Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Enjoying Art with a Guilty Conscience

Maybe it was the strong acid we ate in the late 80s and early 90s; possibly it’s the constant 30 mile-per-hour wind filling our ears with the sound of a freight train. Whatever the case, people from Oklahoma love noise rock. Okay that’s a stretch, but people really into music in Oklahoma like noise rock to an unhealthy degree. The late 80s and early 90s saw noise rock reach its pinnacle and all the important bands came through town when I was a young man. Ed Hall, The Cows, Steel Pole Bathtub, Ethyl Meatplow, Morphine, Codeine, The Grifters, Jesus Lizard, Spiritualized--they all stopped in Oklahoma, probably in no small part due to the king of all noise rock bands, The Flaming Lips, hailed from the Sooner state.

The Flaming Lips In a Priest Driven Ambulance record release was my first club show, and may be one of the most notorious concerts of the last 20 years. Yes the stage caught fire. Strips of magnesium were lit and thrown into the audience. Ears bled from the volume coming from the pawn shop amps they played through. People shat their pants from Michael Ivens bass frequencies, while he sat on a folding chair as far to the side of the stage as possible, hiding behind Ray Ban Wayfarers and a balding Afro. (After the show I spied him hiding between the Pepsi machine and a wall, Wayfarers still on in the dark club, looking down at some spot on the ground only he could see.) By the end of that set, as The Flaming Lips closed with a big nasty version of “Under Pressure,” a whole universe of sonic art and abuse opened up to me.

It wasn’t just the sounds though. Each band carried with them a visual aesthetic that was their own. Whether shoe-gazing or manic, they usually had something going on as visually interesting and challenging as the music. At the same club as the Flaming Lips show, a year later, Big Shane and I (little Shane) waited for Amphetamine Reptile Records’ the Cows to play. While waiting we noticed a “retarded” man dressed in a patchwork Goodwill dress jacket sat at a table alone. This was a common enough since the state mental hospital was within easy walking distance of the club where everyone’s sanity was in doubt and served cheap beer--kind of like the institution, but drunk. The guy was creepier than most of the mental ward patients though. He leaned over the table as if he was afraid someone would take it from him. His jacket was so out of fashion that no hipster would wear it, even ironically. Spit fell from his lips as he dribbled beer from a bottle. And he was stone quiet. Nothing is spookier than a crazy guy who refuses to talk to himself. You can’t tell how locked up the gears are in his noggin until the valve explodes. 15 or so minutes go by, the lights go off and the Cows take the stage. I’ll be damned if the sub-normal didn’t have a guitar across his shoulder, still slobbering, this time drooling all over his guitar.

Which leads me to black metal. I was reluctant to even listen to it based on the aesthetics, despite my love for guitars covered in bodily fluids and over-filled clubs located on the second story of a building dangerously close to burning down without a fire exit in sight. I was still feeling guilty for liking some crappy metal in the 80s and didn’t want to set myself up for more embarrassment. Besides--these guys weren’t artists, they were ding dongs too far from America to know what cool really meant. They wore bullet belts, posed with battle axes and wore Kiss-like “corpsepaint” in order to look evil. Then they started murdering each other and I had more reason not to listen to them; they went from uncool to Columbine-like boogeymen. Time went on, and I found myself slowly drawn to the genre. I did like Kiss after all, and they weren’t all convicted killers. After buying Peter Beste’s coffee-table sized photo book True Norwegian Black Metal I was hooked and began downloading all the Darkthrone I could. It was analog to the extreme, as if recorded on a boom box in a leaky basement ankle-deep with water, not unlike the sonic quality of G.G. Allin’s best (???) albums. Not only did I find myself increasingly enjoying the genre, but my interest in noise as sonic experimentation was reinvigorated. Which leads me to Burzum’s latest album Belus.

Before the review I (like every other person who has reviewed the album) feel the need to offer a caveat in order to protect my liberal cred among my peers and soothe my own contradictory ideas about art and artists. To sum it up, sometimes cool people make cool art--Luis Bunuel, George Romero, George Clinton, Merle Haggard. Other times cool people make bad art--I wouldn’t mind having dinner with Bono, Tom Hanks, or Stephen Speilberg, but I’ll be damned if I think anything they’ve ever done in the last 25 years is worth a rat’s crap. Then there are those who either have done and said some downright nasty things, or harbor offensive personal beliefs, but make great art--Ted Nugent (listen to Double Live Gonzo and you’ll be converted), Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Ezra Pound, Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson, Marina Abromovic, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones... Notice the last list is longer than the first two. And with that I give you Burzum’s new album Belus.

Burzum is the name of the one man black metal project of Varg Vikernes--ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, murderer, and arsonist of 600 year old historic churches. It is also the first album since being paroled for murder and arson. The title of the album comes from the name of the oldest known Pagan god. Vikernes uses the album to tell the folk tale of Belus-- his capture, his descent, and return and its relation to the changing seasons.

If you are not into metal already, this album probably won’t change your opinion. However, if you like your noise mixed with the concept album sensibilities of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin lyrics about Middle Earth sung in Norwegian then you will be in Heaven (or Valhalla or wherever your happy place is).

The album hearkens back to ancient folk tales but also to the 1970s when Prog Rock made people feel that albums could tell coherent stories, and in that sense Burzum is definitely proggy. Sung in Vikernes’ native language, listeners are encouraged to read the English translation of the lyrics found on www.burzum.org. The music is much less threatening and more coherent knowing the songs are about “tree spirits” “peace” and “solar power.” In fact the lyrics are similar to Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” “The Immigrant Song,” and “No Quarter.”

Musically the songs often sound similar to each other and return to familiar motifs of picked note triads, droning bass, and crashing cymbals. A few songs certainly stand out however. The album opener “Lukans Renkespill” is less a song and more a recording someone playing Yahtzee in a cave (I promise!!). “Belus Doed” has a rock opera feel, similar to the grandiose feel Pink Floyd’s “In the Flesh.” “Kaimadalthas Nedstigning” reminds me of the roiling minor chords of Jesus Lizard, while the chanting mid-way through wouldn’t be out of place on a Dead Can Dance or This Mortal Coil album. “Glemselens Elv” and “Morgenroede” both utilize odd sliding bass lines as drone notes to ground the songs, which makes the constant triad picking more a contrapuntal rather than the focus as it is on most of the album’s other compositions.

Belus is an interesting album, but not an easy album. You might find yourself half-way through it thinking your mp3 player is on repeat and playing the song you just finished. That’s the charm of it though. It is a singular vision of a story as old as European culture. If it were a painting it would be more like Mark Rothko’s later black and gray pieces, which is sort of a let down since Frank Frazetta’s “Death Dealer” seems so much more apropos considering the lyrical content. Given that it is his first album out of prison, it makes sense that Vikernes might be more to raging music and less to nuanced, slower paced tracks. In the future he would do well to utilize a broader palette for other such grandiose stories.

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