Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Functional Brokenness: Post-metal, grime, and naming the unnameable.

Kicking off this blog I would like to talk about the debut album by the Denton, Texas post-metal quartet Pyramids. This album certainly appears to have attracted an unnecessary (though perhaps understandable) degree of opprobrium. The first thing which needs to be said is that Pyramids approach the current metal fixation of breeding shoegazing sounds into the genre from a totally different angle from say Jesu or Nadja, the latter two bands taking a doom metal approach, Pyramids attacking the problem from what initially seems to be a black metal one. But then again that doesn't seem to tell the whole story either, as whilst there are indeed furiously pummelling (and yet characteristically puny) blast beats on the majority of tracks, it is also pretty readily apparent that Pyramids are not themselves from a straight up black metal background (the preponderance of decisively beautiful, indie-ish vocals puts firmly payed to that idea). What is most appealing about this album is that unlike Jesu or Nadja the components are never totally successfully integrated, each element (the blastbeats, the effeminately indie vocals, the skyscraping psychedelic guitar histrionics) standing slightly disjunct from the others (sometimes literally so as others have commented as drum machines appear to enter from a completely different song, tempo and all). In this way Pyramids totally reinvigorate the now somewhat shopworn concept of shoegaze metal, rendering it genuinely alien and surprising, foregrounding everything that is wrong about the concept in the first place. In so doing the album has an avant feel quite unlike anything else out there, and for all its obviously derivative parts, smacks gleefully of the new.

I have heard Pyramids described (in a pejorative sense) as "self-conscious metal". What is most interesting is that this is absolutely the case, not only that but it is self-doubting metal, which functions precisely by dint of its brokenness. In many ways this reminds me of listening to the first wave of Grime records- working in virgin territory still yet to be properly charted, the beats seemed to be falling apart in front of your eyes, snares striking up startling new positions far from the second and fourth beats of the bar, akin to the garage which bore it, and yet working to deconstruct the beat even further. A kind of cubism of the drum line was occurring, all the more thrilling for what it implied. And herein lies the chief issue with the avant-accidental, that it functions partly because the creators have yet to fix it. In certain respects this is a matter of technical facility and expertise, but I think a much more important factor is that the creators have yet to actually work out precisely what it is that they are heading towards. Hanging undecided, the music sits liminally in a position of pure potential. However as soon as the music is fixed, it loses its avant-materiality (the actual sound of the tracks shifts towards a genre conventionality) as well as the feel of potentiality (we now know what Grime is, it has been decisively fixed, and hence in some regards, ossified).

All this immediately brings the contemporary continental philosopher Alain Badiou to mind. Badiou attempts to think the emergence of the new and in so doing establish an ethics of truths, expressed as open ended generic procedures. For him the evil which might befall such procedures is threefold: slavishly reifying the event which initiated the sequence, (back to '88 hip hop being a paradigmatic example) betraying the event (the thermidorean moment where the entryist new pop of the early 80s shifts into the "adult", "tasteful" MOR of the Eurythmics and the event of punk is disowned) and forcing the naming the unnameable. It is the latter which appears most apposite here, the "unnameable" being to decide once and for all what the procedure was heading towards, which inevitably halts the process.

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