Category: Music

Marilyn Manson – Heaven Upside Down – music review

Marilyn Manson – Heaven Upside Down – music review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Night Club – Scary World – music review

Night Club – Scary World – music review

Night Club is one of the most exciting and interesting of smaller industrial projects, a dark fusion of dreamy sounds with bright electronic edges and frenetic beats. Composed of Emily Kavanaugh and Mark Brooks, the duo make infectiously catchy industrial songs that sound like a dark funeral for pop music. It’s as though the catchy electronic beats leave pop lost somewhere in a 21st century coffin while Emily hails Satan on the microphone with Mark hammering away at his keyboard and samples. They represent true underground club sounds without any compromise as they have worked independently for nearly a decade, improving themselves through self releases, small venue shows, and important opening spots. One of the more intelligent and original bands around, they have a unique presence as truly original outsiders following their own intuitions.

They began with three EP’s that are provocative shorter works. They don’t have the layered sophistication of the two albums that followed, but they are industrial punk style punches with a clarity that belied what was to come from them. Their debut as album length artists came with the excellent Requiem for Romance, an album that I just could not turn off and that plays like a dark soliloquy for the death of love, or at least the death of romantic optimism. That brought them frequent touring as an opening band, most notably for Combichrist, but that album has now been followed by the even more ambitious Scary World and their first headline tour. 2019 was a big year for Night Club, and there is good reason to be excited about what this band is contributing and to hope that they develop much further.

Scary World is a stunning and diverse album with a sharp range compressed into a tight running time. Both albums are around 30 minutes and seem to echo punk with the ability to do a lot in a short time by being very to the point, but they have a layered sophistication that borrows from many styles of music, and the themes on the album are broad. As the title implies, it examines the world of today from a variety of perspectives, and while the result resembles a horror movie, finding out the world is scary never becomes one singular theme, because so many perspectives are shown. There are many facets to reality, and Night Club simplifies that world far less than do a lot of gothic bands, making their insights more engaging and diverse in tone than some of the more frequent tirades.

The tour with Combichrist showed an exciting band developing and provided one of the most energetic openers I’ve seen. Night Club got to use intricate and dramatic lighting thanks to Combichrist, and Emily got to dance across somewhat larger stages than they would play on their own. The band’s presentation has Emily in front with the mic dancing to place emphasis on parts of their songs while Mark seems comparatively sedate in the back on keys and mixing with his black leather jacket. The ideal venue for that sort of presentation is a mid size stage. It gives Emily room to move around but is not too big to limit audience interaction or to drown out having only two people on stage. A huge stage might make it hard to put enough emphasis on the way she brings the songs to life as one person traveling the entire area, and Mark is meant to be noticed in the back. One of the running jokes I have had with Night Club fans is that most of us would fall over after 10 minutes of trying to move like Emily. It’s a performance of serious athleticism, and it’s important, because industrial duos are very pressured to find a way to make their performances engaging. Night Club manage this brilliantly with a very distinct aesthetic that can easily turn into cult adoration for the band. This is made better by Mark being the director of the band’s videos, featuring such original oddities as giant evil rabbits and a straightjacketed singer blasting lyrics about insanity. So while he is relatively still in the back of the stage, and Emily is bouncing all over the place, there likely was some directing and blocking involved in building the show. It’s performance art on the cheap, but the raw purity of that is one of the best ways to experience music as a distilled art form. 

Their headline tour of last year pummeled smaller clubs with one hour shows with a very direct attack but much more happiness and optimism than the band typically conveys. They were clearly excited to be headliners, and the sense of accomplishment is much deserved. Night Club has risen to be a unique independent band with a direction and a voice that are entirely their own and that doesn’t seek to replicate anything else in any sense. Like with Blaqk Audio, the band is very diverse in its electronic range and does not seem limited only to industrial sounds. They love the dark 80s sensibilities of their genre and the ability to draw on synth pop and new wave, but they clearly are much broader and have a vision far beyond present sounds, enough that it makes their genre hard to classify even though it is most obviously industrial.

After their three very interesting and deeply underground EP’s, they worked on a soft and haunting soundtrack for Moonbeam City, an animated television show for which they constructed a beautiful range of happy songs with an ironic dark edge. The album is a testament to beautiful sounds with dark edges. This is provocative for fitting the history of art so well. Well before pop came along with its candy coated message of nonsense and medicated delusional happiness, beauty and horror were more traditionally mixed together. Some of Rembrandt’s best canvases show beauty of shadow and light against horrifying violence, and before that medieval painting offered dark but beautifully constructed depictions of human brutality. The Moonbeam City soundtrack seems like it landed from those much older artistic traditions mixed with modern musical technique. Subtle and light sounds mesh delicately against one another as though they are commenting on the happier parts of life through irony and bits of haunting sadness, and there is an undeniable jazz influence on the album which makes the range of the band far more impressive. The series the soundtrack was for did not survive long, but the music deserves its own chance and does not sound like any other soundtrack.

Requiem for Romance moved them forward from that very unique soundtrack with searing and complex songs about, as the title says, romance dying in the face of reality having become a harsh world, as though the 21st century has the descendants of The Beatles with their catchy songs about love transmuted into the postindustrial technological apocalypse of Blade Runner with its cold surfaces. The album motif of a dagger seems to signify both the killing of love and a ferocious response to a dark world. It is one of the best post 80s motifs I can find, showing a world where expectations are more dour, but where this can bring real fire in making one’s own statement amidst that. Dear Enemy and Psychosuperlover are standouts for this. Both songs depict disappointing people and personal interactions, but there is a clear sense of finding oneself in the process and of rising above a hollow superficiality that seems to have infected postmodern life with its selfish inclinations.

Scary World then arrives as an enormous achievement that brings together everything from their previous work and leaves enough open avenues that it is easy to be excited both for the album and for how the band is continually developing. Night Club is one of the best examples of the great things that can happen when resources are limited but inspiration and talent are high, a focused brilliance of distinct song writing and execution. The new album is a large statement with lots of variation between songs happening in an intense blur of only 30 minutes. While Requiem for Romance showed accomplished writing and diverse sounds along a common theme, Scary World expands this into a much larger and varied concept, offering a wide range of commentary on civilization within its compressed running time. It would not be surprising if their short album lengths are related to the difficulty of completing an album independently, but what is unique is that they use that time so expertly. The result is 30 minutes of music that is more pleasant to listen to dozens of times to unpack the sounds and ideas than to laboriously go through a common overly long album only a few times. Other bands could learn from the clarity and efficiency they achieve.

Emily’s voice is at its best yet while Mark manages to make his instrumentation take on remarkable subtlety. A shift towards subtle mid tempo sounds mixed in against their faster beats is made apparent immediately with Scary World. The songs are often slower than the previous album but with a deep sense of foreboding. Like a twisted fairy tale, Emily warns people to beware the world around them, filled with predators, liars, and warped desires. The album then seems a bit like a nocturnal descent, but with bright edges built around warped psychology. With songs like Schizophrenic, Candy Coated Suicide, and Therapy all touching on mental illness, a jagged self is portrayed but with irony and humor. Blood on Your Blade shows someone being used, but the irony of the song is that Emily sings about it like she doesn’t care, because she has learned that other people’s flaws of being abusive are not her own. The world is scary, and we learn to be cautious enough to laugh at the absurdity. The song Vampires makes this much clearer as much of the world turns to be like this familiar gothic trope. Indeed, most of America is filled with people who prey on us for money while politicians and business people act like it’s fine. The best thing one can do about is to head out into a good night club, have fun, and not care about the surrounding obscenity of such a scary world. The album is one the best things that came out in 2019.

Blaqk Audio – music review

Blaqk Audio – music review

Blaqk Audio is a standout EBM and industrial band with deep electronic roots that explore 1980’s sounds better than just about any other project in the genre. That is something of a surprise, because it’s a spinoff and side project from the notable hard rock band AFI, which veers between metal, punk, and new wave with engaging and catchy rock aggressiveness. AFI is a very successful band with a large following that gives Davey Havok and Jade Puget the luxury of being able to do what they want with side projects. Blaqk Audio is their most important work to my ears, with accomplished songwriting and dense but catchy electronic experiments that are energetic and irresistible.

Sometimes I think that industrial needs to get some inspiration from the success and frenetic energy of EDM, dubstep, DnB and varying styles of electronica outside its dark gothic rock roots. Blaqk Audio is fully up to the task and is as industrial as anything can get without ever being limited to that. This makes for a vastly fun performance band, even with only two people. The high energy and enthusiasm is irresistible and infects the audience into an organic whole that seems to have landed on an alien spaceship from the early 1980s. Davey Havok adds to that by being one of the most charismatic frontmen in music. He has so much charisma as a performer that you really have to see it to believe it, and anyone who hasn’t already seen this band live is in for a shock at how accomplished and friendly a performance artist he is.

Blaqk Audio
Blaqk Audio at Bluebird Theater in Denver, 2019

The new album itself, Only Things We Love, is a highpoint for the band. It is darker, more bass driven with velvety production, and a perfect expression of 80’s dark club sounds brought into the present. Part of the overall excitement with this project is that they have veered between experimenting with traditional EBM sounds from industrial music and blending those with 80’s style new wave sounds. Industrial is greatly indebted to the 80’s, but it has the pitfall of becoming such a subgenera that it can be repetitive and dense without connecting enough to larger musical trends. Blaqk Audio directly disrupts that both with such a successful incorporation of the best 80’s sounds and also with the mainstream appeal that Davey and Jade’s other project, AFI, carries.

Thanks to the success of their other project, Davey and Jade seem able to do anything they want with Blaqk Audio, and it lets them indulge in some of the most artistically excellent areas of industrial music. The sounds are dark, but the themes are psychological, focusing often on desire (as did much 80’s new wave), and everything is positive and friendly dance floor music. There isn’t the apocalyptic sensibility that some industrial bands have been expressing. I confess sympathy for bands with post apocalyptic ideas, because the environmental status of the planet seems to be going there, but clubbing is supposed to be fun and positive, and Blaqk Audio capture that disruptive 80’s bleak hopefulness very well.

The most fascinating thing about the band is that they seem like a time machine that goes back to the 80’s, but they are also very forward looking and manage to link that with very modern and progressive sounds that look to the future of electronic music. It’s a reasonable perspective on an important artistic movement that in many respects was born in the 80’s but has a great deal more still to say. Given the amazing growth that electronic music scenes besides industrial and dark wave have seen, I tend to think this is a correct assessment of the state of the most innovative music in 2019. Growth in areas such as dubstep, electro house, DnB, EDM, and other exciting electronic club genres has left experimentation with electronic sounds a furiously exciting area to explore. The importance of rock as both a place of musical tradition and subversion melds with that experimentation through industrial sounds, but Blaqk Audio distills the most important essence of all those trends especially well. Davey and Jade’s project in some ways reminds me of the way that Japanese art often is able to refine larger traditions to essential elements and refine them down to a very beautiful simplicity. Nothing is excessive, but everything is clear, organized, and beautiful.

Their earlier albums are all standouts, though with a bit less of a dirty sound, perhaps as they tried to reinvent 80’s sounds they enjoyed with clarity. CexCells, with its clever play on words in suggesting desire shaped into electronics, was a landmark surprise album to come as a side project from AFI. It also fit Davey and Jade as musicians who have an obvious love for the 80’s. The surprise though was the skill of creating an album around electronic beats and samples when they were already so prominent in rock. It stands out as very experimental and a bold statement of simplicity. Bright Black Heaven stirred things up with a darker vision and a nod to apocalyptic tendencies in EBM, but with Davey and Jade’s characteristically positive sentiments as a solution to the pessimism. They seem to find love and togetherness to be perfectly good solutions to negativity and bad events, and the catchiness of the songs makes it sometimes feel like an electronic duo version of The Beatles, guys who really get rock and roll and bring it into a charismatic presentation of velvety sounds with perfect unforgettable beats. Material perhaps was a most complete vision with a bit more ground being covered and more of a synthesis of musical styles, and it does a good job of anticipating what Only Things We Love accomplishes.

One 1980’s new wave touchpoint that I can’t ignore in assessing their album is the excellent Flowers of Romance by Public Image Limited. PiL is too often overlooked in discussions of punk and new wave as precursors to EBM, because they are somewhat too radical to digest compared to some of the more catchy bands. John Lydon’s project after the Sex Pistols took his punk sensibilities and morphed them into the post punk experimentation that would come after with catchier but complex and less angry songs that acknowledged superficiality in culture. With grinding percussion driven songs that seem to head in all directions through abstract loops and bits of keyboard, it showed a possibility of rock experimentation breaking the confines of its own aesthetic without dropping the basic elements. In some ways it captures the very idea of post punk. Where punk managed to simplify rock expression to its raw essentials, like an emotive punch from the most basic elements, post punk took that distilled vision and turned it into experimentation with breaking the most basic rules of rock. At the same time, post punk maintains rock structure and allows songs to be catchy enough to bring it all together. That seems to be the kind of tapestry on Only Things We Love, an album that takes 80’s experimentation as its starting point but builds dark jagged electronic layers above it that is haunting throughout and is driven by velvety percussion that manages to tie together the oddest of sounds.

The opening track of Infinite Skin is a delightful mix of danger and fun. The lyrics hint at an endless list of people to kill, but it is really a song about endless connection and the dichotomy of love and death. “I stopped a little short, a little short of something right,” suggests not pursuing something when risk can pay off. “Killing” is transformed into connecting or changing and becomes a metaphor for living by making an impact. The Viles is about yearning and staying together. “I will keep you here with me,” is sung against lyrics about risk and hiding. The world is dangerous in these songs, but that is half the fun, because it is a context to go out and find connection under dark shadows, danger, and neon lights. Davey and Jade are smart enough to see dark times, but they love art and clubbing for the good that it brings to that kind of situation.

Unstained sounds beautifully situated in the middle of the 80’s with gliding segues sung between lines and airy beats against bright keyboards with the continual sense of dark but sensual danger and risk that the whole album carries. “You’re making me so short of breath,” carries passion against exhaustion and frenetic life. Muscle and Matter is a profound coming of age song about how one changes in ways that don’t make sense. The music carries a sense of wonder as Davey sings about it being hard to believe that we all lived as much smaller creatures earlier in life. “It’s hard to believe in muscle and matter. It’s hard to believe that I was a boy.” Such brief lyrics capture something so profound as impressionistic glimpses tell about growing up through the rest of the song. “Conspiring with cats,” sounds dark and gothic, but it also sounds like a child playing with pets. It’s a beautiful play on different meanings. The keyboard sounds innocent, and it is a bit astounding that so much can be conveyed in only a few minutes of music. Caroline in the Clip is about a girl, and comes across as a beautiful collage of memory, fantasy, and connection. It’s about someone, but with truly great lyricism, it could also be anyone, which in turn makes it a perfect club song. Maker is about separation and sad disconnection, but it is left open ended. “I can’t love you anymore,” again has two senses. Either he he can’t love her any longer, or else he has done as much as he can and needs to be appreciated, or it’s a bit of both. Summer’s Out of Sight is about the end of something as well, fatalism against percussion and bass that make us want to find meaning.

OK, Alex is completely addictive as it describes an irresistible but exasperating person. “Blood, sweat, no tears,” sets up an exhausting adventure with someone who might be crazy but could be worth it. Enemies Forever sounds like love turning into conflict that can’t be quit. Dark Arcades is positively haunting about what has been lost from the past. It conjures up a time when arcade games were common as a metaphor for other things that have vanished from life. Music dies. Games get unplugged. Still, we play. Dark Times at the Berlin Wall recalls the 80s even more with something that literally doesn’t exist afterwards. A symbol of division, the fall of the wall is seen as an opening of freedom, but the 21st century has sadly seen the optimism that went with that era replaced by endless wars and technological oppression. The mechanistic sounds bring images of machinery. “You’ve been speaking with tired gods. I’ve been conferring with cats,” has to be one of my favorite lyrical turns. Davey sings about losing his way but finding it by looking elsewhere than the ordinary. Matrimony and Dust closes the album with a song about love and loss, a theme that beautifully summarizes the album, which really is about the value of love and the everyday profundity of it. A girl rips her jeans, and that is as ordinary as it gets, but its a segue to more. The album is romantic about everyday things and celebrates a love of life against darkness and loss. It is as perfect as EBM will ever get.

Davey on stage is a delight.  He dances and communicates with the audience exceptionally well and just has a natural ability at doing exactly that. He is a master performer and vocalist with the ability to perfectly match what’s happening in his songs while still talking to the audience in between, reaching out to play around with people, and dancing in between lines. Besides fun club dancing, he places very good inflected emphasis on parts of his songs that makes them more dramatic live. It reminds me a bit of how Alissa White Gluz is able to create very powerful dramatic emphasis on parts of the songs that Michael Amott writes for Arch Enemy. That band has a fiery place in protest metal that gives it such an attack that ties it forever to a metal subculture that understands Swedish death metal, but for Blaqk Audio, the goal is to be as inclusive as possible while capturing important underground dance trends with bits of new wave. The show early in 2019 at Bluebird Theatre saw the band focusing on their new album while also drawing quite a bit on their previous work. It was a high energy show that showcased the best sounds and seemed much more like an art night of electronic music than something insisting to be an underground scene.

I also got to see them DJ, and it was one of the best DJ experiences ever. They played predominantly 80’s songs with special emphasis on The Cure and Depeche Mode, and the energy level in the club was high with one of the friendliest audiences I’ve been in. Davey sang some of the songs without a microphone, just to entertain everyone, and danced, and they made for a great and very open club night at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox. Jade’s mixing with just a laptop and no serious DJ controller was delightful, and the way they crossed between new wave, goth rock, industrial sounds, and electronica was skillful at bringing the past into the present by mining some of the best 80’s sounds and showcasing how they built elements that are used in some of the most progressive new music. AFI also sits somewhat in the background of this, because  they have moved increasingly towards new wave sounds with the last couple of albums. While that main project of Davey and Jade is an impressive contemporary rock achievement, Blaqk Audio sounds like perfection brought to some very important sounds that in other hands often provide less full of a vision and less of an inclusive world of sound. These albums do a lot to show how electronic music is likely to evolve in coming years, a true combination of dark things with beautiful things and a very open but always atmospheric palette.

Combichrist – music review

Combichrist – music review

Combichrist has been making industrial music since Andy LaPlegua started working as a solo electronic artist with the very experimental The Joy of Gunz. The second album, Everybody Hates You, is a landmark for the genre and has some of the most memorable electronic songs ever created. The same can be said of Icon of Coil which also involved him and was an industrial club standard during its time and still sees some amazing reunions in Europe. Some years back, Andy decided to move towards industrial metal and enhance the live shows with other band members. Now industrial metal Combichrist has been going strong for years with Eric 13 on guitar and formerly with Joe Letz on drums for many years. Other collaborators have included second drummer Nick Rossi, former guitarist Abbey Nex, keyboardists Zmarr and Elliott Berlin, and new drummers Will Spod and Dane White. Everyone who has been part of the band has done serious work in gothic and industrial music, and the live sound has become a powerful, drum heavy, ferocious attack on every venue they play.

The recent This Is Where Death Begins finds the band using a balanced mixture of electronics and traditional instruments that combines industrial metal with the earlier sound. After seeing them several times, their show last year at the Oriental in Denver was one the best and has just been following by a mind blowing show at Marquis Theater with the two new drummers supporting the forthcoming One Fire album, which is discussed below. Elliott on keyboards for the show at the Oriental gave the band a return of synthesizers that really elevated the songs, and Nick played second drums against Joey, giving them a ferocious attack. Andy got to use the wider stage at that venue for the running around he likes to do, and Eric headed into the audience with his guitar and was completely in his element. I caught Nick after he stage dived, and Andy’s love for running across the stage worked incredibly well with the wide stage design. This venue has seen lots of industrial and gothic shows and hosted some of Denver’s best shows last year, including Combichrist, The Crüxshadows, ohGr, Killing Joke, Clan of Xymox, and VNV Nation with some of their best ever shows. The wide stage and shallow depth of the floor in front make for a perfect environment for goth performances, and bands like Combichrist that interact well with their audiences benefit from this.

Classic

The classic electronic songs sound especially different live, because Andy gives lots of freedom to his instrumentalists in interpreting them. So evolving lineups sound especially exciting, and the dual drummers with spooky 80s sounding keyboards felt a lot like being both pummeled and elevated by industrial sounds with unexpected changes throughout the show that keep the music alive and new. Andy is one of the best performers in music. He gets totally transformed by the songs during a show and is able to interact with his audience without missing a beat and tends to elevate his performances as the shows get more interactive through the night.

The background for his band is very interesting, because it was originally a pure electronic project that he created entirely himself from Norway. Then he moved to America and got interested in using industrial metal to fill out a more powerful live lineup. The first album like that was for a video game, but the importance of Norwegian black metal obviously filters its way into this. Metal is a haven for dark sounds and similar themes to industrial, and the experiment of fusing this with the early electronic albums has been a good one. It also makes a lot of practical sense, because Combichrist always draws large crowds, and having a top notch live band makes that easier than industrial acts that perform with far less, sometimes only a laptop and a singer in the case of the most underground electronic artists. Andy has managed to grow the Combichrist audience with his excellent live band, and he has also managed to solidify the industrial scene with this. It makes him the best industrial artist to see live along with Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails.

with Andy LaPlegua of Combichrist

At first, the shift to industrial metal seemed like an abrupt change, but this quickly turned into a nice balance of electronics with instruments, and the skill of Joe Letz as a drummer upped the band’s rhythm game. He was a fixture with Andy of live Combichrist for many years, and Eric 13 came in with playing that shifts a bit from show to show and is very interactive with the audience to keep the band unique. He’s not the most predictable guitarist and plays with nice classic influences, and Andy seems to love mixing industrial music with rock tradition for industrial metal and having the shows surprise people. With the importance of some great industrial metal bands like Ministry and the prominence of black metal in Norway, it’s great to see electronic and Norwegian themes built into that newer format.

Classic songs like Blut Royale always get heavy attention at performances, and they count as unique recreations in the live format. This frees up the band to play richer shows than a lot of industrial musicians get to perform, because the creative use of electronic production can become limiting for many musicians with their live show. Combichrist is able to recreate their most classic electronic songs into brutal but fun and still danceable chaotic attacks. Their shift to this format actually got me going to more metal shows, and the themes and musicianship in important dark styles of metal create a wonderful dialogue with industrial music. It also leaves the audiences interesting and harder to predict. Combichrist fans are very nice, and I know what to expect with them, but it is hard to know when a show will have more people who want to dance, or more who want to mosh, or more who want to stand focused on every moment of the band.

Audience interaction is a big part of gothic music. It’s more of a community than a place for bands to play to spectators, and this makes it a much more legitimate form of art and a serious home for underground and subversive creativity. Rock managed to implode itself by being too big and too commercial with the best bands ending up in chaos like the last days of The Beatles. Then record companies managed to control everything into highly produced packaging, and it has overall led to recycled and predictable sounds that are very commercially managed. Gothic and industrial have subverted this and remain strange and underground with serious experiments that defy expectations, with Combichrist being a stalwart of that.

Art

Elements of surrealist and dada art work their way into the industrial genre as does psychedelia and abject themes. These are important influences, because art does best when it deals with different perceptions and things left outside of the norm or otherwise buried. This can provide different perspectives that are very unique, and it can also point to important social elements such as why society chooses to ignore or push aside some ideas. Particularly in the mechanistic workings of industrial music, this can shine a light on how certain social configurations are constructed and can also help to break them apart. Surrealism cuts underneath normality by showing us how dreams and the unconscious shape ourselves and our surroundings. As an outgrowth of Freudian thinking and the linguistic versions of that, surrealism allows for industrial music’s focus on sexual themes in songs to make a lot of sense. It explains how they are able to do something artistically important while also making for fun clubbing. 

Combichrist songs focus on why people think the way they do about many of the most controversial things such as sex, guns, war, and power. While many people shy away from deep controversial topics, Andy probes them and makes them into art that is very much alive. Now that he lives in America, the importance of the rock tradition in dealing with those themes is even more important, and songs about things that sound offensive are more often meant to be ironic or to force people to think differently or simply open them up to fun clubbing by embracing absurdity.

with Joe Letz of Combichrist

Seeing Abbey and Zmarr and eventually Joey leave the band was unfortunate, but the evolving lineup remains amazing, and they both went on to important things in industrial with Abbey founding Abbey Death Band along with Valerie Gentile Abbey, and Zmarr played completely epic shows with PIG for The Gospel tour, which I still think is Raymond Watts’ best album and one of the most important works in industrial music. Joey now plays drums for Daniel Graves in the very important Aesthetic Perfection. Having all of those bands hold ties to Combichrist makes industrial music even more fun as a shared art scene for subversive and intelligent ideas, and the reality is that the band is always really Andy.

He writes the albums by himself. So every bit of every song is his creation, but he assembles evolving lineups of excellent musicians to put their hearts into the band and create beautiful live versions of those songs and completely epic shows. Andy is always the core of the band, and he is able to bring musicians through his band with the vision remaining completely intact. The result is that shows are a bit unpredictable and leave some excitement over the sound of each tour. There is something deeply industrial about being able to play the same songs so many ways. The ideas remain, but the building of sounds mechanistically from elements transmutes from show to show, and the One Fire Tour is a stunning current example of exactly that.

Songs

A lot of his songs focus on love over superficiality and rebellion against corruption. My Life My Rules from This is Where Death Begins brings this out nicely. The song is about owning oneself and being responsible for and in control of the short time of being alive. It is also heavily opposed to oppression and facades. Skullcrusher focuses on corruption and social collapse with the refrain, “You son of a bitch, you must be kidding, serving this pile of crap. I’m not forgiving you. Goddamit, you’re only holding me back.” Don’t Care How You Feel About It sounds like classic Combichrist and has Andy talking over the song with commentary, while Homeward finds him singing with Ariel Levitan. This reminds me of the early MXMS song, The Run, with it’s refrain of, “I’m just a girl, and I want to go home.” Andy sings about going homeward as a result of surrounding things collapsing, but collapse can be constructive, especially with the many breakdowns heard in industrial songs.

Existentialism and deconstruction as European intellectual movements pervade industrial music, filtered through the large varieties of art and ideas that those perspectives have infiltrated. In the case of Combichrist, the idea of owning one’s existence is always central, and it’s often achieved through a breakdown of superficiality and artifice. These fundamental ideas of a focus on existence and its limits and the breaking of constructed artifices are massive cultural themes throughout the arts, and Andy’s work has managed to create some of the compelled perspectives on these things. While I do think IAMX has some of the most probing examinations of existence, they can’t touch Combichrist at examining the frequent theme of breakage that is so important to industrial music, and where Chris Corner finds intelligent doubt and confusion as his songs examine human existence, Andy finds resolution and the need to be fiery about making our own meaning. Instead of wandering around aimlessly and reveling in being lost, Combichrist would have us make ourselves into something profound and forceful and live instead of moping. Both bands are artsy, but Combichrist stands out as a fierce statement about responding to so many existential questions by living, and the very serious embrace of life in many ways sets the project apart from the rest of the gothic scene which tends to be fun and experimental but often also veering on being depressed and withdrawn. 

Of the old era, Today We Are All Demons stands out for me as my longtime favorite. Industrial classics like All Pain Is Gone take aggrotech to an aggressive level that manages to be beautiful and psychological at the same time. Andy’s best songs have a combination of aggression and independence and also an elegiac sense of beauty. He will complain about corruption and having to fight it but also encourage seeking out good things and supporting the most positive parts of the world, other people, and oneself. It seems a bit like being forged by fire into a new freedom that overcomes negativity, and the solution to problems is always to take control and to live well with other people.

He has one of the best aggressive voices in music, because his vocals have an electric sounding edge to them that blends incredibly well with industrial production, and he is able to transition fluidly between powerful screams and real singing. This fits the band’s overall message of seeking beauty and love while being aggressive and not accepting oppression or falsity. Many of the songs are breakdowns of society, technology, corruption, and facades. Some of those facades are common negative tendencies in people, and some are socially produced problems, like oppressive and corrupt governments and industries.

With the song All Pain Is Gone, there is clear adversity in the lyrics which is then overcome by a new awareness, lack of pain, and refusal to accept oppression. Sent to Destroy is a masterwork with one of the most astounding cacophonies of electronic beats that industrial music has created. It’s a play on the apocalyptic end of the world, but like most of the best Combichrist songs it runs in two different directions. The song can be read as an absurd complaint about the apocalyptic society that it is describing, suggesting the need to replace a decrepit society that is leading itself to nuclear war rather than merely being about a nuclear apocalypse. The ironic calm keyboard at the end of the song serves to emphasize this.

The song Scarred reaches beauty with its chant of, “The rain will wash me away. All structures collapse. Nothing covers my grave. Only destruction remains.” Destruction is twisted into cleansing and positivity found in the transience of the world, and the album subverts destructiveness into being so pointless that nothing will be left. This is made clear on The Kill V2 as the next song on the album. It then transitions into mental liberation with Get Out of My Head, where the real challenge is to overcome destructiveness by fighting corruption and oppression within oneself to become positive with other people. Today We Are All Demons then expresses damage to the soul from superficial nonsense, showing a need to improve ourselves as an elegy for broken humanity, a call for fighting to fix it and to improve oneself through the struggle.

Combichrist is very foundational for industrial music. Like Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, VNV Nation, KMFDM, Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and a small number of foundational threads of music, Andy has shaped industrial sounds, themes, and techniques to a considerable degree. His songs have been clubs hits for the industrial scene for 15 years, and the early versions of this were dance heavy electronic compositions with remarkable aggression. Now the sound has shifted towards industrial metal for some years with a variety of excellent musicians coming through. A lot of this seems driven by building a connection between electro-industrial music and rock traditions, and the experiment is a thrill.

One Fire

2019 brings a new album and a new U.S. and world tour from Combichrist. The three new released songs from One Fire are epic tracks and present some of Andy’s best work. Joe Letz is out of the band for now and performing with Aesthetic Perfection, but that change to the live lineup doesn’t change how the album was made. Live Combichrist now has excellent dual drummers with Dane White and Will Spod, but for the album Andy’s process has been the same since the beginning. He works by himself writing the songs, and where he used to use his own electronics on the early albums, now he sends his ideas to session musicians. So the later industrial metal albums are still composed like the earlier ones but with live instruments played in the studio to make it easier to translate the songs for the live band.

Hate Like Me is a very direct song about being angry about obstacles and maintaining a fire. It describes people declining and giving up on fighting and having dreams. Andy yells for us to learn to hate what stands in our way and to fight to be the best instead of watching ourselves fall apart. Guns at Last Dawn is about standing up for our rights as a group. As liberty is encroached upon, the song says we won’t lie down or surrender and that freedom is worth the last fight. Understand is a more personal song about our own perspectives and barriers from within. The songs show an album with a challenging vision and a combination of sonic fury and beauty that is formidable even for Andy. As Understand in particular shows though, the songs have great depth.

The live tour for One Fire is amazing and has Combichrist in their best form. I missed Joe Letz who is now in Aesthetic Perfection, but the two new drummers sound terrific, and Eric 13 was on fire with Andy for a great show at the Marquis Theater in Denver. Andy experimented with two drummers before by having Nick Rossi play with Joey sometimes, but it was an on and off thing. Now, both drummers rehearsed to play together as the normal live version of the band, and it sounds tight and powerful with raw driving drumming that sounds like an epic industrial creation. Eric and Andy brought me backstage to photograph the band and then invited me to photograph the whole show, and it was a great experience.

This will become a longer article after the whole album is released, and I plan to also go back and examine the great Making Monsters before long, but for now let me conclude by making the case for Combichrist as the best industrial band since Nine Inch Nails. This project started in the very early 21st century when there were questions about whether the scene was reaching exhaustion. Nine Inch Nails remained an important classic act, and there was still a proliferation of small bands making good experimental work, but Marilyn Manson had been wounded by what were proven to be unfair attacks, and the gothic scene had dwindled quite a bit. Industrial music needed to be revived at the start of the millennium, and Andy did it.

The sounds from the early electronic albums are some of the most sophisticated electronic sounds ever created. They are also some of the most varied and subtle, among the most danceable, and manage a fiery aggression that maintains irony, humor, and friendliness in a way no one else has come close to managing. The industrial scene got a new life when Everybody Hates You came out, and industrial was able to claim a great club status as an experimental, underground, fun, and safe scene with ferocious power and commentary on many of the most important facets of ourselves. Since then, Combichrist has grown into a compelling and powerful live band with industrial metal albums that are as great as the best releases from Ministry and songwriting that maintains the same heart and ideas as the way the band started.

Originally published 1/7/19; updated 5/17/19

MXMS – music review

MXMS – music review

MXMS is an underground two person band that is one of the best artistic expressions in music. Dark, haunting, depressed, and gothic, they call their sound funeral pop. It stands out as deeply poetic and undefinable, with Ariel’s low and smoothly ravishing voice stretching over Jeremy Dawson’s keys played usually in the style of dark cabaret piano. Their songs have been released as singles and short EPs, and this has contributed to being a small band, but it has given them great creative freedom and a wider range of expression than albums allow. Each song is a unique stand alone production with diverse elements that always remain deeply haunting in nature, and each song packs an individual punch that songs from an album often lack. Collectively, they have released enough songs to have an album length portrait of their music, but by releasing songs individually they stand as a bold underground expression of singular works of art. Each song is unique and powerful like a painting and has little relation to commercial music in favor of something much more important.

Ariel Levitan of MXMS
Ariel Levitan with MXMS at 3 Kings in Denver, 12/9/18

Ariel’s voice is deeply moving and has an internalized sense to it. The depressive sounds she is able to express are beautiful in a way that is haunting and introspective. She sounds like the expression of a longing soul from an underworld seeking light, like the story of Persephone and Demeter, her voice emerging from a land of barren seas beneath what everyone else sees. The perception of subtle sounds in the band’s dark repertoire amplifies this. They don’t veer off of dark low fi sounds ever, and MXMS songs are slower than a lot of gothic bands, but they are entrancing within a different range of perception, seeming like a warm glow from a hidden place in a different dimension. Ariel seems to come from somewhere out of the dark to show us beautiful subterranean shadows we can’t see anywhere else.

Ariel Levitan with MXMS

She also has an unusual amount of flow in her delivery, something that is normally more typical of hiphop, and I discovered we are both fans of K.Flay, a hiphop artist working with darker styles and rock overlap. That flow makes Ariel sound ravishing on lines like, “The blood’s on the floor, head’s on the door,” from The Run, for making the associational lyrics mesh against each other into a single thought which quickly becomes profound as the song transitions into, “I swear I saw god in a 7-11. If my head’s in the oven then we’re getting to heaven. He gave me a shot of the holy ghost, and suddenly I’m fine,” only to then be crucified on a cellphone tower in an auto accident with the song’s powerful depressive refrain of, “And I love being alone, playing with a gun. The blood’s on the floor, head’s on the door.” She shows us beauty and transcendence amidst complete breakage.

The keyboards are equally unique. Loads of goth, industrial, and synthpop bands make central use of keyboard sounds, but few are able to make them so completely central and expressive to their sounds. Jeremy also plays in Shiny Toy Guns, and his style of playing for MXMS is usually found in piano, but other songs take more 80s sounds, and some even have traces of hiphop. He has a diverse range, but quiet and dramatic piano based playing is the axis for most of their compositions. He is the proverbial shadow of the band’s name, which stands for me and my shadow, and his haunting piano sounds fit the imagery well. MXMS has a profoundly consistent way of staying within the shadows and finding moving things to say about them without ever becoming repetitive, because every song is deeply poetic and individual, adding to the band’s enigmatic appeal as a genuine art project.

Funeral Pop

Something in the Way is one of the best covers I’ve heard, and it is a better version than the original. Paring the song down to a keyboard with drum track and a haunting voice allows the silence that Cobain put into the composition to pervade much more. He was haunted by depression and anxiety and had a deeply dystopian view of the world that has always struck me as being gothic on the inside, and Killing Joke was a major influence on Nirvana to reinforce that sense. MXMS brings this out with less traditional rock instrumentation and a slower tempo. The song becomes mellow and expansive, internalized into what seems like a psychedelic painting of sadness. It seems that Ariel has managed to somehow resurrect Cobain’s haunted soul and is able to say what he meant more clearly than he did himself. Her enigmatic delivery gives the song an airy openness that the original version needed, and it makes it much more a depiction of nothingness.

Ariel with MXMS
Ariel with MXMS

Anna stands out as a rhythmic beautiful expression of closeness, desire, and facades. The lyrics are wonderfully associational as are MXMS’ best songs, with a narrative that is sparse and impressionistic. The opening line of, “Choke my throat with the blood of the vine. Cursed black hearse, wanna go for a ride?,” sets up an impressionistic story of an encounter, and the song proceeds to tell the story of modelesque and strange Anna. The refrain, “Anna’s got a gun, and it’s pointed at me,” talks about female power but with the burden of superficiality shaped by desire. “I like the young girls, super thin. Look at her hipbones, porcelain. I like the good girls, who cry every day,” points to love being deflated into desire for the image of a person rather than the totality, while the line, “I only love you when you’re falling apart,” talks about exploitation but also a powerfully dark aesthetic of beauty being found in a total mess, much like Jim Jarmusch found striking beauty in a decaying world with Only Lovers Left Alive. The cover art for the single looks like an inversion of Ariel into Anna, as though it’s an alter ego or a shadow of herself, playing with her own image to subvert it. One has the impression that Anna is a commercial image of beauty metaphorically pressuring Ariel into less subversive artistry, but alas, it isn’t to be.

The song Rx has my favorite and most memorable line of, “I’m just a girl, and I want to go home,” which I still remember her singing next to a video screen with Jeremy in a dark cloak when they opened for Combichrist as a brand new project.  It’s a beautiful depiction of damaged innocence and emotional depth that makes for far more serious statements than most bands can deliver. From that early era, Omg also stands out for being one of the saddest and most haunting songs about separation anyone has ever written, with its, “I stand here naked, looking up and down, while your ghost is touching me. You made my body feel like heroin. Until you wake, I’ll sleep,” lines. It seems as though we are touching someone’s soul and seeing the face of human desire rather than just listening to fun or even experimental sounds.

Jeremy Dawson with MXMS
Jeremy Dawson with MXMS

The new song Gravedigger is an example of some of the wider sounds they have developed from hip hop and EDM influences. There are bass drops that sound like old style underground early dubstep. It also seems like the logical and more ominous successor to Anna in many respects, with a blending of horror and beauty into lines like, “Everybody wants pretty girls they say, but nobody knows pretty girls make graves.” It was released as a Halloween single and is the best Halloween song I’ve heard in ages, though it is also much deeper and reflective like most of their songs, with Ariel subverting most of what she sings about even while the song is extremely fun. She raps about being a dangerous girl who etches gravestones while she is also just a cute goth girl singing with obvious irony.

As a live band, they are even more powerful, as was on beautiful display in December of last year when they opened for Psyclon Nine at 3 Kings in Denver. The low fi nature of the music makes it much more intimate than most any other band. Where even the best bands seem to have some amount of theatricality to communicate with their audience, MXMS is stripped bare. It seems more like they are sharing musical poetry that comes from somewhere deep within or some strange place not everyone sees. It allows them to be visionary in a purely musical sense without projecting anything but instead showing how basic and powerful what they have created really is on its own terms.

Ariel Levitan

It’s a very powerful experience and seems very much like music stripped down to its raw parts, its creative source without layers of production placed on top. They are both excellent performers, but in many respects, this is far more primal than other forms of music. It is similar to the way that poetry can strip down language to its most basic functions and show how it works by taking away as much as possible to leave only what is necessary, allowing one to see how meaning itself emerges and what music is made of by using the barest elements to study themes of the deepest, most personal and existential concern.

To distill this the most, MXMS is perhaps the most existential band around, and this reminds me of classic musical acts and gothic ones at the same time. On the side of classics, Leonard Cohen was deeply existential with dark lyrical songs of bitterness and hope guised in simplicity, and I hear echoes of him and Nick Cave translated into a dark sad gothic low fi realm. I’m a fan of this aesthetic. Low fi sounds have been pushed by good mainstream musicians advocating garage rock like Dan Auerbach with a hope of returning to rock roots, but their efforts have been undermined by the commercial stature of their projects. Low fi works best on smaller terms, and MXMS has mastered it. They also execute it in a way which is entirely original rather than a return to early rock sounds. This is underground art with deep purpose and pristine execution.

Paris

For February of 2019, MXMS have released a stunning new song, Paris, and it is one of their most haunting and moving songs. When I saw them play in March of 2018 at an art gallery, Ariel was wearing a Paris shirt, and I was excited about where that would lead as a long time scholar of French philosophy and cinema. The song is a story about love in Paris, but it’s also about love for Paris. An epic city of art, Paris is perhaps most strikingly photographed in Jean-Luc Godard’s great films of the 1960s. He has perhaps the best run in the history of cinema in that era, and his movies excel at showing nighttime Paris in dark beautiful facades of flickering light with haunting faces in works like Breathless, My Life to Live, and Alphaville

with Ariel

MXMS captures that beautiful haunting atmosphere of decaying art amidst a threatening world. Ariel’s lyrics are especially impressionistic and paint a portrait of a person who opens her up and also of a city itself in a beautiful way that is so natural it’s easy to envision the world is made of glimpses and not things, her gentle voice capturing the flow of images and feelings better than any other way of seeing a city. Godard’s films capture tragedy and impending doom. He saw threats to romance and poetry from accelerating capitalism and technology implementing dehumanized social control. The  funeral pop of MXMS captures similar feelings for me of the beautiful, dark, haunting, and sad cinematography of his futuristic film noir Alphaville, which I’ve always thought is his most poetic film and most beautifully photographed one.

Ariel with MXMS
Ariel Levitan with MXMS in Denver, Oriental Theater, 4/23/19

Poetry is at the forefront for MXMS, and Paris captures it most profoundly. Ariel sings, “Why is Paris so beautiful tonight? You said, not as beautiful as you,” and we feel the city becoming a part of her. She continues about her feelings, “And I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing here right now, and I don’t have any idea of who you are,” capturing a feeling of being out of place but also finding oneself by being so outside the norm. Then she croons, “Will you stay with me? Don’t leave me alone.”  It’s a beautiful and haunting look at a place and a time. Jeremy’s keys sound like beautiful glimpses of sound floating over the boulevards of the city with mellow echoes of an aching heartbeat and memory, and the percussion sounds kaleidoscopic as it gives strange echoes of what could be footsteps roaming a haunting place of beauty in all directions with no fixed place. It’s a masterful song, and it gives Ariel’s beautiful voice a  pure space to dwell in with her airy sighs. 

Funeral Pop 1 EP

On May 1st, MXMS released their very first EP, Funeral Pop, volume 1. It is an exciting event and for the first time brings some of their songs together into a larger work. It will be followed later in the year by a volume 2. The songs on the EP together express the band’s vision in beautiful shades. The opening song of Salvation Hurts is more of a rock song than any of their other tracks. It’s a beautiful and soaring song with new wave influences and 80’s style keyboards mixed with Jeremy playing guitar. The sound is altogether beautiful, and Ariel’s voice sounds like it is reaching to heaven in line with the idea of the song. It has some of the best lyrics MXMS have written. The song talks about surviving, being saved, and finding salvation, maybe in the religious transcendent sense, though it could also be interpreted more mundanely. From bad experiences such as drugs, we are told the story of surviving and living itself bringing suffering but being worth it. Hearing her reach truly soaring vocals is beautiful, and it is one of my favorite vocal turns of any song. She is a great gothic vocalist with a lot in common with Peter Murphy and Jyrki 69, bringing deep airy vocals against occasionally jarring highs with jagged edges and soft blows that seem like bits of light hovering above darker waters.

Ariel Levitan with MXMS

Gravedigger now finally gets a proper home as the second track. With it’s hip hop styling and bass sounds that also show a bit of EDM influence from the heavy varying bass drops of dubstep, Ariel raps out a gothic tune where she sounds bad but is really cute. Paris also finds a home here as the third track, and once again a different side of the band emerges with that beautiful hazy song. The recent After Night is then the fourth track with it’s haunting reflections. The new song Timebomb debuts on the EP, with more hip hop influence turned into dark electronica with irony, and the new song The Enemy closes the EP. All of these songs have been performed live, and The Enemy is beautifully dark and seems like a natural progression into an original slow and moody song from the band’s cover of Something in the Way by Nirvana. I find this to be a beautiful expression of a very different path for music. It’s a sustained work of austerity and a deeply gothic vision of sad beauty and life’s gentle dance of finitude. None of us are here forever. Gothic culture has created artistic ways of recognizing this as a central human truth, but MXMS have achieved a way of examining that without any artifice at all. While their slow pace on many songs will likely lose some people who want party music, those who see genuine art in the best gothic offerings are likely to find other works look cheap or false by compare. I don’t know what the commercial potential for that heavy dose of sincerity is, but as a way of achieving beauty, it stands alongside works of renaissance art that graciously refuse to accept normal life as a complete circumstance or real enclosure. We all die, and there is always more to see than our eyes show us at any given time, and MXMS songs are often calm to offer an openness to that sense of mystery. 

with Ariel Levitan

Performing again in Denver, this time at Oriental Theater with The 69 Eyes, Ariel and Jeremy were moving, beautiful, and epic. They did have to deal with a very large stage that is much bigger than their normal venue, and it taxed their lighting equipment, but the show was haunting and beautiful. Ariel seemed to be on fire and was relatively direct for how she sings her songs. The new EP was available on disc with them, and they performed all six songs from it along with Something in the Way, which fit well against them for its eerie and haunting sense of mystery. The band embraces quiet and silence like no other musical project, and I admire this philosophically. Martin Heidegger’s examinations of poetry make a profound case for silence itself being the dwelling place of language, the place from which meaning can emerge. Overflowing sound is too imposing to say very much. Painting silence with sound so that each note and lyric can emerge as a bold statement is far more powerful. Ronan Harris sometimes plays with this in VNV Nation, and he is indeed a poetic artist as is MXMS. I enjoyed seeing Riverside Cemetery with Ariel and Jeremy before the show. It was a beautiful and calm place, and they showed great respect for it. We sat next to a beautiful sculpture of Christ, and the place captured a sense of the silent as beauty very well. 

Originally published 1/1/19; updated 2/22/19 & 5/15/19

The 69 Eyes – music review

The 69 Eyes – music review

The 69 Eyes are one the best goth bands to ever grace music. They are the only great goth rock band besides the classics of Bauhaus, The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. That is a large role to fill and an amazing accomplishment. Coming from Finland, the band has managed to be very unique for being in such an isolated northern part of the world compared to the concentration of gothic rock more towards England. This has likely been a part of how they manage to stay so high quality with such unique inspiration, existing in their own icy secluded world of beautiful strangeness.

The gothic themes are thick on their songs, but what is really great about The 69 Eyes is that they actually get the entire trajectory of goth rock. Unlike so many people in clubs who take themselves far too seriously, The 69 Eyes see rock tradition in what they do, and they express irony and humor in their songwriting. The songs are about death, excess, darkness, and fatal romance, but they are more aware than the vast majority of bands that all of that is proper rock and roll. It’s rock music brought back to its subversive and pessimistic roots of wanting to live in the dark in clubs with beer and likeminded people without much desire to make mainstream society happy, and that is true rock and roll.

Jyrki with The 69 Eyes
Jyrki with The 69 Eyes in Denver, Oriental Theater, 4/23/19

In many respects, that is the actual point of having a gothic art scene in the first place. The artistic intent behind the better people involved has been to offer intelligent avenues for uniqueness and weirdness in a way that is safe, silly, and in tune with musical traditions of exploring culture. The love of rock itself comes first with the band, and they master gothic trappings to show that while less successful acts have tended towards making themselves take subculture too seriously as its own end or a commercial enterprise, there is real art, beauty, and even vital musical tradition at stake in what gothic rock can express.

The development of goth rock is a fascinating story. It grew out of the pessimism and anarchy of punk but crossed that with a dark romanticism and love of being underground and different. While punk grew out of anger over the collapse of idealism in classic rock with its hopes for peace, love, and freedom, goth rock decided that life is fatalistic anyway. So artists might as well enjoy living underground rather than hoping to fix much of anything or being angry enough to break things the way the punks wanted. Bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, and Siousxie and the Banshees embarked on serious creative sonic experiments that mixed the core of rock with dark romantic guitar riffs and atmospheric simplicity into a new sound focused on dark aesthetics and an embrace of oddness.

Jyrki with The 69 Eyes

Siouxsie used extremely weird vocal techniques to mix beautiful singing with intentional disruption while Budgie brought simplicity to drumming but with very odd masterful rhythms. It captured the beautiful simple but profound catchiness of The Beatles and added post punk skepticism, darkness, and weirdness, and they have always maintained that few other bands have ever understood anything gothic. The Cure brought melodic guitar with dark psychedelia on top of the basics of punk and a continual reverie on tragic romance. Bauhaus filled things out with pseudo mystical nocturnal sounds layered over punk with disruptive sounds and gentle harmonies sometimes seeming on the edge of madness but allowing music to break through to a new and weird place that is too original to be called a trend. All three bands are quite literally works of genius. To give even more emphasis to the importance of goth rock, Peter Murphy and Siouxsie Sioux are two of the best vocalists ever to work in rock.

With The 69 Eyes, we see the only successful attempt to fully create goth rock afterwards. There are good minor bands around, but the sound is very hard to create properly. Besides the basics of dark themes and nocturnal sounds of dark against light that make almost every gothic project, the classics in the movement have had profound inspiration and execution along with beautiful experimentation that really can’t be copied. The Cure playing live is indescribably beautiful for Robert Smith’s guitar melodies and flights off into dark psychedelia that make The Grateful Dead seem conservative. Gothic really did break new artistic territory in its best days, and the challenge of true rock and roll doing this is a hard one, because rock instrumentation is basic compared to industrial music and much harder to take to an effectively gothic place without simply being a pastiche as often happened with later attempts.

Jyrki with The 69 Eyes

Jyrki 69, Bazie, Timo-Timo, Archzie, and Jussi 69 have managed to create a true goth rock path that is the equal of the best the genre has managed to create. Each song is a nocturnal canvas with surprising sounds and haunting creations that stay tongue in cheek enough to emphasize that rock and roll is the point of the entire exercise. What I find important here is that if we do think the classic styles of goth rock are so radically important, then there is a need to link this to the larger rock tradition. The 69 Eyes do exactly that by paring things down to the basics with overwhelming atmosphere, beautiful playing, and focused composition. Each song is its own story of dark rock. 

For my money, their most important album is the great Paris Kills, which should be counted as one of the most important rock albums ever made. It’s among the most nocturnal recordings anyone will ever hear. Dripping with dark streets, shadows, haunted atmosphere, and glistening guitar riffs with velvety dark vocals, it’s a perfect album. Crashing High opens the album with an instantly fatalistic view of romance, a frequent idea in their songs. The refrain of, “So why, you wanna fall in love. Crashing high, from high above,” is pessimistic but not depressing. It encourages fun and connection without expectations of a fairy tale. Realism to The 69 Eyes is fatalistic fun while we are alive and not a search for perfection in love or anything else. Dance D‘Amour follows it with the idea of simply dancing and connecting all night as a nocturnal way to get away from yourself. Betty Blue is a love song about running away, but it’s about the meaninglessness of life causing us to seek to fall into each other for enjoyment and meaning. It’s not fake idealized love, but connecting in the dark with passion. Grey slows things down and is about darkness from a personal perspective and not wanting to lose someone. Jryki sings for her to stay and asks the night not to fall on a couple, with darkness turning to blue. “Please stay. Don’t let it burn away. You stay. Let it turn us grey,” is about staying with someone forever, but it’s a gothic statement, because forever means into night and even death eventually. What’s great is that they are able to take the trope of so many cheap love songs and twist it to gothic fatalism without all the frills.

with Bazie from The 69 Eyes
with Bazie from The 69 Eyes

The album slows down a bit with Radical and seems to be heading into twilight with a beautiful gothic ballad that is too weird and dark to be a sappy song. It stays true to gothic vision by finding beauty in death and proposes not wanting to be young forever, but wanting to change and eventually be past life. Don’t Turn Your Back on Fear is about not being afraid to do things. Never turning your back on fear means facing excitement and being bold enough to live, and it’s maybe the most haunting song on the album, encouraging us to go and live in the night. Stigmata sounds wet all over in the night time. Forever More is about being close enough to feel a heartbeat, but that has stirring intonations of life, love, and death all at once. It is a beautiful and perfect metaphor. Still Waters Run Deep is a sad slow song with sweeping sounds of echoing vocals about intimacy. In the calm part of a relationship, there is room for recognizing depth. Dawn’s Highway is about the path to the light basically being death, abandoning the night to face the destructive harshness of light. It makes us yearn for beautiful darkness. You’re Lost Little Girl is the album’s most haunting song. Being lost is left open and metaphorical here. It could be anything that leaves a person lost and searching, and that makes it a gothic song to the core, because it’s an existential depiction of not knowing exactly who or where we are. 

With that remarkable classic being properly given its place in the live performances of the current tour, the new album Universal Monsters is solidly on form and a fiery return for the band. It’s a bit more upbeat and aggressive, and it also has some nice bluesy sounds. I’m very enamored with different ways that the blues are present in dark and heavy music of late. The Gospel by PIG is a great example, but MXMS also use deep dark soulful blues influences, and Zakk Wylde with Black Label Society is playing more blues than people realize in his metal songs about sin and redemption. I have little doubt that the dark and sometimes evil potential of the blues being at the grounding of rock music has something to do with how a band like The 69 Eyes can capture rock so perfectly through a genre that has sometimes unfairly been written off as just a subculture. Rock and roll was always supposed to be dark to some extent as even great classic rock bands like The Rolling Stones have shown on songs like Sympathy for the Devil. The 69 Eyes seem to be taking their very well perfected dark tendencies and joining them with a bit more metal and blues than normal on the new album, and it’s a great move, because it gives them hooks into a very creative current scene and provides an important foundation for the goth sounds they create so expertly.

Timo-Timo
Timo-Timo

Lady Darkness is a lovely song that starts off with a gentle groovy drumbeat from Jussi, and then turns into a smoothly rolling song with some of Jyrki’s best velvety vocals. It’s metaphorically caught in between going home with a girl and being taken by the night, but the beauty is unmistakably nocturnal. Shallow Graves is a nice song about the fleeting nature of life. For anyone who thinks that gothic songs are superficial, please notice that life is very transient and impermanent. So building our own graves for ourselves by focusing on tedium is probably less helpful than being nihilistic enough to accept that we all die eventually so that we might as well live in the meantime. Jerusalem is an underrated and beautiful song that has to be one of the band’s oddest creations. It’s about the mythical city and really does treat it as a myth, as in a place of dreams rather than a tangible location. By combining past and present descriptions, time literally does seem to disappear on the song. The later Peter Murphy albums with semi mystical tendencies are the best corollaries I can find. The album closes with the great Rock & Roll Junkie which has simple lyrics but beautiful bluesy guitar. It’s perfect to play live, and it sums up the importance of rock and roll for the Helsinki vampires.

On tour, they are a great live band. Touring with MXMS is especially exciting, because they are maybe the most nocturnal band around, making this the most gothic tour of the year. Gothic is supposed to be dark, friendly, and weird, and The 69 Eyes and MXMS both fit that vision to the core. They are very willing to experiment but always in ways that make sense within larger rock aesthetics. Both bands are an exciting underground mix of tradition meeting very dark and esoteric tendencies, and both bands favor beautifully airy sounds. It happens on Bazie’s guitar playing offering pauses and tempos that allow for his sounds to be absorbed and felt instead of continually shredding, opening up some true mystery. With MXMS Ariel’s vocals are beautifully airy and capture so much subtle perfection that her range and available styles are deceptive. When she croons into Salvation Hurts, the velvety vocals give way to a soaring and beautiful attack. Jyrki is a master though of velvety sounds, and he makes them seem like a complete vocal canvas with all the variations he finds on that style.

Jyrki with The 69 Eyes

The instrumental quality of the band is very high. Much like The Cure, everyone is very seasoned at playing together and making beautiful and subtle sounds with perfect rhythm. Bazie’s guitar stays more focused on the songs than Robert Smith’s heavenly melodic tangents, but it has a powerful and focused tone that is very moving and a way of carrying the listener into dark airy gothic places with more mystery than any other guitar. He is focused on traditional rock with dark intonation and lovely harmony. He is also very fun to drink with. Jussie is an anarchic drummer for such a focused band with nice tempo adjustments to build emphasis at different parts of the show, and Jyrki is simply a great singer and performer. There is too large a cliche of guys not having to be able to sing in rock bands, and then there are great exceptions to that like the enormous vocal talent of Peter Murphy. Jyrki is a great rock vocalist with a velvety delivery of classic rock turned into deep expressions of nocturnal melody.

If there are any true rock vampires around, it would be either Peter Murphy or Jyrki 69. Peter Murphy is nearly mystical in his reverie for gothic oddness and weird perceptions, but Jryki is a nocturnal vampire of sound. He catches soft and subtle sounds and sighs in his vocals, and is possibly the vocalist who is the most similar to the style that Ariel uses in her beautiful airy sounds with MXMS, making it a remarkably interesting turn of events that they are touring together. The friendliness of the band is also unmistakable. There is no rockstar ego at all with The 69 Eyes. They simply love what they do, and they are a joy to connect with. Bazie was one of the nicest people to be in a bar with after the Denver show. He was relaxed and cool and just loves rock and roll. The band deserves a huge following and a lot of appreciation for what they have done with genuine goth rock songs and with showing that this is a rock and roll enterprise to the core, and a very dark one.

The 69 Eyes
IAMX – Alive in New Light – music review

IAMX – Alive in New Light – music review

IAMX is one of the greatest industrial projects of all time. Chris Corner has taken his internal feelings and introspections about depression and a broken world and turned them into an expressive art form that is almost like painting with electronic sounds. His lyrics complement odd sonic landscapes in a way that is at once beautiful and dark. He is able to find beauty in the oddest sounds and experiences, often made of a combination of internal moods and external horrors, and he translates this into some of the most poetic industrial sounds one can find outside of VNV Nation.

Chris Corner with IAMX
IAMX at Bluebird Theater in Denver, 4/29/19

His songs see serious problems with the world and also see something apart from it as what is more fully human. Poverty and violence are frequent items of criticism. He describes this dark landscape as depressive and, to some extent, unreal in its harsh absurdity. Existentialism is a powerful theme as he finds nihilistic experience to be central to contemporary life and genuine creation. I find this intriguing with his aesthetic, because there is something true about viewing the creative process as an act of generating something out of nothingness, but with IAMX, the X that is so central to who Chris and his followers are finds nothingness inside all of us as what is most real about ourselves. His songs manage to shape this into what seem like beautiful electronic aural paintings made of rhythmic clashing sounds with layer upon layer of subtlety.

Chris Corner with IAMX

Last year brought a nearly perfect new album with Alive in New Light. It is one of the best industrial albums of 2018, and it fits for me very well as a continuation of Metanoia and Everything Is Burning. The songs shape a dark sonic descent into a netherworld of life amidst depression and a decaying landscape of human tragedy marked by war, poverty, and violence.  Chris portrays insanity in a beautiful way and shapes it into an appropriate way to think and live in a world that is so absurd it just can’t be expected to make sense anymore. The numbness this produces is transformed into a creative outlet as he lives the persona of X within his songs, but X is a symbol for anything and for nothing. So he is really touching on the human experience at its core.

The new album had a scheduled Denver tour date, but they weren’t able to make it due to a tour bus breakdown. So their last show here was for 2016’s Everything Is Burning tour. That album was a short follow up or addendum to the ambitious scope of Metanoia, though its short running time allowed for some of the most perfectly crafted songs IAMX has created to show us a sad world on fire. It seems like a bridge between the new release and the earlier album, and I find the possibilities with that to be very disjointed and exciting. To make things still more disjointed, Unfall was also released just before the new album as a pure sonic exploration with no words. It is very ambient and dreamy and takes pure sound to poetic places. After those strong transitions which leave IAMX seeming more centered on dense composition than anything resembling popular music, Alive in New Light finds striking beauty in the decaying world the last albums portrayed. It’s as dark as anything IAMX or industrial music have ever done, but it has more ways of seeing profound beauty in that decay.

Songs

Stardust is an oddly beautiful song especially. It captures dazzling moments with its illuminating chorus, but it’s entirely nihilistic for seeing us all as creatures who are slowly dying. Chris takes this depressive reality and turns it into a mellow celebration of freedom that’s associated with not being alive forever. “Beauty, violence, war is within us,” captures the way our lives are shaped by a destructive environment that opens parts of us to different experiences through the tragedy, and also to empathy with one another. Mile Deep Hollow offers salvation through intense involvement with another person with its beautiful cry of, “So thank you, you need to know, that you dragged me out of a mile deep hollow.” The happiness of the song is in the connection with someone else, and it takes love as a rescue from depression, descent, and disorder. Listened to against the previous work on Unfall, it feels that Chris is finding personal ways to dig out of some of the horrors he describes, but he doesn’t give up his unrelenting vision of a sad and tragic world without a stable center on the new IAMX album. Its message is more towards finding solace and hope in the shared experience of being scarred and knowing there are better things about all of us deep within, and of course within the shared experience of music itself. The album closer of The Power and the Glory with its beautiful line of, “I’m waiting for your guiding light to bring me back,” seeks spiritual transcendence as an escape from emptiness and surface distractions. It’s really an album with a dark sense of beauty standing over the tragedies he has shown in other IAMX works.

Sammi Doll with IAMX
Sammi Doll with IAMX

The song Triggers from the masterpiece, Everything Is Burning, paints a dark and shockingly accurate portrait of 21st century life. The popular idea of triggers as external stimuli that cause a person to recall a trauma has become absurdly common in pop psychology of the present, and Chris seems to have an acute awareness of this as someone open about depression. While his song sees this as part of the self of some people, he notes the odd commonness of the condition and locates it as a product of living around too much violence and degeneration of human life. It stands powerfully against the tittle track’s portrayal of a collapsing world echoing in Chris’ mind through sounds such as gunfire.

Sammi Doll

North Star from Metanoia looks for guidance in a damaged world. The memorable refrain of “North Star, I want you to guide me home,” depicts an age of people who are lost. At the start of the song, Chris describes confusion and not knowing any certain place or action. He then goes on to describe a numbness of not feeling at all and being out of touch as he wanders neon streets. It’s a remarkable portrayal of losing place in contemporary life and needing direction, with the electronic beats breaking the singer into pieces, but still having an amazing way of pointing upward as an escape from the sadness seen in the lyrics. Oh Cruel Darkness Embrace Me postulates a divided world of hostility built around abusive upper class power of the wealthy. “Every time we beg for the rich man to provide, there’s countries to be conquered, people to divide,” is a wonderfully accurate social description, but it’s sung with beauty in a song that adds to this portrayal with beautiful expressionistic glimpses of that sense of corrupt decay and the internal affects it has on someone.

I can’t not mention Under Atomic Skies from The Unified Field as well. This song is a truly beautiful but horrible ballad about the end of the world. At least, it’s an allusion to the end of the world in the context of a story about a lover. “Rejoiced in the hopeless. We loved under atomic skies,” is one of the most clever bits of imagery and lyricism. The doomsday clock is currently at two minutes to midnight, as it was last in the early 1980s. Nuclear war did nearly happen at that time. There was a hair trigger moment in which the Soviet Union thought the United States had launched nuclear weapons. The only reason a nuclear war didn’t break out was because one Soviet officer refused to believe the radar information and did not trigger a counter attack, as is well depicted in the documentary film The Man Who Saved the World. Had he simply followed his orders and established protocols, the human race would be extinct, and we would not be sharing this kind of music or anything else. So we are all 35 years past an event that almost made us extinct, only to now see nuclear risks become as bad once again, with equally serious environmental dangers presaging apocalypse. To show even more the prescience of the image of lovers in the midst of atomic war, the imagery described by Chris in his IAMX lyrics is remarkably similar to the opening scene in Alais Resnais’ great film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, which finds a Japanese man and French woman in bed under ashes at the start of the film. The context of this leaves me with a deep appreciation for the beauty and accuracy of horror that the song captures. This song is one of many that leaves me with the sense that Chris’ internal angst and depression is partly driven by a sensitivity and real sense of damage in the actual world. Awareness is depressing, but it gets shaped into beauty with IAMX.

Live

It’s worth saying here that I think dark aesthetics are the only legitimate place for rock to be now. The world of the 21st century has demonstrated such absurd rejection of good qualities of life, such as freedom, privacy, peace, and equality, that not complaining about the world of today as a dark abyss simply misses the point of the freedom and creativity that rock supports in favor of selling illusions. Dark music allows us to understand what we live in and do something to reject it. Many IAMX songs have stunning breakdowns that fracture the structure of the song and also seem like an internal breakage of Chris’ own self. This captures the band’s idea of being X.

Jon Siren with IAMX
Jon Siren with IAMX

Live performance from IAMX is a completely frenetic release of the self. Chris wears a hat of black feathers and becomes so lost in the reverie of his music that it seems like something from another planet jumped out of him. Janine Gezang and Sammi Doll are two of the best keyboardists in music. Sammi’s performance is mesmeric and intense, and she makes the keyboard look like it’s made of moveable bits of clay with the way she manipulates it, while Janine is forceful, strange, and intense as she takes more of an attack with her instrument in line with her work with Chris outside of touring. Jon Siren is a remarkable drummer who plays with many excellent industrial projects, including also Psyclon Nine. He is one of my favorite drummers in all of music alongside Joe Letz of Combichrist, and the intense and subtle rhythms he masters live really can’t be replicated. Janine adds still more to the band with a genuinely unusual personality and love for the songs that turns either into an explosion over her keyboard or strange thundering bass rhythms when she is playing her second instrument.

Jon Siren

Chris has established a friendly and evocative art world around himself. Most band members are involved in other important projects, and they fuse together as a stage presence with their frontman and auteur that is entirely unique. They are also some of the nicest and most genuine people. It is interesting that Chris found Sammi as a young and relatively new musician and saw raw talent that needed a chance to develop. She is hypnotic on stage and seems to follow Chris with that. Chris himself becomes so involved in his music that it’s almost like watching someone in a trance. That’s not what’s happening, because he is very aware, but he enters a creative place that projects powerful imprints onto the audience that is a true musical and creative persona of being inside someone’s vision.

Chris Corner and Sammi Doll
Chris and Sammi

His style of electronic music is unique for being so expressive and for coming from such a strong internal place. The sounds he projects seem like electronic painting where brushstrokes are shaping new forms to fit a distinct but impossible vision, including his own directing of music videos and use of video displays in live performance, and that translates into frenetically expressive performance. Ecstatic release is a key part of his shows. IAMX creates a genuine sense of being thrown outside of yourself, of being lost in an expressive cosmos as Chris’ sounds destroy everything into an abstract fluid of feeling and broken sound. Industrial music frequently features breakage; from breakdowns of the instrumentation and rhythms in the songs, to portrayals of a world that’s broken, it’s a staple of the the genre. Part of the genius of Chris Corner is that he is able to use those techniques to say something truly profound that transcends being an exciting compositional technique into making and showing something essential about who all of us are in profound ways that only music can translate. There is no stable self or place in the world, and that is part of the point of his music.

Nothingness

The psychology of Jacques Lacan showed powerful Freudian and linguistic reasons for believing that the self is not a unity or a thing inside of us. It is plausibly made of drives, words, and relationships around us. Lacanian thinking shaped an understanding of mind that pervades philosophical currents in France and Germany, many of which took root in artistic movements there, and some of which got translated into industrial music through those currents of European thought so heavily infiltrating art. To be X, is to be free by being nothing and accepting the nothingness of the self and our false place in the world, and this is a deeply true idea on many intellectual levels. 

Chris Corner with IAMX

Abstract art has also given a home to this theme. Abstraction, like deconstruction, leaves so little left of what can be said to “exist” or “represent” that nothingness is at it’s core. This is well expressed in painting by Clyfford Still, whose canvases take painting to a bare minimum of color and form that seems more like absence than existence. Chris clearly follows his own voice, but in being so remarkably cutting edge within industrial music, some of these currents of artistic trends have found a home in his work.

The poetic quality of his sounds and lyrics is also worth pausing on. Poetry as a part of a broken self is a very reasonable description of the world. If there is no self at the core of us, and we are made of linguistic relationships, words, ideas, and relations within and around us, using poetry to capture what we all are is one of the most reasonable things to do. In philosophy, Heidegger captured this strongly with a turn towards poetry as a new thinking, but this proliferated throughout French philosophers who popularized the idea to where it entered German and French artistic movements. The relationship between literature and philosophy is especially strong, and Jean Paul-Sartre used novels to explore this broken selfhood with enormous influence on the arts throughout Europe.

Chris Corner with IAMX

In the 21st century, this environment of nothing has become more fractured. Globalization and technology amid late capitalism have left an astoundingly fractured world compared to anything previous in human history. The world is broken up by endless media images, by so many languages encountering each other, by international travel and business, and the list goes on. People of today are more broken apart than ever, and the advantage is that this can give a true sense of the self as not being stable, as not being whatever superficial thing it may before have seemed to be at any given moment.

Dark Inside

IAMX is able to portray both us and the world with astounding reasonableness. As an artistic project, this is meant to be whatever it is for any given person who is moved by it, and I don’t doubt that Chris’ intent might veer from some of my readings of his songs, particularly with the ambiguity that X is, but the brilliance of how well he channels major artistic currents is an important accomplishment. It helps to make the case for the importance of underground music. The mainstream rock press doesn’t have as much awareness of underground industrial music as it does the idiocy of pop star idols, and the journalists working in that industry are not informed or educated enough to be aware of major artistic and intellectual trends that can really situate what qualifies a work as an important piece of art rather than a commercial machine. IAMX is the domain of true intellect, and it should be enjoyed, partied with, and taken seriously as necessary artistry.

Chris Corner with IAMX

Chris Corner’s music is an exploration of human selfhood and a demonstration of the joy of not being. Him and Sammi Doll are both prone to depression, and they are very upfront about this. It’s a central part of their music and also a major source of inspiration. The band channels some of the most profound sources of inspiration in music, as though Chris is so serious about being X that he exists as the waves of feeling in the songs and nothing more almost. The shared sense of self and transcendence that happen with the best music is irreplaceable and is what his band is about. The darkness of this experience is fundamentally haunting and profound. Even psychedelic themes happen within his songs but always in a deeply expressive and psychological way. 

The profundity of what Chris has accomplished with his music is astounding. It’s well worth serious thought and critical reflection, and the accompaniment of other band members is equally fierce and profound for the band’s live existence. They exhibit odd, chaotic, and intelligent dispositions that add greatly to IAMX. Sammi is also a founder of the synth rock band Bullet Height. It is an essential project and helps to expand the dark universe of internal hauntings that Chris has created, showing a genuine expansion of a vision that started with IAMX. It is her own ideas combined with Jon Courtney, but there are beautiful IAMX influences in the internalized dark lyricism and beautiful synth style. Jon Siren’s drumming is a fierce attack to support Chris, and he has a skill that is irreplaceable for the band’s live version. Janine Gezang adds a wonderful odd element to this as the least predictable force who gets deeply lost in performance with Chris, and it becomes a show that is like living inside of a painting made by someone who is too unstable to ever finish the canvas. Our fleeting glimpses of the world minus all the structure is what is left, and it immerses us into the flow of the songs and the well delivered common themes that weave them into a darkly glowing whole. The best way I can describe the tapestry that Chris has built into his sounds is to say that IAMX has captured the fires of creation, a chaotic but beautiful force that arises out of absolutely nothing, and the band helps us to see what nothing is – an experience which could be anything.

Mile Deep Hollow Tour

I was fortunate to again see IAMX on the Mile Deep Hollow Tour in Denver a few nights ago. Chris Corner was in top form at Bluebird Theater, and from up front I had a gripping view of the visual part of his performance. Mirrors were positioned all around to reflect and bounce around beams of light. The jagged lighting adds to the cacophony of the sound with band members spending a lot of time in darkness that emerges into light, often times with powerful directed beams cascading through the mirror set up. So much of his work is about consciousness and personhood posed as existential questions that it is hard not to see this as his way of portraying himself. This is even more the case when one considers that he is very preoccupied with mental health. He is open about his own struggles with this, but he has also started doing something very good by advocating publicly for more recognition and support for mental health issues. Chris has begun a new presence on the Patreon platform, and as he gets funding from fans, he has also chosen to lend his presence to a good cause which he has a serious concern about.

IAMX

While Denver did not have one, some shows have gatherings where mental health is a major focus while Chris fields questions from IAMX fans. I do see something profound in this, because X is still after all a question mark, a way of designating an unstable identity that we must choose to make for ourselves. As a scholar of the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, this is most intriguing to me as much of literary theory after Derrida as well as strands of European thought that are descendants of him view meaning as something that is waiting to be inscribed and not a thing to be found in objects waiting in the world as stable identities. Similarly the self is treated as not having a true interior but instead being a collage of encounters with the world and other people from which we make only parts of ourselves. The bouncing beams of light sent through mirrors across the stage are much like this process of becoming. Light doesn’t really have its own direction, but it can be shaped and bounced around. Personal identity is like this as well, and it raises the question of mental health in the sense that if Chris is correct that X is a good description of personhood, mental instability is inherently a natural human tendency, because none of us are ever stable things to begin with.

Sammi Doll

It was a remarkably beautiful and difficult show to photograph. So much darkness, backlighting, and high contrast between darkness and bright beams of light is taxing as a photographic exercise but quite absorbing and fun, because it is a visually rich environment with lighting well worth studying. The lights centered on Chris most especially, with the other band members spending more time in the dark, but everyone was effectively flickering in and out of darkness with sometimes very fast and harsh illumination. The song Mile Deep Hollow was especially moving, and the remix album based on it was well worth staging this month long tour for. Chris said he wrote the song about his audience rescuing him from depression, and it is indeed a beautiful song about finding the light. It creates a nice equation or at least linkage between love and hope. “And I love you. You brought me home, when you dragged me out of a mile deep hollow,” becomes a way of showing a glimmer of light amidst dark internal cavernous spaces. The song has many lines expressing gratitude, and I do admire the sincerity of that from someone who is very blunt about having been lost. It’s nice for audiences to be around gracious performers, but more to the point is that gratitude of that type spreads good will through an audience and a work of art. It is a far better experience to share with others than to see bitter performers. Art is meant to provide glimpses of light that allow for others to experience different perspectives they might not otherwise find. The ability for music to create such a shared sense of that does make mutual gratitude a powerful thing, and it makes the notes of a song ever more intoxicating.

Chris Corner with IAMX

Originally published 1/29/19; updated 5/7/19

Bullet Height – No Atonement – music review

Bullet Height – No Atonement – music review

Bullet Height’s dark and moody debut album, No Atonement, is one of the most exciting albums in the industrial and synth rock art world. With sounds that stretch back to the 80’s and modern electro-pop influences, the album emerges as a dark industrial vision of relationships and society filtered through epic synths and goth vibes that capture a sort of twisted heartbeat. Sammi Doll is one of the keyboardists for IAMX, one of the best industrial bands now or ever, and this album emerges as her introspective vision alongside Jon Courtney, who is also in the important band Pure Reason Revolution.

The two have common damaging experiences that are fused together into a dark and hazy canvas that is basically synth rock but plays as unusually poetic and experimental with deep industrial roots of electronic discord alongside airy new wave rock and roll. The rhythms are well structured, and Bullet Height songs have a lovely echo of need, disappointment, innocence, hopefulness, and damage. In typical goth fashion, the album poses a contrast between dark and light, willing to bury itself in darker impulses, moods, and feelings than most musicians will explore but still offering a hopeful bright edge, especially with the synths. The keyboard playing on the album is nothing short of beautiful.

Sammi Doll with IAMX
Sammi Doll performing with IAMX

Sammi plays keys in the live version of IAMX usually behind Janine Gezang in the lead, but her own playing with Jon Courtney on No Atonement is powerful and evocative with deep layers of dark and sad emotion mixed with beautiful glimpses of 80’s dance fun. She is deeply inspired by the great synth rock band Metric and its great keyboardist and songwriter Emily Haines. While her own project is less rock based than them, it does offer industrial style rock influences filtered through new wave and synth pop into a beautiful and strangely contorted creation. The odd rhythms and twisted emotions conjure up two people twisted together like a cubist painting where the inside has become the outside, but the darkness has a lot in common with German expressionism, an influence that possibly seeped into Bullet Height from the album being sourced in disconnected experiences within a dark but artsy and extremely modern German city.

The band started in Berlin, where Sammi Doll lived for a few years and became involved in the German art scene. Berlin is an important international destination for the arts, because the city emerged in the postwar environment as a central place for postmodernity, and it had an extremely unique position between East and West during the Cold War. It experienced being divided in half, being a place of cultural achievement, being war torn and rebuilt, and being international all at once. When I say rebuilt, Berlin is one of the newest cities in the world, because so much had to be completely recreated after World War II. At the same time, it has very long and influential artistic traditions going back centuries. That odd sense of place seems to leave a mark on the album with its disjointed sense of aspiration and emptiness. No Atonement is an album that almost exists in an abstract world of not having a place of its own, of being transient and disjointed just like its creators felt in an estranged city. Sammi finally left Berlin amidst depression and went back to Los Angeles, where Bullet Height has been developing since.

Sammi Doll of Bullet Height

Sammi and Jon have then fused together experiences of difficult relationships and drug addiction into the songs to where they are hard to uncoil. Both leave scars, but both also can be a thing to learn from, opening up new possibilities as one moves beyond them. The two musicians work these themes together so that in many cases a song or a line could be about either one, as Sammi said, or about both even when one seems to be more obvious. The very poetic line, “You pull the skin apart and haul me into your consciousness,” is a fine example. Drugs can literally enter the skin and alter consciousness, but the experience of another person can do this as well. Both leave scars, but people learn in advancing past them, and Bullet Height portrays that experience well.

The relationship to industrial music is interesting to explore here. Sammi knows these sounds very well from IAMX and is a goth musician with a clear gift for synth playing, but this does not limit the band to only industrial territory. Instead the songs are very moody and extremely airy. They don’t bury the listener with a cacophony of dense sound but instead allow the beauty of the synths to echo and resonate emotional perspectives. Much like the excellent electronic project Night Club, Bullet Height shows clear influences from industrial music and is a part of it but also can’t be pinned down to it as other electronic sounds make their way in with broader synth-pop and new wave influences. In particular, Depeche Mode casts a very pleasant shadow over the album with its deep dark themes but bright electronics and danceable beats that often show isolation, yearning, and twisted pleasure.

A Fractured Self

Psychologically it is one of the most sophisticated albums, and this is the most important focal point besides the synth playing. Both musicians are quite introspective, but they manage to reach far beyond themselves and find universal meanings that help us to see what makes people tick and to help us find things within ourselves. This especially takes the shape of haunting melodies that seem to echo from deep inside. Lines such as, “You’re the cadence into my world,” from the moving song Cadence, which sounds at once like an opening up and a defensiveness being portrayed, serve to amplify this.  We see that we are composed of a number of things outside of ourselves that take on meaning deep within to form internal parts of us, including other people, feelings, perspectives, and musical beats we internalize into pulsating waves of thought as we go about our lives. The electronic sounds on Bullet Height’s album hold a mirror to the respective breakdowns of their composers and become a mechanism of transcendence. Much like VNV Nation, dark becomes a base for the building of light, and we reach past ourselves as we see into two people’s inner dimensions and aspirations.

Sammi Doll of Bullet Height

The birthplace of Berlin for the album is appropriate in larger German artistic traditions. The fracturing of Berlin has been a recurrent artistic theme for decades along with its bitter history of destruction and misconceived aspirations during the second world war. Expressionism in Germany sought to create a shadowy projection of internal psychology and in some ways became a darker and more psychological twist on romanticism that is an important backdrop to gothic art. It ended up falling to more externally oriented approaches to art such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films with his social misfits and jagged characters trying to find a place in a disjointed world populated by inherent ruptures, a broken world that also resembles some of what No Atonement portrays. For Bullet Height, both musicians were outsiders in the city when they wrote the album, and the struggle of this created a very accomplished and authentic work of art.

All of these tendencies have a corollary in gothic art, and Sammi and Jon seem to be using their two personas to show someone twisted in half with the inside shown as the outside. The psychology of both people in the album is a deeply fractured one, and the most important artistic accomplishment seems to me to be the ability to take that fracturing and find beauty in exactly that, giving layers of deep expression to the experience rather than hiding from it. Many people are fractured for a multitude of reasons, but it is rare to find psychologically rich portrayals of that. The need to focus a song or other project makes fractures very hard to convey, but the emotional depths seem to be endless for Bullet Height. The result is genuine insight into a central part of human experience through a beautiful sonic portrayal of being inside a person’s broken self. At the same time, this depiction of feelings and moods relates back to the world and recognizes the way it shapes people.

Sammi Doll of Bullet Height

The song Bastion also has clear social elements added to the psychological themes, but it still is about darker personal experiences. “Will the kingdom come, when our bodies turn into earth,” expresses a deep finitude in relationships and in the self that is partly built within social expectations and angst of thinking the world should work better than it does after hearing so much continual rhetoric of living in a bastion of freedom and prosperity. In spite of being told how free we all are, things don’t look so great as the surrounding world often impinges on us with hostility, whether through economic, cultural, political, or other facades. Indeed, within the preposterous efforts of the West to claim political and economic perfection, the German language is fascinating for the way its parts all fit together so mechanically. Major thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger are able to make great philosophical and linguistic use of the complicated categories German affords, but this also means that German society has a difficult time dealing with things it cannot categorize, with outsiders. So Berlin is a hard place to be a transplanted outsider within, even when other people try to have good intentions. “Now can you hold me close, or is the soul too beaten,” also from Bastion, then captures a sad resolve about wanting to find love in a world of broken bitterness. Similarly, “At least I’m only used not dead,” from the beautiful Break Our Hearts Down, shows a hope for something better amidst disappointment but also shows that the experience of being so ruptured shapes the surviving person in a profound way. We become our own broken works of art by owning the experience.

The presence of goth and industrial music as a major underground artistic world is in line with the central qualities of European existentialism with its emphasis on finitude, postmodernity with its fractured and pessimistic views of humanity, and the collapse of romanticism, all themes that I aim to explore with these articles. Many large scale western human aspirations have simply not worked the way they were supposed to, and this style of art captures that with great depth. Bullet Height have extended personal themes and experiences into larger meanings that capture that well, and it is a great accomplishment. Large scale forces in the world are shaped into sensitive feelings and internal perceptions that leave the band expressing mechanisms inside all of us that are scars of a surrounding world with fading hope but still great potential, but what makes the album great is the way it captures nuance. Like the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, small things are effectively amplified and given deeper shades of meaning. We see how small interactions can unveil a person’s world and take on a whole psychology or mode of existence. The album is a beautiful dark wave accomplishment at looking inwardly with electronic pulses of searing keyboards to see how we work and how our broken experiences leave scars and inspiration. Sadly, Jon Courney is no longer active with the project. Bullet Height lives on though with Sammi Doll leading the project in Los Angeles. It will be exciting to see where that takes it.

Sammi Doll of Bullet Height

Originally published 9/28/18; updated 5/6/19

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