Tag Archives: rock & metal

Punch, Annie

St VincentPhoto by Dana Distortion (https://www.instagram.com/danadistortion/)

It went down like this: a friend I was going to see in North Carolina happened to mention that Esperanza Spalding was playing in Asheville. I said, Esperanza who? I toggled over to YouTube, and before I knew it the night was old and I was on Amazon, ordering CDs. A few months later, seeing another friend in Baltimore, I played him my favorite track from Emily’s D+Evolution (2016), “Ebony and Ivy.” He noted that her voice, at least on this song, sounded like St Vincent’s. I said, Saint Who? (Cue “ignorance” leitmotif.) He put on “Black Rainbow,” from Actor (2009).*

One thing about friends: they know your taste. They know the chinks in your armor, your Achilles’ heels. They know the things that’ll make your cochlea sit up and beg. I could blame my friend here, either, or both, just as much as I could blame Esperanza, or St Vincent herself; but pretty soon we’d be having a philosophical debate about efficient and final causes, free will and determinism, and so on, rather than talking about music.

If you don’t know “Black Rainbow,” or Actor, or St Vincent, let me describe the first for you, and use it, as it was for me, as a gateway to the other two. The song is built around a single four-minute-long crescendo, but it feels more like a gigantic sucker punch. An innocuous beginning, led, as is so much of St Vincent’s music, by her musing, quietly seductive voice, accompanied by a sort of minstrel troupe of string players, and something that sounds like a carny organ. The troupe is only active when she’s not singing, that is, as commentary; when she is, the organ carries the harmony in a fretting ostinato. The chorus, again like much of St Vincent’s music (and many pop songs besides), comprises two parallel phrases and a tag, the whole repeated once. In hindsight at least, one recognizes it as a harbinger: the voice tumbling forward and pulling back, the tag pitched higher, unresolved. But then the whole song looks forward in this way; the sense of expectation has been building from the first note. New sounds appear, layer: in the second part of the first verse, a peep on every second pulse, tracking between channels before lodging itself in both; a fuzzbox dud on every fourth pulse of the first chorus, every second of the second chorus; something that sounds like a saw (a theremin, perhaps?) follows the melody through both choruses, and then pursues our heroine into the bridge. The minstrels introduce more and more shades of dissonance into their commentary. And all the while, the dynamic level has been rising, almost imperceptibly.

Thus, while the song cycles through a typical verse-chorus-bridge structure, all the other elements ignore it, pursuing their own linear objective. Whatever the garden in which things started, whatever clouds were there to begin with, the day has certainly gotten darker.

The bridge is a small masterpiece of rising tension. Still there is no resolution; the last word, fittingly enough, is “louder.” Had I been interrupted here, I probably would have ended up intrigued, and filed St Vincent away, to come back to at some later date (or not, as so often happens). But oh, that ending, or outro, or whatever. The word “louder” having rung out, the fuzzbox pulse suddenly (and noticeably) steps up in intensity, and the song never looks back. Pounding, ascending absurdly stepwise, the strings getting at once louder and more strident, the bass crunchier, heavier. An analogy I made a few years ago on this blog to try to describe the sound of High on Fire’s early records (see “Arcless,” 12.29.14), particularly Surrounded by Thieves, applies equally well here: that movie of the bridge being shaken apart that so many of us watched (gleefully, it must be said) in our high school science classes. And indeed, while it’s true that metal forms one lens through which I hear all my music, the feint to metal—the reason the sucker punch really connected with me—is hardly out of place: he (my friend) knew what he was doing, though he slunk around the kitchen as though he didn’t, just as much as she (St Vincent) did. To my ear, it sounded like the heavier parts of the bridge of Metallica’s “Phantom Lord,” or “Master of Puppets.” But it wasn’t just the incredibly overdriven sound that grabbed me, or the pounding of it; it was the relentlessness of the repetition, the daring of saying, We’re going to do this for like two fuckin’ minutes, longer than these little songs are supposed to do anything, longer than many pop songs themselves—it’s gonna feel a whole lot longer—and heavier than half my fans might care to hear; and then some, and then some, and then some. It sounded like heavy artillery against pop’s aesthetic logic, in particular that cliché of transposing the chorus up a step at fade-out. Sure, I’ll transpose, just like I’m supposed to; and then I’ll keep transposing, one step at a time, louder instead of softer, until you choke on it. And right when I’d begun asking myself those Burkean-sublime questions—when does it end? does it ever end? were the brownies “special”?—it ends, drops—no fade out—it has to; there’s nowhere else for it to go.

The best musicians, I’ve noticed, have an intuitive grasp of how to manage excess.

My love for St Vincent was born at that moment, the moment, that is, the song relinquished me. Not just because the first half of “Black Rainbow” is quite good in its own right, but because the second half—the black part, as in sabbath, as in fade to—rewrote my expectations about what this particular artist was willing to do with form and sound. When it works, it can make a pinhole in your carefully-groomed generic identity; and, if you fall through it, you find yourself in a wonderful new universe, like one of those sea caves under the ocean floor. All of this is not to say that St Vincent can do no wrong. Rather, because of this initiation, she becomes that rarest of artists: the sort to whom you always gives the benefit of the doubt, in whose darkest clouds you always look for the outline of a (black) rainbow.

*

It’s indicative of the strength of St Vincent’s catalog that I came to this post wanting to write about “The Party,” another song on Actor that I find remarkable, and ended up wanting to write about everything, at least everything I’ve made time to dig (into) so far.

I should begin, as she so often does, with her voice.

It’s a voice that achieves a paradoxical balance between distance and intimacy. Raw, naked, direct; it groans, cracks, gasps, drags; it’s breathy, gravelly, and sometimes sounds so lethargic that the music, with its usually static pulse, feels like the only thing pulling her along: she sings as if she’s just turned over in bed. It’s a voice firmly lodged in the body, like the slurs and smears of a jazzing horn. And yet, particularly as one moves forward from Actor through Strange Mercy (2011) to St Vincent (2014), it’s a voice that seems to be at its most confessional when it’s most produced. A processed intimacy. You can reach out and touch it … and then again you can’t. A voice that seems unable to exist except in extreme close-up, an intimacy that can only exist because of technology. Think those nature programs where the actions of flora and fauna, invisible to the naked eye, are slowed down and magnified. There is a J.G. Ballard story about a scientist who does what those nature cams do with the audio recording of a kiss: to the colleague for whom he plays it, it is unrecognizable, horrific. So the “intimacy” of St Vincent, the seductiveness of her voice, of her music: even as she invites us closer and closer, until we can hear every pore, she remains inaccessible; our contact with her is always mediated. We never quite feel the eros of the artist who has flayed herself for our delectation and catharsis. The power dynamic runs the other way. (Is this the paradox of pop stardom, of stardom period? Perhaps St Vincent has merely crystallized this.) “Rattlesnake,” the opening track on St. Vincent (2014), is a great example: at once so hooky, so sexy (almost the first thing she says is that she takes off her clothes), and so mocking (the post-verse/pre-chorus). When she says that the only sound she hears “out here” is her own breath, it’s hard not to think of her mocking even her own style—here, the choruses (“running, running, rattle behind me”) are half-gasped, or hiccoughed. And yet, for all the anxiety of this frenetic plena, and whatever the words she sings, she never loses her teasing poise, never allows herself the overwroughtness of a Kate Bush, whom she sometimes seems to emulate, or the tantrums of a PJ Harvey, who lets us hear the violence her emotions do to her (admittedly rougher) voice. Anyway, unlike PJ, St Vincent doesn’t bring her love to anyone: it’s you—all of us—who have to bring your “loves” to her, enthroned on the eponymous album’s cover.

At the same time there’s something girlish, something sweet and thin and too-pretty about her voice; like the intimacy, it verges on caricature, on the grotesque. This is where the guitar, in all its textures and timbres and odd phrasings, becomes so crucial. Because there’s a danger that such a voice—and sometimes such melodies, as I’ll discuss shortly—could become insipid. But then she’s holding that guitar behind her back like a fuggin’ lead pipe, ready to club the shit out of you. Just one more step. Right there. She keeps it always with her, shadowing her voice, or vice-versa, guitar and voice working in tandem to propel the music, though often running in opposite directions. In this way the guitar reinforces the fractures in the voice, exposing the rough, wounding edge of that “sweetness.” So “Dilettante,” perhaps my favorite track on Strange Mercy, shuttles back and forth between the enormous seductiveness of her voice, accompanied only by alternating bass drum and snare (and those words: “Don’t make me wait …”), and a heavily overdriven guitar riff, cluttering that space, and opening a canyon around her each time it pauses. The guitar follows, commenting, like the minstrels in “Black Rainbow,” and is eventually brought into sync with her voice. Perhaps she’s domesticated it, or perhaps she’s let its roughness possess her—or perhaps it’s a little of both. It’s not just the caricature of intimacy, then, but the danger of it. For the straight male listener, there may be something of the misogynist Rousseau here, the desire to be courted and resisted. And yet, hers is not the fait accompli of affected weakness stroking the male ego, but rather strength masquerading as / mocking weakness—the sucker punch again. I wonder if something of all this is intimated in the images on her record covers as well: the starkness of the photography on Actor, at the same time that the album title calls attention to a faux intimacy; the cover resembles a head shot, like she’s auditioning for our ear. Or the open (screaming? biting?) mouth teething the milk-white plastic (?) to which it is half-molded on the cover of Strange Mercy

That guitar, is it the violence of the bared soul, displaced from the voice? Or is it the force of recoil against us, the voyeurs who would presume to have access to that soul—presume that the role of the artist, above all the female artist, is just such an emotional disrobing? I think the latter. After all, the guitar is just as artfully crafted as the voice. An unlikely guitar hero to be sure, if only because of the way the label has been traditionally conceived.† There she is, thin as a flapper, coaxing this enormous sound out of her guitar—not to mention any number of bizarre, monstrous timbres, and gobs and gobs of Frisellish noise. A pixie riding a dragon; David with a Goliath strap-on. The list of guitarists bundled into her sound is eclectic and impressive: here Bill Frisell (and John Scofield), there Mark Knopfler (I’m thinking of the fourths and open strings on “Neutered Fruit” vis-à-vis “Money For Nothing”); she has cited Adrian Belew and Mark Ribot, fairly enough (what couldn’t she do with Tom Waits?); and of course Hendrix, Hendrix, Hendrix. For even more than the lovely riffs, St Vincent is about making the guitar sound like anything but a guitar. And yet, just as her voice manages a paradoxical combination of distance and intimacy, so in the guitar, no matter how drowned in effects, we can in all but a few cases (the very blue fuzzed-out distortion on “Rattlesnake,” reminiscent of Hendrix’s sound in some versions of “Red House,” and maybe “Bring Me Your Loves”—both of these on St Vincent), hear her, hear the contact between body and instrument. Her sound is all attack. It’s a perfect word: the violence inherent in sound-making; the rending of air. When she really unleashes it, when she goes all PJ on our asses, as she does, say, in the second half of “Huey Newton” … watch the fuck out.

It’s to the guitar we owe the dirtiest, heaviest textures; but it’s also just one element of her music’s overall density—although with the sounds she gets, and all the layering and processing, it’s not always easy to tell what’s guitar and what isn’t. Amazing, too, how much each brief little song packs in—not in terms of development or melodic fecundity, but in sheer quantity of sonic resources employed, serially and simultaneously; the breadth of her sonic palette, built from deep reconnaissance into music history’s musty warehouse: moogs and wurlitzers (that cheesy run filling out the absurd exotic on “Year of the Tiger”); sequences of tones like cassettes used to make at the end of the lead (“Digital Witness” … analog noise); clicks and beeps and whistles (think R2D2 going apeshit); pings and blurps, chimes, blocks, blips … I’ll stop before I end up sounding like a brawl in the old Batman TV series. As my discussion of “Dilettante” suggests, the perception of density also arises from contrast between moments of fullness and emptiness. What has been noted about tempo—that shifts are more effective than a steady pulse for creating an impression of speed or slowness—is as true of dynamics and texture. So, in “Strange Mercy,, at that beautiful “Ten Years Gone” iteration of the verse at its climax, the Page-inspired strums, already big, are rendered God-huge by contrast with what comes before and after. It’s just these sorts of contrasts that a “Black Rainbow” or “Huey Newton” capitalizes on; their second movements are rendered that much fuller by the relative thinness of their first. The same thing can happen between choruses and verses: “Save Me From What I Want”’s pause to all but the barest pulse (and a wonderfully unsettling chime) for the second chorus’s prayer; or conversely, “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” her voice alone in the midrange, like on “Mercy,” the keys providing intermittent splashes of color, before giving way to a heavy guitar in the chorus. And then in so many songs she appears alone—that is, her voice—wearing only a soft halo of noise: the choral synth accompaniment to her quiet torch-song crooning in “Prince Johnny”; or the ambient, reverberant ballad “I Prefer Your Love,” sung through a haze, her voice set off with pings: the contrast appears not within the songs, but between them.**

The heaviness and noisiness, amplified by contrast, do make a nice scratching-post for this old metalhead. But it’s also the eeriness of her sound that attracts me. In fact, like the guitar and voice, the two often work together to produce a dark ambience. If this is, as noted, pop with a (pleasantly) abrasive edge, created and perpetuated in no small part by her cat’s-tongue guitar sound, it’s also some of the most gothic damn dance music I’ve ever heard.§§ Sometimes it’s the synths alone that do it (“Champagne Year”); other times, the keys and guitar work together, even bleed into each other. In “Marrow,” for example, her dissonant, clanging guitar goes hand-in-hand with the grisly textures and overdriven production; a dry bass thuds along at mid-tempo, too heavy to lift your feet to. In “Cheerleader,” it’s the combined keys-guitar snarl of the choruses (but how do you really feel, Ms Vincent?). Her voice, too, can be enlisted in creating this eerie atmosphere, sometimes floating over the music like Miles’s horn, sometimes becoming absorbed in the overall texture. So “Chloe in the Afternoon,” where the throttled, metallic, percussive guitar line and wub-wubbing heartbeat, all the noise of the verses, empties out—that contrast again—in the choruses to just her ghostly voice and synth line … and this other, sludgy, trailing thing. Or “Save Me”: the aforementioned chime as a bass riptide pulls her away, and she cries, teasingly, her voice doubled, “Save me … save me … save me from what I want.” Those four words, like the whip-epigram at the end of a sonnet, may be another sucker punch, but they can’t dispel the unsettling feeling of that cry; even the top-down cruising of the verses seems infected by it. The whole thing starts to sound like a bad trip.

Although the shifting, sculpted textures contribute enormously to the appeal of the music, it’s worth noting that she almost never abandons herself to ambience as an end in itself; there’s always a groove, a pulse, just as she always fleshes out that groove with her arrangements. (The sole pulseless example that comes to mind, “The Sequel,” is more coda to Actor than stand-alone tune.) Sometimes it’s the mellow H-band groove and/or slow clop/loop beat/steady funk plus synths of a Portishead, though her range is greater, her voice, as noted, closer-up (“Save Me” jumps to mind, as do “Champagne Year” and “Surgeon”). Sometimes, though, it’s the floored accelerator of “Actor Out of Work,” a song that matches Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers” for sheer forward momentum. But here, as with “Black Rainbow” and so many others, texture—the “Live and Let Die” feel of the strings—combines with pulse and dynamics to amp up the song. All the elements similarly work together in the crescendos, catastrophic endings, and edge-of-the-earth silences that form the predicates / apocalypses so many of her songs—songs that get thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier, meaner and meaner, before ultimately blowing themselves apart.

I promised to say something about melodies before moving on; particularly in the verses, they tend to be short, constrained in range, and repetitive: music boxes, children’s and campfire songs. But every melody, no matter how slight, is also an opportunity for excursion into noise, for her voice or axe or laptop or God-knows-what to hack it up into lit-tle pie-ces, to bleed some darkness from it we didn’t know was there. I’ve made much of contrast and tension as the motor of St. Vincent’s music, and this one—between melody and noise, earworm and Conqueror Worm, pop and anti-pop, nodded to in my initial discussion of “Black Rainbow”—seems to me the generative one, the one that sets her at odds with all the labels to which music critics and customers-also-bought algorithms might unhappily marry her (and that makes of the label “alternative” a sort of basin to catch everything that falls through the cracks). One last example should suffice, from “Cheerleader.” The title, not surprisingly, is undermined in the choruses: over the snarling keys-guitar combo, set off by four hard punches on a stuttered “I” to knock the verses flat, her pouting “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more.” I love the narcissistic high drama: the world is just as big as her room; her “no” is earth-shattering. This is St Vincent: “Hey, Mickey … go fuck yourself!”

*

Not a bad segue into “The Party,” if only because the two songs share melodic material in their verses, even as their choruses pull in opposite directions. “The Party” is like “Cheerleader” without the “go fuck yourself”; and, as I’ve noted, it’s the go-fuck-yourself that first grabbed me about St Vincent. “Black Rainbow” had to grab me because of the way it jives with what I already love. But I think that if an artist is to have sustaining power, it’s going to have to be because something about his or her music captures you that is different from what you traditionally listen to, something about his or her own identity as an artist. “The Party” is that song for me. It is comparatively quiet, comparatively spare—compared, that is, to the guitar-driven noisiness I usually covet—yet still very much within the idiom I’ve tried to outline above. Her voice is at the height of seductiveness, delightfully strained, tempo rubato, either dragging a fraction behind the beat, or entering on beat but sliding or cracking to the melody note (think bent guitar strings, false harmonics). How small that voice is, spare, half-spoken, for our ears only; and yet, how much sonic space it occupies, how much of our attention.

As for the melody itself, the verses, it’s in the slight, simple mold of so many others, though with an interesting twist. The 2 + 1 structure is based on a fulcrum note around which its two parts seesaw. The whole sequence is transposed down, and then this whole is repeated once, with the small but significant variation of a sharper leap, her voice cracking at the high note.†† The piano then repeats the vocal melody, though only the two higher parts. (I.e., if we describe the vocal melody as A-B-A’-B, the piano plays only A-A’. Interestingly, when this song first subjugated me, I would hum the piano melody, but hear her voice in my head; my brain elided the lower part.) The opening interval is the same as “This Old Man,” and in fact it’s the sort of thing that would sound lovely sung in imitative polyphony (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).

Unlike, say, “Black Rainbow,” where the chorus continues the work/walk of the verses, amping up the tension, “The Party”’s chorus provides the answer “Black Rainbow” never does; and the song as a whole is a beautiful example of antithetically-constructed parts joined in a magical synthesis. Where the cadence of the verses is half-spoken (aided by the talky lyrics), the choruses, sung in falsetto, abandon words entirely, and showcase the voice as an instrument; where the melody of the verse zig-zags around a fulcrum, repetitive and playful, the chorus is two long rolling sequences, much more complex and ornate than the verses. There is a parallel shift in the use of the piano: rather than repeat the A-A’ of the vocal melody, in the choruses the keys become a romantic background swirl that further ornaments the vocal melody. Finally, the rhythm of the chorus shifts radically, from an easy 4:4 into waltz time. It’s as if the voice had suddenly grown up between verse and chorus (and then regressed again at the next verse); or perhaps better, had dreamed of growing up. The choruses pull us out of the draggy lethargy of the verses, up, into an ideal haze … precisely the opposite of “Cheerleader,” whose similarly antithetical choruses drag us down into the grunge, negating the verses (“I don’t wanna …”) instead of sublimating them.

Given the myriad differences, how are the two parts made to fit together so well—again as opposed to “Cheerleader,” which quite deliberately leaves a gaping wound between its verse and chorus? I’m not sure, but a couple of possibilities. First, the opening note of the chorus resolves the sequence of high notes of the vocal melody, rising first a step (from A to A’), then a step and a half (from A’ to the first note of the chorus); we are thus primed for it by the logic of the melody in the verse. Second, even as the rhythm is completely altered, the tempo of verse and choruses is identical: the pulse, as so often in St Vincent, stays even.

After the second chorus the song pauses; a densely-layered arrangement of voice and instruments enters, reprising the chorus, over and over; they are soon joined by a stuttering snare and flubby bass drum, retarding, retarding. “The Party” ends like a carousel winding down, as though we were slowly moving away from it, or it from us; our vision of it seems to become more obscure, or blurred, as though we were looking at it through a mottled pane. This is the slow braking/ breaking of the night, St Vincent’s aurora. Rather than building to that “Rainbow” zero-point, here the density seems to weigh the song down, and then stop it entirely, releasing us from the retarding cycle of the choral melody on a lydian #4, a note that seems more to suspend (and does, in fact, only slowly fade) instead of resolve. For once, we’ve been brought gently down; the sun’s come gently up. But where are we? And how on earth do we get back?

*

With 2014’s St Vincent St Vincent seemed to arrive at a crossroads. As per the title, this should have been her coalescing moment, the record that brought together all the elements that make her her. But if my reading is correct, it actually does the reverse: it separates out those elements, foregrounding the dissonances between them; it is an anti-coalescing record, an exercise in self-analysis rather than the intuitive construction of a new whole … perhaps even the sonic equivalent of the sloughing of skin. That is: even as it veers more fully into pure dance/pop than its predecessors, it is also—as if in compensation—the most crunchy, dissonant, distorted, guitar- and riff-heavy of her records. When she is able to synthesize these competing drives, the result is some of her best material. “Rattlesnake,” unlike “The Strangers” or “Chloe in the Afternoon” (the opening tracks on the preceding records), is a dance tune through and through, though, as noted above, an awesomely mean one: frenetic, mocking, seductive, violent, and paranoid. “Bring Me Your Loves” is another dance-floor anthem, complete with breaks (“I took you off your leash”), synthed out, her voice quasi-autotuned on the choruses … yet once again, an eerie, gothic dance tune, with a hyper-distorted touchstone melody and a Phantom of the Opera synth track competing with the dance-floor feel; at its peak, it sounds like an overworked motor flying to pieces. There’s “Birth in Reverse,” with its strummed dissonances, and the much-discussed “Huey Newton,” which a little like “Black Rainbow” analyzes the (in this case) dance-funk and metal elements into separate movements. More generally, there’s an interesting new fracture between vocal melodies and music, which, on the earlier records, tended to work in lockstep, distinguished solely by rhythm and timbre (cf. “The Party” above; hear also “The Strangers”).

But then there are a number of songs that seem to delight in pure pop, with little else for the ear, at least mine, to crunch on: “Northern Lights,” “Every Tear Disappears”; “Hysterical Strength”’s Berlin-sounding 80s pastiche; “Psychopath”’s any-rock-song guitar sound and warm and fuzzy choruses, words notwithstanding. Well … okay. Maybe it’s time to move on, or go back and listen to Marry Me (2006). Maybe, as so often happens when artists move in directions we don’t care for, I’ll find someone to fill her shoes. She did this much for me, after all. PJ Harvey left a gaping hole in the early ‘00s. Is This Desire? (1998) was for me the end of her great period, the counterpart to (though so different from) the ineffably brilliant Dry (1992). (There are a few great tunes on Stories of the City and Uh Huh Her and White Chalk as well; after that I lost track.) As far back as Desire her trajectory was similar to St Vincent’s, into more electronica, dance, and ambient music. I admit it: STV is my long-awaited PJ surrogate, differences be damned. I’m only sad that, unlike with PJ, whose Dry I got on a tape from a friend the year after it came out, and whose career I was able to follow until we parted ways, with St Vincent I seem to have discovered her just as she began to drop over my aesthetic horizon.

Or perhaps not. After all, the eponymous record has grown on me. They all have. And I haven’t even delved into her new (2017) one … though what little I know (reports, a video) suggests the needle has moved in the direction of the less-Helldriver-friendly material on St Vincent. Now, I could have listed “Digital Witness” among those weak tracks … except that it’s not. It’s so perfectly pitched and grabby that I like it, quite helplessly; and who’s to say but that a track like this, like “Black Rainbow” did a couple of years ago, might be the next pinhole, the cave under the cave under the ocean, the song that pulls me so far outside of my original aesthetic universe that I never find my way back? When do I run out of air? I should add that this is partly a function of age: the older one gets, the more difficult it is to find the pulse of the present (or any pulse at all!); one compensates, I think, by being more reflective, which implies greater and more consistent retrospection. In this sense, the “wisdom” of age is less synthesized knowledge than something to fill the temporal lags created by a decelerating biology. Then again, this might also be a function of a historical moment (i.e., today) when the present seems to have lost all duration, and all reality, pace Faulkner, something we watch receding behind us from the window of a train. In such a time, at such a moment, the only way to construct a durable present is retrospectively.

A post like this one is a clear expression of love for a musician, and a labor of love it has been—more than any in recent memory, perhaps because I’m working in a genre with which I am largely unfamiliar, and perhaps because, the longer this blog goes on, the more I feel the need to account for absolutely everything. And so posts bloat like drowned corpses, until the body they once pretended to be effigies of becomes unidentifiable. Whatever the case, I bring my love(s) to these musicians by going through the excrutiating, and always ultimately dissatisfying (this one, once again, moreso than most), process of trying to find correlates in words for their personas in sound. It’s similar to a painter painting his or her beloved—trying to find the posture, color, expression, tone, etc. that will speak them—or a sonneteer writing the same. Or perhaps the opposite is true: I love musicians the most about whom I can, or desire to, find the words to speak; about whom, when I listen, something in my (linguistic) imagination is set going; and this sense, a sort of premonition, is what compels both my love for them, and for writing.***

I should probably touch on gender before calling it a day. I’ve written around 90 posts about music since this blog started, many of them idiotically long, with perhaps two-thirds of these about individual artists or bands, and precious few women among them. There’s one about Linda Oh somewhere back there, another about Kazzrie Jaxen; there are a few female classical pianists, such as Helene Grimaud, bundled into concert reviews, as well as mixed-gender ensembles, and one “hidden” woman (in “Dreaming American,” the unnamed jazz pianist is Mamiko Wantanabe). All in all, a negligible percentage of the whole. There’s notes for an extended piece on Irene Schweitzer, and a fantasized magnum opus on Dry … but these are two among myriad prospective pieces, many of which will never be written. And now that I’ve added another actual post about a female artist, it seems I can’t refrain from speaking the language of eros. Not that I’ve ever been shy about expressing love for music and musicians throughout the history of this blog; but I don’t generally resort to such language to do so. In fact, the only other time I can think of that I spoke in such unabashedly erotic terms about an artist, it was … Goatwhore.

Okay. I’m going to call my analyst now. Or a priest?

 

* My friend disputes this anecdote, claims he never plays individual songs, only whole albums. This sounds like him—the album as integral work. It’s possible he put the whole record on and “Black Rainbow” was simply the first song that caught my ear. Still, that’s not the way I remember it. And my version makes the better story.

§ Like St Vincent but moreso, Harvey tends to make herself the subject of her album covers, which tend to the grotesque and/or to Cindy Sherman-like stagings.

† But then she seems as radically unfit for the label of singer-songwriter, or, for that matter, pop diva, again, as these have been traditionally conceived. But then all such categories evolve. Have these sorts of mismatches become part of women’s alternative today? I’m thinking of Mitski, by the way, who I discovered poking about (me, I was the one poking) on Ben Ratliff’s 2016 top ten list.

** This is perhaps most clear on the eponymous record. Take, for example, the move from the end of “Huey Newton,” which achieves as heavy and distorted a climax as “Black Rainbow” does, to the bubbliness of “Digital Witness.” The feel of those guttural “faithless”‘s at the end of crunching “Newton” couldn’t be more different from the leap to falsetto and horns that opens “Witness.” “Newton” is rendered that much more heavy in hindsight, “Witness” that much more bubbly.

§ In case there’s any question about whether this is me projecting something onto her music, watch the horror anthology XX (2015), to which St Vincent contributed the second, and stand-out, segment—too snarky for my taste, but wonderfully dark, and with a memorably horrific ending.

†† I don’t know but that STV would disavow any interest in Pearl Jam, but I have to pause to note some melodic similarities: the A-A’ of “The Party” with “Better Man,” and “Strange Mercy,” less perfectly, with “No Way,” from Yield (1998).

*** I’m reminded of a wonderful moment in a Gary Giddins interview (recorded in the book Jazzing, by Thomas Greenland, which I should be reviewing presently): “Oh, I could really go to town on this!” Giddins is talking about how the decision to write about a particular artist or work presents itself to him. He doesn’t explicitly state that his love for an artist presupposes his ability to access them in language, but the excitement of finding an artist whose music makes the synapses start firing is palpable. His enthusiasm strongly resonates with me.

Refined

Some months ago, on my way home from the animal shelter where I volunteer, I was listening to Boris and Robyn, the morning DJs on my local classic rock station, WPDH. With the way I’ve paid out on classic rock radio in the Pit Stop recently (“Classic Rock Radio,” 1.27.18), and on classic rock more generally (e.g., “The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy,” 1.11.18; “Dry Hump,” 7.3.15), you’d think I could find something more congenial to listen to. But the truth is I like a fair amount of classic rock, and I like radio, too, and there’s precious little of it that’s even halfway decent once you move outside a certain radius of New York. There are actually two classic rock stations almost back to back on the dial, and a meh alternative rock station a little further down. In the upper-eighties ghetto there’s an excrutiatingly dull classical music station, and a “jazz” station that plays something that sounds more like adult contemporary. There are a few bright spots, of course, in the borderlands of the low nineties: 90.7 WFUV plays a decent assortment of pop, though it goes out the closer I get to the Hudson; and there’s Vassar College’s station, 91.3, whose eclecticism almost makes up for how mediocre-to-bad everything else is. [N.B.: For an addendum on area radio, see the end of this post.] One day, in the parking lot of the Adams Fairacre Farms store on Route 9, I tapped into a crackling signal playing … death metal. It was like a beacon from another world; I’ve never been able to find it again. WBAI actually comes in a few places, but the signal is more fickle than FUV’s, and anyway, BAI’s, political programming feels about as realistic in upstate New York as stories of kidnappings by space aliens. I love driving down the Taconic and, when I get past Peekskill Hollow, WKCR and WSOU and WFDU start to peek around the corners of the hills, their signals growing in strength with every mile covered.

Years ago, on a cross-country trip, I came up with the following formula for civilization:

FM/AM > 1

If the ratio of FM to AM is less than one, you know you’re in the middle of nowhere. If it equals one, well, proceed with caution: the barbarians may be at the gates, or the zombies at the sandbags, or the real estate tycoons in the White House, or whatever your preferred metaphor for the decline of empire happens to be. That said, with the hindsight of age and six years upstate, I must admit that any such attempt to quantify civilization, appealing as it might be to a budding young technocrat, ultimately falls short. Quantity may be a necessary precursor, but it’s hardly sufficient, at least for what I think of when I think of civilization.

Anyway, like I said, I was driving home that morning listening to The Boris and Robyn Show, which, if you’re reading this anywhere in the United States, sounds pretty much like every other morning DJ team on a classic rock station. They play juvenile call-in games with listeners for prizes, manage the local news and traffic reports and weather, quip about strange goings-on in the world (read: Hudson Valley), and take care not to be too controversial (this is New York). They also recite advertising jingles and make guest appearances at local events and businesses for charity. The show’s producer and sometime-game participant is called Meat Sandwich; he also “reviews” new movies by reading from the Rotten Tomatoes website. The traffic report is brought to me by some fabricator of chips, potato or micro. Believe it or not, all of this makes for good company during my near-daily twenty-minute jaunts to shelter, hike, café, supermarket, or train. What with my hearing going out like those NYC radio signals around Peekskill Hollow, and what with how loud my old Corolla is, particularly now that the bearings are shot—it sounds (and feels) like I’m driving a dryer with a cinder block in it—listening to human voices, however snarky, silly or reactionary, can be more tolerable than muddled music, at least until the commercials start pummeling. Oddly enough for someone with my politics, I’ll take The Boris and Robyn Show a million times over the nasal autotune of NPR; a mere five minutes of exposure and I feel like buying a pick-up truck with a gun rack, and flying a bedsheet-size American flag off the tailgate.

I know I’m going pretty far afield, but hey baby, I’m broadcasting.

On the thrice-mentioned morning in question I was (as noted) driving home listening to Boris and Robyn and the phone line was open for requests. The caller was a construction worker or day-laborer of some sort. Boris asked him where he was calling from. “Newburgh,” the man said. This is the town right across the Hudson from Beacon, where I volunteer; I believe it still has the distinction of having the highest per-capita murder rate in the state, though recent reports suggest crime is down somewhat. Following on the art-ification of Beacon (which now houses Dia), there has been some development around the Newburgh waterfront; but such gentrification projects, as all of us who have lived in New York know, do much more in the way of relocating poor people than solving issues related to poverty.

It turned out the caller wasn’t a Newburgh resident. He was working a job there. As he put it, he was “in the ‘hood” for the day. Boris asked him for his exact location, which the man gave—the corner of two streets. “Oooh,” Boris sympathized. “Not a good area.” And what did he want to hear? Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”

A fascinating exchange, yes? And in so many ways. Music-oriented as it is, I thought this quasi-public venue a fit place to unpack it, or perhaps lance it, if I may borrow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s metaphor about Birmingham boils.

First, there is the quite obvious racial text—you can’t really call it subtext. The caller, like the vast majority of classic rock listeners, was quite obviously white. “The ‘hood,” the place where he was working and, apparently, taking his life in his hands, was not. If I could remember the names of the streets at whose dangerous crossroads he was meeting the devil that morning, I could verify this assertion … but do I really need to? That race was never explicitly mentioned in the conversation only made it more present.*

And so the purpose of the call, the request, during which conversation the caller felt the need to answer the question “Where are you calling from?” the way he did: What was Def Leppard (and by extension, “classic” rock) to this man but a shield, a magic circle of whiteness, that the dangerous blackness of the ‘hood could not penetrate? What was cranking Def Leppard there but an act of sonic flag-planting—the white standard borne by the army of an invading culture, an adjunct to the police siren? No wonder composer and soundscape studies-originator R. Murray Schafer called it sound imperialism. “A man with a loudspeaker,” he wrote in The Soundscape, “is more imperialistic than one without because he can dominate more acoustic space” (77). And so a man with a radio … not to mention a Caterpillar, a backhoe, a jackhammer, a concrete mixer, etc.

All, that is, the artillery of gentrification. How is a ghetto blaster (or whatever it’s called today, whatever its current incarnation) supposed to compete? I will not be forgiven, perhaps, for extending this scenario imaginatively. But like The Who, authors of the greatest classic rock song of all time, I don’t need to be forgiven. I think back to the gentrifying neighborhoods I have lived in or near—Bushwick ’02-‘04, the fringes of Sugar Hill ’04-‘12—and about the fledgling gentrification of Newburgh. It’s not hard to imagine the white construction worker engaged in just such a project. Blaring classic rock, the first sonic shockwave that razes some buildings, guts others, leaving just their shells standing. It is the pre-soundtrack of gentrification, the prow before the Tiny Desk Concerts of the genteel class arrives. It reminds me of those pioneer log cabins that precede the respectable middle-class farmers in Hector St John de Crevecoeur’s vision of the settlement of America: the underclass that logs, hunts, and moves on, pushing the Indians back and back as they go.

That this task, to be the prow of oncoming civilization, should fall to Def Leppard is … is … well, if you laughed when you read the title of the song requested, then we’re probably operating on the same wavelength. I mean, it couldn’t even be decent Def Leppard, could it—you know, the better hits on Pyromania, or “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” at least before they added that dud keyboard riff? No, it had to be the most sugar-pop cotton-candy shit Def Leppard.

I remember the bodybuilder who used to manage the community pool where I lifeguarded walking around singing this song; he looked like Hulk Hogan without the mustache. Today, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” makes me think of burly construction workers standing underneath dumptruck chutes pouring the sweet white stuff all over the streets and the people living there, all over themselves. My brain automatically toggles to that Simpsons where the Duff (Leppard?) workers douse protesting feminists with beer; when the spray vanishes they’re wearing bikinis and their signs say “Get me drunk.”

Need I add that this lunkheaded anthem finds its perfect architectural equivalent in the White House, as it is molded to fit its current occupant?

I digress, again. But I write to digress. In case no one’s ever told you, all writing, down to the tiniest metaphor, that vibrating quark of language, is controlled digression. The vehicle of a metaphor is a digression from its tenor. A sentence is a digression from its subject, a paragraph from its topic. Face it, without digression, we would live dull lives encased in substantives. There would be no movement. No music!

Okay. This is not a post about how the Leppard lost its spots. Or perhaps it is. Because in some ways, the whole dynamic of this call-in story simply recapitulates the history of rock, and of popular music in the twentieth century: the whitewashing of jazz for downtown audiences, the white “blues scholars” who made the blues palatable to white audiences as rock, not to mention profitable for themselves. All these are acts of cultural gentrification. And so with Def Leppard. We might call their devolution from hard rock/NWOBHM to pop metal to pop pure and simple a process of refinement. The irony is the way that, by the end of this process, the origins, even this band’s own origins in the blues-infused classic rock of the British ‘60s and ‘70s, had become so obscured, or so repressed, that the product can now be turned back like a firehose against the population whose culture birthed it.

At this juncture it’s impossible not to cite what Henry Louis Gates (I believe it was) called “the most reviled poem in the African American canon,” Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” Here is the closing couplet of this notorious octet: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/ May be refined, and join th’angelic train.”

The blackness of Cain; the blackness of cane. The raw stuff, the stuff the slaves picked. Mingus’s Wednesday night prayer meeting, Coltrane shrieking for God’s attention, work songs and spirituals and dirty brass.** It’s the stuff of rock, too, it has to be, the tether that makes even the most classical-inflected prog still worthy of the name. Some of us like our tethers longer, our orbits wider, comets instead of asteroids, Pluto not Mercury, the competing pull of other great masses, breathing their own unrefined life into our music. But that dark sun remains the same.

One wants to ask Wheatley, “But will there be anything left of these Negroes? What is the price of your refinement?” Perhaps the answer is in the poem. After all, to join th’angelic train, one must lose one’s life, the blood must all be drained. Those Christians to whom she appeals, they’re like Aylmer, Hawthorne’s mad scientist, trying to remove his wife’s birthmark, her only flaw, and finding out too late it’s called humanity. The mark of Cain: not a patina that contact with white civilization can buff out, but the core of one’s humanity. And not, finally, the beating wild heart of darkness, but one’s culture, one’s … civilization.

Considered this way, th’angelic train starts to look like a loaf of Wonder Bread, each tasteless slice a seraphim. Hark—aim your ear at the sky! What are they singing! Yes, it’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me”! The ultimate in processed music!

(Thank God rock is haunted by its origins. It’s always had the power to renew itself at any number of generic wells, whether it consciously acknowledges them (and pays them) or not. Something of it always manages to escape the corporate stranglehold.)

The problem is that I live in an area now where people don’t seem to understand that refinement isn’t bleaching. It’s a coloring process. And that means grabbing your radio dial and turning it, turning it and turning it, ever more finely, until you find the heart of the radio’s ‘hood.

 

* A few disclaimers are in order. (1) I don’t mean to minimize the problems of economically depressed neighborhoods, or the struggles such communities routinely face with drugs and violence and environmental quality. I simply question how we respond to these problems as a society. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—a book I wish every American would read—puts it eloquently: “It is perfectly understandable that some African Americans would be complicit with [as opposed to supportive of] the system of mass incarceration, even as they oppose, as a matter of social policy, the creation of racially isolated ghettos and the subsequent transfer of black youth from underfunded, crumbling schools to brand-new, hi-tech prisons. In the era of mass incarceration, poor African Americans are not given the option of great schools, community investment, and job training. Instead, they are offered police and prisons” (210). (2) I understand, of course, that I am privileged to be volunteering on a Tuesday while this man is earning his bread and butter, and that my sneering tone in this post bespeaks a life of privilege and Sundays spent grading papers. I have no good answer for this. Oh, wait, I do: UNIONIZE. (3) I also understand that, at least initially, I am in danger of reifying the binaries through which black music has been understood, and what made it historically attractive to the white middle class: black music as wild, primitive, libidinal, authentic, etc., and white music as civilized, sophisticated, desexualized, corporate, etc. I’m even calling in the old gendered rock-pop binary. Though I draw on this binary to understand the role of race here, I do hope the end of my analysis manages to see beyond it. While I’m hoping, I’ll quote, at loving length, my beloved James Baldwin. This is from The Fire Next Time, another book every American should read (and that I would guess quite a few more have read since I Am Not Your Negro): “In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged … White Americans do not understand the depths out of which [singer Big Bill Broonzy’s] ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word ‘sensual’ is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread … [Baldwin goes on about lousy bread, then:] Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves as the fountains of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone the elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can only be oneself” (55-7). You can say we’re living a half-century after Baldwin wrote these words. I would answer, yes, but we’ve just made America great again.

** I’m riffing on Geoff Dyer’s chapter on Charles Mingus here, from his beautiful But Beautiful (North Point Press, 1996), yet another book every American et cetera.

ADDENDUM, 8.1.18. There’s nothing like publicly staking a claim for inspiring one to do research. After kvetching about area radio, I’ve been spending a little more of my drive time digging in. FUV, it turns out, is not local at all; it’s Fordham University’s station. Maybe it’s the antenna on Montefiore that fooled me; it does come in a tad better than other New York stations. How surprising, too, that the only other halfway-decent station I’ve turned up should be (a) college-based/non-commercial and (b) not local. That still leaves WVKR, the Vassar station … and this one is turning out to be a real gem. Some of the music programming is spectacularly good (if only they’d interrupt a little more often to tell me what I was listening to!). They also play Democracy Now on weekday mornings (though this doesn’t much change my perception of area politics, or, for that matter, kidnapping space aliens). There’s even a lady who reads from books about labor history on Tuesday afternoons. This week, it was Kellogg’s 6-hour day; last week, the IWW. Finally, there’s a station at 106.3, WJZZ, that bills itself as “real jazz.” I can’t vouch for it yet, because my reception, once again, has been spotty. But it does seem promising, at least BGO-level promising; it would be churlish to ask for anything more up around here. Plus it’s only a few years old, a public station … the sort of thing that needs all the support we, the local folks, can give it. (If I’m going to write about radio, maybe I should invest in … an antenna?)

Classic Rock Radio

An Epic in Verse*

 

Boston.                                                                                                                                                        Foreigner, Van Halen, Steve Miller,                                                                                                        Boston.                                                                                                                                                          ZZ Top, The Who, Led Zeppelin,                                                                                                                 Foreigner,                                                                                                                                                   Boston.

Foreigner.

 

Boston.

 

Boston.

 

The Rolling Stones, Boston.                                                                                                                         Billy Squier, Boston.                                                                                                                                    Bad Company, Boston.                                                                                                                       AC/DC, Boston.                                                                                                                                             ZZ Top, Boston.                                                                                                                                        Boston, Boston.                                                                                                                                       Boston, Boston, Boston.                                                                                                                          Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston.                                                                                                Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Bos                                                                                                                      The Who.

Van Halen, Foreigner.                                                                                                                                  ZZ Top, Foreigner.                                                                                                                                     Led Zeppelin, Foreigner.

Boston, Foreigner.

Boston, Foreigner, Boston, Foreigner, Boston, Foreigner,Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner

Foreigner                 Boston

Foreigner                                             Boston

Foreigner                                                                                             Boston

Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner

Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner.

Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston

Boston. Foreigner.

 

Foreigner

 

Led Foreigner.                                                                                                                                            Bad Foreigner                                                                                                                                       Rolling Foreigner                                                                                                                                       Foreigner Foreigner

Van Foreigner                                                                                                                                             Van Foreigntop                                                                                                                                          Van Squiertop                                                                                                                                            Van Toppentop                                                                                                                                          Van Fuckyourself

Top Halen Van Billy Who ZZ Miller Company Tramp Bad Led AC Van Bostontop                          Zep Van Bostonsquier

Miller Van Toppentop

Billy Van Millercamp

ToppenCompany ZZ Van Billy Company BadTop HalenDC Foreigntramp

ZZ                                                       ZZ                                                       ZZ

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Boston.

Foreigner.

Foreignton. Bosener.

Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton

Toptonboszzhalenforvaneigner.

Ledtopenzzner

Whobadbozzener Led ZanVVHalentopper

Bosled Zan vivvy doopspil ungletracken bongwasser spllindurnas

Commercial.

 

 

 

Conmercial

 

 

Commercial.

 

Commercial.

Commercial.

Commercial.                                                                                                                                            Commercial.                                                                                                                                            Commercial.                                                                                                                                                     Boston.

Commercial Boston.

Commercial Foreigner.

Van Commercial                                                                                                                                           ZZ Commercial                                                                                                                                          Billy Commercial                                                                                                                                          AC Commercial                                                                                                                                       Miller Commercial                                                                                                                                     Bad Commercial                                                                                                                                        Led Commercial                                                                                                                                       Who Commercial                                                                                                                                  Commercial Commercial                                                                                                                          Commercial Commercial Commercial                                                                                                   Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial                                                                             Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial           Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Co

Boston.

 

Boston.

 

 

 

 

Boston.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston

 

 

 

* Besides WPDH, my “local” classic rock station, I should cite as an inspiration for this poem the random poetry generator developed by Dr Angus Forbes (early in his programming studies) at Metalab Communications, an internet start-up in the Tribeca of old (my old, 1997), where I worked as office manager. The most primitive version of the program simply asked the user to input words, and then randomly generated poems—no syntax, no grammar, just the words selected. It was hours of fun to play with, and produced some of the funniest poems I’ve ever read. (One other note: the formatting is wonky because the WordPress template does not match what appears published on the blog. I was reduced to using the space bar and toggling between template and preview to even get close. Argh! Talk about primitive!)

 

The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy

Consider, if you will, the heartbreaking immortality of Loverboy.

The catastrophic pathos of Loverboy.

Of being Loverboy in 2018. Of having been Loverboy for forty years.

Tennis thugs gesquozen into corsets of red leather, festooned with bandannas.

I set myself the absurd task of writing a thousand words about Loverboy. I quickly realized the only way to succeed was by negation.

Even brute Ajax had his fanboy in Ovid. But who will sing the praises of Loverboy? No one. So I will write the epic of Loverboy as an epic of negation, the only such record that can ever be made, adopting the voice of Odysseus taunting Polyphemus. (N.B.: Ovid distrusted sly Ulysses.)

I understand this mockery is directed at a monster who, even in his boulder-hurling tantrum, the high drama of his anguish, is really an actor only as big as the one playing Odysseus, which is why they can never appear together in the same frame, except via trick photography. Stardom works this way. We can only cut such monsters down to size via Odysseian wiles. Force them into the frame with us, as it were. Look them in the eye.

*

No thirteen-year-old’s infatuation with rock music will ever be predicated on first hearing Loverboy. Loverboy will never be anybody’s favorite band, not even their second- or third-favorite band, not even for a few weeks in early adolescence. No high schoolers past, present or future will ever cover their spiral-bound notebooks with Loverboy’s logo. No high-school senior will ever sum up their wonderful four years at Fort Something-or-Other High by quoting Loverboy under their yearbook picture. Nobody will ever come to a memorable climax in the backseat of their father’s car to a Loverboy song on the radio, etc. No girls will ever be knocked up to Loverboy; if they were, every baby so conceived would be aborted or miscarried; were any such child ever to be born, it would be left to die of exposure, or to be eaten by bears and/or jackals. No tobacco products will ever be consumed in post-coital lethargy to any ballads, power or otherwise, written by Loverboy. No one will play Loverboy at their wedding, not even for the strangely incestuous ritual of the Dance of the Father with the Bride; and no wedding band will ever include Loverboy in their repertoire. No groupies will reminisce about one-night stands with the members (ha!) of Loverboy, except as a blip between Darryl Hall and John Oates, or after sleeping with that really ugly dude from REO Speedwagon. Nobody will ever fondle him- or herself to frame-by-frame images from a Loverboy video. No animals will ever be harmed in the making of a Loverboy video, except those previously harmed in making their gratuitous leather wardrobes. No classic rock stations will endlessly loop Loverboy’s hits, except by some error in the algorithm according to which said rock station playlists are statistically constructed. No one will ever call in to request a Loverboy song; if they did, no DJ in their right mind will ever deign to play it. No rock stars will point to a Loverboy performance for the epiphany for their choice of careers. No rock stars will tearfully recount the importance of Loverboy to their artistic development during their induction ceremony into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, just as no bands will ever dress up as Loverboy to commemorate the latter’s induction. No rock critics will pause to recognize Loverboy. Nobody will go to the mat, so to speak, in defense of Loverboy’s contribution to the rock canon. There will never be a VH-1 retrospective devoted to Loverboy, nor a classic rock, leather apparel, or what-the-fuck-were-the-80s-anyway documentary that includes a clip from Loverboy, no matter how brief, or seeks an exclusive interview, unless said documentary is focused specifically on: Canada; Alberta; Calgary; or Uncle Fucker. No musicologists will find significance, musical, cultural, or other, in anything related to Loverboy. No one will call Loverboy the voice of the decade, except to deride the decade in question.  Millions of thumbs with flip by millions of Loverboy records in used record bins without pausing, first in the two-dollar bin, then in the dollar bin, the fifty-cent bin outside the store, the please-take-this-it’s-free bin, the dumpster. Yea, even at garage sales and flea markets, Loverboy’s albums will be passed over. No fashion designers will ever look to Loverboy for sartorial inspiration, not even those who devise the Halloween costumes sold at 99-cent stores, or the track suits for expensive Manhattan gyms whose clientele have an overdeveloped sense of irony. No one will proudly wear their old, torn, and/or faded Loverboy shirt to work, not even in jest. There will be no auctions in which Mike Reno’s nalgas-hugging red leather pants fetch obscene amounts of money, unless they are unearthed by a future civilization (cf. Belloq’s quip to Indiana Jones: “Who knows, in a thousand years even you might be worth something!”). No one will bid on a T-shirt from the band’s first headlining North American tour on Ebay, except ironically (cf. Eddie Murphy’s joke about white people voting for a black president). The singer and/or guitarist for Loverboy will never perform stool-bound acoustic versions of their hits at clubs founded by other washed-up rockers of their generation while their one-time fans munch pasta and drink Zinfandels and text their kids’ babysitters. No one will ever wish a Loverboy fan club had existed, or regret its demise. Loverboy will never appear in any rock festivals, except those driven and derided by nostalgia (e.g., the M3 festival, its “nine years of rock moments” suggesting said festival is already running on nostalgia about nostalgia, a perfect recycling of cultural energy), which is to say, all of them. None of Loverboy’s 232,000 Facebook followers will actually join them on the “80s Cruise,” for if even a tiny fraction of them did, the 70,000-ton vessel would explode, capsize, and then sink under the ballasted ordnance of their nostalgia. No charitable organizations will be founded by members or ex-members of Loverboy, not even anonymously; nor will members ever be included in telethons or pledge drives for public radio or TV stations. There will be no Loverboy tribute bands, except those from the most depressed neighborhoods of Tokyo: they will be villified by their own people; yea, their very neighbors will smite them. There will be no reality TV stints for members of Loverboy, except on satellite stations broadcasting from untraceable locations, encrypted to appear as though they emanated from Pittsburgh. No one will ghost-write Loverboy’s tell-all band biography, because no one would ever buy it, or could be imagined buying it; or, could they be imagined buying it, be imagined reading it, as all those who might be imagined reading it are functionally illiterate. Loverboy will never be the subject of scandals with superannuated supermodels, child pornographers killed in Amtrak derailments, grope-happy Hollywood producers, or on-line poker enthusiasts. The passing of Loverboy’s drummer will not be announced on Yahoo, etc., unless it involves mass shooting, white slavery, aspirated vomit, or all of the above. Loverboy’s Wikipedia page will contain no scholarly citations, rather it will be larded with warnings about a lack of credible sources: Loverboy will remain a spurious, apocryphal band. No one will ever understand how Loverboy came to have three multiplatinum albums, or to be one of the top five touring rock acts of all time, except when considered in the light of other absurd commercial phenomena, such as pet rocks and Beanie Babies. No one under forty-five will ever know who Loverboy is, except through a needle’s-eye afterlife of micro-cultural references on TV sitcoms and video games. No one will ever begin a discourse about Loverboy with the words, “Actually, they were pretty good.” As they will not die a natural death, and as their fans will continue to feast on the congealed blood of their own and each other’s nostalgia, they will have to be clubbed to death by nameless hordes of sadistic bloggers. No one will hum “Workin’ for the Weekend,” “Lucky Ones,” and “Turn Me Loose” endlessly as they blog about Loverboy, as I am doing right now, as I have been doing since I started writing this post, endlessly, helplessly, to the point of desperation and hampered sanity, writing, writing, trying to kill the Loverboy within me.

AIAI, Loverboy! And alas, Helldriver!

Flesh Against Steel

Carcass’s Surgical Steel is one of the best metal records of the century.

Man, it feels good to say that. So good, in fact, that I fret I am being too conservative. Instead, I should go the whole hog, and proclaim Surgical Steel one of the great metal albums of all time … ignoring the inconvenient fact that metal has only been around for the tiniest sliver of recorded time, let alone all time. In fact, were the entire history of the human species, represented by a hair’s breadth at the end of the 360-foot-long Cosmic Pathway at the American Museum of Natural History, expanded to cover the distance of the entire Cosmic Pathway, the history of rock music would amount to just ten times that—the breadth of ten hairs!*

Of course, this should hardly make rock feel small, or metal smaller, since Beethoven, Petrarch, and even Homer don’t do noticeably better measured against deep time. So let’s drop all time and get back to the quasi-human scale.

Once upon a time, in the latter days of the twentieth century, you were only allowed to speak in the arbitrary shorthand of decades—“the greatest albums of the nineties,” “the indispensible records of the seventies,” and so on. And in the first decade of the twenty-first, you couldn’t claim anything was the “best of the century” without tongue firmly in cheek. You could, of course, more circumspectly call something “the first great record of the twenty-first century,” as though you were starting a collection of the New Century’s Great Things, and you had just gotten to put your first shiny new Great Thing in your Great Things Box, while simultaneously jettisoning everything that came before.

We are, however, living in the latter half of the second decade of this new century. Why shrink back under the flaccid umbrella of decades, and, using the much-too-silly rubrics of the “oughties” or “teenies,” pick yet another list of best albums to match yours for the nineties et al.? Why, when you have a whole new century at your disposal, and sixteen years of it behind you? Indeed, what could be more sublimely brash, more brilliantly arrogant, than sweeping judgments about a century whose second half you will never even “see,” except maybe as a pickled head, or a microchip onto which your “brain” has been downloaded?

This is a golden window, my friends. An opportunity not to be missed. Think about it: in 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of Black Sabbath will poison any best-of-new-century claims regarding metal, because everything will have to be considered in terms of metal’s hemi-centennial. By 2030, everyone will have forgotten about Y2K (huh?) and how it felt when the millennial odometer switched from 1-9-9-9 to 2-0-0-0. Then, as the century rolls forward toward 2050 (gasp!), and we approach rock’s first centenary, all new records of whatever genre will be measured against Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Stones and Who—not Judas Priest, not Metallica; certainly not Cradle of Filth.

Ergo. It’s of the utmost importance to squeeze in the most grandiose claims you can about your favorite new metal records in the next two years or so, before the inexorable march of generic time renders them obsolete.

*

Having placed Surgical Steel in one corner of my Great Things of the New Century box, the time has come to admire it. Go ahead, pick it up. Turn it in the light; run your thumb along its edge.

Ah, but Carcass is anything but a new band, or any sort of flagship for a rising genre in a new century. They’re old hat. Vintage. Okay, putrescent.§ We should talk about this.

Where metal is concerned, a few spots in my Great Things box must be reserved for so-called “comeback” records. Metal, after all, is a comeback genre. 1995, as Carcass frontman Jeff Walker declared at the band’s Gramercy Theater show last August, was “the year metal died.” (An exaggeration; but then such a tendency to mythologize is the very stuff of metal.) While emerging genres fed on its rejuvenating remains, metal was recouping its un-dead energies by feeding on the blood of those genres (how insidious, pilfering the necrophage graverobber!), as well as the flesh and bones of dead ones … including its own (how repulsive, this necrophagy-as-autophagy, this masturbatory cannibalism!). If Simon Reynolds is correct that popular culture in the new century has been played entirely in “the key of re-” (to use my old lit theory prof Henry Staten’s mnemonic for the postmodern), the re-surgence of metal was inevitable—not simply because everything comes back, but because the conservatism and tradition-worship for which the genre has been both lauded and criticized would, in the context of today’s cultural retro-faddism, suddenly seem dorkily avant-garde (or arriere-garde, as Reynolds quips).

Of course, valorizing the intrageneric past is only one part of the equation; the other parts—a scissors-and-paste attitude toward the past-as-text, and the ironic distance that accompanies it—have traditionally sat less easily with the genre. But then metal is a different genre today than it was twenty years ago, and the past is a different past: less a series of begats than an amorphous blob which, Reynolds cautions us, threatens to gobble up the present … and future.

Regardless, as a new generation of fans has taken advantage of the opportunity to explore metal’s back catalogs, so they have provided the opportunity for a number of older bands to reboot their careers. Metalographer Ian Christe traces metal’s return to the Black Sabbath reunion at the end of last century. The reappearance of some of the more successful extreme metal acts from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, however, probably owes more to the galvanic shock provided by the thrash revival that peaked in the mid-to-late oughts. That the window of the revival appears to be closed† (occasional drafts notwithstanding) has hardly deterred a resurgent old guard from continuing to release records and/or tour with a relentlessness reminiscent of their peak years.

Among comeback records, Surgical Steel is something of an anomaly, and not only because it arrived so late in the game, after much hemming and hawing on the band’s part. With few exceptions (e.g., Anthrax’s Worship Music), comeback records tend to carry a whiff of formaldehyde, some faint, some strong enough to knock you down. And the revival stuff, good as it sometimes gets (Municipal Waste’s Hazardous Mutation and Art of Partying are probably the most lasting), still can’t help smelling a bit like something just taken out of the shrinkwrap. But Steel is all fresh maggotry: evidence of flesh well-ripened, as though the band were waiting, like forensic entomologists, to see what exactly would crawl out of their putrid hearts and jellied brains after almost two decades of delicious decay.

As much a mystery is why it landed in my lap, because this old-fart metalhead/one-time Fangoria intern never listened to Carcass in their gorelicious heyday. Even though my interest in underground metal peaked just as Carcass were appearing, they never made it onto my radar. Then, when Metallica shat themselves and the genre blew itself into shrapnel, I—like so many of the faithless in that apostate time—moved on: greedily lapping up Pantera and the occasional strong offering from Slayer and Testament, but otherwise listening to grunge and Tool and other Lollapalooza-sanctioned alt-musics, when I was listening to new rock at all. The deathiest I ever got was “cusp” bands like Demolition Hammer, and a few Deicide songs on a mix.

“What is the sword compared to the hand that wields it?” James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom.

But such is the logic of the retro-century that Carcass and I would cross paths in our respective middle ages. I bought Steel on a whim, mostly because I saw it on somebody’s year-end best-of list (year, as opposed to decade, century, or planetary lifespan): somebody with more time, energy, new-music ADD, and/or record-industry freebies than I’ve ever had or wanted. And it was the great strength of Steel that hurtled me headlong into the flesh of early Carcass, as though to test Thulsa Doom’s great axiom, “Steel is strong; but flesh is stronger.” And if such a counter-temporal history feels twisted, I wonder how twisted it really is, in this age when so much old music is so readily available, when crowds at metal shows tend to run the gamut of generations, and when chronology, history, and to a certain extent community have been replaced by business-dominated algorithms of marketing and consumption. What follows, then, is partly about Carcass, yes; but it is as much about this Borgesian encounter with a parallel musical past, and what such retroactive discoveries mean for the way we hear and value music.

*

Seeing Carcass at the Gramercy last August was anything but a typical clubgoing experience for me. In general, for the much-loved older bands I go see in their various reunited and resurrected guises, I can put on the thousand-yard stare and talk with other old fans about having been in The Shit (= the pit at the old L’amours) back in The Eighties (= the decade which is to metal what the ‘60s is to rock as a whole; in the terms of the old Scholastic Aptitude Test, rock:’60s::metal:’80s). This is true even when part of the bill is occupied, as it so often is, and was, by a band or bands whose music I know/knew only tangentially—songs on a mixed tape someone made for me, or songs that got radio play on the college metal station WSOU (Jer-sey!), or even a video.

Given my age, then, I should have been the old Carcass fan getting his new live Carcass fix. This would have been the assumption made by most people seeing me, bald and Voivod-T’d. But by actual knowledge of the band, I was much closer to the people there half my age, whose contact with the older material would more likely be mediated by the “comeback” record. But then again, I would not hear Carcass like they did, since my formative experiences with the genre would have been much closer to those of the people there twice their age. A weird, twinned position to occupy, like I’d been split it two, but belonged nowhere: to both “halves” of the crowd, I was a fraud, a … poseur.

And yet. Still and all? It’s nice to see the good people of the kingdom of metal, even when you feel like something of an exile.

The Gramercy show was at least Carcass’s third time in the U.S. since Steel’s release. St. Vitus had sold out, as usual, and the second time around they had skipped New York. This tour, dubbed “One Foot in the Grave,” was supported by younger’uns Ghoul and Night Demon, and old-schoolers Crowbar. Jesus, Crowbar! Even they were closer to me than Carcass, if barely; I remembered a few sludgy tunes from back in the day, and pictures of a girthy man in big shorts and high-tops. And there he was! the girthy man of my youth, just grayer and maybe balder, with a second girthy man right beside him, as though from meiosis, both of them sporting Duck Dynasty beards (I know, too easy) and stomping around the stage like Japanese movie monsters. They played exactly the sort of plodding, pummeling, tuned-down music for which I vaguely remembered them; a sort of literalization of their name, so that name, look, performance, and music all cohere and flatten around the same blunt-force ethos.

At the merch tables after the set—what with four bands, there was merch spillover into the lounge—I noticed that Crowbar’s frontman (Kirk Windstein) actually has a Crowbar tattoo on the back of his neck. The placement suggests he understands the connection between the back of his neck and mortality; for it is true that I could have told his age by counting the rolls there, like tree-rings. But then on a tour of fogeys dubbed One Foot in the Grave, headlined by a dis- and (fondly) re-membered band named Carcass, mortality is by default a central theme. All those stale jokes about getting old, for example: as metal ages, and the retro-generation gives more and more old bands the opportunity to re-enter the circle, such comments are bound to become as much part of a show as headbanging. Of course, this being metal, bands tend to dramatize aging’s effects on the body in a way I just can’t imagine, say, the Stones do. Windstein, for example, bitched about (a) baldness and (b) shitting himself (not that he had shit himself, but he figured it was coming down the pike). Later, Carcass’s Walker, to goad the crowd louder, used the old saw that his hearing wasn’t so good anymore. And when, after steaming through a raft of great new material, he announced that they were going back to the early ‘90s, he dubbed it “granddad music.”Ω Again, such feints to the vicissitudes of the flesh are of a piece not just with Carcass’s music, but the genre as a whole: since bones are reverenced and tradition venerated in metal in a way that always set it apart from many other rock genres (at least, used to)—since “dinosaur” means not “passe” but “awesome”—all such comments, while apparently self-deprecating, serve as backhanded appeals to authority, just as much as Crowbar’s announcement that they had been on the road for thirty-six years.

For all the digestive angst and inverse-ironic nods to aging, Carcass were pure presence. A convincing metal act has to appear larger than life—to find a language of the body consummate with the sublimity the music aspires to—and Carcass does this with an effortlessness few bands can match. While Crowbar leveled imaginary skyscrapers, each member of Carcass stayed rooted in his particular quadrant; rather than moving, he expanded to fill it. Walker, front and center, encircled his mic in classic bassist/vocalist horse-stance (think Lemmy, or Ron Royce of the old Swedish thrashers Coroner), pointing his axe at us now and again in emulation of Father (Steve) Harris. He even turned it upside-down, like a pistol in a Tarrantino movie. I only wondered at the fan that blew on him for the duration of the show, occasionally turning him into a travesty of Fabio, or a transvestite Pippy Longstocking. From the sublime to …

I spent as much or more time watching Steer (Steer! what choice did the man have but to become the guitarist in a band that would one day sing the horrors of the abattoir?), Carcass’s other founding half, thrashing away to Walker’s left. A Perpetual Thrashing Machine he was, and the perfect complement to Walker’s Colossal Pyramid. It wasn’t regulation headbanging, but rather that horse-head-swinging that even better communicates the abandon of the music: face obscured by his blond hair, shirt half-open, skinny arms working away … it is older and deeper than thrash, older even than metal, though for me it finds its iconic representation in my memory of Ozzy’s Jake E. Lee.

At one point during the show, Walker informed security that it was okay for people to take pictures. “We don’t wear corpse paint or make-up,” he said. On the one hand, the typical metal appeal to authenticity. And yet, what was Walker saying but we look our age? He might as well have quoted that old quatrain, “Remember me now …” for those younger fans looking into the mirror of the music.‡ There was neither the urge to cheat death nor to represent it as a mask.

To be death: that is a different thing. That is Carcass.

*

But art defeats death, time’s handmaiden, does it not? I could, and probably should, write about Carcass’s career backwards, beginning with Steel, which, in my inverted listening history, acts as a template for everything that came before it, with every other Carcass record refracted through it. After all, a comeback record is only a comeback record if one comes to it with the expectations created by earlier fandom. Perhaps this helps explains why Carcass felt so present to me at the Gramercy, beyond, that is, simply the mechanics of putting on a great show, and despite the plethora of icons through which I was helpless but to see them.

With the exception of Steel, though, my impression of each individual Carcass record is contaminated as much by the ones that followed as the ones previous. Versus the one-to-two year wait between records that generally characterizes a band’s output in their historical moment, I heard Carcass’s entire early ouevre for the first time almost concurrently, and without consideration as to their historical order. To me, though they are differently dated, they are all contemporary with each other, embedded together in a spatial matrix, like coffins in a graveyard. Or, to use a better (if less Carcassian) figure: a wheel, with Steel at the hub, and the earlier records at the ends of the spokes. As such, while acknowledging that Steel acts as my hidden lens, I could, like a good historian, re-impose chronology, try to trace causes and effects, untangle threads of development, and so on. Thus:

Listening to Carcass’s early records in chronological order is a little like watching silt settle in a pool. At first you can barely make out the objects beneath the surface; little by little they resolve themselves, until, by Heartwork (1993), they have achieved a pristine clarity. No, wait: I’ve fallen out of genre again. What on the early records sounds like a mess of undifferentiated organs—a sound that finds its visual analog in the collage that adorns Symphonies of Sickness’s (1989) record sleeve (the collage, that staple of metal record sleeves, which usually features pix of the band on stage, hanging out with friends, etc., shows instead mangled flesh and body parts: flesh-as-collage), becomes, with Necrotism (1991), autopsy and anatomy lesson. By Heartwork, the technologies of the body and of death, the body-as-machine and machine-as-body, have replaced gore as the band’s overarching metaphor, a shift captured in both tighter music and scrubbed production. From charnel house and churchyard to the dis-assembly lines of the pathology lab and abattoir, Carcass’s breakneck evolution reads like a history of Western attitudes toward death and the body. This is also evident in the albums’ cover art: from the cartoonish flesh-orgies of Reek and Sickness to Heartwork’s eerily bloodless conflation of the surgical, prosthetic, and anatomical. In this regard, Steel’s abandonment of the body for an aesthetic of the instrument, captured in its disturbingly devotional cover (pic above left), completes the trajectory begun in the late ‘80s—one reason, perhaps, that Steel is sometimes regarded as the long-deferred “true” follow-up to Heartwork, with Swansong (1995) indicative of the band’s—and the genre’s—demise.

How to define Carcass’s early sound? On Reek through Necrotism, gruelly and tinny on the high end, sludgy on the low; more grate than crunch, more Exodus or Megadeth than Metallica, yet much more tuned-down and unpolished than American thrash had deigned to be. Reek stands on the cusp of impenetrability, and even Sickness is in constant danger of slipping into its own murk. These first two records actually sound filthy, like the aural equivalent of trying to look at something through dirty glass. The vocals, which split thrash’s mid-range into the extremes of high-end hiss and incantatory guttural accompaniment, sound unnervingly close to an imagined black liturgy; at other times, like somebody retching—an absolutely nauseating sound. But to lump the two together is a disservice to Sickness, which expands Reek’s one-to-two minute blurts into three-to-five minute statements—and highly unpredictable statements at that, with shifting tempos and riffs metastasizing from riffs. The overall murkiness of production probably abets Sickness’s unstructured, chaotic feel, like the effect of poor light on a pattern: part bleeds into part, and recapitulations become difficult to recognize.

The eeriness and brutality of Sickness remain largely intact on Necrotism—vocally, in the guttural voice that shadows Walker’s, and in the ranting of Walker’s own, which obeys less a song’s rhythms than its own rabid logic; musically, in an even greater reliance on riff-metastasis and rhythmic instability. But Necrotism is a much more musical album than Sickness, balancing excess with greater precision (both instrumental and in terms of production), and expanding song structures into rambling suites that sometimes top the seven minute mark. They are full of false doors and non-endings; songs seem to be rising to a conclusion, with the (unexpected) re-introduction of an earlier theme, say—and then another riff will appear, another lead—the rhythm will shift a few times under said riff—and then, boom, the whole thing abruptly collapses. Thematic inventiveness and quasi una fantasia (oscura!) organization are not the only ways Necrotism broadens Sickness’s palette; there is also greater attention to texture and color: (brief) passages of undistorted guitar and effects-massaged production, and guitar harmonies redolent of the NWOBHM that Carcass had written off in the late ‘80s.

The shift from Necrotism to Heartwork is generally regarded as the most dramatic in the band’s history: a reversal of aesthetic priorities, a right-angle turn from the linear development of the first three records. Many of the songs are whittled to traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure, with introductory themes returning to fill one or another role. They also have more (and more obvious) hooks; this is a Carcass album you walk around humming. The tendrils reaching back to NWOBHM and thrash are more obvious; the sound is crunchier; and the guttural vocal accompaniment has disappeared. But as the words “more” and “many” in much of the above signal, the difference is—like the difference between Sickness and Necrotism—more one of degree than of kind. While overall slower and more controlled, Heartwork shares with its predecessor rhythmic flux (less intense, but present), athletic musicianship, and melodic inventiveness. Conversely, it is possible to see in Necrotism (if perhaps only through the lens of Heartwork) the beginnings of both a tighter melodic imagination and a more disciplined compositional style, the latter directed toward the development of a central theme rather than the willy-nilly appearance of new ones. Lesser bands have been undone in the attempt, and some greater ones as well: many of the bridges on an album as canonical as And Justice For All, for example—like Heartwork, a fourth effort—are dull precisely because Metallica seemed unable to vary or extend their central riffs imaginatively.

As noted, Swansong, while another step in Carcass’s evolution, is mostly a step backwards: the sound of a band in retreat. The lyrical subjects, so much outside Carcass’s typical obsession, sound weirdly incongruous with Walker’s vocal style; and some of the titles, at least, suggest, rather than the reckless fun of children rioting in an open cadaver (intestinal sandbox?), a tired ironizing of their earlier themes (e.g., “Keep On Rotting in the Free World”). Right from the opening arena-rock drum break, and, a few minutes later, the interjection of a cowbell—yes, cowbell—one gets the impression that this is Carcass fiddling while the genre burns. (It’s true that drum breaks are no stranger to Carcass; they go all the way back to Sickness. Perhaps, by analyzing each in turn, they might serve as a microcosm of the band’s development? Some other time, perhaps.) And while the tracks that bookend this record sound most like capitulations to the major-label powers-that-be courting some of the more successful extreme metal acts at that time, it is difficult not to generalize this feeling to the whole. With few exceptions, the record ambles along at a genial mid-tempo clip; little remains of the rhythmic variety or structural openness that gave the early records so much of their punch; songwriting and arrangements suggest a bit less the ‘80s influences that had crept into the band’s music beginning with Necrotism, a bit more ‘90s parallel afterlives (such as Rob Halford’s Fight) and ‘70s hard rock (and, in one happy instance, Sabbath). Even Steer’s solos sound watered-down, though perhaps only because he is attempting to infuse a blues-rock feel that was muted on the previous albums, to go, I presume, with the more streamlined sound.

That Swansong is sometimes regarded as a bloodless version of Heartwork points, once again, to the general consistency of Carcass’s oeuvre amid the differences. The album is certainly not without the occasional inventive bridge, strong melody, or heavy break. I want to be able to say that, if Carcass’s decadence is symbolized by Swansong’s cowbell, Surgical Steel doesn’t just get rid of the cowbell: it dismembers the very steer that rung it. But such a baby-and-bathwater take on Steel is simply incorrect. If it is indeed the album that redeems Swansong, and so Carcass’s recording history, it does so, at least partly, through inspired imitation. Particularly for the listener time-warping back from the future, some of the best material on Swansong is highly “reminiscent” of Surgical Steel, as though drafts for ideas that would come to fruition on that record. Walker has noted that Swansong represents only part of the original seventeen tracks written at the time (seventeen tracks, seventeen years: numerologists, take note!), and has claimed that some of the material not recorded for Swansong was stronger than what ended up on that record. Given the clear parallels, I can’t help but wonder to what extent Steel represents a reworking of unrecorded material from that time … and so even more that true, missing fifth album that 1995, “the year metal died,” left Carcass fans craving.

*

Considered thus summarily, the pace at which Carcass evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) over their original seven-year run is startling. They are generally credited with helping found two sub-subgenres: goregrind (a subset of grindcore featuring gory lyrics, often replete with medical terminology; see my “Thesaurus Metal,” 9.4.10) with their debut and sophomore efforts, and the seemingly oxymoronic melodic death metal (an offshoot of death metal with more pared-back song structures and hookier themes reminiscent of the NWOBHM) with Heartwork. As such, for some goregrind purists, true Carcass ends with Sickness, while Necrotism represents the sort of bloated excess more appropriate to prog and classic metal. More commonly, Necrotism is regarded as the peak of the band’s discography—not just an early-career capstone or transitional record, but their magnum opus. According to this narrative, Heartwork is sometimes regarded as a “sell-out” record, an about-face into the more melodic, traditionally-structured, and slickly-produced music that would bottom out on Swansong. Conversely, for fans of melodic death metal, something like Sickness (let alone Reek) is beyond the pale: Heartwork is the masterpiece, the moment when Carcass managed to fuse death metal excess with tighter, grabbier songwriting. And for those fans who appreciate all phases of the band’s brief career, there is always the relatively disappointing Swansong to signal decline. Since it is partly posthumous—the band had broken up by the time it was released—it can be fairly easily dismissed from the “authentic” discography. Once again, this creates a wound that it is all the more necessary for thrusting, stabbing Steel to retroactively fill.

A certain factionalism about Carcass’s fanbase is only logical: since founding new subgenres is generally perceived as an act of violence by adherents of the parent genre (involving, as it does, the importation of elements foreign to said genre, whether instruments, rhythms, themes, etc.; hence my preoccupation with the cowbell above), at least Reek and Heartwork would have been a sort of coup d’genre in their day. And yet, browsing through fan reviews on the web (on Amazon.com and the Encyclopedia Metallum), what stands out is the general high regard in which the band’s whole catalog is held. This is also logical, once the dates of the reviews are taken into account: the earliest ones on Amazon only go back to the late ‘90s; in the Encyclopedia, the early ‘00s. What would have appeared as a rupture in its historical moment is, once the subgenre has established itself and the new sound has found its niche in broader generic history, reabsorbed into a narrative of development; hindsight blurs what was disruptive, or at least balances it with what remains constant—as should be apparent from my own rearview sketches above. On Amazon, for example, all of Carcass’s records rate above four stars (out of five); with the exception of Reek, more than 90% of reviewers give the albums four stars and above; and scathing reviews are very infrequent. The Encyclopedia’s reviews are a bit more fractious: out of a possible 100, Sickness and Necrotism rate in the 90th percentile, Heartwork eighty, and Swansong and Reek in the mid-seventies. I will consider this difference presently. For the moment, suffice to say that, in hindsight, all pre-Steel Carcass is canonical.

In some ways, the weird new-old hybrids called “comeback” albums are even more freighted with conflicting expectations than new ones—and all the more when a band’s aesthetic is as protean as Carcass’s. The reception of Steel bears this out; perhaps it even suggests the fractiousness with which the band’s earlier records were once received, the ruptures we can no longer fully hear. In the Encyclopedia, while by and large the album receives high marks, a significant minority respond with visceral dislike, pulling the overall rating down equivalent to Swansong and Reek. The key word here is visceral. Browsing reviews of all three poorer-polling Carcass records, one finds about a third of the ratings at 50% and below. But only Steel’s reviews dip down into the single digits; one person even gives it a 0%. At least today, then, Steel is the band’s most contentious album. Perhaps this is (once again) logical: just as time would have muted and smoothed over the dislike of the other records as fans reconciled themselves to generic shifts, Steel is fresh, is now. It is almost as though one function of the “comeback” record was to give an opportunity for the earlier factionalism, so long buried, to rear its head again.

Interestingly, this is not true on Amazon, where Steel’s overall rating is the highest of any Carcass record for which a statistically significant number of reviews exist. Obviously, there is an enormous margin of error: rating systems are without a standard rubric, and on Amazon it is hard to disentangle different editions and packagings, so that negative reviews sometimes wind up being about consumer expectations rather than the music. But they are suggestive. To explain the disparity, I would guess that the reviews on Amazon include more first-time, young, and casual listeners than the Encyclopedia, many of whom would be hearing Carcass’s oeuvre from a certain distance, and perhaps (like me) mediated through a first-time encounter with Steel.

The fan-reviewers on a site like the Encyclopedia, on the other hand, clearly position themselves as connoisseurs, a metal critical elite. (This is surely also true of a subset of Amazon reviewers; they are just more diluted. Put differently: there are no blurbs in the Encyclopedia, only more or less exhaustive analyses.) And the negative reviews of Steel published there are admittedly among the best-written and most thoughtful, while the strongly positive reviews occasionally tend toward the geysering one associates with amassed teenyboppers and/or severed major arteries.

So, what are the naysayers’ chief arguments against Steel? Lack of authenticity is the big one: they accuse Carcass of pandering to fans. Why, that is, didn’t Carcass surprise us with their new record, put out something entirely unpalatable, something we were going to respect but not love, at least for the next few years? Why didn’t they once again rewrite the generic playbook? Rather than trying so hard to sound like themselves—and the point of the critique is all contained in that word like—the most authentic Carcass would sound like anything but the Carcass of old. Of course, as some of the reviews also note, the entire genre of the comeback record is compromised in this regard. As usual, Simon Reynolds captures the dilemma brilliantly: “When fans buy new albums by reformed favorites of their youth, at heart they’re not really interested in what the band might have to say now, or where the band members’ separate musical journeys might have taken them in subsequent decades; they want the band to create ‘new’ songs in their vintage style”: they want them, that is, “to cover themselves” (Retromania, p. 39).

Ironically, then, what made early Carcass good is precisely what makes new Carcass bad. Well, sort of. Because if the answer is not simply that comeback records per se are a priori crap, then one must make distinctions, judgments that show the new material at a disadvantage compared to the old. In other words: Sure, it sounds like Heartwork, BUT … it’s unmemorable, unimaginative, clichéd, you can tell they’re just phoning it in, etc., etc. It lacks, that is, those three great intangibles: a heart, a brain, the nerve.**

It’s quite possible that the way the band marketed Steel influenced how both its proponents and detractors heard it. In an interview published on Invisible Oranges the day of Steel’s release, Walker was quite candid about their approach to both the new record and their fans. Deliberating about whether to record, they had decided to see if they would come up with something that “sounded like Carcass.” Walker goes on: “We know what people want […]. We’re not stupid. We went into the rehearsal room and the studio well aware that people would have been quick to put the boot in if we didn’t deliver, you know? And at the same time we don’t want to shit on the Carcass legacy. So it’s not a cash cow. We went in using our own money. So if we weren’t confident that we could deliver on that, we wouldn’t have bothered. We weren’t going to gamble all that money away.” And, regarding how to deliver: “Play to your strengths”; “try to avoid the dumb shit and clichés”; and “give a nod [to their early career] without plagiarizing.”

Plenty of ammunition there for the aspiring cynic, to be sure. To me, though, Walker sounds more pragmatic than pandering. No matter how many powers to which the “sub” in “subgenre” is raised, it’s naïve to think that a band’s aesthetic choices are innocent of their audience’s expectations. Why would Walker divide “giving people what they want” from “avoiding the dumb shit and clichés” when, as he suggests, Carcass fans are thoughtful and discerning? Or is this flattering of the audience’s powers of discernment meta-pandering? It’s hard to tell, so much of what Walker says is generic and vague, like an athlete cornered post-game (e.g., “We just played our hardest and tried to keep a positive attitude,” etc.). As for “sounding like Carcass”: it’s true, as Reynolds says, that (most) fans want their favorite old bands to “create ‘new’ songs in their vintage style.” I am just not sure this means the comeback record as a genre is innately depraved. Clearly, Carcass took the challenge of sounding like themselves seriously: the emphasis on distinguishing self-plagiarism, for example, from the overall style and sound which, regardless of the band members’ “individual journeys,” their collective identity (in this case, Walker and Steel) gave rise to. Perhaps the comeback record should be considered a genre unto itself, one that cuts across the standard popular music genres, and is judged according to its own rules of self-performance and pastiche.

Of course, part of the point of dismissing Steel as “inauthentic” is to create a sense of the reviewer’s authenticity (hence authority), and the inauthenticity (hence ignorance) of the album’s proponents: I knew and loved the band pre-Steel; all of you who actually like this record can’t hear that the true Carcass has been replaced by a brainless, heartless, nerveless forgery. Note the implied ethics: Steel isn’t just bad music; it is cynical, manipulative, ultimately dishonest.§§

I don’t fault Steel’s detractors for dealing in intangibles. Feel, swing, inspiration: words like these pepper this post, and other posts on this blog. Anyone who writes about art is damned to deal in intangibles all the time, while desperately trying to ground intuitive judgments about such things in sensory data and paratextual materials. That said, judging Steel comes back, if I may beat the horse carcass a bit more, not to questions of taste, but of time, personal history, and perspective. Were I an old Carcass fan, maybe I, too, would smell the formaldehyde I’ve smelled on many another comeback. I might even find myself joining the small chorus of naysayers on my blog: “Ah, it’s just warmed-over Heartwork! How disappointing! How cynical of them! And look at the sheer number of times Walker mentions money!” That I am, alas, only old; that, for me, Steel is not a comeback record; that I cannot hear Necrotism or Heartwork the way they sounded when they were released—and yet, paradoxically, cannot hear them the way someone half my age does, given my experience of the milieu from which Carcass emerged: all these elements converge to influence the way I hear Steel. As is likely obvious, to these old-new ears the riffs are just as memorable (and as copious), the songwriting as snare-tight, and the technical excursions at least as impressive as the best of Carcass’s early work.†† And if it sounds like Carcass “covering themselves,” this might be because Steel, more than any other Carcass album, reminds us that early ‘90s Carcass was forging ahead in part by forging together elements from generic history: from the open letters to NWOBHM stalwarts Priest and Maiden (“1985,” which opens the record, should have been called “1982,” after Judas Priest’s “The Hellion,” the opening instrumental on Screaming for Vengeance, which it mirrors, right down to the ending gong), to the heavy, structuring, dolefully beautiful harmonies of Testament and Megadeth.

One is never without reservations. The propensity to break for a new riff on one guitar, then harmonize it in thirds, for example: it’s the sort of thing that would get old fast, if the raw material wasn’t so strong. The album isn’t perfect. So what is? When it hits its stride—as it does on the middle five tracks, with additional high-points on the earlier and later tunes—I can’t think of any metal I’d rather be listening to. And that’s saying a lot.

*

In Retromania, Reynolds blames today’s instantaneous, unlimited access to recorded music for stunting listening habits and creativity, both of which which have tended more and more toward the archival and ironic. A confessed “futurist zealot,” Reynolds despairs for the pop-music future, a future which seems to have become “unimaginable”— though he does end the book on a note of wistful hope. There is much in Retromania with which I deeply sympathize (gushing review forthcoming, someday). And yet, for those of us whose ears are relatively conservative, whose processing speeds are stuck somewhere in the dial-up era, whose adaptability to changing trends is challenged at best, and whose habit of listening recursively is deeply engrained—in fact, is affirmed to be the very stuff of what it means to listen at all … for those of us, having easy access to the plenitude of recording history is an important part of how we make sense of a recent history that seems to go by in an always-accelerating whirlybird blur.ΩΩ

I lost touch with metal as a young adult, just as it began toward the noisiest of extremes on the one hand, and toward pop musics that mostly bored me on the other. Re-discovering said genre in my mid-thirties as a dynamic new form was thrilling. But just as thrilling was the ability to go back to that lost decade and try to connect the dots with the contemporary. Mastodon’s first few records, for example, at least one of which would most certainly go in my Great Things of the New Century box, are inconceivable without Carcass’s early ‘90s records. (N.B.: Having grown up in a household where everyone we listened to was dead, I am comfortable with the idea of listening as an act of exhumation.)

Just as thrilling, however, is finding retroactive merit in things I was not prepared for at the time they appeared. I never could have enjoyed Sickness, and perhaps even Necrotism, back when those albums were released. I probably couldn’t listen to them now, were it not for the decade-long sojourn I took through free jazz, modernist classical, the postwar avant-grade, and other things often labeled non- or anti-music. (And then there was salsa, which helped break down the barriers to at least some of the pop I had once dismissed as merely frivolous.) Even Metallica had initially been a tough sell for my classically-formed ear, more comfortable with the complexity, virtuosity, and melodicism of prog rock and classic metal. My taste would have been much too orthodox, and likely too America-centric, to be able to digest the noisy assaults of the early death & grind bands from Britain. Still today I find a good deal of it unpalatable. Which is to say that the aesthetic breach dividing me from other people my age at the Gramercy show was as real as the generational one dividing me from those who could have been my kids. I want to believe that I somehow “missed out” on hearing Carcass in their prime, and mine. The truth is I was not the person that I sometimes want to imagine myself to have been (cf. “Vinyl Pasts,” 2.6.11).‡‡

So: flesh or steel? Were the person I am today to travel back in time: flesh, Necrotism, the hand that wields. But how can I, who was born into Steel, see Necrotism but as it is reflected in Steel? And yet, to give Steel absolute primacy and stability—the hub of the wheel—that isn’t entirely correct, either, because my impression of it necessarily changed after my contact with the earlier records. I can’t simply impose the logic of history onto autobiography, and by doing so efface my initial emotional response to the music. Desire and understanding are never entirely congruent. I can superimpose one upon the other, as I have tried to do here … but I cannot join them into a single, cohesive image. I know, or think I know, that Steel is closer to Heartwork, and to Swansong, than to Necrotism. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting Steel to be what Walker says it is: a union of Heartwork’s tightness and Necrotism’s riff-mill; what Gary Giddins so beautifully called the “elusive grail” of music, a form that is at once open-ended and contained; the dialectic between chaos and order, spontaneity and composition, wildness and civilization, that gives music so much of its power.***

 

* De rigeur exclamation point for scientific fact meant to provoke awe and wonder. Italics optional. This thought experiment brought to you by the AMNH’s Powers of Ten exhibit.

§ Since this is an extended consideration of Carcass, it will be swollen, even to bursting, with analogies to/puns about violent death, decay, and exhumation. It is the chief rule of the microgenre (practically an idiogenre) to which Carcass commentary belongs: a sort of spinoff of the band’s lyrics, as though all comments about the band were already sewn up inside the band. It is not just that I have no intention of breaking said rules; I do not think it is possible to write about Carcass in any other way. I may believe I am being clever when I say Carcass is “putrescent”; but it is actually the inexorable tendency of the discourse to search out images of and language about evisceration, laceration, contusion, etc. as soon as one begins writing about Carcass.

† Invisible Oranges dates its end to 2012. See their excellent “Re-Thrash: a Postmortem.” Regarding the 1987-or-so fetish: “At its peak, thrash was not just crossing over [with hardcore punk], it was also producing arena rock ballads and progressive rock epics while mutating into death and black metal. Thrash moves forward, literally and figuratively. It was foolhardy to try and trap that lightning in a bottle by going backwards in time.” (See my “Glee Metal,” 3.17.12, as well as “Burnt-over,” 8.3.11, for some echoes.) And this, which I blathered about in “Two Quixotes” (5.11.14): “The re-thrashers dealt in escapism, not history. If everyone in Black Tide was 20 in 2007, there is no way the members themselves remember the ’80s. Their music recalls the ’80s the way those boys have been exposed to it: through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SOD records. It cannot authentically recall the cultural zeitgeist of that time.” Then again: “Fantasy’s been a part of metal since the beginning—I see no objective difference between romanticizing previous lives in the viking age or in the 1980s.”

Ω This comment recalled for me one of the most endearing moments at 2013’s Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference. One participant, who had taught a class on heavy metal to undergraduates, said that one of his students had taken the class because he wanted to understand his father better! (Is one function of the growing number of geriatric rock acts that the window of time suggested by the adage “Too old to rock ‘n’ roll, too young to die” shrinks to the merest crack, until it is only at the moment of recognition (“My God, I am too old to rock ‘n’ roll. Am I—”) that death strikes?)

‡ “Remember me as you pass by / As you are now, so once was I / As I am now, so you must be / Prepare for death and follow me.” This quatrain, which is not uncommon to see on old gravestones, is quoted by Megadeth in “Mary Jane” (on 1988’s So Far, So Good … So What?).

** Critics of Steel also point to some “cringe-worthy” lyrics, with the chorus of “Thrasher’s Abattoir” held up for particular contempt: “Hipsters and poseurs I abhor / Welcome to the thrasher’s abattoir.” Yep, bad. But I am trying to decide how this is more cringe-worthy than any of the nonsensical (but often hilarious) gibberish (replete with misspellings) that makes up the grotesquerie of early Carcass lyrics. In his defense, Walker claims said lyrics were intended to be “lighthearted”: a Pythonesque playing with gore. I’m with it. But then the same could be said about the risible couplet from “Thrasher’s Abattoir”—Steel being (according to Walker) a return to the early lyrical style that was partly abandoned on Heartwork, and entirely on Swansong. At other times, however, Walker can’t seem to decide whether he wants his lyrics to be taken seriously or not. Too much, he claims, has been made of the band’s vegetarianism; they are not trying to proselytize anyone (for which he condemns Barney Greenway of Napalm Death, Carcass’s Oedipal rival). Then what precisely is “serious” about the lyrics of Heartwork or Swansong? It doesn’t help that he is utterly disinclined (at least, within limits) to stop anyone from reading their own meanings into the lyrics—such as the I.O. interviewer’s suggestion that Surgical Steel’s lyrics are “sad,” rather than horrifically “celebratory.” It goes back to metal’s fraught relationship with politics: most try to stay out of it (grindcore as a whole and a few other individual bands excepted), while politically-charged lyrics tend toward the ambivalent (see Robert Walser’s excellent analysis of Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye,” Running With the Devil (Wesleyan UP, 1993), ps. 163-4). Walker’s caginess is thus par for the course. And yet, sometimes that caginess can sound like irresponsibility. Perhaps better not to read interviews. Perhaps better to ignore lyrics altogether.

§§ For more about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in judging popular music, see Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Harvard UP, 1996) ps. 70-74. Perhaps most germane is his discussion of authenticity, which he defines as “a perceived quality of sincerity and commitment” (71). Judging sincerity, Frith notes, “is a human as well as a musical judgment. And it also reflects our extra-musical beliefs.”

†† A few picks, so as not to clutter the text. Memorable riffs: “Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard,” “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills,” “Unfit for Human Consumption.” Copious riffage: the outro to “Mount of Execution”: we added this on at the end, the band seems to say, because we could. Technical brilliance: the intro to “Noncompliance” and bridge of “Captive Bolt Pistol.”

ΩΩ I am not being quite square with Reynolds here. He is most concerned (as am I) with the sort of shallow and one-dimensional toggle-listening encouraged by the web, and so would likely second my call for recursive listening and slowed-down processing. (Hilariously, with the exception of Reek, all my back-catalog listening to Carcass was on compact disc!)

‡‡ There is something about metal that aligns it with extreme sports and horror movies, fight clubs and jackass movies, drug culture, and other boy-heavy endeavors: the question “how much can you take?” looms over them all. The metal devotee is expected to push himself to listen to less and less palatable music; the less palatable, the more “heavy,” the more authentic, and the more authentic an acolyte one proves oneself to be, with the genre ideal measured against a vanishing point of volume, speed, and/or weight. And so it has always been difficult, for the metal devotee, to admit to not liking extreme metal. As per food writer Michael Pollan, it is like a French person saying, “Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t like really stinky cheese …” (And as long as I’m footnoting, here is Greil Marcus’s perfectly apropos definition of nostalgia: “the desire to reach back and touch the person you never were” (qtd. in John Street, Music and Politics, p. 156).)

*** The tendency away from the spontaneous in metal finds its expression in the overly processed, mechanically synchronized sound of too much of the music today. Against it, the metal of thirty years ago must sound either disappointing or exhilirating, depending upon one’s age, listening background, and orientation within the genre. To this older pair of ears, the relative looseness of much early metal—not the self-conscious amateurism of punk, but the desire to push tempo and musicianship to a breaking point, and to capture rather than correct that on recordings—is where much of the power of metal derives from. I think of Lombardo’s double-bass in early Slayer (e.g., the break in “Angel of Death”); the bouncing stick on Perry Strickland’s (of Vio-lence) ride, leaping a fraction ahead just to keep tempo, and so creating an inadvertent swing; the extra beat given to Away’s fill in the reprise introduction of Voivod’s “This Is Not an Exercise.” I wonder if the virtuoso double-bass/guitar synchronization that ends Slayer’s “Mind Control” in 1994 (on which you can hear veteran drummer Paul Bostaph and the rest of the band slip out of time with each other) marks one of the last such instances where failure-as-power was allowed to remain intact. In all of the above examples, it is as though trying to run the machine full-throttle overloads it. The ultimate demonstration of power, after all, is not decibels achieved, but amplification blown: pure overload, total distortion.

 

The therapeutic use of distortion, particularly of the infrasonic, Crowbarian variety, begs study. Who knows but, some day, a future Dr. McCoy will run his tri-corder over some sick soul’s thorax, and instead of that little machine chirping, what will come out is … Crowbar? – Baciyelmo

Dr. Heidegger’s Punks

Waksman, Steve. This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Berkeley: California UP, 2011.

 

In one of my favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne sketches, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” the eponymous doctor invites four aged friends to taste a water he claims will restore their youth. After demonstrating the effect on a half-century-old rose, Heidegger expresses the (sardonic?) hope that, in their second youth, his friends would become models of virtue rather than succumbing again to dissipation. Of course, his guests assure him, clamoring for a drink. The effect of the water is immediate: all four are rejuvenated, and end up parading around the room, admiring themselves in the mirror and ridiculing their former infirmity. Heidegger himself only watches. His friends’ behavior under the “delirium” of the elixir is enough to convince him that its magical properties are not for him. He is a different kind of mirror, a moral one, as so many a Hawthorne character and narrator is. Nor is the actual mirror in Heidegger’s study devoid of said quality. As the three men vie for the attention of the newly “girl widow,” “by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have [!] reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grand-sires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shriveled grand-dam.” Just in case the reader was looking for stable footing, the narrator claims that he himself “bears the stigma of a fiction-monger.” And so—again, typical for Hawthorne—there is a delicious, crepuscular ambiguity as to whether the transformation is real, or Heidegger is watching four old fools captive of a delusion.

I thought of Hawthorne’s sketch more than once while I was reading Steve Waksman’s excellent revisionist heavy-rock history This Ain’t the Summer of Love. In Greil Marcus’s classic formulation, the arrival of punk onto the scene in ‘76 was a “pop explosion”: “a moment of anxiety and rupture that created […] a stark sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’”; the “historical slate” had been “wiped clean” (Waksman 148, 149). And yet, as Waksman shows, for “a small but vocal minority” of rock journalists, spurred by “a mix of nostalgia, narcissism, resentment, and rebellion” (65), the “explosion” of ’76 was not really an irruption of the New; it was the Second Coming. For ’76 simply fulfilled the promise of Nuggets, Lenny Kaye’s legendary 1972 compilation of mid-‘60s garage rock, that last last great moment in rock ‘n’ roll history, whose youthful energy had been dissipated by the anathema of prog-rock pretentiousness and the tuned-in, introspective listening of the audiences for psychedelia (see Waksman 30).* Nuggets, Waksman writes, “embodied the search for a way to channel the most unleashed qualities of rock in new aesthetic directions and the desire to counteract the growing hierarchies—economic and artistic—that had developed around the music during the past half-decade” (66). Despite the emphasis on the “new” here, Waksman is quite clear that Nuggets was first and foremost an act of nostalgic reclamation (69). I can’t help but see them—Lester Bangs, Greg Shaw, Lenny Kaye et al.—standing around with their fingers crossed, haranguing passers-by with their vinyl pamphlets, like Jehovah’s Witnesses on the subway platform. Never mind the messiah, here’s the Sex Pistols.

There is something deeply romantic about this vision,§ and Waksman is not slow to point it out. Shaw, a self-proclaimed “rock purist” (50), believed that by the early ‘70s rock had “lost the ability to represent youthful desires in […] a direct way” (52-3; my emphasis); and it was by this lizard brain-to-neocortex ratio that the worth of all rock was to be measured. Ideally, the denominator must approach zero, and so the ratio infinity, until the audience brushed up against the asymptote of a Maenadic orgy of self-annihilation. To live suspended between two utopias, watching, waiting for the next artist who would “save” rock ‘n’ roll—by which we can only mean ourselves from the consciousness of our own aging and imminent death—strikes me as simply the Heideggerian impulse writ large. Indeed, it is the very warp and woof of post-‘60s America.

I think it was Jello Biafra who said he hated punk nostalgia. How ironic, then, that punk should turn out to be all nostalgia; that the answer to the perennial question “How to keep rock young?” (Waksman 145) should be through periodic injections of the past. Of course, this is as much a polemical exaggeration as Shaw’s: the “new aesthetic directions” are as important as the spirit of rock revived. I will return to this later. For the moment, suffice to say that punk as “pop explosion” is a hyperbole of wish-fulfillment. The story is clearly more complicated than razing history by cultivating the barbaric yawp of hormone-addled teens, and Waksman’s task is to tell this more complicated story. How is it that this odd beast called Heavy Metal, hardly the tiny mammals of the paleontological imagination, survived that icon-shaped meteor called Punk? Why did Metal, as The Dude would say, abide?

*

The mythology of punk had to be constructed against something, and that something would be metal, wayward child of prog and the blues, the dark twin from which punk was separated at birth. Indeed, the labels—punk, metal—are historically so fractious that we’ve forgotten the days when Bangs et al. were singing the praises of early Grand Funk (and even Black Sabbath) for carrying something of the “squalid” (66) garage-rock aesthetic into the era of the stadium, and when GFR could be lumped together with MC5 and The Stooges around ideas of spontaneity, unleashed desire, and populism (67). This Ain’t the Summer of Love is a fine remedy for the cultural amnesia that has hampered our understanding of these two genres’ tangled histories.

“Metal and punk,” Waksman writes in his introduction, “have enjoyed a particularly charged, at times even intimate sort of relationship that has informed the two genres in terms of sound, image, and discourse” (7). Rather than a fixed boundary between them, he posits a “continuum,” through which “generic boundaries have been continually tested, sometimes to be remapped and other times to be reinforced” (10). Waksman is interested in re-telling the story in such a way that punk and metal mutually illuminate each other, and to highlight not just tensions and antitheses, but the reciprocity and cross-pollination of their imbricated evolutions. By redefining the relationship between overtheorized (to the point of fetish) punk, and the until recently (and perhaps still) undertheorized heavy metal, the study spurs us to “question some of the assumptions that have led to the canonization of punk as the last great moment in rock history” (17) … and as such, to hear rock history differently.

Waksman might quibble with me here (and there, and everywhere), but This Ain’t the Summer of Love strikes me as deconstructive in spirit.† By unearthing the nostalgic wish-fulfillment that impelled the “canonization of punk” as the antithesis of “dinosaur rock,” Waksman dismantles a critical binary by which the two genres have often been distinguished. The goal here is neither to invert the hierarchy (metal rules!) nor to eradicate distinctions (metal IS punk), but rather to reveal the role of ideology—where metal simply becomes the foil against which to shore up punk’s authenticity, the scapegoat onto which punk can cast anything it cannot countenance in itself, the representative of the worst excesses to which the spirit of rock can be degraded, in order for punk to believe its myths about itself—in the way the two genres are understood and understand themselves, as well as to map how each genre has impacted the other in that “charged, intimate relationship.”

For example: the desire for mass success has generally sat better with heavy metal than with punk, which repudiated the machine of rock stardom. In this formulation, heavy metal comes to represent the capitalist means of production of the “rock-industrial complex” (stadium show, major label, etc.), punk the conscious, liberated masses (however un-massed they might be) existing in authentic relation to the band. And yet, early punk bands found it difficult to spurn the crowd or the major labels when they came knocking. Were said bands therefore un-punked, “sellouts,” their authenticity just another pose? Writes Waksman about the uncategorizable Dictators: they “thumbed their noses at the terms of rock-and-roll success but still continued to struggle mightily for it” (127). It is a comment that could be applied more broadly.

Of course, binaries are like rabbits, or characters in the Pentateuch: one is continuously begetting another. Slow versus fast, pretentious/arty versus gonad-driven, spectacular versus intimate, passive versus active, hierarchical versus democratic, centralized versus decentralized, amateur versus virtuouso, etc. … I will not presume to identify the pater-binary here. While it is true that differences in musical practice and production are expressions of differing ideologies, the genre labels have the effect of exaggerating them, erecting artificial barriers along the “continuum,” distorting how we hear the music, and deafening us to points of merger and cross-influence.

I would take this one step further and argue that, from the perspective of heavy metal, music and ideology form a binary of their own. That is, metal would like to believe it has no ideology, would understand itself as a purely aesthetic phenomenon, with music and musical practice at the center of the subculture. This makes sense, given its historical love-hate relationship with the mainstream. Punk, on the other hand, was always conscious of its ideology, or of itself as ideology. The music was of a piece with it, but was never understood as an entity separate from it. For punk, the music was a sort of caulk to hold the subculture together, present in every nook and cranny, but not itself the scene. The opposite is true of metal: the music is the scene; the metalheads fit themselves into those cracks, bearing up the music together. Music creates solidarity in metal, rather than being one (perhaps the highest) expression of it. (According to this formulation, no matter how punk-influenced metal has been, the answer to the question, “Is there metal beyond metal?” which was posed at the 2013 Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference (see “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein,” 5.24.13) must be “No.”)

Perhaps, if punk is more a creature of ideology than of its aesthetic expression (e.g., anti-virtuosity and -complexity), it is as much in need of metal to give it musical life as metal needs that other thing punk has from time to time given it: attitude; energy; the dismantling spirit of noise and a dissonance edging into atonality (and anarchy) that visits rock whenever it becomes too enamored of its own edifices. Without metal, punk burns itself out; without punk, metal ossifies. Again, since metal pretends it is not ideological, it is happy to draw on punk for inspiration, including musical inspiration; whereas for punk to do the same can only appear a betrayal, since one cannot delve into metal without dragging the whole kit-and-caboodle of its (reactionary, hierarchical) ideology behind.

If we look to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) era, we are left with the fascinating and troubling suggestion that metal became metal via punk, found its voice because of punk. (It reminds me of the scene in Invisible Man where the protagonist makes white paint by stirring black paint into it …) Here, metal becomes metal not via the mirror of its Other, but by incorporation—that is, because of a certain level of “impurity.” So, just as there was no pure rock in some past utopia that we can remake in the present, so there is no pure or true genre; it is essentially contaminated, always in the process of making itself, cobbling itself together from the bric-a-brac of the musical past, subject to the forces of media and market. Its achievement is aspirational, and endlessly deferred. Ah, these quixotic attempts to redeem the sinner and refine the defiled! The “purity virus,” as we might call it, can be quite as debilitating as what Bangs called the “superstar virus” (Waksman 54). Now, in “taking in” punk, was metal paradoxically infected by the purity virus—the very same virus that leads punk to define itself against metal as ur-representative of the musical past? Perhaps. But it may have been just enough to inoculate it: to create a firm yet still-porous membrane that would allow both a relatively stable generic identity and the possibility of change … and thus the preposterous longevity which has so flummoxed its detractors. Perhaps punk was necessary to show metal that it does have an ideology, and so to help it come to consciousness of itself as a genre.

And punk? Since punk is the privileged term, it has the privilege of pretending to be sufficient unto itself: punk is punk is punk. Or: punk is pure negation, an anti-genre, nothing without the contours of the generic history it mythologizes itself razing to the ground, an energy that “infects” other genres, and that is the essence of its paradoxical purity. Or: punk is … punk is …. After a time, defining punk comes to seem as elusive as locating the proverbial True Scotsman. Punk, the fleeting utopia (was it actually ever there?), the grail-shaped elementary particle created in fiery collision, decaying at the instant of its detection.

*

There is a danger here, no matter how fine a blade one uses, of treating the genres monolithically, of re-stabilizing the very generic binary Waksman would have us think about fluidly, historically. (Notice how much of the above is written in the present tense.) All this talk about binaries is making me hungry … for history, that is. And since the above admittedly weaves far away from Waksman’s study, which is so firmly grounded, it is high time we re-grounded ourselves in the text.

Perhaps something of the foregoing discussion can help reveal why metal’s place throughout the book feels a little problematic. The idea that punk was a sort of reservoir from which metal could draw energy, “revitalizing” it during periods when it was flagging, and pushing it in ever-more-extreme directions, makes metal the dependent genre. Only when metal had developed “an underground energy of its own” (239) would the current be freed to flow in the opposite direction, helping to release hardcore from the mirror of its fetishized purity, polluting it with the dungheap sounds of Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent, and AC/DC, and producing first crossover as a self-consciously hybrid genre (D.R.I., Suicidal Tendencies, C.O.C., S.O.D.), and eventually the more thoroughly-digested hybridity of grunge. Then again, perhaps the feeling of imbalance is an inevitable product of the way rock history has been written; the Standard Model always exerts a gravity on any counternarrative, be it about minority populations or minority musics.

Regardless, the history Waksman tells is compelling: nuanced in argument, deeply researched, and smartly contextualized by cultural changes in twentieth-century Britain and America, from suburban male tinkering to the changing meaning of postwar youth culture. Not surprisingly for a book about “crossover and conflict” between countergenres,** chapters are dominated by pairs—GFR and Nuggets, Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop, The Runaways and The Dictators, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. “Death Trip,” the Cooper-Pop chapter, is particularly insightful about these two figures who stood at the headwaters of the generic division that would emerge over the ‘70s, initiating both aforementioned founding differences (e.g., large-scale spectacle versus intimacy and authenticity) and shared fixations (victimization, death, gender ambiguity). In the third and fourth chapters, Waksman turns his attention to early attempts at crossover. Some of the most interesting material examines the way ‘70s bands’ hybrid identities and competing agendas made them unstable. For The Runaways, for example, the tension between Joan Jett (punk) and Lita Ford (metal) tore the band apart. A few years later, Iron Maiden would more successfully navigate a similar tension by ejecting the offending matter—original singer Paul D’ianno, whose voice, stance, and look screamed punk—and consolidating their image around the operatic Bruce Dickinson (201). With D’ianno, Maiden had been touted as a crossover band; even the original Eddie, the band’s endlessly-mutable mascot, clearly bore the marks of both genres (see 196).

What happened between The Runaways and Maiden that allowed the latter to enjoy at least a few pre-thrash years straddling the two genres? One word: Motörhead. Only peerless Motörhead, mother of all crossovers, get their own chapter. They were noisier and dirtier and less bassy than other metal bands, albeit proficient enough instrumentally; in Waksman’s lovely phrase, “their music was all distorted rushing surface” (165). Both punk and metal writers in Britain claimed Motörhead as their own, whether as the fulfillment of the sound Johnny Rotten prophesied, or as stripped-down heavy rock without a political agenda and a biker look to boot (160-1). Audiences for Motörhead were motley assemblages of punks and metalheads, a phenomenon that would continue with Maiden and the NWOBHM. For Sounds writer Geoff Barton, for example, a 1979 concert of NWOBHM bands featuring Maiden “showed that punks were not so ready to leave the musical past behind as they were often portrayed, and that heavy metal retained a vital degree of currency amid the social divisions that defined the British music scene” (177; the words are Waksman’s).

Punk’s impact on metal would become increasingly transparent—and oft cited, though not without occasionally disparaging comments on punk musicianship (166)—as the ‘70s drew to a close, penetrating to all levels of musical activity: independent labels, local scenes (even if these were meant as stepping stones to stardom rather than ends in themselves), and more extreme styles. It was NWOBHM bands like Raven and Venom who would push the quest for a new, metal-specific authenticity the furthest—that first injection of “punk attitude,” as both D’ianno and Venom’s Abaddon put it (195, 199)—and so have the biggest impact on the rise of the ‘80s metal underground. Mixing a noisy, DIY sound with metal themes, Venom claimed to prefer a punk label to being classed with “unworthy” heavy metal bands (194). In their marginalization from the heavy metal mainstream, they became the genre’s “ultimate purveyors” (195), using punk to scour away any and all extravagances, and redefining the fringe as the new center.§§ A couple of years later, as the meaning of the New Wave shifted, so did the NWOBHM, toward a pop-friendlier sound of short, tight songs with catchy leads (e.g., Def Leppard). Thus, as the different sounds, fates, and degrees of influence of Motörhead, Maiden, Venom, and Leppard show, the impact of punk on metal in late ‘70s/ early ‘80s Britain is ambivalent, even contradictory. While it is true that NWOBHM was an attempt to “come to terms with the impact of punk,” “metal bands of the time were as likely to be reacting against punk as incorporating its values and features, and may have been doing both at the same time” (209).

This true-versus-mainstream divide arising from British metal’s uneasy late ‘70s/early ‘80s interaction with punk would soon take on a decidedly Atlantic cast, with the distinctly un-punk and orthographically-challenged Leppard pandering to American audiences, the same audiences who would soon be buttering the bread of SoCal proto-hair bands like Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe.†† Meanwhile, independent American labels were beginning to foster stateside underground scenes, helping to pave the way for American crossover. SST, founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, grew away from hardcore dogma so that, by the mid-‘80s, their catalog was offering a mix of punk and metal—including Black Flag’s own divisively metal-inflected My War (1982). For Waksman, SST helped “legitimate the inclusion of heavy metal in the independent realm” (228), even as he notes that metal was already creating its own version of DIY culture via its European connections (the Danish fanzine Aardschok, for example, and the NWOBHM). With the emergence of originating thrash metal bands like Slayer and Metallica further up the coast, hardcore ‘zines began to sit up and take notice; some began to call for détente between and even unity among the two scenes.*** Independent Metal Blade would go on to record crossover pioneers D.R.I. and C.O.C. Eventually, the “Seattle Sound” would be built from the bricks and mortar of these crossover tendencies, fused by the isolated and closely-knit musical culture of that city. For Waksman, SST and Metal Blade each had a role in fostering crossover, but only Seattle’s Sub Pop “made the combination of metal and punk into the basis for a broad-based youth culture that reshaped the rock music industry in the first half of the 1990s” (254); it was “the one genuinely mass-oriented music phenomenon […] predicated on the interplay between heavy metal and punk” (301).

This Ain’t the Summer of Love ends like a classic novel: in marriage (with children!). But did the couple live happily ever after? The outcry over Metallica’s headlining Lalapalooza, five years after they went “alternative,” suggests that grunge was only a partial, or momentary, resolution. Waksman’s reading of the evolution of Lalapalooza is brilliantly on-target: “It was almost as though the 1960s-70s shift from festival rock to arena rock was being replayed all over again in the context of a single annual event” (304). By beginning at the dawn of the ’70s and concluding with the Blue Öyster Cult song from which the book takes its title, Waksman suggests that, to truly understand the evolution of punk and metal, one has to go back to that very shift, to the genres’ dual emergence on the other side of the Altamont faultline. BOC’s “This Ain’t the Summer of Love” is a postmortem for “the pastoral, communitarian mythos that surrounded [rock ‘n’ roll] at a particular point in time […] 1970s rock is not about going back to the garden, it’s about riding into the night noisily and with abandon” (297).

As Waksman shows, there are different kinds of gardens; garages will do quite as well for flowers as Golden Gate Park. But the anti-nostalgic impulse carries a danger as well: the fantasy that history can be scraped off of the present, and time begin anew. (Indeed, the anti-nostalgic impulse may be just cloaked nostalgia.) If punk and metal were “efforts to reinvest rock with meaning after the perceived demise of the 1960s counterculture” (18), then what meaning(s)? To what extent revived, imported, contemporary? The central question of the book may be not about the mutual influences between musical genres, but about how to engage with the past without succumbing to either nostalgia or resentment; or without, as James Baldwin once wrote, either drowning in it or replacing it with a fantasy.

*

Some twenty years later, where are we? Sometimes I wonder if, for people of my generation, the genres are as polarized as they ever were. Waksman’s personal story, which he glosses in his introduction, is familiar to anyone who grew up in the ‘80s and invested him or herself in either or both of these genres. He identified as a metalhead; his heavy metal T-shirt marked him as “other” in that epicenter of hardcore, Orange County. But he listened to some punk, and, after his punk college roommie discovered him spinning a Black Flag record, he started going to shows. I grew up three thousand miles away, but everything about Waksman’s narrative resonates with me. We grew from Led Zeppelin and Rush toward something starker, darker, heavier, filtered into punk or metal depending on a variety of social and cultural circumstances. I had metalhead friends who drew a more or less firm line between metal and punk, and others who tried to find their own positions between the two, and even among Brit-lithium bands like The Smiths and The Cure. One, a diehard Metallica fan, floated me my first hardcore: early Tendencies, D.I., and Blag Flag’s Family Man. Another, a one-time skinhead, later became an enormous influence on my taste, seeding me with Beefeater and SNFU while I did the same to him with Voivod: places where divided currents rejoined. We all have stories like these, friends like these: holes poked in the seemingly impregnable walls of genre, notes and cigarettes passed between, smoke blown through, this no matter how wedded we were to our perfectly masturbatory musical identities.

Today, I find that those who held a firm genre line tend to be nostalgic for a certain tribalism, before everything got thrown in the hopper and blended up—before, say, a band with a violin could be called metal, and kids in Brooklyn listened to country. Waksman’s point about grunge’s tangled genealogy, its deep hybridity, is borne out by the way these hard-line friends hear it, whether they subscribed to the metal or punk-cum-indie rock side of the line. Kurt Cobain, for example, is contested terrain. He is generally understood as a punk hero by indie rockers, and the antithesis (one even sees this in Waksman) of grunge’s other multiplatinum success story, Pearl Jam. My nostalgically metalhead friends (you know, the ones who think music died with the ‘80s, was briefly resurrected in Pantera, and then died for real) also have a hard time swallowing Pearl Jam … but some of them claim Nirvana for metal. Alice in Chains has always gone down a lot easier, and even Soundgarden, despite their propensity for parodying metal. But the reticence about miscegenation runs deep as identity. On my end, I love Pearl Jam—I hear not just ‘70s rock, but punk, The Beatles, and much more—and never developed much of a taste for Nirvana. Then again, listening to my iPod on shuffle in the car, I find myself increasingly skeptical of the old allegiances. The music jumps from Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime to Slayer’s South of Heaven, both from ‘88. To what extent was it ever possible to understand these bands as belonging to the same all-encompassing parent genre? My beef is not with evolution per se, of course. I just sometimes marvel at the arrangement of the phyla, always a conventional frame laid over what is indeed a continuum, and—at least where the consumption of music is concerned—usually done so by forces outside of our control.

And the “kids” today, where are they at? Barring statistics about tastes and attitudes, the only evidence (once again) is anecdotal. And what anecdotal evidence I can muster is ambiguous, even contradictory. On the one hand, the taste of younger crowds seems to run the gamut—“genre be damned!” seems to be the rallying cry today—and bands post-grunge happily draw on both “energies.” Cobain himself has acquired the same legendary, common-property status that Jimi or Joplin have; he seems to be the only such figure that has currency among today’s youth audience for rock (which is also why he is contested terrain). In the local music ‘zines where I live, the same publications appeal to both metal and hardcore fans, although there is still a good deal of attention paid to which aesthetic a new local band more or less subscribes. On the other hand, genre has splintered to such a degree that micro-identities seem to isolate audiences within not just genres, but subgenres. If the resulting constellations are not always predictable and channel-able as they once were, they can be just as fiercely guarded. “Crossover” bills may make money, but perhaps only because they gather enough people from different audiences and scenes, not because the audiences themselves cross over … even if the Cro-mags fans aren’t kicking the shit out of the Slayer fans anymore (I wonder if this was the case back in ’79 in Britain as well). Add to this the retro- aspect of today’s audiences, with neo-punks and neo-metalheads digging deep into ancient catalogs, and constructing identities from the bones of their forefathers, and one begins to wonder if that nostalgia for tribalism, be it around punk or metal, propagated by music media, has been absorbed by the youth of today as a way of shoring up their own identities against the endless stream of available music. Or perhaps it is simply natural for youth to crave the sort of ready-made identity that popular music provides.

From the standpoint of contemporary politics, there is a (for me) happy payoff to Waksman’s study. For one of the great values of This Ain’t the Summer of Love is that it so well demonstrates the contingency of the border between the two genres and scenes. For the most part—and I will focus on America here—the suburban youth who patronized hardcore were as alienated from the traditional working class as they desired to be from the plastic world of their parents; the proletariat remained theoretical. Meantime, the working class was listening to arena rock/ metal; their politics were reactionary and populist. (Surely a large number of suburban youth also populated that audience, and became much of the audience for ‘80s underground metal: one that aped the working class, as Deena Weinstein showed … but was devoid of both working-class roots or a revolutionary ideology.) Between a working class that embraces capitalism aspirationally, and which finds its greatest exponent in the Horatio Alger rock star, and a disaffected suburban youth without any authentic connection to that working class, who scowl and sneer at “the system,” but are entirely impotent to effect change: “punk” and “metal,” labels that help drive the ideological wedge between the middle and working classes, pitting them against each other for the benefit of the 1%.

But to return to aesthetics, and to my beloved monoliths. Punk and metal have always needed each other to check each other’s worst excesses; they are perhaps best construed as warning labels: stay away from idealized poles, where ideology is mistaken for life. What else could have saved hardcore from drowning in the mirror of its own purity, or from the delusion that it was the vanguard of the apocalypse? And what could have saved the lumbering, masturbating spectacle of metal from itself, if not the noisy anti-energy of punk? Each of us might put our fulcrum in a different place along Waksman’s “continuum,” but some Cygnus there must be. There must be a similar balance, I think, about the way one approaches the past—between, that is, nostalgic romanticization and anti-nostalgic rebellion; between death by drowning and a life of fantasy. For Waksman, the success of grunge seems to have been its ability to negotiate both generic and generational pitfalls: “resources from the past became the means to counter the orthodoxies of the present and to create a new synthesis that melded hardcore’s radical sense of refusal with the ambivalent embrace of heavy metal excess” (298). For the artist of today, weaned on notions of the anxiety of influence and in a culture that is at once hyper-aware of the immediate past and with the technological means at its disposal to both endlessly confront and endlessly recycle it, negotiating the opposing pitfalls of nostalgia and rebellion seems the essence of the creative struggle.

*

Oh, dear. This is a ramshackle house of a “review.” Some very nice individual rooms, you will agree: so pleasantly decorated, the grillework so fastidiously done over, the wallpaper fascinatingly intricate, and mirrors, my God, mirrors everywhere, making everything appear larger than it is. But it is true that, viewed from a distance, it is a bit of a monstrosity: an amalgamation of strange, misshapen additions, as though there had never been a hearth. I won’t even tell you about the rooms left on the drawing board; the Alice Cooper-Iggy Pop one was particularly beautiful; perhaps they will become future additions, or better yet, outbuildings. For now I am running—running, abandoning the place, before I have the urge to grab my tools again, and build yet more rooms, and renovate old ones … and even to re-decorate rooms that will later fall to the sledgehammer! When I have reached a minimum safe distance in time, the great gravity of this house only enough to make my teeth sing, and my pen has turned into a pillar of salt, then, then I can begin to dream of returning.

 

* Perhaps even nostalgia about nostalgia, a Third Coming. In his third chapter, “The Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Ideal,” Waksman takes us even further back, to the lost teen utopia of the 1950s: America’s Garden of Eden, the competing figures of Gidget and The Wild One, the beach kid and the juvenile delinquent (111-112). America, Christopher Hitchens once noted, seems to have a talent for misplacing its innocence. Anyway, among the many strengths of Waksman’s book is its close attention to the pivotal role media—journalism, radio stations, record labels, and anthology recordings—play in shaping musical genres, and by extension music history.

§ Bangs may masquerade as a cynic, but … what a gloriously seductive costume. I can’t think of a rock writer I read with more pleasure. I am generally too happy getting lost in the whorls of his language to bother stepping back to disagree. N.B.: Bangs, for one, recognized the tension between what he called “The Party” and self-consciousness (see Waksman 56), and tried to solve it in typical Bangsian fashion, that is, by recourse to his methamphetamine style.

† Deconstruction itself has become (must become) an object of nostalgia. It does seem oddly apt to use an intellectual tool that came to prominence in the ‘70s and ‘80s to discuss changes in music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. To each time, its tool. That said, I am not sure why intellectual tools should fall out of use. If I am trying to pull nails out of the floor (of culture, in this case), a claw hammer is going to serve me as well as anything since invented, and perhaps better than anything yet invented. Interpretative frameworks—generally cobbled together from different disciplines, grafted with varying degrees of success—are as maniacally sought after, and just as prone to obsolescence, as any other commodity … and therefore, as much a product of the ideology they are ostensibly used to critique, no? Anyway, a new area for eBay to exploit.

** The term is Heather Dubrow’s; I might have done well to raise it earlier. Countergenres are genres that “work according to a set of norms that are implicitly or explicitly drawn from and at times opposed to each other” (Waksman 9). Waksman notes that relationships between genres and the transformation of genres are undertheorized.

§§ Waksman draws on the concepts of mundane and transgressive subcultural capital to analyze Venom’s role (184-5). For a fuller discussion of these concepts, see Keith Kahn-Harris, “‘You Are From Israel and that is Enough to Hate You Forever’: Racism, Globalization and Play Within the Global Extreme Metal Scene,” in Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011); and my own discussion of Kahn-Harris’s argument in “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13).

†† One of my favorite anecdotes in Waksman’s book tells of Def Leppard’s Joe Eliott stripping off the union jack to reveal the stars and stripes. The equation of authentic or true heavy metal with Britain is nowhere better stated than by Rob Halford a few years later: “The USA still looks to Britain as the true origin of Metal […] I honestly don’t think that there has ever been a true American Heavy Metal band!” (333). Judas Priest, as Robert Walser once noted, aspires to be genre-defining. For the irregular ways in which claims to authenticity intersect with masculinity and social class, as well as with nationality, see pages 201-206 in the Waksman.

*** A shout-out to Pushead (Brian Schroeder), who wrote so passionately about punk-metal crossover for Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll: “Now the crossover has happened and the 2 underground energies are colliding. This is speedcore. There is still hardcore and metal, but in a general sense, the ferocity and quickness brings a unity for those who enjoy it” (239). Today, Pushead is best known for the artwork he produced for Metallica. He should also be remembered—fondly? disturbedly?—for fronting over-the-top speedcore band Septic Death.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow

annieYou are indeed always a day away. Is this cause for hope or despair? For Annie the eyeless orphan, hope, naturally. Corollary: the present sucks. But you’re supposed to forget this when you’re immersed in the song, tumbling down the diatonic staircase to future happiness, become as much a child as the performer. It must be sung by a child, the less proficiently the better (as I heard it, endlessly, helplessly, one morning on an Amtrak train), to express the perfect naivete, the utter conviction of the position you, the listener, are expected to adopt. To create a surrogate present. To wallow in hope. No wonder she doesn’t have eyes, this Tiresias reborn as Pangloss: all she can see is the future, and it’s roses, roses all the way down. Or maybe she dashed them out, not, like Oedipus, to punish herself for her arrogant blindness to prophecy, but to better signify her willful neglect of the present. The dream may be deferred, but for little white Annie, it never dries up, rots, or explodes. Hell, it doesn’t have time to, the play is so quick in rewarding her (and the audience) for her stubborn will-to-hope by making tomorrow today. The orphans are not the sans culottes, storming the barricades of their conniving wards, cutting off their heads, burning the orphanage to the ground. A bizarre mixture of charity and Keynesianism ensures that the wicked are punished and Annie lives happily ever after. No surprise, either, that this Depression-set tale of hope would resonate with a bankrupt city in the year of the blackout. Only in hindsight does the Depression reveal its function in our grand historical narrative, redeemed by the New Deal and the economic expansion beginning with the Second World War. We can follow this tendency as far back as the American jeremiad, as Sacvan Bercovitch (re)interpreted it: straying from the righteous path is only ever a detour to fulfilling the glorious mission that God intended for this nation. America is Annieland; even Disney’s Tomorrowland simply technologized the seeds brought by the first English settlers; and it was Disney that would be coming to save New York, too (morrow), though audiences in 1977 wouldn’t have guessed it.

It might be fruitful to compare Annie to Jane’s Addiction’s own paean to tomorrow, “Jane Says” (the definitive version is on their live first record, Jane’s Addiction, 1987). Here, in dreamy, sustained-fourth choruses, the eponymous Jane says she’s “gonna kick tomorrow.” The verses describe her hard-knock today, and the way she’s planning a new future: leaving the abusive Sergio, quitting junk, saving to “go away to Spain,” etc. But if Sergio comes back, well, “Tell him to wait right here for me/ Or try again tomorrow ….” It’s that “tomorrow” that carries us into the chorus, the change in tone suggesting the fantasy that allows Jane to escape the vicious cycle of her life, musically encoded in the tick-tock two-chord progression of the verses. It matters much here that Annie sings in the first person, while Jane’s words are reported, except in those choruses, where Perry Farrell assumes her voice. She hasn’t started saving, of course. She’s the one who needs saving. But this is no “22 Acacia Avenue” (Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast, 1982), the idealistic young working stiff saving Charlotte the prostitute from her own perdition, metal’s version of Daddy Warbucks, told in his voice. No one’s going to step in and rescue Jane, not even against her will. But then she has no will. “She’s never been in love”—so the last verse reports—and the chorus that follows, eschewing the “tomorrow” of the first two: “I want them if they want me.” Jane is the anti-Annie; no fighter, “she can’t hit”; she is devoid of the ability to start anything, least of all her own life over.

Tomorrow proves to be more than Annie’s john—she doesn’t care whether tomorrow wants her; she’s in love; and even more than Annie’s pimp, it’s her long-lost daddy. But tomorrow is most certainly Jane’s pimp. Hope is stripped of its romantic aura. She says a whole lot, but is unable to do; tomorrow remains a word, a word expressing a dream, a dream curtailed the moment the word is spoken, deferring it, ever deferring it. The explosion happens—“she takes a swing”—but is impotent. The dream, hope, is the addiction. Unlike Annie, which entices us to see the Depression folded into the narrative of America’s bumpy road to the future, and envision the same glorious destiny for a beleaguered present, Jane is trapped in the moment: skid-row L.A. in the 1980s, in the ashes of Reagan’s California, shrilly calling out the fantasy of Morning in America. If Jane could only wake up! A few years later, the messiah would arrive, not as a New Deal, but a Neoliberal Bubble. But then Jane never made it that far.

And yet, satirized as it’s been, Annie’s “tomorrow” is not devoid of irony, just as Jane’s is not devoid of that willful hope. With Annie, the adult listener is at once moved by hopefulness and aware of the wider context, the hard-knock life, the potentially delusive nature of that hope, at least as it appears outside the theater. Conversely, we can’t help but be moved by Jane’s desire to change, even as the song’s fatalism makes Perry Farrell’s crooning of that word so grotesquely ironic: a bell tone that opens no doors, a bird call without answer, hovering and falling from the same hopeful fifths, chorus and verse … the same fifths Annie hits, even as she suggestively surpasses them (to-mor-row, 5-6-5). Make no mistake, Jane goes out saying, saying, saying. They’re sisters, Jane and Annie, they share an ambiguous genealogy, Jane the grown-up Annie who might have been, in another possible tomorrow.

Tomorrow, Janis once said, is the same fucking day, man … except that, as Pink Floyd is always singing in the continuous present of some classic rock radio station somewhere in America, you’re “Shorter of breath/ And one day closer to death.”

Here’s to a great 2016!

Dry Hump

TraderJoes440My mother is in the car. My father is at the post office, which is housed in a building indistinguishable from the businesses in the rest of this strip mall. I am at Trader Joe’s, or, as my mother called it until quite recently, Traders Joe—a Spanglishism that results, I would guess, from hearing possessives as plurals, and perhaps from a tendency to confuse the order of parts of speech, as in abbreviating shopping mall as el shopping, or calling The Rolling Stones Los Rolling. That she has at last learned the correct name of this grocery store is, to me, a more potent demonstration of Americanness than her citizenship.

From the second handicapped parking spot I could already hear the music, some song by Los Rolling I didn’t recognize; and now here I am, jutting my chin to Mick and the gang as I dig through the cornucopia of snack mixes—Tempting Trail Mix, Go Raw Trek Mix, Rainbow’s End Trail Mix—in the guiltless banana republic, the outpost of some sunny SoCal empire, that is Trader Joe’s. Shopping here is a cross between safari and beach vacation; I feel a tiny bit colonial, but innocently so. Perhaps it’s because every aspect of the experience is as managed as a Disneyworld ride, up to and including the adorable hippies in Hawaiian shirts carrying signs the size of butterfly nets and restocking shelves with Trader Joe’s products, or one of its cutesy ethnic variants, as recognizably Traders Joe as the Lone Ranger with that teensy-weensy mask stretched over his eyes. The employees at the registers seem a bit too old to be working here, and a bit too cheerful. In fact—again reminding me of Disney—everyone is a bit too cheerful, to the point of seeming a little on edge, so that I can’t help but scan their eyeballs for an amphetamine shiver. And maybe that’s why, despite the crate-and-burlap kitsch of the decor and the lockstep branding of the products and the Pangloss vibe of the staff, shopping here carries a whiff of adventure, of potential danger.

Or maybe it’s the rock-n-roll. Digging through the nut mixes, it occurs to me that the music is a little loud—at least, a little louder than I am accustomed to in such an environment: the blow-up cushion of smooth jazz on which I float at, say, Kroger, or ShopRite, or the yoga-mat silence of Whole Foods. Clearly, the music is a little too present; I have—God forbid—paused to listen, to think, I don’t know this Stones tune, to wonder if I am too disdainful of the British Invasion, or just plain ignorant. I am thinking about The Stones rather than Fancy Mixed Nuts, or any other of the almost-equally-desirable snack products with which it competes, filling the shelves before me. The music has ceased to serve its function, that is, to focus me on and funnel me toward consumption, to create a hypnogogic state conducive to the dreamlike spending of money.

But my distraction is temporary, and soon enough I find my rhythm again. This is just a different kind of store, and so a different kind of shopping is demanded of me: hip, rebellious. Every item that I throw into my cart is a flip of the bird to the grocery-store past, with its long dim aisles and sullen, pimpled checkout girls and pedal-operated conveyor belts. This ain’t no ShopRite! (Bam!) This ain’t no Kroger! (Whap!) This ain’t no …

But this is nothing compared to what awaits me around the corner, past the well-ordered meat and dairy items and brightly-packaged vegetables, past tortillas in all the colors of the Mexican flag. The Stones song ends, and on comes Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded,” same volume, but seeming louder—that middle-of-the-dial, talk-jock in-your-faceness, the sort of shit Clear Channel has used to pave our cultural interstate highway system. On classic rock stations across the country, the same Foreigner tune, at the same hour, like church bells reminding the faithful to … well, to what, exactly?

You don’t have to read my mind. F, C, G. To know what I have in mind. F, C, G. Honey, you oughtta know. I oughtta know. Damn it, I oughtta know. What am I here for again? Bananas, that’s right. My mom is waiting for bananas. But I am in the frozen aisle. Clearly there are no bananas to be found here.

Well, you move so fine. Danish Pancakes, yes. Let me lay it on the line. Glu-ten Free, Toas-ter Waf-fles. I just wanna know. Choc’late La-va Cake. What you’re doin’ after the show. Choc’late La-va Cake.

I’m trying not to dawdle. But for all these products in their open freezers, like bleachers full of adoring fans, wanting me. Worshipping me. If they had their way, I’m sure they would strip off their packaging and jiggle their contents at me, before jumping right into my mouth. Bananas might as well be in an alternate universe.

Up ahead, a pair of employees chats happily, the female sitting on the railing of the open freezer. And here I thought it was just me, Foreigner, and micro-fetish food items. I am afraid they will engage with me, greet me, ask me, with a wink and a nudge, if I need anything. So I lower my head like a cuckold and push by, listening to Foreigner, who are now asking her, “baby,” if she “do[es] more than dance.”

Do they hear it? How could they not? And when some stripper with a ‘70s haircut and pasties thrusts her hips into my imagination, fingers laced behind her head … do they see what I’m seeing? (My God, where did that come from?)

By aisle three I am beginning to feel just a little goofy, to the point that I wonder if I’m participating in a psychological experiment, or some Candid Camera-style TV program. An elderly woman blithely pushes her cart toward me, a blissed-out expression on her face, reminding me of the mall walkers I witnessed just an hour before—my first encounter with said species, I am unaccustomed to malls, they induce in me the sort of vague dread some people feel when you say the words “uranium enrichment tubes,” or “marriage equality.” Beyond her is a young mother with a toddler, the toddler pushing a toddler-size shopping cart, mom probably a toddler when this song came out. And all the while, Foreigner continue to stroke themselves through the PA:

Are you … hot, mama? Are you old enough? Is my timing right? Did you save your love for me tonight?

Man, seriously? I feel like Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I want to scream, Don’t you hear it? Doesn’t everybody hear it? Like I’ve been hurled up to the ceiling, to look down on my shopping self from among the festive, half-tumescent beach balls, loudspeakers blaring beside my ears.

Instead, staring intently at the coffee (organic, shade-grown or bird-killing, nature-despoiling: it’s up to you), I start to giggle.

It’s about time, though I’m not entirely sure if it’s victory or surrender. And then I feel self-conscious, again. For even though it’s okay for the employees to laugh—it’s probably listed in their job duties—it feels wrong for me. I almost expect someone to come and, smiling, lead me out of the store by the elbow.

I reach down and squeeze my bag of Fancy Mixed Nuts, feeling the air inside the package push threateningly against the seam; and I vow that, though I must walk the gauntlet of every item in this store, I will make it to the bananas, I will return with them to the car by the time my father is out of the post office.

Besides, I have to know what brand-stamped global treasures the next aisle might hold. What desires will I discover? What half-naked natives will I see dancing when I spread apart the plastic leaves? This: Reduced Guilt Kettle Chips! Right next to the South African Style Potato Chips! Hilarious ironies of product placement! And this: Giant Peruvian Inca Corn! Who knew such a thing existed? And how did they get these giant Peruvians into the country?

And look at this: Cookies and Cream Cookie Butter! So much for reduced guilt! Indeed, Foreigner informs me that we can make a secret rendezvous. But before we do, you’ll have to get away from you-know-who.

I hold the cookie butter like contraband, plastic and pinstriped, a sort of lard vibrator. I think: So this is what it has come to. Or, rather, this is what it always was. Or, rather: Look what I have come to. Or something like that. Chorus, chorus, repeat and fade, Ponging I to IV, V to I, music endlessly consummated, consummation endlessly deferred. Of course: everything else happens backstage, after the show, all night.

Slowly, I return the cookie butter to the shelf.

It ends better for Foreigner than it does for me. The bananas, in the last spacious, bright aisle, are a letdown. A little bit spotty. A little bit green. Even the guy at the register seems disappointed. Like he was expecting more from me. He’s supposed to smile. He rings up the bananas and the Fancy Mixed Nuts. I pay with a credit card.

Maybe Muzak just doesn’t cut it anymore, at least for post-boomers and geriatric hippies: a more vigorous genre is required to prod us up and down the aisles. Still, you would think the irruption of the crass sex anthem that is “Hot Blooded,” intended to be consumed by stadiums full of delirious teens, into the pristinely-ordered, tightly-managed grocery-shopping bonanza that is Trader Joe’s, would do some sort of damage. Except that Foreigner are about as dangerous as gluten-free toaster waffles. And this has nothing to do with some historical transformation into retro-hip, or embarrassing kitsch, or “classic rock,” or a Tom Frank-style conquest of the cool, where, say, Bob Dylan or Los Rolling have been appropriated (inasmuch as rock ever needed to be) to sell Coke or credit cards. Nein. Foreigner were born fully assimilated. “Hot Blooded” was castrated at birth. 1978 was the year George Romero’s zombies invaded the shopping malls, the year mass consumption finally found its appropriate metaphor.

It’s the titillation of adolescence teetering on the edge of forbidden knowledge, the fantasies of sexual abandon and mastery, that we consume, in tightly-controlled environments of endlessly-proliferating commodities—songs, noodles—packaged to look diverse. Wandering up and down aisles, sitting in traffic jams, scanning the statistically-selected music on devices that obsolesce before our eyes, all the well-ordered routines of late capitalist life, cookie butter rebels toggling from stadium to stadium, store to store, dry hump to dry hump, as guilt-reduced as the coupling of rock star and groupie, over and over and over again.

Wintry Mix

As we hightail it out of the coldest February since the Hudson Valley started keeping records in ’49, and I stare out my window at a landscape still knee-deep in snow, it may be a good time to look back on those precious few moments of warmth, viz., the periodic injections of molten METAL which, like oil drums full of cortisone pumped into my every hinge and cranny, kept my spine limber and horns high.

*

The Chance theater in Poughkeepsie (Pug-KIP-see) was not the place to be on a single-digit night in mid-January. It’s a cardboard box, with flaps on four sides, and people kept opening and closing them for one reason or another, letting in all that cold, cold air. Almost everyone kept their jacket on. The re-entering smokers looked like Kurt Russell in The Thing:

kurt-thing_fe

Now, anything I can possibly say about High On Fire, that cold, cold night’s headliner, can be summed up in one detail: Matt Pike walked in out of the night and, before the door even shut behind him, pulled off his shirt. There we were, all of us huddled together in our coats, looking at the shirtless wonder that was Matt Pike. That’s commitment. That’s metal.

It behooves me to say something more about The Chance, this being my first time at the venue. What most stood out to me was the stark contrast between it and any of the City venues I’m accustomed to catching shows at—places as different as St. Vitus, Gramercy, and Best Buy. The Chance is probably more like the slogged-between rock clubs in Topeka and Flagstaff than anything sixty miles downriver, gritty and grungy Gramercy included. In fact, watching roadies’ legs pass back and forth beneath the two-thirds-dropped curtain branded with call letters of local radio stations, I couldn’t help thinking of The Blues Brothers playing “Rawhide.” It’s as different from the City as soap opera from primetime: a combination of the quality of light—a harsh, bathroomy light, the sort where nothing can be hidden, no band canonized by haze—and the quality of silence, noticeable between sets, is as unforgiving as the light. And so there is a raw, unfiltered quality to all sight and sound at The Chance.

When the bands play, the whole Chance throbs and buzzes like a Camaro.

In New York, clubs tend to feel bigger than they really are; The Chance feels smaller. Maybe that’s why what I took to be the door to the bathroom was actually the side door to the stage, and I almost joined openers Windhand there. And maybe that’s why High On Fire let the feedback ring between songs: to have a blanket of sound in this place where nothing can hide. Of course, anything smacking of blanketry was much to be welcomed on a night like this. But then there’s something about HOF’s sound that courts it anyway. Their hour-plus-long set was—quite literally—a seamless wall of noise.

They opened with “Madness of an Architect,” a perfect specimen of their giant, sludgy sound, a song built on a droning tonic scooped over and over up the neck; they closed with the by-now-anthemic “Snakes for the Divine”; they played “Rumors of War” and “Surrounded by Thieves” along the way. But the highlight of the set was the five (count ‘em) brand new songs: HOF were about to go back into the studio, and Pike said that, though they weren’t quite ready with the new material, he thought they were “pretty goddamn tight.” I would have to agree. And not just tight: you could tell they were jazzed about playing this stuff. Live, there’s always a tradeoff with brand-new material, for what is lost in the pleasure of anticipation—the sing-along, the this is my favorite part—has to be made up for in the excitement of being the first kid on your block to hear it. When it works, as it did here, it opens up a powerful hole in the set: a feeling of risk, a detour into the unknown, a vaudeville intermission—something Pike himself acknowledged with the words he used to seal off that part of the evening: “Now back to the regular program.”

Matt Pike, photograph by Liz Ramanand

Matt Pike, photograph by Liz Ramanand

HOF is the sort of band that makes you believe the road really can whittle and sand you down to the essence of rock-‘n’-roll. Pike played with one foot on and off the monitor like a gas pedal, all speed, sweat and tattoos. He’s got a new handlebar mustache, too, a la Hetfield or Lemmy. And while I’m on the subject of the rise and fall of facial hair: bassist Jeff Matz has grown an Ozarky beard to go with the practiced Melungeon stare. Beards do seem to be in with the metal crowd these days; not even drummer Des Kensel has managed to buck the trend.

There are few bands that can match HOF for raw power live, and that power—marvelously on display at The Chance that night—is as attributable to rumbling Matz and thundering Kensel as to Pike. But Pike is still the pointy end of this band; and, watching and listening to him that night, I realized something about his sound that is perhaps more broadly applicable to the sludgier and doomier metal bands of the last decade or so … although, as with so much, HOF does it better than most. His guitar has a timbre like a trombone. It’s not just the sound, but the way he uses the instrument, and the licks he writes. His left hand works like the trombonist’s on the plunger, all slides and slurs; the guitar might as well be fretless. His right hand gives the initial impetus, like a bellows-breath, and then the left hand, locked in 1-5 power-chord position, works up and down the fretboard. Meanwhile, the looseness of the strings—a combination of down-tuning and the fact that much of the sliding happens around mid-neck—means the notes balloon outside of their fretted little jails. The end product is that bloated, roughshod sound that characterizes High On Fire, a sound like deep brass.

*

I was back at The Chance two weeks later for the Napalm Death/Voivod et al. show. The temperature had eased up toward freezing, but a sleety snow started coming down around dusk, forcing The Chance to move the starting time up an hour, and leaving me hemming and hawing about whether to go out at all. It was one of those intergenerational love-in bills, six bands, a combination of elderly, middle-aged and retro-, equal parts alluring and quease-inducing. If there was an onball on this bill, it was definitely Voivod. And if there was any band I had to see, it was Voivod. And so Voivod it would be, even if it meant my Corolla piercing ice and snow like a veritable Princess of the Night.

exhumedI missed the first three bands, including (most sadly) the perfectly-named Iron Reagan, fronted by the redoubtable Tony (Municipal Waste) Foresta, and made it just in time to hear what remains of Exhumed—Matt Harvey, basically, the rest of the band a stitched-together corpse—celebrate the re-recording of their 1998 debut Gore Metal. Exhumed dates from a time when I wasn’t listening to new metal, so I didn’t know what sort of a treat I was in for: Harvey’s perfect “Hetfield hunch” (think Nosferatu’s shadow) over his low-hanging mic; newbie Bud Burke (second guitar, an Explorer) rolling his eyes back to the whites while he headbanged, like my dog does when she’s dreaming. But by far the most attractive thing about Exhumed’s set was the unnamed mascot in scrubs, surgical mask, and bloody apron who periodically ran out onto and around the stage swinging a chainsaw over his head, pointing it now and again at the audience, a little like Maiden’s Eddie used to do. (Perhaps he, too, had mistaken the side stage door for the bathroom?) As a grand finale—more than shades of Alice Cooper here—said Eddie decapitated Monsieur Burke in a subcompact guillotine he rolled out onto the stage for that very purpose. But as he prepared the beheading—Sacrebleu!—the prop head fell onto the stage, and he was forced to retrieve it, and mime the whole thing over again, like a budget magician at a six-year-old’s birthday party. Then, as if enraged by the faulty prop or bungling executioner, Harvey gave a death-shriek so long and blood-curdling it would have made Death Angel’s Mark Osegueda jealous. The bouncers never even cracked a smile.

Okay. How do you reconcile the intensity of the music with the childishness of the spectacle—the guillotine with the shriek? It’s a disconnect inherent in the genre; it may even be genre-defining: between total commitment on the one hand and a refusal to take oneself seriously on the other; that invests itself and simultaneously stands outside and ironizes that investment. How can it be otherwise, in a genre that has managed to draw on both the spectacle of glam, Cooper, King Diamond, Gwar, and the (sometimes preachy) authenticity of thrash, grindcore and garage rock? One must take one’s laughter seriously. One must find a way to laugh seriously. I might think the spectacle silly, even distasteful, but I fear that, without it, our vaunted authenticity would disappear, too. And I don’t think the subgeneric drift of the last twenty-five years has troubled this contradiction at the heart of metal. It’s possible that the genre’s combination of vitality and longevity derives from the constant oscillation between these two poles.

Some twenty minutes after that climactic execution, Voivod took the stage with a polka version of “Ripping Headaches.” Who’d’ve thunk “Ripping Headaches” was a polka in disguise? Who broke out the Gogol Bordello? But what better way to celebrate an execution? Snake could have brought out his accordion. It was a measure of how far this band has come since the days of RRROOOAAARRR!!! … and it made me wonder why they bother to play this material at all anymore, except, perhaps, to give it such an unintentional stylistic makeover. The eponymous anthem “Voivod” I can understand; aging rock bands must constantly hail themselves in order to survive. But one price of being a band as eclectic and changeable as Voivod is deciding what part of your catalog you choose to hold onto thirty years down the road. Do you focus on what you’ve become, or how you got there? If you’re a butterfly now, why play larva? (No offense to War and Pain, one of the great debut albums—fuck it, one of the great metal albums of all time.)

The Chance set was pretty nearly what they played at Best Buy a few years back. “Voivod” went from opener to closer; “Overreaction” was substituted for “Tornado”; the wonderful “Prow” was added from the somewhat-underrated and little-heard Angel Rat. There was “Mechanical Mind” from Target Earth, and a brand new number called (pace Killing Technology) “We Are Connected,” which sounded very good indeed. But what with Target Earth making 20-best lists and ‘zines talking about Voivod’s return to their Voivodishness, it does make me wonder—as I have so often on this blog—why. Why only a couple of new songs? Why always that darn Floyd cover “Astronomy Domine” for an encore? Why go on tour at all? At the urinals after the set, Mark “Barney” Greenway from Napalm Death waiting his turn behind us, the guy peeing next to me raved about how seeing Voivod was just like being in college again; the only thing missing was a big, fat joint. He said this twice—big, fat, joint. And all I could think was that seeing Voivod in 2015 is precisely NOT like being in college again. In fact, seeing Voivod in 2015 reminds me that more than half a lifetime separates me from college. Outside, The Chance was smoothing over the between-set silence with side 1 of Moving Pictures. After Exhumed, it was Sin After Sin (with a bonus live version of “Starbreaker”). Seriously, how old did they think we were?

It may be that everyone else was more honest with themselves than I was, about being there for the nostalgia trip and the big, fat, joint. I admit that “Astronomy Domine” sounded good**, this despite the cheap interlude where Snake got people to clap for Piggy. Piggy who? Miss Piggy? I’m all for memorializing one of metal’s greatest guitarists (e.g., “Deulogy,” 1.4.11). Yet, Voivod are half a tribute band to themselves already. And while it might be too schematic to judge a band’s vitality by the ratio of new to old material they play, there’s a reason why “We Are Connected” was the unexpected peak of Voivod’s set, just like that string of brand-new songs High on Fire played a couple of weeks earlier.

Away; photograph from The Brooklyn Vegan

Away; photograph from The Brooklyn Vegan

If there was a saving grace to seeing Voivod in 2015, it was Away. Stage name of Michel Langevin, Away is the driving force of this band—one of two remaining original members, and the only one besides Piggy (R.I.P.) who never even took a break. Conceptualist, cover-and-sleeve artist, calligrapher, drummer … with Piggy dead, Blacky not touring, and Snake’s clownishness become almost too Vegas to watch—the little paunch, the bozo hair, the putty nose—how could I help but focus my attention on Away? But then that was easy: unlike any other drummer that night—any other drummer I can think of—he sat high atop his kit, and this had the effect of foregrounding him, and making of him a sort of cupola. Hair streaked with white, he looked not a little like the elder David Byrne. He was so effusive, so clearly transported by his role in making music; and this when there’s so much posturing in metal, and the older the band, the more transparent that posturing tends to be. Away sounded so fresh, he might have started drumming yesterday. There is a certain irony in this, for me. Though the perfect complement to the band’s sound, considered by himself, there’s always been something missing in his drumming: a little too flat a sound, a little too clubfooted a step to groove. Maybe it was the slower tempos, what with Exhumed and Napalm Death on either side; but at The Chance I found myself grooving to every little fill on his ride, every tricky hit and quirky syncopation.* Away is as imaginative, as original, and as full of flair on the drumkit as in his artwork; it just took thirty years and the loss of Piggy and Blacky for me to hear this.

If with the exception of Away Voivod are a shadow of their former selves, Napalm Death cast no shadow. There are no lights beyond blinding white, and God forbid there should be any props. They speak in the present tense; they know no other conjugation. The music is a blur, a throb, almost enough to buckle The Chance’s ornamental red columns and send the whole dev’lish club a-topple, Samson-style, on our heads. The way they approach their instruments, voice included, is … I’ll use the word impressionistic—; it reminded me of a set I saw at some Vision Festival late last century, where an electric harpist spent forty-five minutes throwing her body against her instrument from a variety of angles. No wonder—beyond the frenetic tempos—John Zorn would seek them out to jam with. Bass player Shane Embury, fat as a friar and sporting a frizzy near-tonsure, paws alternately at body and fretboard, creating no small part of that subsonic, club-shuddering roar. Drummer Danny Herrera holds his lefthand stick at midpoint for those blast-beats, dribbling more than striking. The result is a wall of noise, but a very different wall from High on Fire’s. As for Greenway, he roils before attacking with the business end of that angry caveman voice; between songs, he delivers political commentary in a polite Birmingham drawl. Five minutes in, his knee-high socks had rolled down to his ankles, revealing much-tattooed calves—the Brit equivalent of Pike’s discarded shirt.

Napalm-Death-thumb-560x373All told, Napalm Death had a there-ness no other band that evening approached—this though I freely admit I’ve always been a bigger fan of their politics than the full frontal assault of their sound, however of a piece they may be. Maybe it’s because the language of grindcore is still alive and well, or because its vocabulary is narrower, or because it’s a music you can play poorly, but just can’t phone in.

Snake thanked people for coming out on a Sunday. Greenway seemed to assume it. Snake wondered about the crowd’s energy, a little out of breath, though the crowd was at least as involved as with Napalm Death, who, once again, assumed it. Snake said he thought they’d been at The Chance like 20 years ago, while Greenway talked about the number of times they’d played there, and how it looked exactly the same as it ever did. Needless to say there’s a big difference between “I think I remember you” and “You haven’t changed a bit.” And there’s something not just vital, but moving about Greenway’s comment. With the exception of the Wackens and Eindhovens and perhaps the preposterous 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, Napalm Death will never play a place bigger than this, they will never have a local following much wider than this room. And knowing Napalm Death is still at it, that noise is (in) their blood, was, together with Away—and maybe Chewy, too—dare I actually say this?—the most—wait for it—life-affirming (ugh!) thing about that evening.

Something to carry me home through the thickening snow. She was the Princess of the Night …

*

On the night of February 23rd, the temperature in New York plunged into the single digits (again), with a wind-chill in the negatives; and there I was, longjohnless and eating my scarf against the cold, trying to get out to Greenpoint, to be among the lost souls at St. Vitus. Smarter people—or perhaps more pious ones; there’s only so many times your desire to hear metal can be damned by the weather before you begin to wonder about the state of your immortal soul—would’ve stayed home; and smarter people clearly had: the cafes and restaurants I passed and ducked into were pretty barren. But then it’s not every day you get to hear legendary Slayer drummer (and once again, Zorn collaborator) Dave Lombardo live, now with his newish combo, Philm.philm

John Sayles’s Eight Men Out ends with the image of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the White Sox’s disgraced heavy-hitter, playing for a bush-league team. He’s the one we pity the most: the most reluctant or clueless about the bribe, the one who really played for the love of the game, honest as a dog. He pegs a homer; one of the men in the crowd swears he recognizes that swing; Buck Weaver (John Cusack), one of the old White Sox teammates, also in cognito, assures him he’s confused. Cue ending credits.

I couldn’t help but think of that Sayles movie, watching Lombardo drum away at St. Vitus. Going from one of the best-known and most durable thrash bands in the history of the genre to a band that depends on his name to garner attention … and certainly to get people like me out on a night like this. Four folks back, I could hardly see him for the sheer number of phones and camcorders held up by the metal paparazzi. Really, people—how many vids of Dave posted on YouTube do we need?

Not that there’s any scandal about Slayer (or any more than usual). Nor is it the first time Lombardo’s stepped out—he’s been more out than in since 1990. Nor, by the way, is Philm bush-league; I’ll get back to this. Nor—to trot out every reason why this is a thoroughly flawed (though seductive) analogy—has Lombardo disguised his identity. He couldn’t if he tried. He’s not trying. It sounded like him. And it wasn’t just the playful rhythmic quotations from Slayer. It was the reality and energy of his drumming, the shape of his fills, the sound of his ride, the athletic snare-hit, that batter’s swing—maybe this, more than anything, was what brought the Sayles movie to mind. Maybe, as happened with Away, it takes a new team to hear what makes Lombardo Lombardo.

Now that I’ve beaten one bad analogy to death, let me try a second. About halfway through the set, I started thinking of Hendrix, and whether Philm is Lombardo’s Band of Gypsys, Hendrix’s last, pared-back trio, more blues-oriented than the pop-rock of the Experience (although of course the Experience played its share of the blues). Because there’s something pared back and bluesy about Philm, too. More, there’s a new tightness that Lombardo can exploit the way Hendrix did the much more solid foundation of Cox-Miles (or at least Cox; the thing with Mitchell wasn’t a lack of musicianship, but the opposite: the (often exhilirating) desire to go head-to-head with Jimi). Greater precision in the whole means greater individual freedom to play.

Like the band’s music, Lombardo’s kit is pared back, too. No “Live Undead” rototoms, no double bass; this is drumming that gravitates around snare and toms, and, as so often happens when one limits one’s creative choices, it seems to have re-kindled his imagination. Philm is a more rhythmically colorful band than Slayer—a given, but it bears mentioning—and Lombardo’s beats tend to heavier syncopation and surf-punkiness. And then those perfect flourishes on the hi-hat and ride, the rim shots, and … wait: did I say “flourishes” to describe Lombardo’s playing? The king of speed, Slayer’s camshaft? Yes, I did. In case you’ve never heard him out of Slayer, Lombardo unbound is both finesse and smoking energy, a real joy to listen to and watch drum. I don’t mean flashy; this isn’t M. Crue or Q. Riot, he doesn’t hit himself in the head with one hand while he beats a tom with the other, none of that shit. It’s all in the swing: the way those drums need to get hit, just so, to make just that just-so sound. It goes back to Bad Analogy No. 1: the star athlete … perhaps even one just a little past his prime, who has no choice but to depend on grace as much as energy. Music has always been more forgiving this way than athletics, though never entirely, and metal least of all.

Given Bad Analogy No. 2, I was more than a little gratified when the band broke into “Purple Haze” for a not-quite encore—they huddled but never left the stage. The Hendrix turned into a medley with Beatles-cum-Aerosmith and Zeppelin. Classic rock! Medleys! Who plays medleys anymore? Philm does! Irony breathes new life into the deadest rock traditions. And yet, though Lombardo occasionally plays knowingly with Slayer, and though his very presence makes Philm a self-conscious band, they’re not a band that trades on irony. Medleys or no, I like this band. Quite a lot, actually. I like the way singer-guitarist Gerry Nestler’s dissonant, sometimes open-string arpeggios complement and color Lombardo’s heavy, dry hits. His soloing is strong and clear; his voice can do a nice Vedderish shriek; his stage presence meets Lombardo’s head-on; he even has hair like Jimi’s. Bassist Pancho Tomaselli is growly and tight. Together, they make Lombardo a great new pair of shoes. In them, he walks tall. They’ve got him pegging homers again, for a dazzled new crowd, and for the love of the game.

 

* I had a similar revelation some years ago with Al DiMeola’s Land of the Midnight Sun. DiMeola was my guitar hero in the ‘80s, and Land of the Midnight Sun is a guitar-hero album. After a long hiatus and a lot of jazz, I put on that record and realized I’d forgotten to listen to Lenny White on drums. And all of a sudden that became a whole new record.

** It’s clearly not about playing covers per se. Napalm Death played a balls-out version of the Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off”; Exhumed played Madball’s (?) “Ready to Fight.” Of course, a cover has many functions, not the least of which is to declare affiliation with a certain tradition; it says much that Voivod’s cover is psychedelic/art rock, while the other two are punk/hardcore, to which underground metal has always looked to authenticate itself. Placement also matters, i.e., playing a cover as an encore or ender versus anywhere else in a set. That said, there’s something ironic and depressing about the fact that, for a band as utterly original as Voivod, their best-remembered song is a cover. (Remembering that the band tried to resuscitate their flagging career in ’93 by covering “The Nile Song” is yet more depressing; it’s a track that weighs like a stone on the otherwise bubbly Outer Limits.) It brings to mind Harvey’s (of Exhumed) little the-metal-chuch-accepts-many-faiths speech, calling Voivod and Napalm Death their “heroes,” saints in different nooks. The Chance’s balcony that night was cluttered with equipment, and I can only imagine the accommodations were similar, everybody piled on each other like cats, their take-out orders all mixed up, Foresta’s Taco Bell with Greenway’s organic kale salad. And as long as piling is the theme of this footnote: although I really focus on Away above, Chewy (Dan Mongrain), who replaced Piggy on guitar in 2008, deserves a special mention. He isn’t just a wonderful Piggy impersonator, necessary and difficult as that is. He’s found his own stride, and helped revive a largely moribund band after two mostly forgettable, necrophilic (no matter how welcome) efforts by Jason Newsted to do the same. Kudos, Chewy. Give my love to Han.

(Not So) Secret Sharer

blazeI live near the Appalachian Trail, and on days I don’t work, I walk the dog there, follow the white blazes a mile or two toward either Ktaadn or Georgia and back again (or, starting north, make a triangle with roads for legs and the trail as a crooked hypotenuse). During the summer I run into a fair number of people, some with dogs, some without, some doing a weekend or a week around the so-called tri-state area, some walking the whole damn AT. Most of the latter start in Georgia and hike north, trying to make Maine by the end of summer, staying ahead of the hot weather. Less common, though increasingly popular, is to start in Maine and hike south, shooting for Georgia by October, cold nipping at your heels.

They are different sorts of people, the northbounders and southbounders. The former tend to be more sociable; they’ll walk and talk with me if I happen to be going their direction, or stop to chat and pet the dog if our paths cross. The southbounders are more taciturn. If they chose this direction, it’s often because they prefer solitude. There is an urgency about them the northbounders don’t have, and it’s not, or not merely, for the end of the trail.

So the Ishmaels walk north and the Ahabs south. How ironic that trail etiquette dictates the Ahabs step aside to let the Ishmaels pass!

When I run into a hiker on the AT, whether Ishmaels or Ahabs, I ask them if they’re going the whole way. A surprising number are. Sometimes I can tell, particularly with the men—the beards, of course, swallowing their faces. Sometimes they ask me where the nearest shelter is, or how far it is to a particular town, and I get to play the seasoned local, though I’ve only been in the area a couple of years, and only started hiking on the AT regularly last summer. Parting, I wish them luck.

One day as I was coming back down the nearest mountain from a southbound walk with the dog, I spotted a hiker wearing a black T-shirt with red, intertwining letters. I could guess the genre, metal, from fifty yards away, and became more confident once I was within reading distance by the fact that I still couldn’t make out the name of the band.* I stepped aside to let him pass. It was actually this young man who informed me that he, not I, was supposed to perform said obsequities. But then he was no Ahab, black T and southboundness notwithstanding. He was only out for a week, hiking part of Connecticut and New York, before returning to some suburban harbor.

Peering at the tangle of silkscreened letters, I had to ask him the name twice. First he just said it was a band. Why would he answer otherwise? I was wearing a treehugger shirt, walking with my dog; I looked for all the world like a treehugger. But then it’s hard to find white metal shirts, and with the ticks as bad as they are around where I live, I don’t tend to venture into the woods in black. I know, a true fan would risk Lyme, &c., &c. Still, once I expressed interest he was more forthcoming, even enthusiastic. He even rattled off a number of subgenres to help me position their sound. I told him I would look them up, and we parted ways.

When I got home I couldn’t quite remember the name. I just remembered it was short, and started with “A.” A name like a riddle, a secret in a thicket of letters, passed between strangers in the woods. It could have been anyone, anyone’s word; now it was mine. A word that would open a portal to fantastic new worlds and powers, like Abracadabra, or Aminadab. How else to explain my scrolling through the first 880 of 8,950 bands with names beginning with the letter “A” in the Encyclopedia Metallum just to find them? Good thing I remembered they were from Texas.

Absu.

absu-456-12611An odd fish, this band. They’ve been around, like, forever, though not quite as long as the Sumerian and other mythologies around which they’ve built their lyrical concepts. They’ve also gone through about a hundred different incarnations. There is a priceless interview on YouTube where drummer, sometime vocalist, and lyricist Proscriptor McGovern (center)—very much the driving force of this outfit, as his name makes abundantly clear, and the one consistent presence through more than twenty years of lineup changes, injuries, and cross-generic side projects—holds forth on mythology and mind-expanding drugs. McGovern is a tad haughty; his interviewer is intermittently bored; neither can help but be. He calls their music “mythological-occult metal,” the title of a 2001 compilation, citing black, death, thrash, classic metal, and “progressive music” as influences—which is just another way of saying the band is a sonic amalgam all their own. This is borne out in the uploaded tracks, albums and live performances: vocals that veer between King Diamond sneers and yowls and black metal hisses; long, multi-part songs alternating Slayer-style speed (and more rarely, death/grindcore tempos) with rhythmic patterns more reminiscent of NWOBHM and Immortal’s pummeling two-on-threes, and interspersed with snippets of soprano voice, acoustic guitar, bagpipes, and so on. As befits such a melting-pot sound, comments after the videos debate appropriate subgeneric affinity—metalheads can spend as much time parsing subgenres as theologians can sins—including one claim that Absu is proof American black metal is present, vibrant, and rivals anything coming out of Europe.

Why do I write this? Certainly not to throw my hat into the ring vis-à-vis defining Absu’s sound; I am nowhere near learned enough. Rather, I find the whole experience to be a fascinating example of the mixed modes through which musical exchange happens today. That it should be a band so self-consciously esoteric, so aimed at whatever remains of a metal underground, as Absu, makes the example all the more compelling.

The assumption seems to be that Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, etc. have replaced earlier forms of music-sharing and band/scene-growing. True, it’s a hell of a lot easier to toggle, download and stream than it was to trade cassettes by mail, as the more motivated and earnest among us used to do. There is certainly something to sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris’s point that the internet has softened the edges of scenes and helped to blur once-firm boundaries. Transgressive subcultural capital, it might be said, has been increasingly devalued (see “T-shirts and Wittgenstein,” 2.24.13).

Without the internet—in my case, the Encyclopedia Metallum and YouTube—I’d probably never have heard the name Absu again, let alone their music. And yet: without the other elements—the merchandise (T-shirt, of course) on the one hand, and the absolute and utter contingency of actual, physical contact on a hiking trail on the other—I’d never have heard this band, either. The fact that almost everything is available on line doesn’t mean that one has the opportunity to hear it; pace Borges’s Library of Babel, only a tiny fraction of what’s out there can ever be heard by any one person. Put differently: I am almost as unlikely to have discovered Absu on the web as on the Appalachian Trail.** What with all the discussion about the way the web has transformed music sharing, the concrete, tangible elements, and the way these work in tandem with the web, tend to go unremarked. It is still about shows and venues, from the more genre-exclusive clubs to individual concerts at bigger halls. It’s still about asking the baristas at the hipper cafés—the ones where the youngsters hang out, whose ears have not yet been ossified by Prevailing Standards of Taste—what on earth is that odd thing coming out of the speakers. It’s still about poking a finger at the T-shirt for some band you can’t read and likely never heard of and asking what the hell that says. And it’s still about some guy I will almost certainly never see again, walking through the woods, throwing little bits of music over his shoulder like Johnny fuckin’ Appleseed.

 

* This is something the other guitarist from my old thrash band used to bitch about. How can you expect people to remember your band if your logo is unreadable? But then we were from the ‘80s, where the logos all looked like they’d been done in somebody’s mechanical drawing class. Maybe the increasing rococo-ness of band logos after circa 1989 was indicative of generic metastasis and, in some cases, the impenetrability of emergent subgenres to a classically-schooled old guard. (In hindsight, I should note that Absu’s logo is hardly of the impenetrable kind. It might have just been a bad silkscreen.)

** Admittedly, it’s not about sheer numbers (though don’t forget the 880 bands before A-B-S-U). My likelihood of hearing a particular band clearly increases according to the sites I tend to visit and the on-line communities I frequent. It might also be noted that my likelihood of running into a metalhead in the woods increases exponentially when the metal in question is of the neo-Druidic variety, as Absu’s is. Where else to meet a black metal fan than in the dark church of the northern woods? Anyway, there is still much work to be done on the extent to which the web creates new networks versus capitalizing on and reinforcing existing ones, and the ways in which the two work together. (Also: For an interesting discussion of the way the library itself has transformed due to the web and the promise and peril of digitization—and the role the codex is expected to continue to play, at least for the foreseeable future—see Robert Darnton, The Case for Books (Public Affairs, 2009), particularly “The Future of Libraries” and “A Paean to Paper.”)