Electric Wizard’s Witchcult Today sounds, on record, like Bardo Pond used to sound live. Which is to say Witchcult Today is very good indeed, if not quite the monolithic monster of Satanic fuzz that, say, Dopethrone was. Which is also to say there was a time when Bardo Pond would come on stage looking like a bunch of scruffy MIT grads plus some random hippie chick they rousted out of the Haight and proceed to bludgeon the crowd half to death with some of the heaviest music ever played.
When I saw Bardo Pond play Terrastock in 1998, I swear the air started to congeal. That was the first time I really understood on a gut level why it’s called “heavy metal” (technically Bardo Pond aren’t a metal band, but songs like “Tommy Gun Angel” and “This Time (So Fucked)” are basically Jesu, made years before Justin Broadrick got his new religion). You can get some idea of what Bardo Pond were like live back then here, but listening to this is sort of like watching a phonecam recording of really hot sex. It gets the idea across while being entirely inadequate.
If I had to choose a single word to describe Anaal Nathrakh’s style of heavy metal, it might be “unyielding”. Another good choice would be “totalizing”. From the very start, their music has been dense, noisy, seamless, enamored of production tricks that saturate the sound field. Whether it’s driving every single channel on the mixing board into the red or expanding and compressing the masters so whispers are at the same volumes as shouts, they don’t miss a trick to make their albums into massive stone walls of aggressive, violent noise. There are even a couple moments on Domine non es Dignus where a trailing sibilant in one of the vocalists’ words completely blows out the rest of the music, the compression’s amped up so far.
What this does is provide a Procrustean sonic frame into which Anaal Nathrakh can stretch the rest of their hyper-extreme music without you noticing how many different things they’re doing at once. They’re sonic magpies (or should I say stormcrows?), scavenging elements and tropes of just about every form of extreme music out there to create something that is both sophisticated and ineluctably British.
“Sophisticated” is not a word that immediately suggests itself when it comes to Anaal Nathrakh; the only time you can clearly understand the vocalists – when they break out into the declamatory tones of operatic power metal – the lyrics become clear in all their blunt misanthropic eschatology and pessimism. Consider narrative song titles like “Between Piss and Shit We Are Born” and “When Fire Rains Down from the Sky Mankind will Reap as it has Sown”. And the compression and unyielding sonic attack of their songs can make listening through entire albums a bit of a slog if you’re in anything other than the most amped-up frames of mind. The blown-out volumes create a sustained noise assault that erases any notion of narration, that creates an eternal suspended Now where a time before or after you were hearing Anaal Nathrakh did not exist.
However, when one of their albums comes up on my iPod, I tend to end up listening to the rest immediately thereafter. Part of it is that all of their albums have at least a couple songs that are brilliant at evoking precisely the frame of mind that makes their music sound good – they’re catchy and get you pumped. An important part of it, though, is that their magpie approach makes listening to any of their three most recent albums – Domine non es Dignus, Eschaton and Hell is Empty, and All the Devils are Here – akin to hearing a kind of greatest hits of extreme metal for the last 20 years. There’s a great deal of variety buried within the churn.
Considering the way they join chromatic, atonal death metal guitar solos (reminiscent of later Carcass) to overdriven drum machine blast beats (redolent of Brutal Truth), for instance, points to the fact that grindcore was just death metal with a punk attitude and a fascination with pathology textbooks. Or the way a soaring, epic power metal vocal (a lá Ulver at their most soaring) immediately followed by hoarse death metal growls (along the lines of Deicide) makes clear the dialectic between the majestic and the abject throughout metal. It’s pointless to try and hang a specific genre around Anaal Nathrakh’s neck: each album builds on ideas from the album that preceded it, and they move fluidly between styles within the same phrase, much less between songs.
What makes this all a very British phenomenon is the way a dour pragmatism seeps out from the edges of the frame: while there are frequent stabs at the epic in Anaal Nathrakh’s composition, they seem categorically incapable of pomposity. This is the main thing that separates their newer albums from the progressive metal madness of the last two Emperor albums (IX Equilibrium and Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise): those records are full of fantastic compositions and heroic playing by some of the most talented musicians heavy metal has ever seen, but the whole enterprise is fatally undercut by Ihsahn’s irrepressible need to portray himself as the omphalos of Creation. By contrast, Anaal Nathrakh’s songwriting, production and musicianship, while not quite as accomplished, have a lived-in quality that evoke Blake’s 7 or Warren Ellis’s recent portrayal of the Battle of Crécy. Heavy metal as medieval trench warfare: a metaphor I think Anaal Nathrakh could appreciate.
What Anaal Nathrakh remind me of most, though, is something that is also deeply British, and probably close to the hearts of quite a few of Anaal Nathrakh’s English fans: their relentless downbeat cynicism, pessimism, and misanthropy-as-ideology reminds me of nothing so much as the miniatures-based wargame Warhammer 40,000, a game that impresses me more for its ambitious envisioning of a universe of eternal dæmonic conflict than the reality of the game itself. Warhammer subsumes the pan-dimensional evil and intergalactic deicide of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into a world of Roman prætors and legionnaires, and it’s easy to read Anaal Nathrakh’s eschatological death-lust as a soundtrack to neverending, metaphysically fraught strife.
Like I promised, I tracked down those two Ganglion records. It wasn’t that tough; I just had to find their MySpace page and then follow that to their Interpunk page. Interpunk’s price schedule for shipping is kind of jacked for small orders, so I hunted around and ended up picking up a few other things (including a Drowningman album I didn’t have, with its requisitely smartassed song titles – one of which, in turn, provided the title for this post). They included a free label sampler, as is their way, but I’m not very hopeful that anything other than the No Trigger song will be any good.
While I was at it, I bought this album I discovered through Mutant Sounds, because I was really enjoying it and the MP3s linked from Mutant Sounds sound like crap. And I grabbed two more Dan Deacon releases, which I may end up regretting (song titles like “Shit Slowly Applied On Cock Parts” do not prefigure happy fun-time easy listening), but I love Spiderman of the Rings, and maybe naming things just isn’t his strong suit: another song is named “ksjfhgljkhertykjlehgskjhkjvhda”. (I bought these three using Amazon’s MP3 store, which is scarily easy to use, in case anyone’s curious.)
So here’s the newest grist for the mill:
- Dan Deacon: Meetle Mice (Carpark)
- Dan Deacon: Silly Hat vs Egale (sic) Hat (Carpark)
- Fugazi: In on the Kill Taker [Steve Albini demos] (bootleg)
- Ganglion: Of the Deep (self-released)
- Ganglion: As Steel Takes to Flesh (self-released)
- Drowningman: Don’t Push Us When We’re Hot (Thorp)
- Last Perfection: Drawing Conclusions (United Edge)
- Shizzo Flamingos: Years Passed By 83-85 (Fuego)
- Supermachiner: θριαμβος της μεγαλης μηχανης (Undecided)
- v/a: New School Records: Summer Sampler 2007 (New School)
“Let’s Free Your Head From Your Ass And Worry About Tibet Later” is a near-perfect name for a song, especially when the band playing it sounds suspiciously like early Nirvana.
From my inbox, just because it’s funny. 20ML are just as witty, self-deprecating and clever in person.
Over 200 tickets have already been pre-sold for our Noise Pop show, so consider this an early heads-up for those of you who would like to see us perform with a British band more buzzy than a beehive.
In the spirit of this election year, we are happy to inform you that 20 Minute Loop has been VOTED into this year’s Noise Pop festival! That’s right. Instead of carefully cultivating our indie cred, or mixing with the right people (without seeming to care or be aware about it, in true indie fashion), or being signed by a really cool label like Absolutely Kosher or Barsuk, or just catching that unpredictable luck wave that has captured a few worthy acts over the years—instead of those possibilities, we have been selected by popular election to appear in this year’s biggest music festival. We have you, the voters—our music-loving constituents—to thank. Democracy in action. And let us tell you right now: we will not discredit the opportunity you have given us. We sense a desire on your part for CHANGE; not the empty promises of beltway hipsters, but real, positive change. More stimulus packages that actually work: individually-packaged breath mints in a Pyrex bowl placed between the monitors, more projectile vomiting into our sneakers, more goats slaughtered, more of the kinds of things that are meaningful to people like Emily Swansea in Alameda, a young woman who has been disappointed by the timid live performances of her favorite bands to the point that she now refuses to lavish any portion of her modest income on twenty-dollar performances that simply replicate recordings. Emily’s struggle is your struggle.
Thanks to Nick, I now know that Fucked Up and Xiu Xiu (two bands who should never be mentioned in the same sentence) are suing Camel, Rolling Stone, and (potentially; see the sidebar) Rhapsody for, well, being asshats (more summary here):
Indie rock bands Xiu Xiu and Fucked Up today filed a class action lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (the parent company of Camel cigarettes) and Wenner Media (the publisher of Rolling Stone) alleging the unauthorized use of artists’ names, unauthorized use of artist names for commercial advantage (right of publicity), and unfair business practices, all in regards to the ‘Indie Rock Universe’ multipage advertising section that appeared in the 40th Anniversary issue of the magazine published on November 15. The class action, which was instigated by Xiu Xiu and Fucked Up but filed on behalf of 186 bands and artists featured in the pull out spread, accuses both the cigarette company and the magazine of engaging in “despicable conduct” that was “illegal under settled, unambiguous California statutory and common law.” The lawsuit demands Rolling Stone publish an admission that the artists’ names were used without consent in a spread equal in size to the original ad, as well as seeking actual and punitive financial damages. (Under California law, this could conceptually amount to $750 per issue of Rolling Stone, per band, or a whopping $195.3 billion.
Everybody’s favorite bit of that story is this line:
The 18-page complaint filed today reads partially like a Pitchfork review written by a music-nerd attorney.
but they actually back it up with
Xiu Xiu’s work is described as “often thematically dark, marked by non-narrative, evocative lyrics delivered in small fragments, and is varied in instrumentation, which can include koto, digital sound samples, and whistles, as well as bass, keyboards, percussion and guitar – or some combination of some or all or more.” Fucked Up’s work is described as “direct, sonically violent at times, and often characterized as hardcore punk, with the sometimes acknowledged influence of Spanish Civil War-variety anarchism, Viennese Actionism and the Situationist International.”
The attorney on the case, Christopher J. Hunt, is either really good at reading band bios, has a remarkable ear, has a well-developed sense of humor, or some combination of all of the above. Those are as accurate descriptions of either band’s sound as I’ve ever heard.
I’ve been trying to tell everyone how great Fucked Up are for a while now; I strongly feel that Hidden World is an outstanding achievement: fierce, loud, lyrically sophisticated, politically and metaphysically engaged, and immaculately recorded. Also, they have a totally hilarious name (check out the hoops Kelefa Sanneh has to jump through to get his review of their live show into the New York Times), and the members’ pseudonyms (10,000 Marbles, Pink Eyes, Mustard Gas, Concentration Camp, Guinea Beat) are overblown and dorky-offensive in the best punk rock tradition. I’d say they’re the best punk rock band from Toronto, but there’s actually an awful lot of really great punk and hardcore bands from Toronto.
I won’t rehash the details of the case, because there’s more than enough links up above, but I will say that I think the bands have a pretty good shot at a settlement. I find the type of advertorial shenanigans Rolling Stone and Camel engaged in distasteful (“advertorial” is, of course, a portmanteau word combining “advertising”, “total horseshit” and “editorial”). Somebody there should have known this was going over the line. I’d be pissed if I were either Fucked Up or Xiu Xiu too: Rolling Stone has as much to do with real independent music in 2007 as Rupert Murdoch does with decency or truth, and the cheesy “Indie Rock Universe” spread Rolling Stone published makes the bands mentioned look uncool just by association. I find the idea of Rolling Stone being forced to run a 4-page pullout saying “WE FUCKED OVER FUCKED UP” in gigantic type quite satisfying.
In the meantime, Fucked Up have put out a bunch of singles over the last year, all of them great (and some of them not at all what you’d expect from a Black Flag-style hardcore band), and have a pretty crowded slate of new releases coming out this year. And their latest blog post linked to a pretty good disco-house single from Hercules & Love Affair, featuring the vocals of the amazing Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons), which shows they’re nice guys – I mean, they’re looking out for my interests and all.
“Understand Me” is perhaps the best lead song off any Jon Spencer-related project. It is, in fact, the first song on Pussy Galore’s deeply unhinged blues-punk meltdown Dial M for M*th*rfucker, and I have loved it ever since I heard it on KBOO sometime in early 1990, with its erratically bleeped intro and all. It is a fantastic – and hilarious – song.
However, I have never been able to understand a goddamned word of what Spencer was singing, as he sings like Mick Jagger at the tail end of a three-week cough syrup bender. Nothing about Pussy Galore was ever particularly intelligible except their decision to cover the whole of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (they owe Keith and Mick a lot, in their way), but then again, that never got officially released. So never mind.
“Dick Johnson” is another great Pussy Galore song, but its title is not ironic. It’s only awesome.
Would New Order have become the juggernaut they were if they hadn’t been the wreckage of Joy Division? I have a hard time believing that any band with Bernard Sumner as its lead singer could have gotten so famous without some major help. He seriously has one of the most godawful singing voices I’ve heard in pop music. The dude has never, ever learned to carry a tune. “Blue Monday” is one of my all-time favorite songs, but listen to a song like “Every Little Counts” or “All Day Long” and try to convince me egregious crimes against all that is good and just are not being committed.
I am no longer even pretending to be in a band, but this makes me want to start a new one:
Like most Metasonix gear (they have a long history of this sort of thing), this is a totally uncompromising, experimental piece of gear that might destroy anything you plug into it and probably requires great ingenuity to make not sound like butt. Also it’s a custom build and will “probably” cost around $5,000, which is insane for something using tubes repurposed from television tuners and old microwaves. It also has a very rude, yet awesome, name.
I bet it’s a ton of fun to play.
(H/T Joel Johnson)
[Stranger staffer] Eric Grandy thinks Canadian hardcore band Fucked Up will make it all the way to the Super Bowl, compeletely disregarding the fact that Canadians know absolutely nothing about football.
I hope that never happens, because then I’d have to pay for Superbowl tickets. I’d put $50 on Fucked Up, no problem.