Serious commentary on horror and how it relates to new bands that matter.
Lifeblood to Wear and Labels to Trash
By Michael Aronovitz
It’s funny. I went on YouTube to watch a video and celebrate this new band signed by Eclipse Records. They call themselves “Despite,” and even the name brought interesting thoughts to mind. “Despite” is one of those multi-faceted terms that commands our attention more through it’s secondary usage, for the initial appearance in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary has it represented as a noun, and therefore, linked directly with words like “contempt” and “malice.” Still, we primarily use the term as a preposition, one of those key words in the middle of the sentence that makes us sit up straighter and take notice, because we are about to witness an action that was performed “in spite of.” This is more where I think this band marks its territory. “In spite of” suggests that there was a new idea just conceived that would oppose traditional and antiquated norms, conceived by those baptized by fire, and illustrated for us in vibrant explosions of color and contour straight in the face of blurred truth, fine print, and euphemism.
Plainly, the band Despite rocks the living shit out of you, and they do it in a way that is ultimately surprising and refreshingly unique. Their roster includes vocalist Peter Tuthill, bassist Anthony Cui, drummer Janne Jaloma, and three master axe grinders – Timmy Leng, Andre Gonzales, and Zoran Panovic – who play eight-string guitars and tune them a full step down in order to add a heaviness and bottom that will knock you bow-legged. There is much to say about their performance ability and musicianship, yet before giving close analysis to their newly released single “As You Bleed,” I thought it more than appropriate to dovetail back to the idea of “definitions” and the way this band shatters the concept.
I looked up some of their videos “pre-Eclipse,” and in reading the comments below the “Show Me” prompt, I marveled at some of the “definitions” fans pinned to this wonderfully diverse project.
“smth like melodic djent.”
“Massively stupid w/all the genres and subgenres. Didn’t sound like djent in any remote way, clearly jazz influenced melo-black rapcore death.”
I sincerely hope the last one quoted is aware of his own use of irony, yet either way it brings a couple of interesting issues to the surface. First, in the metal game, fans are possessive, emphatic, and defensive about the trivia, almost like maniac-historians, drawing up flowcharts and marking specific historical shifts in the landscape determining the birth and strange, complicated journey heavy metal has taken since Black Sabbath shocked the world with their debut album in 1970. And if you happen to try and stick a Post-It note to the timeline yourself, well, you had better not get a fucking detail wrong. All too often, metal-heads are not patient tutors. Still, their allegiance to the art is unshakable. They might not always articulate things in crystal prose and poetic nuance, but they are certain as fuck when they know what they know and they are never even minutely unclear.
Then comes a band like Despite, and in this overarching, multi-faceted genre, where precision is celebrated as much as rebellion, where truth is exposed to be raw and untamed, where musicians would show us experimentation before formula…we have come to a strange juncture where it has become appropriate somehow to define, pigeonhole, and compartmentalize the new vision playing out before us, all according to “rules” seemingly carved into some sort of ancient, holy monolith and enforced by strict fans who police the territory like stone faced assassins.
But I thought metal was all about breaking rules, about questioning standards and using the guidelines mostly so you could draw outside of them. Look. Despite is a metal band. They are from Gothenburg Sweden, and they do in fact celebrate the guitar, the hard chunk, the current and fashionable metal-groove delay, and a buzzsaw vocal that will rip your spine apart. The percussion is complex yet driving, and the overall effect of the project is one that makes you a part of it immediately. OK. Standards are standards, and we can check off a few of the neat little boxes.
However, as one can see in the “As You Bleed” video, off the album Synergi, release date July 22nd, 2016, they do some things within the general framework of metal that are refreshingly unique, and this begins with the way they utilize their guitars and the instrumentation around them. The piece begins with a riff that is both funky and industrial, an addictive hook in itself, but for the purpose of texture and mood, there are velvety patterns developed on both sides (atop and below) if you will, featuring intricate, hummingbird double bass drum work like dark supple bottom feathers and then melodic, sustained lead as if ethereal wings above it all, heartbreaking in its subtle dissonance, layered in the second part of the phrase in harmony.
When Tuthill comes in with the first verse in growl, the harmony guitars drop out and join the background riff, but we are quick back to the theme of sustained notes, like keys backgrounding the hook where Tuthill has cleverly switched to a traditional vocal. Just when we are comfortable in a theme, however, it evolves, and the one line chorus ends with a break, a vocal roar, and a traditional melodic leads that erupts. That’s right. It explodes off the neck, and while melodic leads don’t normally do that we appreciate the contradiction, especially since it develops quickly into a strange, almost Mediterranean vibe that not only fits the dissonance, but compliments the background sustain still echoing in our memories.
The song is full of changes, in other words, that do not fit too many past patterns and standards, but make sense within themselves. This is new. This is art, and the portrait is startling and glorious.
After the first two verses, there is a break, a smart drum riff, and the lead guitar goes to an octave technique, an arresting transition that sends us off deep into a journey of the unexpected. The octaves continue, and the vocal joins the background guitars in the ongoing theme, brought to the forefront unexpectedly, and giving the song a medieval, choral feel. Talk about irony; presented to us is a mood and tapestry the opposite of what we would have expected, though the themes were already given to us in other contexts. Were this a film or a book, we would call it brilliant foreshadowing leading to an unexpected climax or plot-twist. And while Despite’s aforementioned fan might not even be aware of his own verbal irony, it is more than clear that the band drew this one up purposefully. To break trends. To blow us away.
The balance of “As You Bleed” returns to its original themes and hooks then, offering the riff and the chorus for reinforcement, and by the time the song is over, you know it like the back of your hand. You can hum it even, but don’t expect to sell the dissonance as if delivered on some heavenly feathered wing. That gift belongs to Despite, and lucky for us, they’re willing to share.
On thematic / visual grounds, the song “As You Bleed” features blood, lots of it, and if you look at Despite’s latest press releases, they claim that the song is a sort of an ode to the violence and glory of the UFC. Cool. I happen to watch the UFC exclusively, and truly believe it has made boxing obsolete, but the idea of the ring, the arena, and the octagon does not just address the literal boundary in professional fighting. The “crucible” is a metaphor for a physical or psychological trap that forces people to confront things they wouldn’t ordinarily choose to. In other words, for the sake of modesty, it seems Despite has offered us a particular and singular read of their song, when there are some universal emblems that would mark the periphery of their work with added depth and dimension.
From a novelistic standpoint, the crucible is a vital part of the lexicon that writers use for the sake of structure and heightened dramatic potency, in many ways as effective as an overt conflict or time limitation. These difficult traps are all around us, and when forced into one, we soon discover that it is a dramatic playing field defined by wins and losses. In a literal sense, this is our “octagon,” our football fields and basketball courts, but aside from sport, we can alter the lens slightly and consider other crucibles that dictate similar tensions, like the courtroom, the classroom, the bedroom, the home. Put two people in a situation through which they must interact unhappily, with borders, and you have just as much a form of dramatic imprisonment as a scene from the film Saw.
In the case of “As You Bleed,” I would argue that the blood (and the video is filthy with it) and their allusion to the UFC, both more represent the metaphorical human arena, where we are sometimes put up against a wall so to speak and we must act, come out of our comfort zones, lose our cool, sacrifice our aura of control. To make a point. To die on a hill if necessary. If you can’t quite picture this phenomenon, ask any parent that ever has to defend his or her child against stacked odds. Whether the adversary is a bully or a school administrator you do what you have to do. For your child. For the family. You might get “bloody” and it might not be pretty, but you enter the arena to win. Then you do it. We all have. It is how we are built and the way our personal narratives are constructed at their very core.
Despite has given us this distinctive video titled “As You Bleed,” and the blood-effect plays more about wearing your heart on your sleeve than victory on your chest. There is a heavenly overtone despite the heavy, riff-oriented structure, and a feeling of jubilation that builds inside the viewer as opposed to the dread such gore would normally initiate.
The opposite of what we would expect, and in that spirit, maybe we should just pull out all the stops and categorize them as Deathcore Medieval-Ethereal Power Thrust Labarynthian Nuance Trance Metal, with an undercurrent of Black Meta Fusion Def and an overlay of Mock Corinthian Slaughter-Groove that would hint at Gregorian Maniacal Funk Thrash and Goth Steampunk Killer Muse.
Or maybe we should just say that Despite rocks, that they walk the walk, that they say it and play it, and maybe after all the labeling, they are just plainly and simply a great fucking band.
Michael Aronovitz fronted a heavy metal band that played Philadelphia and New Jersey clubs in the mid 80’s. He is a Professor of English and currently co-hosts a radio talk show linking horror and new metal called “The Wikked Goblet of Horror” with DJ WikkedLiss on her station WCR247 WikkedChikRadio.
Aronovitz’s latest novel titled Phantom Effect was just released February 2nd, 2016 through Night Shade Books. http://tinyurl.com/jcg59wo
Seven Deadly Pleasures (collection), 2009
The Voices in Our Heads (collection), 2014
Alice Walks (novel), 2013
The Witch of the Wood (novel), 2014