Goblet of Shock
What Masks and Face Paint Reveal
By Michael Aronovitz
The idea of the eyes being a mirror to the soul is enhanced by the use of a mask, as the facade is a release-mechanism for impulse, affording us incredible insight when we look back at the wearer straight in through his sight-holes. Historically, we have had a fascination with masks and the rituals surrounding them for as long as man has been inadvertently arguing about the overall effect and symbolic undertone of covering one’s face with a disguise. Primitives believed masks made one an impeachable authority like a God, yet the Medieval Latin word “masca” means “nightmare.” While ancient Dionysian cults used masking to remove constraints upon rank or social status, the Romans killed their slaves for behaving thus as soon as their Saturnalia Festivals were finished.
So in the end which is it? Are masks just harmless paraphernalia, something we laugh off with a small paternal giggle every October 31st? And how about face-paint, the mask’s close kissing cousin? Is it represented solely at kiddie parties and even more meekly through those out of work actors wearing big shoes, red bulb-noses, and squirting lapel flowers as they pass out balloons at the state fair, or is there some collective and deep-seated fear we associate with them? As for the latter issue, traditional carnivals were meant to bookend Lent, featuring role reversals, feasting, rule breaking, and joy, yet Edgar Allen Poe used it as backdrop to bury someone alive in The Cask of Amontillado (1846), inspiring a generation of “Carnival Horror” beginning with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), continuing with The Funhouse (1981), and bringing us back to the idea of mixing the macabre with cotton candy and caramel corn (along with countless others not named here for the purpose of brevity) with Freakshow (2007), and The Devil’s Carnival (2012). We all love the circus, but there is an entire genre thread in the horror lexicon dedicated to scary clowns, the most famous one being Pennywise in Stephen King’s It (novel – 1986, film – 1990), and immortalized again and again with films such as Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988), Killjoy (2000), Mr. Jingles (2006), and Scary or Die (2012).The midway, the big top, and the grease-paint aside however, it is masks or “masking” in general that modern popular culture has traditionally used more for the purpose of terror than frivolous comedy, as one can see threaded through a history of film making starting with The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and continuing with a slew of more modern fright flicks such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) featuring Leather Face, Halloween (1978) presenting Michael Myers in nearly formless white rubber, Friday the 13th Part II (1981) in the fashion of a canvas bag (the hockey mask came in Part III), Scream (1996) introducing Ghost Face, Saw (2004) with the pig mask, and The Purge (2013) giving us the apple-slice grin translated oh-so-easily into a wedge of sadism.
Masks and grease-paint are frightening.
And so is heavy metal, as introduced to us in 1970 with the emergence of Black Sabbath. Since then horror and hard rock have been joined at the hip, at times presented to us in elaborate (and campy) stage shows like those of Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, and at the other side of the spectrum through more deviant and gritty means by Death Metal bands like Dismember, Cryptopsy, and Cannibal Corpse.
And so by deduction it would figure that masking, face-painting, and hard rock all would be blood brothers, and for the purposes of this review we will not give too much air time to the obvious front-runner (and clearest initiator) Kiss, as their purpose was one of pomp and circumstance rather than hard social satire, more the comic book than the fright fest that would make us look under our own societal masks and wonder what monsters might be lurking there. That being said, there are a number of recording artists that have donned masks and makeup with the purpose of offering more hardline cultural commentary in the last couple of decades, and while Slipknot is the most popular of the bunch, the hard rock band Amerakin Overdose has burst onto the scene of late with their own brand of Industrial Metal, featuring dystopian societal criticism through masks and shock-theater.
Amerakin Overdose, out of Portland Oregon, is fronted by singer Cody Perez, with his brother Pito on backing vocals, Freeman Manfree on guitar, The Human on keys & synthesizers, Starbie on bass, and Brick on drums. All are “masked” either with veils, face paint, a skull to chin head piece or some combination there-of, and the first thing one notices about this striking project is the razor sharp musicianship. Before rolling out a particular “message” or “symbol,” rock bands have a difficult and genre-specific duty to prove instrumental proficiency in today’s competitive market, so before we start applying elaborate analysis to their statement and all its darkness and paradox, it is necessary to say up front that the individuals in this band are exceptionally talented.
In terms of the video that I will discuss in depth momentarily, Cody Perez is an absolute beast, coming forth with a vocal that literally buzz-saws your spine apart. Freeman Manfree not only has constructed a cutting technical sound that is amazingly satisfying, but he has formed a rhythm section along with Starbie and Brick that I would argue rivals the wall of sound we initially fell for with Sabbath, then found rekindled in the 90’s with early Metallica (though Brick’s bass-drum licks are far more elaborate). The use of the keyboard is especially eerie and inventive, and the composition of verse, bridge, and chorus offers us a wonderful variety of texture and patterning.
Now for lyrics. The song featured in this review is called “Cunt,” and the first question I had as a critic before even watching the video, was whether or not the term was being used ironically, almost in a manner that would make us feel silly for putting this particular collection of sounds on a sort of pedestal (or in a locked cage) as the one phrase to remain absolutely forbidden, like the apple in the Garden of Eden. Phonetically, it seems “cunt” and “fuck” make us react before we even associate meaning to them, almost as if the percussive violence by which each comes off the tongue indicates something taboo. Before my son could really talk, I stubbed my toe and growled the latter. He immediately said, “Bad word!” even though I am positive this one year old had never heard it before. Hence, in the case of this particular song, I got ready for a lesson in semiotics and prepared for some kind of sales pitch.
I watched Amerakin Overdose’s video, however, and was highly pleased that the band in no way tried to make the term politically correct by brow beating its listeners for shaming the term because of its percussive, phonetic nuance. What the band did was far more daring. In actuality, the song is a psychotic outburst aimed at an un-named, manipulative, toxic female, and of course, the next question I had to ask myself was whether or not the band was advocating misogynistic hatred and spousal abuse. Clearly, they weren’t, they didn’t, and they absolutely do not, and whether my opinion is supported by those who get caught up in the percussive overtones remains fairly irrelevant. Art was never meant to be “easy,” and in the case of Amerakin Overdose, the aesthetic goes far beyond political correctness.
Before my argument for what this song accomplishes emblematically, however, I would first propose that the choice of the title “Cunt” is a brilliant promotional move. Rock lyrics generally fall short, built on a platform of dumb repetition rather than any sort of developed dramatic line. I suppose the reason for this is for the buying public to be able to remember the hook after one listen on the radio, but no one in their right mind would claim “You Really Got Me” ever demonstrated lyrical genius. “Hot Blooded” by Foreigner is one of my favorite classic songs, but I am the first to admit that checking it to see I have a fever of a hundred and three ain’t William Shakespeare. Moreover, I clearly recall trying to turn my Blue Grass-loving cousin on to Queen back in the day by playing him the song “Somebody to Love.” His response was, “Oh! So in your music the lyrics don’t matter!”
Well guess what. Amerakin Overdose came up with a title we don’t need to hear five hundred times to remember, and even as some blue bloods in the bible belt might boycott the album at Walmart, no one, and I mean no one is calling the members of this band trivial, saying they don’t matter. Still, clever titling aside, there is more here than a bunch of hungry kids pulling for a warning label. First and most obviously, their bass player Starbie is a woman, and though veiled, she isn’t masculinized (and therefore shamed) as would most probably be the case if the band’s intent was to attack females in general. Nor is she marginalized or objectified, though she presents herself in an open display of busty and leggy self-confidence. Secondly, the whole band is “masked,” and considering the overall effect in terms of the horrific, I would pose that there is a more relevant message here, being architected on a psychological platform.
Look at Cody Perez. Look through the mask. Look at his eyes. See the fear there. The raw pain. An honesty not possible in “normal” conversation, with “pleasant” and socially acceptable wording. Clearly this song represents a deep inner rage, the repugnant kind, the sort we bury behind masks and euphemism. In masking himself, Perez in a clear and clever reversal both literal and symbolic, shows us his demon, his pain turned inside out, and when we look at it that way the embodiment of his mask is all the more clear. It is black and horned, internalized violence turned out toward an unforgiving spotlight. It is a bared psyche ripe with its intensity and horribly and brilliantly exposed.
The short novel, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, has been parodied and re-done to the point that we forget the story’s greatest symbol. While Jekyll was flawed (and certainly not altogether “good”), Hyde was pure, a manifestation of the evil in a man, embodied in a dwarf, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to conclude that Stevenson was trying to tell us that man’s evil is a smaller part of him than his desire for morals. This is what makes Amerakin Overdose so frightening and so very magnificent. Cody Perez is consumed with a rage so massive it has become man-sized, more-so because it is shared with the band members like a virus, as all of them at points in the performance sing along with this controversial video’s signature phrase.
The most telling moment of the video, however, comes in the latter portion, when the character in white face and bright red clown lips, holds the fire in his hand like some evil magician. A flame in the palm is actually a Mayan symbol, meaning a unification of the body and the psyche. Cody Perez is the unification of the body and the ID, the dark subconscious, the repressed monster who has been let out for a moment to taste the wide open air, all scars and raw bone and teeth. He is the one we usually do everything in our power to hide.
Amerakin Overdose shows us all this in open-faced irony behind the confines of the mask, illustrating our deepest repressions in plain sight, running along the sweet edge of a hot guitar joined with a thundering rhythm section. They make us “see,” first by giving themselves over almost as sacrifice, and next by offering us a mirror. Of course, we can’t help but take it and give a hard look, and that might be the most frightening and glorious part of it all.