Posts Tagged ‘Music Reviews’

Lockets

Sweet Sounds

By Michael Aronovitz

lockets

I have always been a metal-rock guy, as I came to age in the 70’s and always made assessments based on guitar speed and drum tricks. It was a neighborhood hero sort of a deal, where the kid in his garage or basement could sound like the big boys if he got a flying V, plugged into a Marshall, and practiced his scales until he was slick as Skynyrd and his best friend’s kit made thunder like Bonham. From a listening standpoint, it wasn’t about the way the music made us “feel,” but more about making tile. You saw people go down in the forge and practice their asses off so they could play someone’s keg party and be a rocker for the night. It was a blast…a grass-roots spectacle based on manual labor and sweat.

But I also liked the sweet stuff, and I’m not just talking about Gary Wright and Leo Sayer. Queen started out seeming a bit girly and inconsequential, but wound up making the most diverse album in history with A Night at the Opera. Foreigner had pretty backing vocals, but rocked the living shit out of us with “Hot Blooded” and “Long Long Way From Home.” Boston would seem sugary by today’s standards, but no one can deny the crunch and sustain Tom Scholz manufactured with his axe, and even though Kiss helped start metal with Sabbath and the Coop, they did, after all, have a mega-hit with “Beth.”

A lot of popular music gets translated through street poets and rock gods, showboats and master technicians, but another crucial part of the equation is the soul of the listener. Some fans open their hearts by raising their fists and banging their heads, studying the scales and analyzing the breaks, but others want the music to simply consume them. To paint pictures. To make them feel.

I had the opportunity recently to get to know one of the founders of a synth-pop band from Philadelphia called Lockets. His name is Todd Mendelsohn, and he was a student of mine in a continuing education fiction class I teach at The University of the Arts. Todd is a big presence, outgoing, gregarious, and his fiction is bold, atmospheric fantasy horror. When he told me that he had a synth-pop band in which he played all the instruments and programmed the drums, partnering with a female singer (Dani Mari, who by 2015 was replaced by Melissa Ricca, yet to record) I was rather surprised. It didn’t seem to fit. Todd was the life of the party, the guy everyone wanted to sit next to at the bar, the one who told stories in a booming voice that held us spellbound, and the idea that he was the soft-spoken master-magician behind some kind of docile mood music seemed hysterical.

Still, I listened to the Camera Shy album and the Surrender EP, and was astounded, not only by the depth of the production and the breadth of the instrumentation, but also the way it affected me through emotional channels I wasn’t used to acknowledging. I tied to rebel. I tried to analyze the rhythm tracks, the guitar layering, the vocals, the breaks. And while the execution of all of the above would be appreciated on anybody’s stat sheet, the music finally didn’t filter in that way.

It painted pictures. Beautiful ones.

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When I listened to Camera Shy, I was initially reminded of The Cranberries, but that faded by the 3rd track titled “Violet.” The counterpoint of the building guitar and the immediate presence of the harmony vocal merged with the idea that I started seeing myself in my mind’s eye on a beach. There were waves and a sunset, warm breezes and memories. By the time I got to track #6, “Crush,” the beach had gone abstract to colors, and “Winter Light” made me smile.

“He changed the season,” I thought. “Clever.” I suppose a criticism of synth-pop in general might be the idea that the music has a linear construction as opposed to a climactic one, but what Lockets kept consistent in terms of instrumentation, they made sure to broaden with theme. The album has a “spreading” effect if you will, not only growing on you, but growing with you, supplying oils and brushes for your evolving inner mural.

The EP Surrender is brilliant. Concluded with two rather dark (and odd) remixes of the title track, the Lockets version is mesmerizing. It contains a phenomenal arrangement of keys and drums, and the harmonies are simply outstanding. The second track, Girl, is more upbeat, and demonstrates a subtle diversity, especially in the instrumentation and sound effects in the spaces.

Most of all, however, all of the music paints pictures. They don’t hang on walls, and they don’t prance around the stage.

The pictures are in your own head.

And they are aesthetic masterpieces.

 

Link for Vinyl version of Camera Shy / UK

https://beautifulstrange.bandcamp.com/album/camera-shy

Buy link for digital copies

https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/lockets/id548765294

Michael Aronovitz is a horror author who has published three novels, two collections, more than thirty short stories, and a number of horror and metal reviews. His first novel “Alice Walks” will come out in E-book form through Cemetery Dance Publications this summer. His latest novel “Phantom Effect” can be seen on Amazon here: http://tinyurl.com/jcg59wo

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

Despite

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.

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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.

“Deathcore.”

“Melodic death.”

“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.

Watch Despite – As You Bleed

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.

Despite.

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

Past Publications:

Seven Deadly Pleasures (collection), 2009

The Voices in Our Heads (collection), 2014

Alice Walks (novel), 2013

The Witch of the Wood (novel), 2014

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

Mindshift

Horizons and Dreams Versus Merchants of Fallacy

Heavy Metal music is rebellious, highly technical, and gratuitously loud. It has survived all the pop-genres otherwise altering the mainstream through the years, almost like a steady electrical current on a different wavelength. Still, it remains the foundational element that provides definition and proportion to those shifting and fleeting trends that would light up the sky for a hot minute, then blow off like tumbleweeds, weightless, skeletal, and forgettable.

Undoubtedly, metal has always been there for the long haul, in the concrete, the substrate, the floorboards, and the I-Beams. It might not make many appearances on the Billboard Top 100, and it could very well be treated as a cheap ghost at the Grammys until the end of time, but one thing is for sure…you can’t stop it, you can’t kill it, and fans will keep coming to those outdoor festivals, all mud and combat boots, hippies and Harley’s, that shit is supposed to happen, just ask WikkedLiss of WikkedChikRadio247, spinning new and classic metal all day and all night like that die hard townie who refuses to let the bandstand in the park deteriorate or the dancehall in the town square get torn down for condos.

Mindshift 1600x800Metal is our constant, our rock (pardon the pun) and common denominator, but this in no way means that it has been stagnant or predictable since Black Sabbath came out with their debut album in 1970 and shocked the world. In fact, anyone who believes “all metal looks and sounds the same” just ain’t looking or listening very hard, and for the sake of brevity I won’t commit here to a comprehensive description or detailed history of the evolution of metal in all its genres, sub-genres, and off-shoots, even though I have my many personal favorites in each and every one of them. More generally, however, it is rather enjoyable to consider the face paint, leather, studs, pyro-technics, quadruple humbuckers, Marshall stacks, masks, chains, tattoos, power chords, long hair, mo-hawked hair, no hair, spandex jump suits, pouty poses, sweet vocals, hard-ass vocals, double drums, multiple toms, boots, belts, skulls, medieval candles, shining Flying V’s, mic stands with silk rags, mic stands with spikes, mosh pits, motorcycles, makeup, and madness.

It’s a show, a celebration that reminds us of the very best of times, when we were young and headstrong and reckless and wired. That being said, there is an awesome and paradoxical dichotomy that often exists within the construct of Metal, in that it draws a certain potency from the reserves of our formative years (whether we are currently experiencing them or looking back), while simultaneously addressing complex world issues we face as adults. On scholarly grounds then, metal lives in strange contradiction and could be therefore seen as enigmatic or even nonsensical. Poetically however, it dares to dance hard and heavy with the thickest of darkness, and this is as universal, ageless, and relevant as you can get. If there is something youthful, impractical, and wild about that, so be it. If you’d rather use music as background to relax to, or space to, or paint lovely background mosaics so things look quaint and posh and pretty and tamed, go right on ahead. The Metal-Heads surely won’t mind. They are too busy feeling the vibe in the concrete, the substrate, the floorboards, and the I-Beams, dancing, shouting, head-banging, and living large, raw, and hard.

Like we all used to do.

These issues considered, the melodic deathcore metal band Mindshift has tapped into youth, naiveté, and a daring world-view with their album “Horizon,” that which brings us to a place of literal and emblematic introspection both beautiful and frightening. Mindshift, one of the newer bands on the Eclipse record label, is made up of Johan Lund on guitars, Marcus “Mao” Uggla on vocals, and Fabien “Fabz” Perreau on drums, and before entertaining more cerebral commentary, it should be said up front that this project is musically outstanding right down where it counts in the trenches, featuring a rhythm section (as is an Eclipse trademark) of guitar, bass, and drums that is air-tight and ultimately satisfying. And the old school metal fans will especially enjoy this particular project’s seeming preference not only for those wicked hummingbird 16ths on the double bass drums, but a thick dose of back beat grooves cut to halves, loaded with “wow,” and bolstered by massive power-chords and power-notes heavy with balls and bottom.

Instrumentally, Mindshift also explores terrain of surprise and variety, inserting clever dramatic pauses (as evident in My Revenge), glorious and complicated fills and breaks (Absolution), and a taste of absolute metal-funk (A Thousand Scars), making listeners feel it “in the heart and the hips,” as label-mate Tito Quinones of Saint Diablo would say. Vocally, there are often background harmonies so ethereal one would swear the audible tapestry reaches a level of spirituality, and Marcus “Mao” Uggla does a phenomenal job meeting what seems the current standard for vocalists in new hard music, executing an enormous, throaty death growl in the verses (mostly) and a heart-felt, traditional vocal in the chorus. It is Mao’s visual presence, auditory stylistics, and lyrics however, that not only set this band apart from other metal projects, but add fresh colors and banners to one of the tragic themes introduced to us by Ernest Hemingway back in the early part of the twentieth century.

To be blunt, Mao looks young and startlingly innocent despite the rough and tumble wife-beater he wears in the “Horizon” official music video and the multiple tattoos he’s pattered his arms with. He is by all means “for real,” but he has a baby-face, complimented by a traditional vocal so pure and adolescent, we might expect at first that we would more commonly hear it fronting projects like The Jonas Brothers or One Direction.

All part of the plan.

To think Mao, the band, and the label unaware of this would be naïve on our parts indeed. Not only have they all created a brand most original and rather unprecedented, but those involved with this bold project are clearly all in, musically, visually, and thematically. The album, as said, is called “Horizon,” used as a signpost for youth and the power and heartbreak of developing world vision, as Mao asks himself in the title track, “What will it take for this horizon to stay?”

Clearly, this is the idealistic voice of the child, not realizing the fluidity (and transience) of this kind of beauty, thinking it dependable and stationary, like an old portrait or favored plaything always returned to one specific place. He will soon realize that the horizon is a mirage, changing with time itself and additionally spawning multitudes of interpretations, literally as the observer himself grows taller, and metaphorically as he gains psychological and societal perspective.

There is also the idea that chasing a horizon is no more than a doomed venture, since every step initiates a new horizon equally distant and unique. And if Mao merely sang about the idea that chasing dreams is a fool’s game, we could certainly appreciate the surface representation. Dreams are wonderful ideas, even essential at times, but one of life’s hardest and most necessary lessons might very well be that one has to tailor aspirations at some point to those that are actually attainable. Again, this rather primary issue in the model Mindshift proposes does indeed make a good deal of sense, causing us to question the real-life possibilities of dreams, and the fact that the way they are promoted often instigates damaging fallacies.

Personally, I have never been a fan of the misleading adage, “You can do anything if you try hard enough,” even though I would instinctively celebrate the idea for its spirit of intent as a sort of general motivation. Still, it is the mathematical absolute presented here and the impossibility of its translating to any sort of logical or consistent fruition that bothers me, especially the way parents and educators seem to use these hyperbolic and unrealistic maxims more to keep kids focused, quiet, and sitting still than projecting the real potential of their actual abilities. Harmless hyperbole? Maybe. But kids take things at first glance and face value, don’t they?

Ok, fine. We all basically knew this anyway, deep down at least, admittedly adding under our breath with every exaggerated encouragement that the NBA might not be a realistic ambition, stardom is not a practical idea, and you might as well stop thinking about Harvard, at least with those SAT scores. We’re not stupid. We provide a blend of advice, some of it story-book fluff and at times nothing other than the hard bottom line, and if Mindshift wanted us to stop feeding kids false motivation altogether, it would be rather easy to shrug our shoulders, say, Yeah, what the fuck,” and toss out the old sayings, start telling the truth about Santa, and break the habit of succumbing to the trendy social pressure that we give out participation trophies and tell kids they are talented when all they really have is a bit of flamboyance.

But that’s not all Mindshift illustrates here.

Lyrics in the title track also claim the representative child here is “Being tied to one special thing like ropes around [his] life.” This is not speaking to caregivers tossing around false encouragement and random compliments. This is a finger in the face. This is about tyrannical parents imposing difficult ideals and their own broken dreams on impressionable offspring, usually in the form of one of those improbable castles in the air reflecting spotlights and stardust: the mother who forces her daughter to take ballet classes even though they make her back ache and her feet hurt, or the father who gets his ten year old batting lessons based on micro-mechanics, then films him hitting three hundred balls off the tee each night in the basement and lectures him for having an elbow a quarter-inch off or letting his shoulder fly open, then signing him up for little league, tournament travel, and two AAU teams that play year round, watching each of the kid’s at-bats with wide eyes and fingers curled tight in the fencing, ready to give it to him hard in the car on the way home and punish him if he strikes out on the same pitch twice or rolls one over to the shortstop because he transferred his weight and committed too soon.

“On these broken legs I stand fighting,” Mao says.

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If we take this to the extreme, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to connect the idea with the horror movie Misery (1990), where we have the mad (and mothering) ex-nurse literally break her prisoner’s feet with a sledge hammer because he alters the “horizon” she envisions for him (she discovers he had killed off a character in a romance series he was writing, because he felt his heroine had gone stale. It is the nurse’s favorite protagonist, and she forces him to rewrite it).  Of course, on a rather crude and rudimentary level, this works as a figurative parallel. The parent forces the child to stay focused on one horizon, stunting his or her growth and mobility, and therefore erasing variety and choice in terms of hobbies and extra-curricular activities. I would argue however, that there is another aspect to this, a haunting one.

In this module, the idea of breaking the legs and roping one in place links effortlessly with being made to stare straight into the blaze of a horizon (or adulthood) that parents would force their children to embrace before their time, and I am not just referring to ballet, baseball, and romances with or without fairytale endings. I am talking about rites of passage that surpass games and safe works of fiction. Not to pun or play this as coy, I would argue here that Ernest Hemingway’s revolutionary debut work In Our Time (1925) speaks directly to this idea, in that children are not “little adults,” but impressionable beings crying out to their demanding parents that they will only be ready for adult horizons in their own time.

To be textually specific about this collection of short stories and the way it ties in with Mindshift’s paradigm, I would present to you the idea that Hemingway’s lead character Nick Adams struggles to manage his youth while constantly being thrust into adult situations he isn’t quite ready for. As a young boy, he is forced to watch his father perform a C-Section on a Native American woman, and then witness her husband’s suicide (Indian Camp). He is given access to liquor and guns when he is too immature to even look in a mirror and understand the image looking back at him (The Three Day Blow), he is thrown off a train and threatened at knifepoint in the woods when he is too green to be out wandering the countryside on his own in the first place (The Battler), and he is made to go to war when barely out of his teens (Italicized Pre-Chapter 6). The result, which directly connects to Mindshift’s lyrics, is that his legs are made useless, “Nick sat against the wall of the church where they had dragged him to be clear of machine-gun fire in the street. Both legs stuck out awkwardly. He had been hit in the spine” (Hemingway 63).

Of course, a sniper could have gotten him, but the more likely scenario would be that Nick was too inexperienced to be there in the first place, and he was running away, forced into cowardice. The “parent” in this scenario is his country, and while Nick has reached the horizon in that “The sun shone on his face” (63), he was been tragically discarded by this uncaring national patriarch, only to be acknowledged for his efforts by another disillusioned (and wounded) metaphorical child, “Rinaldi was a disappointing audience” (63).

The horizon Mindshift sings about is not uni-dimensional. It is all around us in a terrifying 360, just as the video has the band performing within a ring of ever-changing neon lines, like futuristic prison bars, flickering on and off. We are forced into these arenas of harsh masculinity and overly experienced femininity long before we are seasoned to the task, and we are held to impossible standards by those who have long lost the ability to see the beauty and wonder of youth. And when we finally realize that the horizon is no more than a mirage and a lie we get Mao’s pain and anger, his massive death growl, and like the heartbreaking character of Nick Adams, the boyish voice struggling to be heard in a landscape already luring him into the blur, the status-quo, and the death of idealism.  

Michael 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. 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

Past Publications:

Seven Deadly Pleasures (collection), 2009

The Voices in Our Heads (collection), 2014

Alice Walks (novel), 2013

The Witch of the Wood (novel), 2014

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.