October 29, 2020

AirdriftSignals EXCLUSIVE: Barcelona-based alternative heavy metal group Obsidian Kingdom discuss their new LP, MEAT MACHINE

Our AirdriftSignals Artist Spotlight Interview series covers this time, Barcelona-based alternative heavy metal act, Obsidian Kingdom, who are promoting their brand new album, MEAT MACHINE!

Obsidian Kingdom AirdriftSignals Interview

AirdriftSignals: This third LP, MEAT MACHINE, is the first to feature primary female vocals in your songs, performed by one of your guitarists Irene, and the split vocal duties you bring is a welcome transition between the equally pleasing aggressive and tender moments of the album. Can you speak a little about how you came about deciding your latest lineup change and the addition of this contrast to your new songs?

Obsidian Kingdom: Irene came into the band as a guitar player for the “A Year With No Summer” tour. She was under a lot of pressure at that moment because she had played little electric guitar before that, and she had to learn how to perform rather tricky guitar parts in a very short time. In the end, she managed and the tour went very well, but she suffered from a lot of stress due to that pressure – especially because of how poorly I handled my guidance, in my role as eldest band member and coordinator. I think that struggle is latent in most of the songs from the album. When the tour was over, we took to writing what would eventually become MEAT MACHINE. Irene participated a lot in the creative process and, as a consequence of that, she was writing plenty of lyrics and vocal lines, which she sang to us while showing us her ideas. We soon discovered that she had a wonderful voice, so we decided to try. The results were amazing, and we decided that we would split vocal duties - when we were done writing, she was singing five songs and I was singing the other five.

However, when it came to the recording, the shadow of that past strain resurfaced, and even though she performed all of her parts beautifully, she suffered too much from doing it. So by the end of her tracking, she decided it wasn’t worth her while, and she called it quits, much to our dismay. So we were left with a difficult decision: either we kept the songs as they had been recorded, knowing that we would never be able to play them live, or we re-recorded her vocals, although we were already way out of studio time. We went for the latter, which was a real struggle - not only because we had to adapt her lines to my range, but also because some lyrics were too personal and needed to be written over.

That would explain why you think Irene’s parts are “soft” in contrast with mine. The truth is that it was never meant that way, as Irene growled in many of the songs she used to sing. As a matter of fact, many of the growls you can still hear on the record are actually hers. By the end of that process, we found out that her voice was just irreplaceable in two songs, FLESH WORLD and A FOE, so we decided to leave them. We can only hope that she’ll come on stage with us someday to bring them to life.

We drifted for a while without a fifth member and even played a gig with a hired gun. But shortly after that, Victor noticed the vacant spot and jumped in. We’re whole again!

In a sense, this dynamic of heavy and softer quality could be found as early as your first LP, Mantiis, and also in your song Black Swan from A Year With No Summer. Not only this but Obsidian’s interest in electronic experimentation evident from the Torn and Burnt electronic remix EP shows you are absolutely willing to go down any sonic road that makes a great song. Does this speak to a musically diverse set of influences from each of your members?

Yes, definitely. We are five very different individuals who are also very culturally curious and we’re always bringing new things to the table. I know it’s kind of cliché, but we really will listen to ANYTHING as long as it makes us feel something. OK, maybe we’re not too fond of polka or traditional Hindu music, but you catch our drift: rock, pop, classical, electronic, jazz, noise, ambient, drone, folk, hip-hop, punk, trap, hardcore, anything goes. Even metal! Since we are so different, it’s hard to come across a band or album that we all like at the same time, but such a thing has happened with acts like Ulver, Death Grips, Daughters, Deftones, Scott Walker, and others.

But that’s not the only reason why our music is so diverse. When we set out to write a song, we discuss the content first, in terms of emotions and ideas. Once we got that down, we think of the sound resources that will suit those better, and we’d rather choose from a broad palette. We’ve always found that metal is somewhat limited when it comes to emotional range, and maybe not the best genre when you want to express something delicate, intimate, or fragile, for example. So why limit ourselves to a single set of rules? That’s not how we roll.

Obsidian Kingdom Dark Room

I don't mean to take attention away from your absolutely heavy and magnificent tracks, such as MR PAN and MEAT STAR, but overall the balance works very cohesively in this new record. What is your process in how you arrive at different musical junctions in songs such as THE EDGE and VOGUE that have notable stylistic changes?


THE EDGE and VOGUE are both songs about extreme mental states, about characters at the brink of madness. They are very emotionally unstable and they try to convey a sense of volatility, danger, and impending breakdown. We wanted to reflect that lack of balance and serenity, so we chose weird song structures, quirky sound effects, and jumpy riffs. This anxiety and unpredictability runs throughout the whole of MEAT MACHINE, but maybe especially so in those two songs.

When listening to the new record, there is obviously a focus and metaphor for the physical plane that we live in, but not always (more on that in the next question). Personally, it gives me the feeling of social economics and humans as livestock (or living stock) in this system we all live in, which you could actually call a machine. How did you arrive at the concept of MEAT MACHINE as an album and MEAT STAR as a music video?


It all comes down to a simple question, one we asked ourselves at the very beginning of the creative process: who are we now? And why are we doing this? We soon found out that the answer was eluding us. We tried to narrow down our identity and found that many of the things that we were focusing on had to do with our flesh and our physicality. We found that behind the thin façade of our personalities, our meat was always demanding as if it had a will of its own. The traits that we chose to define ourselves by had to do with things like our sexuality and our emotions, which ultimately are a set of chemical responses meant to help us survive. We also found out that many of those things didn’t depend on our will, but rather were a kind of automatism that we had to deal with. The body is a meat machine. And the way we relate to each other, the way we choose to use and abuse our power over other individuals, to give them pleasure or to make them suffer, makes the world another meat machine as well. We thought that it was a poetic concept that condensed our current fears and worries, and one into which the audience would easily project theirs.
Of course, there is something resembling social commentary, but the real goal of the album is to portray the struggle of the quest for identity in a mechanized and apparently insensitive universe. That is exactly where spirituality comes in, at the very doorway of nihilism. Themes like faith, transcendence, and true callings are tapped into in songs like MEAT STAR or MR PAN. There is also a strong underlying theme that binds together most of the songs in the album, and that is how our subconscious energies shape the material world we inhabit. So it’s not all meat in the end… But we wouldn’t want to get too intellectual about it. We wanted to write an album that you could feel, not one that you had to think about in order to understand it.

Yes. MR PAN, which is a track inspired by the legend of the god Pan, as well as the symbolism used in the MEAT STAR music video point to an influence in ancient folklore as well as the concept of magick as proposed by the mystic and magician Aleister Crowley. How has this mythology and philosophy (Thelema) influenced your group’s work?

I myself am very keen on the work of Frater Perdurabo and Thelema. As you very observantly have pointed out, this influence is especially patent in the MEAT STAR video, which is vaguely based on the Ritual of Abramelin and the concept of the Holy Guardian Angel - the idea that one must undergo a demanding process of withdrawal and self-resignation in order to unveil one’s true purpose in life. A rite of death and rebirth. Furthermore, many other characters and scenes in the narrative were drawn after the archetypes of the Major Arcana from the Thoth Tarot. And to top it off, the cinematography is reminiscent of that of Kenneth Anger, whose fondness of Crowley is well documented. MR PAN is also a song about reaching transcendence and a purer knowledge of the universe, but this time through altered mind states, hedonism, and self-immolation; it’s a much more Dionysian song. This of course relates to The Great Beast as well, but to be honest we had in mind other modern shamanistic icons when we wrote it, such as Carlos Castaneda or Jim Morrison.


Based on your origins in Barcelona, Spain, you have toured throughout many different regions of the world over the years. How have you felt your music has been received in relation to your contemporary touring bands that have gone on tour with you? How have you found other regions and fans taking to your music and how are their responses?

It’s hard to say… We tend to tour with bands that also dwell in the fringes of Rock and Metal, or who are innovative in some way, so our audience tends to be very open-minded in terms of music, which we, of course, appreciate very much, but at the same time, we always seem to be the oddball on the bill. So far we’ve found great acceptance in places like the UK or The Netherlands, probably because they have a bigger tradition in experimental and progressive music. The audience in Germany tends to be a little bit more conservative in their taste in Metal, which doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate what we do. Performing as Obsidian Kingdom, we’ve never played anywhere outside of Europe, but we’re dying to find out what they think of it in other places in the world. The music video of MEAT STAR recently won the “best music video” award at a cinema festival in Chile, and we’re getting great feedback from the United States as well, so we’re guessing there are a lot of people out there who probably love our art as well. It will happen.

Your past albums have displayed a strong aptitude for switching up styles, as this album does no less. A couple of the genres for example in past albums I have found intriguing and very satisfying were your dive into drone metal with April 10th as well as your heavy black metal beginnings. Do you ever see these stylistic choices coming about in your future work?

It depends… When we wrote Mantiis we had absolutely no idea what we were doing in terms of style. Just to give you an example, the trumpets in Last of the Light were included at the very end of the recording, like a last-minute arrangement for a part that felt dull at the moment. Or Genteel to Mention, which is a rather folky tune, that started off as a generic post-rock song. However, when we started to work on A Year With No Summer, we had previously decided that we would delve into the territories of drone, dream-pop, shoegaze, and the like since we wanted to give the album an ethereal and ominous vibe, and those styles felt perfect for that. That was our first serious attempt at electronic beats as well, which you can hear on songs like April 10th or The Polyarnik. With MEAT MACHINE, it was both pre-determined and spontaneous. On one side, we knew we wanted a rabid record, with an abrasive production, so we were certain that we would fall into Metal, hardcore, and crazy synths at some points, but on the other hand, we left enough room for the album to be whatever it wanted to be. That’s where weird and wonderful things started to happen.

Obsidian Kingdom Mask

And not to get ahead of the present moment and album, but I just think it’s important to note how impressively Obsidian Kingdom has evolved over the years. You never know when a new electronic remix album might drop, unless of course....?


Putting together Torn & Burnt was great fun back in the day since we got to hear the interpretations of our own songs by some of the electronic music producers that we were crazy about. On the touring cycle, we even played some of the remixes instead of the actual songs live. But since we mostly play rock music for a rock audience, I think that remixes are still perceived as a rarity and a b-side, and more often than not they’re not worth the effort you put into them. Come to think of it, it’d be really hard for me to point out more than five remixes in the history of music that were actually better than the original songs. We’ve also produced remixes for other bands ourselves, for bands like Cult of Luna or God Seed. So you never know… We might do it again!

Speaking of electronic music, in a previous interview with Heavy Metal New York you mention that you guys wanted to make an electronic record this time around. This style is easily heard on FLESH WORLD as an example and also the synth work in the middle of VOGUE and the end of WOMB OF WIRE. As a fan of electronic music, I see synth work as a fantastic addition to any genre. With this in mind, and your tendency to experiment, such as your use of an e-bow in A Year With No Summer, do you and the members have any plans to expand Obsidian Kingdom’s arsenal with even more and possibly unique instruments and instrumentation going forward?

Yes, our first intention was for MEAT MACHINE to be a full-on electronic album that you could dance to. We pre-produced the songs for a whole year and when we showed them to our producer, he found them boring and utterly uninteresting, and invited us to do it all over again - which we did! We kept some of the ideas, and the tempos, but as you can hear now, it certainly doesn’t feel like an electronic record, however much electronica it might have in it. I guess we weren’t there yet - we shall keep on trying. And as for the future, who knows? Most of the time, we come across those little tools by sheer accident. For example, I got myself an e-bow after touring with Sólstafir, who were using it a lot in their album Ótta. I thought it was extremely cool and I shamelessly copied it. But they probably copied it from The Smashing Pumpkins as well, because I know Addi loves them, ha! Also, one of the effects that you can hear throughout MEAT MACHINE is an auto-whammy pedal that I brought only because it is called “Ricochet”, and we had misused that word in an early version of the lyrics for THE EDGE. Accidents are really the salt and pepper of experimenting. 


The world and your fans are very much looking forward to your upcoming world tour next Spring. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we can all go out and celebrate and listen to you and others performing live again. Are there any bucket list items that you still want to see Obsidian Kingdom accomplish either while touring, collaborating, or creatively?

We are a very ambitious band, and of course, we always want to play bigger venues, before broader and more engaged audiences, in the best territorial extension possible. In terms of art, we dream of doing great things as well, although, in all honesty, I have to say that we’ve already done a great deal of them! We’ve played in museums (twice!), composed film scores, and commissioned paintings. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to fulfilling three basic needs: creating something that makes others feel (and hopefully appreciate newer meanings to life), having fun in the process, and making enough money to keep on doing it all over again. For as long as that happens, we’re happy. Oh, and I’m not calling it quits till we play in Japan.

Is there any other insight about your latest work you’d like to share with the world?

WATCH OUT WHAT YOU SEED IN OTHERS.

MEAT MACHINE can be purchased or streamed on all music platforms. Read our full review and stay tuned for more Obsidian Kingdom in the near future! 

Stefan Walczak Obsidian Kingdom MEAT MACHINE Red Vinyl

Amorphous and constantly reinventing heavy metal-alternative rock group Obsidian Kingdom drop their third genre-smashing album, MEAT MACHINE - Album Review

Obsidian Kingdom MEAT MACHINE Album Artwork

Obsidian Kingdom are no strangers to change, as we have seen from our exclusive interview with them. By their third full-length LP, they have proven themselves as masters of reinvention with a talent for displaying a wide swath of genre sensibilities. It all started with their debut maxi-single, Matter, a 5-track black-metal ode to the elements. Their follow-up EP, 3:11, showed a tighter production quality with 3 massive songs, but still treading familiar waters. What really set Obsidian Kingdom apart was their full-length debut, Mantiis, a sprawling single song concept album subdivided into 14 tracks that go from theatrical, to hard rock, to heavy black metal, and back, all with elements of electronic music and other styles. What it did essentially was take the overarching genre of heavy metal and lit it on fire. A Year With No Summer was no different. Released in 2016, the group blended more elements of drone metal, electronic atmospheres, and alternative rock. Now, just a month ago, MEAT MACHINE defines Obsidian Kingdom as their own trailblazers. 

It can’t be more apparent than in Rider’s opening lines of the album, “Can you feel now? The currents have changed, a thin leak through, the rattling of teeth,” from the opening track THE EDGE. It’s not even a minute in its runtime before it performs the album’s first impressive change, as guitarist Irene steps in to soften the heavy blow. "A wrenched heart," she sings, "could not bear, to keep me quiet, or hold us close, a trace drawn, across the wet floor, a body dragged like a corpse." The track then flows right back into its original groove. Songs such as these are plentiful in MEAT MACHINE, and they offer the listener a widening spectrum of sounds as the album plays out. THE PUMP follows with grandiose arena rock and heavy metal vibes, and it becomes apparent that these songs are designed to be delivered in their full glory when played live. "Relentlessly, we feed, THE PUMP, and it keeps growing on and on, all our lives," Rider sings with frenetic desperation. "Your body is not a temple, is not holy, is just food for THE PUMP, food for THE PUMP." The Pump in this instance takes on the role of all machinations that people willingly give up their energies to, that of which never seems to satiate, and it's one of the many cogs that keep this record spinning. 

Obsidian Kingdom MEAT MACHINE CD Booklet

The bleating heart of MR PAN's synthesized intro speaks of horror film scores and makes for an atmospheric place setting of the track's themes. Pan, the ancient god of the wilderness and the natural world, has been used in folklore to help others in revealing the world for the way it really is, and it's the perfect vehicle for Obsidian Kingdom to transport listeners into the nether realm of momentary bliss. The song takes effective stabs as a fluctuating heavy metal rocker, with guitars that soar and take listeners along for an epic ride somewhere undetermined, yet utterly satisfying. NAKED POLITICS, the first song of the album to depart from the heavy metal stylings that the group is known for, takes a detour into alternative rock, as Rider chronicles the feeling of endlessly playing this superficial game of life, pushing our bodies to the brink until we break. Irene joins in with Rider during the breakdown, "A body is just a body, and a body is just a frame, echoes of a blank space, to be filled with your pain." The flesh is a canvas for the living to suffer upon, and Obsidian Kingdom understand this universal truth. 

FLESH WORLD, the following track, doesn't pull any punches either, and it is in essence the greatest break from the album so far. Stylistically, it is reminiscent of a soft angelic vocalist cooing over lush and electronic instrumentation, and the hints of electronica that Rider spoke about in our interview fully shines on this track. It is a completely addicting and eclectic mix of heavy rock choruses and Irene's vocal talent. MEAT STAR, the band's first single, is forever illuminating in its power and glory. The slow swagger of the heavy metal riffs along with Rider's screams speaks of the need to be remembered and not forgotten in this hectic and crazy world. Before long, the drumbeat kicks into a double-timed groove leading up to the chorus. "Peel the dirt off of my eyes," he sings, "believe, the star is burning bright, no burden can drag me down, give in, glory will be mine." The unwavering determination pulled off in this song is complemented by an intense and visually stunning music video, which we covered in our interview. Whether occultism gives MEAT STAR a power in and unto itself is up for debate, but it remains without a doubt flawless and destined for greatness. 

There are many sonic nuggets of brilliance sprinkled throughout MEAT MACHINE, all distilling the tracks with a sense of fullness, and a feeling that these guys are fans of all different kinds of music. SPANKER is no exception to this notion. Its hard rock flair shows off this side of the band. Rider's singing is punctuated with wailing guitars, a faster-drummed chorus, and a complete Floydian breakdown full of guitars, synths, drums, and ghostly moans. The arena rock style fits nicely with this band, and it goes to show why they have such a great presence and reputation as a live act. VOGUE, the third to last song, takes a dive into the wallows of lust, desire, and compulsive violence. The simultaneously exciting and ugly parts of life come together in this track, and Rider's chorus is a call to be with (and inside) a lover, which quickly degrades into the depths of murderous rage. This line is carefully walked, and thoughts of crimes of passion make this song all the more chilling. 

Obsidian Kingdom MEAT MACHINE CD Booklet

WOMB OF WIRE, the penultimate cut, shows off more of Obsidian Kingdom's inclination to form electronic soundscapes. The introduction feels like a horror film that is about to unfold. WOMB OF WIRE is a blend of electronic atmosphere, hard rock riffs, heavy metal growls, and Irene's gentle response to Rider's rough verse, "look close, how shapes dissolve, it's dire, and it's sublime, how fragile we are." The middle and end of this track are notable for the group's fondness for electronic beats. A FOE takes all that we've learned from the album thus far, and spins it into a final mention, and plays out as a beautifully bittersweet ballad for Irene to shine with the final word. A FOE is a calculated measure of the cruel world that we all live in. It's a question of if love and tenderness are real and whether the central figure feels deserving of it. It's a song that ultimately the singer resigns to her fate. "And I think I could cry, and I think I could beg, but the die has been cast, so I sit down instead, when the reel wears too thin, to contain all the shame, we will ride on the cart, to my gruesome end." It is sobering, and it is the ultimate come down from an album full of extreme highs. 

Obsidian Kingdom take listeners on a ride that is exhilarating and unforgettable with their third LP. As the fluorescent man, a bio-plant-like human from the Saga of the Swamp Thing would say about people, “I hate it when steaks cry.” MEAT MACHINE takes this theme of physicality and mortality and explores it fully, veering into the stratosphere of what drives people, and if there is more to this world than what we see before our eyes. For a third album that is vastly different than the two that have come before it, it doesn't show any signs of complacency, and the constantly shifting sound of Obsidian Kingdom has only proven that this band is stronger than ever before. 

Obsidian Kingdom Red Vinyl MEAT MACHINE

MEAT MACHINE - 8.5/10

Recommended Tracks: MR. PAN, FLESH WORLD, MEAT STAR 

October 11, 2020

DJ Dark Flow's Masterpiece Crate #3: Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral Masterpiece Album Review

Alternative and grunge rock were left for dead in the wake of Alice In Chains' punishing grunge-metal-hybrid album, Dirt, which we covered in our Masterpiece Crate #2. It was an album that ignited mainstream culture in a way that no other heavy metal act could do at the time, and there was almost no way another album could top the sheer aggressive tones and tonal density caught on tape and pressed into their sophomore record. However, another challenger approached, just two years later, and this time, it brought another genre with it into the worldwide spotlight. To call this album mainstream (despite its worldwide commercial success) would be a disservice to its ultimate goal, which was to peel back the skin of superficiality, but its overall effect on mainstream culture still reverberates to this day. This album shook the world with its naked honesty in its final track, while still showing the world how sexy, dirty, and seductive it feels getting closer to God. That album became known as The Downward Spiral, released in 1994 by studio mastermind, visionary, and musician, Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails.

If you've noticed a trend in this Masterpiece Crate series of articles, it's that up until this point, each group created their masterpiece record in their second albums: Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and now Nine Inch Nails used their first albums as testing grounds to find their sound and ended up crafting extraordinary works of art in the second go-around. Trent Reznor, a classically trained pianist who grew up in the rural Mercer, Pennsylvania, didn't have a particularly rough childhood. Growing up with his maternal grandparents after his parents divorced, he states that nothing was particularly affecting that might have influenced his musical output, other than the isolation and loneliness of small-town, USA. A big influence up to this point was all of Reznor's mainstream media: television and magazines that portrayed an American lifestyle of superficial vanity, all of which was alien to him at the time.

After a year of college, Reznor dropped out and moved to Cleveland, Ohio to become an assistant engineer and custodian at the Right Track recording studio. In his free time, he was allowed to record raw demos of music that he envisioned. From these demos spawned his classic, debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, but his refinement wasn't complete until The Downward Spiral, which was recorded in the infamous (and likely haunted) Manson murder house in California. Whether this ominous essence was somehow burned to tape is up for speculation, but it is undeniable that the overall themes throughout this concept album, which chronicle nihilism and self-destruction, is a chilling tale of loneliness and despair, and unlike the previous entries of this series, has so much insight to be gained by being the first concept album to be covered. Its series of tracks can be related to by all those who have felt down and out about society, and for that, it takes its place as a masterpiece of modern culture. Now finally, on to the music. 

The Downward Spiral Package Artwork

The opening track of the album, Mr. Self Destruct, opens up the album with the unmistakable and chilling sounds of a slow, beating drum, which sounds more like a pulverizing blow as a person in the mix moans in pleasure (or torture). As Pinhead of Hellraiser would say, "Ah, the suffering. The sweet, sweet suffering," and there is a definite motif in this album of sadomasochism that occurs from the act of self-harm or inflicting pain on others. Reznor comes in at the height of the drumbeat and speaks as the vices and temptations for the central character of the album, who for all intents and purposes will be referred to as the protagonist from henceforth. "I am the voice inside your head (and I control you), I am the lover in your bed (and I control you), I am the sex that you provide (and I control you), I am the hate you try to hide (and I control you)." It's a cryptically poetic set of lyrics that set the stage for the many themes of the album, and it cuts to the core of what pushes this tortured soul down the path to self-destruction. 

Piggy and March of the Pigs, two songs that reference an animal used for many themes, such as gluttony, unclean desires, greed, and probably even a reference to the verbiage used by the Manson family, are defined by their introductions to the other agents of the album that the protagonist sees as lesser beings and disgusting in their desires or motives. The protagonist's attempt to address the pigs is a theme that has recently been explored in mainstream culture with Joaquin Phoenix's mesmerizing turn as the DC Comic Books villain Joker, which is itself inspired by the 1976 Scorsese picture Taxi Driver. Both films dealt with a central character whose disgust for society and overall view of the city streets as a cesspool of disease, addiction, and prostitution, sought to remedy the ills by their own means, which led to violence and a self-righteous effort to justify their actions. Piggy is the protagonist's attempt to address those who have left him to rot, "Black and blue and broken bones you left me here I'm all alone" and "what am I supposed to do I lost my shit because of you." The semi-downtempo and jazzy number serves as an introduction to how the protagonist feels about being betrayed by other people in his life. It is the very first song in the NIN legacy that features the repeated line throughout multiple releases "Nothing can stop me now, because I don't care anymore." An interesting producer note about Piggy is its latter half drum solo, which was performed by Reznor himself and was meant as more of a studio soundcheck, except Reznor, liking its disjointed and chaotic style so much, decided to keep it for the song's final take. March of the Pigs is the protagonist's view of society, and how the pigs like to tear down the people of higher standing and watch their downfall "I want to break it up, I want to smash it up, I want to fuck it up, I want to watch it come down, maybe afraid of it, let's discredit it, let's pick away at it, I want to watch it come down." 

Heresy tackles another popular theme of The Downward Spiral, the problem with religion and belief systems that the protagonist feels has plagued the world. It is important to note how directly this song is a product of Nietzsche's popular rendition of the phrase "God is dead", originally written by German philosopher Philipp Mainländer. Nietzsche's reinterpretation claims that the Age of Enlightenment and the rise of scientific discovery gave way to the decline of religion or faith-based ideas and that the role of God and His significance was diminished as more people turned their trust to science and naturalism. Not only this theory, but the protagonist's view of religion as one of the leading causes of war and genocide are felt throughout the lyrics, "He tries to tell me what I put inside of me, He's got the answers to ease my curiosity, He dreamed a god up and called it Christianity," and "He flexed his muscles to keep his flock of sheep in line, He made a virus that would kill off all the swine, His perfect kingdom of killing, suffering, and pain, demands devotion atrocities done in his name," is answered by the scathing declaration "Your God is dead, and no one cares, if there is a Hell, I will see you there."

Closer Heartbeat Music Video Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral

Closer, the worldwide phenomenon, is a sexy, albeit desperate attempt, by the protagonist to reconnect with humanity and spirituality through the act of sexual intercourse. As if any non-Nine Inch Nails fan didn't already know this obvious fact, that Closer was about "I wanna fuck you like an animal" and getting "closer to God", Closer was an industrial-disco hybrid track that ended up being a repeat hit on the rock radio airwaves and signaled that the 80s arena rock and 90s grunge rock were now relics of a more distant time, and the electronic-industrial-rock fusion that Nine Inch Nails offered was the new wave of even more dangerously satisfying music that was here to stay in pop culture. Nothing of the time could come close to Closer's pervasiveness and perversion of getting closer. Its opening industrial heartbeat, timid singing by Reznor, and scowling primal chorus define its sweaty dance vibes. It is the desperate plea by the protagonist to satisfy his most basic instincts, and hopefully, in the process, find something, or someone, to reconnect to, but ultimately this act isn't enough to save his soul, and he is pulled by his past memories into much, much darker territory, with the close follow-up song, Ruiner. 

Ruiner and The Becoming are both transitionary tracks for the protagonist in this story, and they both are dealing with entirely separate issues that some people who've dealt with trauma and addiction can relate to. Listen closely, as Ruiner is one of the most bone-chilling songs on the record, which is tough by The Downward Spiral's standards. "The Ruiner's got a lot to prove he's got nothing to lose and now he made you believe, the Ruiner's your only friend well he's the living end to the cattle he deceives, the raping of the innocent you know the Ruiner ruins everything he sees, now the only pure thing left in my fucking world is wearing your disease." Childhood trauma with a molester and abuser makes the almost unintelligible lines all the more shocking and haunting. "Maybe there will come a day when those that you keep blind will suddenly realize, maybe it's a part of me you took to a place I hoped it would never go, and maybe that fucked me up much more than you'll ever know." The protagonist can't get right with God or right with others if his life is plagued by the Ruiner, and Reznor's production work to make this song a vibrating well of sounds doesn't pull any punches either. After his lines "What you gave to me, my perfect ring of scars, you know I can see, what you really are," the drums break away momentarily, and the fuzzy atmosphere is greeted by a bit-crushed guitar solo performed by Reznor himself. Similar to the drum solo in Piggy, Reznor displays a special aptitude for each of these instruments, and both exude a dusty and jazz-like swing in their performances. They speak to the unique attributes and moments that really make The Downward Spiral shine. It isn't long before the industrial drums march to the tune while the protagonist repeats, "You didn't hurt me, nothing can hurt me, you didn't hurt me, nothing can stop me now." The Becoming, the immediate follow-up, is the climactic metamorphosis track of the album and chronicles how the protagonist loses all humanity and allows the cold nihilism to take over his being. The character Annie, who the protagonist refers to, is a legitimate source of emotional pain for Reznor, a past heartbreak that allowed him to channel all the teeth-grinding hurt and rage that encapsulates The Becoming, "Annie, hold a little tighter I might just slip away." The beat that stampedes through this track afterward is full of organic and electronic noises, unlike any other song that's come before it, and it screeches and hollers as the protagonist loses all gound with what it means to be human. 

Trent Reznor 90s Era The Downward Spiral Performing Live
I Do Not Want This, the protagonist's quiet resolve to his fate is highlighted by the industrial drum loops and his vulnerability. "I'm losing ground, you know how this world can beat you down, I'm made of clay, I fear I'm the only one who thinks this way." The timid singing and subsequent whispers start to become buried in the suffocating mix, which almost gives the sensation of drowning in the noise. Eventually, the protagonist erupts in anger and rage, "Don't you tell me how I feel, don't you tell me how I feel, don't you tell me how I feel, you don't know just how I feel!" The buildup and contrast of the protagonist's self-doubt, heavy machine drum loops, and eventual screaming that he wants to "know everything", "be everywhere", "fuck everyone" and "do something that matters" crashes right into Big Man With A Gun,  and it peels off the skin of regret to become the ultimate example of madness and violent male toxicity. There's not much more that needs to be said for this aural assault on sensibility, other than it hits the hardest of all the preceding tracks. It is the epitome of the protagonist's rage, all wrapped into a song that marries the abuse of power and hatred of women into one. It's sudden, unapologetic, and brutal, but it is also Reznor's response to the misogyny in mainstream hip-hop and popular culture. As sudden as Big Man With A Gun blasts through the speakers is the sudden quietude of the instrumental self-reflective track A Warm Place. The only peaceful and tranquil song of the album, the damage has been done, and the protagonist hasn't had much room to breathe or understand the consequences of his actions. The few fleeting moments of clarity soon gives way to the slowly growing and buzzing reverberation of the industrial monolith, Eraser. 

Eraser is another big moment in The Downward Spiral's mythos, and it's distinct in its slow-burn, industrial place-setting. The protagonist of this story has to come to terms with the person that he damaged and abused, coming full circle with the cycle of abuse that cast him down this path of destruction. The protagonist says all he needs to say in the final moments of the song, "Need you, dream you, find you, taste you, fuck you, use you, scar you, break you, lose me, hate me, smash me, erase me, kill me." The protagonist now turns the hate unto himself, all set to heavy metal guitar riffs and growing distortion and abrasions in the mix. Reptile, a NIN concert favorite, defines the relationship of the protagonist with a past lover as one riddled with betrayal, infidelity, abuse, and impurity. The protagonist attempts to justify his actions through a scathing characterization of his lover. "Oh my beautiful liar, oh my precious whore, my disease my infection, I am so impure." There is a thread of truth as the protagonist acknowledges himself, and whether or not their relationship was as plagued as he claims is up to interpretation, but ultimately, it's this slow decline in self-referential hatred that leads the protagonist to his final act in The Downward Spiral, and his haunting epilogue, Hurt.  

Trent Reznor Barbed Wire The Downward Spiral Era Press Photo
The Downward Spiral is the protagonist's final thoughts, as he "couldn't believe how easy it was, he put the gun into his face, Bang! (So much blood for such a tiny little hole)." The narrator's perspective is half-omniscient, half from the protagonist himself, as he describes the act in a chilling, casual conversation-like tone. It refers back to the protagonist, most likely the afterthought of his soul leaving his body, "Everything's blue in this world, the deepest shade of mushroom blue, all fuzzy, spilling out of my head." A final echo of the pain and suffering that the protagonist has gone through resonates for the remainder of the track, before dissolving into Reznor's arguably most famous song. 

Hurt couldn't be any more painful than it already is, but Johnny Cash reinvented and took ownership of Reznor's song in a way that puts it in an entirely new perspective. Still, Cash's Hurt couldn't exist without Reznor's own masterful ode to despair and regret. It opens with a shockingly bare-bones approach, and the protagonist gives listeners a final word on the feelings of a person that has ended up so damaged by the end, and whether or not any of it was worth it. "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real, the needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting, try to kill it all away, but I remember everything." The protagonist continues as he reminisces on what he has done and addresses a person he loves. The self-pity and depression in his reflections can relate to any person who experiences regret, and that's what makes this song so powerful and a concert mainstay whenever Nine Inch Nails performs live. The final chorus is an admission of defeat while promising if he ever got another chance to do it again, he would not go down The Downward Spiral of self-destruction. "You could have it all, my empire of dirt, I will let you down, I will make you hurt, if I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way."

Nine Inch Nails was propelled into worldwide stardom with The Downward Spiral. Its unapologetic and tragic story burned itself into the ears of fans as a cautionary tale, and its two radio sensations, Closer and Hurt, couldn't be more apart from mainstream music clichés. As the world was about to reel from the infamous and suspicious death of grunge rock heartthrob Kurt Cobain, Reznor introduced the world to an even dirtier and darker (than Alice In Chains' Dirt) form of rock, and brought industrial to the main stage of popular culture. The studio work was so unlike any other album at the time that it still feels modern over a quarter-century later and continues to be discovered by new generations. Reznor's legacy will ultimately be defined by both this album, and our upcoming entry in our Masterpiece series, his follow-up masterwork, 1999's double album The Fragile. 

Trent Reznor Nine Inch Nails

Recommended Tracks: Piggy, The Becoming, Reptile

September 30, 2020

Sunn O)))'s twin album releases, Life Metal and Pyroclasts (2019), are a fantastic entry point into drone metal - Album reviews

Two releases that have escaped me over the past year were from drone metal gods, Sunn O))) (pronounced just Sun, and aptly named after the popular Sunn amplifiers which ceased operation in 2002), with their half-improvised, half-composed twin albums, Life Metal, and Pyroclasts. For any newcomers to this genre of mammoth sounds and drastically slowed reverberations, these two (relatively) new releases cement this duo's legacy as drone metal pioneers and an awesome entry point for anyone interested in pulling back the veil of the eternal void.

Life Metal 

Sunn O))) Life Metal Album Artwork

Recorded alongside Pyroclasts and released six months earlier, Life Metal is a play on words and an inside joke between band members and collaborators, since they refer to life metal as the opposite of the genre term, death metal, and therefore anything that isn't "doom and gloom". For context, Sunn O))) duo Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley have found themselves in a good place at this time in their lives over their 20+ year career, with one recently becoming a father. Thus, Life Metal is the sum of this personal contentment and Anderson's creative challenge to compose a drone album that is less dark in tone.

Consisting of only four tracks each, Sunn O)))'s wall of sound is devastating in its tonal envelope and metal riffs. By trading off between drone and riff-maker, Anderson and O'Malley, with the help of some frequent collaborates and the recording assistance of legendary producer Steve Albini, created two masterworks, and the first Sunn O))) albums that are recorded and mixed entirely in analog equipment. This ultimately recreates the exact tonal experience of seeing the group in a live performance setting.

Starting off with Between Sleipnir's Breaths, which is a Norse mythology reference to the eight-legged horse that the god Odin rides on, it is bookended by samples of Sleipnir whinnying and galloping through the cosmos. What's also noticeable as the album begins is Sunn O)))'s distinctly powerful and nimble riffage, which comes across swifter and less glacial in its pace when compared to previous releases. Between... is assisted by the otherworldly and ancient vocals of Icelandic singer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who also happens to be a classically trained cellist who contributes to this record. It is the only singing on the album. When the blustering eeriness subsides, Troubled Air takes over and is highlighted by Australian composer Anthony Pateras's pipe organ. Aurora is a meditation in feedback that pushes listeners to the edge of eternity before letting off the pressure and beginning again. Finally, Novæ, the longest song by far, clocking in at a behemoth quarter-hour, is the piece that briskly moves through heavy sustained riffs before descending into its guttural and subdued midsection. It's primal and deep in its chasms of meditation, but it inevitably builds into a walloping windstorm of power, climaxing, and piercing in its final 3 minutes of droning metal. 

Pyroclasts

Sunn O))) Pyroclasts Album Artwork

By definition, Pyroclasts refers to the catapulted pyroclastic volcanic rocks during a volcanic eruption. It is curious that Sunn O))) decided to name these four improvisational tracks after something so explosive. While their sound remains rock steady, its sustained tones generate almost like a falling avalanche or erupting volcano. Frost (C) is the first cut that was produced by the band, and these four 11 minute tracks were improvised drone jams, more or less, at the beginning or end of the day while recording for Life Metal. Frost (C) can only be described as unforgiving, as its drone, feedback, and dark and heavy riffs, feel exactly like a hurricane blizzard. The second track, Kingdoms (G), starts off a bit quieter (if you can even call it that), and it continues the tradition in an aurally satisfying way. It crescendos by the halfway mark and gestates and vibrates there for a while before distorting itself the rest of the way to the end. Ampliphædies (E), which sounds like the ancient god of amplifiers, quivers, and strums, with energy that always feels like it tops the previous entry. Just how can a rock group keep sounding louder? However improbable it may seem, Sunn O))) does just that. The riffs and almost angelic-like chorus playing out in the corners of the chaos of tonal assault, create an atmosphere unlike any other. Last is Ascension (A), and it turns on as if right at that exact moment, the band just picks up and goes for it. It's a purely transportive drone that wraps up the 44-minute release. 

Sunn O))) have defined a genre, and haven't let up after all these years. What they have composed in these two sprawling releases is a catharsis of heady and meditative metal drones and riffs that can be played at any volume, but will always produce in listeners the same effect of a massive, yet ethereal calm. For those who are ready and willing to experience drone metal, Life Metal is the definitive entry point into this genre. 

Life Metal - 8.25/10

Pyroclasts - 8/10

Recommended Tracks: Between Sleipnir's Breaths, Troubled Air, Frost (C)

September 27, 2020

Sufjan Stevens releases his 8th mainline studio album, the lush, electronic, and heartfelt The Ascension - Album Review


As an accomplished and fan-favorite indie musician marching to the beat of his own drum, Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-yahn) Stevens has mastered nearly every corner of electronic and indie rock productions, often recording either bare-bones recordings that put his breathy vocals and a single instrument in the forefront, or creating a lush atmosphere of electronic orchestrations. The Ascension takes all of this growth over the past 20 years of his career and places it affirmatively into a seminal album full of love and hope. 

Starting with a catchy syncopated rhythm reminiscent of a Radiohead or Thom Yorke beat, angelic vocals sweep into the mix, showcasing Sufjan's God-given vocal cords. Full of spiritual and religious imagery, Sufjan's music is often steeped in love, an almost religious experience is aurally produced in much of his music of previous releases, and Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse fits this mold gorgeously. Run Away With Me is a call to a lover to make a new life together, which is complemented by a soft piano and a cathedral-like reverb echoing through the track. Die Happy has an eerie, dreamy build as Sufjan's existential request is repeated like a mantra, and it plateaus at half of its runtime into a fantastical amalgym of electro dream pop. Ativan gives off more Yorke electronic sensibilities in its beat as Sufjan asks what life is worth, questioning the meaning of the divine plan. 

The following tracks also permeate this same spiritual ethos. Ursa Major, for example, stands out as Sufjan's most distinct track of the album for its rare fusion of eastern music influence in its electronic beat, while Sufjan builds to the falsetto chorus "I wanna love you!" It's an injection of bliss in the middle of the album and is closely followed by the sonically pleasing Landslide, which asks listeners to "take a walk in the circle of life". What becomes clear through the listening of this album is that Sufjan has developed an electronic sound all his own, and instead of the typical mainstream electronic, hip-hop, or pop tracks that rely on autotuned technology to give credence to other artists, Sufjan's ability to instill his own heart and soul (with a real talent for singing) makes his music all the more precious, genuine, and sincere. 

One of The Ascension's singles, Sugar, appears within the final trio of tracks, and its playthrough is certainly a journey, much like the final song America, and both contain memorable buildups and ambient landings that are soft and excellent palate cleansers for an album full of various electronic orchestration and experimentation. The most memorable message of The Ascension is Sufjan's final parting words in America, "don't do to me what you did to America" as Sufjan's call and concern for our country's troubles and tensions "dove flew to me like a vision of paranoia" and "don't look at me like I'm acting hysterical" reverberate with a hefty weight that should motivate anyone listening to take their individual action to try and help to fix the country. It's a timely and resounding message that is appropriate for the present day. 

The Ascension propels Sufjan and any willing listener to heights of grandeur. The only real criticism of this album is that it does seem like too much of a good thing (if that's even possible). If Sufjan were to nominate a single track for the cutting room floor or even cut a little bit of the slow rise and fall from a couple of songs, then this album's runtime would ultimately be served for the better. Still, this is hardly a problem, since too much of a good thing is exactly what this world is in dire need of at the present moment. 

The Ascension - 8.5/10

Recommended Tracks: Ursa Major, Landslide, America

September 23, 2020

The Flaming Lips latest LP expertly crafts sonic psychedelia, detailing pastime youth, family, drugs, and death, but in the present year, does anybody care? American Head Album Review


For a band as determined to explore all of the inner space that can possibly be explored, The Flaming Lips have done it yet again, but for all the sadness they seem to drudge up from either the past or their own lingering thoughts, there doesn't seem to be much new ground to be made. 

After their fantastical triumph Oczy Mlody and then their wacky but stale King's Mouth, The Flaming Lips want fans to know that even though the world has drastically changed for better or worse, they have not by even the slightest bit. 

The album opens with Will You Return / When You Come Down, a classic sing-songy and wind chimey song for Wayne to introduce us to the feeling of alienation, drug addiction, and death. It's a sobering reminder that life isn't all it's cracked up to be, despite the escape we all try to seek. "Here it's sad, now all your friends are dead." Oof... seems a little too depressing nowadays as the country crosses the 200k death threshold of the worldwide pandemic. And this is only just the first song...

Watching The Lightbugs glow continues the melancholy attitude in a beautifully slow instrumental piece that features vocal hums by Kacey Musgraves. Flowers of Neptune 6 works as a part two as Wayne chimes in, weaving space imagery and past memories that are nostalgic and sad at the same time. The following set of tracks keep the same low pace and hazy psychedelia, but it hardly uplifts or feels hopeful. Mother I've Taken LSD, a situation that would feel like the most unpleasant scenario for almost anyone, is another depressing trip down memory lane. 

The album doesn't start to really pick up or do anything more interesting than this until Brother Eye, a syncopated synth ditty that uses Wayne's full talent as a vocalist as he sings to his older brother, pleading with him not to die. The album art, after all, is Wayne's older brother, who was constantly in and out of the house, racing on his motorcycle. It's a deeply personal track that hits harder than any song before it. You N Me Sellin' Weed, which follows directly after, drops back into the tongue-in-cheek and fantastical pastimes of selling drugs and being in love as an Oklahoma youth. Mother Please Don't Be Sad is a hypothetical situation that Wayne felt after a real-life robbery situation that happened in a store he used to work in and it is symphonic, if not brilliant and leads into the rightfully genius psychedelic rock track When We Die When We're High; it wisely leaves Wayne's singing on the sidelines for the majority of its runtime as multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd pulls off a wickedly cool drum beat. 

The final three tracks, Assassins of Youth, God and The Policeman, and My Religion is You redeem an album that has already veered too far into nostalgia territory and fails to address anything that anyone is currently living through today, let alone the 21st century. It is the equivalent of trying to understand a person that can't stop living in the past, and the handful of hit tracks seem to stall the ultimate downturn of American Head from landing on its own head. Psychedelic, yes. Fun... not so much. 

Call me an old man, ignorant, jaded, whathaveyou for not falling in line with the general consensus of reviewers, but what The Lips offer here is another release of more of the same, highly refined, and interesting sounds, full of self-indulgent life memories reminiscent of drugs and death. Unfortunately though, in the present year, it’s hard to care with so many huge problems society is facing as a species. The result is probably the most polished, but irrelevant, Lips record of their career.

American Head - 7/10

Recommended Tracks: Will You Return / When You Come Down, Brother Eye, When We Die When We're High