Monday, September 19, 2016

Irkallian Oracle vs Ritual Bullshit

About two years ago I saw Irkallian Oracle for the first time.

It was in an appallingly hot basement  club in Oberhausen, Germany. The upstairs bar was all candlelit, and the descent down the stairs into the room where bands played felt Dante-esque anyway, but that sweltering musical sauna that you entered really became unbearable, an endurance test, helped little by the fact that I was obscenely hungover from drinking two bottles of cheap red wine on a street outside of a police station til the early hours with some friends. 

In retrospect it was the best possible scenario I could have asked for in terms of being consumed by the IO live experience. I wasn’t in an altered state per se but I was..I dunno. Let’s say “vulnerable”. So when the robes, the incense, the opening ceremony and the whole onstage ritual kicked in that evening, I was perhaps a little more susceptible to the overwhelming of the visual and audial senses than normal. And I swear, at one point, I felt like I might be staring right, slap bang into the centre of the fabled void that IO and their likes have constructed so much of their lyrical mythology around. Basically, Irkallian Oracle pulled off the spectacle of Metal Band As Ritual with more authenticity than most other.s 

Irkallian Oracle, Oberhausen, Sep 2014
This was before they recorded their new album “Apollyon”, a thunderous record which again through it’s hypnotic pacing and churning, Stygian low end vibration feels like one of the few authentic captures of some kind of genuine esoteric darkness in musical form. This band is a trance, and a rare example of the music having an intensity that renders its’ human source meaningless in the envelopment of the listener. I’m seeing them finally for a second time next month and I’m curious to see if this performance has the same potency.

We're 30 years into the game since the primal screams of Venom heralded the opening of the (black) gates, and the pretense of the metal musician as some kind of occult priest, shaman, or vessel for the unearthly or sinister is as transparent by nowas the day is long. Yet still year after year the black or death metal fan is bombarded with yet more talk of bands performing "rituals" instead of playing gigs, with fanzine interviews full of gibberish about hermeticism or qliphoth or whatever other occult aspect du jour that bands have plucked from a pdf of some hard to obtain magickal tome they found on Scribd; the bones, the robes, the incense, the impressively dark veils that swathe a void that has less to do with the anti-cosmic and everything to do with personal vacuity become ever more ornate but at the same time ever thinner.

I mean, fuck it. Have you seen the Ghostbusters remake? Know the way a demon shows up at a metal gig while a band are singing about Satan? Have you ever seen that happen? You'd think if there was even a hint this was real that this might actually happen.

I played a show with Blasphemy last year. They were fantastic, because they're Blasphemy, obviously. They sing about demons and goddesses of perversity and wear hoods and chains and all the accoutrements. They're big, intimidating guys. They're not necromancers or wizards however, nor do they pretend to be offstage, and in many ways finally seeing them live and being around them in person a little bit confirmed that they are, to all intents and purposes, my generation's Kiss or King Diamond. Which I assure you is meant as a huge compliment. Blasphemy are both figuratively and literally larger than life, and their aliases, stage garb and general demeanour have served them well in terms of making them these almost superhero (supervillain?) type characters. You almost root for them. They're the bad guys, but they're not actually bad guys if you get me (they're actually quite friendly for the most part. Sorry, NWN posters).

Now, thing about all this, and me pointing out the obvious "Ah yeah guys, it's all just for show" knew that already. You didn't need me to tell you that. Black and death metal bands use the artifices of an occult ritual as an actual ritual. That is to say, these are fixed, repetitive actions which constitute little more than throwing on a uniform as you would going to school or work, to help you delineate what you're doing for a fixed amount of time. Like a postman. See that Portal band? There you go. I've ruined them for you. They're basically just scarily dressed postmen.

Irish death metal supergroup Paul Mgla yesterday
The masking of players that was once idealised as a means to inject an air of theatre or ceremony, be it a genuine spiritual psychodrama on behalf of the bands or just cos, y'know, it looks cool, has also taken another interesting turn though lately. If I stuck some kind of industrial strength ear protection on your head and left you at a gig where, say, Mgla, Qrixkour and maybe Altarage played*, you'd not be able to tell which band was which. The black mask, the raised hood, these are the new tools by which a death/black metal band declare they want you to pay attention to the music rather than the people in the band. And rather than work as intended, all they've done is replace corpsepaint as the go to non-image.Corpse paint though seemed to declare battle. This seems more like hiding. The notion that they the musicians are cloaking themselves, dissolving into the shadows as such to allow the sound to do the work seems strangely but defiantly exclusionary of the audience in the live setting.

So let's go back to that IO gig. I'm thinking about their stage attire, about their performance (assorted bells, a giant drum made of skin, and at one point a tambourine). I neglected to mention that their set began with an opening "ritual" wherein the vocalist turned to the four points, raised a small bell which he struck, and may or may not (my memory is hazy) have uttered some kind of incantation. And wether there was a personal bent behind that act or not, what it served to do was create a bond between the people on stage and the people in the audience. It delineated a beginning point for proceedings in order to focus the attention of all present. The band spent the time between the opening and banishing rites at the end (did I mention that?They did those too) at least giving the impression, depending on how sceptical you are, of giving themselves over to something other wordly. And their discipline in doing so might just have worked in projecting whatever they imagined the were projecting into actual being, even just temporarily.

Their music, their lyrics, and their artwork are all meticulous, and packed with hidden meaning. It would be bizarre for their live show not to become the physical manifestation of that. It is literally them laying everything out for you before your eyes. Occult though it may be, nothing is hidden.

It's worth noting that even with a robe and hood, the singer performed with a conviction bordering upon the maniacal. So underneath all these constructed veils I'm talking about, there was still something strangely open and direct.

Y'see I feel like what this really about when bands in the underground play the "ritual" card, is to involve the audience in a more conscious way. IO's vocalist performing this little blessing of sorts turned the room into a group space in a way, as being present for his little benediction both set a mood and made everyone present aware that this was as much for their benefit as the bands'.The Black Mass style stage shenanigans work as both a mood enhancer and group activity. If done correctly it enhances the peaks and troughs, if a band were, as IO have done, to carefully structure and pace their performance.  IO took on the role as celebrants in their imagined function, masters of ceremony ushering everyone into their private world for 40 minutes or so.

 Audience participation does not need to be of the "SCREAM FOR ME LONG BEACH"  kind. IO and their ilk are in a strange way creating a more intimate relationship with their audience through the theatre of the private or occult act. When done correctly, as IO did, the audience have their attention drawn just that little bit more on what's happening, because the band are inviting them to uses all their senses beyond just listening. They plant symbols that can be dug over on the records, and the live show is them offering both a visual element and a further clue to the puzzle.

Stepping away from IO for one moment, one need only consider Watain's stage show as the prime example of how underneath the lights and greasepaint, there's some clever manipulation of the audience at play. Wether they're actually devil worshippers or not (hint: they are) doesn't come into it - if they're doing the proverbial ""devil's work", they're doing it in such a spectacular way, with such visual panache and bombast, that it's working.  Have you seen their video for the song "Outlaw"? Here it is. Look at it:

It's fantastic. It's both a glimpse into their personal vision of themselves as outsiders and a fascinating way to engage with their audience. On an aesthetic level it also looks cool as fuck. Watain as Thee Temple of Psychic Youth for the Black Metal set. Obviously they're on a bigger scale than IO or their like, and I wouldn't compare the two, but if you want an example of the Metal Band As Ritual thing as a means for really creating a connection between band and performer when it is done properly, there you go.

So yes, heavy metal has and always will have this element of macabre theatre, and as tiresome as it gets when you hear bands shite on about their gigs being like group invocations or whatever..think about the fact that at least partially, perhaps subconsciously, the reason they're doing it and putting on a show is to, in an admittedly flamboyant way, involve you more. Cult of Fire, Batushka, Irkallian Oracle the mass/service/worship/ritual thing may seem ridiculous but it perhaps has been a more considered and labour intensive act that you may think, compared to the studded and corpsepainted or black masked and hooded hordes throwing the "ritual" term around. Think of it as Jodorowsky vs The Conjuring. These people are drawing from the structure of esoteric orders, and not Blackie Lawless in 1983.

Do you want to partake? Do you want to step out of your every day life and just briefly become a disciple of something dark and mysterious?This is what you have to ask yourself when you next see your favourite death or black metal band advertise their next "live ritual". And if you do..perhaps you should be right to expect more than some dry ice and leather jackets.

* (Disclaimer: I listed these three bands as examples, purely as they were the first three of many bands that came to mind utilising the black mask and hood uniform, and this comment is not in any way a belittlement of these three fine bands. Qrixkuor in particular are exceptional and I'll likely post something about their most recent "Three Devils Dance" release here soon.)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Psychology and Extreme Violence: The strange and frightening world of Unyielding Love

Have you seen these guys before Ellie?”
“Not yet”
“Fuck. Okay. Brace yourself”.

And lo behold, less than five minutes after I’ve said that, my friend and I are watching Richard Carson of Unyielding Love scream into a contact mic’d handsaw. Which he is also attacking with an angle grinder, thus sending sparks all over the tiny, packed venue.

I’ve seen him do this to himself before, Richard. I’ve seen him bleed from the head. I’ve seen him almost knock himself out, almost set himself on fire. Almost. The man is a liability to himself and everyone around him, in the best possible way. The way he performs, that the whole band performs in fact, the way they sound ..Unyielding Love is about being at war with yourself. There’s an element of the flagellant about them, and about Richard in particular that’s both thrilling and terrifying to watch. You ever fall into one of those youtube rabbit holes of watching stunts going wrong? You know the way they’re thrilling to watch but you also have that voice in your head going “oh nooo”?That’s what Unyielding Love are like live. Though there’s obviously an inbuilt mechanism that stops them actually destroying themselves. But you can't be 100% sure something terrible isn't going to happen to one of them.

photo by Cairbre O Fearghail
Their new album “The Sweat of Augury” sounds like all the windows smashing in Hell at the same time. It’s a beautiful noise. In addition to ripping themselves apart physically and mentally, they rip open various elements of what we call “extreme” music (ie metal and hardcore) and suture them back together in a way that leaves unique scars on both themselves and you. They’re nominally a grindcore band, yet rather than simple blasting and sped up Discharge riffs, they offer up what I kinda hoped Grindcore would become when I first heard “Need to Control”. 

They’re Frankenstein. You know the basic idea behind the Frankenstein’s monster story, but you’ve probably seen and heard the tale told many different ways over the years. That’s what’s going on with UY – they reassemble things you think you’re familiar with but in a way you aren’t entirely familiar with. You could put them in a blind listening test with, say Full of Hell and Dendritic Arbor and it would make perfect sense but they’d also be instantly recognisable from the other two bands. Noise rock, death and black metal, dark ambient and Godflesh-esque dirge all seep into the blast driven nastiness in a way that at no point seems patchwork. It flows. It flows perfectly.

I'm not interested in record reviews. Sure, I ocasionally do them elsewhere, but I'm not interested in describing music in the manner of an Argos catalog descriptive sales pitch for the most part. I'm interested in how music plays out in relation to real life. I'm interested in how it works for the listener and the player, the context of it, how I utilise it, what people get from it. So look, "The Sweat of Augury" is a fucking amazing release and you should pick up a copy as soon as you can of course,I absolutely mean that, but Unyielding Love are fascinating to me as an entity outside of the fact that I think their music is genuinely fucking brilliant.

That live show. 

I dread the day that UY start playing bigger venues, with real stages aside from the tiny rooms in pubs and DIY spaces across the country that they’ve turned into blood and spark filled blast furnaces over the last year or so since I saw them. I worry about how they’d translate in a bigger room where they had to be on a proper stage, but I also worry they won’t reach that point in spite of knowing they should. They feel necessary in this country because they capture rage and internal strife, the kind we’re all going through, in a way that’s more direct and affecting than either the safe space driven outrage of crust bands or the cryptic smoke and mirrors theatrics of the (largely meaningless lyrically) metal scene.

I know a lot of people in underground music who have had, or continue to have problems with mental and physical health issues. Which we all know of, but we never really talk about.

 photo by Andrew Cunningham
A lot of the music, or perhaps to be more specific a lot of the scene (loosely speaking the DIY hardcore/punk end of things, though sonically they're closer to extreme metal really) that Unyielding Love are associated with is very much about externalisation - the "voice of the voiceless" idea, roaring against injustice and the ongoing struggle with the realities of day to day life in a  world ruled by the ever present  iron fist of "The Man", a segregated and greed driven world that doesn't share the worldview of that particular subculture. While not a genre or scene I have a great deal of interest in personally at this point, it's an undoubtedly important tool for young people to communicate to other young people that they are, as they say, all in it together. This is why punk is a community. There are a shared set of interests and goals nominally that are catalysts for people to gather and in theory work together or bond over a shared worldview. 

See, that's fine but I'm not a community-minded kinda guy. And Unyielding Love are, contrary to that, dealing with a particular kind of internal strife in a still mostly internalised way. And the thing is, even though they perform in front of other people and interact with them, at the end of the day they are still very much about that internalisation. Struggles with mental and physical health, the latter of which in particular has informed the slightly more daredevil and urgent manner they conduct their musical and lyrical affairs with. And they aren't dealing with them in the - let's be frank here - slightly exhibitionist manner that, say political issues are dealt with by some of their peers.  There isn't the thing that I've sometimes encountered as a part of punk in my experience; a subconscious need for validation by a peer group.

They deal in what are ostensibly vague, coded bursts of information that only need to be deciphered by the person singing them really. You can tell something's not right but there is the sense that in some ways, it's none of your fucking business what the specifics are. But just because the intention doesn't seem to be to spell things out for everyone, that doesn't mean it can't be connected with completely. It just maybe won't make sense to everyone. It'll make sense to you if you've been there. And that's sometimes the best way to communicate experience, to do it in a way that makes sense to those who've been through it, but not make it obvious to those of a more, shall we say voyeuristic persuasion. This isn't pain tourism. It's an internal dialogue that just happens to have slipped out briefly.

                                              "Flesh is defeat and hope will cease
 Infirmity swells in a sea of fucking midodrine.
Silken marrow cuts through the calm. 
 Assuaged, cleft in twain. 
 Wretch asunder.
 Burdening flesh and abandon. 
 Cling to Life. 
 Lecherous worth. 
Cling to Life."
(from "Abandon The Body")

Sure, there is the human timebomb element to their (literally) explosive live sets, four people having a panic attack in unison, but it comes out that way as a result of the personal circumstances that drive the music and not any form of contrivance. They remind me of early Swans in a way: an entirely selfish act of turning the wall of sound being created in on the creators. Unyielding Love aren't confrontational, that would be assigning far too much importance to the other people in the room; they simply don't care about the audience. I imagine the four of them in an otherwise empty room playing the same set minus spectators would be just as raucous and physically harmful.

I think back to the end of that set in Galway. Richard clambering down from his mixer and array of noise making devices. I'm talking to Ellie again.
“What did you think of that so?”
“That was savage”.

Savage. That says it all.

Unyielding love are on Bandcamp  and Facebook

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Cosmic Slop: The joy of "Antibirth"

I’ll tell you what I like about “Antibirth”, though I’m under no illusion that you’ll like it for the same reasons, or like it at all. A lot of people seem to really dislike it.  Ah well. You can’t please everyone.

Actually, maybe I’ll tell you what I like about what people don’t like about “Antibirth”. That might be more fun. An unconventional film demands an unconventional approach.

(Oh hey, I’m maybe going to post a big spoiler or here two, just so you know)

I like the fact that there aren’t any likeable characters, as many have been keen to point out. I found both Lou (Natasha Lyonne) and Sadie (Chloe Sevigny) had exactly the same mixture of  the shambolic, the aggravating and the irreverent that some of my real life friends (and, if I’m honest, a former girlfriend or two) have oozed with over the years. They’re an acquired taste, a kind of lovable awfulness exudes from them both. 

 “I love pissing” announces Lou as she shuffles out of the bathroom of the exploded jumble sale she lives in, before joining Sadie in some uninhibited shimmying to Suicide’s “Touch Me”. Neither seem to be without a cigarette or some form of liquid or chemical stimulant at any point in the film. Lou eats pizza she finds dumped in the corner of the shitty motel room she’s half-heartedly cleaning. Sadie wants her drug dealing boyfriend to pimp her out. They’re two real life Garbage Pail Kids that have been on a bender for the last 20 years. Lorna (Meg Tilly) is annoying and unlikeable in another kind of way with her paranoid tin foil hat rambling. But goddamn, how are people not talking about how Tilly nails the mania without overplaying it? She’s utterly believable as a conspiracy theorist/damaged sociopath with a heart of gold. She might just steal the whole shebang from under Lyonne’s snotty nose.

No one in this film appears to have any morals. The film has no morals. I’m absolutely fine with all of this. These people live in a shitty, nothing town in the middle of nowhere so it’s utterly fitting that they’re constantly fucked up in order to combat the soul destroying boredom. They’ve taken that ridiculous level of self annihilation through stimulant consumption to new levels, whereby no one gives a fuck what happens to one another or themselves (when asked when she last had her period early in the film, the perpetually apathetic Lou shoots back with a giggle inducing “recently”). This allows the admittedly implausible plot that leads to Lou’s supposed immaculate conception with an alien baby to happen … because really, there’s not any real reason for it not to happen. It’s easy to believe that the citizens in this dump are being used as guinea pigs by some sketchy psyops mob because they're disposable, and when it’s revealed that the reason Lou has been chosen to incubate an alien life form is because, well, she’s done so much damage to herself through years of drink and drugs that her body would be used to the equally toxic atmosphere of her infant’s home planet, it’s a hilariously warped logic.

I like the fact it doesn’t feel like something I’ve already seen, even though the references and influences are very clearly worn on its’ grubby little sleeves. Everything steals from everything else in the horror genre at this point, and that’s fine, but this film seems to be taking up from the likes of Frank Henenlotter’s “Brain Dead”, Brian Yuzna’s “Society” or “From Beyond”, the dayglo body horror atrocities of “Slime City” and “Street Trash”, hell, even the fever dream insanity of Frank Grow’s little seen but wonderful “Love God” (note to self: post something else about “Love God” soon). There’s  quite a few recent body horror and psychedelic influenced low budget horror movies out there, but none of them seem to have the absurdist humor “Antibirth” has. Similarly the pop culture references are crammed thick and fast down your throat to the extent you’ll maybe feel nauseous depending on your tolerance for media blitz. From the opening punk party segment’s hinting at the video for “Smells like Teen Spirit”, through to the flyers for the likes of Black Dice on walls, to the soundtrack crammed with the likes of Dead Moon, Suicide, Black Lips, etc..director Danny Perez’s time in the rock n’roll underground is writ large.

The big hint as to the influence on the aesthetic on “Antibirth” though seems to come from the seemingly constant stream of bizarre cable access shows  and infomercials about psychics, surgery and the like that are on TV in the background in Lou’s trailer. Those, perhaps, though I only experienced them second hand here in Ireland through the likes of Channel 4’s “TV Pizza” , seemed to be the most fascinating aspect of US television in the 90s – the place where the seeds sown by trash icons like John Waters or Elvira really seemed to take root. The compelling ugliness of some of those strange transmissions seems to have seeped into this film. Take Lou’s hallucination while pregnant with its’ green screen booth graphics, inspirational speech and alien probing; or the scene where Lou and Lorna arrive at a kids’ play centre to confront scumbag Warren only to be met with dancers in grotesque fur costumes that looked like the progeny of the Teletubbies had they been impregnated by the cast of Planet of the Apes. These are things that seem to have tumbled off the set of a late night New York public access television station where people on acid had been given free reign to produce a tv show.

Most of all, I loved the fact that having thought it through for a couple of days now, “Antibirth” makes absolutely no fucking sense. The monster movies I watched as a kid and most of the slasher and splatter flicks I watched growing up made no sense. That never impaired my enjoyment of them. So the silliness and inconsistency of the film is utterly joyous. Why are people flocking in droves to have sex with a deformed prostitute whose facial scarring makes her hideous to look at? How and why did Lorna come to know Lou was being roped into the bizarre plot? WHO CARES?! We are in an age where seemingly everything now has to make sense, have a hidden meaning that can be discussed, a secret metaphor for oppression or racism or some sort of implied morality buried underneath the blood and guts veneer. Nothing that operates within the darker realms of art and culture can seemingly just be gross out escapism anymore.

“Antibirth”, unless I’m missing something, has none of that bullshit though, and strives to just be the piece of bad drug celluloid fantasy you hope it will be once you've seen that trailer.

I can see how you could argue the feminist angle for sure, though it’s not a difficult argument to make (It’s a horror film with mainly female characters, which there still aren’t a whole lot of, and all those female characters are more memorable than any of the male ones). I could possibly see how you could argue how it’s about the invasion of the female body by government forces too if you wanted to tie that flag to the mast. But if those were the intentions, the film has done itself a degree of disservice, because frankly were that the approach it’s so unsubtle as to have backfired. They were crammed up there like too much stuffing rammed into a turkey’s corpse on Christmas, filling that might be in there but isn’t the real reason you’re eating.

No, “Antibirth” just seems to be a weird, funny, kind of disgusting little film for the sake of being weird, funny and kind of disgusting. Don’t mistake purposeful gaucheness for shock value, what’s going on here is a surrealist portrait of weird goings on in a smalltown that has been coloured in with neon markers. It’s a glorious reminder that sometimes things can just be bizarre for the sake of it. Lowbrow culture through a kaleidoscopic lens. This is the X-Files as scripted by GG Allin , or “Slacker”  filmed by a young David Cronenberg. What more do you want like? Mutant cinema at a recent best.