Tag Archives: rock & metal

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 mostly closed† (occasional drafts notwithstanding) has hardly deterred a resurgent old guard from continuing to release records and 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 an enormously girthy man in big shorts and high-tops. And there he was! the girthy man of my youth, just greyer 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.

Inspecting the crowd while Crowbar leveled imaginary skyscrapers, I saw chins up and eyes closed, people basking in that heavy low-end distortion of endlessly sustained fourths like clients at a tanning salon. I’ll say it again: 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 tricorder over somebody’s thorax, but, instead of chirping, what will come out is … Crowbar? (Or perhaps the opposite is true, and we’ll find that we’re all being concussed into idiocy.)

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 had 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 the Crowbars stomped around, 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 he have but to become the guitarist in a band that fetishizes the horror of the abattoir?), Carcass’s other founding half, thrashing away to Walker’s left. A Perpetual Thrashing Machine, he was the antithesis of 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 adjacent 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 a 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 miasmic chaos, 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 decadent phase 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 approach to 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 and pioneering 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 suppressed, 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 it 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, like Walker, try to stay out of it (most grindcore and a few 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 germaine 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.

Dr. Heidegger’s Punks

waksmanWaksman, 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.

For all the cynical posturing of so much rock criticism,§ 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 it to say that punk as “pop explosion” is a hyperbole of wish-fulfillment; that a secret history (Marcus’s subtitle to Lipstick Traces) is still a history, a tradition, a canon; and that the story is clearly more complicated than razing history by cultivating the barbaric yawp of hormone-addled teens. 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, unruly 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 and ideologically charged 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 The MC5 and 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.”

Another 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-mass 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 negotiate 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 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 in the form of 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 and The Beatles in them, and much more; their ballads leave me feeling like a wrung-out towel—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 (one wonders 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! As afraid of my own desire to look back as Lot. 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 said, has 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 cuddly 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 … even one as newly beholden to the gods of efficiency and world-is-flat progress as Trader Joe’s is.

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,” an engine built for stadiums full of hormone-addled teens dry humping amidst wafting pot smoke and puddles of vomit, 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 the staid label of “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.”)

About Screaming

It is the late ‘90s, and I am at Don Hill’s, watching a band I wouldn’t normally go out to hear, except that two of the members are friends of my girlfriend. A mixed-gender power trio, good musicians, good people. Just not my scene. Anyway, at what may or may not be a pivotal moment in their set, the lead singer/guitarist starts screaming. And then the bass player, who also has a mic, starts screaming. And then some members of the crowd start screaming along with them. Listening to all this screaming, I think: “This isn’t really screaming. It’s screaming about screaming. They’re listening to themselves scream and getting off on it.”

Now, this sort of thing creates some pretty complex negotiations between band and audience. For example: when the crowd at such a show screams for more, are they really screaming for more? Or are they screaming about screaming for more? If the crowd unselfconsciously screams for a band that only screams about screaming, are they having the wool pulled over their eyes? One or the other might mistake a scream for a scream about a scream, or vice-versa. Clearly at Don Hill’s people weren’t enjoying the spectacle of a band screaming, but rather the spectacle of a band enjoying listening to themselves screaming. In fact, they were probably enjoying listening to themselves screaming at a band who were enjoying listening to themselves screaming, and were hence thrice removed from the experience, whatever that was. But isn’t this partly the fault of going to shows in the first place, of putting oneself in the position of art consumer, at best quasi-participant? If we really wanted to scream, we’d stay home with the kids or dog, get out the vodka and the drums, crank up the amps. I blame: live music, something else, society, capitalism, in ascending order of responsibility.

Metal has reached an interesting point in its evolution. Like any living genre, it is in flux, nourishing itself on a variety of musics: ambient, noise, punk, prog, etc. And yet that label, that omnivorous signifier, perhaps because of an imagined historical or cultural coherence, is consistently invoked to patch over a trainwreck of influences and styles, and to create an aura of musical coherence and continuity. Bands and fans position themselves at varying distances from an impregnable, ideal generic center, always close enough to point to, but never close enough to touch.*

Among other things, this means that lots of different kinds of people end up stopping by the same clubs to hear the same bands, or different bands on the same bill. This is at least as old as the subgeneric explosion of the ‘90s. But I think that something about the attitude has changed. I have a vivid recollection of a Halford show at B.B. King’s in 2003, for example: a sea-change in the crowd between Immortal and Testament, the two supporting bands; one wave receded to the bar (at least those old enough to drink) or out of the club as the other washed up to the stage. Whether they joined at the wellspring that is Halford I can’t remember. Today, I think it is less common—much more difficult, for a genre propelled forward by a combination of absorption, mutation, revival, and kitsch—to define one’s allegiance or heritage quite so narrowly. This heterogeneity, this instability, means that you can never quite tell how band and crowd are hearing each other. The same listener might position him or herself differently with different bands, and a single bill might require him or her to cross over two or three times in a night, toggling between facets of a bric-a-brac musical identity. That I find this sort of thing exhausting hardly matters; for a generation raised on internet multitasking and a dehistoricized mishmash of music, it is the order of things.

*

What got me thinking about these fan-band negotiations was last week’s Whores/American Sharks show, at the ecumenically metal St. Vitus.**

american sharksThe Sharks are a party band from Austin. They take a page out of Municipal Waste’s book—that I-was-a-shop-burnout/high-school-fuckup persona—although they’re too much a muddle of styles to worry themselves about reviving anything in particular. Actually, their music sounds like The Ramones wearing a metal skirt. Singer/bassist Mike Hardin, a big goofy teddy-bear of a guy, spins cock-and-bull yarns between songs about being the too-old loser living in his mom’s basement, meant to inspire moments of ironic reverie. Guitarist Will Ellis looks like a cross between the father from the original Hills Have Eyes family and Rudolf Schenker: blond, mustachioed, wearing short-shorts, and headbanging to the Scorpions records spinning away in that basement room in his head. He plays an upsidedown Gibson Explorer (at least the neck is), Hardin an upsidedown Fender Jazz—which, I guess, is a comment on how I’m supposed to take the Sharks: not seriously.

But then that’s the problem: they are so self-consciously trying to be not serious, are so intense about their irony, that it all ends up feeling a bit tired. Self-deprecating humor can become as masturbatory as an Yngwie Malmsteen solo. You get the sense the Sharks outgrew themselves before they even got started. (I’ve never felt this about the Waste, although I admit that with The Fatal Feast they’ve started to show signs of wear.)

Then again, you can’t not like the Sharks, or rather, you can’t claim to not like them, because to claim not to like them automatically opens you to the charge of taking yourself too seriously. If this blog proves anything, it is that I take myself too seriously. So draw your own conclusion.

whoresAfter American Sharks, how can any band, let alone one called Whores, appear as anything but Serious Music? They certainly looked more serious; singer/guitarist Christian Lembach (middle) is damn near clean-cut, in a punkish sort of way. Who knows but that they brought the Sharks along for sheer contrast, although more likely the two got really drunk together after their 2014 SXSW performances. It was certainly a Serious Comment Mr Lembach made partway through their set—unlike the Sharks’ truncated rambles, his were rather softspoken, and I missed a good half of what he said; but I did gather that they were happy to have good-time folks like the Sharks along with them on tour, that they were pleased to be back at Vitus, and that they didn’t sing about dragons and wizards—not that he had a problem with that—to each his own, it takes a rainbow, etc.—just not his scene. I wondered who this comment was directed at, if there was an errant Amon Amarth fan in the crowd looking at a subway map. Anyway, said Serious Comment disposed me to change my attitude, and Listen Seriously.

Not that Whores are devoid of humor; they did start and abort “Sweet Home Alabama” (they’re actually from Atlanta). But I appreciated the lack of desire to impress me with being funny, and that they instead poured all the sweat and energy into their music for a brief, pleasurably intense set. Whether they meant it or not, they sure played it like they meant it, which is a whole lot better than playing it like they really meant they didn’t mean it. Even the serious Mr Lembach ended up with his bangs stuck wetly to his forehead and his face all ruddy. His tonsorial trials, however, were nothing compared to bassist Jake Schultz’s, who had to push his hair up over his forehead after every song—I swear, I haven’t seen anyone push up their hair so much since the last time I went to hear Frances Fox Piven give a talk. But Mr Schultz, even more than Mr Lembach, was in constant motion. A study in ecstacy, he was; he does with his bass what Keith Moon used to do with his drums. He must have been doing this very thing for years alone in his room, the very room the Sharks are still ironically locked in. Somebody just pulled down the walls. In my mind, he joins that trinity of joyful lunatics and human tops: Gould, Monk, and Moon.

As for Whores’ songs, they’re infectious, grabby despite that dynamics-happy, basement-pitched monotony the subgenre demands.§ It was their sound, though, that most held me. Like the Sharks, Whores are a power trio, but theirs was by far the bigger sound. Not the sound I expected to hear out of Lembach’s Telecaster; maybe it was the Tele’s twanginess (or the prevalence of Schultz’s bass?) that gave those power drones their unexpected, all-enveloping richness. It’s like what happens when you’re hiking, and you’ve reached what you think is the view (Sharks), but when you get to the actual view (Whores), you realize how partial was the previous one.

I could say more about Whores—they never judge you, after all—but I’ll end with this: they made me miss my train. One song, one dip in that warm ocean of distortion, and I knew I wasn’t leaving until the set was over. And that’s saying a lot, when Greenpoint might as well be Key West to an upstater, and surprise, the G wasn’t fucking running, which made me ironically nostalgic for living in Bushwick. We got out just as the lofts were washing around our ankles, a Williamsburg hurricane reportedly heading toward our coast. But the important thing was to be able to tell my partner, Whores made me miss my train. I was late because of Whores. Tee, hee. Oh. But seriously.

 

* For a somewhat fuller (or maybe just different) discussion of this phenomenon, see “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13).

** I ignore opener No Way because I only caught the last song and a half, which isn’t much to go on. Their sound made me think of the ‘90s band Filter (remember them? their big song was “Hey Man, Nice Shot”). I liked their frontman’s presence, that shirtless bodybuilder pose he struck while he serenaded somebody just a few feet over our heads. His voice made me think of a spoken-word John Bush (Armored Saint, Anthrax).

§ That is, noise rock, or sludge punk. As I have suggested, this is more than ever a matter of perspective—Spin, for example, listed 2013’s Clean among its top 20 metal albums of 2013. As Mr Lembach’s comment suggests, he might be a bit wary of the label. Of course, Metallica said the exact the same thing about their own music back in the mid-‘80s. Plus ça change? Or does the historical repetition (one Lembach has himself repeated in interviews) mean I am supposed to take this, too, as farce?

I Heart Goatwhore

 

Photograph by Stephanie Cabral (www.stephaniecabral.com)

Photograph by Stephanie Cabral (www.stephaniecabral.com)

Dear Goatwhore,

I love you.

I’ve loved you since I first clapped eyes and ears on you more than a year ago, at St. Vitus. Remember? Of course you do. You followed Three Inches of Blood. I was at the back of the club, watching Louis B., waist-length hair matted to his back and shoulders, harvest the unfortunate souls lined up in front of the stage. The venom, oh God! the absolute fucking venom that came out of that man’s mouth. Sammy’s, too, when it was his turn, holding his axe like the reaper his scythe.

I could have written you then. Or after that trip across Jersey a few months later, when I popped Carving Out the Eyes of God into the disc-changer, and my Toyota Corolla became a chariot of bones drawn by War-Death-Famine-Pestilence, razor hoofs all aflame, hurtling the bodies of the dead, and me behind the wheel screaming, “Eat your heart out, Judah Ben-Hur!”

But it was only after seeing you again this spring, on Easter, that I worked up the nerve to write you. I love that you came north for Easter, like a plague. (Never mind that you didn’t know it from Christmas, birth from resurrection, the nativity from the zombie-Christ.) And who was I to go a-courtin’ Satan, on Easter, of all days? But there I was, at St. Vitus, writing my St. Valentine’s to you in my head. I have made a habit of such trysts on the days of saints and martyrs, call me perverse! There wasn’t a spot of white in the whole club but that which made a word, a skull, an inverted cross, yes, St. Vitus himself was attired in black, and I just another spot—so how could you have noticed me? I was sick as a dog, too, of body, mind you, not of heart. But there I was, listening, watching.

Writing. Hence this missive, this confession.

Are you as promiscuous as your name, Goatwhore? I hope I’m not being too forward. I think you are. Just listen to that guitar! Rutting away, utterly abandoned to the flesh. I can’t think of a raunchier guitar sound in metal. (And that gatefold-cum-centerfold of you on A Haunting Curse: pin-up goat-girl, exquisite corpse!)

But raunchy’s not the half of it. No, you open it up, too—and not just those minor thirds in strummed tremolo, no, I’m talking about the way you let minor seconds in your riffs yang against each other (e.g., “Alchemy of the Black Sun Cult”), and even more, the way you’re not afraid to arpeggiate with heavy distortion, sometimes against a double-bass kick (yes, I’m thinking of “Carving,” and also “In Legions, I Am Wars of Wrath”). So many of your brothers and sisters forget what distortion imperfect can do. When you let those neighboring notes grate, those unhappy intervals sing, those filthy colors show—when you open up your blacken’d heart in this way—you impose upon me an eerie seduction.

But then you tease me, Goatwhore, and most mercilessly at that, one moment hissing in my ear, the next butting me with those proud horns. I’m an Ares—not quite a Capricorn, but I do know horns. From blast beats quick as a cook’s knife on a hibachi grill (sorry, but have you ever looked into the eyes of the children of the family gathered at the other end of the hibachi, watching the knife, the flames?), to incantatory triplets, to motoring four-square, to galloping warhorse, all with nary an “ugh” between—albeit a deep, bleeding “ugh” when it appears, as if to cast off all that had come before, like the residue of the unholy syllables you let fester on your tongue  … The words, yes, above all, the words! I knew from the moment I read your titles, many five or six words apiece, some as long as eight, songs that blast by sometimes in three minutes, stuffed full of words … at last, I thought, here is one who suffers possession like I do. We are possessed, you and I, by language, the rush when the words take control, overmaster us, pour out of us like from a cut vein. Even DCLXVI is a word, and unpronounceable as the name of God. Is not language the true father of lies? It is language that controls us, and this god admits of no repentance.

Oh, I know you build your motor out of parts from old Slayer, and Vio-lence, &c.—really, what is “Apocalyptic Havoc” but a slowed-down, re-tooled “Silent Scream”—but I wouldn’t dream of holding it against you. The way you polish it, and tune it, the love you clearly put into it, it hums like new. It is new. You’re traditional, but never holier-than-thou. I don’t hear irony, or a penchant for putting riffs in quotes; you’re the furthest thing from a revival band, and hallelujah for that. You play metal because you play metal, because you &c., period.

And yet, you play American black metal, or “blackened death metal,” as the internet has it. That has a fine Cajun ring to it. I hear elements of the great Scandinavians in your sound, of course, but none of that “in my kingdom cold” shit, no, the devil’s alive and well in rank, inscrutable, pestilential Louisana. Adders and alligators and who knows what crypto-beasties; squat, atavistic trees with branches like tentacles, draped in sacerdotal vines; the sucking death of the swamps themselves; the play of masks and travesty of our only American carnival; the voodoo and bloody crosses and sacked tombs, their gates creaking in the wind … and all this not even to mention (at least directly) the tortured, howling revenants of slavery … there’s dark, dark magic down there, all of us up here are sure of it, legacy and ambience enough to provision an army of ghouls.

Dear Goatwhore: come north again. Soon. We’ll go carving out the eyes of God together. And perhaps afterwards, in the wee hours, I’ll even try curing you of that medieval hangover called religion, but without any hair of the dog this time, even as we bathe together in the charnel waters of oblivion.

Smitten,

Helldriver

Two Quixotes

When I lived in the City, I used to spend my Friday afternoons tooling around the Village, working a well-worn route between used book and music stores, park benches and cafés. Generation Records, on Thompson a little north of Bleecker, was a frequent stop. One of the clerks there, with a badgery sort of face and most of his exposed flesh colorfully desecrated, was—likely still is—their resident metal expert, and now and then I would pick his brains about, say, a representative Wolves in the Throne Room album, or whether the new Deicide was available in an aerosol can.

One day I was in the basement flipping through discs toward the back of the alphabet, grinning at the relentlessly offensive names and cover art of bands and albums I would never hear. Said expert was playing something I thought I should recognize, but didn’t. I approached, inquired; he looked up and, eyes scourging me from under his tight-fitting commie-kitsch military cap, wordlessly stood a CD on the counter. It was Sepultura, Schizophrenia. Old Sepultura, clearly. Really old. And here I had thought Sepultura began with Beneath the Remains (1989). I was staring at a Sepultura album I didn’t know, Max Cavalera-era Sepultura, my Sepultura, proffered to me by someone who probably hadn’t yet been born when it came out.

Upstaged on my own turf by a coffee thug, I immediately wanted to talk about how I had seen Sepultura in their heyday, on the Arise (1991) tour, at a club in Madrid. About the posters I had seen around my Madrid neighborhood advertising the show: death squad on one end, Cavalera and his guitar on the other, facing them down, both cut out against a fire-orange background. About how I had tried to pull the poster down and hang it up in my apartment, but ended up tearing it.

I didn’t say anything.

Some months later I was in Baltimore visiting a friend, who related a somewhat similar experience to me. He works on an urban farm, and on weekends sells the produce in one or another of the city’s farmers’ markets. Who does he meet at one of these markets one weekend but a kid maybe half his age—a little older than his own son—who is enamored of ‘80s hardcore punk? We’re talking Dag Nasty, Minor Threat, 7 Seconds et al. My friend was a skinhead back in the day, was still wearing his burgundy Doc Martens when we met in college. (Keeping the hair short was easy: we were swimmers.) When he told this kid that he had been into all those bands, had been to all those shows, had a milk crate full of old hardcore records in his basement, he immediately became an oracle.

Or should have. As it turned out, the kid was reading a book on the history of hardcore, and knew a hell of a lot about the scene that my friend, who had participated in it half a lifetime ago, was not aware of, or had forgotten.

Result: my friend bought the book. He claims to have learned a great deal.

*

Don_Quixote_6In Book II of Don Quixote, the ingenious knight encounters a duke and dutchess who know of his exploits from having read his “history.” He is famous, and, as is due any knight, becomes the guest of honor at their castle … and the butt of endless jokes, a grand entertainment. He appears as a character walked out of a romance, into the real world of the present (la actualidad). So my friend must have appeared to that temporally-displaced version of himself: as a character from a moment in cultural history. To be viewed as a splinter of a dead scene’s true cross, a living, breathing historical artifact, like a thawed mammoth: it gives one a glow, an aura, for people who value that moment, but whose contact with it is purely textual.

But in that encounter between one-time participant and passionate historian, we—forgive the transition to the plural pronoun—become texts, signs. We are there to be read, not listened to; we do not speak, but are spoken. We are nothing more than that (faint) aura that surrounds us, exhausts us. Disposable saints, transparent as icons, the better for them to project their desire upon, venerated not in ourselves, but for allowing the worshipper to get nearer to God: that fantastic, unrecoverable past. Like Don Quixote, we are at once honored and ironized, empowered and neutered.

Bits of pottery without pattern, we can’t hope to represent our time. So-called living history is always a disappointment; flesh is no match for text. For they finally know more than we do: all our rare butterflies, the ephemera and esoterica, patiently netted and impaled. Suddenly, we are forced to recognize that our knowledge of our time is piecemeal at best, that we are inadequate historians of ourselves, that we are not masters of ourselves—that we are in fact mastered by their agglomerate, abstract vision, that sees us as part of a comprehensible totality, an island from the air, the earth from space. They can click through our whole history in seconds, and file it away on a chip. Our time, our history, our selves, stripped to bits of information, small enough for them to hold in their hands. What is lost to us is weirdly present to them, more present, yet only through the phantom agency of language.

They know much too much about what we were like to ever be us. How can they hope to be us when we knew so little about ourselves?

Conversely, what is present to me—the ambience, the outrage, the trace sensory impressions and other memories, emotions and stories, all knotted together into a sort of umbilical cord—is mine and mine alone. I can’t claim to know more, only differently. My knowledge, such as it is, is more in my muscles and blood than in my brain, is bonded by things non-textual, things that can be expressed only obliquely, when at all. Experience fuddles text, creates gaps, swells seemingly meaningless moments, hazes everything. When I reminisce with friends, we are not sharing information, but performing a ritual.

What can it mean to that clerk at Generation that I tore that Sepultura poster trying to pull it down? Yet the image on the poster, the weatherbeaten paper … I can still feel it, gritty from the dirt blown onto it while it was still wet, stiff and brittle as parchment.

We may listen to the same music, but we hear something entirely different. I don’t hear the Jimi Hendrix that, say, Germaine Greer did, and I wouldn’t recognize E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Beethoven if he pulled up beside me on the street, horn blaring. My Hendrix is out there, like the house seen from the piazza; the albums, the documentaries, the guy in Salt Lake who fixed my guitar and who saw Hendrix in ’68, are as close as I’ll ever get. I’ll never be able to strap myself to his Marshall cabinet, like to the mouth of a cannon, and experience the thrilling Liebestod of that opening chord. The left-handed general lowers his sword, Brrrang. Nor did my mother bring my infant self to Woodstock, like she did to the TV the night men landed on the moon. My love for him may be deep as the ocean, but my Hendrix is facts spinning around an absent center. Or at least, a different one.

Don Quixote is maybe too literary a figure to describe our experience. No one could be more loquacious, and his surprised interlocutors always comment on how his opinions are as judicious as his vision and actions are mad. In the event that I do speak, I feel more like one of those mechanical presidents on Disneyworld’s Main Street, who recite something sententious, patriotic, and very much in character about U.S. history. My mouth moves like a dummy’s, my eyes light up; when I am finished talking, I freeze again. They will get no more from me—everything else my body jealously guards—and no closer to the Thing Itself.

Half the time, the nickel gets stuck in my throat. Better to sit and wave, like an effigy on a parade float, and try to make my halo obvious as I pass by, and perform gestures as though to bless them.

The genius of the second volume of the Quixote—a genius which far surpasses the first—is in its transformation of the world into text: the duke and dutchess participate in writing the second volume, make themselves characters in Don Quixote’s legend. The madness of the knight transforms the world, which is revealed to be just as much fantasy and theater. So forgive us, young lovers of ‘80s metal and hardcore punk, if, in our roles as characters in your drama, we end up textualizing you as well. The book is reading you even as you read it. You are just as much a ghost. Your costume of me is a little baggy; you don’t quite fit my scene’s drama.

And yet, that is the only way I have myself: textually. I can’t resurrect myself as the monster I was, and were I to try, I would be no less baggy than you. And perhaps I’m gratified to see myself refracted in people half my age, listening to the music that that mythical we did. Amused, moved, the way we are by Don Quixote.

We’re not tilting at windmills, my friend and I. We’ve never tried to live in a mythical past, or to re-live our own. They are at least as much Quixotes as we are: driven mad by electronic libraries infinitely vaster than the knight’s, and by a text, music, infinitely more seductive than the epic of Amadis de Gaula. Because it convinces us, somehow, that it is more than text, that it captures an essence, that it bores a hole in time. That through it, and only through it, I, and my friend, and the clerk at Generation, and the young man at the farmers’ market, touch. What can we, the duke and the dutchess, do but play along?

For RJD

Arcless; or, Pure Dirt

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Really Like High On Fire

Fandom is the stuff of high drama. It demands a certain emotional immaturity, or a short-lived but full-throttle regression. We bond most closely with those bands and artists we discovered in our teens, follow them until the scales fall from our eyes, or they die, or break up, sometimes in the full noon of our love. If they don’t move on, we do. In either case, they become a yardstick for our development, allowing us to think of our lives in clearly-demarcated stages (“I used to be into x, now I like y”) and providing fodder for nostalgia (“Remember how great z was?”). Sometimes we move on because we think they’ve betrayed us, sold out. Growth is supposed to be organic, authentic, and artist-driven; selling out is artificial and market-driven. In fact, a band’s or artist’s growth is often figured as a sort of pilgrimage to authenticity, to the discovery of their “voice”; and this teleology allows us, the loyal fans, to map onto our own lives a similar sense of direction, purpose, and meaning under the aegis of art consumed. That said, the line between these two ostensible opposites can be blurry: one fan’s evolving artist is another’s sellout, and the latter fan may measure his or her own integrity by refusing the change. For those of us who stick with a band through their changes—and who, in that miracle of marketing, feel that a band has “stuck with us,” too—there are the purported rewards of growing old together.

The process of change over the course of a band’s career is often referred to as their arc. Career as fired projectile: trajectory and singularity, purpose and identity. Fractures and cobbles are smoothed into a seamless history. There is an implied normativity, too: the projectile is full of energy as it leaves the cannon’s mouth, reaches a peak—a state of equipoise between its native energy and the pull of the world against which it strives—and then falls. Bands run out of ideas, sell out. That sucking sound you hear is gravity.

But must the falling side of the arc be imagined as decay, as the projectile analogy implies? Let’s consider another career narrative, the traditional evolutionary model; perhaps it will give our projectile a little more life. Artists and bands—at least, first bands—often do begin full of naïve energy and unreflective passion, and follow with a period of expansion and experimentation, an adolescence full of straining and angst. The music becomes more and more complex, convoluted, self-conscious. In time, this reaches a breaking point, and from the break a new, simpler sound emerges: a sound, a voice that declares, finally, who this artist or band is. Simple, but no longer naïve or unreflective; the dynamic of complexity, gained from that period of experimentation, that journey to the self, is folded up inside it, like those extra dimensions in the string-theory universe. What appears simple is, for the careful—loyal, initiated?—listener, profound.

It’s probably no surprise to a habitual reader of this blog (?) that Rush is my template here. Consider the first decade or so of their 40-year career: from their beginning in the early ‘70s as a “Canadian Zeppelin” or Bad Company, to the Genesis/Yes-influenced period of 1975-78, to the British electro-pop/“world” music period between 1979 and the early ‘80s, at which point they (as the band tells it) “found their voice” and “became Rush.” For the purpose of illustration, the period from 1978 to 1981 is key. 1978’s Hemispheres was the most complex and Yes-ish in the band’s oeuvre. The first side is a six-part sci-fi rock-opera that actually continues a story begun on the previous album, A Farewell to Kings. There, the protagonist flew his rocket ship the Rocinante into the black hole Cygnus X-1. Here, he discovers the city of Olympus, and a society divided between mind (represented by the god Apollo) and heart (Dionysus). In the story’s climax, he brings balance to the world, figured in the sphere, and is re-christened Cygnus, god of balance. Now, a lot of people see Rush’s music as a whole as too much Apollo and too little Dionysus; Hemispheres is certainly their most Apollonian record, the peak of their Apollonian phase. It was, in fact, a breaking point, an odyssey of underworldly recording sessions. The Apollo-Dionysus conflict is a nice image for the band’s trajectory, and it might be said that their task post-1978 was to find that “perfect sphere” where the two impulses would be held in balance. Hemispheres is thus a prophetic record, charting a course for Permanent Waves (1980) and “The Spirit of Radio,” as these overly-regenerate Who fans found a way to bring the unregenerate three-chord brilliance of “Baba O’Riley” back into what was, after all, only rock ‘n’ roll.

One difficulty with using Rush as a template is separating pattern from history. Rush have always been a most protean and omnivorous band, and the shrinking and re-packaging of their sound at the turn of the ‘80s has as much to do with a response to the currents of the time as to their own maturing artistry. Other major progressive bands, like Yes and Pink Floyd and Genesis, similarly attempted to re-create themselves. But with the possible exception of Genesis, these bands’ heydays had come and gone—and Genesis did such an about-face by consolidating a poppier sound under the leadership of soon-to-be pop superstar Phil Collins that they seem only nominally equivalent, like Gilmour’s Floyd to Waters’. Yes split in two, one half combining with ELP to create something called Asia, a mildly embarrassing superproject, and very much the embalmed corpse of ‘70s prog rock. Then there was 90215: genial, radio-friendly, and about as much the Yes of Relayer as Asia. Only Waters’ Floyd succeeded in marrying the art-rock concept record to the radio single … then put out one more fraught record and promptly blew themselves to pieces. In sum, voices long-since discovered, these bands were on the falling sides of their arcs, pulled hither and thither by changing lineups, and working out of the crucible of punk reactionism. Rush, hidden away in the Great White North, listening to the signals of distant revolutions over their radios, the younger band by a little under a decade, were still on the restless upper climb when the ‘80s landed.

If we look after 1983 or so, to the parallel progressivism of underground ‘80s metal, for whom the classic and progressive rock bands of the ‘70s were as influential as NWOBHM, I think the evolutionary arc emerges more clearly from its historical circumstances. It is as though, once woven by history, a pattern becomes detachable, and able to be worn as a garment by future artists.* When Metallica moved from their magnum opus … And Justice for All (1988) to the more pared-back metal of the suggestively eponymous Metallica (1991), Lars Ulrich justified the change—which enraged so many loyal fans—with the words, “More than any other band, we are like Rush.” In fact, Ulrich described a breaking point not so different from the one Rush described with Hemispheres, in his case after playing the nine-minute title track live for the umpteenth time, and, if I remember correctly, stabbing his drumstick into one of the “lady justice” props on his way offstage (how symbolic!). This sort of piggybacking has more than a bit of self-promotion about it—we’re talking Ulrich here, after all. But then it wasn’t only Metallica. Many of the prog-metal bands I most admired from the ‘80s (Voivod, Queensryche; to a lesser extent, Iron Maiden) went through a similar evolutionary process, from a straight-ahead sound to a more experimental one, to a distilled, popular form.

This is all well and good for peaks. But the falling projectile still troubles me. The preceding discussion leads me to wonder whether a band’s achieving their voice really leaves them anywhere to go—whether the meridian isn’t also the onset of night, whether there is something vital and sustainable in that achievement, and whether other voices are possible, or at least other registers. Finding one’s voice might simply spell the end of something essential about a band’s life-cycle. This is precisely the case many have made about Rush: after the aesthetic and popular peak of Moving Pictures (1981), the band began a long downward slide, with a big dip at the end of the ‘80s and a spotty record since. Perhaps Floyd, or at least Roger Waters, did well to move on; perhaps Yes was right to continue re-configuring line-ups. Perhaps marriages, at least in rock ‘n’ roll, were never meant to last.

And yet, Rush has kept on changin’, whatever we might think of the quality of their output, and has managed to sustain and even expand their fanbase of 30 years ago. Clearly, a voice is a sound, not a style—Rush keeps dabbling in the latter despite the stability of the former.** If we imagine the peak as full maturity, or the achievement of identity, or self-understanding, is there something approaching wisdom, at least for some bands, when we look later in their careers? Perhaps we should ask a different question, one I suggested earlier: Does the listener have to be a fan, even a lapsed one, to really hear the later work? A year or two ago, a friend of mine who is a big Dylan fan floated me one of the bard’s more recent albums—I don’t remember which one—because he felt it had crystallized elements of Dylan’s art in a way that many weaker recent albums had not. I confess I couldn’t hear it; it sounded like bad Dylan to me. But my knowledge of Dylan ends with the major albums of the mid-‘60s and a few other well-known songs; my favorite of his records is still The Times They Are A-Changin’, for God’s sake. So how could I hope to understand what made this recent Dylan album different, special? In this way, consciousness of evolution—a sense of history—allows certain canons of knowledge to revolve around fan identities: what appears trite to the outsider is, in the context of an ouevre well-studied, profound; fidelity is rewarded by (presumed) insight, as the later works become runes interpretable only by the initiate.

It’s true that the evolutionary arc is a bit like Monty Python’s theory of dinosaurs: thin on both ends, thick at the middle. And from the emotional and intellectual gratification I receive, and from my vaunted academic training, it follows that I want to squeeze anything and everything I can into such a model … and when I can’t, to use the model to explain away anomalies. Even more, as the projectile implied, I want to use the model normatively, so I can judge the success or failure, authenticity or artificiality, completeness or incompleteness of a band’s career. It’s just so neat: the vulgar Hegelianism of it, simple-complex-“simple,” innocence-experience-wisdom, life-death-rebirth. And yet, for me, the neurotic fan, the reluctant follower, it begs the question of whether alternative models of evolution are possible, or desirable, and what it means as a listener to throw the template aside and embrace something completely different. And it begs the question whether it’s possible for a band not to evolve … and still remain vital.

*

HOF       I first read about High on Fire in the Village Voice, of all places. This was back in 2005 or so, shortly after I’d discovered Mastodon, and HOF was listed along with them and Shadows Fall and Lamb of God as bands that were remaking contemporary metal. Now, HOF had long been paired with Mastodon; the bands had some joint early releases and tours, and their big, lumbering sounds had yoked them together in the “stoner rock” or “doom metal” sub-genre.§ In 2006, when Relapse bundled new versions of the songs on Mastodon’s “Lifesblood” (2001) and “Mastodon” (2000) EPs with material from their original demo, they bundled that with a sampler that included two tracks from HOF’s Blessed Black Wings. Based on these tunes, my first impression was of warmed-over Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica, with some reconstituted Sabbath and Motorhead dumped in. And so, for the following several years, I wrote them off.

In hindsight at least, Mastodon and High on Fire make an odd pair. Like Metallica, Mastodon might claim they are “like Rush,” or maybe just “like Metallica”: from the punk-length, solo-less miniatures of the early work, through the crushing Remission, the proggy Leviathan and Blood Mountain and, to a certain extent, Crack the Skye, a title suggestive of that pinnacle/breaking point, and an album on which one can already hear the paring back to a more popular, anthemic, vocal-melodic style of The Hunter. Mastodon have clearly made the arc part of their identity, and, like the progressive rock bands of yore, expend a good part of their artistic energy in the self-reflective mapping of their career.

But High on Fire? They’ve been mired in a sound, the sound of sounds, since Matt Pike was roused from Sleep. They are the Neanderthals to Mastodon’s Homo sapiens. Evolution has never been the point. As with their career, so with their individual albums—two-speed bikes all of them—and songs, which work less through development than bludgeoning repetition. There’s no hiding here, either the band in their music or the listener from it. It has a single dimension, and it demands surrender.

Said surrender was never more apparent than at the Bowery Ballroom last winter, my sadly belated introduction to HOF live. I started out in the back, by the bar, a little skeptical, mildly disappointed. But the longer the show went on, the closer I got, wending my way song by song through the crowd; and the closer I got, the more my critical and rational faculties were beaten out of me, until, by the time the band ended with “Hung, Drawn and Quartered” and encored with “Snakes for the Divine,” I had no resistance left. The “stoner rock” and “doom” labels thus fit nicely, even mesh: music as inescapable as Fate, as the potsmoke-haze of distortion that envelops everything. At the Bowery, you could hear that distortion humming between songs; the amps sounded restless, twitchy, as if the music were a tiger hidden inside them, waiting to pounce.

Like his music, Pike is all of a piece—what you see is most certainly what you get. And what you get is ugly. It’s important, no, it’s essential that Pike be ugly. Pale, sweaty, bloated, tattooed, shirtless, snaggletoothed, strings of hair sticking to his face, guitar strapped to his body: he is metal’s answer to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that dirty, sweaty, snaggletoothed sound he gets owes as much to his one-time Gibson Les Paul as SRV’s did to his Strat. (The other two, bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel, are not bad stand-ins for Double Trouble; Matz even looks a little like a younger Tommy Shannon.) As for his voice, what would you expect it to sound like, coming out of that jagged hole of a mouth? It has that heart of a heart of a Gibson crunch, too, as if, by following each other so often, guitar and voice had come to be parts of a single instrument.

Pike. Even his name is a weapon.

The Bowery stage didn’t transform Matt Pike, or anyone in High On Fire. Or anyone in the crowd. At the Bowery, no one, nothing becomes beautiful. But then this is a music, a band, that tries with might and main to make a virtue of an aggressive ugliness. What’s amazing is how often it succeeds.

*

It was Snakes for the Divine (2010) that turned my ear to High on Fire, that made me want to turn back to the earlier records. There’s some sense in this. With the opening riff of the opening and title track, the album announces itself as more riff-oriented, more traditionally power-metal, than what I had heard previously. The songs as a whole are less chorus-averse, and sometimes even downright chorus-friendly, more invested in structure than droning repetition. The production on Snakes (and 2012’s De Vermis Mysteriis) is a little cleaner, too; the chord progressions are a tad less jagged and time-screwy than those on, say, Surrounded by Thieves (2002). These differences are probably what enabled Snakes to serve as a way “in” to the bands oeuvre. And yet, the idea that Snakes marks some new stage of growth, some new incarnation of High on Fire that more closely mirrors my taste, is impossible to sustain, since these differences are overwhelmed by the general sameness of a decade’s music. The pummeling, bludgeoning feel is as much in evidence on Vermis as on the debut Art of Self-Defense (2000) … to the point that any music critic who would grapple with writing about HOF has to dig deep into the Thesaurus to find new words meaning “to be hit with a blunt instrument.” The sound is still hugely oversaturated, with a humming layer of hyperdistorted bass, although, as noted, it has pulled back a little from the edges. Songs still regularly wander into the six-to-eight minute range, trading on a certain amount of droning monotony to get there, if (again) a little less relentlessly than a decade ago. Nor did the heavy riffing really start or stop at any particular moment; I can point to Snakes as having more of them, and “Snakes” as having the sort of über-riff that is worthy of video-game immortality; but Self-Defense is hardly riffless (cf. “Blood from Zion”). Even Death Is This Communion (2007), the band’s most “experimental” album (according to Pike), keeps experimentation firmly on the margins, as preludes, postludes, and interludes, hardly troubling either the typical bent of the songs or the overall sound. Thus, small differences of degree submerge occasional, tantalizing differences of kind.

I mentioned before that HOF is a two-speed band, either full ramming mode or smoke-clearing-after-the-battle rumination, menace, and self-regard. Of the two, I go for the lower gear, and a cross-section of such songs demonstrates both the essentally static nature of the band’s career and the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, changes between records. “Thraft of Caanan” (2002) could be “Death is This Communion” (2007) could be “Through All Dark We Pray” (2010) could be “King of Days” (2012). All exhibit the doom sound in full regalia: the heaviness of Fate; the certainty of Death in the slow, tidelike motion of Time; or some other such statement ending with a capitalized, abstract Noun. It’s music that sounds smelted; you can hear iron and sweat, smoke and blood. Fuck, you can almost taste it. But within this essential continuity, differences: the jaggedness of “Thraft,” pared back to a near-hypnotic groove on “Communion”; the latter’s minimal riff extended on “Through All Dark” into something more Sabbath-flavored; while “King of Days” has the vibe of a heroin anthem from an old Alice in Chains record. Differences, yes; but never any sense that the band is building toward anything, that this series forms part of a growing edifice, where each album is a stone lain atop the last. With HOF, the edifice was there from the start; the band have just been exploring chambers within it, some a little more classical, some more modern.

Again, the contrast with Mastodon is illuminating. Mastodon build songs out of smaller parts, adding them together, and then trying to create bridges between parts, or just letting them jangle against each other, in either case hoping that they add up to something greater. This is seldom the case with High on Fire. They don’t build up and out; they dig down, mining the guts out of a single riff, burying themselves and us in their groove. With Mastodon, at least as late as Crack the Skye, you’re just getting a taste of a riff when they change it on you. HOF cram it down your throat until you choke on it. There are no sudden shifts, and sometimes no feeling that a chorus or bridge (insofar as they exist) is climaxing a song. Instead, what you feel is a vein exhausting itself: walls collapsing, oxygen giving out, tissue beginning to die. You can’t really like or dislike part of a HOF song—you either take it whole or don’t take it at all. It’s carved out of a single stone; its success or failure is integral, not additive.

That stone isn’t only the monotony of a single power-chord progression, or riff disguised as such, but of a sound: one that depends on voice and instruments all saturated and downbeat-pounding on that riff together. Listening in particular to the earlier albums, you sometimes get the feeling that the musicians have all found the same frequency, and that the recording is in the process of shaking itself to pieces. (Remember that movie we all had to watch in science class, of the suspension bridge coming apart, the roadway twisting like a sheet of cardboard, the cables snapping, the towers crumbling? Like that.) These are unfinished, half-emerged carvings in noise—noise feeding on itself, muddling everything into a hivelike, motoric drone.§§ Pike’s endearingly sloppy guitar playing only multiplies that overall noisiness: double-tracked solos a la Tony Iommi, big bends with a wavering semitone to grate against, speedy runs that feature a wildly-picking right hand.

Maybe one’s whole listening life isn’t about coming to terms with noise. Hell, maybe music is a way back to noise, and not the reverse …

Mastodon, then, are building a cathedral, crafting a legacy with a self-consciousness about and worshipfulness toward rock tradition befitting a prog-metal band. The idea of the quest, which has been with them through all their albums since 2004’s Leviathan, folds into the broader quest for a sound, a voice, and nicely into the Rushian arc. With Mastodon, one can’t really predict the next record from the last. Nothing could be less true for HOF. I’d as soon ask a record store clerk what the new High on Fire sounds like as ask a druggist how their latest shipment of aspirin is. Their career is a flat line, slope 0, with bumps and divots, hillocks and gullies. If we want to imagine anything like directional change—and I’m always looking for it, and making it up when I don’t find it—I would think not arc, but straight line with a negative slope. Let’s borrow a word from the band, redefined for our purposes: devilution. Here, perhaps, is the Cartesian equivalent of that mining I described earlier: a distilling, a purifying, an attempt to become yet more themselves, to dig down to the essence of something that has been present from the beginning, only in mixed form.*** That they seek this purity in dirt, in noise, is, I think, what makes them so interesting, and what keeps me listening.

 

* I don’t mean to imply that this template begins with Rush, or progressive rock more generally; it is clearly part of the way an artist’s career is measured against his or her life. But since a rather interesting idea has emerged, I’m going to let the discussion stand.

** It’s different for a band that reach their meridian and then stall, or for the band that achieve something toward the beginning of their career and then find they have nowhere else to go, no way to really build on that sound. In such cases, after a few iterations, we start to get the feeling that the band are performing themselves. Rage Against the Machine, Tool, maybe Living Color. Consider Tool: after they had fully achieved their sound with the brilliant Aenima, less by transformation than by organic expansion, the few subsequent albums—each longer-awaited and more elaborately packaged—added nothing to what they had done before. A few great tracks on Lateralus, and a couple of quite good ones on 10,000 Days. But those albums sound a little forced; the psychedelic, faux-Eastern, fractally-multiplying minimalist sound had already been perfectly realized; all they could do now was lard it. Of course, such an assessment is much influenced by the first album one hears by a particular band, as well as by the listening background that brings one to them. (By the way, that Rush were considering what it meant to be a band on the other side of a megahit like Moving Pictures (and their resilience in the face of this) is suggested by the chorus (and title) of “Marathon,” from Power Windows (1986): “From first to last/ The peak is never passed/ Something always fires the light that gets in your eyes/ One moment’s high/ And glory rolls on by/ Like a streak of lightning that flashes and fades in the summer sky.”)

§ For me, the pairing goes deeper. The Bowery Ballroom, the first place I saw High on Fire, is the same venue where I first saw Mastodon back in 2005, after waiting a very good hour in front of the sold-out club for the bouncer to grace me with a point and curl of the index finger.

§§ I may have parodied the idea of metal being a drug in “Vermis Odium” (02.11.13), but only because I am intrigued by metal’s (like all music’s) potentially therapeutic use; I’m actually still waiting to receive a scientific paper to this effect from a presenter at April’s Heavy Metal and Pop Culture conference. Seriously, there’s a reason I listen to Miles Davis on the way into work and Napalm Death on the way home. Distortion, noise itself, has to be therapy. Writing this post called to mind an experience my partner and I had while working in Spain as WWOOFers back in 2002. At one of the fincas, the proprietors informed us of a technique where one person lay relaxing belly up on the ground while another blows into a didgeridoo, moving the end of the instrument all around the person on the floor, about a foot away from their body. I don’t remember what the outcome was supposed to be, or whether I felt anything when it was done to me; but it was clearly intended to be therapeutic (relaxing? exciting?), and it strikes me that the sort of all-consuming distortion HOF trades in might have a similar effect on the listener. A vibrational purging, like those tractors with a vise on the front, that shake the ripe olives out of a tree at harvest.

*** Or perhaps I have stopped writing about High on Fire here, and started writing about Meshuggah?