Serious commentary on horror, and how it relates to new bands that matter

The Feel of the Apocalypse

“Our Last Enemy”

Review by Michael Aronovitz

I am often asked if I write horror with the express purpose of scaring people. Others suggest that I might be attempting to construct some dark aesthetic that would propose an alternative to the common world-view, but before analyzing my own odyssey of self-exploration, I would argue that it is better to look at this primarily from the outside-in if you will, focusing on what readers and critics commonly say about horror in what appears to be a knee-jerk reflex of disdain. Commonly, one passing judgment on a work of art wearing the genre label of “horror” or “weird” or “dark” will immediately affix to it the idea of “frightening the reader,” and it’s usually offered through a strange sort of personal, defensive reversal. To be clear, if a “non-horror” person reads a “horror” story, the stiff comment out of the box usually looks something like, “It isn’t good, because it didn’t scare me.”

I wish I could convey to you just how frustrated this makes me, and in this, I suppose I have my answer by default. I must write dark stuff because I see the cloud differently, not because I wish to instill fear in my readers. On the other hand, I could accomplish the dystopian viewpoint that would shun all the current trends and convenient euphemisms through other means, namely fantasy, mystery, or even gritty presentations of “realistic fiction,” so I have to turn the microscope back in on myself and question why I have such a fascination with ghosts, witches, devils, demons, zombies, mummies, monsters, ghouls, maniacs, serial killers, and blood harvesting doppelgangers. Maybe I do want to scare the living shit out of my readers after all, and maybe if I don’t manage to do this I am a sore loser, wanting my cake and eating it too and all that.

Still, that’s not quite right either. I have read plenty of horror books and seen a hoard of horror movies that funnel the entire artistic process into the scare moments, and these presentations usually leave me unsatisfied. Often, there is simply a lack of character building and realistic plotting, and the void makes for nothing but a bunch of unaligned jumps and starts, like getting jolts of endorphins in the dark with your ear plugs in. Then again, I have been exposed to many projects addressing the more complicated literary concerns while drawing darkness and peril on a canvas of subtlety and suggestion, and frankly, when the fright-spots are weak, the comprehensive dramatic experience comes off rather pathetic and forgettable.

Cake.

Clearly, I want it, and then I have a desire to devour the whole thing at once.

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In the end, I write horror because the macabre turns me on and I want it to turn on the reader too, bringing him or her through a dark passage of the self that had been previously untraveled. I want readers to love me and despise me, scared shitless and at the same time appreciative of the artistic makeup of the sinister corridor I have thrust them into, that which turns out to be the pitted underbelly of the soul. Perhaps this is too bold a desire, and that is why the non-horror critics get so defensive, turning up their noses, and saying dismissively, “That didn’t scare me.”

Because maybe it did. And maybe they liked it a little too much.

The problem is that not only is it difficult to do horror well (believe me, I have spent years trying), but there is a stigma that goes along with the brand besides the idea that it might be fright for fright’s sake. Historically, horror has been subject to more personal and vindictive criticism, mainly manufactured by those who would prefer their “truths” delivered in smooth political snippets harking back to “better times” that never really existed and a media base that would subliminally offer class segregation through the repeated exposure of the actions of the few. As a result of this, horror has been watered down and relegated to a position where the perception has become that it is just for kids, something not to be taken quite seriously, something we would grow out of, like heavy metal.

But I never grew out of my love for ghosts, witches, devils, demons, zombies, mummies, monsters, ghouls, maniacs, serial killers, and blood harvesting doppelgangers, and I never lost my passion for good, hard heavy metal either, watching someone plug into a Marshall stack, crank up a Flying V, and ride the thunder and lightning to the breaking point. In many ways horror and metal are similar, and while my series of reviews more generally touches on this subject, it is in this particular analysis that the alliance comes to the very forefront.

The more general criticism aside, the central and practical issue here is that these two art forms share a baseboard sort of motivation with similar costuming, yet both must exist in a world where the consumer comes to the table with an agenda, and in a realistic (and monetary) sense, this has created genres and sub-genres and off-shoots and adaptations that might blur the pure combination of terror and aesthetic discovery.

Plainly, some horror fiction, certain films, and many hard rock bands use “heavy depth” as no more than a splash, a spice, or a condiment. An example of this in terms of literature would be the Goosebumps series, similar to films on this side of the paradigm like Ginger Snaps, The Craft, and Teen Wolf. In terms of classic rock, we might mention Poison, Ratt, and Bon Jovi flying this particular banner, playing it “metal-ish” yet offering overtones of super-glam and pouting and fun.

On the other end of the spectrum of course, almost in a slingshot effect, there is the idea of utilizing terror and darkness as the entire full course meal, chapter and verse, soaked and saturated, like the “splatter-punk” horror books initiated by Michael Shea’s short story The Autopsy (1980) alongside films like Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Evil Dead. Of course, it isn’t too difficult to historically tie in the thousands of shock-metal bands that popped up all over the grid in the 1980’s, banking entirely on volume and warning labels, and while respective audiences have proven their unbending loyalty to all of the above, (I am one of them, guilty as charged) for the purposes of this particular argument, they seem to represent a “Goldilocks” syndrome.

I suppose the dream in the paradigm I offer you here, is to create a dark aesthetic so potent that it restructures common psychology, while offering a product so poetically innovative that it surpasses what is currently seen as artistic convention. Shakespeare accomplished this with Macbeth, basically inventing the horror genre with witches and murder, yet thrilling the nobles in the audience with a complicated symbolic template filled with social commentary concerning the poison of words and the fallacy of trying to rule through a platform of nurturing. Jonathan Demme did it with his brilliant film-adaptation of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, by delivering the histories of his antagonists through a clever gaming procedure that unveiled terrors and motivations we would not normally choose to acknowledge, and the Industrial Metal Band “Our Last Enemy” has reached this sort of pinnacle with their single 10,000 Headless Horses.

The band is made up of Jeff Ritchie on drums, Craig Byrnes on keyboards and samples, Matt Heywood on bass (vocals), Oliver Fogwell on vocals, and Bryce “Bizz” Bernius on guitar, (note: the line-up has changed since filming this video, currently featuring Ritchie on keys and Zot Cillia on drums) and the beginning of the aforementioned video does not waste time with those second and a half “cutsie personal moment” shots that would “humanize” the band members, nor does it feature through inter-spliced story-footage the trivial sort of media-feed we have grown such a glazed-over acceptance for.

There is a dark sky with black clouds moving across it, and in and out of this inverted (and perverted) shot of “heaven” we successively cut to a mid-shot of Ritchie going in and out of focus, Heywood in close-up covered in weeping black-eye and filth, Byrnes lurking behind his keyboards like a patient lost in the asylum, Fogwell slowly raising his menacing glance, and “Bizz” Bernius shown from the camera at ground level aimed upward making him into a dark tower of vertigo, all of these techniques used by the best of the horror film directors in order to create a premonition of dread.

We are not disappointed. When the music kicks in with Ritchie on the snare drum, making it erupt in a rapid-fire tempo like gun-shots with the rest of the players in perfect syncopation, we cut to visions of nuclear holocaust: buildings imploding, a school bus disintegrating, the famous shot with the row of trees bending like they were made of rubber, all backgrounded by Fogwell’s massive death growl and flickering images of a symbolic burn victim who wanders in and out of the ruins the band uses for this bleak and beautiful portrait of human disaster.

Plainly, the video is frightening. It is not suggestive, trendy, coy, or ironic. It is as close to the vest as it can get, and the message is not just a mirror of the idea that man has a thirst for destruction. A mirror by design is a metaphor once removed, an image, possibly refracting as much as it would reflect and therefore offering the opportunity for the viewer to gain distance and idealistic perspective. This is a direct look, straight into the heart of the emblem. It is blackened and corroded, factory-like with dirty flames rising from the ground and industrial wreckage scattered between the pillars of rusted steel erected along the edges of cracked and oil-stained concrete. “Our Last Enemy” would have us look straight and unshielded into the most terrifying portion of the self, and the nave of that desecrated church is far more revealing than the rubble left at ground zero like aftermath.

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            At the same time there is the music to consider, and it is doubtful that anyone could refute the technical mastery “Our Last Enemy” exhibits through clever instrumentation. As is a trademark of sorts with projects on the Eclipse record label, the rhythm section of this band is outstanding, starting first of course with Ritchie on drums, not only kicking double bass sixteenths that are so rapid and precise they instill a feeling of amazement and joy for the listener throughout, but his aforementioned work on the snare and his accents with cymbals make for a progressive feel separating the project from more linear presentations Industrial Metal bands might fall into.

Heywood and “Bizz” Bernius base their musical presentation on power and precision, tied in so tightly with Ritchie that it seems the three exist as one being, or more artistically, they could be represented as parallel grains in some exotic wooden sculpture where the textures pattern each other in perfect line, form, and symmetry. Offsetting, and therefore accenting all this, is the odd and rather eerie presence of the keys, giving the “speed-metal” feel an overtone of brilliant disequilibrium, and Fogwell’s vocals act less as a “featured element,” than they do a foundational necessity. He does not stand on a pedestal, start low, and climax high. He does not dwell at “stage center,” and he does not own the spotlight. In a twist on the stereotype (where this band seems to live), Fogwell does not even “front” this band. His power-saw vocals are the binding tie, joining with the rhythm section and the keys as a connective agent, wrapping like razor-twine all the parts and parcels.

“Our Last Enemy” does not come forward with a video like 10,000 Headless Horses so they can beat around the bush. They do not undercook the product, nor do they present themselves as all thrash and burn. This talented group of musicians has come up with a concept that is potent and pure, and they have managed to deliver it in a way that would celebrate their musical expertise without getting the viewer lost in the pomp and the circumstance.

They try to scare us and they do it, they unleash the power of a dark aesthetic and we feel it, they offer us cake and an invitation to devour. Just be careful looking at the plate when you’re done. The reflection might not be so refracted, and the vision of terror might be all too familiar.

Click to watch 10,000 Headless Horses by Our Last Enemy

Michael Aronovitz is a published author of horror fiction:

Seven Deadly Pleasures (collection) Hippocampus Press, 2009

Alice Walks (novel) Hard Cover – Centipede Press, 2013, Paperback / Dark Renaissance Press, 2014

The Voices in Our Heads (collection) Horrified Press, 2014

The Witch of the Wood (novel) Hippocampus Press, 2015

Aronovitz has always loved hard rock music, and fronted a heavy metal band that played Philadelphia and New Jersey clubs in the mid 80’s. Currently he is a Professor of English and lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. His latest novel titled Phantom Effect was just released February 2nd, 2016 through Night Shade Books.

 

 

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