Be quiet and gaze
By Fuantei Denshi
‘It comes from the depths
Of a place unknown to the
Keeper of dreams
If it could then it would steal
The sun and the moon from the sky
‘Spirit Crusher’, Death
(Sound of Perseverance, 1998)
What follows is primarily a rather blinkered account of an ailment that afflicts my mind and the music that has helped me during this period in which many of us are thankful to have a secure residence in which to be imprisoned. The plague that haunts me, however, had taken root quite a long time ago. Suffice it to say that I would perhaps not be faring much better even without this pandemic-induced isolation in place. Of course, my problems cannot in any way be compared to the depredations visited upon the marginalized and the more vulnerable in my country.
My life had been spiralling Southwards for quite some time as the autumn of 2019 dawned. I had lost a parent, and the other was ailing. My own health has been steadily deteriorating for a few years, and in 2019 newer issues were detected in various biological systems. Anxiety, stress and fear, untreated, had already been taking a toll for a few years by then, and repeated professional failures compounded the matter. A lot of this was my fault – years of neglect, self-destructive patterns, a propensity for escapism rather than confronting problems, ignoring inter-personal relationships and experiences, failure to develop socio-cultural skills and meaningful life experiences. All of this found me in a very vulnerable state by the end of the year, and I foolishly sought care and understanding where there was none. Where I was led to believe was empathy I, instead, found the worst apprehensions I held about myself preyed upon and fed back to me, reinforced continuously – that one is a stunted navel-gazer, frightfully mediocre and inarticulate, as mundane as a rotting log floating by, sorely lacking in self-assurance and good cheer, altogether too bizarre and beyond compassion and salvation. As so many of us know, remarks with regard to one’s gloomy outlook and anger being baseless often come from the very quarters that fuel such traits, while the impact of one’s experiences on such traits is rendered inconsequential. Having no control over one’s anxious thoughts that construct the worst possible scenarios is labelled a character flaw rather than being a symptom. And thumping claims of knowledge and sensitivity towards mental health, even the personal experience of dealing with such issues, does not preclude the possibility of such behaviour. This leads to one being wracked with guilt at one’s words and expressions, which upon anxiety-fuelled introspection seems selfish and inconsiderate. Sometimes any incoherent attempt at articulating this distress itself is trivialised. There is nothing quite like being appraised as being only of instrumental value (and fit for nought else) to remind one of one’s insignificance and one’s place in the order of things. Despite alarms flashing and warnings from friends I persisted, and got trapped in harmful cycles, repeatedly treated with all the affection and grace with which one treats a used prophylactic device intended for the garbage bin. I lay supine, helpless, with my serotonin flows locked into these cycles, hoping for better results with each cycle.
Or so I think. Given that all is not in order in my mind I can hardly trust these perceptions to be accurate to the highest degree. I suppose self-loathing can only be directed inwards for so long; at some point it starts projecting out. I am, after all, complicit in my woes. The mounting guilt and horror at what I had become in a life of three decades ate away at my will. A philistine, with no appreciation for the higher art forms, no means of dealing with complex emotions and thoughts, a glutton for mind-numbing fare, communicational and emotional skills that fail me when needed the most, not the best analytical skills in my chosen field of study either. My sense of self-worth tanked, and self-loathing crested, as I howled into cupped palms and blamed myself for not having developed the dispositions, comportments and tastes befitting my age or valued in the society around me. It is almost as though what comes so easily to those around me is too onerous for me to inculcate or put into practice.
All of this while I was in a place far away from my home that even after five years I hadn’t taken to, and that didn’t take to me. Politically, my country has been in turmoil for a while. If one month my home-town was under curfew, with unarmed youth being shot down on the road, the next month my university campus is under attack by armed right-wing vigilantes, and the month after that riots occur in the capital city against minorities. The pandemic forced a return home and the subsequent quarantine/isolation at home did not help my condition much. It has, of course, been much harder on others. Someone dear to me in the family was marooned far away from home, battling her demons in isolation, and in the end took her own life. The economic outlook is grim, and the financial worries of being unemployed at an advanced age with dependants is a major stressor for many of my cohort.
Matters reached a point where physical symptoms started manifesting; headaches and elevated blood pressure to accompany the same never-ending, swirling thoughts. Not at all a positive development for one who had been left a hereditary legacy of hypertensive high blood pressure. I started therapy and have been put on medication, but they can go only so far. It is conversations with friends that has proven to be quite effective in helping me get a handle on issues. I was never quite sure when the onset of stress, anxiety and anger or sadness would have me in its grips. In the course of a conversation, a stray phrase in a text, a scene in some film, something in the kitchen – anything could act as a trigger. And round and round they go, the bars of this prison-house of thoughts, a prison of my own making, an elegy to a life not so much lived as run away from. Trying to talk to me would be akin to poking at a hornet’s nest sometimes. It reached a point where the pulsating anger would lead to brief flashes of pain in parts of my head. At other times, a crushing sense of dejection would take over, especially in the minutes and hours before sleep thankfully shut me down. The medication dampens the anger and the physical symptoms, but not so much the despondence and dejection. On top of that, there is the nagging doubt burrowed somewhere deep in my mind, that I might be over-exaggerating my issues, like a hypochondriac. Other people deal with similar issues or far, far worse in their lifetime with far more equanimity. Must it always be thus, that what comes so easily to most people around me should prove so difficult for me…..
Such a state of affairs would usually have found me blasting my staple fare of thrash metal, Swedish death metal, grunge, the more proggier and tech-ier stuff (everything from Opeth to Haken to Elder) etc. to cope. This time around, however, I found myself turning to metal that had been infused with the fuzzy, distortion heavy, sickly-sweet influences of shoegaze, and metal bands that have taken this into strange, new directions. And the band that led me down this path is Deftones.
My untrained, young ears didn’t pay much attention to Deftones when I first came across them in 2004. They used to be lumped in with the nu-metal cohort, although this is a categorization vocalist Chino Moreno actively resisted. It was much later, by 2013, that I could gauge that there was more going on in their musical corpus than met my ear. By their 2000 magnum opus White Pony they were bringing in influences not usually seen in metal, from goth to shoegaze, in addition to R&B and the groovier, rhythmic shade of the musical spectrum to which the band had grown up listening. Moreno and the band regularly cite everyone from The Cure to Depeche Mode as inspirations (their cover album is quite a revelation, with songs by everyone from the Cocteau Twins to Duran Duran to Seal in it). But it is shoegaze progenitors My Bloody Valentine’s genre-defining Loveless (1988) that Moreno wanted White Pony to sound like. The shoegaze influences are strong in their eponymous album from 2003 as well. I have spent a lot of time with these albums during this pandemic (along with MBV’s EPs such as Glider and You Made Me Realize), drowning myself in what Moreno called the ‘wall of guitar’ (others call it the ‘wall of sound’), referring to MBV guitar auteur Kevin Shields’s usage of nearly a hundred guitar pedals during the production of Loveless to create that distinctive, almost dissonant, fuzzy, distorted sound that feels like layers of reverb fed back upon each other. The result is dream-pop taken to the edge, with the subtly lurking twin vocals of Shields and Bilinda Butcher adding to the ethereal, dreamy soundscape (‘ethereal’, ‘dreamy’, ‘atmospheric’ etc. are adjectives often used to describe the shoegaze-dream pop sound. I do not believe I have adjectives in my repertoire that would be better-suited). I could feel the same sensations in Deftones, with Moreno’s sometimes whispered, sometimes crooning, sometimes lilting, sometimes all-out staple metal screaming backed up by Stephen Carpenter’s crushing riffs and their overall dreamy, atmospheric soundscapes. With these albums and EPs I could imagine myself sitting motionless at the bottom of a pool of distortion, the almost droning, aural fuzz keeping away the spiralling thoughts, granting me periods of respite.
Lyrically the themes of these Deftones albums move away from their previous output. Moreno, by his own admission, overcame his inhibitions to explore abstract lyrics laden with fantastical elements, sometimes with sensual, sexual and even (what seems to me) disturbing overtones (the allusions to electrocution in ‘Digital Bath’). Here, again, he draws upon his inspirations, it seems. Like the LSD-addled Robert Smith in ‘Disintegration’ from The Cure’s 1989 album of the same name. Shields and Butcher’s lyrics are sometimes hard to decipher as well (there are only fragments of ‘Loomer’, ‘You made me realize’, ‘When you sleep’ and ‘Come in alone’ that I could comprehend). But I have come to accept this elusive meaning as a part of the sound. Thus it is that I sought comfort in everything from songs that seemed to be about suicide bombings in Tel Aviv (‘Hexagram’) to picnics on the moon (‘Rx Queen’). Of course Deftones aren’t the only ones taking shoegaze/dreampop into uncharted territory where I have sought refuge in recent times. Hum has made a stellar career and developed a cult following out of playing shoegaze in a heavier, spacey hard rock register and their 2020 release Inlet came bang in the middle of the pandemic to the waiting arms of forlorn individuals such as myself. Astronoid released their sophomore effort in 2019, mixing thrash/speed metal riffage with dreampop, a curiously upbeat sound at times that’s very different from the ominous ambience of most metal.
This is quite a departure from the metal that I usually seek solace in, which offered some form of catharsis. Thrash metal usually has a lot of political overtones, like its rivals/cousins punk and hardcore, with Megadeth, Slayer, Sacred Reich etc. dealing with war, violence, genocide, authoritarianism, ecological degradation etc. Of course, they never shied away from dealing with the more unsavoury sides of the human psyche, as well as trauma and mental health issues. The sociologist Adam Rafalovich notices in his study of the lyrical content of metal bands from the 1990s to the 2000s (cutting across genres to include Pantera, Meshuggah, Slipknot, Korn etc.), notices a certain shift away from the glam/hair metal tropes of the 1980s:
‘The alternative scene was, in part, a reaction against the perceived shallowness of such bands’ lyrical themes (the pursuit of women, the acquisition of sex, partying into all hours of the night, and so on)…… The formula that mandated the objectification of women and self-indulgence yielded to introspection, the expression of emotional pain and a limitless exploration of violent fantasy.’
(I would argue that the lyrical references to violence are more in the order of the metaphorical, in songs such as Slipknot’s Disasterpiece). These lyrics for Rafalovich created a picture of an individualized ‘self’ forever besieged by forces from within and without. Such antagonistic forces could be societal, political, abusive parents or partners, society in general, bullies or personal demons such as addiction, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. The lyrics admitted to a particularly vulnerable self, prone to falling apart or breaking down (lyrical references to being ‘broken’/’falling apart’ abound during this period). The lyrics serve as a call to arms, asking this isolated ‘self’ to stand its ground and weather the storm (I cannot state with any amount of confidence that I have fared very well on the standing my ground bit on my own though). Given that the musicians were overwhelmingly straight men, it is a particular form of isolated vulnerability that is expressed which does not often seek assistance from others, which may not fit the definition of ‘vulnerability’ one finds in contemporary discourses of mental well-being. On the other hand, music critic Stephen Hyndman found that grunge reminded us that, deep down, we’re all victims of a cruel and unjust world, and this vulnerability unites us.
Shoegaze of course has many more stalwarts, especially from the UK. MBV’s own sound owes a lot to The Jesus and Mary Chain (as well as to the melodic post-hardcore of Americans Hüsker Dü). There is the slower tempo and ‘cleaner’, even more ethereal sound of Slowdive, with the amazing duo of Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead in it. Then there’s Catherine Wheel, Chapterhouse, Lush, Ride, the hard rock laced shoegaze of Swervedriver etc. Among its more contemporary exponents, DIIV stands out with its more ‘indie’ sound, while on the heavier side one finds Texans such as Ringo Deathstarr and Narrow Head. But this piece is not so much about shoegaze as it is about how metal infused with the shoegaze sound, and how it’s been helping me. And that has taken me to surprising sub-genres of metal, a direction I never expected to go towards – black metal!
I have never had much of an affinity for black metal (except for Enslaved). I must admit the early Norwegian exponents’ whole ‘evil for evil’s sake’ kitsch may have some appeal in a world where a vulgar display of superficial virtue is the norm. Their corpse-painted, performative flair for the theatrical holds its own allure. The bleak, misanthropic outlook and reverence for darkness, mist, the wilderness, cosmic horror etc. too has its fascination. But then there is the church-burning, stabbing, murder etc. (which doubtless makes for a sensational backstory and edgy posturing). Some members of that scene have flirted with Far-Right, anti-Semitic and racist groups and ideals, going beyond merely featuring Nazi and Aryan supremacist symbology for shock value/ embody ‘evil’. And such associations still persist among a few contemporary black metal bands. However, a lot of other contemporary practitioners of this sub-genre have moved towards new directions – in terms of their aesthetics, music and even politics (bands like Dawn Ray’d and Neckbeard Deathcamp have even had concerts raising funds for the YPG/YPJ fighters in North-Western Syria). Bands like Batushka, Sunn O))), among others have brought fresh influences and musical directions to the sub-genre, and black metal has spawned many sub-sub-genres that are hybrids, such as blackened death, post-black metal and black-gaze.
Deafheaven and Alcest have been a part of my playlists since 2018 (I arrived at their music almost a decade late, as I am often wont to do). Both have become quite well-known in the metal community (and even beyond it), and deservedly so. (Black metal purists generally seem to tend to hate them, and Deafheaven is often derided as a ‘hipster’ band). I didn’t quite know what to make of this new sound that I was so enamoured of, and it is only later that I found out their lineage. All of a sudden I could not have enough of black metal’s signature blast-beats, hyper-accelerated guitar picking and shrieking, wailing vocals mixed with the dreamier sonic horizons of shoegaze (there are traces of post-rock in black-gaze as well). In hindsight, the melding was sure to have borne fruit; both black metal and shoegaze have atmospherics and dissonance in their genes. Genres such as these carry on an important stream within metal, to not only push the envelope but to make it okay for brutal metal heaviness to be also beautiful, melodic and dare I say, ‘pretty’. The person we have to thank for the development of this particular sub-sub-genre seems to be Frenchman Stéphane Paut, better known as Neige. Drawing from the alternative side of the 1980’s such as the grim post-punk of Joy Division and the inscrutable darkwave musings of Cocteau Twins, Neige has been involved in numerous projects, in addition to releasing albums of consistent excellence since 2005 with Alcest, including the excellent Kodama, and 2019’s superlative Spiritual Instinct, which is where I began my journey. With compatriots and frequent collaborators Winterhalter and visual artist/musician Fursy Teyssier he had another project named Amesoeurs that had a harsher black metal sound. (I have also spent a considerable amount of time seeking comfort in Teyssier’s own post-rock outfit Les Discrets with Audrey Hadron and Winterhalter). And then there’s Lantlôs, Marcus Siegenhort’s (Herbst) project with more pronounced corrosive black metal elements blended with beautiful melodic, cleaner interludes; Neige contributed to the first two Lantlôs albums. Then there are the gems tucked away on YouTube/Bandcamp such as ‘Sadness’, a one-man blackgaze project out of somewhere in North America, and their album I wish I was there.
This is the sound that has helped me maintain some semblance of an embankment against the waves of self-loathing and accompanying anxiety that threatened to overwhelm me on the many nights I found myself awake at 3 AM in the morning after barely a couple of hours sleep. Each of these accursed mornings, it is as though I found myself on the banks of the Dead Marshes on the plains of Dagorlad in Middle-Earth, and my many failings and flaws were corpses in the Marsh, with alluring, will-o-the-wisp lights floating above them. Unbidden my steps would take me to the edge, before I flung myself, helpless, into the Marsh, to wallow in crushing despondence till the hour comes when I could no longer remain in bed as chores and work beckoned. On many such occasions I have had the desolate, harsh riffage and blast-beats mixed with strangely gossamer strands of hovering melodies that constitutes blackgaze envelop me in frostbitten comfort. This reprieve, it seems to me, comes from its droning, almost hypnotic monotone, Neige’s, Herbst’s and George Clark’s shrieks howling of yearning, loss, regret and urban noir tinged with decay, a form that is a relentless, all-encompassing assault on the senses, leading my mind away to a fugue-like state. Of course, a similar effect can also be induced by the many sub-genres associated with doom metal’s drone (another genre that I had hitherto not explored much). I have spent many an hour during this lockdown pleasantly surprised by Electric Wizard, Sleep and Thou. Agalloch’s unique blend of neo-folk enriched black/doom metal has been another constant companion. I even went to artists I feel I am ethically bound to avoid, such as Mgla (their members have Far Right associations, I found out much later) and their 2015 album Exercise in Futility.
Perhaps that is the faint glimmer I could latch onto, something to look forward to, that I have perhaps entire genres to discover and explore for myself. Of course, the old classics remain; hardly a week passes without me playing Blackwater Park. I have been steadily making my way through Alcest’s catalogue (in reverse order), and am eager to repeat that journey again. It perhaps helps that my area of work involves long hours of reading and writing by oneself in solitude, and affords music of one’s choice as a welcome accompaniment. The medication ensures I no longer wake up with the rising of the Morningstar, but in the morning it often leaves my mind and body sputtering like a car engine in winter. I cannot wait to be at my desk and have that immersive experience again in an ocean of fuzzy distortion and blast-beats. Sometimes I do meander, everywhere from Bessie Smith to Susie Siouxsie to Emma Ruth Rundle. I have received other suggestions for music that should help in working through my issues, everything from African jazz to some South Asian forms. Sometimes they help, but sometimes they leave me even more enervated and leaden, and then I always end up coming back to the old familiar embrace of metal.
It is perhaps difficult to explain to those who are not avid listeners of the genre how the Eastern Orthodox Church’s funeral dirges overlaid on black metal (Batushka) can prove to be affirming and soothing for someone. Perhaps it is because some of us who love this genre tend to over-identify with the music, and it becomes too integral a part of our personality, sometimes to the point of becoming a character flaw. Pitchfork has some unpleasant things to say about such ‘men who struggle with conveying their feelings turn[ing] to their record collections as emotional support blankets’. Perhaps the diagnosis isn’t too far off the mark. Well, all I know is that this music makes the fog of sorrow recede sometimes, and in those brief moments of clarity I can almost forgive myself for being wilfully blind to the world around me for so long, so blind that the enormity of all that lies beyond my comprehension fuels my fear, anxiety and stress. Sometimes in those precious moments, the better angels of my nature seem to tell me that I have perhaps been too hasty in my judgement of myself and others. That perhaps one holds onto bitterness because one is desperate for something to hold onto. Thus it is that I find myself writing these lines for the one website where people would know what I speak of through this piece, after 1 AM in the morning on a Saturday, playing Ariettes Oubliées again, hoping for a better future, dreading a worse.
 See Rafalovich, A., 2006. Broken and becoming God‐sized: Contemporary metal music and masculine individualism. Symbolic Interaction, 29(1), pp.19-32.(https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/si.2006.29.1.19 )