Tag: music review

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

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

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
Painting with Mixi of Stitched Up Heart

Painting with Mixi of Stitched Up Heart

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

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

Mixi with Stitched up Heart

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

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

Clyfford Still painting
Cylfford Still canvas

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

Clyfford Still painting
Still painting

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

Meaning in Painting

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

painting by Mixi of Stitched Up Heart
Mixi canvas

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

painting by Mixi
by Mixi

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

painting by Mixi of Stitched Up Heart

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

painting by Mixi

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

painting by Mixi of Stitched Up Heart
by Mixi

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

painting by Mixi of Stitched Up Heart

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

Meaning in Sound

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

with Mixi and Stitched Up Heart
with Stitched Up Heart

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

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

painting by Mixi

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

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

painting by Mixi

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

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

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

Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest – music review

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

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

For the Love of Satan

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

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

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

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

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

Occult

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

Behemoth

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

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

The West

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

Orion with Behemoth

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

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

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

I Loved You at Your Darkest

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

Nergal with Behemoth

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

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

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

Lords of Acid – Pretty in Kink – music review

Lords of Acid – Pretty in Kink – music review

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

with Marieke Bresseleers of Lords of Acid
with Marieke

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

with Praga Khan of Lords of Acid
with Praga

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

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

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

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

Pretty in Kink

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

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

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

Praga Khan with Lords of Acid
Praga Khan

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

Marieke Bresseleers of Lords of Acid

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

Marieke Bresseleers with Lords of Acid

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

Sin Quirin with Lords of Acid
Sin Quirin

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

Marieke with Lords of Acid

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

Live Kink

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

Marieke Bresseleers and Sin Quirin
Marieke and Sin

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

with Sin Quirin and Dietrich Thrall
with Sin and Dietrich

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

Lords of Acid

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

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

Abbey Death Band – Ethos – Realignment – music review

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

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

Abbey Nex with Abbey Death Band
Abbey Nex

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

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

Valerie Gentile Abbey with Abbey Death Band
Valerie Gentile Abbey

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

Ethos

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

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

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

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

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

with Abbey
with Abbey

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

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

Psyclon Nine – Icon of the Adversary – music review

Psyclon Nine – Icon of the Adversary – music review

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

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

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

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

Sounds of Chaos

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

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

Nero with Psyclon Nine

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

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

Tim Skold with Psyclon Nine
Tim Skold playing with Psyclon Nine

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

with Jon Siren
with Jon Siren

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

Icon of the Adversary

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

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

Nero Bellum of Psyclon Nine

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

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

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

Nero Bellum fronting Psyclon Nine