A guest post from dhex!
WARNING: PROBABLY NOT ENTIRELY SAFE FOR WORK OR YOUR YOUTUBE SEARCH HISTORY.
“Brutal” is an overused term in heavy music circles. It’s a term of endearment and anointment, referencing overall quality and emotional impact while describing neither. It’s also notably useless as a predictor of quality.
I once spent a whole night at the opera and found it pretty brutal in the traditional sense of the term, and that’s without considering the ticket price.
The things we do for love are often brutal to the self.
The essential quality of “art” is not beauty, but rapture. An ability to adjust, distort, or interrupt the flow of time. To help us forget we are rotting and everything that we love will be dead one day, perhaps sooner than we like. Perhaps right now.
The passage of time is brutal in every sense.
There’s whole giant bagful of beautiful uses of ugliness in music. Guitar distortion is the most obvious example, having mutated from accident, to intent, and now to the soundtrack to many a PBS pledge drive. However, it’s still a kind of creatively accidental arms race. We live in an age of bass cars, brostep, and brickwalled .mp3s, which I think are all signs that the kids these days (™) are into it as a generally accepted tactic of expression.
Now, I’m an old fart, sitting around the campfire in my 12-eyehole Docs and wistfully telling tales of Pan Sonic and Hrvatski double bills in the late 90s; breakcore slamming off the walls of an abandoned garage; of dirtbags and lock-ins dominated by unbearable volume blaring from poorly-considered Reaktor patches; compression and regression; acid squeals, overly resonated and resinated; barks, screams, shouts, and wheezes; bass your ancestors could feel.
And so much screaming.
Personally, I generally – and hopefully sparingly – use “brutal” as a description of how a piece affects my emotions rather than tone, quality, genre, and so on. This doesn’t help predictions of quality, but it at least narrows the use to those areas I think work best with the concept.
I might use it with one inflection to describe deep admiration for a moment of pleasant unpleasantness. But I can also express how incredibly painful I find overhearing “Love Shack”, one of the most brutal pieces of music of the 20th century.
“Brutal” encompasses qualities like:
– emotionally painful or notably hateful
– physically painful to listen to
– difficult to endure
– use of tension and (sometimes) release
– the role of various kinds of pain in live settings and performances, particularly as it relates to volume
– the invocation of memories that are painful, if sweetly so
One of the more brutal recordings I own is the 5th movement (Segment? Selection?) from William Bazinksi’s The Disintegration Loops. Not only because it’s such a fragment of a song, and so repetitive, but because it sounds like what that day in September felt like. I lived a few blocks from his loft, and used to see him around all the time. I actually didn’t even hear this until years later; descriptions of the work made it seem exploitative. They were extremely lousy descriptions of a very important (if accidental) set of recordings.
I spent many months listening to this piece on repeat before going to sleep, trying to make remembering less painful.
Somewhat less emotionally painful is my relationship to Coil’s body of work. Natural and unnatural tragedy robbed us of both members within a six year span. Having never met or known them, and only having seen Peter Christopherson as part of the first bit of the aborted Throbbing Gristle reunion tour, it seems almost stupid to say “their work was incredibly important to my life”. But their work was, and is, incredibly important to my life, my understanding of what music is and can be, and things I’d like to accomplish emotionally and electronically.
If I ever got a tattoo, it’d be the words “Persistence is All”, taken from a sticker included with this recording. All four movements of the Time Machines album are incredibly hypnotic, to the point where there was a “Don’t listen to this while driving!” warning on the first pressing.
Grinding walls of icy sweat. Chemical yearning. Penetration without emotion or attachment.
Now that I’m thoroughly depressed, I need some pick-me-up. How about the best grindcore album of all time?
Metal, like any musical genre, can be cartoonish. Perhaps more than most, though it has a while to go before hitting prog rock levels. Cattle Decapitation isn’t technically “Militant Vegan Deathgrind”, but I still describe them as such because if nothing else it sounds funny. Monolith of Inhumanity is an excellent album, and “A Living, Breathing Piece of Defecating Meat” showcases a talent for song titles that puts Cannabis Corpse to shame, but don’t Googs ‘em at work. Or watch their “official” videos at home. If I hit the lotto I’d get them hooked up with the Fatal Farm guys and foot the bill, because the videos are absolutely terrible and unimaginative; the wrongest impression.
Perhaps less outwardly offensive are Middle America’s best blackened sludge band, Coffinworm. “Strip Nude For Your Killer” is some kind of Italian grade-z horror film theme, but all I know is that there be nothing but puking vocals and weighty riffs. My four year old is in love with this track, and we both agree the transition from 5:40 to about 6:10 is absolutely top shelf.
Another thing I enjoy is how sometimes a band goes back in time, takes all the “it’s not even music!” criticism to heart, and decides to become the avatar of what mothers from 1980 believed heavy metal sounded like. Those moms meant stuff like Quiet Riot, who are quite un-brutal.
I’m here or there on the video, but the song is total quality as far as “experimental death metal” is concerned e.g. metal that metal fans don’t find particularly comforting. Even better: the band plays hooded and anonymous, and the lead singer used to rock a grandfather clock on his head and papacy robes.
Speaking of leading personalities, watching Michael Gira plan for his retirement by never retiring has been wonderful. Easily one of the most powerful live performers I’ve ever watched, the reformed and re-imagined Swans are truly something to be experienced. Go!
But back in the ‘80s, it was a toss up as to whether he hated himself or everyone else more. “You’re Not Real, Girl” is a hateful voyeurism, forced to listen to a couple you don’t know attack each other years after love turned into sadism.
Dang it, sad again – but robots can fix that!
I love Autechre beyond reason. Always will. Back when I wrote about music, I used my love to explain why I absolutely loathe the whole “difficult music” thing. This is one of their harsher turns, with broken glass beats, constant grinding, and vague melodic stabs.
The Third Eye Foundation made one of the best drum n’ bass albums of all time (Ghost) but some of the singles Matt Elliott released of remixes from other Bristolians (he was also in Flying Saucer Attack) manage to sound ugly and hollow and weird and beautiful but mostly just plain stressed out. I feel exhausted (in a good way) by the way he wrings emotion out of lo-fi timestretches.
If you’re anti-Zionist and you brickwall your DATs, clap your hands! Pointlessly prolific in the posthumous, and perpetually pro-Palestinian, this is VERY LOUD. Bryn Jones won the loudness war while being dead.
Pan Sonic took another approach to loud, with modified drum machines and tone generators pushing raw to maximum rawness. Their collab with Merzbow is worth picking up, though despite him being the biggest name in noise, I’ve never been in love with his solo work.
“Entertainment Through Pain” Reformed TG was great the one time I saw them, before Gen went off on his “being a total jerk” tour after Peter Christopherson died.
This must have been a hell of a gig though.
The rise of The Mashup was a new version of an old idea – like all new ideas – but I was always partial to the 90s conception of breaking a song upon the wheel of whimsy. Kid606 specialized in this back when.
I’m very fond of A Place to Bury Strangers, who JAMC’d well into the 21st century. Loud for sake of very, very loud.
No discussion of brutality is complete without mentioning breakcore. And no discussion of breakcore is complete without Venetian Snares, who took the DHR formula set by Alec Empire’s seminal album The Destroyer and made it faster, stronger, and uglier.
We’ll end by remembering that this world is a terrible place to be beautiful.