Constructive Misanthropy: Wyndham Lewis – Tyros & Portraits

PWL

It’s not just ‘the general public’ that sometimes finds abstract or conceptual art to be the empty, meaningless work of opportunistic charlatans; sometimes artists do too. While belonging firmly to the European avant-garde of his time, artist, poet and novelist Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) created a series of figurative works – the Tyros – which both stand outside of and satirise the modernist movement in a way that we would now recognise as ‘post-modern’ in their knowing, ironic nature.

While the satire of modernism was not new in Lewis’ art, the ‘Tyronic’ works of the 1920s mark the beginning of a wider programme (which included his relatively commercial portraiture of the period) which attempted not just to draw attention to the stagnation and decay which the artist perceived in post-WWI European culture, but also to put forward (somewhat half-heartedly) the aim of a new and rigorous ‘classical’ regeneration of both art and society. In the aftermath of the First World War, Lewis saw an opportunity to start afresh in an age in which artists were ‘creatures of a new state of human life.’[1]

the tyro

With the Tyros, Lewis devoted himself to addressing, in his characteristically humorous and aggressive fashion, what he saw as lingering aspects of the old world, in particular the decadent ‘90s of Oscar Wilde & co and the limp quasi-modernism of the Bloomsbury group. However, much of the underlying philosophy of Lewis’ ‘new’ direction derives from the works – both literary and artistic – of his own earliest, pre-war maturity. The implications of this philosophy run far deeper than simply a criticism of the artistic milieu of 1920s Britain, addressing the very nature of humankind itself, with, typically of the artist, entirely negative conclusions. Indeed, Lewis’ vehement opposition to the apparently progressive movements of his time has often led to an overly simplistic (although understandable) denigration of the artist as a fascist. After an initial flirtation with the far-right, though, he was eventually to dismiss the simple-minded politics of fascism with exactly the same kind of aggressive amusement as he dismissed almost everything else. Much of the power of the ‘Tyronic’ works derives from the tension between the relatively positive aims of Lewis’ programme of regeneration and the basic negativity of his satire and personality. This tragic, even hopeless, view of humankind is integral to the satire of the Tyros as it lay at the very heart of Lewis’ conception of humour.

the tyro 2

 Wyndham Lewis introduced his Tyros in April 1921 at the Leicester Galleries, London, in an exhibition named Tyros and Portraits. Whereas the portraits could, to a certain extent, be seen as conventional, though modernist in style, the Tyros were intended to act as a shock awakening to the docile English spectator – ‘These Tyros’ he wrote in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, ‘are not meant to be beautiful…they are, of course, forbidding and harsh.’ The Tyros represented a new mythology, a race of human creatures, fully grown, but new to life, reliant on gut emotional responses and free from reason or logic. As such, they are depicted (both in the finished paintings and in the drawings which illustrated his magazine, The Tyro) as grotesque figures, usually grinning, laughing* or sneering. In the magazine’s fictional works the Tyros are depicted as simple-minded fools, usually engaged in inane gossip, almost a prefiguring of the 21st century era of talent-free celebrity. As paintings, they are modernistic in style, but also embody the intellectual concerns that Lewis felt should be the domain of the artist.

*Lewis’ ambivalent feelings about humour were forcefully expressed in the Vorticist manifesto BLAST, where it is both cursed as ‘arch enemy of REAL’ and  blessed as a ‘great barbarous weapon’. More about this below…

The figures of the Tyros, with their naive, childlike responses to life are, at first glance, not courtshipentirely new in Wyndham Lewis’s art. The theme of the human being as an instinctively motivated animal is a feature of both his art and writing from his earliest maturity. The Breton peasants of the Wild Body stories of 1909-17, crude and animalistic, have recognisable features in common with the Tyros. Artistically too, the subjects of his drawings, such as Dieppe Fisherman (1910) and Courtship (1912, right), share with the Tyros the signs of an intuitive, animal nature such as low foreheads, ridiculous postures and a general lack of individuality. His satire has more than one target – though the fisherman and the romantically engaged couple are, to Lewis, comical figures, they are merely representative samples of wider humanity; ‘’men’ are undoubtedly, to a greater or lesser extent, machines… Men are sometimes so palpably machines, their machination is so transparent, that they are comic.’[2] This point of view remained constant in Lewis’s philosophical worldview, but the Tyros nonetheless differ significantly from his earlier work.

The First World War had an enormous impact on the generation who lived through it, Lewis included, as well as on that which came after. Before the war, Lewis was already a public figure – the outspoken leader of the UK’s own avant-garde art movement, the Vorticists. This celebrity was not to survive the war, and neither was the public enthusiasm for (or at least amusement with) the modern art which had created it. Whereas in 1914/15, Lewis’s work had approached complete abstraction, he now found the hard-won achievements of the Vorticist period ‘bleak and empty. They [the abstract geometric forms] wanted filling.[3] The Tyros and Portraits exhibition was Lewis’s first major attempt at fulfilling this goal. With these works he attempted to address the problems with modern art – its lack of contact with or interest in real life, its obsession with the fleeting and transient and its preoccupation with the intuitive and sensual (exemplified slightly later by Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood’s ‘discovery’ of the ‘naive’ painter Alfred Wallis) which, to Lewis, democratised and undermined the skilled, privileged position of the artist, whose role as documenters (and even creators) of culture and guardians of the intellectual heritage of humankind entailed a sense of responsibility which he felt was being betrayed by the artistic elite of his time. Therefore, the satire of the Tyros is intensified by a moral element which had not been present in his depiction of humanity in the pre-war period.

 The primary target of Lewis’s satire, epitomising all that he felt was wrong with modern art, was the Bloomsbury group. Lewis’s enmity towards this group and in particular its leader, omegaRoger Fry, dated back to the pre-war period when he and his fellow Vorticists left Fry’s Omega Workshops in acrimonious circumstances. Lewis’s view of the Bloomsbury group in 1913 – ‘the idol is still Prettiness, with its mid-Victorian languish of the neck’[4] – was not significantly altered by the intervening years and in fact his attitude was probably hardened by the suspicion that the group had underhandedly used the period of the Great War (the group was, in stark contrast to the Vorticists, largely composed of conscientious objectors) to consolidate their standing as the modern art movement in the UK. Despite the obvious paranoia inherent in this point of view, it is certainly the case that the Omega Workshops heightened its profile during the war years, selling its products more widely than earlier, as well as holding the first exhibitions of Children’s Art in 1917, a venture that seemed to encapsulate everything that Lewis felt about the group.

Lewis’s complaints about Bloomsbury were not entirely without foundation. Roger Fry and Clive Bell were, to the art world in France and elsewhere, the face of the English avant-garde, but they failed to use what little influence they had to promote English art outside of their own somewhat cosy coterie – indeed, even artists broadly in sympathy with their aims and methods – such as Ben Nicholson – did not receive the kind of support they could perhaps have expected. Similarly, Lewis’s claim that Fry, Bell and Duncan Grant were dilettantes (and therefore related to the novice status of the Tyros), ‘playing’ at art without any intellectual seriousness is  not entirely without foundation. Even the relatively grander theories of the group (such as ‘significant form’) seem, in practical execution, to correspond with Lewis’s picture of ‘colour-matching, matchbox-making, dressmaking, chair-painting…tinkerers.’[5] Comments such as Fry’s ‘After all, there is only one art; all the arts are the same’[6] or even worse, Clive Bell’s crass use of a sporting metaphor to grade the differing qualities of French versus English artists (‘the English is normally a stone below the French’[7]) strengthen the validity of Lewis’s claims.

The vision of the amateurish, pseudo-intellectual, self-consciously ‘artistic’ figure of the Bloomsbury artist lent itself easily to the grinning, elemental figures of the Tyros. Probably the most powerful work on display in the Tyros and Portraits exhibition was the large (165.1 x 88.9cm) oil painting, A Reading of Ovid (Tyros) of c. 1920.

read ovid

 A Reading of Ovid

This painting, acknowledged by Lewis as one of his most carefully finished works, shows two Tyros disturbed in the act of reading. The humour of the satire derives from the juxtaposition of the vacantly grinning masklike faces of the two figures with the intellectual pastime they are engaged in. This corresponds with Lewis’s extremely bleak theory of the comic in general; ‘in one sense you ought to be just as much surprised at finding a man occupied in this way [reading] as if you had found an orchid or a cabbage… The movement or intelligent behaviour of matter – any autonomous movement of matter, is essentially comic.’[8] At the same time, the satire is more pointed and direct – these ridiculous figures are, as Lewis explained, an attempt to ‘frighten away the bogey of ‘art for art’s sake’’, the basis for the ‘cultivated and snobbish game’ of English art,[9] art which had no root in culture or society, but was an activity – even a hobby – driven only by the whim of the artist. This satire is especially barbed when one takes into account Lewis’s elevated view of the artist as a cultural leader – and whatever his evaluation of Roger Fry’s talent, Lewis did accept that he was a ‘sensitive and real being’ outside of the homogenous and unthinking mass of the general public. He might therefore be expected to feel the sting of the satire keenly. If the foreword to the exhibition catalogue was not specific enough, the clothing of the Tyros in A Reading of Ovid; the baggy suits and the foppish, ostentatious handkerchief, identifies them clearly as the dilettante artists described in Lewis’s 1918 novel, Tarr; ‘the art-touch, the Bloomsbury technique, was very noticeable. Hobson’s tweeds were shabby, from beneath his dejected jacket emerged a pendant seat, his massive shoes were hooded by the superfluous inches of his trousers: a hat… shaded unnecessarily his countenance.’[10]

In contrast to the directness of his visual attack on Bloomsbury, the use of Ovid as the text over which the Tyros grin, leaves the scene open to several interpretations. This may in itself be a joke on Lewis’s part; the author of the Metamorphoses being evoked in a picture which shows primitive ‘elementals’ attempting to transform themselves by aping the manners of their intellectual superiors. It is also possible that Ovid was chosen as the classical author best known for his erotic works, such as The Art of Love, and that the Tyros are simply shown sniggering over the ‘dirty bits’ of one of the world’s great authors, as befits their base, sensual outlook. Yet another interpretation, with wider-reaching conclusions, is that the use of Ovid refers to the ‘return to stability’ within the French avant-garde of the post-war period, a neo-classical revival looking back to Ingres and David. Lewis, with his own leanings towards a new classicism, was scornful of this fad, which he saw as a French retreat into a safe, patriotic ‘mother-tradition’.[11] In this reading of the painting, the pseudo-intellectual Tyros are engaged in a futile attempt to build a new thought-world, entirely grounded in the past. Lastly, it is possible that the use of Ovid as a figure beyond the reach and understanding of the childlike Tyro is a piece of somewhat arrogant self-identification. Ovid, like Lewis, was an outsider figure, both in his own time and in subsequent literary history, and had been excluded from the elite of his own day for the subversive and satirical nature of his art.[12] The arrogance suggested by this interpretation is not at all inconceivable when looked at in the context of Lewis’s artistic programme of this period – his criticism of Fry in particular seems to suggest that a more suitable figurehead for English modernism would be a professional artist and genuine intellectual – i.e. Lewis himself.

Whatever his pretensions, A Reading of Ovid presents vivid evidence of Lewis’s outsider status in the context of European modernism. As a painting, it has little parallel in Europe at that time. The figures,  though influenced by cubist ‘primitivism’ in their hard-edged, geometric, non-naturalistic outlines, bear little resemblance to extant cubist art. Likewise, although effective satire was being produced by Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp and (most notably) by the German Expressionist George Grosz, their art has little in common with Lewis’s bizarre vision. Nor do these artists share the scope of Lewis’s aims, balancing artistic, social and philosophical concerns, making the Tyro paintings, as he explained, ‘at once satires, pictures and stories.’[13] Lewis, devoted to the cause of ‘art’ in a way that was anathema to the Dadaists, totally eschewed the iconoclastic playfulness of Picabia and Duchamp. The power of Grosz’s art often derives from the passionate rendering of the artist’s bitterness and disgust with the decay and corruption of post-war Germany, where the economic, social and political situation was far more unstable and extreme than in France or England.

grosz

 Grosz, The Pillars of Society

Lewis’s view of satire did not intend to have the emotional, inflammatory impact of work such as Grosz’s; Lewis declared that ‘satire is cold… the non-human outlook must be there.’[14] It is this coldness that allows the intellectual response that Lewis desired in the viewer. The only real parallels for A Reading of Ovid are in fact in the earlier works of Lewis himself. The effective, non-naturalistic colour scheme of opposed visceral reds and deep metallic blues had been a feature of his art since his earliest, Futurist-inspired works. This colour scheme is the opposite of the warm, harmonious, Matisse-influenced and decorative style of the Bloomsbury painters, and so fulfils the dual function of preventing a sensual response (thereby inviting an intellectual one) and providing a corrective example to contemporary Bloomsbury practice. The composition has a tense vitality which is achieved in a similar way to that of his pre-war abstract works such as Composition (1913, left). This energy comes not from loose, free, energetic compositionbrushwork, but from the way in which the dynamic and surging forms of the Tyros, as with those of the abstract works, are locked into a tense design by firm, clean outlines. The power of the line imprisons the energy of the composition, creating an image which is static, but bursting with potential movement. The vitality is, in the Tyros, not merely abstract ‘design’, but also an integral part of the subject.

The vital energy of the Tyros was stressed in Lewis’s writings, and expressed in their grotesque laughing faces. Laughter, to Lewis, was an important philosophical concept. The ‘wild body’ of the human animal, said Lewis, ‘triumphs in its laughter. Laughter does not progress. It is primitive, hard and unchangeable.’[15] The world this laughter reveals is that of the human animal in its true element, stripped of all artifice. In issue two of his magazine The Tyro, Lewis included a ‘Tyronic dialogue’, in which ‘X’, a Tyro representing Lewis himself, makes the following assertion to his more naive companion – ‘Every civilised milieu is… the devouring jungle driven underground, the instinct of bloody combat restricted to forensic weapons.’[16] This underlying reality, masked by complex human behaviour is also hinted at in smaller works, such as the Tyro Madonna (1921, below right) where religion and sexuality are combined in a totem-like image which seems to satirise the edifices built upon the baser instincts of mankind. Laughter brings this subterranean Darwinian world to the surface – and satire, though a form of criticism, aims partly to provoke an amused response in the viewer. This laughter is, like all laughter, an instinctive reaction, and therefore a tragic reminder of the inescapable fate of the human being – to live and therefore to die as an animal like any other. We are laughing with the Tyros as well as at them.Tyro Madonna

The use of satire, had then, despite its appeal for Lewis, extremely negative connotations. In appealing to the sense of humour, it is the denial of the classicism which he himself had put forward in his portraits as the basis of a new modern art, and in fact the denial of all meaningful progress. Although he attacked the situation of the arts in England vigorously, privately he declared that ‘it would be unwise to regard [this state of affairs] as anything but permanent.’[17] The truth of this remark must have seemed self-evident in the irony that A Reading of Ovid was purchased by one of the leading members of the late-Victorian dilettante class, Osbert Sitwell, himself a butt of Lewis’s satire. Whatever his hopes for the future of art and society, Lewis had, fundamentally, a pessimistic view of humankind. This pessimism, a feature of Lewis’s thought since his early maturity and sharpened by the influence of T.E. Hulme, had been, not surprisingly, deepened by the events of the First World War. The art historian David Peters Corbett claims that Lewis was ‘too satirical’ to show his mourning in his art[18] but in fact, the Tyros themselves, in their elemental stupidity, can be interpreted as a bleak kind of mourning for the pointlessness of the mass slaughter of 1914-18.

The Tyros, vessels for the raw energy and vitality of the human animal, necessarily display none of the stillness and ‘deadness’ which Lewis saw as essential to the creation of an ‘immortal’ classical art, and by their very theme, deny the truth of such an art. However, classicism’s loss is satire’s gain, as the concentration on the eternal truth of the real nature of civilisation paradoxically gives the Tyros a timelessness that transcends the immediate situation they satirise, making them of more than socio-historical interest.

The wide-ranging satire and deep pessimism of Lewis’s outlook did not spare even the intellectual elite which he saw as the ideal leaders and creators of a new culture. The culmination of his ‘Tyronic’ period is the one of the most extraordinary paintings of his career; the self portrait Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro (1920/1).

lewis tyro

 Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro

This painting shares many features with A Reading of Ovid. The colour scheme has dramatic contrasts of dark and light, creating a dramatic tension, again denying the comfortable sensual response of most Bloomsbury art. The composition is jagged and stark, containing great energy within tightly enclosed boundary lines. The Tyro bares his teeth in a sneer, looking disdainfully past the viewer from under the aggressive sweep of his hat. In contrast to the average Tyro his forehead is high, but the facial expression (and his status as a Tyro) suggests animal cunning rather than intelligence. While promoting the exhibition, Lewis stated in an interview with the Daily Express that the vitality of the Tyro is ‘purposeless, and hence sometimes malignant’[19] and this is the aspect we see here. The Tyro sneers at the viewer, revealing the basic, negative instinct underlying Lewis’s complex criticism of art and society. Given that Lewis had repeatedly stated his views on the ultimate tragedy of human life, the ‘terrible nature of its true destiny’[20] as revealed by Darwin, it is not inconceivable that the self-portrait depicts Lewis’s real ‘animal self’, sneering at the somewhat romantic ideal of immortality through art that the artist fostered through his intellectual ambitions. Given the nihilism that formed the heart of Lewis’s worldview, the animal response, the sneer or laugh of the Tyro was the only valid one when confronted by the essential joke of human consciousness. Ultimately, the Tyros invite the audience to laugh with as well as at them; to mock the ridiculousness of humankind and to sneer at its pretensions and aspirations.

inferno

With the Tyros, Wyndham Lewis created a mythology based on the essential transience of human life and the animal impulses which ultimately guide all of our seemingly civilised pursuits. In the end, as the artist no doubt expected, the Tyros failed to accomplish much beyond consolidating Lewis’s position as an antagonistic troublemaker in the art world of inter-war England. In the build up to World War Two, Lewis isolated himself even further with some misjudged political writings, and pursued the pessimism of the Tyros on a bigger, more generalised scale with powerfully negative works such as Two Beach Babies (1933, below) and Inferno (1937, above). Post WW2 though, despite completing his massive, Dante-esque mythological trilogy of novels, The Human Age, he was never to regain either his power as an artist or his standing as a public figure.

Beach Babies

[1] Wyndham Lewis, ‘The Children of the New Epoch’ from The Tyro No.1 available to download at http://dl.lib.brown.edu/pdfs/116015166093419.pdf

[2] Lewis, Men Without Art (1934)

[3] Lewis, Rude Assignment: A Narrative of my Career Up-to-Date (1950)

[4] Lewis, Etchells, Hamilton & Wadsworth, in WK Rose (Ed), the Letters of Wyndham Lewis (1963)

[5] Lewis, The Caliph’s Design (1919)

[6] Fry, quoted in J. Ferguson’s The Arts in Britain in World War One (1980)

[7] C. Bell, quoted by Lewis in The Letters of Wyndham Lewis

[8] Lewis, The Wild Body (1928)

[9] Lewis, The Wild Body (1928)

[10] Lewis, Tarr, 1918

[11] Lewis, The Caliph’s Design

[12] Ovid, The Erotic Poems (trans. P. Green, 1982)

[13] Lewis, The Wild Body

[14] Lewis, Men Without Art (1934)

[15] Lewis, The Wild Body

[16] Lewis, The Wild Body

[17] Lewis to J. Quinn, The Letters of Wyndham Lewis

[18] Peters Corbett (Ed) Wyndham Lewis and the Art of Modern War (1998)

[19] Quoted in The Complete Wild Body (1982)

[20] Lewis, The Wild Body

 

 

(Don’t) Lower Your Expectations; the evolution of Oblivionized

 Oblog

We’re not quite at the ‘albums of the year’ stage yet, but when we are, Oblivionized’s Life is a Struggle, Give Up will be featured prominently. From their earliest demos onwards, the band has epitomised the vital UK underground extreme music scene, with a series of always high-quality releases varying from dirty, chaotic grindcore to extremely technical death metal and I have been lucky enough to be writing about the band since those early days, mostly for Zero Tolerance magazine. Back in April I caught up with one third of the band for Pun-Based Name Pending and below is (a slightly revised version of) what came of it:

Oblivionized band

It’s always* nice to watch a band grow and evolve and although Oblivionized have just released their first album Life is a Struggle, Give Up, it’s the culmination/distillation of five years or so of progress and transformation that has seen the band go from the powerful, technical death metal-infused grindcore of their earlier work to something looser, less metal, more intuitive and distinctive, far harder to define, but no less intense.

*disclaimer; if they are any good it’s nice. Otherwise it’s annoying.

The band’s history is short enough that it’s fairly easy to track down all of their work to date; it’s totally worth doing that. discography

The style the band has arrived at since shrinking to a trio in 2012 isn’t very much like any other band I can think of. Drums/guitar/vocals sounds like a pretty skeletal basis for an album, but the concentration on these components gives the music a sparse, elemental feel and an emotional impact that matches the harsh minimalism of the lyrics. On earlier releases the technical skill of Sammy Urwin (also of death metal band Regurgitated Life etc) was often used in a powerful but fairly conventional (riffs/solos) way and the songs seemed to be carefully composed for maximum dynamic impact – which was very effective. On Life Is A Struggle though, the technical aspect (though no less impressive) seems less to do with killer riffs and heaviness than with an almost jazz-like telepathic intensity, comparable in a way to Painkiller circa Guts of a Virgin, but with a more personal/introspective focus. The album perfectly captures the live sound the band showcased on last year’s This is S.O.A.N. split with Razoreater, losing none of the immediacy of the live tape, but giving everything more precision and a sharper impact.

oblo Well, that’s what I think anyway; here are some thoughts from vocalist/lyricist Zac Broughton:

It’s been quite a long wait for a full-length Oblivionized album, but it definitely feels like now is the right time for it, do you feel like this is the Oblivionized lineup for the foreseeable future? Was this the first time you ever wanted to record an album?

I’d say this is the third album me and Sammy have written for Oblivionized. Before Abhorrent Evolution (2011) Geoff (Bradley, guitarist), Sammy and myself over the course of nine months or so, demoed a twelve track album in my room. We turned the best from those demos into four songs when Jon and Phil joined and recorded them and released as Abhorrent Evolution. With that five piece line up we wrote nine, maybe ten songs for an album, we demoed two of them and released that as Nullify The Cycle… That album obviously never happened and I’m happy it didn’t. I realised recently that I haven’t been doing music just for fun, I enjoyed hanging out with my mates putting demos on myspace and going to gigs and that, but I’ve turned expressing myself through music it into my life. Being able to express myself honestly, not just screaming negative fantasies, or telling people how fucked the world is… which it is, lets be honest, we’ll likely all be dead in twenty years if that. But actually making something that I can be proud of and feel is an honest representation of what this is. So basically, if all the music we wrote, people’s lives we’d been part of, positive and negative experiences we have had as a band and individuals during our time together hadn’t happened, neither would Life Is A Struggle, Give Up… I don’t know what I’m trying to say anymore but I think I said it.

The title is great because it can be read as super-negative or actually positive, listening to the album it kind of feels like both; very bleak and angry but at the same time full of passion and energy, what would you say is the overall feel or theme?

I spent a lot of time trying to make sure I wasn’t telling anyone what to do or how to think, I’m not interested in that, so you can take them how you like. For me the album expresses exactly how I felt while writing it; simply put, life is really hard and I’ve wanted give up, just become what other people expect or want me to be. I chose not to and decided I’d live for myself, nothing matters anyway, so why give a fuck about other people and their opinions if the end result is your unhappiness.

septic

One of the things that is really noticeable about the album is the way each element of the music has the same importance/focus, is that easier to do that as a three-piece band than it was in the past?

That is something Will bought to the band, in the past we’d had bass that was kind of an accompaniment, with guitars that played separate parts, make things more dissident but we’d made the drums all blasting and double kick. When Will joined and we became a three piece, Oblivionized became three different personalities working towards something.

You tour and play live a lot, was it important to produce an album that captures the sound you have live?

We don’t want to create much on record that we can’t recreate live as just a three piece. We recorded drums with just Sammy and Will playing together, no click track, no triggers or drum replacement, just take for take. Sammy then recorded his guitar parts and I did my vocals last, Tom (Corrupt Moral Altar, Vagrant Recordings) added some singing bells to I Pity You and Justine (Employed To Serve) did some extra vocals on Your Mouth Is A Wound, besides that it’s just us three in a playing music in a room.

SOAN tape

Secret Law records seem to be doing a really good job of promoting the album, how did you come to sign to the label?

Will was just hanging out with his mate Tom and Tom was most likely saying “bro I might start a metal label” and Will probably said something like “yeah that’d be rad dude, my band has an album no other labels want to release!” and it just snowballed from there, Ed and Tom are fucking on it, they’ve picked up Desert Storm and they just picked up a new band called Funeral Pact who are rad.

Do you have as much control and involvement in all the aspects of making and promoting the album as you did when you were putting things out yourselves?

We still do all the same stuff, we just have some mates working with us now. It’s good to be part of something like Secret Law Records where we are working together to get something heard.

I’m sure the music is carefully worked out etc, but compared to your older work it has a kind of explosive, spontaneous quality, almost like free jazz, is there any element of improvisation in the way you write songs together?

Some songs were written with all three of us in a room bouncing ideas off each other, basically pushing a song in different directions until it met a conclusion, others were Sammy bringing ideas to me and Will, or Sammy and Will bringing ideas to me. After I’d improve vocals until I knew what the song was about. More simply put, It’s all just ideas and things that happened, musically and lyrically.

A related question; I’m not sure which are the newer and older songs on the album, but it seems like the band has gotten a bit looser and less rigid over the past couple of years, would you agree?

Before Geoff (Bradley, now of Atonement) left the band, he said something along the lines of “it’s time Oblivionized stopped writing shredding guitar exercises and started writing songs.” So that’s what we did, weird avant-garde jazz grind songs, or something.

One of the things I really like about the sound Oblivionized has now is that it’s impossible to label in a meaningful way; there’s something really special about the contrast of the technical guitar playing with the kind of intuitive, non-robotic drumming and super-emotive vocals but it isn’t typical ‘tech-grind’ or any of the usual labels you are given. How do you describe your music as it is on the album?

I honestly can’t, when we started out the idea of a genre was a huge joke to us. We started in 2008 it was weird man, you remember all the bands calling themselves “Ultra Guttural Brutality” and “Brutal Technical Slammin Death Metal” yeah? We all thought it was funny, some reviews called us Technical Death Metal, others said Deathgrind so we called ourselves “Misanthropic Technical Deathgrind” and it was hilarious. So we don’t really mind; Trve Kvlt Heavy Core.

COVER

the Life Is a Struggle artwork by Mark W. Richards (Heavy Hand Illustration)

You seem to push yourselves further with each release, is that something you do consciously? Do you have a ‘comfort zone’ as a band and if so is it something you avoid staying in?

I feel like we are aiming for something musically and we haven’t reached it yet, I love music and really enjoy being involved with underground bands and new bands. Lots of people come and go, make new bands and there are some brilliant bands out there if you want to find them. There are also a lot of bands that sound just like Converge, Napalm Death, or someone else and that’s rad, go for it, I enjoy seeing those bands play… but I’d like express myself, not someone else’s self.

Since the early days of the band it seems like the lyrics have become more and more focussed and specific and possibly more personal, is writing and performing an emotional or cathartic experience?

The lyrics are all developing an idea; it’s fully developed, yet I’ve been exploring the same idea for a long time. Making this music and performing is a very cathartic and important experience though, I feel sorry for any musician or listener that doesn’t have that connection to music.

name

LINKS:

Secret Law Records homepage

Heavy Hand Illustration

 

NSBM (and possibly NSFW)

 bmhitlerIt’s not National, to my knowledge it’s rarely socialist, but it mostly is black metal; National Socialist Black Metal (hereafter, NSBM) annoys people by being ‘too evil’, or at least evil in the wrong way. As the snuff movie is to the horror movie, it seems, NSBM is to BM. There are a couple of flaws in this analogy; firstly, it suggests that black metal in general is, like horror movies, some kind of fantasy (which it certainly often is, but isn’t necessarily) and secondly, that NSBM isn’t some kind of fantasy (see previous parentheses). The Nazis of World War 2 probably represent the ‘ultimate evil’ to people of the post-war generations, because whereas even the worst serial killers of the 20th century ‘worked’ on an individual, localised scale, the Nazis made murder into an ideology and ultimately an industry; that is, they functioned in ways that are relevant and relate-able to the daily lives and experiences of most people; the mundane quality of extermination, of ‘death factories’ is ultimately more frightening than a lone maniac. So is Nazi black metal the embodiment of that evil and therefore the ultimate in musical terrorism? Let’s see…

Defining NSBM

Let me be clear; I am not discussing heathen/pagan/folk BM that may or may not be perceived to have a Nazi angle to it; interesting though that scene is (and Graveland is the classic example of a sometimes great band whose career has been blighted by the media’s – and indeed the band’s own – inability to differentiate between history and ideology) the term ‘Nazi’ is too specific and anachronistic to be very useful when discussing paganism, heritage etc. Here, I am more concerned with bands whose work fully intends to glorify that specific NS ideology, and whose output can be represented by artwork like this:

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nazi

The first question is, is NSBM any good? Just like any black metal, the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. On occasion, the mixture of the classic sound of orthodox BM with the particular (and let’s not beat around the bush, racist and especially, anti-Semitic) kind of extreme bile that a Nazi band projects can be extremely effective. Even a modestly-talented middle-of-the-road orthodox BM band like Poland’s Ohtar were able to make something nightmarishly gripping out of tunes that, had they been devoted to Satan, would have just been too familiar. In that (but not only that) respect, NSBM is comparable to Christian Black Metal – it may sometimes be okay as sound, but that doesn’t make it right.

ohtar

Given the existence of such subgenres as ambient BM and folk BM, perhaps the only essential ingredient of black metal is Satanism, in one form or another; and the good thing about Satanism is that it can mean many things to many people. Therefore you have the kind of religious goats ‘n’ horns Satanism that is the polar opposite of Christian metal, exemplified I guess by Watain. Related, but not necessarily requiring any religious belief, there is Lucifer, the fallen angel, analogous to humankind; the cosmic light-bringer with the key to forbidden knowledge. As the philosophical figure of the adversary, Satan can simply be seen as the ultimate rebel; the perfect icon for black metal.

Misanthropy: a group activity?

Filosofem

In fact, some of the best black metal, even by those with Nazi links (Burzum being the best and most obvious example) is metaphysical and above all personal. Like any music that people put their souls into, BM isn’t ‘just music’ – and no-one could deny that in the early 90s, people like Dead and Varg Vikernes lived the music they made. Whatever his political views were or are, Varg Vikernes has the sense to realise that, while his views may be shared by many, his thoughts and feelings are his alone and at its best, Burzum’s music is an expression of those feelings. Filosofem, probably his finest work, expresses a kind of solitary desolation through lyrics that are almost abstract in their elemental bareness, making it endlessly appealing to those metal fans (and not just metal fans) who feel alienated from modern urban society and the mainstream music scene.

As an alternative (or even an accompaniment) to this kind of individualistic Satanic philosophy, National Socialism is highly inadequate; it’s too specific, too political, too ephemeral, too small. Anyone reading Mein Kampf can have no doubt that, to Adolf Hitler, National Socialism was a deeply felt personal philosophy. But anyone following it now should be aware that that’s exactly what they are doing – following someone else’s ideology, living someone else’s dream. Not to be too dictatorial about it, but surely although BM isn’t all that some of its proponents make it out to be, following a failed idea from the recent past is fundamentally not what the genre is supposed to be about.

Wolfenhords+107665_photoAnother key band who helped to ignite the idea of NSBM while definitely not belonging to it were Darkthrone, but as is obvious from looking at their work, their brief flirtation with the language of NS, even evaluated from a politically neutral point of view, actually undermined the impact of their music. The album which caused the controversy is also the one which cemented the band’s reputation as scene leaders, despite the fact that it is significantly weaker than the two which preceded it; 1993’s Transilvanian Hunger. The title track is one of the band’s best ever songs, but it also helps to illustrate where they went wrong. The (not surprisingly) vampiric lyrics are classic black metal, an almost romantic view of misanthropy, forever making cold one of the keywords of the genre. The narrator is utterly divorced not only from society but from humanity. And yet, at the same time as putting forward this image of inhumanity/antihumanity, the band chose, famously, to include the statement Norsk Arisk Black Metal (‘Norwegian Aryan Black Metal’) on the album’s sleeve. What the Aryan or Iranian (or Indo-European or however you choose to interpret ‘Aryan’) people have to do with Norway is anyone’s guess, and if we are to presume that the vampire of Transilvanian Hunger believes in some kind of racialist ideology it can only undermine the song with baggage it most definitely doesn’t need. Which raises another problem with National Socialist ideology in relation to BM; it’s too nice.

Nazism is too nice

This statement clearly needs elaboration. Misanthropy, whether or not it is a viable design for life, is all-encompassing. Nazism is definitively unpleasant, but – examining even the term ‘National Socialism’ – it most definitely cannot be said to be anti-social, let alone misanthropic. Therefore NSBM, although at first it may seem like the ne plus ultra of darkness, actually has a reductive effect compared to the stance of the classic ‘second wave’ of BM. As a misanthrope, you can’t ‘belong’, to be a member of some kind of elite society, you must ‘belong’. Sweet.

The Inclusiveness of true evil?

Standing for ‘all the darkness of humanity’ (variations of this dedication have appeared on album sleeves since the dawn of the 90s and are still going strong; a recent one in my own experience being Malaysians Nefkarata’s (very good) Morts, dedicated to “All Evil In Man”) would by necessity include Hitler & Co alongside Jewish serial killer David Berkowitz and Caligula, Idi Amin, Margaret Thatcher etc, etc, but the most strident NS bands are so dedicated to that vague and misunderstood thing, ‘Aryanism’ that basically it’s all about one short, albeit turbulent, period of the 20th century. And for all the true NSBM band’s xenophobic, elitist rhetoric, it should be remembered that historically, Nazis were not only mainly Germanic (whereas NSBM bands are as or more likely to spring from North or South America as anywhere else) but also – and for a totalitarian ‘might-is-right’ philosophy this is extremely important – the losers.

The glamour of atrocity

ilsa

Like it or not, it’s undeniable that Nazism and especially the holocaust, have a certain frisson; hence the existence of Nazi exploitation movies like Salon Kitty, Ilsa, She-wolf of the SS and (slightly more ambitiously) The Night Porter.

Awareness of this frisson is at the heart of one of Stephen King’s better pieces of writing; the opening chapters of Apt Pupil, and a disapproving awareness of it was behind the predictable moral panic which greeted Martin Amis’ deeply non-exploitative Time’s Arrow. This special atmosphere is definitely part of the allure of certain kinds of NSBM; mostly the sillier kind made by bands with ‘Aryan’ in their name – and an album cover that features a photograph of Nazi atrocities with a black metal logo has a kind of spurious impressiveness that makes it stand out amidst the hordes of unreadable scrawls, inverted crosses, enthroned goats etc.

“Nazi Moods”

Perhaps the most artistically successful Nazi-themed or related BM is the ambient kind, partly because, however unappetising it may sound from a pop-music perspective, the mix of  sombre, wintry and minimalist electronica with martial themes and archive recordings of WWII-era radio broadcasts, speeches and music is incredibly evocative and paradoxically, strangely emotionally involving.

Similarly, the kind of artwork that accompanies these releases tends to be evocativwewele rather than visceral; black and white photographs of landmarks like Zakupy Chateau, Schlöss Wewelsburg, the Wolf’s Lair; crumbling monuments, statues or ruins. This kind of aesthetic has a deep appeal which matches the music, boring if you don’t like it, but strangely moving if you do, even for those who completely reject the ideology behind it. Compared to standard NSBM, this is a very grey area; whereas a record with a cover image of a mountain of emaciated corpses and a name like ‘Aryan Sturm’ can be reasonably presumed to be an NSBM album, a masterpiece like Tronus Abyss’ Kampf – which has many of the hallmarks of an NS ambient project as listed above cannot (and shouldn’t) be easily labelled NSBM. The band do explore avenues of mysticism associated with the Third Reich, they do use martial themes and evoke the ruins of postwar Europe, but it would be difficult (and futile) to try to demonstrate that Kampf is a ‘Nazi album’, any more than Oliver Hirschbiegel’s superb and similarly evocative Der Untergang is a ‘Nazi film’.

tronus_abyss_kampf600    Untergang,-Der

Banning Nazism; the ultimate irony

In recent times, the escalating paranoia about right-wing extremity (alongside, ironically or maybe obviously, a tolerance among people for actual right-wing extremity) has led to some high-profile cases of BM bands being prevented from playing live, especially in Germany. Most of these bands have of course not been Nazis at all – and it is intolerable that these bands have had their livelihood threatened over what is basically the same kind of metal-phobic ignorance that led to US burnings of Number of the Beast in the early 80s.

Banning any kind of art is a ridiculous, futile gesture which has (to my knowledge) never had any positive results except to energise those opposing the regime in charge. On the other hand, actual NS bands should be quite pleased; banning is a classic Nazi trait, which should give them hope for the future of the reich.

 nazifamb