Friday, June 29, 2012

Psychedelia in Diabolus Part III

When I wrapped up part two I was just getting into psychedelia in 'modern' metal (the 1990s onward).  Now that some of the more extreme gernes such as death and black metal have been considered, it's time to move onto the more overtly psychedelic movements in modern metal. Thus, an apt place to start would be with the subgerne known as prog metal, a hybrid of heavy metal and progressive rock.

As noted in part one, prog and heavy metal had the same origins, namely 1960s acid rock. When the acid rock movement began to splinter in the late 1960s some groups jacked up the volume and distortion, leading to heavy metal. Others stuck by the otherworldly atmospheres of psychedelia and acid rock and incorporated elements of classical, jazz, and avant-garde to open up even more dimensions. Given that both metal and prog shared the same origins, there was frequent overlap between the two gernes in the 1970s. Both used mythological and fantasy-derived lyrics, much to the ire of rock critics everywhere that longed for a 'serious' message. Both gernes would adopt increasingly theatrical concerts, be it the shock rock of Alice Cooper and Kiss, or the full on theater of Pink Floyd or Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Both would increasingly revere musicianship, pushing the notions of what could be done with guitars and drums to new levels (at least in terms of pop music). And finally, both gernes were pretty thoroughly despised by music critics and hipsters alike --witness Lester Bangs' take on Jethro Tull, for example --despite widespread commercial success.

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson channeling the Pied Piper 

Indeed, distinguishing certain 1970s rock groups as prog or metal can be a little difficult. Tull would most certainly fall under the prog category, but several of the most well known singles such "Cross-Eyed Mary" have a strong metal edge. Canadian power trio Rush frequently straddled the line between metal and prog in the 1970s, before finally settling in on prog as the decade came to an end. Conversely, Rainbow was most certainly a metal band (they have to be to include both Ronnie James Dio and Richie Blackmore), yet few prog bands could craft an epic on par with the likes of "Stargazer." And then there was Hawkwind, a psychedelic space rock outfits often described by critics as prog, but whose fan base has been dominated by metalheads for years (having metal legend Lemmy Kilmister on bass for a while was probably a big reason for this).

Rainbow (top) and Hawkwind (bottom)

As the 1970s came to an end a massive gulf opened between the two gernes. As metal became increasingly obsessed with speed, heaviness, and shock value prog went in the opposite direction: It began taking on aspects of new wave, soft rock and 'adult contemporary.' Witness the transformation Genesis made under Phil Collins as a fine example of the depths prog sank too to remain commercially viable. 

And yet the connection between prog and metal was never totally severed. Power metal, for instance, maintained a tenuous link between metal and prog. It was not until the rise of Queensryche in the late 1980s, however, that the subgerne known as prog metal began to take shape. Queensryche originally started out with a sound similar to what bands that fell under the NWOBHM banner had, but as the decade progressed they increasingly began to add elements of 1970s prog. Pink Floyd is often cited as a major influence, but I personally hear a lot more Queen than Floyd. Curiously, Queensryche's breakthrough album was a concept album titled Operation: Mindcrime. The story line revolves around a heroin addict alienated from modern society. Thus, he joins a secret society geared toward political assassination. This organization is led by a demagogue known as Dr. X who, using the protagonist's heroin addict and a series of brainwashing techniques, is able to turn him into a programmed assassin.

This concept of course bears strikingly similarities to the various projects, such as MK-ULTRA, that the CIA instigated during the Cold War in order to create a 'Manchurian Candidate.'
"For intelligence purposes, what was required of MK-ULTRA was ability to manipulate memory, and to relax the inhibitions of captured enemy agents so that they would reveal their secrets... That was step one. Step two would involve erasing specific pieces of information from the subject's memory and replacing those pieces with bits of memory, thus permitting the Agency to send that agent back into the field without any knowledge that he or she had been interrogated and had given up the sensitive information. Step three was a potential bonus: Could that enemy agent then be 'programmed' to commit acts on behalf of the Agency, without knowing who gave the commands or why? This was the essence of the Manchurian Candidate."
(Sinister Forces Book One, Peter Levenda, pg. 218)   
But I digress --Back to Queensryche. All in all Queensryche doesn't have much of a psychedelic component in their sound, but they would at least lay the framework for later bands to bring back psychedelia. One such group was New York's Dream Theater, whose highly complex, atmospheric sound would occasionally delve into psychedelia, most notably in the keyboards. 

As the 1990s progressed, the prog elements of Dream Theater's sound would only become more pronounced as did the occult allusions in their work. In 2001 they even drew the attention conspiracy theorists when a live album, Live Metropolis Pt. 2. Released on 9/11/01, the album's original cover art depicted the skyline of New York City engulfed in flames. This album represented a landmark for either the Cryptocracy, synchronicity, or both, depending upon what side you fall upon. I wish I could add more about this group, but despite having seen them live in either 1999 or 2000, Recluse has just never been able to warm up to them. I just can't muster the enthusiasm to analyze their work in depth.

the original cover for Live Metropolis Pt. 2, released on 9/11/01

I don't have such a problem with Tool, another early prog metal outfit. I've written extensively on Tool before here, so I will not delve deeply into them for this piece. In brief: Tool was founded in 1990 in Los Angeles by drummer Danny Carey, bassist Paul D'Amour, guitarist Adam Jones and singer Maynard James Keenan. Over the past twenty some years Tool has only experienced one lineup change, namely the departure of D'Amour after Tool's debut album, Undertow. He was soon replaced by Justin Chancellor, who has remained the bassist ever since.

Tool's music, which typically consists of five-plus minute songs, extended jamming off of a handful of chords, profane and perverse lyrics, and an all-encompassing aurora of darkness, has been labeled as metal, prog, alternative, and even post-rock by various sources. Psychedelia is rarely a label used by critics, but this aspect of Tool's sound is rarely lost on their fans. In point of fact, Tool fans are just as likely to be into Pink Floyd or the Flaming Lips as they are Slayer or Cannibal Corpse.

What's more, Tool's lyrics are heavily laced with references to the occult and other arcane subjects. The title of their breakthrough album, Aenima, is a play on enema and anima, a Jungian archetype. The followup, Lateralus, is a rough concept album revolving around alchemical transformation. Drummer Danny Carey has acknowledged a keen interest in the occult, especially branches relating to Aleister Crowley. Carey claims to have incorporated elements of sacred geometry into his drumming and even to have performed a Crowley-derived ritual which put him in contact with a daimon.

Tool's Danny Carey

Tool has made heavy use of psychedelia over the years. Probably their most noteworthy track in this vein is the epic "Third Eye," the 13+ minute closing track to Aenima. The song seemingly deals with an experience singer Maynard James Keenan had on peyote, and details an encounter he has with a being on the psychedelic plain. Whether this being is itself supposed to be some kind of daimon or Maynard's shadow is left open to interpretation. Regardless, it makes for an utterly breathtaking close to Aenima, which stands as one of the trippiest and most esoteric albums of the 1990s. I can't recommend it or the follow up, 2001's Lateralus, enough to the budding initiate.

Another prog metal outfit that would make tentative explorations into the occult and psychedelia is the Swedish group known as Meshuggah. To be sure, Meshuggah is certainly not the first band one thinks of when they think psychedelia, and for good reason. Meshuggah was initially one of the heaviest and most complex bands to ever record. Their post-thrash classic Destroy Erase Improve was one of the most brutal metal albums released in the 1990s, conjuring images of humanity's holocaust at the hands of machines in the listener's mind. Their sound was (and still is) groundbreaking, incorporating polyrhythms, polymetered riffs, rapid tempo and key changes, and guitarist Fredrik Thordendal's jazz fusion-like solos.

As the 00s arrived Meshuggah began to incorporate elements of the occult and psychedelia into their sound, perhaps in part due to extensive touring with Tool. The transformation began with 2002's Nothing, which found the band slowing their tempos and focusing more on groove than pummeling the listener into submission. It also witnessed the band's first extensive use of psychedelia, most notably on the track "Rational Gaze." The lyrics seem to center around the psychedelic user's alienation from corporate-derived, mainstream society:
"Squint your eyes to see clearly. Blur reality to make it real

Let focus go from your deceiving eyes to know what's been concealed

We've all been blinded - Subjects to visual misinformation 

A systematic denial of the crystalline 

Our light-induced image of truth - Filtered blank of its substance

As our eyes won't adhere to intuitive lines

Everything examined. Separated, one thing at a time

The harder we stare the more complete the disintegration 

To see the fine grain, to read the hidden words

The context of parallel truth - Devoid of fragmentation

Eyes re-opened, susceptible

Reasoning focalized. Receptors activated 

Perspectives distorted

The ladder beyond our grasp

The twin-headed serpent forever hidden

Where's the true knowledge

Where engines of the sane & insanity merge 

the clarity, the unity  

Reality untouchable, transparent, invisible

to our fixed, restricted fields of vision

Existence taken for granted, absolute

Uncomprehended by our content minds 

Possessed, owned, run, controlled

by the common sense-infected rational gaze

Onward forever we walk among the ignorant

Never stray from the common lines"
 The line "A systematic denial of the crystalline" seems to be an allusion to DMT, which sometimes comes in a crystal form. The narrator consumes DMT to achieve a true view of the world in which he lives, yet cannot quite make it to the next level of illumination, as the fourth verse indicates. Still, the user can never fit back into the hive-mind of corporatism, as the final verse indicates. 

The following album, 2005's Catch Thirty-Three, brought occultism to the forefront. The title is a play on the legendary antiwar novel Catch-22, which spawned the phrase "catch 22" as an expression of paradoxes. The number 33 is highly significant in the occult, being the highest degree in Scottish Rite Freemasonry. Of the number, thirty-third degree Freemason Manly P. Hall writes:
"... consider the number 33. The first temple of Solomon stood for thirty-three years in its pristine splendor. At the end of that time it was pillaged by the Egyptian King Shishak, and finally (588 B.C.) it was completely destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the people of Jerusalem were led into captivity to Babylon.... Also, King David ruled for thirty-three years in Jerusalem; the Masonic Order is divided into thirty-three symbolic degrees; there are thirty-three segments in the human spinal column; and Jesus was crucified in the thirty-third year of His life."(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, pgs. 238-239)

The Catch Thirty-Three cover depicts three separate snake heads eating one another's tails, seemingly in a play off the ouroboros symbol. The following album, 2008's obZen, is even more curious. The title is a combination of the words obscene and zen, playing into an underlining concept the album that humanity only achieves zen through bloodshed and greed. The cover depicts a three-armed nude man seated in the lotus position. He is drenched in blood seemingly from being castrated. One of the three hands holds three fingers over the figure's lips as if in mockery of Harpocrates, the God of Silence and symbolic of the secrets of the ancient Mysteries.
"Harpocrates, the God of Silence, holding his fingers to his mouth... He warns all to keep the secrets of the wise from those unfit to know them."
(ibid, pg. 131)

The fingers of all three hands are meant to form sixes, giving us three sixes, or 666. This cover is seemingly a mockery of the ancient Mysteries. The castrated, monk-like figure is stripped of his generative, or creative force. At the same time he is reminding the initiate to keep the secret he is also drowning in evil.

But so much for Meshuggah and prog metal. Now it's time to move on to the most overtly psychedelics gernes of modern metal. Back in the 1980s when underground metal was becoming increasingly obsessed with speed and technicality, their was one movement still clinging to the classical Black Sabbath approach of slow, heavy riffs. This gerne is doom metal, which began to emerge in the mid-1980s as distinct movement. Some of the pioneering groups included Witchfinder GeneralTroublePentagramCandlemass, and Saint Vitus. Several of these groups incorporated vaguely psychedelic elements, most notably Saint Vitus and later Trouble. Former Saint Vitus vocalist Scott 'Wino' Weinrich embraced an even druggier sound in addition to ample allusions to the occult and entheogens-as-sacraments in later bands such as Spirit Caravan and the Hidden Hand. In the song "Sea Legs" off Spirit Caravan's 2000 album Jug Fulla Sun Wino manages to mix odes to his motorcycle with allusions to the Mysteries:
"From the paradise driven

To escape the Deluge

Revealed the Mysteries given
In exchange for Refuge
Climbing through the sea
In my side car rides my Atlantean queen"


But I'm getting ahead of myself. While doom would pave the way for psychedelia's full on return to metal it was the gernes that doom influenced that would unleash the psychedelic wellspring. It all began in the mid-1980s with a Washington state-based group known as the Melvins. The Melvins cut their teeth on the 1980s hardcore scene before opting to become a metal band. They took the slow, heavy riffs of Sabbath and doom metal and merged them with the raw energy and attitude of hardcore. What emerged was a sound that was both classical and highly innovative at the same time. Early Melvins songs were known for their sudden shifts in key and tempo and guitarist Buzz 'King Buzzo' Osbourne's massively detuned (the Melvins were using drop C tuning as early as the late 1980s) and feedback-laden riffs. The feedback was probably the most striking part of the Melvins' sound. King Buzzo took the amplifier experimentations Hendrix engaged in between songs and created a vocabulary of fills and leads around it, creating a sound that was both sinister and supremely druggy at the same time. Certainly other acts had attempted such a sound before --i.e. the WipersFlipper, and My War-era Black Flag --but it took the Melvins to truly establish this style of music. 

King Buzzo

The influence of the Melvins was vast. Despite receiving little to no mainstream recognition over the years, the Melvins are one of the most important rock outfits of the past 30 years. Probably their biggest influence wasn't even in metal, but in grunge. The Melvins were one of the first Washington state indie bands to gain national exposure, thus drawing attention to other bands in the area. Many of the early Washington bands took the Melvins' signature sound, toned it down and added conventional song structures to it, leading to the birth of grunge. One such group that engaged in heavy Melvins worship was Nirvana.  

Kurt Cobain was a massive fan of the Melvins, and even produced their 1993 album Houdini in a bid to win them more exposure. The Melvins enjoyed close ties with Nirvana before they became the biggest rock act of their generation. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic was a roadie with the Melvins before co-founding Nirvana with Cobain. Longtime Melvins drummer Dale Crover played drums on early Nirvana demos before Buzzo introduced Kurt and Krist to Dave Grohl. Other Washington groups, such as Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, all displayed a major Melvins influence even if they didn't have the direct links to the group that Nirvana did. 

Kurt Cobain with members of the Melvins

Within metal, the Melvins created their own gerne: sludge metal. The sound of sludge was built around lumbering, fuzzed out and detuned guitars with the occasional burst of hardcore and the obligatory feedback explorations. Psychedelia was also present from the get go in sludge --check out "Influence of Atmosphere" on the Melvins debut album, Gluey Porch Treatments, for instance. Still,   it would not become a major competent for almost another decade. The Melvins themselves would not begin incorporating psychedelia heavily into their sound until 1994's Stoner Witch and 1996's Stag, possibly the closet thing sludge has to its own Sgt. Pepper's 

Many of the early sludge bands were based out of New Orleans, and would call their scene NOLA as a result. The two pioneering groups from this scene were Crowbar and Eyehategod, but it was a third, lesser known group that would arguably have a far wider influence. Acid Bath was not actually from New Orleans (rather, Houma, L.A.) but they would soon become one of the leading NOLA sludge bands. Their sound incorporated elements of sludge, hardcore, black and death metal, blues, and psychedelia into a druggy stew that frequently alluded to addiction, dirty sex and serial killers. The cover of their debut album, When Kite String Pops, is actually a painting done by the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The follow up album, 1996's Paegan Terrorism Tactics, featured an album cover by Dr. Jack Kevorkian. 

Acid Bath guitarist Sammy Duet is an acknowledged satanist, yet their lyrical content has rarely gone in that direction. Rather, they frequently offer up an acid-washed view of a modern America overrun with perversion, death, and degeneration. Hell, Acid Bath arguably presents a far greater condemnation of declining morals than Christian fundamentalism could ever manage. Simply consider Acid Bath's supremely creepy take on abortion on the trippy and surprisingly catchy "Scream of the Butterfly." "Jezebel" offers a truly disturbing take on prostitution while the heroin-ode "Dope Fiend" is a harrowing account of addiction. At the end of the latter, when singer Dax Riggs screams "Yeah motherfucker I'm high! And I'm grateful just to be alive!" you know something primal is happening. 

Acid Bath would disband in 1997 shortly after the death of bassist Audie Pitre. Acid Bath never rose above the status of cult band during their run, yet they would have a vastly underrated influence on the future of sludge. They are, to the best of my knowledge, the first sludge band to heavily incorporate psychedelia into their sound and one of the first extreme metal bands in general to go down that path. In the next decade, many of the newer sludge bands build upon Acid Bath's curious mixture of extreme metal, goth, blues and psychedelia, especially the Georgia-based bands, and would add overtly mythological and occultic lyrics to the mix, completing metal's return to the ancient Mysteries

But that's for another installment. Stay tuned. 

No comments:

Post a Comment