Friday, March 28, 2014

The Wino Mysteries Part I

Long time readers of this blog are no doubt aware that Recluse is a big fan of a musical genre typically referred to as "stoner rock", a catchall term that can refer to a host of different styles including doom and sludge metal, desert rock, drone, post-metal, heavy psych and retro occult rock, among others. As noted before here and here, I've found this genre to be incredibly synchro-mystical, with a host of occult, conspiracy theories and general high weirdness trappings appearing throughout the works of various groups associated with stoner rock. What's more, this little acknowledged element of stoner rock has only grown more and more prominent in recent years.

Heavy metal has of course long been associated with the occult, but by the 1980s such trappings were dominated by Satanism, both the faux and LaVey-ian variety. When the stoner rock scene began to emerge in earnest in the 1990s this new genre gradually started taking heavy metal occult elements back to the 1970s when mythological gods and heroes, wizards and Wicca were as common as odes to Lucifer. One of the chief figures in this movement was legendary frontman Scott "Wino" Weinrich.

Wino started his first band, War Horse, in 1976 at the age of 16 and never looked back. By the early 1980s War Horse had been transformed into The Obsessed and had begun to gain a devoted fan base from a curious source: the legendary Washington D.C. hardcore scene. Wino's music has always been steeped in the sound of the Heavy 70s (especially Black Sabbath and Pentagram) and by the early 1980s such a sound was decidedly unhip amongst metal heads. Punk rockers in the D.C. area dug Wino's sound, however, and he cut his teeth playing in the D.C. hardcore scene with the likes of Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and so forth.

Wino first started to gain nation recognition in the mid-1980s when he relocated to California and became the frontman for doom pioneers Saint Vitus. Wino cut three studio albums --Born to Late, Mournful Crisis and V in addition to the E.P. Thirsty and Miserable (the title track is a cover of the Black Flag song) with Vitus from 1986 till 1990. Saint Vitus did not experience much success (especially in the United States) during this run, but two of those albums (Born to Late and V) are now considered classics in many circles. By the early 00s Saint Vitus had gained a rather large underground following internationally and it is from this group that many fans know Wino from.

Wino with Saint Vitus during the 1980s
Wino departed Saint Vitus in 1990 and would continue to record for the next two and a half decades with a host of different groups including a reconstructed The Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, Place of Skulls, the Hidden Hand, Shrinebuilder, Premonition 13, David Grohl's Probot, and also as a solo artist. Needless to say, his discography is rather massive and I will not attempt to tackle all of it in this series.

As this piece is chiefly concerned with Wino I will not be covering Saint Vitus in depth. While Wino was certainly a key part of the group during some of their best years, Vitus has always been guitarist Dave Chandler's band. Chandler has written the overwhelming majority of the group's work (including the lyrics) and it would thus not be far to contribute much of the group's artist vision to Wino.

Dave Chandler
I will also not be covering the supergroup Shrinebuilder, despite the fact that their sole album is steeped in esoterica. All four members (including drummer Dale Crover of the Melvins, Neurosis' guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly and Sleep/Om bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros) contributed to the songwriting and general concept of the group and therefore it is not strictly speaking a "Wino band."

Groups that I would apply this label to are: The Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, the Hidden Hand, Premonition 13, and Wino's backing band for his first solo album (solo albums that came out after that one have not featured a full band and have largely consisted of Wino and his acoustic guitar). In the case of all five projects, Wino was the chief visionary and songwriter (though other members contributed more than they are generally given credit for).  All of these projects, save for Premonition 13, also featured another Wino trademark as well: they were/are all power trios. Outside of Premonition 13 Wino hasn't done much with a two guitar setup in projects in which he is the man songwriter.

So, it is with these five groups that I shall chiefly concern myself with over the course of this series. With the mission statement out of the way, let us now focus in on The Obsessed. Wino originally recorded an album with The Obsessed for Metal Blade Records in 1985, but the album was shelved after Wino was offered the Saint Vitus vocal spot shortly thereafter. In 1990 Saint Vitus' then-record label, Hellhound Records, released The Obsessed' self-titled debut from 1985.

Encouraged by the favorable reception the album received, Wino opted to leave Saint Vitus and reformed The Obsessed in Los Angeles with a different rhythm section. Greg Rogers was brought in on drums while the bass spot went to Palm Desert scene (of which I've written much more on here) staple Scott Reeder. In 1991 the revamped The Obsessed released the classic Lunar Womb on Hellhound Records. Scott Reeder left shortly thereafter to play bass for Kyuss and was replaced by Guy Pinhas on bass. After the favorable reviews Lunar Womb received, The Obsessed signed to Columbia Records and released The Church Within in 1994. Apparently Wino was warned against this move before hand and found Columbia's office space to be an ill omen. In an interview with L.A. Record he noted:
"I promised myself I was gonna get signed to a major label and I did, although the signing at that time was actually a little bittersweet because of circumstances. Of course I did retreat with my tail between my legs back East once or twice before that happened, but … You wanna hear a really fucking weird story? [The Obsessed] got signed to Columbia Records, and that’s Sony, and at that time they had a big black building on Madison Avenue—a black fucking building—and the address was 666. I swear to God, man! It’s so cliché that it’s almost fucking cheesy, but it’s the truth. A lot of people warned me—like people from doing zines and stuff—they told me this was risky, but at that time, I looked upon it as a license to fly. To me it was artistic freedom because they were paying to rent us a rehearsal room, paying us a salary, giving us a budget to record a record—I thought that was where it’s at..."

Regardless, things quickly went downhill after The Obsessed signed with Columbia. The Church Within was a commercial flop and Columbia dropped The Obsessed post haste. The group dissolved shortly thereafter with Pinhas and Rogers departing to co-found the great Goatsnake. Wino, meanwhile, became severely addicted to methamphetamines in addition to his long time problem with alcoholism. Wino spent much of the rest of the 1990s homeless and lost in a fog of booze and speed in L.A. At one point he nearly had to have a foot amputated due to an old injury that had grown worse due to years of neglect. It goes without saying this was the absolute nadir of both Wino's life and career.

Wino's work with The Obsessed, while being the most overtly metal of his overture, also established a formula that he would largely stick to for the rest of his career: songwriting that is aggressive and to-the-point, but not mired in the anger and sorrow as much of heavy metal is. In point of fact, the sense of optimism and hope that much of Wino's discography displays is one of its most distinct features. That's not to say that Wino's work, and especially that with The Obsessed, does not feature its fair share of anger, however. But Wino tends to come off as more of fire-breathing vigilante biker out to right the evils of the world, than a suburbanite mope a la the entire genre of nu metal.

Wino's songwriting with The Obsessed and every other band in which he is the main guy is concise and never self-indulgent. His songs rarely go over five minutes, and while Wino is a very underrated guitar player, his solos and leads are never excessively flashy or drawn out. Even when Wino's work became more progressive and psychedelic in the late 1990s and 00s he's never been one to indulge in extended flights into inner space. In the case of The Obsessed, the band's sound is firmly within the Black Sabbath-inspired traditional doom framework. Still, Wino keeps things relatively uptempo and even throws in a few hardcore bursts. The group also incorporates a slight hint of desert rock into their doom, a potent combination that former Obsessed members Greg Rogers, Guy Pinhas and later Scott Reeder would take much further with Goatsnake. This style invokes the feeling of cruising through the desert on a bike just as the sun begins to set on some lonesome highway.

Given the meat-and-potatoes nature of The Obsessed's sound, its fitting (especially considering Wino's lifestyle choices during this era) that the lyrics of Lunar Womb and The Church Within (Recluse has not heard The Obsessed, unfortunately) seem to largely revolve around alcoholism and drug addiction. This is especially true of The Church Within, the second half of which being quite harrowing considering the downward spiral Wino's life would descend into shortly after the album was released. There are some hints at the later direction his lyrics and imagery would take, however. Both "Brother Blue Steel" and "To Protect and Serve" (the openers of Lunar Womb and The Church Within, respectively) hint at the conspiracy theory-oriented bent his lyrics with the Hidden Hand would take, while Lunar Womb's title track makes for fine metaphysical musings:

Looked out this mortal window, beheld a dry mirage. 
A black wind was blowin' - pierced the warm facade. 
At the very moment my blackened foot touched the earth. 
Gonna grab me a tunnel, and command me a berth. 
Prometheus bound - suffering on the hour. 
Stole a flame, burnt his game- Discord's golden apple gone sour. 
In this glowing casket there's solace from your gloom- 
My spirit's strength is master inside my Lunar Womb... 
Come beside me - twilight fades and night is soon. 
What flows inside me is the lifeblood of the waning moon

the album cover employed Francisco de Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son
This song can be read as a description of an alchemical transformation. The reoccurring references to blackness ("black wind", "blackened foot") and death ("...the lifeblood of the waning moon") invoke one of the crucial stages of an alchemical transformation, namely putrefaction
"In alchemy is found again the perpetuation of the Universal Mystery; for surely as Jesus died upon the cross, Hiram... at the west gate of the Temple, Orpheus on the banks of the river Hebros, Christna on the banks of the Ganges, and Osiris in the coffin prepared by Typhon, so in alchemy, unless the elements first die, the Great Work cannot be achieved. The stages of the alchemical process can be traced in the lives and activities of nearly all the world Saviors and teachers, and also among the mythologies of several nations. It is said in the Bible that 'except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' In alchemy it is declared that without purification the Great Work cannot be accomplished. What is it that dies on the cross, is buried in the tomb of the Mysteries, and that dies also in the retort and becomes black with putrefaction? Also, what is it that does this same thing in the nature of man, that he may rise again, phoenix-like, from his own ashes..?"
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hal, pg. 506)

Some type of forbidden knowledge is at times the result of an alchemical process and both Prometheus and golden apples are associated with such knowledge, but here the narrator is seemingly being torn apart by these things. The moon, meanwhile, is associated with both death and knowledge.
"The moon was also the first thing to die since, every lunar month, for three days and nights, it vanishes as if it has died. Similarly the dead were believed to acquire a new form of existence. To humans the Moon became the symbol of this passage from life to death and from death to life and was even regarded by some peoples as the place where this transition took place, in parallel with a location below the ground. This is why so many lunar deities are at the same time chthonian death-deities like Men, Persephone and, probably, Hermes. Some, however, believe that the journey to the moon or even life for ever on it was confined to such privileged classes as rulers, heroes, initiates or sorcerers...
"The Moon is a symbol of knowledge acquired coldly, logically and in graduated stages. While the Moon, as the star of night, may conjure up metaphorical visions of beauty shining against the vast black background of Heaven, this light is merely a reflection of the light of the Sun, and hence the Moon is the symbol of knowledge acquired through reflection, that is, theoretical, conceptual and rational knowledge... In this respect Moon and Owl are linked symbolically together. This is also the reason why the Moon is yen, being passive and receptive, relative to the Sun's yang. The Moon is Water relative to the Sun's Fire, cold relative to heat, and symbolically north and Winter in opposition to south and Summer."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pgs. 669-670)

The womb is associated with spiritual regeneration at times, and this seems to be the case in this instance. The knowledge the narrator has acquired in the song seems to have derived from pain and reflection upon it. Perhaps this pain was caused by something previously learned, and the "lunar womb" state the follows is the reflection upon these actions, and a purer knowledge that comes with it. But I digress.

At this point I shall wrap things up for now. In the next installment we shall consider the magic mushroom trip in our nation's capital that forever changed Wino's life and the groovy, Sabbathian spirituality that resulted in the form of Spirit Caravan. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. WINO is an absolute treasure of a musical artist to behold. He is currently tops musically & lyrically in my book. I wish he could tame the beast that is speed as I know from reading Spirit Caravan renunion drama between he and Gary Isom that he was/is trying to remain sober ,,,or more sober.