Comfort and Exorcism
363 · 10 January 02
Lullacry: Be My God
It is difficult and maybe ultimately meaningless to try to say, definitively, whether online communities, in general or specific, are really communities in the original physical sense of the word, but there are several complicated dysfunctions that are either unique to online communities or at least endemic to them. A particularly sensitive one is how an unmanaged virtual community polices itself. One of the unmoderated music-related mailing lists I'm on recently saw a very active member either quit or be driven off, depending on your perspective, and although there seemed to be fairly widespread agreement that the person's on-list behavior was persistently problematic, opinions about the proper reaction were rather widely split between active (private entreaties, and then public censure if private emails failed) and passive ("Just delete his messages if you don't like them..."). This reduction tends to make the active critics look like intolerant jerks, but in this case I was one of them, because it's my strong belief, both from my own personal participation in online fora and my professional experience designing them, that the reasonable-sounding just-delete-them approach is actually the beginning of an online community's unraveling. The next logical step is programmatic filtering, at which point the members start to stop having a shared experience at all, and the online community quickly goes the vicious-circle way of a town where nobody picks up the litter because the place is too messy to be worth beautifying. I've felt obliged to abandon all the Usenet groups I used to participate in, one by one, for just this reason. So although there's an informal taboo against questioning a person's right to participate in what is ostensibly an open forum, I can be driven to it.
But I don't like it, and to be fair, I think most of the problems with online communities are of the opposite sort, excesses of exclusiveness instead of dearths. On music mailing-lists, the end of the year triggers a round of one of the most obvious forms of social-norm posturing, Best of the Year lists. Obviously I like list-making, myself, but nothing leads me to distrust an online community's collective wisdom quicker than a blast of methodically genre-limited best-of lists. Maybe this sounds vaguely backwards, counter to the time-honored notion of specialized expertise, but my experience is that if a person only likes one kind of music, I almost certainly don't care what they think about it. Metal is particularly susceptible to this kind of single-minded mindlessness, but all genres engender some of it by their natures. If your ten favorite albums from a whole year of music are all by quiet, waifish female acoustic singer/songwriters with pervasive gender-norm agendae, I have to assume that either a) you don't listen to anything else, or b) you don't respond to anything else, and both of those suggest that your sample-bias is dangerously high. Taking a statistical view of things we might be tempted to say that this is simply a matter of prorating, that you can interleave the single-genre lists from ten genres you like and get a top hundred, but in fact I don't think this works. It assumes that your tastes differ from those of somebody who only likes one kind of music solely in intensity, but I suspect they will more often differ in nature. A metal-only fan's favorite album of the year will probably not be a less metal-limited metal fans' favorite metal album. Generalize this observation one level and you get the inherent problem with "best" list-making of any sort: unless you can find someone whose tastes you agree with completely, the two of you are measuring things on different axes, and positions may not correlate at all, let alone well.
For example, my favorite metal record of 2001 (and although no metal albums made my top ten, a top fifteen would have had three) was Be My God, the second album (counting a limited-release debut I haven't been able to find) by the Finnish quintet Lullacry. I am fairly certain that this record will not feature prominently in "real" metalheads' lists, and moreover that by picking it I have called into question my credibility, whatever we mean by that, as a metal fan. But put more broadly, everything we endorse calls into question our credibility as anything. "Credibility" is a nonsense concept, there's no "authority" in responses to art. I may be able to affect your response to something by writing about it, but the mere fact that I liked it is only relevant if you've determined experimentally that you tend to like things I like, or at least things I describe liking for particular reasons.
And if Lullacry came up at all in a serious metal forum, it would probably be in the context of another of my online-music-community pet peeves, the periodic roll-call of "guilty pleasures". Objecting to something so overtly frivolous might sound pedantic, but to me these exchanges tend to encapsulate, as well as anything, what's wrong with online communities as communities. Labeling something a guilty pleasure is a way of not only criticizing it, but implying that it is collectively criticized. Volleys of guilty-pleasure declarations attempt to shrink the community's subject domain by excluding diversity of viewpoint. And maybe your friends do sit around confessing guilts in person, too, but mine don't. Real conversations in physical communities, in my experience, can be pointless in many ways, but rarely have the oblivious write-only quality of a mailing-list thread in which everybody insists on participating themselves even though nobody is reading anything anybody else says.
Moreover, to me feeling guilty about liking something (if indeed that's what you feel) is an egregious waste of emotional energy. Either there's really something about it you don't condone, in which case you're free to either resolve your conflicted feelings one way or the other or decide to simply remain conflicted, or else there isn't, and if there isn't, you should have the courage and clarity to know that it doesn't make any difference whether anybody else thinks there should be. In the case of metal, I am frequently conflicted to at least some degree, since there are many metal genre conventions I don't condone as general artistic practice. It's pretty obvious from the band-picture of Lullacry on the back of the booklet, for instance, that they inhabit a world monopolized by an extremely constrained notion of cool, one that values stringy long hair, black leather pants, idiotically menacing sneers, nominally Satanic voguing and a not particularly sophisticated or modern notion of gender roles. Their lyrics are mostly forgettable (although not obsessed by the usual macabre Scandinavian metal concerns, which means they don't particularly endear these songs to any audience). The music employs too many metal tropes to qualify as anything but metal, but not enough flair in metal terms to constitute imaginative metal.
So when I say this was my favorite metal album of the year, I don't mean that I think it was the best metal-as-metal album of the year, I mean that when I wasted a week by ranking everything I heard last year, it was the highest album on the list that anybody would characterize as metal. The tradition to which it more appropriately belongs, in my life with music, probably starts with Terri Nunn and Dale Bozio's presences in Berlin and Missing Persons, touches on some of the same things that fascinate me about Pat Benatar, T'Pau and Scandal (or, if you prefer, Lisa Dalbello and Toyah Wilcox), and most obviously continues a story begun by Fiona and continued by Lita Ford. Lullacry's pounding, uncomplicatedly male music (metal bordering on hard rock with prominently melodic pop instincts) is a deliberately contrasting context for their female singer (identified in the credits only as Tanya; perhaps she has a day-job that doesn't involve as much cleavage), but where female-led metal bands like Nightwish and the Gathering use a female voice to help create a gothic ethereality, neither Lullacry's playing nor Tanya's singing has anything remotely ethereal about it. This is an earthy, aggressively sexual record (Tanya's awkward bent-over pose on the cover is fairly indicative of the music, in fact), and if you ended up deciding you can't endorse it, it might well be that, as with Fiona and Lita (or Britney and Christina), you feel that Tanya is complicit in her own objectification. She doesn't play into disempowering male fantasy-images anywhere near as deliberately as Lita did (there's really only the one picture of her here, in which you can't see her feet, which is usually where you find out how much a woman is willing to sacrifice her personal comfort in order to appeal to doltish men), but wanting a solid, stomping hard rock band with a voluptuous blonde singer is right up there, among ill-conceived male ideals of women, with petite Asian girlfriends who really love talking about hockey and fetching beer and snacks.
And I suppose maybe there's some of that in my own response. My universe of female types has no shortage of complicated and/or reticent personalities, so perhaps part of what I'm feeling is merely a sheepish instinctive reaction to unfamiliarly confrontational sexuality. There are a whole lot of records sold with covers on which women intentionally display themselves, but they don't tend to be the ones I buy. But we'll give me a little more credit than that, for argument's sake, since I have yet to let alluring cover art convince me to buy a Jennifer Lopez album. What I think I like so much about this record, and continue to like so much about Fiona and Lita's records, is that to me they do not sound like male records with female singers. All three women succeed, for me, in integrating themselves into the music thoroughly enough that they just sound right there to me. Listening to this album, I am able to forget decades of polarized expectations about male and female roles in music, and believe that powerful (in the metal sense) rock music isn't inherently gender-associated after all. The tendrils of frailty in Tanya's opening lines in "Embrace Me" play against the churning music before she swoops into the crashing, epic choruses, and to me that makes for a more authentic catharsis than you could easily get out of a shrieking male vocal in the old Euro-metal Scorpions mode. "Be My God" itself flirts with exploring the dominance/submission relationship explicitly, and in the end doesn't say anything too detailed, but the tension between "Pretend to control me" and "I always needed you to be inside me" is revealing, and maybe hints at a shred of self-realization, that the relationship's failure wasn't the man letting her down, it was her own self-sufficiency undermining her need. "Without the Dreamer" is lyrically innocuous, but musically invigorating, quarter-note snares bashing the choruses along while Tanya stretches out languorously above them. "Into Your Heart" is a power-ballad the Wilson sisters could be proud of, ringing piano and a fluttery double-tracked harmony on the verses giving way to later-Metallica-grade grind on the methodical choruses. Trust is fast and violent, Tanya barking Germanically for once, but the choruses still manage enough melodic composure to pass, in different clothing, for Joan Jett if not quite Britney. On paper the throbbing "Pain, Walk With Me" is a suicide note, but Tanya's soaring repetitions of the chorus lines, reveling in their own power, are anything but resigned, and leave me convinced that she is pulling pain back into life, not following its lead into death. "I Don't Mind" starts off like it's going to be another grand ballad, but the chorus is galloping and unexaggerated. "Damn You"'s opening guitar strut reminds me vividly of some old Loverboy song whose title I wish not to recall, but the rest of the song turns out to be one of the least pop-minded here, rumbling and brutal and strained. The interplay of pinging piano and slashing guitars in "Bonfire of Time" is a classic bit of the sparkle/gloom contrast perhaps still best exemplified by Dio's "Rainbow in the Dark". "Thorn of the Rose" is probably the song here with the most clear-cut metal genre-ambitions, quick and heavy and permeated with those little lead-guitar feedback squeals you learn how to do the first week at metal school. "Firequeen" is an apt farewell, its climax coyly deferred, in a trick swiped straight from the sensitive-boy-band handbook, until a great big blocky upwards modulation.
Other than that, though, there no real arc to this album. You won't learn anything from these eleven songs that you couldn't learn from any two or three of them. But eleven songs is hardly an overstayed welcome, and repetition is part of the point of comfort-art, the same way you don't serve meatloaf in nouvelle-cuisine portions. I usually prefer to be invigorated than comforted, if asked to choose, which is probably why Be My God finally slipped off the end of my top ten during one of the last iterations. But not always. I tend to forget the value of being comforted until something comforting reminds me, but then it comes flooding back. I've listened to this record a lot, and once it starts I am always reluctant to hear it end. The band might be appalled by the suggestion that their loud, hammering music makes me smile and relax, rather than grimace and thrash about, but that's their problem. I think Tanya means to come off as indomitable in the picture; to me she just looks cuddly. Do you even have a slot for cuddly metal albums in your taxonomy? No? Are you sure?
Bathory: Destroyer of Worlds
There is absolutely nothing cuddly or comforting about my other two favorite metal records from last year. One is Slayer's scathing God Hates Us All, whose version of speed metal is a merciless derivation from punk as much as it is a descendant of Black Sabbath. The other is Destroyer of Worlds, the first new album in five years by Swedish black-metal pioneers Bathory. Prior to 2001 I had only a vague idea what "black metal" consisted of, and I certainly couldn't have itemized its pioneers other than Celtic Frost, but I've put a lot of energy into catching up, and am finally starting to feel like I sort of know what I'm doing. In the course of reaching this point I have listened to a lot of creepy metal bands, not always making it through entire albums before giving up in some variation of disgust or bemusement. A few, though, are revelations worthy of immediate catalog completism and, I expect, ongoing dedication: Nightwish's operatic elegance, Stratovarius' melodic effusion, Love Like Blood's gothic muttering, Kreator's experimental impulses, Candlemass' glum histrionics, Hypocrisy's shouty thrashing, In Flames' gnashing, Conception's UFO-ish segue into hard rock, Emperor's byzantine intricacy, Lacuna Coil's ornate grace. But ranked by quantity of music, although this is more directly a function of back-catalog size than my devotion, Bathory are by far my new discovery of the year. In part I like them because their early albums sound, as did Celtic Frost's, like they arrived at this style on their own and it got named later, whereas the vast majority of the bands who came after them are aware of the genre's pre-existence and so their self-definition is inevitably constructed in relation to it. In part, too, I like them for a set of stubbornly uncharacteristic traits for a metal band. "They" are not a band, they're just one guy ("Quorthon"), with friends occasionally helping out. In a culture heavily devoted to live performance, touring and mutual support, Bathory are exclusively a studio project and appear to exist in almost total ignorance of the rest of the genre. Even by metal studio standards they are pretty unusual, low-fi and haphazard where metal tends to be painstakingly polished and intently technical. A similarity-finding machine fed the Bathory history without any of the music to listen to would probably conclude that their peers are Guided by Voices, the Mountain Goats and maybe the Magnetic Fields, not Emperor and Slayer.
A machine actually fed Bathory's music would make a series of unhealthy zapping noises, sneeze out sparks from every service panel, and shut down for good. Destroyer of Worlds, still provisionally my favorite Bathory album while I slowly absorb all the old ones, shares some of Slayer's vitriol, but couches it in an idiom whose ominous menace extrapolates from Black Sabbath's original template with a grim discipline very few other metal bands can rival. "Lake of Fire" opens the album with diffident acoustic guitar and sighing choir vocals, but after a minute or so a boomy drum-machine and badly distorted guitar kick in (and I mean badly distorted, not heavily distorted; it sounds like the recording tape is fraying under the strain), Quorthon's distracted vocals begin ebbing in and out of audibility, and the whole thing starts sounding unnervingly like a traveling cadence for a funeral march through Mordor. "Destroyer of Worlds" groans under ponderous bass and battering machine-drums, but a little tinny lead-guitar figure and Quorthon's chanted vocals just barely keep it going, like Slayer at corrosive quarter-speed. "Ode" rises on monolithic rhythm-guitar riffs and an unsteady attempt at conventional singing. "Bleeding" is the closest thing here to God Hates Us All, still slower than Slayer would have done it but just as ugly; the period-piece "Pestilence" (for once a metal song based on the phrase "Black Death" is actually about the bubonic plague) is very nearly Master of Reality-era Sabbath. "109"/"Death From Above" is a diptych about aerial combat, and "Krom" is a motorcycle anthem, all three quite possibly partial homages to Motörhead. "Liberty & Justice" snaps in and out of gear disorientedly, drum-machine spasms contributing an implacable crushed-under-the-wheels energy that would be difficult to get from a real drummer. "Kill Kill Kill" is a roiling blur, but "Sudden Death" is the album's one moment of relative levity, a hockey-game narration complete with a hilarious little hook adapted from the ubiquitous arena organ theme and trash-talk lyrics ("Touch our goalie one more time, I swear you'll never rise again", "I'll mosh you 'gainst the plexi", "Your blood warm on my blades", etc.) delivered in exactly the same macabre tone as incantations of eternal torment. "White Bones" is a disturbing suicide-pact story, maybe a better Megadeth song than Megadeth themselves have ever done, and for me the non-sequitur instrumental coda at the end is inexplicably touching, like a snippet of some song the girl once liked, played in lieu of a bagpipe requiem at her under-attended funeral. Only "Day of Wrath", the finale, fully retreats to apocalyptic formula, but if I don't resent pop songs about crushes, why would I bristle at a metal song about the end of the world? This music is an attempt, like Peter Jackson's horrible orc-breeding chasm in The Fellowship of the Ring, at instantiating our direst conception of evil. Harrowing art is a manner of exorcism, and we perform it for the same reasons we ever manufacture enemies to defeat, in order to extract and discard the worst selves we know how to fear becoming, in the hopes that the monsters we thus sketch and destroy will take with them some faint shade of our own capacity for negation.