Myth as Providence

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“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Learning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.”

— T.S. Eliott, The Hollow Men

Photograph copyright Mike Yost 2015

Metal as the Muse

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As an author, I listen to a wide variety of music while I write—from metal to electronic ambient  to classical music.  Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) is one of my favorites.  The composition was inspired by one of Saint-Saëns’ own poems where death plays a violin at the stroke of midnight surrounded by skeletons dancing in their shrouds.  Pretty damn metal.

Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) once said in an interview that he prefers to draft novels in the waiting areas of emergency rooms, feeding off the noise and drama unfolding all around him.  Hemingway is often attributed with the quote: “Write drunk; edit sober,” which I often do in noisy bars downing pint after pint of fermented liquid happiness.  But several authors I work with can only pen the future great American masterpiece in complete silence.

For me, silence stifles my ability to write.  It’s deafening.  In truth, silence is really fucking distracting.  It opens the black iron gates to that cacophony of shrill voices in my mind that come crawling out of the obsidian that is my subconscious—their pointed fangs and claws flashing white in the darkness just before sinking deep into my trembling eyeballs.

And it’s not easy to write with bleeding eyeballs.

To quell that silence and keep those visceral voices at bay, I often use metal to mangle my imagination, hopefully resulting in a host of stories convulsing and bleeding on the floor with exquisite ingenuity.   And the bands I usually gravitate toward—like the Saint-Saens’ piece—feature a strong narrative quality throughout their albums.  

Moonsorrow is a great example and has always been a savage source of creative strength when I’m killing off fictional characters in innovative ways. (Usually involving Medieval weapons.  And lots of fire.)  The band’s thirty-minute magnum opus, “Tulimyrsky,” (from the EP which shares the same name) cultivates just the right amount of pagan black metal madness and macabre tranquility.

The song itself (translated as Firestorm) is a story of revenge:  The violent sacking of a village, homes burning brightly in the night, bodies riddled with arrows, axes and swords coated in crimson, screams drowning in waves of blood—all sung in Finnish. These narrative elements lend themselves to my own story lines and characters whose own internal battles often leave them slaughtered alongside piles of swirling ash.

Another band good for cultivating creativity is Xanthochroid, which I came across on metal-archives.com as a related band to Ne Obliviscaris.  Paralleling Portal of I (with the exception of that signature kick-ass violin), Xanthochroid’s album Blessed He With Boils similarly boasts melodic vocals juxtaposed nicely with growls.

There’s a folkish element to many of their songs, including a flute in “Winter’s End.”  An acoustic guitar drops in often throughout the album to lull your malleable mind into a false sense of security just before thrashing guitar riffs and high-pitched growls tear your head off your shoulders.  There is even a piano solo.

The album, which should be listened to in its entirety from start to finish, fosters a fantastic atmosphere of reflection, animosity, and anguish, the perfect scrim for my own fictional characters to play out their own hardships and miseries.

Caladan Brood‘s debut album Echoes of Battle offers yet another impressive metal conduit for those creative writing juices to bubble up to the surface.  With influences ranging from Tolkien to Moonsorrow to World of Warcraft, the band’s first album generates yet another rich atmosphere of black metal embedded deeply in fantasy folklore.

One particular song that tickles my testicles as I write (which is essential for any successful author) is the song “Wild Autumn Wind,” a melodic, slow-paced-yet-fiercely-energetic song, featuring the band’s signature choral vocals.

And then there’s that gorgeous guitar solo at 9:35 that just makes my head slam forward over and over, driving my fingers to type faster and harder.

And check out the lyrics to the song, “Book of the Fallen”

Strap on your shields and raise your banners. / Hear the call of raging battle. / Beneath a hail of flaming arrows. / Push ever forward. Never surrender.

I don’t think there’s ever been a more accurate description of the creative process put to song.

All of these albums share a common narrative theme: Vicissitude.  Peaks and valleys.  The dichotomy of those guttural screams clawing alongside clean vocals.  Gentle piano interludes and head-crushing blast beats.  Those all-too-human moments of empathy followed by furious eruptions of raw acrimony that burns the world black with soot.

I greedily feed off the talent and creativity of theses bands, and the albums parallel the very stories I try to write.  Conflict.  Loss.  Resolution.  Contemplation.  Retribution.  Death.  

of all possible possibilities

Frank abstains from work
Like a recovering alcoholic from whiskey.
He sleeps ‘til noon with frayed curtains drawn shut.
He answers the front door in blue boxers,
A large hole torn at the hip, exposing pale skin.
Rent is late.
Again.
Says the landlord.
Unopened bills cut at his naked feet as he saunters
Back to bed.

Dan drinks work in draughts
Like a relapsed alcoholic with whiskey.
He toils at the office ‘til midnight with bamboo blinds pulled open.
He sleeps slumped over a mahogany desk accented with lucent brass.
A blue tie pulled from his neck, exposing pale skin.
You’re late.
Again.
Says the wife.
In unheard phone messages held loosely in his manicured hands.
The alarm set for 5am.

Frank refuses to apply at any job that requires a resume.
Or a background check.
Or especially a piss test.
He eats tepid chicken soup in musty church basements
Sitting next to broken men with cavernous eyes
Talking with weary souls who fought in wars and shed blood and whose blood was shed
On the other side of the world.

Dan applies to new companies every week.
Companies that pay more.
Especially companies that pay overtime and proffer a company Cadillac.
He eats aged sirloin steak with peppered courvoisier cream sauce
Working next to opened folders and a weary laptop with cavernous keys
Formulating the next cutthroat business battle to shed blood for blood shed
On the top floor of some indistinct ominous skyscraper . . .

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Frank tells the reverend that he is free
And that he isn’t burdened by a mortgage,
Or by a draconian boss who drives a company Cadillac,
Or by a corporate infrastructure that treats workers
as expendable functions rather than valued individuals.
Frank stuffs his jacket pockets with stale crescent rolls,
And with a burning cigarette bouncing between his lips, he smiles
And tells the reverend that his life is the best
of all possible possibilities.

Dan tells his ex-wife that he is free
And that he isn’t burdened by poverty or need,
Or by vapid relationships to bolster the lonely and the weak,
Or by societal norms that value modesty and humility
as exhausted virtues that corrode individualism and ingenuity.
Dan tips his head back and drains his seventh cup of stale black coffee,
And with a cell phone burning next to his ear from unread emails, he smiles
And tells his ex-wife that his life is the best
of all possible possibilities.

Duality

“Why do you have to listen to it loudly?” my partner yelled, looking at me from the passenger seat, his face twisted into a tight knot.  I didn’t respond right away as the speakers in my truck pummeled out some random metal lunacy.  “I can’t hear myself think!” he pleaded.

“That’s the point!” I yelled back with a smile.  He didn’t he return the grin.  I then had to choose between turning the music down or sleeping in my truck.  It’s a good thing I keep a pillow in the cab.

But that really is the point.   Sometimes I just want to shut my mind off, and drinking a bottle of whiskey every day isn’t really an option (though I sometimes wish it were).

It’s metal that keeps me (somewhat) sane.  It certainly keeps me from lighting the mall on fire, laughing manically while I pour kerosene on my head in front of a burning Abercrombie & Fitch store surrounded by screaming shoppers choking on smoke and the smell of burnt flesh.

axeAnd when I worked customer service to put myself through college, metal kept me from bringing an axe to work and lopping off the heads of all those condescending customers—laughing manically while I did it, of course.

Metal is a bastion when you lose your job and find yourself selling your plasma to buy groceries.  It’s the grotto you climb into when you discover your girlfriend/boyfriend moved out, taking the computer and the dog.  Metal is what you listen to right before every family christmas dinner.

It’s something my partner (who listens to nothing but jazz and classical music) will never get.  Which is fine, as long as I keep a pillow in my truck.

And that’s not to say all metal is just one-dimensional  pulp vomited into your ears to drown  out your own depressing, strangling thoughts.  On the contrary, engaging lyrics can rip you out of your own stolid perspective.  Just read the lyrics to almost any Agalloch song.  And the samples in “Faustian Echoes” are wonderfully though provoking.

ImageFaust: “So, still I seek the force, the reason governing life’s flow and not just its external show.”
Mephistopheles: “The governing force? The reason? Some things cannot be known.  They are beyond your reach even when shown.”
Faust: “Why should that be so?”
Mephistopheles: “They lie outside the boundaries that words can address, and man can only grasp those thoughts which language can express.”
Faust: “What? Do you mean that words are greater yet than man?”
Mephistopheles: “Indeed they are.”
Faust: “Then what of longing? Affection?  Pain or grief? I can’t describe these, yet I know they are in my breast.  What are they?”
Mephistopheles: “Without substance, as mist is.”
Faust: “In that case man is only air as well!”

Metal isn’t afraid to claw away at that comfortable social veneer most people saturate themselves in—to reveal the horror of an unexamined life.

So, here are a few of my favorite metal songs that explore this duality.  They run the gamut from poetic music inspired by John Milton to raw animosity.  Listen as loud as possible.

Dying Fetus “Second Skin”  [intelligent growls]

“Gracious second skin
Courteous facade accepted
The cultured do not harm
Fitting in amongst the sheeple”

Hevein “Last Drop of Innocence” [the death of childhood with a cello and a violin]

Draconian “Expostulation / Heaven Laid in Tears”  [Paradise Lost as metal]

Agalloch “Not Unlike the Waves” [astronomy as metal]

A Lengthy Excursion

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Denver, Colorado to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  About 1,638 miles.   That’s 2,882,880 yards of asphalt.  Burning through almost 200 gallons of diesel fuel.  Passing what must have been over 1,000,000,000 fucking construction cones.  The vehicle:  A 22 foot-long Penske moving van with a dolly towing a car.  12 foot, 7 inch height clearance.  Ten tires on the road.  Total weight of about 30,000lbs.

Yes, this was (dare I say) an epic trip.  And an expedition of this magnitude required tunes.  Lots of tunes.   Lots of metal.  With almost 30 hours of drive time, silence for that long would have driven me into a bridge.   Or rather, I would have driven willfully into a bride, laughing manically while beating my head against the steering wheel.

Combine the claustrophobia of IMAG1692a truck cab, the inability to sleep while occupying such a contraption, the stomach aches from eating shitty gas-station sandwiches made with meat shaved from the hind-end of a decaying maggot-infested human carcass laying out back, the traffic jams in the middle of fucking nowhere due to construction, the congested cities you must fight your way through, and just the general mind-numbing tedium of miles and miles of road rolling out in front of you—endless and without mercy or conscience—then you understand the function and importance of metal to sooth nerves and subdue the urge to suddenly veer into oncoming traffic.

I put myself in charge of what music to bring.  Since my sister-in-law was in the cab with me, I brought a plethora of various bands.  Everything from The Who to The Cure to Stevie Nicks to Thy Catafalque to Smashing Pumpkins to mind.in.a.box to random technIMAG1676o music.

But the genre that brought me the most comfort was metal.  Nothing is more comforting on miles and miles (and miles) of pothole-littered, monotonous highway than the swelling growls, guitars and drums bellowing out of those crappy stock speakers.

I did all the night driving, with Thy Catafalque’s Rengeteg stabbing at my ears and keeping me awake (along with more than a few energy drinks).  Particularly the fourteen minute song “Vashegyek” with that pulverizing and relentless double-bass drum on the second-half.  “Holdkomp” is a perfect road song if I ever heard one, the repetitive drum beat of which the Penske truck seemed to bounce along to.

At one point around 3 am, I turned Thy Catafalque up a little too much and my sister-in-law woke up (this is somewhere in Kansas—a.k.a. the great void of the earth).  I apologized, asking if the music was bothering her.  “Not at all,” she replied with a slight laugh.  “Whatever you need to keep going.”  (Yeah, my sister-in-law fucking rocks.)

When I wasn’t driving, I would throw on my headphones.  I found Omnium Gatherum’s New World Shadows—particularly the song “New World Shadows”—to be a particular treat as background music on I-70 in Pennsylvania, the black hills rolling up and down in the distance.

Ne Obliviscaris Portal of I soothed me to partial sleep as the truck slammed violently over the cracks in the interstate, the violin, vocals and rhythmic guitars serenading me into a quasi-dream world free of potholes and the smell of diesel fuel.  The haunting ending to “Of Petrichor Weaves Black Noise” matched perfectly with that intense introspective feeling you get when traveling for hours on the interstate, left alone with your thoughts.

The trip ended without incident, and I attribute our mutual sanity to the power of music.  So I end with the following:  What are some of the bands/albums you listen to when stuck in a vehicle for hours at a time?

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The Jobless Writer . . .

The Jobless Writer . . .

Sits in the corner of a small café, bent over an aging laptop.  Takes a sip from a cup of coffee:  Black as space.  Bitter as death.  Could dissolve corrosion from battery terminals.

Chews on the bottom half of a bagel for lunch.  The top half was breakfast.

Rubs his eyes from the glow of the screen.  Looks up.  The faces of the people next to him have changed.  Replaced by new faces, doing the same things.  Frantically talking into earpieces that blink blue.  Slamming down scolding-hot lattes.  Leaving unused napkins on tables. Image

The jobless writer digs deep into his pockets for .52 cents.  Finds a quarter, two dimes and three pennies.  Rummages through a ratty backpack and finds four pennies hiding under a copy of Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five.

Stretches his legs with a fresh cup of coffee in hand.  Sits back down.  Slaps the headphones around his head.  Turns up the album Svartir Sandar by the metal band, Solstafir.  Their lyrics are sung in Icelandic.

Gets back to work.  Pounds out a few more sentences.  Sits back and crosses his arms, constructing the perfect setting in his mind for the next scene:  A busy train station.  Downtown.   Late at night.  It’s snowing outside.

Writes a few more sentences.  Sighs. Highlights and erases the entire paragraph.

Starts again.

After two hours, the jobless writer grabs his grumbling stomach.  Switches to the other Word document.  Scans his cover letter for an administration job.  Reads through his credentials.  Corrects a typo.  Thinks about the seven other cover letters he sent out last week.  Checks his email.  The number zero sits obstinately next to the inbox.

Sips from the cold cup of battery acid and switches back to his novel.  Chapter 12.  The scene takes place on an Amtrak train.  Somewhere between Harrisburg and Philadelphia.  Just after dusk.  Rain instead of snow.

The hours pass.  His character never makes it to Philadelphia, enduring several fates:  First she dies from a bomb carried by the passenger sitting next to her.  Then she dies of an aneurysm.  Then she’s mangled when the train jumps the rails.  Her fiancé is eagerly waiting for her at the downtown train station, holding a bright-red rose.  He drops it when a conductor tells him—

The jobless writer feels something at his leg.  A small child pulls on the laptop’s power cord.  The mother chastises the little girl and goes back to reading 50 Shades of Grey.  The jobless writer smiles and winks.  The little girl giggles and smiles back.

Now his character is in the hospital, unconscious.  The fiancé thinks she’s dead.  He’s collapsed on the cold, marble floor of the train station.  The concerned conductor pats the fiancé’s shaking shoulders, accidentally stepping on the rose.

Stands and paces along the back wall.  It’s dark outside.  Realizes for the first time the sun has long disappeared.  The café closes in an hour.  Digs through his bag and finds only a nickel and three more pennies.  Adds water to the half cup of cold coffee.  Asks the girl behind the counter to nuke it.

An hour later, he’s walking home, ragged backpack slung over sunken shoulders.  Commuters drive past, illuminating the sidewalk with bright headlights, casting a brief shadow that quickly slides into darkness.

Walks past a neighborhood restaurant with an outside patio.  The smell of grilled beef and fried chicken makes his stomach growl.  Turns and walks down an alley.

The cat meows as the jobless writer pushes open the door, a furry body winding its way between his ankles.  Fills the cat bowl.  Adds water and a few ice cubes to a glass, setting it next to the feasting feline.  Scratches behind the cat’s ears.  It purrs as it eats.

Dons a sweatshirt, drinks a glass of water, then warms a bowl of Ramen noodles.  Only uses half the packet.  The other half for when Chapter 12 is finished.  Warms his hands and face with the steam from the soup.  Opens the laptop and glances at the cover letter again.  Closes it without making any changes.  His Inbox reads two new messages.  Closes the web browser.

The jobless writer crosses his arms and leans back.  He creates in his mind a cantankerous conductor punching tickets.  A child, a little girl, running up and down the passenger car pulling on power cords.  His character applying lotion to her hands just before the train jumps the tracks.

The cat jumps up and lands on the keyboard.  Pushes its head against the corner of the screen.  The jobless writer smiles.  The cat looks back and purrs, smiling back.

Maldire: A Curse Wanting

It was shortly after one in the morning when I opened my laptop and made my way to the Metropolis website.  It was the 11th of September, and Velvet Acid Christ’s Maldire was just made available for purchase.  I hastily bought the album, along with the t-shirt that featured Quartier Macbre’s beautiful and gruesome artwork.  I clamped my headphones over my head and pushed play.

Wicked harmonies ensued.  Bryan’s curse was cast.  My ears bled.

I discovered the music of VAC in 1998 by happenchance in a used CD store in Utah (of all places).  I was flipping through a pile of CD cases when I came across Church of Acid.  The eye-catching artwork garnered my attention, so I pulled it out of the pile and listened to the disk in the store.  I was immediately enthralled.  Never before had I heard music that so accurately paralleled my own anger, isolation, and depression so elegantly—and with such intense malevolence.

I’ve been a fan ever since, following Bryan’s career and evolution with enthusiasm.

Maldire is an excellent throwback to some of his earlier work on Fun With Knives and Twisted Thought Generator, combined with a more experienced, developed sense of sound and structure that occupies Lust for Blood and The Art of Breaking Apart.

The album begins with an audio clip from the television series Dark Shadows, an ideal way to launch Maldire with the incantation of “charred and blackened clouds that reigned (or rained for the pun) at your beginning.”  Indeed the gloomy clouds gather thick and heavy as the track unfolds with weighty, thunderous beats that threaten to crack your skull, while layers of synths mercilessly pummel your ears.  Then Bryan’s booming vocals tunnel into your mind with the perfect amount of maliciousness.  By the end of the song, my own heart was scorched forever black by this blight evoked.

“Maldire” itself is one of the strongest songs on the album, with a powerful, captivating beat that forces your body to move to the music like a demon helplessly following Lucifer’s lurid commands.  The duality established by Bryan’s lyrics are intoxicating, and you can’t help but sing along, face distorted, eyes narrowed as you lament about casting spells and cutting your own flesh, frightening the patrons of the coffee shop who happen to be sitting next to you when “Maldire” starts playing in your headphones.

There are two instrumental songs, “Septic Rinse” and “HyperCurse.”  Bryan has a knack of juxtaposing buoyant trance tracks with thick layers of despondency that drip with obsidian.  Beauty eviscerated and sealed in black glass before being thrown to the ground, shattering into a million pieces that slice your bare feet.

“Dream Curse” consists of the album’s only spoken-word track.  Like being flung into an ethereal nightmare from which you can’t awake, narrated with images of melting faces, chattering bones and blood raining from the sky, threatening to drown you in ambivalence toward this world we inhabit.

Maldire is paradigm for electronic albums today, spiking high above the white noise of industrial music that has inundated the scene to the point that discovering anything unique or innovative is a chore, and a scarcity.

It’s the kind of album that, like the first time I listened to Church of Acid in that Utah music store, grabs you by the throat and tears out your vocal chords just to get your attention, then soothes you with evil melodies as you slowly bleed to death on the floor, unable to think of a better way to slip into oblivion.

Listen and buy Maldire from the Metropolis website here.  European denizens click here.  You’ll be cursed with deafness if you don’t.

The Dancing Dead in Denver

The Dancing Dead in Denver

After a 16 year hiatus, the talented and diverse group of musicians known as Dead Can Dance (DCD) returned with a much anticipated album entitled Anastasis, followed by a world tour.  On August 19, they played to a packed Buell Theater at the Denver Performing Arts Center.

ImageLead vocalists Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry formed the band thirty-one years ago in Melbourne, Australia.  Incorporating instruments from all over the world, the duo have crafted a plethora of albums that run the gamut of musical influences from Ireland to Africa to the Mediterranean to China.

But the real power behind DCD comes from the vocals of the duo.  Gerrard is renowned for singing in Glossolalia, an evocative expression of emotion through voice that has no defined language.  Gerrard has stated in interviews she feels language to be too restrictive, and Glossolalia to be a more authentic expression that communicates to all who listen, regardless of language or culture.  Her songs are ephemeral, haunting, and painfully beautiful.

Perry grounds DCD with his solemn vocals and introspective lyrics. Many of his songs originate from centuries-old ballads, reliving the struggles humans have endured in love, loss and that ceaseless search for meaning and purpose. “We are ancient, as ancient as the sun.  We came from the ocean, once our ancestral home,” sings Perry in one of their latest songs, “Children of the Sun.”

The show opened with DCD percussionist David Kuckhermann sitting alone on stage.  On his lap was a mysterious-looking instrument called a hang.  Created in Bern, Switzerland, the instrument consists of two large metal bowls sealed together.  Kuckhermann would strike the top side with his hand, producing different tones depending on where he hit the pitted surface.  The hang was tuned to a specific eight-tone scale.  The audience grew overwhelmingly quiet as he played, the single percussion instrument filling the entire auditorium with eerie, otherworldly music.

Soon the entire band took to the stage and the crowd was on their feet, cheering before the first note was played.  DCD opened with songs from their latest album, Perry’s voice booming through the theater just as strong and stirring as it was thirty-one years ago.

The energy of the fans (mostly the older fans) swelled when DCD began playing pieces from their previous albums.  The celebrated song “Rakim” began with Gerrard playing the yang-ch’in: a stringed instrument of Chinese origin in which padded bamboo sticks are used to strike a series of strings corresponding to specific scales.  Perry accompanied the yang-ch’in with his own Glossolalia.

As the concert moved forward, the music stirred many audience members out of their seats, several finding their way to the back of the auditorium to dance.  Others leaned forward in their chairs, closing their eyes and allowing the music to saturate the senses.  A few even wiped away lingering tears from wet cheeks.

The Latin phrase Tempus Fugit (time flies) was analogous to the audience’s experience.  Almost too quickly the entire theater stood and applauded as the band left the stage.  But as the auditorium remained dark, the adoration only grew louder and more intense.  Soon DCD returned, Perry signing a fan favorite, “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” with the sound of sitars weaving through his dynamic vocals.   Still, the crowd was insatiable and cheered after another exit of the band.  And then another, Gerrard returning for the third encore with her mesmerizing voice accompanied only by a keyboard player.

At the end of the concert, though Gerrard’s voice could carve canyons with its intensity and precision, she quietly leaned forward into the microphone, whispering a thank you to the audience, followed by “you are all beautiful.”

ImageAnastasis is fitting lexicon not just for the new album but for the entire concert experience.  Coming from the Greek word meaning resurrection, DCD brought to life long forgotten music and ancient instruments from all over the world, bringing with them the spirits of those musicians who lived and died centuries before Denver was even a city.

And in the back of the Buell Theater, where audience members stood and sang and danced, you could see the dead dancing right along with them.