Thursday, 9 January 2014

Brighter Death Now - May All Be Dead (2000)

About a million years ago when I ran one of those DIY tape labels that everyone now regards as having been so cool but no-one gave a flying shit about at the time, I came across the work of a Swedish electronics duo called Enhœnta Bødlar, apparently meaning One Handed Tormentor. They were weird - scary and genuinely peculiar - and I haven't really heard anything quite like them since. Ogreish Guttural Wounds, the vinyl album they had pressed up only to, apparently, bury most of the copies in the Ljungby woodland out of shame remains one of my most prized and oddest possessions, and so quite naturally I always wondered what happened to the two of them after we lost touch. Many years later, I discovered that the individual behind Brighter Death Now - a band whose name I'd noticed turning up in fanzines for at least a decade - was one Roger Karmanik, or Little Roger, or X-Terminator as he had been identified in Enhœnta Bødlar.

Whilst I hadn't exactly avoided the work of Brighter Death Now, neither had I been drawn to it, having assumed it would sound much like all those other bands with whom they tended to be associated. They've recently been described as death industrial, which is I suppose sort of like death metal with oscillators instead of guitars. It's probably as good a description as any, although as a genre it's something I kind of gave up on back in the mid-eighties; and something for which I can't help but feel partially responsible as former CEO of the DIY tape label who put out the very first Grey Wolves C60, back when they were called Opera for Industry and sported a logo resembling a hybrid of the Psychic TV cross and that of Philips, the Dutch electronics company. The Grey Wolves' Trev Ward and I wrote to each other quite a lot, and my own crappy noise  band supported Opera for Industry and the Subhumans on one occasion. They were nice people too, but all that power electronics noise was beginning to depress me, and I felt a cut-off point had been reached when I received a speculative letter from one Mike Dando opening with the words I operate the extreme electronics unit that the world knows as Con-Dom. I had heard the music of Con-Dom on various tapes, and now he wanted to know if I would be interested in sticking some of his tracks on one of my compilation tapes. I wasn't, and partially because whilst the name may well have been a contraction of Control & Domination as claimed, it sounded ridiculous to me, and still makes me think of schoolboys tittering over rubber johnnies.

Couldn't you think of something just a little more convincingly offensive? I wondered.

Additionally I was irritated that he considered himself a unit as opposed to just a bloke with a synthesiser and a tape recorder; and by the presumption that the world knew him as anything.

So that was it for me.

Anyway, here I am years later, mystified that such a thing as death industrial can exist in the year 2013, and listening to May All Be Dead by the bloke who used to be in Enhœnta Bødlar. I think the problem I had with much of the music that evolved into this genre is that the entire point was almost always revulsion on a physiological level, hence the barrage of ear-splitting noise and repulsive imagery, which worked well in a live setting but was often fairly dull on tape or the very occasional vinyl record. In a music venue the experience can be genuinely terrifying and hence oddly cathartic, but the tapes so often just sound like someone swearing at their mum with the washing machine going, because shock doesn't have quite the same impact when there's no adrenaline rush or flight or fight response to distract from the basic absurdity of the situation. Brighter Death Now get around this by producing something that's sonically quite interesting compared to the work of many of their contemporaries. It's still a horrible fucking noise with some bloke screaming over the top, but good use is made of samples and loops so there's always some sort of rhythm going even if it isn't necessarily of the kind which lends itself to percussion; plus the production quality is wonderful, so even though it's a wall of noise, you get the full textural detail of every last grain of cement. If anything, a lot of this actually sounds like that point in a Throbbing Gristle performance at which the
three less-exhibitionist members of the group built up sufficient head of grinding electronic stream to drown out the sound of Genesis P. Orridge telling the audience about himself. It's expertly horrible, and utterly overwhelming, just as it's supposed to be.

To tackle the elephant in the room, this particular genre of music has often carried unfortunate associations with extreme right wing politics, which is probably thanks to most musicians and non-musician types generally being a bunch of morons who can't be trusted to put their leather trousers on the right way around without the aid of a diagram. The tendency to use shocking and violent imagery without comment by electronic musicians probably stems in part from Throbbing Gristle's documentary mode of expression; but shock relies upon presenting something unfamiliar, and thus only works for a while, requiring the sort of upping of stakes which gave birth to groups like Whitehouse and Ramleh; which in turn presents the problem of where there is left to go when all possible taboos have been transgressed in artistic terms. Unfortunately the only avenues that many musicians of this kind seemed to feel was left open for them were philosophical because - to reduce it to terms even a musician could understand - whilst records with pictures of Nazi concentration camps on the cover entitled The Really Fun Place may be shocking, and may challenge cultural hypocrisy and conventional concepts of morality blah blah blah, it's even more shocking if you're really into that shit; which is why so much supposedly industrial music has somehow ended up believing its own publicity, promoting a view which reinforces the most reactionary and authoritarian aspects of the status quo.

Although some artists - and some whom I fear Roger Karmanik of Brighter Death Now has promoted through his own label by one means or another - make no bones about pushing a racist or socially-Darwinian agenda, I would argue that there remains a distinction between those who actively admire Adolf Hitler, and those who need to think about whether they really want people turning up to their gigs in full SS uniform. You might not want either of them around for tea and biscuits, but they aren't entirely the same animal.

Because this sort of thing does bother me a little, I've had a virtual root around, although I can find nothing conclusively dubious about the politics of Brighter Death Now, if as a band they, or at least he can be said to have any political or philosophical drive. There is an interview - the link for which I seem to have mislaid - in which he made some comment about the preservation of Swedish culture which had the cadence of those who whine about immigration and foreign influence, and whom I generally tend to regard as clueless fucking wankers, but it seemed merely odious rather than actively suggestive of far-right sympathies. While Sweden maintained an official eugenics policy up until 1975, I'm going to assume its significant that the cover of May All Be Dead is so obviously inspired by those of the anarchist punk band Crass, and further assume that the raw horror expressed in the music of Brighter Death Now carries no overtly political or authoritarian agenda.

So if you've skipped the last two paragraphs, the verdict is: great and yet horrible music, and probably not a Nazi so far as I can tell. In fact, May All Be Dead seems thematically a great deal more personal than is common for this genre, resembling the earlier records of the Swans more than anything else, even if it musically echoes the more aggressive Throbbing Gristle material - a sort of acid enema for the human spirit; at least it would be nice to think that, and that there is at least one power electronics band of sufficient intellectual development to have risen above the customarily juvenile Nazi-goth bullshit, or so I would hope.

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