IAMX is one of the greatest industrial projects of all time. Chris Corner has taken his internal feelings and introspections about depression and a broken world and turned them into an expressive art form that is almost like painting with electronic sounds. His lyrics complement odd sonic landscapes in a way that is at once beautiful and dark. He is able to find beauty in the oddest sounds and experiences, often made of a combination of internal moods and external horrors, and he translates this into some of the most poetic industrial sounds one can find outside of VNV Nation.
His songs see serious problems with the world and also see something apart from it as what is more fully human. Poverty and violence are frequent items of criticism. He describes this dark landscape as depressive and, to some extent, unreal in its harsh absurdity. Existentialism is a powerful theme as he finds nihilistic experience to be central to contemporary life and genuine creation. I find this intriguing with his aesthetic, because there is something true about viewing the creative process as an act of generating something out of nothingness, but with IAMX, the X that is so central to who Chris and his followers are finds nothingness inside all of us as what is most real about ourselves. His songs manage to shape this into what seem like beautiful electronic aural paintings made of rhythmic clashing sounds with layer upon layer of subtlety.
Last year brought a nearly perfect new album with Alive in New Light. It is one of the best industrial albums of 2018, and it fits for me very well as a continuation of Metanoia and Everything Is Burning. The songs shape a dark sonic descent into a netherworld of life amidst depression and a decaying landscape of human tragedy marked by war, poverty, and violence. Chris portrays insanity in a beautiful way and shapes it into an appropriate way to think and live in a world that is so absurd it just can’t be expected to make sense anymore. The numbness this produces is transformed into a creative outlet as he lives the persona of X within his songs, but X is a symbol for anything and for nothing. So he is really touching on the human experience at its core.
The new album had a scheduled Denver tour date, but they weren’t able to make it due to a tour bus breakdown. So their last show here was for 2016’s Everything Is Burning tour. That album was a short follow up or addendum to the ambitious scope of Metanoia, though its short running time allowed for some of the most perfectly crafted songs IAMX has created to show us a sad world on fire. It seems like a bridge between the new release and the earlier album, and I find the possibilities with that to be very disjointed and exciting. To make things still more disjointed, Unfall was also released just before the new album as a pure sonic exploration with no words. It is very ambient and dreamy and takes pure sound to poetic places. After those strong transitions which leave IAMX seeming more centered on dense composition than anything resembling popular music, Alive in New Light finds striking beauty in the decaying world the last albums portrayed. It’s as dark as anything IAMX or industrial music have ever done, but it has more ways of seeing profound beauty in that decay.
Stardust is an oddly beautiful song especially. It captures dazzling moments with its illuminating chorus, but it’s entirely nihilistic for seeing us all as creatures who are slowly dying. Chris takes this depressive reality and turns it into a mellow celebration of freedom that’s associated with not being alive forever. “Beauty, violence, war is within us,” captures the way our lives are shaped by a destructive environment that opens parts of us to different experiences through the tragedy, and also to empathy with one another. Mile Deep Hollow offers salvation through intense involvement with another person with its beautiful cry of, “So thank you, you need to know, that you dragged me out of a mile deep hollow.” The happiness of the song is in the connection with someone else, and it takes love as a rescue from depression, descent, and disorder. Listened to against the previous work on Unfall, it feels that Chris is finding personal ways to dig out of some of the horrors he describes, but he doesn’t give up his unrelenting vision of a sad and tragic world without a stable center on the new IAMX album. Its message is more towards finding solace and hope in the shared experience of being scarred and knowing there are better things about all of us deep within, and of course within the shared experience of music itself. The album closer of The Power and the Glory with its beautiful line of, “I’m waiting for your guiding light to bring me back,” seeks spiritual transcendence as an escape from emptiness and surface distractions. It’s really an album with a dark sense of beauty standing over the tragedies he has shown in other IAMX works.
The song Triggers from the masterpiece, Everything Is Burning, paints a dark and shockingly accurate portrait of 21st century life. The popular idea of triggers as external stimuli that cause a person to recall a trauma has become absurdly common in pop psychology of the present, and Chris seems to have an acute awareness of this as someone open about depression. While his song sees this as part of the self of some people, he notes the odd commonness of the condition and locates it as a product of living around too much violence and degeneration of human life. It stands powerfully against the tittle track’s portrayal of a collapsing world echoing in Chris’ mind through sounds such as gunfire.
North Star from Metanoia looks for guidance in a damaged world. The memorable refrain of “North Star, I want you to guide me home,” depicts an age of people who are lost. At the start of the song, Chris describes confusion and not knowing any certain place or action. He then goes on to describe a numbness of not feeling at all and being out of touch as he wanders neon streets. It’s a remarkable portrayal of losing place in contemporary life and needing direction, with the electronic beats breaking the singer into pieces, but still having an amazing way of pointing upward as an escape from the sadness seen in the lyrics. Oh Cruel Darkness Embrace Me postulates a divided world of hostility built around abusive upper class power of the wealthy. “Every time we beg for the rich man to provide, there’s countries to be conquered, people to divide,” is a wonderfully accurate social description, but it’s sung with beauty in a song that adds to this portrayal with beautiful expressionistic glimpses of that sense of corrupt decay and the internal affects it has on someone.
I can’t not mention Under Atomic Skies from The Unified Field as well. This song is a truly beautiful but horrible ballad about the end of the world. At least, it’s an allusion to the end of the world in the context of a story about a lover. “Rejoiced in the hopeless. We loved under atomic skies,” is one of the most clever bits of imagery and lyricism. The doomsday clock is currently at two minutes to midnight, as it was last in the early 1980s. Nuclear war did nearly happen at that time. There was a hair trigger moment in which the Soviet Union thought the United States had launched nuclear weapons. The only reason a nuclear war didn’t break out was because one Soviet officer refused to believe the radar information and did not trigger a counter attack, as is well depicted in the documentary film The Man Who Saved the World. Had he simply followed his orders and established protocols, the human race would be extinct, and we would not be sharing this kind of music or anything else. So we are all 35 years past an event that almost made us extinct, only to now see nuclear risks become as bad once again, with equally serious environmental dangers presaging apocalypse. To show even more the prescience of the image of lovers in the midst of atomic war, the imagery described by Chris in his IAMX lyrics is remarkably similar to the opening scene in Alais Resnais’ great film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, which finds a Japanese man and French woman in bed under ashes at the start of the film. The context of this leaves me with a deep appreciation for the beauty and accuracy of horror that the song captures. This song is one of many that leaves me with the sense that Chris’ internal angst and depression is partly driven by a sensitivity and real sense of damage in the actual world. Awareness is depressing, but it gets shaped into beauty with IAMX.
It’s worth saying here that I think dark aesthetics are the only legitimate place for rock to be now. The world of the 21st century has demonstrated such absurd rejection of good qualities of life, such as freedom, privacy, peace, and equality, that not complaining about the world of today as a dark abyss simply misses the point of the freedom and creativity that rock supports in favor of selling illusions. Dark music allows us to understand what we live in and do something to reject it. Many IAMX songs have stunning breakdowns that fracture the structure of the song and also seem like an internal breakage of Chris’ own self. This captures the band’s idea of being X.
Live performance from IAMX is a completely frenetic release of the self. Chris wears a hat of black feathers and becomes so lost in the reverie of his music that it seems like something from another planet jumped out of him. Janine Gezang and Sammi Doll are two of the best keyboardists in music. Sammi’s performance is mesmeric and intense, and she makes the keyboard look like it’s made of moveable bits of clay with the way she manipulates it, while Janine is forceful, strange, and intense as she takes more of an attack with her instrument in line with her work with Chris outside of touring. Jon Siren is a remarkable drummer who plays with many excellent industrial projects, including also Psyclon Nine. He is one of my favorite drummers in all of music alongside Joe Letz of Combichrist, and the intense and subtle rhythms he masters live really can’t be replicated. Janine adds still more to the band with a genuinely unusual personality and love for the songs that turns either into an explosion over her keyboard or strange thundering bass rhythms when she is playing her second instrument.
Chris has established a friendly and evocative art world around himself. Most band members are involved in other important projects, and they fuse together as a stage presence with their frontman and auteur that is entirely unique. They are also some of the nicest and most genuine people. It is interesting that Chris found Sammi as a young and relatively new musician and saw raw talent that needed a chance to develop. She is hypnotic on stage and seems to follow Chris with that. Chris himself becomes so involved in his music that it’s almost like watching someone in a trance. That’s not what’s happening, because he is very aware, but he enters a creative place that projects powerful imprints onto the audience that is a true musical and creative persona of being inside someone’s vision.
His style of electronic music is unique for being so expressive and for coming from such a strong internal place. The sounds he projects seem like electronic painting where brushstrokes are shaping new forms to fit a distinct but impossible vision, including his own directing of music videos and use of video displays in live performance, and that translates into frenetically expressive performance. Ecstatic release is a key part of his shows. IAMX creates a genuine sense of being thrown outside of yourself, of being lost in an expressive cosmos as Chris’ sounds destroy everything into an abstract fluid of feeling and broken sound. Industrial music frequently features breakage; from breakdowns of the instrumentation and rhythms in the songs, to portrayals of a world that’s broken, it’s a staple of the the genre. Part of the genius of Chris Corner is that he is able to use those techniques to say something truly profound that transcends being an exciting compositional technique into making and showing something essential about who all of us are in profound ways that only music can translate. There is no stable self or place in the world, and that is part of the point of his music.
The psychology of Jacques Lacan showed powerful Freudian and linguistic reasons for believing that the self is not a unity or a thing inside of us. It is plausibly made of drives, words, and relationships around us. Lacanian thinking shaped an understanding of mind that pervades philosophical currents in France and Germany, many of which took root in artistic movements there, and some of which got translated into industrial music through those currents of European thought so heavily infiltrating art. To be X, is to be free by being nothing and accepting the nothingness of the self and our false place in the world, and this is a deeply true idea on many intellectual levels.
Abstract art has also given a home to this theme. Abstraction, like deconstruction, leaves so little left of what can be said to “exist” or “represent” that nothingness is at it’s core. This is well expressed in painting by Clyfford Still, whose canvases take painting to a bare minimum of color and form that seems more like absence than existence. Chris clearly follows his own voice, but in being so remarkably cutting edge within industrial music, some of these currents of artistic trends have found a home in his work.
The poetic quality of his sounds and lyrics is also worth pausing on. Poetry as a part of a broken self is a very reasonable description of the world. If there is no self at the core of us, and we are made of linguistic relationships, words, ideas, and relations within and around us, using poetry to capture what we all are is one of the most reasonable things to do. In philosophy, Heidegger captured this strongly with a turn towards poetry as a new thinking, but this proliferated throughout French philosophers who popularized the idea to where it entered German and French artistic movements. The relationship between literature and philosophy is especially strong, and Jean Paul-Sartre used novels to explore this broken selfhood with enormous influence on the arts throughout Europe.
In the 21st century, this environment of nothing has become more fractured. Globalization and technology amid late capitalism have left an astoundingly fractured world compared to anything previous in human history. The world is broken up by endless media images, by so many languages encountering each other, by international travel and business, and the list goes on. People of today are more broken apart than ever, and the advantage is that this can give a true sense of the self as not being stable, as not being whatever superficial thing it may before have seemed to be at any given moment.
IAMX is able to portray both us and the world with astounding reasonableness. As an artistic project, this is meant to be whatever it is for any given person who is moved by it, and I don’t doubt that Chris’ intent might veer from some of my readings of his songs, particularly with the ambiguity that X is, but the brilliance of how well he channels major artistic currents is an important accomplishment. It helps to make the case for the importance of underground music. The mainstream rock press doesn’t have as much awareness of underground industrial music as it does the idiocy of pop star idols, and the journalists working in that industry are not informed or educated enough to be aware of major artistic and intellectual trends that can really situate what qualifies a work as an important piece of art rather than a commercial machine. IAMX is the domain of true intellect, and it should be enjoyed, partied with, and taken seriously as necessary artistry.
Chris Corner’s music is an exploration of human selfhood and a demonstration of the joy of not being. Him and Sammi Doll are both prone to depression, and they are very upfront about this. It’s a central part of their music and also a major source of inspiration. The band channels some of the most profound sources of inspiration in music, as though Chris is so serious about being X that he exists as the waves of feeling in the songs and nothing more almost. The shared sense of self and transcendence that happen with the best music is irreplaceable and is what his band is about. The darkness of this experience is fundamentally haunting and profound. Even psychedelic themes happen within his songs but always in a deeply expressive and psychological way.
The profundity of what Chris has accomplished with his music is astounding. It’s well worth serious thought and critical reflection, and the accompaniment of other band members is equally fierce and profound for the band’s live existence. They exhibit odd, chaotic, and intelligent dispositions that add greatly to IAMX. Sammi is also a founder of the synth rock band Bullet Height. It is an essential project and helps to expand the dark universe of internal hauntings that Chris has created, showing a genuine expansion of a vision that started with IAMX. It is her own ideas combined with Jon Courtney, but there are beautiful IAMX influences in the internalized dark lyricism and beautiful synth style. Jon Siren’s drumming is a fierce attack to support Chris, and he has a skill that is irreplaceable for the band’s live version. Janine Gezang adds a wonderful odd element to this as the least predictable force who gets deeply lost in performance with Chris, and it becomes a show that is like living inside of a painting made by someone who is too unstable to ever finish the canvas. Our fleeting glimpses of the world minus all the structure is what is left, and it immerses us into the flow of the songs and the well delivered common themes that weave them into a darkly glowing whole. The best way I can describe the tapestry that Chris has built into his sounds is to say that IAMX has captured the fires of creation, a chaotic but beautiful force that arises out of absolutely nothing, and the band helps us to see what nothing is – an experience which could be anything.
Mile Deep Hollow Tour
I was fortunate to again see IAMX on the Mile Deep Hollow Tour in Denver a few nights ago. Chris Corner was in top form at Bluebird Theater, and from up front I had a gripping view of the visual part of his performance. Mirrors were positioned all around to reflect and bounce around beams of light. The jagged lighting adds to the cacophony of the sound with band members spending a lot of time in darkness that emerges into light, often times with powerful directed beams cascading through the mirror set up. So much of his work is about consciousness and personhood posed as existential questions that it is hard not to see this as his way of portraying himself. This is even more the case when one considers that he is very preoccupied with mental health. He is open about his own struggles with this, but he has also started doing something very good by advocating publicly for more recognition and support for mental health issues. Chris has begun a new presence on the Patreon platform, and as he gets funding from fans, he has also chosen to lend his presence to a good cause which he has a serious concern about.
While Denver did not have one, some shows have gatherings where mental health is a major focus while Chris fields questions from IAMX fans. I do see something profound in this, because X is still after all a question mark, a way of designating an unstable identity that we must choose to make for ourselves. As a scholar of the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, this is most intriguing to me as much of literary theory after Derrida as well as strands of European thought that are descendants of him view meaning as something that is waiting to be inscribed and not a thing to be found in objects waiting in the world as stable identities. Similarly the self is treated as not having a true interior but instead being a collage of encounters with the world and other people from which we make only parts of ourselves. The bouncing beams of light sent through mirrors across the stage are much like this process of becoming. Light doesn’t really have its own direction, but it can be shaped and bounced around. Personal identity is like this as well, and it raises the question of mental health in the sense that if Chris is correct that X is a good description of personhood, mental instability is inherently a natural human tendency, because none of us are ever stable things to begin with.
It was a remarkably beautiful and difficult show to photograph. So much darkness, backlighting, and high contrast between darkness and bright beams of light is taxing as a photographic exercise but quite absorbing and fun, because it is a visually rich environment with lighting well worth studying. The lights centered on Chris most especially, with the other band members spending more time in the dark, but everyone was effectively flickering in and out of darkness with sometimes very fast and harsh illumination. The song Mile Deep Hollow was especially moving, and the remix album based on it was well worth staging this month long tour for. Chris said he wrote the song about his audience rescuing him from depression, and it is indeed a beautiful song about finding the light. It creates a nice equation or at least linkage between love and hope. “And I love you. You brought me home, when you dragged me out of a mile deep hollow,” becomes a way of showing a glimmer of light amidst dark internal cavernous spaces. The song has many lines expressing gratitude, and I do admire the sincerity of that from someone who is very blunt about having been lost. It’s nice for audiences to be around gracious performers, but more to the point is that gratitude of that type spreads good will through an audience and a work of art. It is a far better experience to share with others than to see bitter performers. Art is meant to provide glimpses of light that allow for others to experience different perspectives they might not otherwise find. The ability for music to create such a shared sense of that does make mutual gratitude a powerful thing, and it makes the notes of a song ever more intoxicating.
Originally published 1/29/19; updated 5/7/19