Marilyn Manson – Heaven Upside Down – music review

Marilyn Manson has charted an amazing, unusual, and controversial path as an artist and musician, but he is one of the most vital commentators on culture in the last 30 years. His rise was met with a mixture of admiration and scorn as he presented original but somehow summative industrial sounds that captured a much broader public than anyone besides Trent Reznor. He quickly showed the world an accomplished performance art that helped him to upset average people and force them to think. Many people get upset when they have to think hard. So Manson spent a lot of time being attacked for things he never did. What he has actually done is to hold a mirror up to contemporary society and culture with an offering of fun but serious and troubling criticism on what our culture has embraced, including its obvious but somehow oblivious path toward its own demise. Last year brought an important and successful tour for 2017’s Heaven Upside Down. He had been injured at the end of 2018 when some of his stage props fell on him during a show, and the combination of an exceptional last album and the recovery seem to have left him inspired. He gave one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and it’s important to take a look at where he came from in getting there.

His second album, Antichrist Superstar, is a landmark classic of industrial music, and it was followed by a few equally excellent and classic albums before his career became rocky, largely over accusations for something he had nothing to do with regarding the tragedy at Columbine in Colorado. Efforts to associate Manson with that event at the time were bizarre, based entirely on him being a person who writes and sings songs from thousands of miles away. It’s one of the stranger insinuations to have been made against an artist, weirder even than the two or three people who might have actually thought that Helter Skelter by The Beatles led to Charles Manson (the half namesake of Marilyn), who was an avowed fan of the song with his own deluded idea of a social collapse he was hoping and waiting for, and which he labeled as Helter Skelter. Marilyn Manson, of course, came by his stage name through mixing Manson’s last name with Marilyn Monroe, a sort of reference to the fatalistic glamor of horror in the media, which is really a takedown of our own civilization as corrupt and decrepit. It’s something that befits commenting on a society that has done things like glorify the assassination of JFK in the morbidly horrific frames of the Zapruder film and has spent endless time dwelling on violent events through the lens of mass media. The name of his musical self shows the clever plays on culture made by Manson, which are always present in his best music and performance, but he actually coined the name as a kid trying to start a band as outlined in his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell.

Once he honed his craft well, Antichrist Superstar was born (after moderate success of a previous album and EP) as one of the most influential albums anyone has made, an industrial monstrosity of electronic rock with a mix of anthems, horror, grinding complex sounds, and devastatingly shrewd insight. The name of Marilyn Manson became prophetic for a musician who would become one of the most outrageous and insightful of commentators on popular culture. The media inundates us with images of glamour and horror juxtaposed together, rich celebrities and strange horrors it would be nicer to never see. For all the attacks on Manson, that combination of depictions as a hallmark of our society seems to be one that is difficult to avoid accepting. Journalists report on glamorous celebrities and horrific violence as a way to get attention and boost ratings, and our society is guilty of tuning in to watch stories about movie stars, car crashes, offensive politicians, violent crime, and war.

If one chooses to diagnose society based on what the public chooses to consume, the result is disturbing. In that vein, Marilyn Manson becomes the person who comments on where civilization is. To view Manson at his best, is to view society through a mirror of its own depravity, but the credit Manson deserves is that he does all of this to complain about society being unjust and not quite right rather than to promote more horror. Like the great zombie films of George Romero, Manson engages with disquieting things to show us what’s wrong with ourselves and to complain. Romero’s great study of consumer capitalism, the carnage in a mall shown in Dawn of the Dead, produced loads of outrage when it was released for depicting grotesque violence, but it was all staged, all theater, all makeup, and all meant to show that there is a problem with a society that it so desperate to consume that we can understand it best metaphorically by watching people behave as cannibalistic zombies. Manson is similar in his ability to wake people up by showing them the mess they are already in.

Fast forward to today, and much of this becomes clear. Manson now appears the legitimate victim, and most people who aren’t even his fans are clever enough to get that his performance art has no relation to violence in America. Also, the horror of Columbine has given way to very many similar events all around the country. It is impossible to any longer deny that the problem with violence in America is not found in the work of a challenging performer but with the actual people in our society, with the prevalence of guns, and with the problem of violence being accepted instead of condemned. Manson looks quite prophetic for complaining all the way back in the 1990’s that things would end up the way they look now, with lower wages, less healthcare, more violence, and a highly unstable society with questionable merits. To fix something that’s broken, one must recognize the problem, and Manson has helped do that. Indeed, since his last tour, America has gone downhill much farther to have millions of people infected with a weird coronavirus while the president threatens to have the military attack citizens amidst people being tear gassed.

His music and performance art of today are very high quality and look somewhere in between revival and retrospective. He has managed to bring back the edge and clear intent of his best work. In Denver, at Fillmore Auditorium just before Halloween, Manson performed a show that summed up his career with profundity, and he offered comments and quips on some of the things that had happened to him. He was genuinely moved by playing in Colorado after it had been the source of some of his troubles, and he expressed deep appreciation to fans in Denver who have supported him through it. The event was marked by frequent forays into the audience with him hugging fans and supporters. It was one of the best shows I have ever seen anyone perform. The entire essence of Manson’s work was up there on display, and the friendliness and appreciation he expressed to his audience skirted profundity.

He made clear that part of the reason for this came from the false allegations surrounding Columbine, which are weird enough not to even be allegations, because he was principally accused of playing sometimes shocking music, with the allegation part being that somehow doing so caused mass violence, a distinctly American problem that plays on repeat and usually involves people who don’t listen to Manson, as well as politicians and journalists who themselves promote violence. He expressed great thanks to fans in Denver for supporting him through the ordeal, which led to a very difficult period stemming from continual harassment involving something he had nothing to do with.

Now, Manson is back, and the world has predominantly come to a clear understanding of the unfairness of the entire ordeal. As a creative person who is able to use disruptive events to strong creative affect, Manson has gone on to excellent recording, composition, and performance in the aftermath. The show at Fillmore was a standout of his return, with a sweeping performance display with changing imagery and skillful lighting and costuming highlighting distinct portions of his career and his song craft. The concluding portion of the show with confetti falling was one of the more beautiful things I’ve seen at a concert and was an elegiac surprise from such a bombastic personality. While Manson is known for being over the top, it’s important to recognize that most of that happens as a performance. The personality coming through all night made clear that the underlying intent is good, an event meant to move and connect with people as a sort of revelation.

His autobiography is an interesting read. Though written with the assistance of someone else, Manson is honest enough to name his cowriter, and the text leads me to surmise he mainly had someone help him edit and shape his stories into a more readable text, which was probably a good move for someone whose talents have been cultivated more around music and performance art than literature. We get a funny and intimate biography that really does emphasize Manson as a performance artist and cultural critic. It’s all very much a presentation or a production, and the presentation is reflexive in order to make culture question itself. His appreciation of LSD, satanism, BDSM, and horror instead of religion is mostly comical, and what emerges as most important is his perspective of seeing society as corrupt to the core and approaching collapse due to its own decrepit motives. Manson likes outsiders, because he thinks a person has to be on the outside to have an intelligent thought, to be something other than corrupt, and to be unique, which is a very large portion of how art functions, to make and show something distinct and original that lets the viewer have a new experience and see through a different set of assumptions.

He was touring in support of Heaven Upside Down as his latest album, but one that’s been out long enough to leave lots of rooms for a more expansive set, and it sees a bit of negotiation with classic and goth rock instead of being a straightforward industrial assault like his first few classic albums. It’s a direction that started on the album before this, and both are a solid return of Manson as a leading creator of dark sounds and social commentary, but the newer album is particularly revelatory. While The Pale Emperor already began to hint at the vampire like mystique that Peter Murphy carries, Heaven Upside Down suggests that we live in hell, but that it can at least be a good time. Manson positions himself more as a classic for underground sounds with his mainstream success rather than the architect of strange outsider sounds that he was on the albums that have become classic for him. The chaotic, ornate, and grinding percussion on Beautiful People still sounds like no other song and manages to take a simple musical motif and shape it into a completely bizarre sonic assault that is irresistible and scary at the same time, just like the idiocy of the wealthy superficial people he satirizes in his song. Mechanical Animals sounded like a sonic assault, while Holy Wood and The Golden Age of Grotesque are underrated experiments with the electronic techniques plus grinding guitar attack that made Manson famous.

The last two albums by contrast negotiate a classic rock ethos with dark shadowy sounds conveying deep cadence and subtle echos. Small sounds have more meaning on these albums, and Manson shows an appreciation of gothic sounds that goes back to clear goth rock territory but with some astoundingly good use of synths and samples that seem as original as the deadly rhythm of Beautiful People that sounded like a war cry from a dance club on the edge of hell. It’s a delight, because there is not enough good goth rock around, and it is very hard to create those sounds as well as the great classic bands like Bauhaus. Manson shows that he knows those classics well and can bring out some of the core aesthetics in a very updated way by selectively adding industrial techniques. Heaven Upside Down sounds magically positioned between 2017 and 1982, as one of the most edgy albums of the last few years while also showing masterful use of much older sounds. Indeed, the opening of Saturnalia sounds wonderfully reminiscent of the eerie sounds Bauhaus opened some of their best songs with.

Heaven Upside Down is a successful album with subtle haunting echoes amidst the anthemic rock that fans have embraced even while the raging passion of Manson fans is still directed towards his early work, partly because it is hard to easily classify his later albums. They are part of the larger overwhelming persona that is Manson as well as his longer journey. Everyone at his shows likes these albums a great deal, but favorites and interpretations vary quite a lot among fans. In the end, he is too amorphous and original to be pinned down to one sound and has managed to cover more terrain of dark rock sounds than his critics seem to have caught on to, able to look back with a haunting vision over a long career of ups and downs over which he stands out as one of the most important musicians of the last few decades. Heaven Upside Down puts him at the top of a heap of people who see culture as broken with dark sounds given as a way to comment on it and see through the wreckage of western culture, and the turn towards more traditional and basic dark rock with its very universal language is exactly what he needed to revitalize his perspective.

SAY10 is a standout track on the album and was a standout performed live. It might have been the most fun song of the night alongside Beautiful People and was easily one of my favorite sing alongs of any concert, with lines like, “You should pray now, is it above, or is it below?”, carrying a wonderfully twisted irony. Beyond the metaphors, Tattooed in Reverse seems to hint at the demonic sigil on his left hand, recognizably taken from Lesser Key of Solomon, and KILL4ME has a beautiful dark romantic sound that was even better performed live. Manson is second to none in taking something evil and making it sound good and beautiful, a statement of loyalty and defiance to a hostile world spoken metaphorically rather than conveying any sense of violence in the music. The sounds are all about love and connection while the lyrics offer a deceptive facade. JE$U$ CRI$I$ is a comedic look at Manson’s career and not caring about the religious panic that his music brought about. He writes songs to fight and to fuck to, and he rather enjoy himself than worry about people panicking over it, but he’s at the point that he is willing to put up a fight when he gets attacked, and the dollar signs in the title of the song point to the insincerity of the religious criticisms which are often tied to powerful capitalists. Blood Honey is a genuinely beautiful song reflecting on the way some people want Manson when things are a mess, leaving him with little recourse but to court controversy. His blood might seem like honey to some when he is hurt, and he is willing to suffer out of love. It’s a beautiful song, and the impact and irony is much stronger after the Christ reference of the previous song. The album has a striking and impressive play and progression between all of the songs and stands as a powerful and coherent work. Heaven Upside Down is my favorite Manson album since the early days, and the songs are beautifully layered for repeat listening and reward careful reflection and deconstruction.

His most influential work, Antichrist Superstar, still stands today as a landmark classic album and one of the most unique recordings anyone has made, a sonic affront to a whole society and a challenging testimony to what industrial music was capable of at that time. Heaven Upside Down advances that legacy, offering glimpses of the dark melodic calm within a storm of rock and roll that Peter Murphy masterfully conveys, the classic roots of rock, and the antichrist himself brought to loud proper pure rock form. It’s a remarkable recording and a welcome return of Manson as one the best musicians in the world. I should close this by saying that Jyrki from The 69 Eyes told me back in February about the new Manson album which he had just listened to being an excellent rock trio album that is also negotiating rock tradition, apparently even more so than Heaven Upside Down. My next review will be of the great new album West End by The 69 Eyes, and I look forward to the new Manson album.


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