Five Songs, 12/22/2017
Five Songs

Five Songs, 12/22/2017

Well, I hope people find the brief essay down below interesting. Probably not. You can listen to something while you read, though.

Duke Ellington, "Braggin' In Brass"

A monolith appears on primitive Earth. Agitated apes cluster around it, screeching, trying to ascertain its meaning, its message. Curiosity overcoming their fear, they eventually touch the monolith as the music swells. The music is "Yakety Sax". Flickering neon words appear on the monolith: "JOSH IS NOT QUALIFIED TO TALK ABOUT JAZZ".

The apes are sad.

Andrew Bird, "Cathedral In The Dell"

The opener of Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of..., this is an unusual album for a lot of reasons. First, none of these are Bird's songs. They're all written by The Handsome Family, a different band. Second, there's no studio here. This is all recorded with a single mic straight to tape, making it basically a live record, just not in a live venue. As always with Bird's work, it's a warm, inviting album, although I enjoy his compositions too much to really think it's among his best work.

The Cows, "The Bucket"

From Orphan's Tragedy, we have another blast of the Cows' gutter punk/noise rock assault. I'm always impressed when a band can consistently sound as grimy as the Cows managed to pull off.

Scissorfight, "Mange"

I think I ended up with this album as a result of a Humble Bundle or something. I'm not sure I ever listened to it. Hmm. Well, can't say that any more!

Mayhem, "Great Work Of Ages"

So, Mayhem. While we've talked a fair bit about black metal here, I haven't really gone much into the non-musical side of things. But it's probably time to talk about it some, as Mayhem was one of the pioneering bands of black metal and one of the first to bring Norwegian black metal to the forefront of extreme music. And, um, they have a very ugly history that is tied up in some ugliness for the scene as a whole.

Just a listing of the facts of the band's early biography probably is sufficient for illustration. Singer Dead committed suicide, with guitarist Euronymous supposedly cooking and eating part of his brain while the drummer made a necklace out of skull fragments. This was followed by Varg Vikernes, the bass player, stabbing Euronymous to death out of jealousy over a more evil reputation. Said Vikernes, later of Burzum, would go on to write approvingly about Nazism. This chaos was wrapped around a discography that emphasized ugliness as well, both in lyrics and in the grim nature of the music. And that's without mentioning other things going on in the scene, such as churches being burned, among other awful happenings.

While the band attracted attention with their lurid doings, it was their music and aesthetics that gained them long term attention, and inspired many following bands to follow the same path, although hopefully with less murder and Nazism. But, truthfully, not zero, especially of the latter, as there would be bands in black metal that would embrace fascist worldviews.

All of this heads into the question of separating the art from the artist. Does knowing that Vikernes contributed to early albums from the band change things? Does it matter that it was before the murder, before he was espousing Nazism? Does it matter if the lyrics are ugly if you can't really make them out? (I'm unclear on the exact content of their lyrics, truthfully, as I haven't looked them up or made them out.) Does it matter that the song in today's play list is coming from a much later incarnation of the band with only one original member, and who declared that the Satanist stuff was in the past?

Everybody draws their own lines on these things, and exactly where they draw it is difficult and often inconsistent. For my part, I do still listen to Mayhem, knowing their past, and recognize that especially the early albums were contributed to by either very troubled and/or evil people. I don't think I'm making the world worse by doing so, but I might be wrong about that. I do avoid bands that actively proselytize evil world views, but I can't be certain I'm even achieving that.

Fundamentally, being aware of Mayhem's history is important, and I bring it up here to let folks draw their own conclusions. Awareness of the artist doesn't necessarily invalidate the art, in my way of thinking, and I can be fascinated by the aesthetics of Mayhem without endorsing anything they got up to.

Joshua Buergel
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