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Dry Hump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly, I return the cookie butter to the shelf.

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

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

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

Wintry Mix

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

*

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

kurt-thing_fe

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Pike, photograph by Liz Ramanand

Matt Pike, photograph by Liz Ramanand

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Away; photograph from The Brooklyn Vegan

Away; photograph from The Brooklyn Vegan

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

(Not So) Secret Sharer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absu.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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?

Attacking the Big Screens

At the Tokyo String Quartet’s farewell performance last May, I picked up the Winter 2012 issue of the classical music magazine Listen, which I had just begun to receive gratis for my occasional concert attendance at the 92nd Street Y. It would be mid-summer before I cracked it, and found a short article about the rise of multimedia presentations in classical music venues. Reading it convinced me that I should clarify my own position on the matter by posting an addendum to “The Last Waltzes” (07.01.13), which ended with a kvetch about screens at the Van Cliburn competition. Then, after seeing Lamb of God the other night at the soon-to-be-defunct Roseland Ballroom, it occurred to me that these thoughts might warrant a separate post.

Called “Attack of the Big Screens,” the article (by Colin Eatock) describes the different ways video has been employed in symphony halls around the country—from the naturally spectacular (e.g., NASA images of the solar system to accompany Holst’s The Planets) to more interactive and involved productions, such as those by the CSO’s Gerard McBurney. Reception has been largely positive, at least according to the promoters quoted, while producers and critics alike herald a bright new age. McBurney, for example, sees the screen as a way to help free the symphony hall from the shackles of convention, and audiences of their ossified expectations, “wean[ing them] off one of the great destructive influences of our culture—which is to treat art like something you consume, like a burger and a plate of fries”; and Alex Ross’s claim that the New World Symphony’s production of Thomas Ades’ Polaris convinced him that he was “witnessing the birth of a new artistic genre” suggests the potential of multimedia to transform the contemporary concert experience.

Let me begin by saying that I do privilege “abstract” music, music that is “only about itself” (!?), that eschews visual and narrative programs, and the concert hall as a space to experience music qua music. We don’t need the image of Napoleon on his horse or Obama at his podium to feel our hearts swell, particularly after Waterloo or the ACA. We don’t need NASA images of Jupiter, either, though I’m sure they’re lovely. (No, I’m not going to rehearse the arguments or rebuttals about music deriving its greater power from the absence of such programmatic fixity.)

That said, I have no intention of presenting myself here as another version of the “angry man screaming from the balcony” cited in Eaton’s article—although, it must be said, balconies are fine places to scream from. Marx’s aside, I’ve never been one for manifestos. I can think of nothing more pernicious than an artistic manifesto. Visual media present wonderful possibilities for creating other dimensions in our appreciation of music, and vice-versa, and new aesthetic experiences when combined; the concert hall is a perfect venue for exploring these possibilities; and the music-going public should welcome such productions as they would the opportunity to hear any new work, or new take on a classic work. I would argue that the visual should strive to be an equal partner with the music, as in Ross’s “new genre”: to be more than an embellishment, or a literalizing of the program, if one exists.

Now, the Holst-NASA production may simply make obvious the thinness of the score, and there are certainly pieces like it that beg to be aided by some sort of visual prosthetic.* But the Holst example, unthreatening and dollars-and-cents savvy as it may be, is troubling when considered in the context of a broader, creeping visual parasitism—is troubling precisely because it is unthreatening and easily rationalizable. For such “enhancements” suggest that the musical concert experience is no longer adequate for an audience raised on and mired in visual media; and that this is particularly the case when the music is from another time.

What I object to (as I did at the Cliburn, and might, apparently, in places elsewhere, as smaller, nimbler cities race ahead of my own beloved grey dinosaur) is the injection of the TV aesthetic, its flattening/narrowing of the world, of perception and understanding, into every possible place of assembly. In the ostensibly public spaces of the city, it is obnoxious enough; in concert halls, where people go to physically interact with art and with each other, it is even more disheartening. Lap-space, phone space, iSpace, your space, my space: all are one and equal. Or perhaps not: as every place is re-imagined to accommodate the latest iShit, physical space seems increasingly an adjunct of virtual-cellular space. At a time when I can barely get my students to go hear live music—and who are by and large thankful for the experience when they finally do—articulating the concert hall as another version of the phone/home theater seems like an enormous loss.

I understand that the concert hall is not eternal and immutable, that it is a product of historical forces, that it may soon be another quaint object of nostalgia, like the classroom with the chalkboard and my vaunted public square. And I understand, and don’t regret, that the art-entertainment binary has been paradox’d out of existence over the last half-century. But none of this is an excuse to suspend reflection or judgment. Poetry is still different from advertising; corporations still aren’t people. The composer or visual artist who is inspired to think about how nineteeth- and twentieth-century music or painting responds to and intersects with contemporary culture, and to produce work that, pleasantly or unpleasantly, troubles an audience’s relationship to its culture and its canons, whether by transforming the space of the concert hall or by seeking out some alternative, genre-blending arrangement, is not the same as the bean-counter trying to get more twentysomethings’ butts into seats at Carnegie Hall. Go ahead, tell me about how it was always a business, how Beethoven was a “scheming careerist,” as Virgil Thomson wrote, or how the beboppers wanted not to create a new art form, but get their due as professional musicians, as Scott DeVeaux argued. It’s not purity I want, or its loss I mourn. I’d welcome a bit of dirt in a world where everything is distilled to profit.

Music is one way, maybe the best way, to get outside that. Not to escape it necessarily, but to have a space to reflect, to stand back for a long moment from the hive and the chattering tide, to meet the stranger on the other side of you. And so either there is a sad irony in McBurney’s comment about the screen being a way to wean the public off the idea of art as something to be consumed, or that comment was made in bad faith. Rather than defying expectations, the screen, at least from what I’ve seen, seems like the latest way of giving the people what they want—it’s just different people, with different expectations … the ones who have grown up in the culture of art-as-consumption, and consumption-as-art, and who could most use to have their burgers and fries spilled on them.

*

I don’t have a huge soft spot for the Roseland; it’s always felt more like a wannabe stadium than a big club. That stadium-ness was never more apparent than during the recent Lamb of God show, and it was the screens, the screens, that made it so.

One on either side of the stage, they served two purposes. The first was to give those in the back close-ups of the musicians—just the band’s highly-regarded drummer, Chris Adler, and the occasional shot of guitarist Mark Morton shredding. They were stationary cams with a bit of fisheye distortion, and were not, as a whole, all that intrusive. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something even more dispiriting about this kind of video at a “club” show, Roseland-size or no. Metal shows are—should be?—about an ethic of participation and a total absence of personal space. The sort of contact you loathe on the subway is the reason you go to a metal show. Unless the sweaty, shirtless guy pushes past you and leaves a slug-trail across your arm-hairs; unless someone comes flying out of the pit and topples the people around them, so that you at least feel the ripple; unless somebody trying to get closer to the stage shoulders you out of the way, dragging his girlfriend behind him like a harrow; unless you push back; unless you yourself are touching the people around you and constantly being touched, can you really claim to have attended a metal show? And unless you enter the circle, or push past its madly spiraling currents to that dangerous reef between circle and stage, where the surfers roll over you in the waves of noise, and you feel the soles of their boots or sneakers against your scalp; unless you dare such a Hellespont, can you claim to have gained contact with the music?

It’s difficult to express the difference in power between the back and the front of a club like the Roseland. Each step toward the stage is like a step up the trail toward an erupting volcano. The sound rattles your ribs and pummels your heart; the angle of vision tilts up, so that the band crests over you like a wave. But then this was the precise angle of vision granted of Morton, the cameras hidden somewhere in the monitors. And so the video lulls, says, Don’t bother coming any closer. Don’t move. I am your limbs as well as your senses. Don’t desire; I have prepared a far more interesting spectacle for you that you can achieve for yourself. Why touch, or feel, when you can SEE so well? When I looked out on this sea of Lamb of Godders, they didn’t need the screens; there must have been forty or fifty watching the concert through their phones, martyring themselves, I suppose, so that everyone else in the world could bear witness on YouTube.

So many fans in the cave, taking the shadows for reality, and every wild-eyed, sweaty, bleeding S.O.B. who stumbles past him, a philosopher. But fuck Socrates, I’m talking about the orgies of Dionysus here. Hell, I’ve gone full-frontal Nietzsche …

I did say that LOG used the screens for two purposes, and before closing I should say something about the second. In fact, the first might have been more palatable if the second—which occupied the majority of the video-time—hadn’t been a textbook case in how NOT to use vids. Trite, context-less images of world chaos—you know, Vietnam carpetbombings, Saddam Hussein being arrested, darkskinned people weeping, etc. For other songs, creepy-looking Catholic icons, carpetbombings. For the chest-thumping patriotic song, U.S. soldiers giving the peace sign, carpetbombings. Every cliché of “political” turmoil, every cheapjack religious symbol, every fig of sentimental patriotism, all thrown together into the hopper. It was the sort of bad that revealed the danger of vids per se: that flattening and homogenizing of history until it becomes a reflection of the present, yours. Seriously, if I’d wanted to channel surf between cable news stations, I could have stayed home.

I’m not a devotee of Lamb of God, but I do like the couple of albums I have, and it was sad to see good music spoiled by bad media. And I couldn’t help comparing it with the last time I saw videos used for the duration of a metal performance. For Mastodon’s Crack the Skye tour back in 2009 or ‘10, the band used stills and repeating clips from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, together with other images and color collages. The film was thus treated as a visual found-object poem; on a deep, intuitive level, a bridge was created between music and image, between the album and that most musical of directors’ film. The show was a model of multimedia being used to create a new aesthetic dimension for the concertgoer, and it has left a sort of trace beauty on the album. Not that we need his imprimatur, but it’s hard not to think that Eisenstein, that most open and curious and maverick and imaginative and all-embracing of directors, wouldn’t have been pleased … and Prokofiev, too, whose gift for melody so perfectly lent itself to telling images, and who is the only composer I can think of who raised narrative to the level of music, rather than forcing the latter to kneel before the former.

*

On the train on the way to Lamb of God I read Edith Wharton’s little essay about ghost stories, where she complains that “the cinema and the wireless” are ruining people’s imaginations. The wireless! How the terror of modernity haunts Wharton’s later stories. In “All Souls,” for example, the protagonist’s broken-footed hobble through her empty mansion leads her to … a radio. The disembodied voices invade the vault-like space; the servants have all disappeared. Who is the real ghost here? That was 1937, but ghostly Edith’s kvetches are hauntingly similar to mine. It’s funny to think of myself as a ghost, a curmudgeonly Edith hobbling behind the caboose of the times, waving my cane and shouting for the train to slow down, complaining about the kids today, their phones and other iThings, their short attention spans and abysmal reading skills. Maybe I have nothing to worry about. Maybe people just gather differently. But worry I do—about the degree and kind of mediation, and what that means for our selves, our egos, our bodies. Music will of course change as our conception of self and society do, as our technologies and modes of delivery do. But if the screen in the concert hall is another bow-shot from the future, I fear what it means for the ways we gather and interact on the one hand, and on the other, where, how, and whether we find space to reflect and meditate.

With apologies for these undertheorized thoughts, for their possibly shrill tone, and for using this blog as a balcony to shout from, the very fact of which undermines everything I have written. A good academic would be reading Habermas on this rather than blogging. My problem with theory is that you can sometimes theorize yourself out of a righteous passion, and what’s the fun of that?

 

* There are examples of visual art that helps us to understand or appreciate something about a piece of music, and which, although the purpose is perhaps partly didactic, has a beauty in its own right. A colleague recently shared with me the work of Stephen Malinowski, in which pattern and color is used to create real-time visual scores. Apparently, it was originally conceived of as a way to make complex scores more intelligible. Great stuff. Hope it’s projected soon at a concert hall near me …

T-shirts and Wittgenstein

hmpopcult      Packing for the 2013 Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference in Bowling Green, Ohio, the first to be held on U.S. soil, I paused, a button-down shirt in one hand, a Meshuggah shirt in the other, looking back and forth between them, as though I were trying to match socks.

The question of what to wear had never loomed quite so large.

The morning of the first day, my mind was made up for me: I had gone directly from school to Penn Station, to catch the 4 o’clock Lake Shore Limited to Toledo. I was in Bowling Green by 7 a.m. My hotel room wouldn’t be ready for a few hours, so I stowed my bag at the front desk and walked to campus still wearing the clothes I’d taught in the day before: dockers, collared shirt, black dress shoes. It was a chilly morning, the sun just peeking over the rim of the western Ohio plains, wind blustering down the wide flat treeless main thoroughfare. The student union, the hub of conference activities, was at the far end of campus, a mile away.

BGSU is a flagship institution in popular culture studies. It’s still the only place in the U.S. where you can earn a graduate degree in the field, and is home to a renowned library (named after the pop culture department’s founder, Ray Browne) to support research. From the late ‘70s until just last year, the department had resided in a 1932 Sears-designed kit house, the ex-living quarters of four former BGSU presidents. Despite a joint faculty-student effort to save it, the house was bulldozed to make way for a new student health center.

My first impression of the BGSU campus made me nostalgic for the pop culture house, this though I’d only seen it in grainy internet photos. Past the Stroh Center, BGSU’s sports arena, I hooked right into a wasteland of squat brick student barracks; the academic buildings, into whose midst I entered a few minutes later, were hardly more charming. The student union was pretty much what you’d expect: glass and carpet, a cafeteria, chairs fit for dozing …

So I did, and came to a little after eight. A couple of women had appeared, one working at her laptop, dressed like anyone would for an academic conference—suit, spiffy glasses—and another, probably a student, with a purple streak in her hair, peddling logoed totes and guitar picks along with programs and name tags.

Then a third figure appeared, male, wiry and sunchapped, with a long, thin beard and a black cap pulled tightly over his skull, the words VERY METAL written across it. He was the first drop in a deluge: full beards, long hair, earrings, black sweatshirts and trenchcoats, ratty jeans and old sneakers, denim and leather and jean jackets covered with patches … and, of course, black T-shirts with the names of bands on them.

And me? Here I’d had the opportunity to dress for a conference like I would on any other weekend, and I was still in my teaching duds. In my bag at the hotel, one measly Meshuggah shirt. I might at least have pulled it on with the dockers and dress shoes, and made of myself an exquisite corpse.

*

If you think I’m dwelling on something petty or unrelated to this conference, think again. The blurb on the back of the anthology Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011), co-edited by conference co-organizer and BGSU professor Jeremy Wallach, calls metal studies “a burgeoning field”; and when fields burgeon, questions of “Who am I? And what do I study?” necessarily raise themselves. What does it mean to be a metal scholar, with each word emphasized in turn? What are the musical and other signifiers around which the four-decade old genre on which we lavish our attention can be said to cohere? To what extent is metal present sheerly in the clothes, images and iconography of the subculture (or scene, or tribe, or taste public, or whatever) built up around the music? Is it possible to imagine the culture without the music—“metal beyond metal,” as someone cleverly put it? How has the subculture changed in its growing diversity over the last two decades, as global cultures transform local ones, and vice-versa, and more women and minorities distinguish themselves and participate at a variety of levels? It is not without meaning (to quote Melville, ever and anon) that the first two people I saw the morning of the first day were women, or that the first male participant I met had traveled all the way from New Zealand. With questions of identity so much at the center of inquiry, a paper examining modes of dress at a metal conference would have fit right in.

Lest you still think I’m making mountains from molehills: Matt Donahue, a local artist and musician who teaches in the pop culture department, has an ongoing “heavy metal T-shirt project.” He’s traveled around the world, stopping at shows and record stores and other hang-out spots, interviewing fans about what their metal shirts mean to them. There was even a room set up at the conference, next to the exhibit on metal masks and facepaint, for attendees to participate. On Friday night he took an hour so to scroll through a few hundred photos and show a couple of vids. In one, a burly bald guy in a tight black T ranted at the camera, boxing: “What, people think I should grow up or somethin’, that I’m some kind of fuckin’ dork ‘cause I wear this shit? This is who I am.”

This is who I am. I am, frankly, less sure about who I am. I identify strongly with the metal community, whatever that is, but can pass as a rumpled academic on weekdays, when my inability to tie a tie and keep my shirts pressed is interpreted as membership in the absent-minded professoriate rather than as metal-bred sartorial disdain. My beard is closely cropped, my hair mostly gone, though long in the back—a mixture of defiance, nostalgia, and disinterest. I have no tattoos (whatever that means anymore), only the superannuated desire to get one. I even took out my earrings for an MRI a few years back and never bothered to put them back in. But on Fridays, look out: I duck into the nearest phonebooth and come out wearing a Mastodon shirt. What on earth can it mean?

And what can it mean for my colleagues at the conference? Many noted they had alternate lives and fields of study: the sociologist who works with the Jewish community in London, the anthropologist who moonlights as a pianist for weddings, the classical musician who just started teaching a course in heavy metal—a one-time fan who, for reasons at once personal, pedagogical, and scholarly, was looking to re-connect. Style of dress hardly revealed one’s field of scholarly expertise—there was an enormous diversity of disciplines and professions represented, as well as nationalities—but it did say worlds about one’s identity, about the force cutting across and uniting all these creeds and approaches, and about what had drawn so many of us to this flat, dusty college town in western Ohio, to burgeon together over bagels and coffee, and to participate in the ongoing, collective fashioning not so much of yet another identity, as a sort of ur-identity: one that would help us find harmony among at least some those we already possessed, and enable us to navigate more confidently between them.

If this “we” has a father, it is Robert Walser, author of the 1993 study Running With the Devil. Word has it that he is a reluctant father—“the bastard father to the thousands of the ugly, criticized, the unwanted,” as Pantera once said—and his no-show for the opening keynote seemed to confirm this. Poor Professor Wallach was left up there doing a softshoe, waiting for Walser to walk down the aisle. Whispers that this was not the first time it had happened. Whispers that he is embarrassed about his status as metal guru.

In hindsight, I think Walser did us a favor. Running With the Devil may indeed be seminal, but the field, like the music, has moved on. God absent, he can be that much more easily reviled, his shrine toppled, even as his absence makes him that much more unassailable. At the conference, Walser was at once the most consistently cited and consistently challenged scholar. The hole he left at the beginning—of the conference, of the field itself—becomes a vacuum which younger scholars rush to fill. His absence forces us to look into that hole, rather than to him, for our identity; to look to the work of a community of scholars, newer stars around whom intellectual work can be organized. Keith Kahn-Harris, Steve Waksman, Kevin Fellezs: all attended, and all spoke; it was like a children’s story where the books in my office had come to life. And how could it possibly be more symbolic than for Niall Scott, a leading figure in the new sub-subfield called Black Metal Theory, to step in and fill Walser’s shoes? Wallach called it an example of heavy metal community, but it could be more appropriately read as a Beowulfian challenge: Who would dare step into Walser’s shoes? Who would dare take his mantle on this first morning? Scott went on to read a draft of a paper he would be presenting in a couple of weeks at another conference. Called “The Blackening of the Green,” it was a dark, poetic, playful, pro-putrefaction manifesto-critique of deep ecology. It made me feel like I was listening to a resurrected George Bataille read “The Solar Anus.” Scott himself exudes a sort of cheerful nihilism, a warm blackness; one of Slayer’s better titles, “Serenity in Murder,” jumps to mind. I don’t think I saw a band logo break the blackness of his attire the whole weekend. He is a sort of essential darkness, the personification of that “abyss-topia” (his term) he invited us to stare into—that void Walser had left us. No surprise that, later in the weekend, he would be elected president of a brand-new International Society for Metal Music Studies.

*

Dad may be deadbeat, but mother Deena (Weinstein, Heavy Metal, 1990) was there in force, all spunk and needles, looking never more the bruja, in leather and the darkest of shades, like a blind biker. During one panel I found myself sitting behind a woman who was wearing black fingernail polish, knitting. It wasn’t Weinstein, but for whatever reason I now connect this image with her.

In Running With the Devil, Walser criticized Weinstein for trying to wear the mask of an objective scholar even though she is clearly a fan. It’s not a bad starting point for thinking more heavily about the role of the metal T-shirt at the conference. What were we, really: fans or scholars? Was this an academic conference or a convention, or some hybrid of the two? (N.B.: This is the only academic conference I have been to where people in the audience who were not fans of the subject felt compelled to identify themselves as such.) Is it only much-disparaged metal, always under the boot of the intelligensia, that suffers from this identity crisis, where “metal scholar” sounds like an oxymoron? Or is it the expertise in one pop-culture artifact—Buffy, metal, etc.—that draws the titters, knowing smiles, and expectations of shoddy work by “scholars” overly invested in their subject of inquiry, clouding the serene waters of academic investigation? The metal T-shirt on the academic body seems to me a cipher for these issues.

Interestingly, what became evident over the course of the weekend at Bowling Green was the extent to which fandom and scholarship can be mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive. Keith Kahn-Harris brought this out most forcefully in his keynote, when he suggested that there are kinds of “embodied knowledge,” ways of knowing through the body, that privilege the thoughtful, self-reflexive participant over the detached observer. This is not to idealize the participant-as-scholar in the place of the observer, but rather to problematize both the observer, who comes with a baggage all his own, and the binary that constructs the two as opposites. I am aware that this is not particularly new; feminists have been muddling the investigation-participation binary for a generation, and anthropology has been enriched by the practice of auto-ethnography, of which there were several interesting examples at the conference (a woman who studied underground metal venues in Leeds in part by recording her experiences as a gendered participant; a fellow traveler with female extreme metal fans in North Carolina (“Blasting Britney on the way to Goatwhore”); a self-described “bogan,” or working-class thrash metal fan from New Zealand, studying his own community). Yet, as fans and scholars, we are still haunted by the question of what it means to be both.

In his work on extreme metal scenes, Kahn-Harris builds on the work of Sarah Thornton to define two different forms of subcultural capital:* mundane and transgressive. The former consists of the “everyday activities that [constitute a] scene …—rehearsing, corresponding, trading, buying CDs”; it is “produced through a sustained investment in the myriad mundane practices through which the scene is produced as collective practice,” and is demonstrated “by knowing the complex histories of the scene and by having heard the music of its vast number of bands” (“‘You Are From Israel,’” MRTG 211-12). Transgressive subcultural capital, on the other hand, “is claimed through a radical individualism … It involves an attempt to be different, to challenge and transgress accepted norms within and beyond the scene …. ‘[G]reat art’ produces forms of capital that can be transferable into and out of other scenes; it is … a particular version of a form of capital that exists wherever artists and other individuals seek to attack taboos and ‘the mainstream.’” (214-15). Working in equilibrium with each other, the two forms of capital help to create a scene that is at once stable and innovative (215-16).

Unlike metal, academia is closely associated with what Pierre Bourdieu calls the “field of power”: the cultural capital it bequeaths is (still supposedly) convertible into economic and other forms of power. A discipline like popular culture studies, however, creates an interesting wrinkle, since it grants symbolic power to a kind of “savoir-faire”—Bourdieu’s term for the display of cultural capital—not convertible into other forms of capital. (E.g., at your college’s fundraising cocktail party, no one is going to give a shit that you know Dennis Stratton was Iron Maiden’s original second guitarist. In fact, it may be a deficit.) Like gender and ethnic studies, pop culture was a one-time academic coup; that it still sits uneasily in the academy is suggested by the aforementioned demolition of the pop culture house, which can be read as an act of disciplinary punishment, a reactionary swing of the wrecking ball back toward a more narrow conception of scholarship. At the same time, pop culture studies—Cultural Studies as a whole, really—has a well-recognized tendency to behave like a music subculture, with its own rock-star profs, theory groupies, hip brands, and so on. (Capital may be accumulated and displayed differently in different fields, but the rule that it must be displayed is field-neutral.)

In this light, rather than imagining academia imports a sanctified objectivity into the degraded fan discourse of a music subculture like heavy metal, it may be more productive to examine what sort of a symbolic economy is constituted when the two come into contact under the aegis of pop culture studies. Among metal scholars, knowledge of genre esoterica may be even more highly valued than in metal subculture per se. In this sense, we are distinguished by the degree of mundane subcultural capital we possess and, in Veblenesque fashion, conspicuously display—although its academic currency is limited to the tiny (but burgeoning!) market represented by the conference.** On the other hand, the many bona fide academic fields represented at the conference, the academic subculture called pop culture studies among them, aligns metal studies with the field of power; imported into metal subculture, the (mundane) capital of academia is transgressive. Knowledge of a variety of theoretical languages, partly field-specific, partly cross-disciplinary; the ability to toss around names of philosophers and critics as easily as those of bands and albums; an openness to diversity in gender and sexual orientation; and a political orientation that puts us rather to the left of the more populist mainstream metalhead—all of these things designate us as interlopers, “part of the scene but not of the scene” (Kahn-Harris 215), bearers of transgressive capital which we flaunt (in the scene proper) to our peril, but which, like good narcissists, we imagine is necessary to its progressive evolution. There was thus a tendency at the conference to see those engaged in metal studies as a sort of scene avant-garde, movers and shakers who, through minority-collective action, could spearhead generic innovation. This is the proper answer to the occasionally-expressed fantasy that the community of scholars gathered in the room was congruent or even identical with heavy metal subculture—a fantasy Weinstein was quick to deflate. The bearers of transgressive subcultural capital are never congruent with the scene; they aspire to make the scene congruent with them, aware of the risks this entails, indeed, thriving on these risks. (Then again, there may be no genre of music better poised for transgressive transformation.)

It might be asked who were the outsiders in Bowling Green, who the insiders: the producers, journalists and musicians, some of whom adopted the conventions of academic discourse for their presentations? or the scholars, some of whom wore metal T-shirts to announce their dual citizenship and difference from the “pure” academics, i.e., the musicologists, literary scholars, and others with only a passing interest in the subculture? Actually, everyone with a stake in the conference was a potential insider, engaged in forging, and being forged into, a new alloy. Between the various disciplines represented and the subculture of heavy metal, itself a heterogenous mix, we were participating in the evolution of a subfield, the construction of a new “insider” identity and discourse—one where the language of the fan subculture does not so much puncture the academic as give it a new (off-) color;§ where Pig Destroyer and Pierre Bourdieu rub shoulders in the same clause; where the grain of our voices whittles them into a new coherence. We were building an altar on which to sacrifice a binary that won’t stay dead.

One more thought: the problem of prestige has as much to do with the newness of the subfield as with its much-disparaged object of study. Rick Wallach, who I believe is still president of the Cormac McCarthy Society, once noted (a little more than a decade ago, I think) that he was writing at a moment when the study of McCarthy’s work was moving from having to legitimize McCarthy’s place in the canon to a time when that position was assumed, and the critic could turn to more purely scholarly investigation. What I find particularly fascinating is that those with a passionate investment in McCarthy’s writing—in other words, fans who also happened to be academics—opened up a door for a wider group of scholars to appropriate and write about his work. Exuberant fandom, then, can be the foundation on which a subfield is constructed. Perhaps all passions are scholarly passions in embryo, and vice-versa.

And in all this, the heavy metal T-shirt? It signified the need to perform the mundane rites of metal subculture in order to assert a particular scholarly identity distinct from the academic mainstream. The black T-shirt hugging the scholar’s body becomes a metaphor for both the embodied-ness of the participant and that body’s sublimation into academic language: the logo at the center, the obligatory blackness surrounding it.

*

For Saturday night the conference organizers put together a show with six Toledo metal bands at a Bowling Green dive bar. I’d already been sneaking downtown during the brief lunch and dinner breaks—the local hippie hangout The Happy Badger and Grounds for Thought café/used bookstore. As it turned out, the campus straddled the wasteland of highway and chain stores on the one side, and the much more charming old part of town on the other, full of colorful houses and a suitably gothic city hall.

At the bar I fell into conversation with a couple of conference folk. It turned out I wasn’t the only one with T-shirts on the brain, and, through feints to a panel on metal and community, we ended up doing quite a bit of wondering aloud about the rites and practices associated with “membership,” and how the T-shirt negotiates status. For example: Is it proper to wear a T-shirt of the band you’re seeing to their show? What limits exist as to what one can wear to a show and still blend in? (This has changed, by the way, as the crowd and bands have aged; you see a lot of pinstripe buttondowns nowadays, as grownup suburban kids go straight from their white-collar jobs to a venue.) Who can actually wear the shirt of the band nobody’s heard of? Who can wear the shirt nobody’s seen of the band everybody’s heard of? And what happens if you think you’re wearing the coolest, oldest, most obscure shirt by band X—call it shirt A—only to find that someone else is wearing a yet older and more obscure shirt of the same band—the dreaded shirt B? What can you do but hang your head, or slink around in the corners, or cross your arms over your chest and try to look natural, or run back to the hotel for another shirt, or something to cover up this one—maybe a dress shirt with the top button undone, so that the black T underneath appears as a sort of inverted priest’s collar? How ostentatious we are! How ruthless! No wonder the brightest among us just arrayed themselves in the purest black, a black into which all logos dissolve(s) and any can be imagined, expressing the essence of metal without recourse to the gladiator-pit of savoir-faire. There is something seductive about this black metal theory stuff indeed.

The point is, no matter how much we stand back and chuckle about it, no matter how much smarter we think we are, we do care about this stuff. We were in Bowling Green because we liked to think about this stuff, too, to be at once inside and out, to toggle between body and mind, to sully each in the other.

The subcultural capital had been flying all weekend, as the BGSU student union was turned into the floor of a metal stock market, scholars’ reputations were ruined in a matter of moments as T-shirt trumped T-shirt, participants were asked whether they had heard of obscure metal bands in far-flung locales, and one keynote speaker, Laina Dawes, confessed to be a “snob” because she was only interested in people who were out regularly supporting their local scenes—no “fair-weather fans” allowed in her pool. She actually had a good reason: as a black woman and a metalhead, her life had been one long battle to defend her identity against, on the one hand, a family and community who wondered why she didn’t listen to “black music,” and on the other a subculture that asked the question posed in the title of her memoir: What Are You Doing Here? (Dawes, as someone cattily noted in the Q&A, had decidedly not dressed metal.) Dawes is just a particularly stark example of what the genre as a whole has faced, and the reason metalheads have worked to carve out an identity against the elite and pop mainstreams. Reaction or no, irony or no, it is sad to think that the only way such an identity can be achieved is by aggressive policing of generic and subcultural boundaries. Are you authentic enough to join our church? Beware of poseurs, of outsiders, of coloreds, of injuns, of girls, of those who would ruin it, of those who aren’t sincere, of those whose love is not true. (The recent phenomenon of pop starlets enamored with Iron Maiden T-shirts almost makes me want to eat my sarcasm.) We’ve begun moving beyond a metal scene that is white, male, and heteronormative; if so, rather than allowing other forms of cultural capital to fill the vacuum—forms which, because they reflect the purported meritocracy of broader capitalist society, are presumed to be natural—perhaps it’s time to start imagining community beyond capital, cultural or otherwise, created by beings who are not inherently “capital-maximizing,” just as we have begun to imagine metal beyond metal.

Not to sound too much the missionary, but what if we envisaged community as an opportunity for inclusion rather than exclusion? A friend of mine, a writer, would always say he “envied me” when I told him I had not read this or that great work of literature. What he envied was my yet-to-come first encounter with a masterpiece. It was a little patronizing, maybe—he is five or six years my senior—but genial. A little more of this attitude in metal might go a long way. Imagine a sixteen-year-old kid surfing the internet, discovering Ride the Lightning for the first time. How can I not envy him (or her)? It is an envy particularly strong because it is mixed with nostalgia.

The easy availability of so much music through the internet—what Kahn-Harris referred to provocatively (and, I think, correctly) as a “crisis of abundance”—and the explosion of subgenres in metal has increased the number of fan positions and identities available. When items were scarce and required effort to obtain, Kahn-Harris noted, the boundaries of scenes were clearer. Today, with minimal interest and leisure time, one can occupy any number of positions along the continuum between a fractured, multiple center and their many peripheries, making the boundary lines much less clear. Simply put, to call oneself a metalhead today is a much more complex proposition than it was twenty-five years ago; and to kvetch about “weekenders” seems out of touch with the myriad other cultures and identities that coalesce around and impinge upon metal in our historical moment. I would guess there is an element of nostalgia here, for a time when scene boundaries were clear and “poseurs,” a word with such a quaint ring, more easily identifiable. Yet, we continue to operate according to this desire to appear insiders, to be in the good graces of our dearly-authentic peers—to have them authenticate us; there is no other way to be sure—to hysterically affirm our insider-ness, our identity, in the face of threats to our egos. All of us float around some mystical generic center, carrying the baggage of a hundred other identities, and of a highly individual archaeology of taste, each of us wearing a mask in the form of a T-shirt that we have spent the better part of our lives and the best part of our selves fashioning.

Anyway, by Saturday night everybody knew everybody, and everybody was dressing down, so to speak. The MLA woman I had seen on the first morning had put on a black leather jacket. The French rock critic, whose plaid shirt had made him look like an indie rocker snuck into the conference to sneer, came in wearing an old grey denim, tattered and faded as a well-loved paperback. Some looked like they had slept in their clothes for the past three days. For others it was the plaids and chamois that had sloughed off, revealing the black metallic skin beneath, at once soft underbelly and magic armor.

After the T-shirt discussion I listened to one of the bands for a while, and then approached another group: two who had presented on gender in extreme metal, and one Canadian musicologist who had analyzed death metal vocals with a computer. The latter pointed to my Meshuggah shirt. Was I into polyrhythms? I told him I was. Did I play drums? Indeed I did; at least, I had used to practice West African patterns with a drummer friend. We brought our beers to the nearest table. He wanted to play polyrhythms with cross-accents. We started with a simple 2 against 3, but entering on opposite beats, in something like the rhythmic corollary to the harmonic concept of imitative polyphony. Then the boyfriend of one of the two women came over. It turned out he was a drummer. She had wanted to go home. Too late, too late. I recommend a shorter leash next time, my dear. Now we were three, and the number of permutations exploded. We did the same exercise, but accenting the different beats on 3, listening to the “center” travel around the table. Then we got more ambitious: 3 against 4, 3 against 5, 7 against 2 and against 4; we started using our glasses, pens, any other objects within our reach to make the cross-accents clearer. We would all get it for a while, but it was hard not to start laughing, particularly when the death-metal analyzer would shout, “Oh my God, this sounds just like fucking Sepultura!” (the Brazilian extreme metal band known for incorporating polyrhythms and other elements of indigenous and Afrodiasporic percussion into their music; see Idelber Avelar, “Otherwise National,” in MRTG for an illuminating discussion). We would fall apart, like overzealous jugglers hurling pins at each other. Then we would decide drinking more might help. We did this until they closed the bar.

Ah, heavy metal community. And it all started with a Meshuggah T-shirt.

*

I’ve only written one properly scholarly article on metal, which started as a talk at the December 2006 MLA convention and was eventually published under the title “Heavy Melville” in Leviathan in 2009 (link at right). When I started researching the paper, I remember being struck by the fact that almost all the articles on heavy metal were at the John Jay library. John Jay is the criminal justice college in CUNY, and almost all the articles were about whether and how heavy metal contributes to social deviance. (Yes, this is partly what prompted me to write “Vermis Odium,” 02.11.13.) There was very little in the databases analyzing heavy metal and culture, or (God forbid) heavy metal as music. The only books I found were Walser’s and Weinstein’s. I somehow missed Harris Berger’s Metal, Rock and Jazz—it would have been enormously helpful in organizing my discussion of heavy metal fan communities—while Glenn Pillsbury’s and Kevin Kahn-Harris’s studies were just on the cusp of publication.

Focused on questions of prestige and aesthetics, “Heavy Melville” represents only about a third of my original argument; the rest, about form and gender, I had to cut for length. Someday, perhaps, they will form part of a book chapter. If they do, I’ll consider myself lucky to be working at a time when there is such a thing as ISMMS, with its on-line scholarly bibliography, a journal in which to publish scholarship (planned for 2014, fingers crossed), and a community of scholars to read and listen to and bounce ideas off of. I’m already happy to know that I’m not the only one who has taken on Walser’s idea that the guitar solo represents “freedom,” or who has been fascinated by the hand gesture I tried to describe in my now three-year-old review of Immortal at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. (There is a high-profile metal blog called Invisible Oranges, the name drawn from that very gesture.) As for my T-shirt fetishism and missed opportunity to both present and re-present: apparently I’m to get another chance, in Helsinki, in 2015.

I’m already thinking about what to pack.

 

* Thornton herself builds on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, that is, capital symbolically understood as a “resource that can be convertible into forms of power in particular settings” (Kahn-Harris 204). The difference between subcultural and cultural capital is that the former does not mirror the dominant position in what Bourdieu calls the field of power, which “represents those forms of capital (economic, educational, and so forth) that have the most currency in society as a whole” (204). Instead, subcultures set up alternative hierarchies where capital is not so easily “convertible into economic capital and to positions within the field of power.” See Kahn-Harris, “ ‘You Are From Israel, and That Is Enough to Hate You Forever’: Racism, Globalization and Play Within the Global Extreme Metal Scene,” Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011), ps. 200-226 (particularly 204-218).

** While it would be stretching or even inverting Kahn-Harris’s terms, it is fruitful to imagine the opposite: that the mundane subcultural capital of something like metal is transgressive, and potentially transformative, of academia, and of the contours of the field of power. This is somewhat to put the cart before the horse, since it is the attention of those fields congruent with the field of power that converts once-subcultural capital into cultural and other forms of capital proper. But there is, there must be, a force exerted from below that drives such shifts, when mainstream and high culture fields absorb the creative energy of subcultures, coverting once red-lined cultural property into something that has currency in the field of power, and changing what gets to count as culture. (This is the moment when the college president smiles at you and says, “Dennis Stratton was fine, but he was no Adrian Smith.”)

§ An example: By the time the scholar at the first Friday morning panel on race and gender apologized “for the [mostly racist, homophobic] language” in YouTube comments, the F-bomb had already been dropped a few times the day before. Forty-five minutes later, the last presenter prefaced his paper with the words, “This is the best fuckin’ panel I’ve ever been on.” Laughter and applause from the audience. Truly, it was one of the best fuckin’ panels I’ve had the pleasure of attending.

The Apotheosis of Blitz

blitz      How did little Blitz grow so tall?

I’d been busy watching the slow striptease of that black satin shirt, a button here, a button there—normally he’d be as topless as a go go girl by the set’s end, this small, gamey man with the boxer’s nose smashed onto his face and the glowering blue eyes. Tonight, though, he only has forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes!We’re runnin’ out of motherfuckin’ time here,” he cries, in a voice that distills twenty-five years of Turnpike grit and Jersey mockery, the voice of an old boardwalk barker or casino whore: wheezy, grating, peppered with expletives, and pierced now and again by hoarse, squealing laughter. He’s trying to get himself off, you see, and he hasn’t yet, and he’s runnin’ out of motherfuckin’ time. When he stands hunched in front of the mic, his head stutters more than bangs, somebody pull the clutch out, Bobby’s stuck. And those big entrances: sprinting for the edge of the stage, catching the mic stand along the way, tilting it over one knee; he has to time them just right to pick up the first words of the verse post-bridge. But with all the head-stuttering and sprinting, with “Rotten to the Core” and “Electric Rattlesnake” and “Wrecking Crew,” with the shirt that comes off in dribs and drabs, he’s still not convinced. And so neither are we. And though we try to give him the energy with our own violent movement and adoring expletives, we know Blitz isn’t there.

And then, during “Elimination,” it happens: Suddenly he is atop the monitors, balancing on one foot, splayed, enormous, chest heaving, driven there by the fury of the music, by the jackhammer in his voice, by the cut-tin edges of his breath driving through that scream, eliminate eliminate eliminate ELIMINATE!—newly tall, this electric man with the boxer’s nose and eyes that dare you to be tall, too. Now the whole band is ready for “Fuck you,” they needed “Elimination” to get them to the brashness of “Fuck you.” And here again, as the song nears its end, Blitz climbs atop the monitors—but slowly this time, squeezes his legs together, holds out his arms, middle fingers raised. A self-crucifixion in blasphemy, or at least vulgarity; the stiffly-raised fingers are the nails from which he hangs. Fully unbuttoned, the shirt clings to either shoulder; the belted pants ride low on his hips, exposing the join of thigh and belly, just shy of decent; his body is a braid of muscle, and entirely hairless, jerked, it seems, by sun, tar and rage. A mirror-Christ. In that moment I am sure he will ascend, hover a few feet over the drum riser in a halo of noise and power, the thin raiment of his shirt still clinging to him, and then disappear up through the lights, his body but the husk and the echo of that voice, its flesh totem.

Somewhere between the becalmed pose of inverted worship and the fragging on the grenade of his own rage—somewhere in that cross of sky-daring rebellion and sneering martyrdom, the soul of metal.