Author: Ryan

Ryan is the author of the Diverted Gaze art discussion website.
Children of Bodom – Hexed – music review

Children of Bodom – Hexed – music review

Children of Bodom played one of the most insane shows I’ve seen yet at Summit Music Hall on March 22 in Denver. Alexi Laiho came out seeming relaxed and positive as he took the stage and quickly ripped into his set. The good opening bands of Wolfheart and Swallow the Sun were both very accomplished esoteric metal from Finland who offered a great chance to see talented bands that are obscure in America but very musically accomplished. The audience was appreciative, but it was hard to anticipate what would come next as the headliners took the stage. From virtually the first note, the room went insane with energy and the entire crowd was one pushing mass. The show had the most beautiful and kinetic energy I’ve seen at a metal show yet. The whole audience was shoved around from all directions due to the circulating mosh pit behind me, but everyone was totally friendly. The audience just loved the band, but no one was safe. People looked out for each other pretty well, and the love for the band was overwhelming. 

Hanging on at the front, the only way anyone in the first two rows could stay up there was by holding onto the railing as people slammed in from behind all night. Crowd surfers were flying overhead in short order, and the continual dance of metal horns in the air was unrelenting. Alexi seemed genuinely appreciative, and it was a happy but intense pure metal show from Children of Bodom. Everyone was nice and was letting other people know they weren’t trying to push but that the whole crowd was moving. The people who went into the pit at the middle said it was friendly but incredibly busy, and the band responded with surprise and delight as they played even more intensely and paused frequently between songs to thank people for being so serious about the show. Then they would erupt into still more thunder. Music has a beautiful ability to create its own world and to leave normal perception behind, and for a band that writes occult themed songs with some regularity, the sheer energy and odd movement of the audience was as close to supernatural as it can get. I got insane looks and compliments when I took out my camera for a couple of brief minute long gaps when no crowd surfers were on my head and when the continual chaos seemed stable enough with who was leveraged around me to actually be able to hold my camera and grab a few shots of Alexi.

Children of Bodom

It was definitely a night for pure metal appreciation, and a lot of people who like obscure extreme metal showed up, especially fans of metal from the Nordic countries. Children of Bodom are supporting their new album Hexed, and it is a more complex and layered album than the last. Where I Worship Chaos was a successful and fast death metal album, Hexed has brought out the melody Alexi is capable of on his guitar much more, with whirling and twisting sounds capturing a vision of chaos that seems true and beautiful. Some of the spinning and whirling sounds with intense rhythm are hard to achieve and offer a strong songwriting showcase to go along with the great technical playing the band is known for. Both are very good albums, but the previous one seemed a little more in the direction of accessibility, as though the band summed up it’s long history with somewhat direct songs, while Hexed is esoteric to its core and should appeal to hardcore fans of the band. It is likely closer to capturing Alexi’s vision as it takes the twisted sound that has been around in Children of Bodom albums for some time and amplifies that to beautiful and strange sonic contortions. The addition of a new second guitarist helps to create this as the two instruments play next to each other in beautiful twisting sets of melodies, with of course Alexi’s melodic sweeping attacks holding the lead.

The set was filled with a few of the new songs and several classics, including songs from Alexi’s favorite Hate Crew Deathroll, a nice way to tie their past to the band’s present after a little more than 20 years. Much of the beauty of the performance though was the way the choice of classic COB songs amplified the lovely twisted sounds of Hexed. It is clearly using motifs that have always been part of the band’s repertoire, but it places heavy emphasis on those musical passages of odd contorting instruments that become something like a chaotic surface from which Alexi’s guitar is able to soar, rising above with melody alongside the keyboard and then crashing back down into the pit of chaos the rhythm section is driving for him.  Much of the attraction to Children of Bodom is in the way that they are able to balance aggression with extravagant beauty. Alexi is one of the world’s best guitarists, and he conjures sounds from his instrument with beautiful melody and sometimes classical sensibility while his tempo can reach insane speeds that push metal hard but don’t lose the amazing variation in his sounds. It is hard to find a guitarist who grinds out such a fierce attack with beautiful melody and artful tonal variations in the instrument. The result is a powerful dance of beauty and chaos, something that seems to capture the heart of what heavy metal is capable of.

Children of Bodom

The keyboard is inspiring and worthy of the prominence symphonic metal bands give to the instrument in contrast to the rarity of seeing it in a melodic death metal band like this, but it especially serves as a backdrop to Alexi’s guitar, like glimmers of light happening as the venue erupts. So the result is a very balanced and aggressive sound that is kinetic the way only death metal can be. The Hexed album is a worthy successor to the intense I Worship Chaos. Both albums are pure melodic death metal, but like many great bands, this is really just a slight adjustment of emphasis out of the palette of sounds and styles they’ve always used. The whole album is strong and has the bizarre twisted sound throughout as the two guitars play against each other, and circular beats pour out of the drums, but Under Grass and Clover and Hecate’s Nightmare are personal favorites. The former got played at the Summit, and the audience went insane, but there was also great love shown for the band’s earlier songs that were in the setlist. The new album opens with another very good song that has been a single and was also played that night, This Road. Compared with earlier albums, the lyrics are a bit clearer in intent, and Alexi has a lot to say besides yelling alongside his guitar. He captures a very confused world of angst and struggle that is in discord with seeking out harmony in one’s life. He sings, “Faceless, dreary soul, like a bottomless black hole. Your future is bleak. My past is unknown. Don’t leave me behind. Just leave me alone.” It is a somewhat remarkable portrayal of a fractured and twisted world that fits the guitar chaos with its search for beauty in melody very well. The prominent twisting sound is also found on earlier albums, but it’s clarified here and seems to have a real trajectory.

Alexi is one of the best guitarists in the world. This comes through impressively enough on every Children of Bodom album, but in person and live the experience is far more powerful and ecstatic, and this show was even better than the one they played at the same venue two years before. His solos demonstrate beauty even while the audience is insanely being shoved all over the venue. The second guitarist gives consistency to the songs while Alexi can fly off in wild directions and truly capture chaos in sound. Heavy metal is a powerful and broad genre with seemingly endless sub-types, but Children of Bodom is among the most artistic and the best of that. They unify the insane aggression of death metal with beautiful melodies, and while melodic death metal has many great purveyors, this is as excellent as it gets. The lyrics are very focused on an ecstatic release of burdens that matches Alexi’s guitar compositions, as though we should take from death metal the need to love every second of life by breaking all convention given the short time we are here, a true insight to be taken from death metal. The album’s title track of Hexed is a song of wonder about bad circumstances. Alexi tells us, “If spirits could be visible, not just a fallacy, your hex would be tangible, but in reality, they haunt me, taunt me.” It shows someone looking for a glimpse beyond the veil of bad fortune in search for explanation. What we can’t explain though is certainly filled in beautifully by Alexi’s guitar.

Children of Bodom

Occultism is a clear touching point for the band as songs like Hecate’s Nightmare also demonstrate, but it mostly stays at the level of music being a medium to break normal perception. Sound does have its own energy and spirit, and this becomes a mechanism for occult interests in a lot of musical works. With Children of Bodom, the power of using this as a reference comes from being able to successfully create bizarre chaotic sounds that break normal experience while at the same time showing beauty to what the music offers as an alternative to normality. By focusing on internal awareness also, the question of who we are and what we live for, the band is able to show different inner dimensions of ourselves than most people are aware of, and that is one of the better and more legitimate occult ideas, odd perceptions making sense when given the right context. What Children of Bodom seem to like about those themes is the rupture from normality, darkness, and sense of mystery. They favor eerie sounds, and haunted things capture that well as an image. It’s worth noting here that horror movies figure prominently as influences for a number of dark bands, but while there are great films among those works from the likes of George Romero, John Carpenter, and Dario Argento, most horror movies are typically not great works of art. Children of Bodom though manage to capture the best parts of that spirit, the sense of the forbidden, the disturbing, and the weird that a genius like Franz Kafka would enjoy in horror. So we are fortunate to get only the best of those ideas throughout their albums, but even more so on their best albums, and Hexed is definitely one of them.

This band is about dark creation and overcoming barriers through music and art. Their work is meant to challenge our awareness and use chaos to break free of standard things we take for granted, holding some similarity to the great industrial band Psyclon Nine with that. When Alexi’s guitar grinds out one of those strange soaring melodies, it’s an assault on the listener’s normal way of thinking. It’s meant to get inside and make us someone else, to capture the fire that comes with creative inspiration. They were named after the lake they live by, which was the site of infamous murders. Before people take that the wrong way though, the band is not advocating violence at all. The lake figures into their music more as a place that is haunted by its past. That could mean occult haunting in a literal sense, or it could mean a past that is broken and needs some recognition and adjustments like so much of what we continually live around. The songs often show complaints about life being broken, and Lake Bodom is a fitting image for the tragic frustration of that. In any case, the band is chaotic but is searching for love and connection as the beautiful melodies show. Lake Bodom with its tragic past is basically a weird place that challenges a person to make sense of it, and that is in tune with Alexi’s vision of all of us dancing over hell but looking for something much better. 

Children of Bodom
Metric – Art of Doubt – music review

Metric – Art of Doubt – music review

Metric has some of the best use of electronic synthesizers that has ever graced music. Emily Haines is a master at the keyboards, and her sounds can only be described as other worldly. Along with her guitarist, James Shaw, she is also a master songwriter. Metric songs are impossibly singable while having a lot to say about human existence and our place in the world, and if that isn’t enough, Emily has a beautiful voice and is a gripping singer and performer. The band has revived new wave sounds into highly original compositions that are entirely danceable but also able to capture a traditional rock aesthetic, especially with the excellent guitar work that James contributes to the band. Metric creates a genuine feeling that the roots of rock and roll are being catapulted to some dark and strange future of powerful electronic pulses and glimpses of visionary insights we don’t usually realize or see.

Emily Haines with Metric
Emily Haines with Metric at Fillmore Auditorium, Denver, 3/20/19

As a live band, they are deeply transcendent. At the Fillmore Auditorium on March 20, the band was as mind expanding as being on board a spaceship, and it was impossible not to move and sing while Emily danced across the stage. Metric songs are a celebration of life. So having someone who loves to dance to her own songs comes across less as entertainment than as profound clubbing and the kind of release that happens when completely lost in waves of sound, as though they are carrying one’s existence to a different place. James is an accomplished guitarist with beautiful classic rock styling that seems to capture rock tradition against Emily’s ethereal, groovy, and haunting keyboards. Her use of synths creates such a powerful electronic layer for the band that it almost feels like having your brain rewired by electronics. 

Emily Haines

That experience is one of the more powerful things that can happen with the best electronic music styles such as industrial, dubstep, and house when they are done intelligently and less commercially, but like industrial music, Metric manage to combine electronics with rock into a natural harmony. They lack the breakages and the sampling that characterizes industrial music in favor of synth driven beauty and light with strong hooks propelling their songs into very unified depictions of life on each album. The result is a synth rock band that succeeds at recreating new wave music in a very original way. Up front with this band at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver was one of the friendliest experiences I’ve had at a show. The off mic comments from Emily were charming, and standing in front of James’ guitar for much of the night was a pleasure of traditional guitar sounds from a positive personality who is very much in tune with his instrument and the whole canvas of what guitar sounds are capable of doing, both traditionally and alongside newer electronic canvases. It’s hard to find a band that is so positive and innovative while at the same time capturing beautifully dark aesthetics about a pessimistic world all within deeply authentic rock tradition.

Emily Haines with Metric

Emily Haines’ skill on synths is a revelation, and the songs are profound as well as catchy. They’re as fun to sing with as Ronan Harris’ imminently singable songs with VNV Nation, because the lyrics actually say meaningful things at the same time as being catapulted by beautiful keyboards, strong messages, and elevated ethereal moments. Metric is doing something that is a bit similar to VNV by using their songs to show an experience of light amidst darkness, but they are far more a part of rock tradition and less tied to goth subculture.

James Shaw
James Shaw

The lighting setup that Metric used on their stage was absolutely beautiful with glowing lights of different colors and shades cast around the stage and performers. The lights captured the intent of the songs perfectly and painted the stage with illumination that seemed to exactly correspond with Emily’s keyboards. The central staging she gives to her keyboards just in front of the drums makes them look like a shrine to synthesizers or part of an electronic church that was built inside of a spaceship. When she heads over to play them attention shifts from her vocals to the keys, and every touch is so magical that the room practically spins as strangely beautiful sounds come out in a transcendent broken harmony that has an odd way of seeming like it continually progresses to still more peaks as one note glides gently but forcefully into the next. 

Emily Haines with Metric

The keyboardists who stand out to me the most besides Emily and classic figures are Nero of Psyclon Nine and Jeremy Dawson of MXMS and Shiny Toy Guns, which admittedly has a lot to do with my love for industrial music, but I enjoy the strange innovation and experimental impulse with edges of beauty that these musicians bring to electronic instrumentation. Emily’s playing is deeply soulful and rhythmic. It’s also spacey and does the best I have ever heard of making synthesizers sound like pure light. Her harmonies are beautiful, and the deeper sounds she produces capture odd and moving vibrations that work their way even deeper into a person’s awareness by being contrasted with her higher notes that seem to float above the horizon of the other instruments. The whole mixture seems to fall somewhere outside of normal perception, as though her keyboards are somehow above everyday awareness, a sort of dark psychedelia without any drugs.

Metric
Metric

Into this powerful mixture comes Art of Doubt, a very beautiful and accomplished album. The only hard part about making the case for it is that the earlier Metric albums are also incredibly accomplished. However, this particular album has a beautiful way of capturing darkness, angst, and absence that makes it a standout, and that does make it seem like a beautiful advance on 2015’s Pagans in Vegas. Die Happy has gotten a lot of attention from the band on tour with its powerful line of, “Is this dystopia?” being emboldened on the drumhead as a backdrop for Emily’s imposing and oddly geometric keyboard setup. It is a profound question to ask right now, and part of the beauty of Metric’s songwriting is that they are deeply existential even with all the danceable beauty of their songs. Asking whether we live in a dystopia in 2019 is a very serious question that can plausibly be answered with a yes for a variety of disturbing social and political reasons having to do with corruption, the concentration of power and resources into the wealthy which is bolstered by increasingly low wage jobs, and the rise of fascist tendencies in western politics. Besides those concerns, war fighting and technology being used to surveil, exploit, and oppress people are major worries. Amidst all of that though, continual exposure to electronic screens and trickery from social media and other places leaves people more encouraged to be superficial and false than ever. Then if all that’s not bad enough, the environment is also nearing massive collapse.

Emily Haines

It is very reasonable to say that dystopia is literally the present then, but Emily’s response is a wonderful embrace of life and not giving a fuck. Metric songs strongly encourage people to go and live, because negativity is built into the world and is best handled by doing the best one is capable of and embracing life regardless of surroundings or circumstance. The act of living life itself in accord with one’s better nature is what breaks through negativity in these songs. Like many of the very best musicians, Emily’s songs find better things within the potential of humanity than to be exploited masses, and following the grace of one’s own spirit and refusing to give up or to do nothing help to overcome dystopia. At the same time, Emily and her cowriter James have an awareness of how limited and negative the world is, and dystopia would seem to be a real thing to this band.

Emily Haines with Metric

Dark Saturday opens the album nicely with a song about living to overcome darkness. “Forever and ever, a night in search of the day,” describes looking for brighter things while living as an outsider and reveling in the fun of nocturnal life. Love You Back is a soulful song with very penetrating rhythms and Emily’s voice singing in a quiet and high register. “I wanna love you back so bad,” portrays desire and closeness amidst hesitation and disappointment. The song is existential, because Emily doesn’t sound trusting after previous disappointments. So the pleasure of connecting is placed around the brokenness of existence and fractured life as she sings, “I’ve been held in place with wire and lace and waltzed around the drain.” So the song sounds both dark and exuberant, a fun waltz of pleasure and disappointment at once brought into harmony.

James Shaw with Metric

Now or Never Now is about living in darkness as well. The beautifully sung refrain of, “It’s now or never,” accompanied by soft sounding keys emphasizes the need to take life and not wait, ignoring how broken everything might be to simply live the way people are meant to. “The last time you let yourself feel this way, it was a long long time ago,” suggests both loss and fright. Art of Doubt as the title track then captures the album and Emily’s beliefs very well. It’s a kind of existential skepticism over the certainty of life and other people through which she recognizes the need to create and live nonetheless as the only way to fix anything. Whatever happens around us, we exist, and we should control our own lives and do things with them. By doing so, we realize that what happens around us doesn’t even matter very much, because within every person, there is much more for people who are brave or inspired enough to embrace creation and life.

Emily Haines with Metric

The entire album is strongly split between both existential ideas and transcendent ones. Underline the Black has the memorable line of, “They’re still waiting for their lives to start.” It’s a line that seems meant to get a reaction from the audience, making a difference to all of us through conveying inspiration and a deep understanding of existence. Many people do effectively devote their lives to petty things and thus never really live. For a highly existential band like Metric, dying while doing something great and trying to succeed is not such a bad thing while not being yourself is a horror. Life is about living and doing, and that ultimate life affirmation drives much of the album. The brand of existentialism that it has a lot in common with is Jean-Paul Sartre, with his claim that humanity is ultimately free, that we are obligated to control our fates and recognize that existence is inherently a horror no matter where one is. The only way to overcome that horror is to live and to do things, taking ownership of one’s narrative.

Emily Haines with Metric

Dressed to Suppress takes the superficiality of looking good to overcome negativity and turns it into making yourself who you want to be. Sorrow exists and is part of life, but making oneself into something above it can go from appearance to reality if we go out and live and create ourselves into who we choose to be, as though existence itself is an X waiting to be filled in by what we choose to do for ourselves, by what thrills, moves, and engages us to act. It has some of Emily’s best and most interesting singing with fast emphasis on her lines. Risk is another existential song about the risk of connecting with someone. Every line of the song is memorable and beautifully sung, and it’s one of the most fun songs to sing along to. “Can I send this kiss back to you now, ‘cause the risk belongs with you somehow? Can I return this kiss that you gave? Already know it’s borrowed anyway. Was the risk I sent to you received?,” Emily sings skeptically. She later tells us, “There’s another way to leave the garden of eden,” which seems to be a reference both to falling and also to innocence.

Emily Haines with Metric

Seven Rules is about finding safety with someone else and is slow and beautiful, making a transition into quiet melody after the album has done an excellent job of preparing us with so many sweeping keyboard passages. After the skepticism of relationships on the previous song, this one celebrates being safe with someone, and it is lovely for its dryness and lack of excessive emotional drama. It lets the song remain existential and authentic, an examination of connection rather than a superficial ballad. Holding Out by contrast is about waiting when we should be doing things. Waiting for tomorrow or better situations effectively wastes the limited lives we have. So the time to live is always now. Anticipate takes Emily’s ability to make her keyboards sound like a UFO and amplifies it to absolutely strange sounds that are beautiful in a haunting way with a remarkably dark echo under her heavier choice of keys. No Lights on the Horizon is an especially deep song with its sensitive line of, “If it wasn’t for your kindness lately, I’d never get out of bed.” Then Emily makes what seems to be a statement about the human condition with, “It’s true. I’m flawed. I’ve made every mistake.” That is part of living and having awareness rather than regret, and the song is a very dark close for the album that clearly emphasizes the pervasive darkness and romantic nihilism that has been carried over from goth rock.

Metric

The entire album is a powerful statement and musical journey, and it is even more interesting against Pagans in Vegas with the two albums showing two complementary sides of synth rock. The synthesizers in Emily’s hands have a moving capability of conveying deep, soulful, and ethereal sounds with gliding and subtle shifts between notes that allow for every other instrument to achieve new forms of expression. Pink Floyd is a nice touching point for me in seeing how they fit against rock history for creating such an innovative sense of going on a journey through music and discovering a new palette of possibilities. The production on the album is especially beautiful and well balanced with nuances of sound laid throughout such that the smallest of vibrations is clearly audible. It’s a relief compared to the endless stream of overly compressed albums that are made to play on junky 21st century earbuds with no dynamic range. The album cover also fits the strongly existentialist nature of Art of Doubt. The empty circle looks like the Zen use of the enso symbol. In Zen it is used to show emptiness, but most especially the emptiness of the self, and Emily is laying bare the human soul as an open place waiting to be given meaning and to make its own existence.

Emily Haines with Metric

The songs were especially beautiful live, and the album seems like a Zen celebration of nothingness begetting life. This was even more profound with seeing Metric play these songs against older ones like the great Sick Muse from Fantasies. “Everybody just wanna fall in love; everybody just wanna play the lead,” captures Emily, the band, and the reverie of the audience all very well, with conflict and beauty clashing to become a new transcendental melody. After one realizes how much nonsense everything around us is, living and enjoying absurdity by going out and doing things is a fun response to embrace. Gimme Sympathy and Gold Guns Girls also made the point of their music very well at the concert. Songs from the masterpiece, Synthetica, also figured prominently in the set, with a very moving performance of Breathing Underwater standing out as showing that the band’s celebration of life comes with a strong acceptance of struggle. It is no doubt one of the best bands in the world to see perform and one of the most beautiful, authentic, and inspiring shows.

Emily Haines with Metric

They are overall the best and most original synthesizer based rock band one can see. The skill Emily Haines brings to her synths reminds me of true instrumental greats such as Charlie Parker with his saxophone. James Shaw adds wonderful classical styling through the intricate riffs from his guitar, and this lets the band coexist as an innovative project with moving electronic sounds and a landscape that deeply draws on and advances ideas from classic rock. It’s telling that they toured with the no less than the Rolling Stones and worked with Lou Reed in the past while also recreating new wave sounds, using obvious goth rock influences on Art of Doubt, and turning electronic music on its head by having more sophisticated synth playing than anyone else accompanied by strong and real rock and roll. Metric is a great band to reckon with, and if attention to rock is still sincere in the 21st century, it’s one of the biggest and most perfect adjustments of rock aesthetics since Pink Floyd showed that rock could be a darkly psychedelic journey into weirder places than most people can ever anticipate.

Emily Haines with Metric

They are also a very cohesive unit of musicians. While Emily Haines gets most of the fame, James is important as a songwriter and a moving guitarist to be in front of live, while the drummer and bassist are long time members with excellent skillful playing, evoking beautiful rhythms that catapult much of the songs. The rhythm has an especially important role with Emily’s keys and James’ guitar both alternating as the lead, and they play beautifully in synch in a way that bands with changing lineups are challenged to deliver. People who are this expert at their craft add a fun layer to a show beyond the excellence of the songs, and the last time I was so moved by the pure beauty of musicians playing so well together was at a concert for The Cure some years ago. That genuine excitement is a pleasure to see when a band plays, and in Metric’s hands, electronic music clearly does its best when it stays with rock as so many industrial bands have also indicated. Synth rock is clearly offering a bold statement to reckon with through Metric, a slightly different direction where much more classic style and songwriting is intricately updated to mesh against strangely beautiful electronic sounds that add more depth than keyboard can normally accomplish in human hands.

Emily Haines with Metric
Bird – movie review

Bird – movie review

Bird by Clint Eastwood is one of the most interesting and underrated film of the 1980’s. It has always enjoyed a good reputation and is routinely considered one of the best films on jazz, but it never seems to quite reach a higher status of being a universal study of art, and I think it deserves a bit better. It’s one of the best films about music that I’ve seen and does an interesting job of turning Charlie Parker into a tragic hero of the tough and uncompromising variety that director Eastwood is enamored with in his films, which have always been very influenced by the grittiness of westerns. Parker is a tough and direct character who maintains his path in spite of great opposition and oppressive circumstances.

Eastwood is a hardcore lover of jazz, and the deep appreciation for the medium comes through the entire film, imbuing every shadowy and smokey club scene. We see Parker as an emblem for the jazz world which was mainly made of African American musicians who were not accepted by the society of their time due to racial paradigms even while they created the popular music of the era, were loved by audiences for their creations, and were in the best cases artistic geniuses. That is one of the deepest paradoxes of American society, and Eastwood is a much loved but gritty personality who was in a unique position to seriously portray that in the 1980’s.

That decade saw the rise of commercialism in film pushing out artistic integrity (it’s gotten worse since), and it saw a massive backlash against progressive movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Eastwood in some respects takes on that entire decade with a film that shows that American art is deeply formed by outsiders from its most vital roots. Jazz and blues are often called the only original American art forms, and it’s not a leap to make the case for that. They also are entirely formative for later rock music that grew out of them. Rock and roll is the music of opposition and freedom, and it inherited that from jazz being a great art form made by the descendants of slaves, some of the most oppressed of people.

Eastwood dedicated the film to musicians all over the world, and the movie is enamored with the freedom, profundity, creativity, and universally moving power of music. I can certainly express appreciation for that viewpoint, but Eastwood is masterful with how well he carries that idea. Jazz breaks through every barrier, but the fact of doing that so successfully also meant living on the edges of society, because not only was America deeply racist in Charlie Parker’s era, but the racism caused more concern about successful and talented people of color than even the average oppressed person.

The scenes of Parker playing are beautiful. Forest Whitaker does a nice job of filling his troubled and inspired suit in an era of smokey clubs, rampant racism, and creative people who were by contrast very accepting of anyone. Parker is caught between two worlds for much of his life admired as a great musician and having played with prestigious people in excellent venues but also treated with scorn for having dark skin. This may have helped fuel his use of drugs as an escape, but that led to him being even more scorned. Eastwood’s focus on the problem of addiction makes Parker seem a bit paradoxical much like William Burroughs, genius and creative saint but also a deeply flawed, fallen, and troubled person.

Charlie Parker was addicted to drugs and this is an important part of the film. It’s been criticized for that as well, but I don’t find that theme to be overdone. Parker’s drug abuse was serious and unfortunate. It played a part in explaining his sadly shortened life, and drug abuse has been harmful to a number of musicians. Eastwood tries to find answers for that without ever acting too certain that he has them, and he also tried to warn other art lovers of the dangers inherent with that.  Parker seems to be drawn to them in the film for a few reasons. One side comes from the brokenness of his life. Caught up in conflict, he escapes through heroin. Another part of it seems to come from his outsider status creating its own pressures. Both of those issues could help to explain the presence of drug problems in poor and minority communities, an escape from desperation.

The other part of Parker’s drug use has to do with ecstatic art though. The experience of music is a being outside of oneself in an altered state produced by melody and sound, and it may then be no surprise that so many musicians have traveled that path of destructive drug use. Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue was also addicted to heroin much like Charlie Parker, and the list goes on. Other people have observed the damaging effects of this, and it has served to clean up the music scene in more recent times very well to the point that alcohol is the far more likely substance of abuse, but stories and works of art like this film have done a lot to give artists and art lovers the realization that drugs are a dangerous world best avoided and a road to nowhere.

Undeniably though, the sound of intoxication is present in Parker’s saxophone playing.  He is so fluid and colorful in his playing that if he had been on guitar rather than sax, his sound would be recognized as psychedelic. Of the many jazz greats, Parker alongside Miles Davis may be the closest to what became rock and roll. The bebop sound Parker helped to form was certainly a part of that development, and the speed of his sax playing alongside the strange gliding play between notes into a hazy synesthesia is where the guitar would go later on with rock. Sadly, his drug use as well predicted what would happen to a number of rock musicians who were similarly harmed or destroyed by the same thing.

Clint Eastwood’s film is then a lasting achievement. As time marches on, cinema has the beautiful ability to be a store of forgotten and lost times, and this 1980’s film captures the earlier era of jazz in a way that would be hard to do later on. Dizzy Gillespie was still alive when this movie was made, and some of the cultural issues the jazz era dealt with were easier to see in the 1980’s before digital developments changed music and culture to a much more packaged and reactionary place of over simplification. The film is gritty, fluid, and organic as real physical film is capable of, and it is sad to say that that both jazz and cinema seem to be leaving us. This was a topic well displayed later on by Damien Chazelle in his fine works Whiplash and La La Land, but Chazelle can only mourn what is gone. Eastwood still had some of it left to show us, and Charlie Parker’s memory and radical creativity can live on better with that.  

As an uncompromising and troubled artist in a flawed and oppressive time, Bird is clearly a hero for Eastwood. He is as forceful a personality as anyone Eastwood has ever acted or directed, and the most fascinating thing about his direction of the film is that he is able to give so much personality to that perspective. Every cut, lighting choice, blocking decision, and camera angle seem to reinforce that. People beat up on bird, and he dies young, but he stays a great musician. Compared to the anti-hero, William Munny, of Eastwood’s great Unforgiven who drank way too much and lived to excess at times against a life he would later prefer of love and domesticity, Parker is also addicted, and he ventures out into music clubs to try to support his family. Where Munny could be cruel though when crossed, Parker is fundamentally a lover who had limited means but exceptional gifts. The force of those great gifts made jazz a different place and made rock and roll possible later on. The film deserves a full restoration and reappraisal as a major 20th century work.

Painting with Mixi of Stitched Up Heart

Painting with Mixi of Stitched Up Heart

I want to look at a relationship between painting and music, between the paintings of Mixi, singer for heavy metal band Stitched Up Heart, and her recordings and live performances. Painting is a medium that is in many respects purely visual, yet it can have a very interesting dialogue with sound, especially music. This is because painting is really not about things but about experience. Abstract painting abandons representation or the depicting of things completely. It shows us colors, shapes, movements, experiences that present themselves as slices of the world and mirrors of ourselves rather than things within it. Sound also immerses itself around us, and music penetrates into us not as objects but as feelings and sensations. It is enjoyable to look at paintings, to paint, or to draw while listening to music, because a common way to experience musical works is to visualize to them.

I want to examine Mixi’s paintings alongside another artist who is a major figure. While Mixi is a musician, the other painter is a major abstract expressionist. Clyfford Still is a founder of abstract expressionism and a painter on the level of Jackson Pollock. I want to examine both Mixi and Still with the question of sound and vision. Still abandons objects with his canvases completely. He gives us a collision of color and the barest of forms. True shapes don’t exist in the best canvases. We see rather an effort to capture primordial senses of color and creation, or paintings that show how a color can exist at all. Mixi paints with color at the center of her work. Her objects are the barest of forms, as though they could be images from Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. They are fleeting shapes surrounded by beautiful bursts of color. The colors possess a nice degree of movement, as happens in a song. 

Mixi with Stitched up Heart

The selection of paintings by Still and Mixi examines an interesting twofold problem. In the case of Still, we get a major example of abstract expressionism. Still was emerging as a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement as it became famous but chose to eschew wealth and celebrity in order to work in private. He created paintings in solitude and rarely sold them for the rest of his life. This places Still in the context of being both a genius and a countermovement against the art world. Given that some have tried to claim that art effectively is the art world, Still poses a serious problem for the definition of art as the art world. Indeed, his complete rejection of the art world suggests a problem with superficiality and circus like trickery being a part of its operations rather than deep contemplation or expertise on the nature of art, something resembling a money machine more than a gallery and something he made his rejection of very clear throughout his life.

Paintings by Mixi also stand in an interesting place. She exhibits a fascinating use of color in her canvases but has an odd relation to the art world. She is a contemporary musician in a notable hard rock band and is thus taken seriously as an artist within the world of music. Rock has changed over the last two decades into a genre that is less large scale in the mainstream but that has become increasingly intelligent in a sub-genre aspect. Thus as hiphop has grown and digital technology has adjusted monetary paradigms, there are more creative and risk taking rock bands working in smaller environments, but there is less potential to be a massive and wealthy rock star like Paul McCartney. Mixi has used this well to produce music about overcoming tragedy, about finding light in the dark, and has managed to mix extremely modern heavy metal sounds with classic rock, blues, and jazz with a clarity of emotion that comes from a punk background in her earlier music. Her painting is a hobby but is of a high quality, and her very good album Never Alone made with her band Stitched Up Heart had studio assistance alongside her. It is enough the work of Mixi and the studio to be a Mixi album in some sense.

Clyfford Still painting
Cylfford Still canvas

Both artists then resist the art world as it is constructed to be an elite circle involved in the appreciation of painting and expertise in other uniquely physical art objects designed to be displayed in gallery settings. They are both sensitive and intelligent, but they create canvases outside the borders of what usually merits the distinction of being part of the art scene. In the case of Still, he is internationally revered but tried to exit the art world for seclusion. In the case of Mixi, she is famous as a musician but paints in a relatively private context for enjoyment, contemplation, connection with friends and music fans who like it, and monetary benefits which are incidental to supporting music as her main focus.

Clyfford Still painting
Still painting

Both artists have a fascinating use of color and favor abstraction to some degree. In the case of Still, he worked away from representation in early paintings which showed some elements of cubist influence and into total abstraction and presentation of color and shapes, though I am inclined to call his canvases a minimal of form more so than any actual shapes. Still has a general sense of not favoring geometry in any sense in his later works, and he speaks more through color and its relation between itself and other colors. The hint of shapes is used to augment and accent this, but the later canvases try very hard to not even depict anything like an obvious shape within the confines of the canvas. Still then seeks something primordial in painting such as the emergence of sense and color. Indeed, the canvases of Still often show a strong sense of rupture, of light breaking through in the form of the more specific instantiation of a color which is always nonetheless trapped within a context of other colors and some form of a line.

Meaning in Painting

Mixi’s canvases pose the interesting question of how her visual art relates to her music as is the case with other musicians who develop an interest in painting. Her canvases are not abstract but both use and reject form in that the ones I’m examining use silhouettes against very nice movements of color. The first one was painted when I suggested she paint the dove from her album, Never Alone. The album has a cover with a dove flying up to a window as in overcoming something very dark and troubling. Her background indeed includes some troubling experiences, and she has made music in the vein of turning tragedy into art as a universal message. While the studio helped with it, her story is very much in the background of the album as she worked closely with the songwriter.

painting by Mixi of Stitched Up Heart
Mixi canvas

She painted the dove as a silhouette over a sunset. The dove is oversized and carries a branch, as though referencing an olive branch as a symbol of peace and an end to bad things. The dove flies underneath a crescent moon, which places the canvas in a lunar context rather than a more typical solar connotation. The sky is a dark blue of twilight with a large star above the dove. She is then painting an ascent into the night sky and an overcoming of negativity through mystery. There are clearly themes and figures and thus representation, but there is also a clear preference of mystery and the hidden and thus the leaving of the bird as a silhouette. The background serves to fill in the dove, as vibrant colors emerge from behind its lack of color. This is also interesting in a musical context as most people wear black in music clubs, which is a large part of Mixi’s life. This is partly simply a phenomenon of urban culture, but it does have more being represented as well. Black is a color of outsiders, and it looks good to see people moving in black beneath club lights, and it also is traditionally associated with mystical experience due to the inability to place a defined meaning on blackness. It also has obvious nocturnal associations which is generally when it is best to be out somewhere for music.

painting by Mixi
by Mixi

The influential philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein poses questions about the nature of meaning in his philosophy, and this carries into the meaning found in works of art. This is an issue throughout his thinking that takes on different guises in different manuscripts, but the Remarks on Color pose interesting questions about the nature of seeing and the construction of images. As he probes the nature of language and meaning, he asks how it is that meaning emerges from the image when no particular isolated part seems to capture what we experience. It is not clear where we see color or what it emerges from. Is color a sensation or a mental phenomenon? Does an individual color have a meaning in its own right? Does the meaning or sense one has of a color emerge as a relational phenomenon in the context of other colors? Wittgenstein examines these questions in the Remarks on Color, and this is an important book to use in the study of painting. It can help us with an examination of canvases by Still and Mixi. A plausible path to take from the problem of any given color not being a “thing” in the sense of “green” not having a stable appearance in its own right is to suggest that meaning in visual art is dependent on the relation between elements just like a language or a song. Perhaps painting is a field of relationships and not a thing just like a song is a collection of notes that only have meaning as they come together in time. It’s a movement of different sensual components within the painting that creates a sense of color within us. Without us seeing, color doesn’t exist. This is a relationship of observer to artwork that is actually easier to see with music than painting, because a composition can be played many ways, sounds different under changing acoustic environments, and means different things to different people in a way that can have powerful inner aspects.

painting by Mixi of Stitched Up Heart

There are similar problems with what one may say about the uses of color and the emergence of meaning within painting. Abstract expressionism clearly raises the question of how meaning is constructed in painting and when its traditional contours start to break down and may even be challenged by a work. This is very much at the heart of Wittgenstein’s treatment of art and of color. There is not an inherently fixed meaning to a color, and Remarks on Color shows this convincingly. To examine a shade of blue on a canvas, one can only interpret the color based on the the actual texture of the paint and the surface and the other colors both surrounding and composing it. In Mixi’s dove painting, the blue at the top of the canvas hovers above an orange sunset hue of the sky through an uneven line. It’s far bluer and darker against the orange, and the colors bleed together very nicely. She seems to be suggesting a vertical transcendence, like the dove flying above the trees below, suspended in the air almost magically, with a horizon defined mainly by a color and the feeling it produces next to the other background colors. Emotion is produced through the play of the colors, and they have a warm and fluid sense of not being easily pinned down to any one color.

painting by Mixi

If I ask what shade of blue the sky in her dove painting is composed of there really is in no sense one shade. The blue is darker by the crescent moon, and it is lighter at the point of the thinner horizon to the left of the canvas, but it particularly looks beautiful alongside the orange-red-yellow shades beneath it, and this in turn becomes more fluid against the starkness of the silhouetted dove. Thus, the painting really is not any one color or even set of colors, and the colors can’t exist outside the context of the canvas. So color manages to emerge as a phenomenon of a very dense set of contextual ties. This certainly raises the power of art, as the artist has the ability to very strongly reorient perceptions and appearances, as much of what may seem fixed about the senses, such as the color of an object, is really very malleable. The fluid colors are highly interesting in the context of this being a painting by a musician as is the partial absence of the bird in being presented through a silhouette. Musical notes gain meaning in the context in which they are played, and the silhouette of the bird is entirely defined by the very fluid colors around it. It’s an enjoyable work to look at, because the colors play with perception from any point on the canvas, like swimming in a sea of moving colors with the dove.

painting by Mixi of Stitched Up Heart
by Mixi

Wittgenstein raises the issue of how meaning emerges at all on the canvas. Where is the color to be found given what we have examined? A single sloth of paint is really not a color. It carries color properties, but what sense of color it will convey will be determined by much of the work that is to be constructed. It doesn’t occur only in the mind of the spectator either, because the canvas does certainly have its own existence as a separable object out in the world rather than only one’s mind, and the artist is able to control the properties of the colors in her own mind to put them onto a physical canvas as an expression of her vision. The way we think about and perceive the canvas is similar enough between one another to make the story of what colors are and what they mean partly a common experience inside of us, but respect must also be given to the fact that we interact with the individual parts of things in the world to create this larger internal sense of the painting and its colors that emerges when viewing the work.

painting by Mixi of Stitched Up Heart

So at the least, to have a “color” requires an interaction between a person and some objects which all together form a larger whole of what may be a color. The inability to reduce this to any one thing is a fascinating problem for the nature of what seeing means and how it composes us, because the shapes and relations between colors on the canvas all serve to add to this phenomenon. So art in essence makes us due to the lack of definition within much of what we take for granted, such as how we perceive colors. An impressive canvas effectively changes how we see them and adjusts who we are. A person is a malleable construct based on how we put together our world and relate ourselves back to it. So we effectively are what we create or what we choose to encounter from the creations of other people whom we value.

Meaning in Sound

This holds true for music as well, and the more internalized sense of sound being a deeply felt personal experience happening within can be much more profound, but it can also be shared with other people in a club so that everyone follows the same melody, song, or rhythm as a larger wave of emotion and meaning. On her Stitched Up Heart album Never Alone, Mixi explores overcoming burdens and harmful events with songs like Finally Free. With an epic, airy, and beautiful scream, she sings, “I’ve broken through the chains,” much like the dove on her album cover and canvas is clearly released from gravity. As a singer, the fascinating thing about her is that she performs with so much emotion and so directly from the heart, touching so much of an internal place of her own. Fronting a band is very much a performance art, and most people who do this get into character and create drama to entertain their audience, though often in a legitimate way that reflects their songs and ideas.

with Mixi and Stitched Up Heart
with Stitched Up Heart

There really are no trappings of acting with Mixi though. Her songs are about real things in the world and how to relate to them and be a better person. So she is entirely for real and connects with those ideas and her experiences of things that are like that. The beauty of this is that the songs reflect something real about human nature, about struggle, and about being forged by fire into a better person. I recall seeing Mixi taking the stage years ago with a worn out t-shirt and completely ripping apart the venue with a beautiful voice and emotion in her delivery that wasn’t like a polished and produced band. She looked like she was following a dream and struggling but had something to say and cared about her message, and the sincerity and having something real to say is worth much more than packaged art. It’s as though something unique from inside another person can find a way to make a similar meaning for someone else through sound and emotion that can’t be reduced to anything outside that work of art.

It makes Stitched Up Heart one of the best bands working in hard rock. Mixi fronts her band with intense emotion and profound blues sensibilities that relate to that. With subtle and ethereal riffing from Merrit Goodwin and driving drumming from James Decker, the band has a powerful message and constructs songs with deep substance and diverse sounds on Never Alone. Lots of songs are about rising above darkness, and the band displays a wonderful balance of dark against light that has strong visual ideas that fit nicely against Mixi’s paintings. Earlier incarnations  had clear goth-punk and post-hardcore sensibilities, and the ethereal sounds of light elements soaring over darker and heavier sounds that is common to goth and industrial styles of music is present but in a more traditional rock package that is really a heavy metal band. There are also strong blues elements to their sounds, and Mixi’s vocals are some of the best blues sounds I have heard.

painting by Mixi

Much of the album is devoted to themes of overcoming struggle and tragedy, but the excellence of Never Alone is that these elements take on a very unique and common structure which seems to be part of the world and not just a person’s experiences. On the title track, the lyrics focus on having been through tragedy and build this into a common shared world that the songwriting has something to say about. “I’ve been here before, fought through the storm,” conveys a wisdom about not giving up and overcoming negativity by finding something better with guitar riffs that sound like a mixture of fighting and release. Event Horizon is a stunning display of guitar riffs and crashing cymbals that compares trauma to falling into a black hole. I Can’t Breathe is one of the most beautiful and overlooked songs on the album, and it conveys a stifling sense of drowning in everyday surroundings which become too oppressive to cope. Much of this is a frustration with commercialism and the superficial side of Los Angeles. On City of Angels, we see a different side to Los Angeles, a portrait painted of the city as a dilapidated place shaped by hopes and dreams that rise above its streets. In many respects, the album reminds me of Damien Chazelle’s excellent film La La Land. If I had my way, Never Alone might even be the soundtrack to that film, and it’s one of my favorite albums.

Like La La Land, it is partly a story about desperation and hard work for art in Los Angeles. It is really much more than that though. Mixi’s album is about overcoming a variety of difficulties and obstacles and not giving up. It is really many years in the making if one considers the background of her band. Stitched Up Heart started several years ago and released two EPs over a lot of line up changes. Mixi is the only original member, and she reached a point of struggling over her music when she met her current drummer, Decker, who was starting a band and suggested she work with the musicians he was putting together. It was a kind gesture and something that resulted in wonderful talent and music for them both.  

painting by Mixi

The two early EPs she made are well worth listening to and have interesting ideas, but they don’t have the fully formed sound of Never Alone, which also got strong help from her record label at Another Century. The album that resulted from all of this is far more coherent and realized than the previous releases. It has a clear message, and the band has come to cohere around this vision. The songs all point towards overcoming obstacles as a somewhat existential quest, and all elements of playing on the album fit this vision well. Since the album was recorded there has been only one lineup change, with the rhythm guitarist being replaced. All live performances I have seen are with the newer guitarist, Nick, and he fits perfectly well playing against Randy’s bass and Merritt’s lead guitar. I am a bit taken by how well the band coheres after these changes though. Mixi has a clear enough vision of her music that everyone in the band has come together around this, and they play like a polished lineup that is naturally cohesive. Mixi struggled hard to develop her music, and it shows, but this also shows in her paintings. They capture the sense of light and transcendence that her music is about.

It’s also interesting to look back at the Mixi album, her solo effort. She wrote that all herself, and it does fit her personality and interests powerfully. She likes simple punk song structures for her own compositions but with jazz arrangements where she can heavily emote and add layers to simple sections of her songs. On most of the songs she picks a fun to sing idea and builds it into something that connects with her experience, like the song Vampire, and all of the songs show a strongly personal perspective from her. Vampire is about a person who treated her like the title of the song metaphorically suggests amidst her dreams in Los Angeles glitz. We Are the Entertainment is about working in the music industry, and it shows the disappointment, excitement, and contact with people that goes along with that well. The album shows her dreams, big ideas, and kind nature with trappings that show she has been disappointed but also has the best intentions. It’s pure, beautiful, and underrated, and is a very nice album to listen to alongside her paintings.

with Mixi from Stitched up Heart
with Mixi
Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest – music review

Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest – music review

Behemoth is a great and strange band. They take some of heavy metal’s darkest and deepest impulses and shape them into glorious clarity that remains essential rock and roll throughout. Their masterpiece The Satanist gives expression to something that has been important to black metal since it started in Norway and that has roots in earlier death metal like Morbid Angel and still earlier metal all the way back to Black Sabbath. The followup to those ideas in I Loved You at Your Darkest continues this brilliantly with a broader soundscape. Satanism is an eternal topic for metal, and it takes a lot of guises. Some of them are performance art, some just silly self references for rock and roll fun, some more a part of rebellion, and some are occultist. It doesn’t really matter which form it takes though, because it’s become such a part of metal that the idea of Satan is part of a creative palette that’s very important to being subversive in music. Behemoth have managed to take that entire collection of themes and distill it into a clear and pure vision of Satanic life as a rebellion against god and injustice, and they have turned it into pure and great rock and roll.

I Loved You at Your Darkest expands the range of those considerations where The Satanist seemed like a distillation of those ideas into heavy clarity. Behemoth’s new album is like an atmospheric whirlwind. Where The Satanist brought clarity to their sound with a remarkably accessible, subversive, and pure black metal sound, the newest album offers strange thick sounds and sludgy atmosphere that sounds like Nergal’s band wandered into hell where they are on holiday with martinis and north European beer. It’s a much weirder album that might be a celebration of their success, but it’s just as fun and enlightening as the one before it. Part of the importance of Behemoth’s achievements has to do with the status of heavy metal today. It underwent a real crisis more than 20 years ago when it was out of favor, during which time it went underground. Sub-genres of metal developed well out of that underground status, and it allowed for much more creativity to take hold. Today metal is not only strong but is one of the purest, most creative and subversive styles of music. The love for metal brings people together and builds a unique culture with a true way of life and fierce approach to creation, and Behemoth embodies that in such a full way that it’s hard to believe what you are seeing when they play.

For the Love of Satan

Nergal, aka Adam Darski, has an odd way of being incredibly articulate about his advocacy of Satan, and what makes it so interesting is that his status as a spokesperson is almost as important as his work as a musician, and that’s saying a lot, because Behemoth is undeniably the most important black metal band. So we have excellent musicianship alongside clear thinking and solid inspiration with a provocative message. When the drums and the bass attack with a brutal backing rhythm, it seems like a chasm is being ripped open under the earth to let the guitar shred its way to some new light that Nergal’s lyrics will somehow accompany. It’s a brilliant guise for a band to take on, and it never becomes repetitive. The divine blasphemy sets us up for enlightenment, and Nergal’s Satanic message is that we should free our minds. He really is an intellectual as much as a musician, and given the creative impetus of art and music, that takes a different form than scholarly academia, but it is highly intelligent and shows a worldview that is confronting deep aspects of western culture in a critical way that goes beyond great albums into perhaps the most solid rock and roll shows available now. 

Behemoth
Behemoth at Ogden Theatre in Denver, 11/13/18

Behemoth have taken the idea of Satanic themes and perfected them in their sounds, imagery, lyrics, and persona. Far from being negative, they find light and positivity in the idea. Nergal is an inspiring person. He survived a devastating form of cancer and is a health guru who tries to inspire other people. The band has decided that there is a dark occult landscape that is part of creative arts to be found in metal’s idea of Satan, and they have tried to perfect that better than anyone else ever has. They’ve succeeded. The band’s Satanism is authentic and well intentioned as a rejection of corrupt power, dogmatism, and lies. To much of heavy metal, Satan is the ultimate rebel, the denier of illusions and a representation of freedom.

Satanism is also wrapped up in creative arts beyond music. The Church of Satan and related organizations have cast a long shadow in Hollywood with film stars and musicians being associated with it, and it’s generally turned into a larger creative place. There are various subgroups and related groups, and not everyone is as positive, but generally it’s more a part of the creative world than the mass media has tended to suggest. Lots of Satanists want to see a better world by getting past things that hold people back. Some have occult views, and some are simply individualists. Some are problematic on occasion, but it’s fair to blame this more on bad individuals and a proliferation of subgroups than the general idea. Interpretations and intentions behind Satanism really vary, but the genius of Behemoth is that they have taken that whole landscape and shaped it into a perfect musical form that really completes the idea. They also stay with pure rock and roll and musical art without resorting to some of the extreme theatricality that some black metal has needed to use.

Their stage show is beautiful, but it stays basic enough to emphasize their prowess with instruments and raw rock performance. Playing at the Ogden in Denver for November of last year, the lights went into beautiful extreme shades of red and darkness that capture the idea well, and the restrained choices keep the band from being so over the top or conceptual as to lose the beauty of what their sounds are capable of. Nergal is one of the best singers in rock. He is able to amplify the sections of his lyrics in just the right places and can send the audience into a frenzy with little effort. He doesn’t jump around the stage like Alissa White-Gluz (who has an amazing talent for that), but standing with his guitar he has a stable majesty to his presence that is irreplaceable and fits the insane heaviness of the band’s compositions. Being at eye level with him for much of the show, he seemed like a friendly heavy metal warrior with a lot to say. Everyone in Behemoth plays like a tightly knit unit in perfect time with each other, and there is a deep sense of inspiration being at work with the band. They are accompanied by an altar with snakes, and it’s basic and beautiful, representing the infernal illumination that is part of Behemoth’s musical vision.

Occult

The occult background of the kind of ideas that are found in Behemoth is best seen in Aleister Crowley. He has been an important influence on rock for a long time. An advocate of occult mysticism, love, and personal freedom, Crowley’s ideas have been shaped into a way of life that is an intrinsic part of music. While he advocates magic, plenty of his ideas have obvious mundane importance to people in clubs. He was a serious advocate of creativity and doing things for oneself. It’s hard to be very creative by accepting what everyone already says, and Crowley uses mysticism to reach beyond that. While he turns that into a new occult movement and claims magical revelation in The Book of the Law and other works, mysticism has great similarities to his ideas and is found throughout mainstream religions all over the world, generally as a quieter, smaller, and more personal trend than public outer aspects of religion. Crowley is also a strong advocate of love, and one of his most central formulations of his ideas was stated as, “Love is the law. Love under will.” Put simply, one should pursue one’s passions and one’s love and apply the will to this, a statement of individualism which took off in various views of Satanism proclaiming that a person should be their own god, strive to accomplish, and take control of their own existence.

Behemoth

Black metal started in Norway with inspiration in death metal, occultism, and the rejection of popular religion in favor of something more primal and in some cases something viewed as an earlier set of pagan beliefs. That artistic movement spread throughout Europe, and Behemoth is from Poland, which has an active dark metal scene. It’s not the biggest dark metal scene in Europe even though the country is geographically enormous by European standards, and Behemoth became established as a top international band from drawing influences for their sounds from all over the place as they toured. Part of what makes them a great band is that they are so self made. All those grueling years of hard touring at first on very little budget taught them a lot, and they continued to grow, learn, and get better. Heavy metal has strong ideas about fighting on and overcoming obstacles, and living that life to the fullest made them increasingly unique under their own vision. They have a strong claim of being perhaps the best heavy metal band working today, with the clearest vision, and they give perfect expression to something that many musicians have tried to state for decades. I find their rise to be supporting evidence that people who genuinely love art should spend a lot of time in smaller experimental music clubs, because that is what Behemoth’s perfection grew out of.

Occultism refers to hiddenness, and Behemoth songs point towards hidden truths but also manage to succeed at putting them front and center. Every note coming from every instrument carries their ideas in perfect harmony, even when they are creating sounds of primeval chaos. The band is mostly angry at things that are worth being unhappy about, and they see Satan as a way out from those obstacles, a chaotic force crashing through the chains that hold people down. In a nonreligious world, their music would simply be considered positive, because while Christianity wouldn’t like the things they praise, everything that’s normally considered positive or good, in many respects even moral, gets tied to Satan. So rather than praising the opposite of goodness, they are changing its name. There are many advantages to doing so, because whatever good might be in Christianity has been mixed so heavily with power, politics, and money that it’s hard to imagine its moral or spiritual ideas being intact or serious. So the band’s interest in Satan is a positive thing because of the way they express that in music and performance. 

The West

Behemoth being from Poland is important. The size of the country and the borders it shares have made Poland an important place for East European art, but the unfortunate instability in East Europe has led to a great deal of chaos and social difficulty at varying times that has had a sad dampening effect on the arts. A great movement will get going and then fall apart. Poland produced one of cinema’s most luminous directors in Andrzej Wajda, and his beautiful poetic film Ashes and Diamonds shows this problem well. It’s an antiwar film about World War II, and Wajda shows an entire generation having its abilities and aspirations lost in the gory fog of war. Wajda is a distinctly Polish director with mystical imagery shown throughout his films which capture a sense of that predilection being much stronger in East European art than in Western Europe.  Wajda later fought against communism and makes the case for how important Poland is capable of being for art when given the chance, and I find it fascinating that this fertile and conflicted place is the land that has given us Behemoth. 

Orion with Behemoth

The country has seen so much sad chaos and has gone and produced the world’s best band at praising chaos. Behemoth started in the 1990s, as the end of the Cold War brought an opening up to Poland that made the rise of its dark music scene possible. This band is one of the best expressions of that freedom, and Nergal has been an important critic of ways in which Poland has been closing down and moving away from those freedoms in movements towards autocracy.  His sane and reasonable political views towards basically a well functioning liberal democracy that respects personal freedom are a good reason to take his Satanism seriously as something valuable. While politicians and religious clergy keep getting in trouble for stealing things and abusing young people, Behemoth has been a professional musical outfit that brings rock and roll bliss and inspiration to music venues. So it appears that Satan may have more class than god these days.

Behemoth also deserves to be situated within a larger collapse and criticism of hegemony in the West. That is to say simply, a lot is very wrong with the West and its imperial power structures. Western institutions have frequently proven to be corrupt (a Catholic cardinal recently indicted, the American public horrified by both Trump and Hillary). The political ideas have resulted in failure while false talk about equality really produced economic inequality, with rhetoric about freedom producing the opposite as people are tracked and controlled by electronic devices. The planet has been destroyed by environmental harm caused by western industry and religious views of man being the center of the world with nature left as a thing to be used and exploited. Other parts of the world have been enslaved. It’s a large mess in need of critique, and Behemoth are criticizing religious views at the core of that flawed civilization. Friedrich Nietzsche also offered a powerful rebuke of god in the 19th century, with his prophetic claim that god is dead and that culture would thus undergo severe change, and Nergal is educated enough to know this cultural history as he criticizes the Christian world. Rather than just promoting Satanism, the reality of the band is that they are so open minded that what someone chooses to take from Behemoth is going to depend on who they are. Nergal is someone who wants to make people think for themselves and criticize more than a person who wants to preach, and to some Satanists, that’s the whole point of Satan anyway, a rebellious spirit and an individual rather than a sheep (another idea that echoes Nietzsche).

What they have achieved with the entire grand Satanic adventure though is musical perfection for heavy metal. Like the clearly great albums such as Paranoid by Black Sabbath, Reign in Blood by Slayer, and Altars of Madness by Morbid Angel, people are likely to listen to The Satanist and I Loved You at Your Darkest and take them apart piece by piece for the next 30 years as perfect and masterful metal sounds. They aren’t the albums every band will want to make, because they are so odd and so distinct, but they perfect their genre with such a clear and intricate vision that they can’t be surpassed and can only be equalled, and even then only by the very best of bands. Because of musical acts like Behemoth metal will likely have great bands for decades to come, and it makes the mainstream rock press look like a joke for not taking the genre seriously back when it was a new movement with the likes of Judas Priest developing it. Anyone with a sincere interest in rock is inclined to hail Satan, Behemoth, and metal for good ideas and rock and roll fun that are all inventive enough to show people new ways to think and live while many other musical genres turn out predictable commercialism with no soul.

I Loved You at Your Darkest

I Loved You at Your Darkest opens with a bold challenge to god in the form of children singing and making fun of Christ, as though Behemoth is telling us that the future does not belong to Christianity and that we are all Satan’s children rather than Christ’s. Then things quickly become brutal with the pounding song Wolves ov Siberia that really does sound a lot like angry wolves circling in a pack as the guitars rise into shredding ecstasy that blends with grinding rhythms the way only Behemoth seem to position their guitar right into those rhythms so the lead instrument and the bass seem to be in some crazy hellacious dance together. Then things get even more pounding with God = Dog, an equation that is not devout, but with music that might as well be divine as it has even more insane drumming. Things approach beauty on Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica where we see an interesting side to the band. All of the dislike of Christianity is housed alongside a fascination both with its past and with the history of the West. So in spite of the sincere Satanism, I wouldn’t call Behemoth hateful of what they criticize, and Nergal has made friendly comments about Pope Francis trying to right some of the church’s wrongs.

Nergal with Behemoth

Bartzabel invokes a demon with guitar parts that actually sound beautiful and are more ornate than most metal bands can achieve. If Crucifixion Was Not Enough… is definitely not a song praising Jesus. For the millions of people around the world who are sick of listening to Christians yell crazy and angry things though, it’s a relief to hear Nergal take apart Jesus with his screaming metal as the guitar and bass sound like a twisted church burning down. Orion is a hell of a good bass player and no doubt contributes a lot of the band’s signature sound of dramatic heaviness with a fast grinding tempo. This album is much more of a whirlwind than the previous one and some speed and ornateness is taking over from the previous emphasis on primordial heaviness with very complicated arrangements that leave me with suspicions the band’s great success got them a lot of studio time that they used very well. A nice thing about metal being a successful subgenera is that resources are there with labels like Nuclear Blast to support their most successful artists well enough, but without a lot of commercial pressure as would have happened in commercial rock of 20 years ago. Halfway through the album I feel like Glenn Danzig had a child with the demoness in his classic song Her Black Wings, and it seems to be Nergal.

We Are the Next 1000 Years is a savage attack on the world that was and proclaims a new world without god. Lines like, “We are the ending of all days,” suggest genuine artistic potential in the imagery that Christianity has tied to Satan, with its overcoming of everything that is supposed to be normal, which is often a goal for the arts. To make the point well, the line, “We are the deportees from the promised land,” suggests real moral problems with the way Christ is conceived as saving some while god condemns others to hell. PIG makes the same point as Raymond Watts sings on Diamond Sinners and other industrial songs about the many people who are left out of heaven. Well, morally one should presumably care about the well being of all human beings and not some chosen few. So again Satan represents something good. It’s a brilliantly conceived turn of sin into rock thematics and aesthetics with big ideas and fine musicianship, and the album and the live performance are both so good that it’s hard to choose which version of the band is better, but it’s hard to find a better live rock band now than Behemoth.

For all the controversy that Satan may cause, in some ways, the future that Nergal wants is the one that started with Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and democratic revolutions around the world under the Enlightenment. It’s a world where people are free to think and decide things for themselves and a world in which rationality is more important than myth. Christianity is tied deeply to the kings of Europe, to imperial Rome, and to dogmatic oppression of human beings by other people who are not really godly but are often corrupt. Alongside the rise of Behemoth as such an important band with such powerful criticisms against western institutions, we have also seen the rise of a disturbing authoritarianism around the world. Clearly something is wrong with mainstream society and its values, and the mainstream press is a joke for not taking underground art and music more seriously for rejecting so much that is broken. Behemoth want to be our saviors by rejecting corruption, abuses of power, dogmatism, and illegitimate authority over other people. Those seem like noble artistic goals.

Game of Thrones – Season 7 – review

Game of Thrones – Season 7 – review

With Game of Thrones about to air its final season, it’s an exciting time to think back on the series as we await the conclusion. The George R. R. Martin derived series has become one of the most successful dramatic works of the 21st century. It’s taken seriously both aesthetically and as cult entertainment and has even revived interest in medieval storytelling.  Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen is one of the most enigmatic and interesting personalities to be put on the screen, and the high quality cinematography and expansive dramatic situations do a lot to suggest that HD streaming series can compete with film both on aesthetics and dramatic storytelling.

The extremely long running time that a series affords allows for more dramatic development than a film can permit, and Game of Thrones has used this expertly. The series is typically exciting to watch in anticipation of what happens next, but the beauty of it is that this happens in the sense of character development rather than typical Hollywood action as what we anticipate. There is a great deal of subtlety and depth to the portrayal of characters in Game of Thrones. In particular, Cersei Lanister has shown the excesses and horrors of a twisted personality in ways that would be hard to imagine in most dramatic works. There is a psychological richness to this that adds to Game of Thrones as a work of art and cultural achievement as well as entertainment.

With series seven complete and about to give way to the series’ conclusion, we can see paths charted out by these characters that reach very rich depths. Cersei started as someone who seemed innocuous in the first series. As King Robert Baratheon’s wife, she was on the sidelines too much for us to know at first how manipulative and destructive her character would become. As things unfolded though, we saw Cersei whittle away at any shred of decency the kingdom might have had in what would have been only a small way anyhow. Series seven saw her becoming desperate to hold the kingdom that she took control of by destroying so many people. The beginning of a rupture between her and her brother, Jamie, opens exciting possibilities and questions, both in terms of the show’s resolution and in terms of her own psychology starting to fracture. Cersei is so deeply twisted that it’s hard to find much of a personality with consistent values within her. She loves power, corruption, and destruction as much as a depraved politician, and we don’t see anything that is important to her besides that other than having sex with her brother. It’s an interesting twist of perversion becoming dementia that happens in a show that might have been positive towards fetishism like the great band the Lords of Acid are, but instead we see the medieval world unveiling perverse insanity through Cersei.

The shocks that go with the series follow a true medieval logic of shock and horror. This became the precedent of the time partly from kings using terror to maintain and structure their power over kingdoms. They used depraved and shocking violence to woo the population into submission. This is why torture was practiced, and it was used to produce so much shock that the populace would fear the king rather than rebel against being oppressed, as Michel Foucault so excellently charted out in his masterwork, Discipline and Punish. The show takes two basic possibilities of ruling. One involves the use of violence to control people and amass wealth, the model America follows as it abuses poor people very regularly through corrupt scheming with the wealthy. This has led to the show creating great excitement about how accurate it is in portraying contemporary times. The other possibility involves the use of power to support average people and represent their interests in order to raise up society. That model of power doesn’t really exist in the corrupt world of today, but on the show Daenerys and Jon Snow represent this as they fight for larger ideas of justice and protect people who support them. It is likely part of why so many people love the show and identify with its two heroes in great preference to their own crooked leaders. 

Jon Snow stands in series seven with a new alliance between him and Daenerys that is brought on both by necessity and good intentions. They see a common desire for justice and and a personal need to actually help the people who support them that leads them to fight together. They also see practical advantages of dealing both with an army of undead people and with Cersei. Magic and mysticism imbue both characters. In the case of Jon, it is through his having been revived from the dead. With Daenerys, it’s through her dragons. The dragons are somewhat up in the air now in how they will impact the show. This was a base of power and uniqueness for Daenerys throughout the whole series, but now a dragon has been taken by the Night King and turned into one of the undead. So we can anticipate an epic fight over this.

The character of Daenerys really is the show’s best invention, and it is somewhat unique to the series more than the books, because the character is so tied to Emilia Clarke’s dramatic portrayal. She is the most just character on the show and the only one who seems to be inspired by something that isn’t at all common. One of the better sides of medieval life and aesthetics was an appreciation for exceptional things, an idea that was often captured by nobility, kings, and varying views of god or magic. Emilia Clarke’s character places that idea in a much larger and otherworldly place by suggesting that she is divinely inspired. This also fits the medieval world well.

One advantage to living in the medieval world was that population sizes were far smaller and distractions far less. There was no environmental crisis in that era. A major reason to be disappointed by industrial civilization is that while we are told propaganda about higher standards of life, in reality resources have been depleted while populations have boomed to a noisy, nonsensical, and unsustainable level while the wealthy horde the planet’s stolen resources. Daenerys wants a more just world, and this is why so many people of today love her, but she does better than that. She wants justice all around. The beauty of the show and her characterization through Emlia Clarke’s slightly removed performance, made to suggest that she is in touch with higher powers like a sort of Joan of Arc (a character of great cinematic lineage through Jacques Rivette and Carl Dreyer), is that we see all of the enigma that goes along with that. She wants justice, and she knows that part of it involves a world of far more equality and less oppression, but she doesn’t know all the specifics of what justice really is. She is inspired by it but also admits that it is hard to define, and this is her greatest relevancy in portraying a just ruler.

By associating her with dragons in Game of Thrones, we see that there is a mystical side to wanting a better world. The good isn’t described by what everyone around her wants or normal human conventions, because the people around her are too corrupt to know what anything good is in the great game of thrones with so many players. Daenerys looks above herself and everyone else to get a sense as to what would be better. She wants to rule Westeros, because medieval conventions of divine bloodlines give her a reason to think that the throne belongs to her, but she also wants to rule simply because she knows she would be less corrupted than others and would do something better, whatever it turns out to be, something that is predictable based on her lack of selfishness. 

George R. R. Martin has fused magic, mysticism, fantasy, and politics in an exciting way that captures the flare of the medieval world very well. Game of Thrones has taken this and shown us endless political allegories placed in the context of very complex character development, but it has also managed to keep the fantastical on the edge of the world of Westeros. It allows for Game of Thrones to be magical without being overtaken by it. That’s a far better accomplishment than what Peter Jackson was able to do with Lord of the Rings. Rather than hitting us over the head with supernaturalism, we see glimpses and hints of it that fit the way medievalists were far more obsessed with magic and divine things than people of the present and how it also affected the way that people actually live and the wild world of corrupt politics around them.

The medieval world also had a real sense of physical things and tangible stuff. Unlike the carefully structured unreality of the present day world where people are surrounded by propaganda, fake news, and distracting electronic screens all built by money and greed, the medieval world Game of Thrones recreates snippets of so carefully as it deconstructs power relations actually had tangible objects. So when someone bought a chair it was made by nearby craftsmen instead of factories in China with the profits going to billionaires, and even though people were ruled by kings, it was at least a physical person in a nearby building rather than a psychotic person thousands of miles away propped up by tools of war so violent that nuclear weapons designed to incinerate the entire earth are stockpiled by the violent and insane leaders of today.

At the same time, kings were violent in maintaining their rule, and the population was treated as a game with people to exploit, much like they are today. So the endless comparisons of the old world before capitalism and democracy shown in Game of Thrones and the present are quite fascinating to unravel. I do suspect that medieval storytelling may gain even more popularity as people get ever more sick of their electronically controlled busy and false lives. The medieval approach of seeing a forest by walking out into an actual physical one is in many ways more attractive than the popular method of today in which people just look at a photo app, but it’s too bad there aren’t any dragons to save us.

Addendum

A few days after this was posted, Emlia Clarke authored a very moving piece in The New Yorker about suffering from a brain injury. After the first season of Game of Thrones was completed, she nearly died of a brain aneurysm. It was a tragic and painful close call involving multiple surgeries and two serious aneurysms. One surgery fixed an artery less invasively by working a probe up through her circulatory system. Things later got worse with a second brain artery rupturing and nearly killing her. That led to invasive surgery which removed part of her skull to access her brain and repair the damage. She suffered tremendous pain and loss of memory and personal characteristics and did not know if she would survive. The sad tragic nature of the story deserves a mention here, because it adds still more to the character of Daenerys and the inspiring power of the show.

The cinematic persona she most resembles is Joan of Arc, especially the Carl Dreyer version in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s Joan suffers, yet is innocent and more than anything someone unusually inspired. She inspires the best in others, and there is a poetic resonance with such a powerful background story for Emila Clarke. She shaped her experiences into something positive by both recovering and starting a charity to help others with the same condition. Her charity is called SameYou, because brain injury can cause people to lose their identity, not know who they even are, and lose much of what made them their former selves. The terror of traumatic brain injury leaves many people uncomfortable with talking about it, and her charity is aimed at changing that and offering assistance. It’s also worth noting that she was in the last days of her health insurance when the near death injury requiring invasive surgery happened, and in the United States many people don’t have health insurance still. The ability to pay for treatment can be a life or death consideration with brain injuries, and her charity is calling attention to something very important.

Lords of Acid – Pretty in Kink – music review

Lords of Acid – Pretty in Kink – music review

Praga Khan has been making music as Lords of Acid for 30 years, and his sounds and techniques are some of the most defining, dirty, and strange in industrial music, like a journey into space through electronic pulses. Deeply psychedelic and innately psychological, the band’s music explores sexual desire, connections with one another, and internal workings of our minds. In a beautiful tapestry of electronic sound, Praga, aka Maurice Engelen, warps those inner desires into an external wall of sound that creates unusual shared experiences for clubbers. The band is clearly working to get past sexual repression in western culture, but they are also creating expansive musical experiments and fun dance floor togetherness built around desire. With Pretty in Kink, recorded with new singer Marieke Bresseleers, the sounds expand even more with house influences and a new vocalist who can operate in deeper registers allowing a band that’s an important part of the industrial scene to go their darkest ever.

with Marieke Bresseleers of Lords of Acid
with Marieke

Deep sounds are important to the band given the prominent bass sounds and motifs of desire and sensuality. Marieke’s vocals give Praga a new toolkit to work with, and the result is a huge payoff, once again energizing the sound that Lords of Acid have been building for almost three decades. It’s fascinating to see something that’s been around so long remain so subversive and original. Like Nine Inch Nails, becoming a perennial musical act hasn’t done anything to calm the experimentation or challenging ideas found in these sounds. Younger bands would struggle to be as innovative or to push sounds or audiences to as much of an edge and new experience as Lords of Acid are capable of.

with Praga Khan of Lords of Acid
with Praga

To get a flavor for their music, it’s great to look at their classic song, I Sit on Acid. A mind warping exploration of desire, the singer chants, “I want to sit on your face,” against a heavy bass line that sounds sensual but safe. It’s a song about opening up, getting close, and twisting around under someone while Praga plays keyboard. Sometimes he even twists himself around the keyboard when he’s happy with what’s happening on stage. The song was originally recorded as a single that became part of the classic and influential Lust album with Jade 4U, aka Darling Nikkie, and was radical for its time. It’s a major classic now, has been endlessly remixed, and commands immediate attention as soon as it plays in a club. The psychedelic techno style electronics alongside the dramatic chant of, “I want to sit on your face,” turn kink into brain melting orgiastic pulses of sound. The experiment has continued since then as an important underground band, sometimes with long breaks between albums after the 1990’s, and Pretty in Kink is a beautiful new album and a major success for the Lords of Acid. Praga’s ideas have evolved to include influences from UK house music, maybe the most vibrant overall electronic scene of the moment, and his new singer, Marieke, has a velvety deeper voice with rich emotion to convey his ideas about desire. He uses it to open up new possibilities, and she is truly a gem for the band.

Mea Fisher sang for Praga for about six years, and she was a major creative partner. I saw them on the 2017 tour with Devon Ann, aka Devon Disaster, as the backup singer with Mea, and the show was brilliant. Devon did a good job as a backup vocalist and paved the way for a new singer in some respects with the very stylized sounds her singing added to Lords of Acid songs. She is a really great talent who liked to take her performance in more of a cute direction with dance. Mea designed the show, because Praga was sick, and the lighting and blocking of the musicians was very beautiful and cinematic. Audiences think of the Lords of Acid as very sexed up, and they are sexy, but nothing on stage is very graphic. People only see 5% of what they think they see even if everyone in the venue enjoys the same weirdness, and the sounds are very psychedelic. It’s like taking a trip into wonderland with Praga’s keyboards and desire being a conduit almost as though LSD floats through the club every time he presses on his magic keyboard.

Mea Fisher and Devon Ann
Mea Fisher and Devon Ann with Lords of Acid at Gothic Theatre, Denver, 10/3/17

After Mea left, Praga found his new singer in Marieke. She is a marvelous singer and performer and loves the Lords of Acid. Praga did a very nice thing by finding someone talented who loves music and could benefit from singing for the band while having a great deal to contribute. Her deeper vocals give him so much new to work with, and she’s very intelligent and able to see the performance and art side of what the band is doing without getting buried under the sensual ideas of the songs. The different sounds the two singers create are clearly major influences for the choices Praga makes in composing the music. He has a very good ear for how all of his sounds blend together, and the vocalists are partly shaping his tracks through their styles and emotive capabilities. Marieke loves heavy metal and especially symphonic metal, and this is a great influence on the band’s industrial direction. She is also able to find a great deal of drama in the songs, both in her vocal choices and in her stage performance. 

Pretty in Kink

The new album is a treasure for industrial music. Lords of Acid have always had strong influences from techno, and Praga has a great way of working in electronic sounds across different club scenes. It’s one of the best things about his music. Industrial is very creative and a fun place to hang out in, but it can be such a tight subgenere that there is a risk of being repetitive. Some of the best musicians listen to and work in sounds that their audience is often not listening to, and Praga Khan does this exceptionally well. House music is a very thriving scene in Europe at the moment, and Praga working from Belgium knows clubs incredibly well. He is able to bring some of the best of those sounds and influences and shape them into new industrial sounds with grinding beats and acid electronics with industrial guitar that shreds the nervous systems of his audience into psychedelic sexual bliss.

Marieke Bresseleers with Lords of Acid
Marieke with Lords of Acid at Gothic Theatre, Denver, 3/2/19

The songs on Pretty in Kink cover the range of desire and decadence that Praga loves to explore, but it’s a very mature work and has a bit more perspective that seems to look out over everything the Lords of Acid have done. Praga is so good at composing his songs at this point that he feels even more free to experiment, because he knows how to make sure the songs are catchy and danceable and how to keep his audience with him. As such a master of that, there is really nothing to contain the experimentation that he likes to work with and layer in. It’s my personal favorite album from the Lords of Acid yet, and I especially enjoy hearing it against their start on Lust. The Pretty in Kink Tour was set up well for that kind of appreciation, because Praga is performing the new songs against the classics and skipping his work with Mea, because it got a good presentation so recently with a big 2017 tour where she was herself the main planner. The current tour is a great way to see where the band came from and where they are going now and a very good way to introduce Marieke as the new singer. The most fair way to let her develop is to have her sing the classics next to her own songs, and it’s great to see how much of an amazing mentor Praga is for her.

Praga Khan with Lords of Acid
Praga Khan

The album she sings on is remarkable. It uses her deeper vocals to accompany beautiful bass lines and drums, and it sounds like it draws on some of the best house sounds around. Praga is very original and has been developing acid house style sounds for a long time. So it’s not really fair to say he is borrowing those sounds, but the album definitely is very informed by current club sounds. The keyboards often play lower notes to go alongside Marieke, and she loves to perform enough that she can place a lot of emotion into some of Praga’s strangest ideas. Every Lords of Acid song reflects desire, but Marieke sounds serious and wonderful about it where the other singers seem a bit more ironic. She has the irony too, but it’s with continually beautiful expression of the intent behind the songs. There isn’t a weak song on the album, and it recalls the Lust album for being completely positive about kink. Everything on the album is psychedelic fun about connection, love, oddness, clubbing, and thinking differently. Every Lords of Acid album is unique and continues the revelations of techno acid house sounds, but in the middle it seemed like Praga was acknowledging some controversy on his albums, where now he is full on with everything the Lords stand for being positive.

Marieke Bresseleers of Lords of Acid

Break Me opens Pretty in Kink with a song about being taken sexually as an openness of personal breakdown in a good way of getting outside your normal self. It makes the album start like a battle cry from Praga with the soulful metal style vocals from Marieke offering a beautiful new attack. She sings, “Aching for your love, and my body’s going crazy,” as electronic bass lines vibrate their way into your head past any doubts. Ma Fille de Joie uses a pretty French expression that really is about prostitution to talk about desire, fulfillment, and having another person. In some ways, it’s similar to the Lords of Acid’s joke about their rubber sex doll, because prostitution doesn’t create a good method of connecting in any psychologically deep sense, but it does show desire. Sex Cam Girl continues that critique of desire and fulfillment with a song about the trend of people working in sex jobs on the internet. It’s a great song with wonderfully catchy and clever lines like, “You’re here to you stay, time to obey,” and I’m glad someone made such a good song about this, because there might be fewer sex cam workers if people were actually paid to go to work at normal jobs. It seems that employment in sex work has progressively grown as average wages across the West have become dilapidated more and more while politicians and billionaires steal things. The real point of both songs though is the ubiquitousness of desire and the common sense in which everyone is made of collections of desires with society reflecting that through different roles people play or things they want. Part of the band’s psychedelia happens from that being such a strong part within the mind of every human being everywhere.

Marieke Bresseleers with Lords of Acid

Flow Juice is a song about chilling out and fucking and combining fluids, and it’s a great song to dance to in clubs. Praga’s continual sense of humor comes up as this flows into the next song, Like Pablo Escobar, which is really about the misuse of an excess of desire. It’s one of the album’s best songs, and it takes a more critical perspective of the sense in which desire can become an out of control thing that is destructive and superficial if it’s used the wrong way. I appreciate the range the songs show about how much desire is capable of. At the end of the day, desire just fundamentally is as a deep part of every person, but it can lead to good or bad things depending on how people handle it: desire pretty much makes all of us. Pablo Escobar went a little too far and wanted too much. So Praga is in full on ironic mode here and is not recommending that kind of life, though it’s fine to fantasize about having everything someone could want. He would prefer just BDSM and club sounds with some trippy acid helping people move. It’s one of the most fun songs for Marieke to sing, and she gets into the dramatic side of the person portrayed in the song very easily.

Sin Quirin with Lords of Acid
Sin Quirin

Before the Night Is Over is a setup for a sexual encounter, and like most Lords of Acid songs can actually have multiple meanings and isn’t quite as simple as it seems. It’s a great song to serve as a fun backdrop in a club where people are connecting, but it’s also one of Praga’s looks at intense desire taking over in building a connection, much like the classic You Belong to Me that Marieke has been singing so beautifully live. Androgyny slows things down into a psychedelic haze of slower electronic club sounds in which someone could be male or female and slides between gender, because in Praga’s songs, desire is the only thing that’s real at the end of the day. People can make themselves into what they want, and we take on different roles for others and become things for someone else to give satisfaction to the other person. Praga loved to see someone tied up in BDSM gear dancing on stage as a pony while he played the keyboard, and one of the most interesting parts of the show was seeing him laugh to that as one of the trippiest things on the stage. Sometimes it really does seem like he took so much LSD that his keyboard made strange things just appear all around the venue, and it’s a definitive part of the band’s classic fun and importance to clubs around the world that they might have taken so much acid that now they have a sex doll and keep trying to be more kinky. It’s also a joke, and everyone in the Lords of Acid is vey tongue in cheek about what they do, as the funny sex doll used dramatically in performances exemplifies.

Marieke with Lords of Acid

Goldfinger pays an homage to the influential Shirley Bassey song from the classic film with Sean Connery by having Marieke begin the song by slowly singing about her strong desires to be taken with lines like, “Give me your loving. I’m drenched with desire,” but then the song transitions to a fast dance beat with a male saying a very odd lyric over and over again on a sample. It starts beautiful but becomes strange in its intermissions, and I see it as another example of the far out humor that Praga Khan is capable of, and of course his fascination with how wide ranging desire is. The Lords of Acid have some of the best humor in rock, and everyone who plays in the band finds remarkable fun in the oddness of the entire project. Part of its acid house perspective is that there isn’t much of a gap between what is funny and what is serious, because everything is psychological, and all is absurd. The song transitions back and forth between the beauty of Marieke’s singing and the absurd lyric of the male, and ends with unfulfilled desire as Marieke closes the song with her beautiful singing about needing love. What the Fuck then celebrates sex with hop hop influences, which is always an important thread in the background of house music, and Praga’s use of it is very in the style of trip hop gone industrial with a grinding guitar. So Goddamn Good is about sex as a deep connection, and Marieke’s deep vocal range is beautiful here as Praga layers her vocal tracks closely against the bass. So it’s velvety enough that the guitar riffs seem to glide right along the edges of her singing. My Demons Are Inside then takes on desire as something that drives a person so much that they have no hope, and We Are the Freaks closes out the album as a celebration of being different. It’s a remarkable journey altogether and an easy album to listen to all day on loop. 

Live Kink

Praga’s ideas are very much at the cutting edge of art and intellectual life. He is deeply steeped in clubbing, and the Lords of Acid are one of the most fun and strange club bands in the world, but the ideas in their songs also have powerful ties to major artistic trends. The study of desire has been an enormous project throughout the arts and is well supported by trends in European philosophy and psychology to understand human selfhood as a collection of desires with interesting mysteries attached to them. Some of those desires are mysterious and just there, either with no origin or an origin that is unknown to us. The influential psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan explored this in language and points to language as a thing shared by society. So we can’t penetrate underneath our own desires, yet they always tie us to other people around us. The philosopher and cultural theorist Gilles Deleuze used desire to examine production. He crossed Freud with Marx in his influential book Anti-Oedipus to show that desires can be shaped by mechanisms around us and things done to our bodies. BDSM and fetishism basically use this by experimenting and creating new ways to experience pleasure, and Lords of Acid have created a musical version of those experiments. 

Marieke Bresseleers and Sin Quirin
Marieke and Sin

The Pretty in Kink Tour is a huge success, and Praga on stage was a delight. He seems to have landed from Mars while he plays his keyboard, and it seems as though the sounds from the keys are melting the room into some strange movable place where things are too magical to stay stable, like Alice in Wonderland come to life with club lights, whips, and guitar parts. Sin Quirin was a powerful performer to see again after seeing him play with the great and iconic Ministry at the end of 2017. Joe Haze was also a delight when he played with the Lords of Acid on their 2017 tour, and I enjoy seeing the different guitar styles through the changeover while the rhythm section has stayed the same with Dietrich Thrall and Galen Waling. Joe is also a good remixer, and his sounds had nice modulation and classic style riffing while Sin is more of a shredder but with a wide range and nice subtlety. It makes having Sin playing on the tour a nice complement to Marieke’s wonderful singing, because she has a passion for metal, which Ministry gets a lot of influence from. The use of props, dancers, and lighting was an impressive display throughout the Lords’ set.

with Sin Quirin and Dietrich Thrall
with Sin and Dietrich

There was much more humor with the blow up doll than on Mea’s tour, because the songs set up more context for the evil doll, which made it hilarious, and other dancers performed in the background while Marieke ruled the stage as the sole singer except for Praga contributing some background vocals. Praga is able to put together some of the most amazing complete tours with a large number of very good opening bands. This time the venerable Genitorturers were included, and the tour before this had Combichrist. These are among my favorite bands, but the other supporting acts are also strong. The Pretty in Kink tour also has the up and coming Gabriel and the Apocalypse, gothic industrial classic Orgy, and the creative burlesque performers Little Miss Nasty. The 2017 tour also included the important and memorable Night Club, the experimental Wiccid, club icon En Esch, and death rock classic Christian Death. So Praga has managed to surround his strange sounds with some of the most solid views of the gothic and industrial scene as a whole.

Lords of Acid

Everyone in the band was incredibly friendly, and I especially enjoyed Praga and Sin for their warm friendliness. Praga stood out as very intelligent and kind, while Sin had a strong warmth and togetherness for both the appreciation of the Lords of Acid and also for his other great band, Ministry. Dietrich was good silly fun during the meet and greet and added a lot of humor, and Galen seemed like a nice person who is immersed into different musical places even though he also played drums on the last tour, which made me appreciate how Praga develops people. It’s one of the most original, fun, and intelligent bands around, and whether it’s just fun or has deeper meanings will have a lot to do with how much people explore the ideas in the songs, but in reality both things are happening at once, and that is how desire works.

Praga and Dietrich with Lords of Acid
Abbey Death Band – Ethos – Realignment – music review

Abbey Death Band – Ethos – Realignment – music review

Abbey Death Band is founded by two of my favorite people who were in some of my favorite bands. Abbey Nex played guitar in Combichrist and Psyclon Nine, while Valerie Gentile Abbey played the same instrument in The Crüxshadows. They both do behind the scenes production work in music, and this band is their effort at bringing a unique and personal vision to gothic industrial music, a genre both of them love and have worked in quite a bit with other people’s bands. The tendencies are towards very dark psychedelic sounds with small and well chosen bits of aggression against quieter inner moments, and it’s really their personal vision of trying to make a different sort of statement and adjust the aesthetics after spending a lot of time performing in the goth scene. They also aim to reach places deep inside their audience, internal places that sounds can reach but other things can’t.

Realignment is a strong debut EP. Many of the sounds will be familiar to people who listen to industrial music and love good keyboard and samples with grinding guitar, but they are also uniquely constructed in many ways, especially for their haunting and subtle occult qualities. Abbey Death Band seem to have taken a large mix of available industrial sounds and shaped them into a very different structure that shifts emphasis and focus to things within ourselves being noticed through rhythmic prodding of electronic echoes. Subtract Your Mind is a song about the death of ego and does a beautiful job of conveying this idea in sound. Valerie sings, “Give in to live. Give in to die. Relax your mind.” In Buddhism and some other spiritual views, the ego is viewed as false, a fiction that we get wrapped up inside of and trapped by when it’s really just a false construction of who we are. The core of a person sits past that and isn’t mundane or repetitive the way the ego is by being made of so many barriers.

Abbey Nex with Abbey Death Band
Abbey Nex

In many ways, western psychology has some agreement with this idea, because Freud viewed the ego as a social construction resting above a much more unbounded unconscious. Jung reworked this a bit into a collectivized unconscious and has been very influential on occultism and new age spirituality. The song Dirty Confessional is about morals as an absurdity. Everyone is dirty inside, because it’s normal to have desires that society shapes into something else, and this often leads to one of the frequent gothic tropes of fetishism. The structure of human consciousness isn’t really the same as social conventions, a point often made by surrealist artists and which I keep finding well represented in industrial sounds. In keeping with Abbey Death Band’s interest in the esoteric, religion is one avenue for repressing desire, and the confession within catholicism is a major example of this that has been studied both in psychoanalysis and the work of major French philosopher Michel Foucault who saw the production of guilt and discourses about internal sin found in the confession to be a powerful mechanism of social control.

The electronics that Abbey Death Band uses create very odd feelings. They have an obvious interest in mixing spiritual ideas into sound, and they take that in an experimental direction. While they obviously have some interesting views on occult spirituality, they are hinting at those things through their sounds rather than assuming a destination that’s clear, and this is the best choice musically. Those themes work most powerfully, fluidly, and profoundly when they are left open ended, and that’s the case here. So a lot is left to the listener to decide in terms of the meaning of these sounds and suggestions, hence being open to mystery. One way to describe their sound is that it could be the movie Poltergeist made into pretty dance music, with all of the electrical sensibilities of the haunting in the film taking on life within sound. 

Valerie Gentile Abbey with Abbey Death Band
Valerie Gentile Abbey

They both work in music production, and their abilities in that area are masterful. I do think Abbey Death Band is even better live, and that may have to do with how well structured they can make studio work and the extra atmosphere and surprises that live music provides. I also think they just respond well to the energy of an audience. These songs are very odd and haunting in strangely intricate sort of ways, like industrial trance music. On stage, Abbey seems like a producer with his calm guitar and Valerie more like a performance artist. She dances, and obviously is very into physical fitness for that purpose, and he stands and plays guitar more in a metal style with his deep voice echoing out lyrics. It’s a good combination, and it fits the oddness of their music very well, sounds which want to work their way into your brain and have you think, see, and feel a bit differently. In an odd sense, Abbey seems almost like the solidity of the stable ego or self their music is trying to get past or perhaps devour on a dance floor, while Valerie is fluid like the electronic attack they create against normality, and it’s a good exercise in balance.

Ethos

The recently released Ethos is a strong followup EP. It’s cause for excitement, because with two EPs, we effectively have a full album’s worth of material from Abbey Death Band and a clear statement of who they are. They stand out as having a strong vision of ethereal sounds mixed into clubbing and very brainy music. Fake Walls opens up a small collection of songs about the thinness of existence with a veil over our lives and selves in the mystical sense. Gothic music often celebrates a closeness to death as a part of nature, a part of mysticism, and a punk style solution to negative aspects of life having serious limitations. The world and ourselves have limits according to our perceptions, but there is a falsity to these barriers or walls that divide us into the lives and selves we take to be our own. Rather than an overflow of industrial aggression, we get melody and haunting beauty that is close to goth psychedelia. The song encourages us to see ourselves as a kaleidoscope spread throughout space and time of which what we think we are is a mere glimmer. “Have you ever looked so far inside, that you see yourself as a kaleidoscope, turning, changing, a candle passing through the needle’s eye,” we are told in the lyrics by Abbey, and then he says, “Realize what you were taught are lies. Your consciousness connects to the divine.”

Abbey Death Band
Abbey Death Band at 3 Kings, Denver, 11/7/18

Lost Is Fine for Now distills beautiful yearning and tragedy while capturing the inevitability of death, and it’s a beautiful song performed live. “They’re lost in their dying efforts to save you,” captures a futile effort to save a lost person, leaving the people trying to help also lost. The song seems to suggest that being lost and directionless is a normal state of existence that we might as well accept as a part of our ephemeral lives which are pretty much always wrapped up with death as we keep changing at every moment, never really having a fixed place, much like living within a labyrinth. Death is supposed to be partly positive in this sort of gothic sensibility, similar to the Mexican festivities for Day of the Dead. People should celebrate life, enjoy it, live it, etc., but recognize death as the place we are all going eventually and find goodness in that, as it offers closeness to a beyond with possibilities that are more natural than most people realize.

So gothic sounds become occult spirituality in an open ended new age sense for Abbey Death Band of having to decide for yourself what it all might mean. The song Trance refers pretty directly to mystical perception and seeing the unseen, an inner journey that music can help one to find. It uses repetitions and glimmering sounds that capture a feeling of light to work its way inside and open an exploration of other ways of seeing. The Veil is the most aggressive song on the EP, and Sevin VII sounds ghostly in his odd whispers that seem to reach from some strange other place to close out the new EP.

Much like the kaleidoscope Abbey Death Band sing about, their songs are very dense with many complex layers of meaning. They are also beautiful, dark, and danceable. So the deep layers don’t create a barrier to their music. It means though that serious reflection can also be placed onto these songs. That’s very good for rewarding frequent playing of their music, and these two EPs work well on repeat almost like industrial music versions of a mantra. For Abbey Death Band, we should open our minds to things beyond normal sensation, and doing this in a club with other people is a positive thing. They are both spooky people in a good way, like Fox Mulder from X-Files with a band playing haunted house music with Carol Anne from Poltergeist. It’s important not to pin too much on what the esoteric means to them though, because its openness to interpretation and mystery is part of why it is such a free idea for art to work with.

with Abbey
with Abbey

Their two voices have a nice play against each other. Valerie sings a bit deeper than most female vocalists and has an electric edge to her alto voice, while Abbey has velvety deep bass qualities in his baritone voice. The obvious third eye imagery used on their band logo fits the sounds well. I hear a lot of 1960s psychedelia crossing with industrial sounds and some of the new age impulses that were captured by that era, but made more existential and less romanticized, a gritty and realistic sense of hidden parts of our selves and our world, because we can see through things around us that are broken and incomplete. Especially this is true for the sense in which Abbey Death Band treats humanity as above and beyond the physical world.

Electronic sounds are very capable for this. Abbey played in Combichrist when industrial metal was a new musical shift for Andy LaPlegua, and Valerie saw some of the best days of The Crüxshadows playing guitar for Rogue. Together, they are showing us something very different and intentionally strange. Occultism and beauty are the two most obvious things happening with their sound, and I agree with how interconnected they can be. Numerous mystical strands of thought are tied with ecstatic art, and Tibetan Buddhism with its beautifully colored mandalas and meditative music is one of many obvious examples that can make the point of this being a good idea, but Buddhist sects have experimented with sound as a way to encourage experiences of nirvana for centuries. Opening ourselves to darkness and mysterious perception is an important thing to Abbey Death Band, and they construct those sounds beautifully. It’s odd, and I like it.

Anna and the Apocalypse – movie review

Anna and the Apocalypse – movie review

Anna and the Apocalypse is a deliriously fun movie. Set against the end of the world as the title suggests, it turns that setting into a horror comedy centered around a high school, but on top of that, it’s also a musical. Anna is played by the excellent new actress Ella Hunt, and she dances and sings songs while she kills zombies. It’s a wonderfully odd movie that manages to blend a musical reverie of horror with serious topics, and it all happens at Christmas time.

There are so many unusual things happening just in those key ideas to make this an exciting project from the moment it took shape as a screenplay, but the execution of the film is remarkable for maintaining tight control over so many elements that each seem capable of dominating the film. The very first shot of Anna and the Apocalypse demonstrates how well controlled director John McPhail is of his subject matter. We see Anna’s family driving along in a shot that immediately is reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s remarkable zombie classic 28 Days Later. Her father is at the wheel, and the family is clearly dressed for Christmas with the appropriate music playing, but the way the scene is shot looks like horror instead of celebration even though nothing has happened yet.

This is a British film, and like 28 Days Later, it centers around the end of the world happening due to a virus turning people into zombies. Like Boyle’s film, it also deals with serious social topics within its entertaining guise, but the similarities mostly end there. By setting his film within a school, McPhail is able to have mostly innocent people just beginning to make their way in the world offer us a perspective on a society that seems doomed. We all live amidst a rapidly worsening environmental crisis. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein was recently caught on video telling a group of children that she isn’t very concerned that the way her fellow elite leaders are trashing the environment will leave them with effectively nothing to live from. While powerful people like her are more disgusting than the zombies in John McPhail’s excellent film, Ella Hunt gets to play a heroic part as Anna, a lost innocent girl looking for hope amidst a collapsing world.

She fights zombies with her friends, and they are all saddened by how much their lives are shaped by technology instead of human interaction. McPhail is astute for seeing the way that smartphones and other high tech gadgets are ruining society and the future of young people rather than enhancing them. This art magazine was designed around the idea that the internet is high tech garbage. By having nothing besides in depth and clear content, I’m aiming to give readers something that is not an endless pile of ads, tracking services, and consumption and allow them a chance to think and engage exciting works of art. In that vein, I admire Anna and the Apocalypse for finding so much wrong with our world and for having an artistic vision that turns zombies into its metaphorical depictions and a singing girl into its heroine.

Anna runs around with a giant candy cane smashing and killing the zombies who took over her school, and in a remarkably odd scene she uses a seesaw to behead a zombie. To make that even better, she finds the seesaw on a children’s playground that inexplicably sits next to a graveyard she was dancing and singing in, and the beheaded zombie was dressed up as a furry. Anna and the Apocalypse is so inventive that I worry it might be missed for its high quality simply by virtue of being so fun that viewers might not realize how strange and meaningful the entire work is.

Ella Hunt is cast perfectly here. She has the right blend of ordinariness, innocence, and willfulness to convince us that Anna is an average girl made into a heroine. It reminds me of the best classic horror films from the 1970s and 1980s when directors like Dario Argento and George Romero were churning out masterful and inventive films that took cinema to new places it had never seen before. When films like Deep Red, Suspiria, and Dawn of the Dead came out they were controversial, but they were also aesthetically coherent works with powerful and deep themes and comments on our world within them. Anna and the Apocalypse is using a horror musical to do something similar, and it is a challenging film even though it is incredibly fun.

The students dance in an obviously well choreographed way that makes absolutely no sense for high school kids, and the headmaster has a gigantic and frightening academic beard he wears around the school while he pretends everything is fine as children are being eaten by the zombies. There is a lovely homage to George Romero when the zombies finally surround and eat him, and Anna spends a lot of the film singing about how much she wants to escape her dismal surroundings. For viewers who read between the lines, Anna and the Apocalypse has a very rich story, because we see scenes of Anna doing things like singing and dancing about her own misery and decayed world which is already so bad that she doesn’t even realize there are zombies at first, even though they walk right past her eating people.

As someone living in America, a country with such appalling violence in its schools that I am left thinking the leaders here should be locked up, this film does a beautiful job of showing exactly that much social deterioration. It is very much in the vein of George Romero’s work, because as most serious students of film know, Dawn of the Dead is a profound portrayal of American consumerism run amok in its depictions of people eating each other in a shopping mall. While many people wanted to see Romero’s film banned when it came out, his social commentary was right on the money as we now see selfish consumerism having reached the point of the planet nearing environmental collapse with major food sources threatened by disappearance and politicians living more corrupt lives than The Godfather.

In many respects, our civilization has gotten so bad that it is hard to even depict it in a work of art, and I love Anna and the Apocalypse for being inventive enough to be up to the task. The most memorable and beautiful line of the songs in the film, many of which are extremely funny, is surely, “There’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending.” After the recent success of Damien Chazelle’s excellent La La Land, that is a potent line. Chazelle revived the musical in a serious way by going backwards and revisiting a lot of classic Hollywood. His debut film, Whiplash, established him as a fine lover of jazz, and that certainly gives him classical credibility to have been up to the task, and La La Land is another important work of art. Chazelle is using Hollywood in that film to support dreams and artistic aspiration to be something more and something better than mundane life.

I think Anna and the Apocalypse has a perspective that would agree with that being a worthwhile goal, but it wants to bring us down to earth about how bad our surroundings really are even while giving us space to dream past them. So we get an innocent girl wearing a tie to her school having to pick up a giant candy cane and slay zombies while she dances and sings.

The cinematography in the film is appropriate to the subject matter and is beautiful in a muted sort of way. Fans of black and grey aesthetics will enjoy it a lot, and I love the way the film is able to use those images to combine both hope and decay. Clearly, we live amidst a broken monstrosity, but there is still some hope. We can wish for entirely different people to take things over and fix them by throwing out the past, and that is what Anna and the Apocalypse has its heroine doing.

The director deserves a lot of credit for how he blocks his actors. Musicals introduce the additional element of choreography, and combining that with drama and a story can be a difficult task. Even when the singing is incredibly funny, such as Anna’s ex-boyfriend singing, “When it comes to killing zombies, I’m the top of my class. While you were hiding, I’ve been kicking some ass,” the actors are well blocked. The story unfolds through every line and every shot, and drama continues on a consistent level.

We also care about John McPhail’s characters. Anna is too innocent and her dream of getting away to a normal life too respectable to not like her. When I see a new actress in a really good film that she completely nails like this my hope is always to see her in more good parts, because there aren’t enough good characters and scripts to go around. This one is a true gem, and Anna and the Apocalypse deserves to be taken very seriously even while its musical numbers manage to succeed at decadent horror comedy.

Psyclon Nine – Icon of the Adversary – music review

Psyclon Nine – Icon of the Adversary – music review

After seeing Psyclon Nine play three shows and listening for years, I am blown away by how tight the band and Nero’s sounds are at the moment. Psyclon plays music that sounds like a whirling hurricane with gnashing teeth devouring everything around, including your own psyche. That is a great sound and a powerful idea for industrial music, but it is so intense that it really requires the band to be in top form in order to capture the full vision. The last couple of years have seen them reaching new peaks, and what always sounds to me like a deep punk influence over electronic noise is sharp, edgy, and abrasive in a friendly and powerful way.

Psyclon is really Nero Bellum, just like Nine Ince Nails is Trent Reznor, but there is an amazing live band that plays with Nero. It includes Jon Siren on drums almost always. A member of the live incarnation of IAMX also, he contributes intense and fast but subtle rhythms that are a part of the live experience of Psyclon Nine which is truly mind blowing and transporting for a venue. To be at their show is to be wrapped up in a whirling wall of sounds that whip the audience into a frenzy and seem to leave your mind adjusted into a completely different place. The last tour also had Tim Skold on guitar, and hearing him shred out industrial rhythms against Jon’s drumming was an epic and moving experience. It was about as perfect a live band as industrial music can ever see, and it inspired Nero to be as much on edge and on the attack with his microphone and wild jumping around the stage as could ever happen. 3 Kings in Denver is a great venue for industrial shows, dark and dingy with good beer and a tight space in front of the stage, but the band really used the small space to create a next level experience.

Nero Bellum with Psyclon Nine
Nero Bellum with Psyclon Nine at 3 Kings Tavern in Denver, 12/9/18

The music breaks apart everything that seems normal, and that is part of its dark industrial beauty. Nero portrays a world of facades that needs to be discarded and broken out of. So his music is a chaotic whirlwind of breaking all those things down. Whatever seemed stable about ourselves isn’t after encountering his songs. Psyclon Nine shows are some of the oddest and darkest senses of the world shifting around, and it seems like a high speed punk infused electronic version of psychedelia that’s designed to break through to another very strange place. 

Sounds of Chaos

Icon of the Adversary is a powerful new album that explores quieter sounds than most of Nero’s releases. His sounds have seemed to have stronger punk roots than most industrial, a lot like Suicide Commando, but the real talent for Psyclon Nine is most especially in the synths. Nero experiments profusely with modular sounds, and his synth creations have an odd brilliance to them. I take that as being the source for some of the slower haunting sounds the new album experiments with, because the show was very different. It was an intense attack that was as aggressive and powerful as the band has ever been and was the best of the three very good shows I’ve seen from them. The calmer band I thought I might see in line with the new album wasn’t present in favor of beautiful sonic assaults that highlighted aggressive songs from the band’s whole career including heavier bits of the new album, like Crown of the Worm.

Nero has a fascinating energy on stage. He bounces around and hops into the audience like a crazy person with springs. It has to be seen to be appreciated. There is a serious performance art with fronting a band, and his version takes a lot of energy to realize in line with how loopy and aggressive the songs are. It’s a hard thing to achieve, because electronic production makes it a lot easier to record that on an album than to perform it live. So I always think that how focused Nero is will make a big difference to the live show, and he is sharp as a razor of late. Having Jon Siren consistently back the band on drums is part of the mix as well, because he is able to deliver those rapid and heavy sounds without fail when other drummers would find much of what he plays hard to deliver.

Nero with Psyclon Nine

The new album does a lot to capture the whirling energy that the best songs have and bring new dimensions to that. The trope of seeing black in gothic and industrial settings gets so familiar that it sometimes feels like people need to think of ways to justify it. Psyclon Nine does, with what seems like a moving wall of blackness all over the sounds. It seems like an odd version of psychedelia fused with punk and insanity, and even though the songs are aggressive, they seem honest rather than angry. Part of the fun is that the band puts forward one of the most aggressive attacks in music, but it manages to seem friendly in every guise.

Surrealism has a real place in Nero’s music. So many songs find falsity in our surroundings that it seems like his music crashes through normality to open some other world or layer beneath it. I see large shades of surrealist ideas throughout industrial music, and it’s not surprising. As an art movement, surrealism captured a very disruptive vein of thought. Based on Freud’s psychology, it views the world as fundamentally unreal and following the logic of dreams, a mere production of our minds. Industrial songs often take on questions of humanity and selfhood and mechanistic facades about our lives. The influence of electronic club music also carries a strong vein of psychedelia. Much like a David Lynch film, surrealist art becomes a way of showing the world to be different from what we thought and to have hidden workings. That is also a part of the long influence of occultism on rock, which is in essence a way of viewing the real parts of the world as hidden. Music has generally held a love for this, because sounds are ephemeral. We can’t see and touch them, but we strongly feel them within us. So using a chaotic sonic attack to open a dreamworld inside of us makes a great deal of sense as an important idea to pursue in music.

Tim Skold with Psyclon Nine
Tim Skold playing with Psyclon Nine

The December show at 3 Kings with MXMS opening made the point very well. Tim Skold was a profoundly accomplished guitarist to see perform, and his own work on The Undoing album is exceptional. He has an obvious love for and understanding of industrial music and in his own work is profusely experimental in pursuing it. He is a much admired up and coming industrial artist, and he has fashioned his guitar playing around that style of music to profound effect. He sounds like crashing rhythms mixed with bits of melody, and it really pushes the instrument to sound like an electronic monster rather than traditional playing.

with Jon Siren
with Jon Siren

Jon Siren also stands out for his work with IAMX. They are no doubt one of the best industrial bands and one of the best bands working in music today, an expressive and unique artistic world made by its leader, Chris Corner. Jon is part of IAMX’s live version, and he has the odd status of being one of the best drummers in the world but of working primarily live with industrial artists who use electronic drums of their own on albums. Where the enormous skill comes in is that those electronic sounds are hard to translate to real instruments. He is able to draw those sounds together into tight and rapid rhythms with genuine emotional depth that powers the rest of the band. 

Icon of the Adversary

Going through the album, every song is strong, and the whole work is much more varied than Nero’s other releases. It tells a larger story that captures a lot of what Psyclon Nine stands for. There are fast and furious songs, especially some of the opening tracks, but then the album descends into songs that are a bit calmer but still very heavy, a different sound but with common Psyclon Nine themes at work. Nero seems to be using the calmer tracks to portray a descent into an abyss and a calm place of opposition to the world. His love of chaos is there, but it seems that he becomes the eye of the storm on the slower songs. Willing to explore quieter sounds, they show an important part of his exceptional ability to find creative synth sounds. The Light of Armageddon portrays the end of the world as a good thing for escaping corruption and lies, and its high speed attack gives way to Beware the Wolves as a slower track that sounds like it’s echoing from some strange place we never get to see with bright keyboard sounds seeming like bits of magic lighting up against a grinding song that could be doom metal if it weren’t so electronic. It very much sounds like Nero managed to break through to a different place. Warm What’s Hollow slows things even more, with beautiful electronic echoes against vocals from Nero that sound more like demonic whispers than his usual screech, and he asks for chaos to reign over us in his lyrics.

Admiring chaos is a frequent motif for Psyclon Nine songs, but they also knit those chaotic forces into a beautiful organic whole that’s aimed at freedom and release rather than harm. Like in the music of Behemoth, chaos is a way to break free of obstructions rather than a way to be destructive in any negative sense. Behold an Icon proclaims the death of god, and it sounds a lot like a John Carpenter movie, especially Prince of Darkness, with the twist that Nero sounds hopeful about apocalyptic life. When the Last Stars Die picks things up, but still with a drudging heaviness brought into industrial that is more often heard in doom metal bands like Electric Wizard as Nero sings, “Every god will have his day,” with more celebration about god being dead as he proclaims that the world is dying so much that we will see the very last stars die, a romantic image of the end.

Nero Bellum of Psyclon Nine

And with Fire then sounds like a call for release, and the music indeed has the rising sound that one can associate with flames as things pick up with a fierce and more typical song. The metaphors are interesting, because this can be associated with infernal things, but it also has to do with cleansing. The lyrics resemble a satanic prayer to nothingness, with Nero expressing how we never asked to exist on earth in the first place and should be excited to have emptiness free us. Psyclon Nine treats everything that makes us who we are in this life as ephemeral and false, an illusion wrapped around us waiting to fall away. The album portrays a powerful journey of the self out of a world of falsity, and the concluding song of The Last is a more personal call for redemption and prayer. It expresses regret for mistakes and suggests that we all need release and saving from mistakes of our lives that are a part of the trap of human existence. It seems like more of a journey than previous releases and might be their most addictive album yet, with an intensely overpowering atmosphere.

Looking back at earlier albums, Psyclon Nine seems to have got things going with a strong dose of punk influence across industrial, and this is my easiest way of making sense of the intense sounds on Divine Infekt which was recently remastered and celebrated. It sounds like a punk version of an electronic haunted house, and it’s opening sample of “We all deserve a life in hell,” sets up the band’s trajectory in a powerful and oddly beautiful way. It’s not clear whether it’s a satanic line or one that regrets human sin and guilt. I love this, because the genre has stronger punk roots than is often realized. I spent time at punk shows looking to make sense of what that aesthetic has done for industrial sounds, and the influence is impressive. Punk’s aggressive simplicity and love for emotional purity opens up a breakage of things we take for granted, and it has a pure sense of doing things for yourself. Underground industrial artists live that out quite a bit but with more experimentation and a serious experimental dose of electronic sounds. It allows for the elevation of underground music to a pure and challenging art form. 

Psyclon Nine is a fascinating display of industrial music’s punk roots as well as the capability of synth sounds within it. Those are the big standouts, and the way Nero shapes those things into primal forces and sounds is entirely unique. The band is a true personal vision, and it’s one that wraps its audience up in its dark and fluid embrace. The easiest comparisons for me are some of the darkest of metal bands, Danzig and Behemoth. They both create incredible atmosphere that is demonically dark but liberating, and they are some of the most influential and loved bands in metal. Psyclon Nine is a distinctly industrial creation, because Nero’s mastery of electronics is expressive and original, but the heavy speed and pervasive darkness seeking release found in his whirling sounds brings in a lot of metal and punk themes better than most industrial bands have managed to equal. If metal audiences find out more about them, the crowds will likely grow quite a lot, but this is a band that loves to be underground, fierce, and unique, and the industrial scene has a lot appreciation for them in line with that.

Nero Bellum fronting Psyclon Nine