commemorate the spirit of metal through Slayer, and to make that compete with other ad hoc and natural cultures, groups and tribes demanding attention in our modern plural society. In their view, each group was claiming social real estate by advocating itself as a cause, and metalheads should do the same through the band that defined what it was to be metal: beyond all rules, too intense for normals, combining both hard literal truths and mythological apocalypticism.

“The original idea of the National Day of Slayer, as it was called back then, was to address the ‘National Day of Prayer’ that was popular among Christians,” said Dag Hansen, publicist for the group. “If they get their day, we get our day. Every other group gets a holiday for their religion, history, ethnic group, or culture. The Irish have St. Patty’s Day, there are days for the birth of Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ, and it seems that every other possible group is declaring unofficial holidays for its cause. It is time metalheads do the same. Firmly, loudly and with the horns thrown high.”

The first National Day of Slayer was marked by loud celebrations, church desecrations, and much blasting of Slayer. In the intervening years, the band have nodded to the holiday by releasing videos and statements commemorating the event. With the death of Slayer founder and guitarist Jeff Hanneman in 2013, the holiday has taken on a sense of preservation of his memory through keeping an active legacy alive. “Hanneman lives through his music, especially the founding years of Slayer from 1983-1991,” said Hansen. “Our goal is to ensure that appreciation and enjoyment of his music is renewed, preferably at 110db.”

This year, fans are encouraged to celebrate Slayer through a year-by-year retrospective of Slayer during its most formative period, and MP3 downloads of live Slayer recordings from 1985. The organizers have created an event page for people to comment on their own participation. But mainly, as the site has encouraged for nearly a decade now, “Listen to Slayer at full blast in any public place you prefer.”

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Early Music for Metalheads Part 2: Organum

42-17214683
The influence of classical Greek thought was present in most aspects of intellectual life in the middle ages. Aristotelian thought is central to the works of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the best known theologian of the era and neoplatonism was influential on those theologians of a more mystical inclination. In the musical world, the basis of medieval music theory – the Church modes – was derived directly from the medieval understanding of Greek musical theory. This musical theory had its origins in the Pythagorean school. Pythagoras was the first westerner to record the mathematical relationships between pitches and used these relationships to derive musical modes. Related to this was the idea, also attributed to Pythagoras, of the music of the spheres, the concept that the proportions of the movements of celestial bodies create an inaudible music that is superior to any form of audible music. Implied in this idea is the belief that audible music should microcosmically re-create this celestial music.

 

Medieval music theorists did not interpret this Pythagorean conception of music as a mere metaphor. There existed a consensus that certain musical intervals were superior to others by virtue of their simpler and therefore more universal harmonic ratios. As a result the earliest examples of organum in medieval music involved the doubling of a chant melody at a consonant interval (1). Over time this practice evolved organically, with the added voice being granted greater independence from the original melody. Eventually organum evolved into a practice where the notes of the chant melody were extended into lengthy drones while the added voice sung extended composed melismas. This practice was known as florid organum.

 

This example shows an earlier form of organum with the added voice having some independence, however parallel consonsances still form a significant component of the musical texture.

 

This next example comes from the St. Martial of Limoges school of composition which produced a large number of works in the 12th century. This piece is not based on a chant melody and is therefore not an organum but rather a conductus. This shows the trend towards more freely composed music.

 

By the latter part of the 12th century the practice of organum was widespead across Europe and numerous theoretical treatises had been produced which shed light on the musical thought of the time. One of these treatises came from an English music student studying in Notre-Dame, Paris, who is known only as Anonymous IV. He wrote at length about the two musical masters working out of Notre-Dame whom he called Leonin and Perotin. If not for Anonymous IV’s treatise the names of these composers would not be known. Together these composers made a number of significant innovations in the composition of organum and other genres which ushered in a new era of musical composition and played a key role in the eventual development of counterpoint and harmony.

 

The older of the two composers of the Notre-Dame school, Leonin, is best known for his organum duplum (organum with one voice added to a chant melody) which employ a form of rhythmic organisation using six rhythmic modes (short rhythmic patterns). Leonin’s younger contemporary, Perotin, was probably the earliest composer to add a third and fourth voice in his organum. He was therefore instrumental in the development of counterpoint of which his music is an early example albeit following different rules to those that governed the counterpoint of later composers. Perotin also utilised the six rhythmic modes although in contrast to Leonin’s free and improvisatory use of these modes Perotin created thematic structures from these rhythmic materials which were developed and varied throughout a piece. Through the use of this and other techniques Perotin composed organum which were an early example of large scale, structured compositions of the kind which became the standard during the common practice period.

 

This example is a somewhat stylised performance of an organum composed by Leonin. The use of rhythmic modes and melismas above a chant melody are made quite clear.

 

And here we have one of Perotin’s two surviving organum quadruplum: Sederunt Principes.

 

 


[1] It may be of interest to note here that this doubling of a melody at a consonant interval is precisely the same technique as playing a melody in power chords rather than single notes since the melodic line is doubled at the fifth.

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On The Underrating of Recognized Classics

chaosHeresy

Two of the most pervasive topics in metal are the “underrating” and the “overrating” of a band or album. Given that most people are prone to confuse their emotional attachment to music with a sign of its quality, most of these claims are specious complaints that reflect the need for acknowledgement from other people as a fan more than anything else. Claims of “underratement” usually occur in regards to cult bands, and less often, to personal favorites that should be recognized by each fan as a mere guilty pleasure. Statements of “overrating”, then, comprehensibly come about when a disgruntled fan wants to bash any band that does not appeal to him, independently of the reason.

 

However, when leveled as a result of balanced, informed and insightful judgement, these observations become meaningful in that they have solid foundation and a motivation outside selfish emotional need for attention. Contrary to popular opinion, these arguments only need to be based on objective observations but need not be objective in the full sense of the word themselves. The reason for this is that the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity represent a false dichotomy inapplicable in the context of art appreciation. Appreciation rests outside any single preference, it always lies outside the emotional reaction of any one person, but is nonetheless attached to a social group’s set of principles. And principles are a human construct, not tangible, objective reality. In other words, it entails the individual perception through the lenses of convention of objectively observed qualities.

 

Art appreciation can be reduced to the appreciation of beauty. The concept of beauty has always been a complicated one, and like anything complicated, it gets reduced to the absurd by small minds that feel the need to fool themselves into believing they have everything under control. A sense of what is beautiful rests on what is considered to be good taste. The nature of both beauty and taste is neither objective nor subjective. If it were objective, beauty would be a hard, flat fact measurable by scientific instruments, and not the esoteric – perhaps mystical – sign existing completely and individually in meaning, perception and medium but also in the whole of an object, all at the same time. A divine omnia in omnibus, as it were, perceptible to the unconscious but only vaguely grasped by the conscious as an ethereal idea. The duality that implies being human,  having one eye on time and the other on eternity. On the other hand, if it were subjective, it would be completely pointless to talk about beauty or taste, as these would be demoted to euphemisms for what is simply our personal preference.

 

It is therefore, unsurprising that beauty is sometimes linked to the presence of the divine, and therefore of that which is natural, full of meaning and in balance. Again, simplified misconceptions come to distort each of these and in an increasingly individualist society that is just so for the sake of individualism itself, renders them powerless, trapped in small containers as catchwords for egotistical affectations. In other words, beauty has indeed been stripped from its cosmic framework and taste has become personal rather than communal. Both have lost any of the usefulness they had for communication of hermetic meaning.

 

This egotistical individualism is deeply entrenched in group-oriented thinking, paradoxically self-indulging as it is unoriginal and lacking in personal identity. This is to be expected since unthinking compliance to the system goes hand in hand with a deep-rooted cowardice of the mind. So, taking refuge in the rise of science, humanism and tacit nihilism, our brave new world does away with meaning as it has forgotten why man created it in the first place. Our modern society, contemptibly lacking in any courage to face reality and the pressing matters of our times, turns away from an understanding of the transcendent in favor of self-validation.

 

Art and its appreciation suffer first in this headlong plunge into the shadows. The reason for this is that art (artificial) arises entirely from man-given meaning. The greatest art has always had the power to communicate and bring forth an awareness of enduring meaning through individually-perceived universal truths of the human condition. Forsaking the use of any actual meaning in beauty, and consequently in art, music becomes a vulgar tool for individual satisfaction.

 

While quiet deference is directed towards names like Yes, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Bathory or Morbid Angel, my experience tells me that most fans who hold these bands in some kind of respect do not understand half of the reasons why these bands are great. The case of directly disrespected and underrated but equally excellent art like that of selected works of Burzum or early At the Gates is a different although related matter into which I will not go here. In the meantime, let’s turn our attention to canonical works of the metal underground.

 

It seems rather unfortunate that after achieving canonical status in any genre, a classic work is condemned to be defiled in two stages. The first is one in which the cause and effect relationship between being a classic and achieving canonical status is not inverted but flattened, the popular conception of the relationship between the terms being one of equality and interchangeability. Something then happens as a direct consequence of this misunderstanding along with an ignorance of the nature of classical works at several levels. In this second stage the distorted image of what being a canonical work implies is rightly questioned, resulting in an at least partial repudiation of their validity. The term classic is then also demoted into a euphemism for “what many/most people like”. Equating popularity with quality in art is a direct consequence of the loss of meaning discussed earlier.

 

This is why it is important to clarify what is originally meant by classical. It is closest to the condition of being an epitome, except that this latter term is neutral and can signify an accurate representation of the qualities of a group or classification. Classical refers to the highest degree of excellence in regards to quality, which implies distinction, perfect balance and adequacy in a work within its genre. Disquieting as the perversion of this concept is, simple and effective education coupled with the audience’s willingness to let go of their ego would be enough to remedy this situation. As with many things, it is easier said than done.

 

An additional third stage also bears mentioning which can then be appended to the steps in the process of decay in the perception of classic works. After the flattening and disavowal of the aforementioned terms has taken place in the collective mind, a confusion ensues which brings forth the nominating of undeserving artists or works into what used to be a pantheon of the gods. As I see it, there are two main ways in which this happens. The first was already mentioned, very popular works are inserted into the lists by virtue of their popularity itself. The other is the result of the backlash classic works receive from the lack of understanding towards their classic status. The original and true classics are reduced by a narrow-minded audience with a lack of depth perception to a collection of tropes to be imitated. A collateral effect of this in metal is that after a certain amount of time, since the audience cannot understand what a classic actually is, seniority is equated with relevance and quality, and then novelty is equally mistaken for innovation.

 

Without control or awareness, these things happened lightning-fast in progressive rock and metal, accounting for the extremely fast evolution of metal genres running away from the mainstream limelight and into increasingly obscure territories. Giants like King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Genesis were then piled up with second-raters from all over the world. Nowadays it is customary to see Rush, Camel or Jethro Tull mentioned besides the first. Childish and musically wanting works belonging to the catalogues of Schuldiner’s Death and Cannibal Corpse even take precedence over the monumental early Morbid Angel. A closer and more knowledgeable and perceptive look into the qualities of their works reveals an enormous chasm in musical excellence and refinement separates them. They belong to completely different worlds.

 

Metal is encumbered by an additional hindrance: a recurrent appeal to cavemanish foolishness by the audience. This is the belief that as an essentially underground movement, metal is a blue-collar music which needs to be kept rough, dirty, mean and, well, ignorant. It is a combination of something similar to communism’s appeal to the true sense of the young masses and the testosterone posturing of a macho Homer Simpson. This idiotic claim basically consists in the stereotype that metal’s nature resides in young and unlearned spirit which yearns for adventure, rebellion and hedonism.  They do not realize that these are closer to the hippie ideals than to the true metal spirit which actually resides in a warrior’s mysticism that stares reality in the face without losing sight of the transcendent.

 

While metal needs to grow up and continue in its journey towards higher peaks, it must do so through a profound understanding of its roots and thereby a correct appreciation of its own classics and an embracing of its core and true ideals. The mainstream would have metal become a compliant rock music in disguise, an edgy but safe expression of castrated dissent. Absorbing or becoming other genres is not progress, it is only regression or distraction. This must be rejected at all costs and a unique path into the maturity of the genre must take place in a truly forward-looking but conservative manner. Metal has always made its most significant strides in those albums which on the surface seemed orthodox but which brought meaningful innovation at the level of musical thinking, information and communication. It was not the experimentalists who revel in the strange, the unexpected and the new, but the disciplined adherents to the tenets of metal who look for their own voice while keeping the spirit of Vir at the heart of the music who move metal forward.

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Analyze it to Life: Yes – Close to the Edge

close_f

Ok, so, I was listening to the YES album Close to the Edge with my best friend Rick Ossian yesterday, and as is usually the case when we listen together, I started to contemplate its deeper meaning in a new way.

In a 1996 interview, Jon Anderson mentions Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha as an inspiration for this album, so there is a stated philosophical source. Even taking that statement as true, we can see in the lyrical imagery an embrace of other traditions. Acknowledging one source of inspiration does not exclude the possibility of other literary groundings. I’ve long noted Platonic elements in the classic YES albums. One could say that they are usually close to the edge of a greater understanding. Their lyrics often puzzle us, and it may be valid to postulate that the lyrics sometimes serve as way of adding the vocals into the instrumentation as an element of the overall sound. That in itself is Platonic: seeing that the surface can be altered to serve a greater truth, that it need not be only a linguistic item. That said, it is also possible that the lyrics have an allegorical sophistication that works across other traditions.

I will be arguing just this premise: that the lyrical content of Close to the Edge operates on an archetypal level, and that even if the inspiration is drawn from Hesse, YES uses framing and language from multiple traditions to connect to listeners. So, as I was listening with Plato in mind, and as I did so, I understood how it was that the Platonic elements were woven into this album. I had long suspected a Platonic basis, but yesterday, I looked at the lyrics and knew how I knew. Perhaps without meaning to do so (though there are certainly moments where it appears to be deliberate), YES incorporates imagery from the crucifixion narrative into the lyrics of this album. Those familiar elements serve as the nexus between the words and the Platonic underlay. I may never have noticed this if Rick and I had not sought to listen to this album and Analyze It to Life.

I have long held that Calvary is the most profound literary moment in the Western tradition. There are numerous reasons for this, some of which I’ll discuss. I won’t be saying anything new about the crucifixion itself; in fact, this argument rests on the familiarity of the crucifixion narrative. The thrust of this analysis will be about the ways in which crucifixion imagery activates an archetypal approach to the album. I’m arguing that the Platonic and Christian elements (and even Hesse) are parts of the same basic inventory of archetypes. I’m not seeking any outside sources (for the moment, anyway). The album, the King James Bible, and Plato are my sources. I’m not sure if this has been argued elsewhere or not. An occasional nod to Siddhartha may be needed, but this analysis is devoted to elements heretofore not interrogated. It seems very likely that YES has consciously written in multiple viewpoints, though it is possible some of the archetypal elements may have been included unconsciously. Archetypes apply to everyone, and YES may have been governed by them just as the listener is.

Whether or not they meant to activate the subconscious, YES has done so on this album. The lyrics include the words “crucified,” crucifixion,” “cross,” “preacher,” “teacher,” and “nail.” While the importance of the river can surely be tied to Siddhartha, the biblical implications of a river speak for themselves, and Lethe (the River or Forgetfulness) also plays a role at the end (the edge) of Plato’s Republic. In each instance, the river marks the edge of transformation or edification. There also appears to be a relatively clear expression of, in fact sometimes a recapitulation of, the chronology of the biblical narrative itself, and certainly the path to salvation that narrative offers plays a role in the thematic content of this album, for both individual believers and the savior who holds it. So, that chronology will surface as I explicate the references to the crucifixion narrative. Bear in mind that the purpose here is to reveal the album’s Platonic/archetypal underpinnings. The larger constructs of the actual and the ideal, the GOOD, and the glimpse are the archetypes that seem to rise to the top here, and the biblical imagery surely makes references to Siddhartha more easily apprehended for a Western listener as well. The biblical elements are the illocutionary force (suggestion) deployed in the lyrics; the archetypal elements are the perlocutionary force (perception) that makes this album the enduring masterwork that it is.

Here beginneth the lyrical analysis. I’ll take one song at a time, in the order they occur on the album: “Close to the Edge,” “And You and I,” and “Siberian Kathru.” The order is important. This isn’t an exercise in cherry-picking; it’s an enterprise in analyzing it to life.

“Close to the Edge”:

As I mentioned, there seems to be an observance of the chronological order of the crucifixion narrative, and while that sequential similarity exists in more metaphorical ways across the album, it sustains remarkable fidelity in this song. Given the fact that this song constitutes nearly half of the entire album, it is fair to say that the sequential imperative persists into the remainder of the overall work. An important question, naturally, is “Where does that narrative begin?” Drawing from the order of the album, the narrative begins with Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. In fact, the first two verses in the song evoke this.

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace / And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace / Achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar / Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.

The Romans saw John the Baptist as a mentally unstable rabble-rouser, a “seasoned witch” stirring up religious fervor by suggesting that sins needed to be washed away (“call you from the depths of your disgrace / and rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace”). Those who sought purification from him knew that their venal human weaknesses, “the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour,” would ultimately be cleansed by the Messiah John heralded “with music that came quickly from afar.” John the Baptist’s stated purpose is to call sinners to God’s forgiveness, anticipating the deliverer who would purify them beyond his imitative cleansing, as articulated in Matthew 3:11: I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”

This begins both the story of the crucifixion narrative (because it foreshadows the eventual sacrifice on the cross required for the forgiveness John suggests Jesus brings) and the Platonic underlay (John is an imitation of Jesus, who is a tangible form of the Holy Spirit). In a masterful literary move, YES has initiated a multilayered allegory in four verses.

The opening verses are followed by four more verses, then the chorus—which explains where the edge is—then another verse with a direct suggestion of divine intervention remarkably indicative of Numbers 11:9: “And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it.” In fact, there seems to be a reference to the first part of the verse before the chorus and the second part after it (not to mention the use of the work “crucified” immediately after the use of the word “Manna”—our link to a biblical level of allegory),

And assessing points to nowhere leading every single one
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun
And take away the plain in which we move
And choose the course you’re running

Down at the end, round by the corner
(Not right away, not right away)
Close to the edge, down by a river
(Not right away, not right away)

My eyes convinced, eclipsed with the younger moon attained with love
It changed as almost strained amidst clear manna from above
I crucified my hate and held the world within my hand
There’s you, the time, the logic or the reasons we don’t understand

While this is an Old Testament verse, it sustains the idea of divine salvation, and the notion of Manna suggests communion, perhaps hinting at the Last Supper episode of the crucifixion narrative. With the river metaphor evocative of Christ’s baptism interposed as a chorus between the two halves of the verses, and especially the dew (water) and manna (bread) being placed on either side of the chorus, it does seem to echo the verse from Matthew quoted above. Further, the antistrophic “Not right way” in the chorus seems to recapitulate John’s assertion that the true savior’s arrival is imminent: the water washes away the past sins, the bread sustains the future of salvation. From a Platonic perspective, the shadows of human existence are eclipsed by the greater reality of expanded perception as portrayed in Book 7 of the Republic,

Socrates: To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

Glaucon: That is certain.

S: And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

G: Far truer.

S: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

G: True, he now

S: And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

G: Not all in a moment, he said.

S: He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?

G: Certainly.

S: Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

YES captures this in the verse “A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun.” We see the same idea expressed in Matthew 3:16: “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him,” or the heavenly body of the Moon here, the eclipsed moon, that is. After this is the reference to “crucified my hate,” which foreshadows Luke 23:34: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots”: a stunning Platonic juxtaposition of the eternal truth of forgiveness with the temporal human incapacity to recognize the savior for his clothing, or as YES has it “you, the time, the logic or the reasons we don’t understand”: a basic summary of the Platonic argument quoted above.

The next verses of the song evoke a more Platonic than biblical moment. That said, they do seem to include a basic archetypal motif of elevation and increased perception, of the physical and temporal manacles giving way to the apprehension of a greater truth:

Sudden problems take away the startled memory
All in all the journey takes you all the way
As apart from any reality that you’ve ever seen and known

Guessing problems only to deceive the mention
Passing paths that climb halfway into the void
As we cross from side to side, we hear the total mass retain

While these lyrics surely allude to Siddhartha, the also express the general principles of progressive illumination and serve as a reminder of the Platonic/archetypal foundation of the album: a direct rendering of the philosophical inspiration.

The next verses of the song seem to suggest Christ’s resurrection and appearance to Mary and the disciples as articulated in John 20:11-31:

11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, 12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. 13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. 14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. 16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. 17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. 18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her. 19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. 20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. 21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: 23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. 24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. 26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. 27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. 28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. 29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. 30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: 31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

And the YES lyrics,

In her white lace, you could clearly see the lady sadly lookin’
Sayin’ that she’d take the blame
For the crucifixion of her own domain

Two million people barely satisfy
Two hundred women watch one woman cry, too late
The eyes of honesty can achieve

Then according to the man who showed his outstretched arm to space
He turned around and pointed, revealing all the human race
I shook my head and smiled a whisper, knowing all about the place

On the hill we viewed the silence of the valley
Called to witness cycles only of the past
And we reach all this with movements in between the said remark

These lyrics nearly paraphrase the biblical account. The two million people elicits an image of the new faithful, the two hundred women symbolize the two angels, and the lady in white is the immaculately conceived Mary come to take away the body, her crucified domain, and “the man who showed his outstretched arm to space” represents the risen Jesus who instructs Mary and the disciples in how to sustain his legacy.

And You and I

The second song on the album, “And You and I,” also uses imagery from the crucifixion narrative. While the elaboration of this imagery is not as extensive or as sequentially coincident with the crucifixion narrative as “Close to the Edge,” there are several unmistakable correspondences. The first rests in the direct mention of the word “crosses,”

Oh, coins and crosses never know their fruitless worth

This verse evokes Matthew 22:21 “They say unto him, Caesar‘s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar‘s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” This verse rests among the parables, great lessons articulating the differences between the temporal and eternal. Indeed, this passage works on the Platonic level as well. Christ’s message is not one of rebellion. It is a message of higher understanding, and it is delivered in parables, much the same way Socrates (or even Gautama) would do so.

The next applicable lyrics seem again to recapitulate the Christ’s baptism. Whether intentional or not, there seems to be an allegorical expression of Jesus as the preacher and John the Baptist as the “insane teacher.” Further, following from the hint of the Roman Empire’s role in the crucifixion and the subsequent replacement of that Empire with the Church, the lyrics quoted below seem to summarize the overall historical moment under examination.

Sad preacher nailed upon the colored door of time
Insane teacher be there reminded of the rhyme
There’ll be no mutant enemy we shall certify
Political ends, as sad remains, will die
Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you

The “insane teacher” echoes the truth (“reminded of the rhyme”—temporal truth), the “sad preacher” suffers for that same truth (“nailed upon the colored door of time”—eternal truth) and the “political ends, as sad remains” collapse under the weight of the truth (“forward tastes”).

The salvation motif continues in the next verses.

I listened hard but could not see
Life tempo change out and inside me
The preacher trained in all to lose his name
The teacher travels, asking to be shown the same
In the end, we’ll agree, we’ll accept, we’ll immortalize
That the truth of the man maturing in his eyes
All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you

Speaking in first person now, the seeker articulates an emotional crisis: “I listened hard, but could not see/ life tempo change out and inside me.” The then recalls the preacher and teacher, those before him who brought the message, he ultimately unites with them in achieving the goal “in the end, we’ll agree, we’ll accept, we’ll immortalize / that the truth of the man maturing in his eyes / all complete in the sight of seeds of life with you,” an expression of salvation in the Christian sense or of transmigration in the Platonic sense. Interestingly, the lyrics here step beyond a mere retelling of the Platonic or Christian narratives and postulate the ultimate goal of both, of perhaps all philosophy: living a better life. The key to living that better life comes from what Platonists call “the glimpse” or what Christians may call an epiphany. The only way to open the “colored door of time” is if your journey for truth takes you close to the edge.

Siberian Khatru

The final song, “Siberian Khatru,” holds the fewest direct connections to the narratives being examined here. In fact, the final song extends the expression of the goal explained above. In an idealized and compressed expression of the outcome, the lyrics of the final song create a space to unite the disparate traditions under a final archetypal umbrella.

The first allusion refers to the instrument of crucifixion: the nail. However, the lyrics describe the nail in ideal terms and suggest that it is a fastener not of a person to a cross but of people to each other and to a shared vision: “Gold stainless nail / Torn through the distance of man / As they regard the summit.” Echoing the scene at Golgotha, these lyrics idealize the even and suggest that the unity of those who believe look outward toward a greater truth. Then an implication that the release is at hand rests in these lyrics, perhaps channeling the irony that the nail the used in the crucifixion ultimately became the nail that affixed the Romans to history and freed Christians to supplant them: “Cold reigning king / Hold all the secrets from you / As they produce the movement” and “Cold reigning king / Shelter the women that sing / As they produce the movement.”

The song and album then close with a list of images suggesting many traditions, of movements produced and secrets revealed:

Bluetail, tailfly

Luther in time

Suntower asking

Cover, lover

June cast, moon fast

As one changes

Heart gold, leaver

Soul mark, mover

Christian, changer

Called out, saviour

Moon gate, climber

Turn round, glider

Thus, these seemingly disparate approaches to faith have reinterpreted the same basic truth and broken free of their oppressors, much as the Platonic tradition would advance a search for truth over an acceptance of immediate circumstances. Both traditions, as well as the obvious references to nature, Jesus, Protestantism, and probably Buddhism as well, have apprehended the truth beneath the truth, which is that truth is not a static object to be held and adored but a living practice to be embraced and interrogated. As John 8:32 has it, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” As Plato and YES (and Hesse) suggest, knowing the truth results from a profound and unremitting search for glimpses of a greater reality that may be seen if you are close to the edge.

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Can We Judge Experimental Metal?

thequietus

I used to spend a lot of time plagued by the question of whether one can really judge experimental metal. At first glance, this may sound silly, because the tools of music criticism don’t disappear from a little experimentation. You can still ask how derivative it is; what the structure is; if the riffs are any good; and so on. But problems emerge when one realizes that there have been pieces of music throughout history which really defy all convention. I’d put forth Gyorgi Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” as an example which has no melodic or rhythmic content (and in some sense no harmonic motion either).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aI0P1NnUFxc

Many of you are already screaming at your screen: “Atmospheres” makes you feel something. It is highly unsettling and successfully elicits emotions and responses in the listener. The only objective we need in evaluating music that breaks with tradition is if it successfully does what it intends to do or elicits an emotional response from the listener. I agree this is one possibility, but I reject the idea that abstract art has to have some objective or emotional goal to be worth engaging with. Think of beautiful paintings of fruit. Some may feel moved by it, but I think it is a stretch to claim this is where its value lies. Its worth is in the pure aesthetic experience it gives. Often this is beauty, but we could say “Atmospheres” is worth listening to for its coherent new aesthetic experience it provides. In fact, many other works of Ligeti do not have the emotive experience for justification but are all part of his unified aesthetic vision.

I should address whether this question is even worth thinking about. I think it is, because if we don’t have a way to distinguish quality, we’ll find ourselves randomly accepting or rejecting anything that defies convention. I’ve seen both extremes: the art hipster that defends to the death the greatness of a blank white canvas to the pop idolizer whose ears bleed at anything other than a I-IV-V-I progression over a 4/4 rock beat. Neither extreme is good music criticism, because both are ideologies that pre-judge rather than evaluate an album on its own terms. This means we have to give some thought to the question of whether it is even possible to judge music that pushes the boundaries. I’ll admit that basically no metal album, no matter how experimental, will be so extreme that we lack all ability to use traditional criticism. That’s not the point.

I, and most other reviewers, often get lazy and gloss over anything that is difficult to engage with. I find myself reviewing albums as traditionally as possible and only throwing in mention of experimental aspects without much thought. It usually takes the form of the above ideological lines by pointing out the experimental aspects as “original.” This tends to make any experimentation come across as a good thing in my reviews (when I’m being lazy).

One way I like to think of the messiness of experimentation in music is through an analogy to other arts, even though the analogy isn’t perfect or historically accurate. One could say that abstraction techniques in painting arose in part due to an identity crisis. Early paintings were very much about accuracy and representation of the world: portraits, landscapes, still lifes, etc. Probably in part due to the birth of photography (though it started a bit earlier), painters needed to add a human element to be able to justify its purpose. “The Weeping Woman” by Picasso may be a portrait, but it deviates from an accurate depiction of the woman in order to more powerfully portray her emotional state. A perfect picture of the woman couldn’t capture the tragedy and suffering so well. What I’m trying to say is that painters realized they could experiment in order to filter something through a point of view to create a messier, more human art.

Music usually lacks a subject, so in some sense the starting point is closer to abstract expressionism in painting. Strangely, music tends to be more rigid than painting for various reasons usually involving time. If your song is in 4/4, it is very difficult to make something sound messy, because members of a band are locked in an orderly pattern. One way to add a messy, human element is change up the time signature. This gets us to a value judgement. Take a stereotypical progressive metal band, Between the Buried and Me, for example. Often their use of varied time signatures comes across as tidy, carefully planned, and gimmicky. This is an example of bad experimentation, because it doesn’t fulfill its purpose of making something sound original, messy, or unexpected. Say what you will about Behold… the Arctopus, but at least they fulfill their purpose of experimenting with time to disorient the listener.

This brings us back to an earlier point. We can judge the experimentation on whether it fulfills its purpose. Theodor Adorno has probably written and thought about experimentation in music more than any other person. One of my favorite points of criticism from him is his explanation of how terrible it is when the sound of music is in contradiction with its purpose. He uses as an example Joan Baez singing protest music against the Vietnam War. She completely undermines her point about the senseless, incomprehensible violence of war by wrapping the song in a neat, easily digestible pop song. How can making war palatable possibly fulfill the purpose of a song that war is not palatable?

A great example of a metal album in which the sound fulfilled its purpose is At the Gates’ With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness. It isn’t quite experimental in the sense we’ve been discussing, but it serves as an example of metal where the sound reinforces the content (which, let’s be honest, was an important factor in much early death metal). We’ve reverted to easy cases again. Before tackling the hardest cases, I think one easy-to-spot bad thing is what I call an “experimentation poseur.” The album is fairly boring and uninventive, so the band tries to hide this and appeal to a certain crowd by throwing in some experimentation. Not only does this cover-up not work, it is embarrassing, because it is so obvious to an intelligent listener that you are trying to fool them. Something like Buckethead, Iwrestledabearonce, or much that self-identifies as “mathcore” work for examples. Harder cases are Jute Gyte, Psyopus, Behold… the Arctopus, and Cloak of Altering. These bands are uncompromising in their difficulty throughout the whole album. They also appear to have something like a coherent and consistent aesthetic vision which differs vastly from other metal. As proof, give me a new track I’ve never heard from one of those four bands, and I will have no difficulty telling you which one wrote it.

I often hear the complaint that anyone can create an ugly mess of noise with no structure or feeling, reminiscent of the complaint that anyone can drizzle paint on a canvas like Pollack. We’ve already addressed why this is lazy criticism. But it is also intellectually dishonest, because I don’t think anyone but the most skilled musicians could copy these bands. Anyone that thinks they merely “dripped ink onto a staff” and played whatever happened hasn’t really listened to them, and frankly, is so disengaged from honest discussion that their opinions can be dismissed as irrelevant. They sound nothing like Milton Babbitt, for instance, which basically wrote music using a dice roll. This is not to say any of these band’s albums are good. Figuring this out is the point of the discussion: how can we tell? Hopefully those who were skeptical about the question originally can see its relevance now. I must come back to this idea of the pure aesthetic experience. Now I’ll reveal that I stacked the deck with these four choices. I think we can give rough tiers for each of these band’s most recent albums.

Psyopus tends to be absurd for the purpose of being absurd. This means they have a lot of internal inconsistencies in their sound and musical language. One moment they play fast chromatic riffs, the next they glissando up and down, the next they drone with a girl shouting. It tends to be all over the place with the only goal to be different or weird. This is not a high quality aesthetic experience. I’d level the same charge at Cloak of Altering, but a step up. He is a bit more consistent, and I think the album has more worth.

Jute Gyte is much better. His musical syntax is more internally consistent. After a few listens, the album makes sense within its context. It isn’t microtonal for the sake of being different, it’s microtonal because that is a deliberate and consistent aesthetic choice he makes. I’ll reiterate, you may not personally find the experience worthwhile, but it is justifiable as a work of experimental metal. This is the whole point of experimentation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

I know, 90% of you just shit your pants and decided to leave the site forever, because I’m about to say that Behold… the Arctopus is the highest tier of this list. It would take another post as long as this one to make the argument, but the key idea is the same. They have a consistent tonality, sound, style, musical syntax, and so on which creates a coherent aesthetic experience. I have no problem with someone listening to it and saying, “Nope. Still a worthless waste of time,” in the same way that I have no problem with someone looking at a Rothko and saying, “Nope. That’s just rectangles, not worth looking at.” The thing is, art criticism is old enough and mature enough that someone can separate that personal reaction from the idea that Rothko had a legitimate aesthetic program.

Thinking about metal as art is a bit too new. We tend to treat our personal taste and reaction to an album as the final word. All this is to say, I think there are ways to tell the difference between crappy experimental metal which tries to dupe a certain crowd into praising them and legitimate experimental metal which has a concrete aesthetic program being carried out in earnest. It is an important step in treating metal as art to have serious discussions on the worth of various experimental bands, but we can’t do that if we get stuck in the mindset that all the ones we don’t like are equally bad.

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