This Hideous Grind
180 · 9 July 98
Slayer: Diabolus in Musica
Why would anybody steal my "No Parking" sign? It clung, during its time in my life, causing nobody appreciable harm, to the outside of the gate across my auxiliary driveway, which I admittedly don't use often, less as a practical warning than a hedge against bad precedent. I imagine the perpetrator stalking the helpless sign for days before committing the deed, hunched over in the back seat of a rusty Monte Carlo down the block, peering at the gate with binoculars, and keeping the world's least eventful journal of its activities ("Thursday: nothing; Friday: nothing; Saturday: nothing; Sunday: owner opens gate in order to pull up some weeds growing under it, then closes it again."). Then, having determined the moment of maximum vulnerability, he (surely only a man would steal a "No Parking" sign) dashed across the street, ripped the defenseless sign mercilessly (i.e., without removing the screws first; I suppose this means "mercy" is the act of removing the screws first, which sounds about right) from the fence, and then scurried away to his lair, to incorporate his new prize into an enormous red-and-white junk-portrait of Sandra Bullock.
Then again, I'm pretty sure the sign disappeared on July 4th, so the most plausible explanation, by far, is that it was the victim of a bit of the desultory random vandalism that usually passes for celebration in this country. And really, "No Parking" signs are cheap and trivial to replace, so I ought to just go to Home Depot and buy a new one (see, if I'd bought three of them, to begin with, I'd have been prepared for this eventuality). Unfortunately, even though the World Cup has loosened its grip on my daily schedule (the French are forging statues of Lilian Thuram as I write, and a lot of penniless Croatians are gathering along the roads leading out of Paris), I am still stuck in the World Cup mindset, a product of doing virtually nothing but absorb soccer games for the past month, in which I find it next to impossible to initiate action. Why bother starting anything, when if I just wait another hour or two another perfectly good source of passive entertainment is certain to come along? No wonder people who find generic sitcoms and soap operas tolerable never accomplish anything in their lives. Has there ever been significant social progress that didn't derive from somebody being bored and irritable? A fascinating question to ponder, provided that I can ponder it here on my couch, with the remote control within reach for the next time I have to turn the TV on (or, if it's on, off).
On the other hand, as endless slow-motion replays of mysteriously upended Croatians have amply demonstrated (the Hand of God seems to have cultivated a malicious streak), the distinction between initiating action and merely being pummeled is frequently extremely subtle. This is the whole principle behind puppets, after all, and also, I think, behind Slayer records. How agitated and restless they make me feel, to how elusive an end? I can't possibly sit still while this music is playing, but neither can I focus my thoughts on any productive release. It's a shame I'm opposed to hallucinogens, because this is the perfect soundtrack for swatting at a swarm of imaginary bugs. The list of other things it's good for, I fear, is filled with entries of no higher moral worth, with a cluster around casual violence, uninformed defiance of general authority, petty property-destruction (come to think of it, the fence where the "No Parking" sign used to live is right outside the window closest to my stereo speakers; an alternate theory about its fate occurs to me), and Satanism (which, if you learn it from Slayer records, will basically consist of casual violence, uninformed defiance of general authority, petty property-destruction, and some lopsided pentagrams). Since I'm mostly against those things, that should mean that I'm against Slayer.
But there are, in fact, worse evils than casual violence, uninformed defiance of general authority, and petty property-destruction, stultifying and unchallenged middle-class complacency prominently among them, so there's an important social role, I think, for music like Slayer's to play. The generations need this tension. Although Slayer themselves are not a directly productive force, in any sense I can think of, the alienation they cater to, and mindlessly and unequivocally glorify, is. Teenagers who grow up in the embrace of this roar, at least provided they realize that Slayer records are an alternative to suicide, not an accompaniment for it, must be more likely to question their environment than they would if they plodded through their adolescence to Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind. The evil that "results" from these records, a few scattered abductions and clumsily bungled attention-seeking hate crimes, emphasized wildly out of proportion by the media, usually seems to me less a product of the music than of society failing to offer a viable response. These records may make kids ask impertinent questions, but their questions do have answers. Slayer wakes people up, and makes them lash out, but the noise gives you plenty of warning, and if you wade in obliviously, anyway, and get clotheslined by a pale, flailing limb, whose fault is that? Speed metal is hardly the only genre of music that aspires to this station, and there's probably an interesting sociology dissertation to be written comparing the nuances of belligerence in speed metal and gangsta rap, a juxtaposition whose racial overtones demand painstaking care (not, as The Bell Curve proved, that any amount of painstaking care will keep you from being casually vilified), but my initial suspicion is that speed metal is ultimately less destabilizing. Slayer's gruesome world is too impractical; you can't "slip" into a routine of ritual disemboweling and searing pain the way you can slip into a routine of drug dependence, sexism and gang violence. But then I'm sure this is a reflection of the difference in risks the two genres' target audiences face, much more than a contributing factor.
All of which could serve to explain why I tolerate Slayer's existence in the world, or why I like the idea of Slayer, but offers no account of why I actually enjoy Slayer myself. One theory is that I value the effort of resisting its pull, in the same way that the strain of driving home calmly after sitting through a double-feature of Mad Max and The Road Warrior at the Granada when I was sixteen elicited a delicious shiver at the apparent tenuousness of self-control. That would make Slayer records a sort of moral Soloflex, a contrived trial designed to test, or at least exercise, the self-restraint needed to blast this music for forty minutes without smashing anything in my house. But this feels pretty far-fetched: this is my eighth Slayer record, and if the previous seven haven't inspired me to punch out a window, much less a priest, it's hard to imagine that this one finally will. An alert observer could probably tell from the way I put the disc into my changer, holding it by the edges with a practiced delicacy, that it has no realistic chance of overcoming my pacifism. Another theory is that I admire the attention to detail evident in the construction of their world, even though I wouldn't want to live there myself. This must be why I find Drowning by Numbers and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover so mesmerizing, for example, but frankly, scrutinizing the lyrics of Slayer records, like reading the ingredients of processed cereals, is reasonably inadvisable, and the music isn't improved much by analysis, either.
Which leaves me, unsatisfyingly, with a reason that has discouragingly little reason-ness to it: apparently, my body just enjoys vibrating this way. The slow, morbid hi-hat splashes that open "Bitter Peace" bond with the same aesthetic receptors that came alive, seventeen years ago, to the first hissing measures of Black Sabbath's "The Mob Rules". After the pseudo-punk digression of Undisputed Attitude, Diabolus in Musica returns to timeless, unapologetic, full-throttle metal thrash, the linear descendant of the dark, if slower, metal I was raised on. I didn't have any ulterior motives then, and I don't now; heavy metal doesn't have to mean anything, it has always simply sounded correct to me, like one of the elemental equilibria of guitars and drums and shouting. It thrills me, and even calms me, perversely, like other people are thrilled and calmed by the constellations, or sunsets, or the open ocean. This hideous grind is majestic. If music is what humans are best at, as I passionately believe, and the list of expressible human qualities is long, it follows that music admits to innumerable forms of perfection. Slayer will be the music of concussions, and raw adrenaline, and sparks flying as double helices tear themselves apart (like the wind and flames in space in Armageddon, sometimes Hollywood gets closer to the spirit of things than science), the profound violence at the deepest heart of living anima. I am content to stand at the brink of this abyss, soaking in the vertigo, and let my nerve endings do what, clearly, they were made for.
I'm never surprised by new Slayer records, as Slayer seems as patently immortal as midnight, but Voivod's stubborn survival has baffled me for several albums running. Their transformation into a hoarse death-metal trio, on 1995's Negatron, wasn't unconvincing taken in isolation, but it seemed to have so little to do with the band's cryptic death-jazz-quartet past that I couldn't imagine where it would lead. The logical error, it turns out, was assuming it had to lead somewhere. Three years on, Phobos picks up exactly where Negatron left off. If Negatron was, as it struck me, a rewrite, with the benefit of experience, of their incoherent 1984 debut War and Pain, then Phobos is the corresponding remake of the largely-identical 1986 follow-up Rrröööaaarrr, and the similarity is demanded by the parallelism. Still, Voivod's is an odd niche to be filled with such compulsion. If Slayer is like a battering ram, plowing straight through buildings on its way to hit you directly in the forehead, then Voivod is like a minotaur closing in on you at top speed, but in a labyrinthine pattern, as if the entire countryside around you is an enormous minefield maze, and I can't decide which is more terrifying, the inexorable progress the beast is making, despite its complicated trajectory, or the idea that if I try to run away from it, the ground is liable to explode at my feet. It's quite possible that this difference doesn't change the audience demographics at all. There are a number of odd touches on Phobos, like the sinister bad-sci-fi bleeps and deep-space processing on the title track, the keening dissonance and becalmed interior monologues of "Bacteria", the liturgical organ hum of the short, apocalyptic instrumental "Temps Mort", the blurry vocoder textures of "The Tower", the distended introduction to "Neutrino" and the band's general penchant for sticking with a single repeated chord for measures on end, as if they wrote a song with the usual complement of hooks and then sorted the chords alphabetically before playing them, but every quirk is promptly buried under an avalanche of guitar churn, rhythm-section rumble and Eric Forrest's deranged feral howl. The defining track, it seems to me, as is often the case, isn't even theirs, it's the after-thought cover of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man", half because Voivod would cover King Crimson, instead of the Stooges, say, but half, too, because they turn the song into an uncanny synthesis of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man", the Born Again-era Sabbath's "Disturbing the Priest", and any ten-minute Yes song from the mid-Seventies. And although I know perfectly well that this isn't really speed-metal's lineage, they tear through it with such instinctive abandon that for a moment I forget why.
Thought Industry: Recruited to Do Good Deeds for the Devil
Even at their weirdest, though, Voivod were little more than eccentric compared to Thought Industry. The idea of an album of out-takes and alternate versions of Thought Industry songs is, like the idea of transcribing Thomas Pynchon's dreams during a high fever, both intriguing and frightening, and not necessarily in that order. Ironically, and maybe I should have expected this, this collection ends up sounding far less sinister than any of Thought Industry's four studio albums, or the weirdness here is, at least, second-order, so that newcomers are apt to miss it. About half of the album is given over to live versions and remixes. The Black Umbrella tracks "My Famous Mistake" and "Blue" retain the greatest fraction of their original dementia, followed closely by the dizzy sprints through "The Squid" and "Love Is America Spelled Backwards", from Outer Space Is Just a Martini Away. By comparison, the Mods Carve the Pig selections "Republicans in Love" and "Gelatin" are both unexpectedly restrained, and "Cornerstone", the one track from Songs for Insects, despite some yelling, is as deadpan as Thought Industry can be expected to get. Of the remixes, the unplugged "Jim Grace Version" of "Love is America Spelled Backwards" is hard to understand as anything but a weird joke, the mechanized mangling of Outer Space's "Atomic Stroller Helps None" is over before I can figure out what the point is, the "Say Amen" remix of Black Umbrella's "Earwig" nearly succeeds in turning Thought Industry into Depeche Mode (a dubious accomplishment), and the disorganized "Gordon Lightfoot Version" rehearsal-take of "Watercolour Grey" sounds more like the Cure than Lightfoot to me, but the piano-only demo of Black Umbrella's "December 10th" is scary enough to make up for all the others.
The collection's real draw, though, for fans (the draw for non-fans would be having a spare clear-tray jewel-case), are the out-takes. The cover of Gary Numan's "Metal" is, except for the vocals and some guitar cacophony toward the end, meticulously faithful. "Get Up and Slumber" is musically sedate, but revolves around a chorus that says, I think, "Mother in the ground, / Frightened from the sounds / Of the neighbor children / Stealing valium". "Louisiana" sticks to a burbling bass groove, and could almost be an installment in the Dambuilders' state-song series. The note for the Mods Carve the Pig reject "Encounter With a Hick" says "Held off for obvious reasons", by which I assume they mean the overly legible Jello Biafra-ish lyrics (including the line "drive the combine to Pluto", which would end up in "Consistently Yours, Pluto" years later), but the spasmodic music would have fit right in. The clattering "Whine", left off Black Umbrella, can't quite decide whether to be a harmony-drenched pop song or a surging anthem built on Big-Country-esque syncopation, but I'm willing to indulge its confusion. And the breakneck rant "Final Ballet", from the band's original 1988 demo tape, is an amusing sixty seconds of history, as long as by "history" we mean "adolescence". But don't we, usually?
Savatage: The Wake of Magellan
I've gone through several pro- and anti-metal cycles over the years. The original pro- phase, back in high school, was heartfelt but underinformed, and tended to slide from Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult into Rush and Boston without fully understanding that the latter two bands were after something different than the former pair. My next return, during college, was a little more methodical, but heavily constrained by my limited budget and the fact that nobody was playing heavy metal on the radio in Boston in 1987, so my investigations were largely guided by whatever cut-out label anthologies I could rescue from the $1.99 bin at Underground Records. These were the final glory days of melodically overbearing Euro-metal made by kids who grew up playing entirely too much Dungeons & Dragons, and the samplers were lined with bands like White Lion, Manowar, Hallow's Eve, Omen and Kix, denizens of the shadowy country between Iron Maiden and Metallica. Of the full albums I was inspired to track down, the most laughably stereotypical has to be Savatage's Hall of the Mountain King, which might as well have had a D&D module-number and attribute-lists for the band members. The one before it, Fight for the Rock, assembled in defense of such mind-numbing standards as "Fight for the rock, / You know you better fight for the rock, / Fight for the rock 'n [sic] roll" and "She get's [sic] hot on the spot, / She'll give you what she's got", made Ratt sound like ELP. Nevertheless, the song "Strange Wings", from Hall of the Mountain King, the reason I gave the band a chance in the first place, kept drifting into my head periodically, and each time I dragged the record out again I found that there was still some magic in its bombastic effusion, so some time during my third metal phase, circa 1991, I bought Streets: A Rock Opera. A muddle of rock-star/drug-washout/ersatz-messiah clichés, over music that resorts to repeating itself long before the seventy minutes are filled, Streets seemed to me, I was forced to concede, like a virtually unmitigated disaster, but I admired the band for making the effort, and if they could transcend the party-rock inanity of Fight for the Rock and the D&D tropes of Hall of the Mountain King, maybe this rock-opera histrionics, too, was a step on the road to something else.
But as I discover when I check in again, seven years later, Streets wasn't a transition, it was a new beginning. Paul O'Neill, who produced Streets and whose story it was based on, has signed up as producer and lyricist for the duration, it appears, and both The Wake of Magellan and the 1995 album Dead Winter Dead (as I guiltily scurry to fill in what I've missed) are concept albums even more complicated than Streets. Dead Winter Dead is about a young Serbian soldier, the Muslim girl with whom he falls in love, and their fragmented lives in besieged Sarajevo. Rock opera isn't the format I would have chosen for telling this story, I don't think, but O'Neill and Savatage, who by this time have only two members in common with themselves as of Streets (guitarists Chris Caffery and Al Pitrelli replacing the late Chris Oliva, singer Jon Oliva's role reduced to songwriting, keyboards and backing vocals, Zak Stevens taking over lead vocals, and Jeff Plate replacing Steve Wacholz on drums, making bassist Johnny Lee Middleton the only player in the same role since Fight for the Rock), forge ahead as if this is how epics have always been recounted, and where large sections of Streets felt to me like O'Neill said "play something innocuous while I advance the plot", Dead Winter Dead manages to work a musical theme into the narrative, so that the choice of media has a justification, and I'm genuinely touched by the ending, which is a rare achievement for a rock opera.
The story in The Wake of Magellan is far stranger, a quasi-magic-realist collage of two real incidents (at least, I assume they're real: the killing of three stowaways by the captain of the Taiwanese freighter Maersk Dubai, and the murder of Irish reporter Veronica Guerin by the Dublin drug-lords she refused to stop writing about) and a frame tale about the conversations between an aging descendant of the explorer Magellan and the ocean. You'll have to read along in the booklet if you want to keep up, since much of the tale is told in long interstitial verses, news clippings about the incidents, and a detailed (perhaps too detailed) plot synopsis, none of which appear in the songs. This is probably the most ambitious narrative I've ever come across in a rock album, and I'm a dedicated supporter of ambitious narratives in rock albums, but by the standards of good written literature, O'Neill has a ways to go yet. Books, however, never sound anywhere near this grand. Savatage has mastered the tradeoff implicit in "rock opera", combining the theatricality and storytelling of opera with rock's melodic focus and structural cogency. "Welcome" bounces from ringing, geometric piano lines to full-band bombast on the order of "Bohemian Rhapsody". "Turns to Me" is part lullaby, part soaring symphonic-metal anthem. "Morning Sun", after a gentle acoustic intro, erupts into stentorian metal fury worthy of Dio. The lurching "Another Way" falls somewhere between Thought Industry and Dream Theater. The choir and bells that open "Blackjack Guillotine" recall Hall of the Mountain King, but the song turns out to be a jittery, menacing chant. The classic metal strut of "Paragons of Innocence" conceals a section that sounds like a heavy metal remake of the Spice Girls' "Wannabe". The paranoid "Complaint in the System" could be an out-take from Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime. "The Wake of Magellan" plays fluttering solos against complicated vocal rounds, and "Anymore" seesaws between graceful piano and "Sister Christian"-esque guitar crescendos. The eight-minute finale, "Hourglass", is progressive metal on the scale of echolyn or Magellan. And in case an hour-long concept album seems a little insubstantial, they throw in three acoustic bonus tracks: "Somewhere in Time/Alone You Breathe" is a piano medley of the finales to Streets and 1994's Handful of Rain; "Sleep" is another piano ballad; "Stay" is a Streets out-take, done with just acoustic guitar. As ardently as I believe in the potential of all artists, no matter what crimes they've perpetrated in the past, a part of me can't credit that a century would be enough time for the band that caricatured Mussorgsky in shameless cheese-metal on Hall of the Mountain King to earn the right to be taken seriously, but here I am, listening to The Wake of Magellan again. If they haven't earned the right, I'm willing to present it to them as a gift.