Thursday, April 12, 2018

Songs of and for Spring

Well, today is the first (and potentially the only) day of Spring we are going to get here in Chicago this year. Tomorrow there’s a thunderstorm and the next day temperatures will plunge from their upper-60s sunny glory to the 30s once more—not freezing cold, but probably gray and depressing nonetheless.

I am going to enjoy this day while I can! With that in mind, here are 5 albums I consider to be perfect listening for a newly-born Springtime.

Comus – First Utterance

Spring always gives me strange associations and nostalgias. Comus probably represents the dark and unbridled side of Spring awakening, a seduction of the I-know-not-what.

Virgin Steele – The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Part 1:

“Now like the sun, like the wind and the rain
I’ll return like a storm, I will rise once again
Like the right hand of God, I will strike from above
‘Cross the oceans of time, I am called by your voice
I’ll return, I will return! Oh!”

“Victory is mine – from the darkness I have won!”

And especially Part 2:

“Strike now while life is in you, before the darkness eats your soul!”

“I’ll never die while the light races over my head
I can see where we are
Why must you cry for the life you are leaving behind?
Crown of glory unscarred

“And you’ll see me thread the air, crown of fire upon my hair!”

This album (or set of albums) represents like no other the unconquerable spirit of humankind. (And God, even Invictus… “We came, we saw, we conquered you all!”) Strike now! A glorification of inner strength, the sheer power of which is unmatched. After the cold death of winter, arise! Seize victory while you can! Do you feel the blood pumping in your veins? Nevermind how preposterous it sounds – a metal band encouraging you to “kill” and “die” at once!

It’s just so unironically triumphant, in an age when triumph, glory, majesty, and so on, are lost affects, replaced by various forms of naive chauvinism, nationalism, and so on. There is something to be said for the revival – unironically of course – of these affects, not that there is a broader social or political meaning to the 90s albums of a metal band. Springtime indeed.

Hawkwind – Space Ritual

Of course I associate hippies with spring. The flowers are growing, the orgone is swarming, and one can finally go outside, take a walk down to the lake and behold the sheer creative force. Well, supposedly, since the trees here are still, in the middle of April, totally dead. Not a bud to be seen. But it’s there… the unconquerable orgone…

Manilla Road – Crystal Logic

Okay, so I had to put Manilla Road on this list. My pick is this excellent album, in particular for the more rocking and carefree vibe of songs like “Necropolis” and “Feeling Free Again”. The Deluge could have served as well, for its shorter and more upbeat hook-laden songs (“Hammer of the Witches”, “Divine Victim”, etc.), or even a few tracks from Open the Gates (“Road of Kings” in particular). I guess I think that spring is a triumphant time, so upbeat songs that bring to mind rebirth, happiness, and bravery fit well.

Motorhead – Orgasmatron

My favorite Motorhead album, this one really reminds me of riding around town with the boys. Another Perfect Day would also have worked due to its more upbeat nature. But this one, hoo boy, it’s just anthem after anthem of hard rockin’ heavy metal. I think everyone should experience the freedom that this album enacts, even if just for a moment, even if behind the safety screen of the tape player in an old car. Just make sure your friends are along for the ride.

Jethro Tull – Songs From the Wood

Obviously… More on the Comus side of things, as in pagan and folksy as anything out there, but much lighter on the touch this time. No macabre pagan gods tormenting lost maidens or anything, but still retains that insanely English pagan feeling throughout the entire album. Also very proggy. Essential album for a spring soundtrack.

Wishbone Ash – Argus

One last album. This one has the 70s fantasy vibe strong, with proggy and laidback beats and dual lead guitars. Great guitar album. It’s worth a stab at daydreaming to this one on a nice warm day. Stare out the window awhile…

Well, in order not to miss the day while it lasts, I’m going outside.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Favorite Albums by Year

Thought I would, since I'm basically out of commission as far as anything really useful goes, come up with a list of my favorite albums by year, with commentary. So, here goes. I'll start with 1969 since metal is really my thing, not that all the albums will be metal (especially in the 60s and 70s for obvious reasons).

1969: Blue Cheer - Vincebus Eruptum

Definitely one of the heaviest albums of the pre-metal world. This is probably Blue Cheer's best album in my book, containing everything from the rocking classic "Summertime Blues" to the immensely stoner metal style of "Doctor Please" and the bluest "Parchment Farm". The guitar tone is just so massive it's hard to believe this is still the 60s. It's primitive, yes, but it had to be to reach the heights of heaviness at the time. This goes for later metal too: it had to slim down, go primitive, to get really nasty and heavy (see Hellhammer and Bathory, or even Venom), before it could become "sophisticated" again with stuff like complex death metal and technical compositions. No simplistic, fuzzy bludgeoning? No Deathspell Omega.

1970: Sir Lord Baltimore - Kingdom Come

With this album, we are arguably already in metal territory by some lights. I think it is more like heavy psych, especially because the guitar tone is so fuzzy, fueled by an old-school type overdrive more than distortion of the more metallic variety. Nonetheless, this is closer to the prog side of things, with somewhat gruff vocals for the era, noisy lead guitar parts, and pretty heavy drumming. The songwriting is top notch too.

1971: Comus - First Utterance

My favorite album of the 70s, and most certainly in my top 5 albums of all time (maybe #1). This album shows you how filthy nature can really be. There are no real comparisons I can draw to other bands. It is pure folk, but in a strange and avant-garde sense, as if the gods they sing to actually appeared to them and irrevocably transformed their songwriting sensibility by their very presence. One gets a sense that the music barely holds itself together at times, sometimes degenerating into a heathen orgy of strange yelps and dominating hand percussion. But it masterfully comes back together, as if the witches' sabbath you have just confusedly yet wholeheartedly taken part in was some sort of strange dream. I have no idea how many musicians are on this album, but there must be at least a dozen (checking wikipedia, there are 6; just goes to show...). Flute, violin, guitar, bass, various singers, percussion instruments, even a theremin (???) or singing saw makes an appearance on some tracks. Sometimes it is melancholy and beautiful, at others it is terrifying ("Hey, shall I cut you down? / It would be our last physical communion / I'll be gentle / I'll be gentle / I'll be gentle / I'll be gentle"). I really can't say how good this album is, it transports you to another dimension. Transcendent.

1972: Wishbone Ash - Argus

Very close second: Yes - Close to the Edge. "Argus" is probably my favorite prog rock album, just beating out Jethro Tull's late 70s offerings. This is probably because of the use of harmony, which is just insane (twin guitars!), the medieval vibes, and incredibly groovy songwriting. The album is very tight, and doesn't have a single dull moment. Just listen to that groovy bass line in the faster part of "Sometime World" and tell me that isn't genius.

1973: Mahavishnu Orchestra - Birds of Fire

While my favorite Mahavishnu track(s) is "Eternity's Breath" (parts 1 and 2) from "Visions of the Emerald Beyond" (1975), the rest of that album is not as good as what is found here on "Bird of Fire", which is a very consistent and intense piece of fusion. This is probably the most extreme Mahavishnu got, as far as I know. The solos are honed to a ludicrous level of extremity, and the chord progressions are as weird and complicated as they will ever be. If you don't like this, maybe you don't like progressive or jazz-fusion music...

1974: Frank Zappa - Apostrophe

This album is pure nostalgia for me. Maybe one of the first albums I owned on CD, I remember listening to it on a trip to Alaska in 7th grade. Laying on the floor of a Vancouver hotel with my paltry CD collection (which included Steve Vai's "Passion and Warfare", which holy shit I haven't heard in a decade), it probably explains why I'm so strange. Part music, part weirdo comedy, but striking just the right balance. One of Zappa's best.

1975: Jethro Tull - Minstrel in the Gallery

This begins my string of favorite Jethro Tull albums, including also "Songs from the Wood" and "Heavy Horses". This is probably the heaviest of those albums, just for the electric guitar parts in the title track alone (though "Heavy Horses" has some cool distorted guitar too). I can't help but sing along to the title track, one of the best Tull ever composed, including lyrically. Pure prog.

1976: Judas Priest - Sad Wings of Destiny

70s metal has finally reared its head. With a great vocal performance and groovy, crunchy guitars, what more could you want? A classic album, and influential.

1977: Jethro Tull - Songs From the Wood

Close second: Thin Lizzy - Bad Reputation. "Songs From the Wood" sees a very poppy and non-heavy Jethro Tull (only a few really distorted guitar parts on this album), and somehow it is still one of their proggiest offerings. Ian Anderson can really make a seemingly simply folky melody incredibly complex, and the number of time signature changes and bizarre arrangements in otherwise simple folk tunes is mind-boggling. I can see why some would not like the excessively melodic, poppy, and soft nature of much of the album, but honestly it is incredibly complex, and the fact that it is both of those things at once makes it a great album.

1978: Jethro Tull - Heavy Horses

Here we see Tull going back to a heavier, more rock-based approach, and boy does it work. This one has some great songwriting, more conventional than "Songs From the Wood", but less poppy too. But don't get me wrong, there are still weird rhythms all over the place (just listen to that 2-against-3 sort of vibe in the main part of the first track), just maybe less change-ups. There are some really cool leads, and it's more electric, less synths though. The lyrics to the title track make my eyes tear up!

1979: Motörhead - Overkill

Of all Motörhead albums, there are three in particular that really stick out to me, not in small part due to circumstances of my life in all probability: "Overkill", "Orgasmatron" (the best), and "Bastards". This one, though, is pretty punky, and it has massive walls of guitar and double-bass. Some of Motörhead's best songs are on this album, including the title track, "Stay Clean", "Damage Case", and "No Class". Great early metal album!

1980: Angel Witch - Angel Witch

NWOBHM is something I should like more than I do. But Angel Witch is pretty good. 1980 was a hard year since I couldn't find anything I really liked a lot, and not much was in my music library for that year. This really is a good album, though. Who can resist singing along to "you're an angel witch / yoooou're an angel witch [da nana nanana]"????

1981: Venom - Welcome to Hell

Here we begin a slow descent into extremer territory, punctuated by the classic 80s metal of Manilla Road and King Diamond. But it begins here - extreme metal. There's not much that I can say about this album and its successor "Black Metal" that hasn't been said before and better. This is one of the most simplistic manifestations of rock music, and I believe this is what opened the door for both extreme metal and also the most technical genres of all time like tech death. There HAD to be shitty musicians for good ones to come along and continue with the development of heavy music.

1982: Venom - Black Metal

See the above commentary on "Welcome to Hell", the same thoughts basically apply to this one. Overall I think I prefer the debut.

1983: Manilla Road - Crystal Logic

Honorable Mention: Mercyful Fate - Melissa. So begins Manilla Road's Golden Trilogy (actually I would include "Mystification" as almost on the same level!). I have to say that overall Manilla Road is my favorite band of all time, and "Crystal Logic" is a masterpiece. Not my favorite MR album, but one of the best. It is so simple - even the long tracks - so lo-fi, so magical... I will save some of my gushing for "Open the Gates"...

1984: Mercyful Fate - Don't Break the Oath

MF's best album, and another nostalgic one for me, this time from high school. I can distinctly remember listening to this one night before the first day of classes for the year; I can't remember if it was junior or senior year. Anyway, the album is extremely proggy in its song structures, with some weird time signature changes and harmonies, including strange scale transitions especially during solo sections. But the old-school heavy metal never lets up for a second. It's hard to pick any highlights - I usually just listen to the whole album straight through. One thing to note is that newcomers to King Diamond's vocals may be turned off by about track 3 or 4, where the falsetto gets a little out of hand. But once you get over that hurdle... you're in the clear!

1985: Manilla Road - Open the Gates

Second: Pentagram - Relentless (or the self-titled, whatever). Without a doubt this is my favorite MR album. There's not a song on here that I don't love, even the much-maligned "Heavy Metal to the World". It is so immersive and epic, I feel like I'm in an Elric or Corum novel. It may even be my favorite album of all time (along with Comus' "First Utterance" and DsO's "Paracletus", and something from Virgin Steele... but it's hard to pick from them, probably "Invictus"). Everything here is perfect, from the weird nasally vocals (now more aggressive, with an edge to them, less nasally at any rate than "Crystal Logic"), to the weird and epic songwriting (about which more in a moment), to the amorphous face-melting solos, to the lo-fi production with punchy drums and jagged guitars. Now to the "epic" descriptor... this band, and in particular this album, have a totally unique take on what constitutes "epic" heavy metal. It isn't epic like Blind Guardian, with the vast and bombastic arrangements, nor is it epic like Manowar, with their grandiose and pompous choruses and mid-tempo paeans to Odin. This is epic in a low, dark, sword-and-sorcery type way -- the difference between Blind Guardian and MR is like the difference between Tolkien and Moorcock. Moorcock once said that he'd rather be a small writer with big ideas than a big writer with small ideas (as he claimed Tolkien was -- and I agree). This fits MR better than any description I've yet heard. No other band has this epic, multiverse type vibe to them while refraining from bombast (I mean, Bal-Sagoth has synthesized trumpets, symphonic flights of fancy, and so on, while MR achieves I dare say even greater heights of epic heroism with the simple instrumentation of classic old school heavy metal!). I think the point has been made, that this is really its own unique thing, untouched and untouchable for all time. Up the hammers and down the nails! Literally every song here is a classic, despite what some say, and indeed I think the album should be listened to as a whole for purposes of immersion. My favorites though, those that push me over the edge into ecstasy, include "Astronomica", a real fan favorite, and "The Fires of Mars" (that part towards the end with the vocals going higher and ever higher and building intensity makes me explode). Truly there is a divine hand in this.

1986: Manilla Road - The Deluge

This is where it gets crazy. Close seconds include Motörhead's "Orgasmatron", my all-time favorite Motörhead album, and Saint Vitus' classic slab of primitive fuzz-doom "Born Too Late". It was honestly hard to pick! Probably, any year that didn't have a classic MR album would have allowed "Orgasmatron" to take the spot, since that latter album to me signifies freedom and friends, and driving around in a car, maybe to a party, more than any other. "The Deluge", however, continues the Golden Trilogy of MR. It sees them with shorter, catchier songs, as well as some longer epics of course. Classics such as "Divine Victim", "Hammer of the Witches", and the title track push this into sheer classic territory. Overall, I think I prefer "Open the Gates", but this is the album that really got me into MR, though it took many skeptical listens to finally see what the fuss was all about. I'm glad I stuck with it.

1987: King Diamond - Abigail

Manilla Road's "Mystification" is obviously a close second, but "Abigail" is just so insanely good. Also Pentagram's "Day of Reckoning". Pentagram, Manilla Road, and KD/MF are my favorite 80s artists, so it is pretty hard to pick for these years. In any case, "Abigail" is may KD's best, with a cohesive narrative, great songwriting, and a flawless performance from all involved.

1988: Bathory - Blood Fire Death

Of course, King Diamond's "Them" is a close contender, in fact all of his 80s albums are fantastic heavy metal, including also 1990's "The Eye". The man had an amazing run throughout the entirety of the 80s. But I would give this slot to Bathory for the song "A Fine Day to Die" alone - one of the first black metal tracks I heard, and it got me hooked on epic music at the same time. Formative. It took me longer to appreciate the rest of the album, but it was worth the patience.

1989: King Diamond - Conspiracy

Classic KD. What more to say? "Conspiracy" is quite heavy in the guitar department, and definitely on part with "Them" quality-wise, if not better.

1990: Bathory - Hammerheart

Again honorable mention to KD, and also this time to Megadeth for "Rust in Peace", another formative album for me in my teenage years. "Hammerheart" was another high school album - I used to play this in my car way too loud. The production here is pretty awful, but that adds to the charm, along with the out-of-tune vocals. I'm not selling this well, but it is amazing. One of the most iconic metal albums of all time, probably, and one of my favorites. The guitars are almost absurdly heavy, maybe too heavy for the style! They might blow up your speakers if you're not careful.

1991: Cathedral - Forest of Equilibrium

Close second: My Bloody Valentine - Loveless. I am a huge fan of Cathedral's first 3 albums (and a lot of their others, but the first 3 are particularly masterful). Their debut is definitely the most true-doom of those first 3, since they quickly got a retro stoner vibe going and even used disco beats ("Alright brothers and sisters, I wanna see you on the dance floor, shake that funky thing, oh yeah, feels good"). This one, however, is a more serious affair, with some very slow and extreme doom ("Ebony Tears") with Lee Dorrian's classic half-growls as a real highlight (but may require some getting used to). This is really an album of dirges, though it does speed up and get somewhat groovin' at a few points. Highly influential in the doom revival.

1992: Blind Guardian - Somewhere Far Beyond

Darkthrone's "A Blaze in the Northern Sky" is worth mentioning as well. "Somewhere Far Beyond" is a great amalgam of epic elements and speedy power metal, one of BG's best. I liked this album so much I went to see BG with some friends in high school, all the way over in Atlanta. It was a great show, one of my first metal shows (along with Suffocation/Necrophagist and Sabaton; I'm not proud of the latter). Has such classics as the title track, "Time What is Time", and "Theater of Pain".

1993: Immortal - Pure Holocaust

I discovered this album in, I think, 8th grade. It got me into black metal. I listened to it probably hundreds of times in that one year alone; it was by far my most played album. It is just such an insanely extreme album. Everything from the drumming to the walls of blizzardy snow that are supposedly guitars, to the froglike screams of Abbath. It is Immortal's best, for sure, but also maybe my favorite second-wave album overall. It is so fast. Reckless, even. Sloppy as shit. And the mystique of the track titles was just too much for me back then - it drew me in. It still does. Interesting words include "icewinds" and its complement "holocaustwinds", "unsilent", "wintercoffin", and so much more. Great shit, in its own black metal universe.

1994: Virgin Steele - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Part 1

It's a real shame that all 3 of Pentagram's classic albums came out in such tough years; they are one of my favorite metal bands but they just get shit luck, releasing albums the same years as Manilla Road and Virgin Steele! Here we really get into Virgin Steel territory... In any case, "Be Forewarned" is a closer second. As for the winner, it is the most straightforward of Virgin Steele's golden 90s output; rocking good heavy metal tunes with an epic power edge, but certainly not the interlude-laden keyboard-heavy 10-minute epics that would populate the later albums. This still has some of their catchiest songs though, for example "Blood and Gasoline", "I Wake Up Screaming", and "Life Among the Ruins". Unlike the other VS albums I picked for later years, this one works well listening to individual songs rather than going through the whole album intently.

1995: Virgin Steele - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Part 2

Better than part 1... "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" trilogy (which includes parts 1, 2, and then "Invictus") is perhaps their greatest work, although "The House of Atreus: Act I" gives it a run for its money. While part 1 was more a great collection of epic songs, part 2 ramps up the conceptual content and the cohesion of the album as a whole, a trend that would continue to intensify, reaching a beautiful sweet spot on "Invictus" and "The House of Atreus: Act 1". This album has song amazing songs as well, such as "Crown of Glory", "Rising Unchained", and the epic "Emalaith", a real highlight. They can do ballads amazingly well, too, one of the only bands for which I can say I really enjoy them (see "Strawgirl"...).

1996: Depressive Silence - Mourning (Demo II)

This is without a doubt the greatest dungeon synth album of all time (and it is a genre I do enjoy, though I am not a true fanatic like some out there). I really also enjoy Thangorodrim, Gothmog, Mortiis, Hedge Wizard, and Jääportit; but DS is better than all of those, and this album really shows it. The atmosphere, the fairy tale magic. I feel getting lost in nostalgia despite only hearing this album a year or two ago. I don't know how he does it, but it is wonderful.

1997: Esoteric - The Pernicious Enigma

The only "funeral doom" to make the list, but truly Esoteric is not exactly funeral doom, despite being lumped in with that style. It's very slow psychedelic death/doom, basically. And it really is psychedelic, like a terrifying dream transportation to another world, like when you get too high and start doubting there is anything but the void beneath all manifestation. Like when a trip turns south and you start to think everything is fake, that it's just void showing itself to you and mocking you. That's what this album feels like to me; it's surreal, it's evil, and it's very very well-composed despite its immense length. It takes some patience, some concentration, but if you can listen to it in the right headspace it is a true masterpiece of music of any genre. One of the only albums that really touches me in a place I didn't know even existed.

1998: Virgin Steele - Invictus

Probably my favorite VS album, and perhaps their heaviest? DeFeis' vocals reach unparalleled heights (both as in extremely high notes and sharp, controlled perfection), and the epic songwriting reaches its peak. Tracks like "Invictus" (that chorus with the choir in the back is sublime), "Sword of the Gods", and the epic closer "Veni, Vidi, Vici" (one of the best VS songs hands down) fill the listener with visions of grandeur. The themes are, like usual, epic -- god and man, "the unconquerable spirit", mythology, and so on. It has to be listened to as a whole. Really one of the superb achievements of epic metal.

1999: Virgin Steele - The House of Atreus: Act 1

An extremely worthy follow up to "Invictus", this album is just as good. The opening track is one of the greatest VS have ever written, just furious epic heavy/power metal. I am not as familiar with this album as with the Marriage trilogy, but it certainly stands up, and I am working quickly to make myself just as familiar with it! I'll probably have more to say about this one later, but upon hearing it I knew it was yet another masterpiece. Highlights definitely include the opener "Kingdom of the Fearless (The Destruction of Troy)", the greatest metal ballads ever written, that is "Child of Desolation" and "Gate of Kings", and a few fire-themed songs... One thing here is that the interludes are the best they are ever going to be, they are perfect. I don't skip a single track when listening to this album, despite the numerous interludes and the 71 minute play time.

2000: Virgin Steele - The House of Atreus: Act II

I initially wanted to give this slot to Immolation's "Close to a World Below", but kept listening to "The House of Atreus: Act II" and realized I just couldn't turn it down. It's too good. Yes, it gets a bit bloated with interludes towards the end - at one point there are 5 interludes, 1 metal song, and then 3 more interludes (one of them over 4 minutes), and then the 10-minute metal finale. Nonetheless, in the right context it still works remarkably well. There are still some amazing songs on this album despite its perhaps over-conceptual nature (but honestly sometimes I think it's not too conceptual!). "The Fire of Ecstasy" is amazing, and "The Wine of Violence" has one of my favorite choruses of all time. Man, I could go on and on about these albums. Time to just move on.

2001: Katatonia - Last Fair Deal Gone Down

Ah, Katatonia. Another one of my favorite bands. My go-to sad band, I didn't get into them until college. I like their more metal era ("Dance of December Souls" and "Brave Murder Day"), their middle softer period (including this one), and their later, more proggy stuff ("Night is the New Day", "The Fall of Hearts"). Everything they do is great, and, well, very emotional. This one is probably their most straightforward album, with simple alternative rock-goes-sad type tracks with very catchy vocal melodies and almost shoegaze style guitar tones. Highlights include "Chrome", "Teargas", and the strange and horrifying "We Must Bury You".

2002: Manilla Road - Spiral Castle

Manilla Road returned from the dead, as far as studio recordings go, with "Atlantis Rising", an okay but unspectacular album. After that one, what were they going to do? Well, they released the greatest epic doom metal album of all time, "Spiral Castle". The sheer weight of the riffs on the title track alone is enough to earn this album a place on this list. Candlemass can go fuck themselves, this is epic doom. Unfortunately they didn't really continue with this style anywhere, though "Voyager" is probably the closest of their catalogue to the combination of quality and doomy influence (of course, "Gates of Fire" has some doom stuff going on, but overall it's not an amazing album like this or "Voyager"). Up there with "Mystification"!

2003: Wormed - Planisphaerium

Maybe my favorite brutal death metal album. Actually, probably second (or third) to Defeated Sanity's "Chapters of Repugnance" and "Passages Into Deformity". But this is a weirder album than those, and if anything, even more extreme. Hell, this is probably the most extreme album on this list. The guitars are cosmically heavy despite the weird production, the vocals are that hyperbrutal style of gurgling, inhuman bestiality (more like an alien, though, given the themes...). It is groovy though -- Wormed do utilize slams to great effect. But they change it up so frequently that it is hard to really groove to them. No tech-wankery here, thankfully.

2004: Behexen - "By the Blessing of Satan"

Second place (and sometimes I think it's better...) is Striborg's "Spiritual Catharsis" (which, I have to say, may be the purest black metal album of them all; Darkthrone once said that "Under a Funeral Moon" was the only true black metal album they ever recorded, and extended that logic, I would venture that "Spiritual Catharsis" is the only true black metal album in existence; okay, it's hyperbole, but you get what I mean). "By the Blessing of Satan" is miles better than "Rituale Satanum" (a classic in its own right), as well as anything the band would later do. Above all, this is a nasty album, taking black metal back to its brutal, extreme roots. It can get almost groovy at times (see "Fist of the Satanist"), but overall this is a gnarly beast alternating between jagged power chords and truly satanic tremolo melodies, overlayered with hellish blast beats and some of the most extreme black metal vocals I've heard.

2005: Reverend Bizarre - II: Crush the Insects

All three of Rev Biz's albums are classics, I have to say. "II: Crush the Insects" is perhaps not my favorite of them (that's probably "In the Rectory..."), but it's hard to pick at any rate. This one has the "sellout" stompers like "Doom Over the World" and "Cromwell", as well as the classic slow-burning true doom cuts (the famed "extreme traditional doom metal" as one MA reviewer put it) like "By This Axe I Rule" and "Fucking Wizard".

2006: The Ruins of Beverast - Rain Upon the Impure

Close second: Peste Noire - La Sanie des Siecles. "Rain Upon the Impure" is in a category of its own (like so many masterpieces of music). To start, it has bizzare production, rather lo-fi, as if the whole album is being played very far away. For this reason, it must be listened to loudly with headphones, in order to pick up the many nuances hidden within its vast expanse. Part doom, part black metal, 100% atmospheric. It is long and engrossing without being too repetitive, and one gets the impression of unfathomable depths. I don't know if it's a concept album but it might as well be, since it feels like one giant slab of music. I think this is Alexander von Meilenwald's true masterpiece.

2007: Deathspell Omega - Fas, Ite, Maledicti in Ignem Aeternum

Deathspell Omega are a force. A satanic force. I believe they have some kind of supernatural insight, given the quality of their trilogy. Though I think "Paracletus" surpasses "Fas", many of the elements that would later predominate in their sound emerged full-force on "Fas". It is chaotic, dissonant, avant-garde black metal with a profoundly religious dimension. I will save most of my commentary on the band as a whole for "Paracletus".

2008: Horna - Sanojesi Äärelle

Close second: Manilla Road - Voyager. Horna's album "Sanojesi Äärelle" is a great work of straightforward Finnish black metal (one of the best kinds of black metal). Melodic but also bestial and aggressive, this album has basically two parts. The first could constitute a full album by itself, and it consists of more aggressive black metal tracks. The second part, the last 4 songs, are much longer, more repetitive and atmospheric tracks. Both parts work very well, especially as a kind of counterpoint to one another. One highlight is the terrific vocals.

2009: Peste Noire - Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor

Peste Noire are such a strange band, and this is one of their strangest albums. Part noisy punk, part black metal, part carnival music, and part medieval folk and the "chants of Europe". Despite the fascist parts ("SIEG HEIL SIEG HEIL SIEG HEIL"), this is one fantastic album. The demented "la la la"s add something... well, demented, to the work. If there is one album I would describe as really filthy in every respect, as utterly amateurish and yet despite that a masterpiece, it would probably be this one. The performance is unbearably shitty, the production sucks, there's not too much black metal even here, at least not like on "La Sanie des Siecles". Instead, we get some weird shit. But it works.

2010: Deathspell Omega - Paracletus

Honorable mention: Defeated Sanity "Chapters of Repugnance". "Paracletus" is another contender for my favorite album of all time. It is, as one reviewer put it, a "Satanic Pentecost", a masterpiece of forward-thinking black metal, technical and avant-garde chaos that somehow retains a clear vibe and message, a clear musical Idea that guides the listener through the most jarring riffs and furious drumming. Very math rock influenced, but not as much as "Drought" or "The Synarchy of Molten Bones". One can still recognize this as black metal. From the beginning to the end, it feels like a coherent whole, neither too long nor too short, with themes that repeat themselves in new contexts, leading to the transcendent closer "Apokatastasis Panton". I wish I had more to say about it, but DsO can't really be analyzed much further; they are too far beyond us...

2011: Ulcerate - The Destroyers of All

Ulcerate are one of the few tech death bands I still enjoy. They have a more atmospheric, lurching, dissonant take on the genre, as opposed to the crispy overproduced hyper-melodic or neoclassical style (as on, say, Spawn of Possession's "Incurso" or other albums of the sort). Sometimes, like with DsO, it's hard to imagine how they produce some of the sounds they do, the weird bends and high jangling sounds that somehow emanate from a regular-ass guitar (well, probably a seven-string or something). For all that, this is Ulcerate's most accessible albums, with more of that "atmospheric sludge" type sound, like... Neurosis? I think that's a fair influence, but on the other hand they sound nothing alike. It's kind of like Neurosis plus DsO plus death metal. Whatever it is, it's good.

2012: Menace Ruine - Alight in Ashes

This is a weird album. It basically consists of strange electronics playing almost neo-baroque lines, thick and crackling, with the lone voice of Genevieve soaring over it, like a candle in supernaturally thick darkness, like a tiny island on black seas of infinity. There are some long instrumental sections, some drone-like sections, and even one really catchy shorter track, "Salamandra". Definitely a one-of-a-kind sort of affair, but overall a very good one.

2013: Cultes des Ghoules - Henbane

A close second is Defeated Sanity's "Passages Into Deformity", one of my favorite death metal albums. "Henbane", however, takes the cake with its witch-themed old-school black metal, evoking not the tremolo melodicism of the second wave but the simplistic power chords of the first, overlaid with compelling atmospherics. The altar is never clean on this album, it's always stained with the blood of sacrificial victims. The vocalist Mark of the Devil (is his name Mark? That would be a silly pun) is a definite highlight, with a unique voice. Just listen to him wail and cackle and scream and invoke the four corners of the Earth for his evil magic.

2014: Nightbringer - Ego Dominus Tuus

One of my favorite black metal albums of all time, and better than their other works (including "Terra Damnata" unfortunately). The track "Lantern of Eden's Night" alone makes this a masterpiece, though it never flags for a moment. This is one of the darkest black metal albums, I think, with invocations to Lucifer and terrifying atmosphere. The vocals vary greatly, but all the styles work wonderfully. It also has amazing use of tremolo, complexly interweaving melodies and harmonies, and furiously blasting drums. Probably the best of the so-called "orthodox" type black metal albums, if this fits in that category. It is highly spiritual, religious, and esoteric. Primary influences are apparently Andrew Chumbley and some Sufi stuff (Hallaj in particular). Not your typical Satan-worshipping black metal, but something more sophisticated.

2015: Blind Guardian - Beyond the Red Mirror

Close second: Arcturus - Arcturian. This is the first BG album I'd really loved since "Nightfall in Middle Earth", but this is better as a whole even than that. I listened to this album countless times, especially while driving to and from college for breaks from school. I can still sing along to probably every track on the album, including the solos. Just a really grandiose, epic power metal album.

2016: Deathspell Omega - The Synarchy of Molten Bones

DsO makes the list again... There's not much I can say about this one, it's even harder to digest than the band's previous material. More mathy, even less black metal. The lyrics are poetry, the performances are untouchable, and the compositions are mind-boggling. Not quite on the level of "Paracletus", and definitely much less accessible than that one, but this is still a fantastic album of the post-Paracletus black metal landscape.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tentative AOTY Toplist 2017

While in bed recovering from yet another jaw surgery, I figured I might as well try to write something. But I'm a bit too addled and pained to focus too much on philosophy or religious topics, so I settled on my other great love: metal (and metal-adjacent works...).

What follows is a toplist of AOTY contenders as well as some commentary, both on this year's releases and metal as a whole. These are mini-reviews of sorts, and not meant to be really deep or anything; just giving my impressions of the year in metal.

Potential Albums of the Year 2017:

Ulver - The Assasination of Julius Caesar

Quite possibly my AOTY although not metal at all, this album was a huge surprise to me. I had seen it mentioned in numerous places, and didn't get around to listening to it until maybe early June. I had never liked what I'd heard from bands like Depeche Mode, but for some reason I loved this album. Maybe it's Garm's vocals that did it for me, since I have always enjoyed them in other contexts (like the Arcturus of old). 

In any case, this album is genius pop sensibility after genius pop sensibility, introspective but catchy vocal lines and synthwork stretching out as far as the eye can see. The only song I can't get into is the final one (and I quite enjoy the several-minutes-long noisy section in "Rolling Stone"). The highlight for me is probably "1969" (and "Nemoralia"), though parts of "Southern Gothic" really stand out as well.

Much has been made of the lyrics on this album, and with good reason. There are a few really hair-raising, spine-tingling, goosebump-inducing lyrical moments on this album. "Southern Gothic" will give you a good idea, though the shimmering delivery and phrasing themselves contribute greatly to how the lyrics are taken:

I want to tell you something
About the grace of faded things
The draped compositions
Hiding from the new world
Behind old French doors
The last rays of the setting sun
On the cheeks of cherub faces
The traces of their tears

But you do not listen
Your mind is somewhere else
I speak with a frozen tongue
In a dead language

There' s a world between us
There' s a sunken garden
Love lies bleeding there
And words they mean nothing
To anyone anymore 

Really just astounding, in my opinion. It is primarily a historically-themed album, and I can't help shaking a kind of Benjaminian feeling, obviously from the title of "Angelus Novus" (the Paul Klee piece that Benjamin liked so much in his Theses on History). On the other hand, I can't fucking stand Benjamin. Oh well, it works here in a piece of art and not in a shitty and pretentious piece of obscurantist crit theory.

Sons of Crom - The Black Tower

Wow! After the amazing debut "Riddle of Steel" (2014), Sons of Crom return with another work of staggering finesse and genre-jumping madness.

"Epic heavy metal" can mean so many things, can have so many distinct flavors. Everything from the Moorcockian low-epic sword & sorcery adventure of Manilla Road to the macho war hymns of Isen Torr, to the saccharine myth-saturated tales of Atlantean Kodex. Sons of Crom fall into all and none of these categories, masterfully jumping between influences and even taking on elements of black and thrash metal while they're at it. If you thought "Riddle of Steel" was eclectic in its influences, just wait until you hear this. There are straight-up thrash sections, power metal style dueling lead guitars, black metal blasts and shrieks, and of course a core of Bathory-worship to hold it all down, even including an acoustic "Ring of Gold"-style song.

This album literally has everything you could ever ask for from epic heavy metal, that most eclectic style, well-nigh impossible to perfect, and yet perhaps one of my favorites.

The Ruins of Beverast - Exuvia

The Ruins of Beverast is a one-of-a-kind band, releasing one of my favorite albums of all time in 2006's "Rain Upon the Impure", and I have thoroughly enjoyed all of their albums except perhaps 2013's "Blood Vaults". Needless to say, I was worried after the "Takitum Tootem!" EP from 2016, since I just couldn't get into it.

Thankfully, the new album is and incredible and atmospheric piece of black, doom, and whatever else. There is even a reworkeed version of the song "Takitum Totem" with a different and much cooler vibe. Alexander von Meilenwald rarely disappoints, seeming to correct any missteps he has made. While "Exuvia" isn't quite up there with "Rain Upon the Impure" (an impossible album to top in my opinion), it is much better than "Blood Vaults". It has a lot more atmo-black in its sound than usual, especially than "Blood Vaults".

There are a lot of weird sounds, including shamanic chanting, wolves howling, various singers (including obviously Meilenwald's death growls but also female vocals and chants), strange synth lines that wander in and out of the incredibly long tracks, and churning doomy guitar parts. Overall, I'd say to some extent atmosphere has been prized over riffs here, but it works because it's an insanely good atmosphere that morphs across the duration of the album while retaining a solid core. If anything, Meilenwald must be praised for his ability to produce unique atmospheres and explore their possibilities of change while retaining their identity, even to the utmost limits. A very good album that takes many listens to fully appreciate.

Emptiness - Not For Music

Here's a controversial album that I've only recently (in the past week or so) warmed up to. Maybe it's all the painkillers I've had to take or the shock of the surgery, but I find myself genuinely enjoying this weird blend of post-punk aesthetics with black/death metal tropes. It's airy, it's, er... empty. Where are the riffs? Where is the metal? There aren't even vocal melodies, something that this sort of music usually leans on (but wait... what is "this sort of music"? I'm not sure I know.).

I suppose I had to do two separate things in order to get into this album; before doing these two things there is no way I would have appreciated it. The first is to love Ulver's new album, since it made me like synths again (not that this album is all synth) and pop aesthetics. Yes, this album has a pop aesthetic of a sort. At any rate, they are both melancholy works with lots of synths and a certain aesthetic, not otherwise comparable. Maybe it opened my mind at least. Back to the topic: the second thing I had to do was listen to a lot of Emptiness's previous album, "Nothing but the Whole" (2014). That album prepared me for what I was getting myself into in listening to this one, but the this one is far more sparse and weird than "Nothing but the Whole". If anyone wants to like this album, I can only recommend listening to "Nothing but the Whole" until you like that one, and then and only then maybe try this one out.

In sum: I have no idea what to say about this album other than that it is really fucking dark and doesn't fit into any specific genre that I know of. But I am starting to think it is really brilliant.

Wulkanaz - Paralys

Wulkanaz proves with this album that black metal simpliciter can still be weird as shit, that it doesn't need to cross-pollinate with outside influences in order to be creative and bizarre. And this album really is bizarre, but in a bouncy, rhythmic way. I would suggest listening to "Hof I" to get an idea of what I mean; after a 6-minute long semi-ambient kind of intro track (and for a 35-minute album, having an intro track at almost 7 minutes and an outro at another 6 is pretty crazy already), "Hof I" explodes with ferocity. The rhythms are strange and bouncy, with some interesting use of stop-start between sections, without losing any of the sense or feel of the song. And the harmonies have these weird warbling sounds to them; I can't tell if he's using two guitar tracks in some strange unheard-of way or some weird effects pedal or what, but it is quite striking.

The drumming is great, the vocals are fuzzy and great, the use of guitar multi-tracking is great, the ambient sections interspersed in the album are great, it's all great. It has a kind of Arckanum vibe, but I'm unsure why, maybe something about the rhythms or guitar tone? I can't really think of a similar band.

My only criticism would be the short run-time when it comes to black metal sections; but then again, the interweaving is so good I can't really fault it. Short but sweet.

Jordablod - Upon My Cremation Pyre

Now this album is one amazing debut, probably debut album of the year for me. Other reviewers have mentioned most of what I would say about this album, including the shimmering guitar tone, jammy vibe, 70s influence, face-melting guitar solos (even one that sounds, both notes and tone, exactly like an exploding pentatonic section right out of Bathory's "A Fine Day to Die"!), and so on. Black metal with room to breathe.

Attic - Sanctimonious

Attic really take up the torch of King Diamond on this album, with a more black metal vibe at times (including the occasional blast beat and tremolo riff). How can anyone not sing along to this? "I swear there's a serpent in the pulpit / Spreading her evil swaaay!" These are some seriously catchy songs...

Runespell - Unhallowed Blood Oath

Lo-fi, majestic, somewhat Drowning the Light type melancholic black metal, but with a little more folky tinge at times. There are even a few acoustic tracks. Really, this band nailed one of my favorite styles of black metal, something I wish Azgorh would do more - I love his albums but no single work of his is really a masterpiece. Maybe he's just too prolific. In any case, Runespell have put out a fantastic debut (despite the Absurd cover, which is very good but I do wonder...).

Sortilegia - Sulphurous Temple

Sortilegia are an enigma. They play extremely murky, lo-fi, raw black metal with a strong sense of melody (I think nearly every single riff, if not all of them, are tremolo melodies on this album). It is such a simple formula, you can literally hum every single part of the album. But the vocals are so tortured, the production so foul, the music so extremely evil (and so extreme), that it somehow works. There's nothing to it, but that's the magic. I mean, these guitars are thick. But lo-fi. Somehow.

Vocals are definitely the highlight here, along with the production. But some of the melodies are good too. You might even find yourself humming them after the music stops...

Ungfell - Totbringaere

Peste Noire/Suhnopfer style madness. Parts of it sound like depraved medieval carnival black metal, others like majestic medieval melodic black metal, but blended together masterfully. There are some really cool folk instruments/tracks here too, like the opener. 

Chevalier - A Call to Arms

Finally, I wanted to include at least one demo or EP on the list. "A Call to Arms" is the debut release by Chevalier, an incredible heavy/speed metal band with raw production and killer lead guitars. Probably the best of its style this year. The vocals are great, and the riffs, well... superb.

General Remarks

This year had a lot of good albums, but no really insanely outstanding masterpieces like 2016 (which had DsO, Katatonia, Ulcerate, Mithras, Obed Marsh [about which see below...], Vektor, Eternal Champion, and so on). Interestingly, no death metal ended up on my toplist; maybe I'm just burned out on death metal for the time being. Maybe I'll warm up to Tomb Mold or Phrenelith or Necrot or whatever. Maybe.

I'm still waiting to hear the new Evilfeast and Obed Marsh before finalizing the list. This likely means the list won't be finalized until January, since Obed Marsh's new album doesn't come out until December 31st; at least I think it comes out then based on a Facebook event...

Saturday, November 18, 2017

An Update

I have not stopped thinking – or rather, I have, but only for pertinent stretches of time. It is good to stop thinking from time to time, if only in meditation or prayer.

But I have undergone some changes, changes that I think are very important and are orienting me in ways I never would have expected only months ago.

The first thing that happened is that I had an experience. A presence, a desire, a yearning for God. I felt intensely that I was going down the wrong path, that my interests and proclivities up until that moment had been so parochial, so based on meaningless associations, so arrogant. I felt that I had based my life upon a lie of sorts, a lie of intellectualism, a lie of moral intuition, and most of all a lie of knowing where I was going and that such a direction was good, in advance, just because it seemed good to me at the time.

The next thing that happened is that I read René Guénon. Or better: I first read about him, and then I read several of his works in rapid succession. He is a terrible writer, but for some reason I couldn’t look away from the page. He was so right. He challenged all my assumptions, and that with only a meager framework of argument, with a minimum of philosophical nuance, with such naive approaches to religion and society. But those things – lack of argument, simplicity, even a certain naivety – do not make him wrong. In fact, they make him right in a way entirely foreclosed to the most eminently sophisticated thought of the day.

Then, I began to consider my own position. I could not keep going the way I had been, the way I had lived and organized my being in the past. The realm of the so-called “western tradition” of spirituality became impassible to me in that moment. I could never again naively enter the doors of syncretic modern spirituality, no matter how steeped in alchemical formulae and, most importantly, no matter how much it appealed to my sense of truth and meaning, even on a directly experiential level. That is, it isn’t that I had completely failed at it, and that’s why I sought meaning elsewhere, but that Guénon spoke to something beyond the furthest outlands reachable by such syncretism.

This came as quite a shock to me; I never expected it. I still don’t know quite why I think he had this effect. Perhaps the fact that it was so difficult, that it indicated something so radically against my own proclivities, spurred me on to its acceptance. A way of seeing through my own self-deceptions, then, and a way that put me back at square one.

But square one has never been so ripe for radical growth. Only this time, self-transformation will take the form of something it has never been before: submission.

I guess I’d realized it to some extent before, but now I can’t help seeing how modern the Western esoteric “traditions” are.

Neoplatonism is really what primed me for this potential transition. The One beyond being is perhaps the most radical (I mean this in a good way) theological/philosophical thesis ever put forward, and one that changed the face of the world forever. At least, insofar as it was posited in an external sense – I have my theories of its primordial validity as well, of course, in good Guénonian fashion.

I have heard arguments that there is no theos in Judaism or in Christianity. In Islam this cannot be said however, and it makes perfect sense, since Neoplatonism did not disseminate into Christianity in a really deep way until the Pseudo-Dionysius in the 6th century. Not to say that Islamic theology is merely Neoplatonic – far from it! Only there does seem to be a philosophical as well as revelatory basis for the transcendent monotheism that found its full flowering in Islam. The God of Christianity and Judaism is only One secondarily – or rather one would be hard pressed, perhaps, to discover this doctrine of Oneness (or even the more broad theos in the strict philosophical sense) in the Old or New Testaments.

This is just to say that my path is taking me to a very unexpected destination – that this is not merely a new way or means of travel, but perhaps a whole new destination.

There is a sense in which this is the only really substantial change I have ever gone through. But I’m not there yet; I require a bit more time to reflect and consider the options open to me, to research groups accessible to me, and to empty myself to let the proper course of action emerge with the fullest possible force and commitment.

God is most great.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Orthodox Psychotherapy by Hierotheos S Vlachos

There is a recurring problem with attempting to evaluate, particularly in an academic context but also in whatever ‘neutral’ position one might convince themselves they represent, the claims of experiential religion. There is no more obvious example of this problem than the attempt to evaluate, and even to some degree to understand, the tradition of spiritual exercises of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Here we cannot apply the Crowleyan “try it and you’ll see what happens” as a fix, for the Orthodox commentators clearly reject any instrumentalist or technical interpretation of hesychia. What is missing for them in these interpretations is grace and the keeping of Christ’s commandments; it is not as if these dogmatic points will come of their own accord when one is far enough along on the path of stillness and asceticism. To even set out on the path recommended by Hierotheos S Vlachos and others, one must already accept not only the tradition but the Church itself, as an institution.

This is not a criticism of the method (if it can even be called a method!). It is only to express the difficulty an outsider feels when engaging with the text Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers, even if that outsider is highly sympathetic to ascetic and mystical practices.

A good example of the well-nigh infinite chasm between the ‘external’ and the ‘internal’ interpretations of the activities, as we might term them, comes towards the end of the book, with the question of faith and its relation to knowledge of human origin. Externally, faith is a kind of fidelity, a belief. If we are sympathetic to the tradition, we can extend ‘belief’ to include not only propositions (which are ‘unprovable’ to the secular amongst us) but a way of life; so ‘fidelity’ really is a preferred term. But internally, for the Orthodox hesychast, faith is “that light by which grace dawns in the soul and fortifies the heart by the testimony of the mind, making it undoubting through the assurance of hope” (St. Isaac the Syrian, qtd. 340). The very terms of the explanation, and perhaps even of the experience itself insofar as concepts or words can be ascribed to experience, cannot even be expressed externally. For the secular reader, these are so much nonsense.

This is where it becomes difficult. For the various sorts of mystical universalism, the problem is soluble via the route of experience. What works works, and there may be different ways to interpret it but fundamentally enlightenment is untouchable by interpretation; this is the route of the ‘pure consciousness event’. But for institutional religion, this route has been foreclosed. This leads, or can lead, to two results: first, all other claims of mystical experience in other traditions and contexts can be ascribed to, say, the devil, or otherwise denigrated as incomplete or not truly salvific; or second, all other claims of mystical experience in other traditions can be chalked up to lies.

With the overwhelming evidence of similar experiences across vast epochs and differing dogmas, the institutional approach to mystical experience as expressed in Orthodox Psychotherapy is put in this very difficult position. The non-mystical religions or approaches to institutional religion (say, your typical Roman Catholicism or exoteric Protestantism) are themselves in a difficult position, but quite a different one. For them, there is no necessary tension between experience and dogma, only that between dogma and reason. The Eastern Orthodox Church effectively destroyed this conflict at the Ecumenical Council of 1351 with the triumph of hesychasm as championed by St. Gregory Palamas (despite the lamentations in Orthodox Psychotherapy with regard to the contemporary loss of the culture of hesychasm among the people and even the monks). Now the question – and the same goes for mysticism in the Roman church – is what to do with mystical experience when it does not match the accepted dogma.

This is the tension: God is ineffable, and yet we have a very clear list of what He doesn’t like, which includes fornication, bodily comfort, and so on. Whence comes the list from out of the, ineffability? How can such a translation be effected? Surely, we find no theory here aside from appeal to revelation, which is all well and good so far as it goes.

This is where I would want to claim the superiority (in this restricted sense) of certain Eastern religions over Christianity, for mystical experience and further revelation need not be silenced or cause for heresy. Thelema, the religion founded by Aleister Crowley, also fits into this category. There, it is not that God has a particular list of likes and dislikes, but that, for particular people to find God, they need to take particular measures that fit their personality, life situation, and general place in the cosmos. Here, the path to divinity is relativized by the actuality of the Absolute rather than absolutized thereby, as it is in Orthodox Psychotherapy, despite the appeals to the individuality of the aspirant with regard to the recommendations of the spiritual director.

For God to be Absolute, one must, at least potentially, be able to find Him in all things. Now, whether the strict and externally-given morality of the Orthodox tradition works, at least for some, is, I think, obvious – it certainly does, but it suffers from dogmatism despite its best efforts at flexibility.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

We Have Always Been Gnostic (Final Draft)

We Have Always Been Gnostic:
An Essay on the Notion of Overcoming


E.C. Quodlibet

Every philosophical theory is an attempt to come to grips with a spiritual impasse, with a set of facts or experiences that underlie it like a disease to a symptom. The history of Western philosophy can be conceived as a series of increasingly radical and self-authorizing conceptual responses to what is fundamentally non-conceptual. With each theoretical revolution, each hasty overturning, each claim of a philosophical “overcoming”, thought entrenches itself further into the quagmire of abstract dishonesty. Finally it makes itself inextricable, establishing an irrefutable, singular hegemony that is operative both institutionally and in the individual thought patterns of so-called philosophers.

The primary spiritual impasse of Western civilization (and to a certain degree of Eastern too) was indicated several millennia ago by a doctrine now reviled as heretical: Gnosticism. To be clear, Gnosticism is not directly the impasse itself; it is merely a doctrine that boldly stared this impasse in the face. This impasse qua spiritual fact of experience is nothing other than dualism.

Dualism! What horror! Overly-sophisticated minds will ask: “Have we not already overcome such nonsense? We have long since surpassed gnosticism, which was mired in insoluble philosphical difficulties; it cut up the world in two, so no wonder it could not put it back together again!” A profound mind must declare our dualism to be a naive problem, for how else are the rational heirs of the Enlightenment to guarantee their progress? While my predecessors were persecuted and relegated to the madhouse, if not the afterlife, I cannot be so suppressed. The perennial truth of this so-called naive problem emerges within every age, commanding an unsurpassed fascination for those whose eyes remain unclouded by thinking.

Pathology this is not; the “modern” philosophical response, on the other hand, is fundamentally neurotic. On the basis of this analysis we shall justify a rather startling thesis: We have always been Gnostic.

This thesis must be explained. A “spiritual fact” has been indicated, but what is this fact? In particular, what is the facticity of dualism? What finally, is the mode of being of a spiritual impasse, an impasse that exists in such a way? Only after considering these preliminary questions can the thesis of our perennial gnosticism be engaged.

Dualism is inherent in the structure of our experience. Indeed, what could be clearer than the distinction of time and space? Or that of spirit (or mind if one prefers) and matter? Do not stop me and indicate the many logical problems of exclusionary dualism, for that would be to miss the point. First admit the apparent immediacy of dualism to consciousness, all the while refraining from translating the experience into a discursive philosophical problem. The directly perceived difference between presence to oneself and absorption in theoretical concerns ought to easily manifest merely by means of this refraining.

Although Bergson proposed perhaps the most convincing such dualism (due directly to its immediacy and untranslatability into theoretical problems), Descartes certainly provided the best known example, namely the distinction between thinking and extended substances. Note that for Descartes, despite this partial theoreticization of the issue, there remains no theoretical or logical resolution of the problem of relation between the two substances.

To say that dualism is a fact is to say that it is there regardless of our thinking about it. Whether we think ourselves out of it or not, it remains in its facticity, right before us. Do we not encounter the temptation, even as philosophers, to interpret reality as insufficient, and indeed to turn up our noses at its very vulgarity? Where is our simplicity, our naivete? Must we immediately set to changing the world? Either way, the world must be dualist for us to seek its transformation into something else, and we shall see the true nature of this “transformation” soon enough. It is the great victory of contemporary philosophy to have ruthlessly established the binary opposition inherent in everything. Each “overcoming” of binary thinking is later found to be fully as binary as its unfortunate precursors, only perhaps more subtly so – we would say more deviously.

Dualism is thus properly speaking not a philosophical orientation but an immediate fact.

Why is it that philosophy finds itself menaced by this fact of dualism? The fact of dualism constitutes a spiritual impasse for philosophy, against which thought is powerless. Philosophy cannot openly acknowledge this impasse without rendering itself superfluous, without transmuting its careful demonstrations of the overcoming of subject and object, mind and matter, into so many worthless linguistic games. Not one conceptual unfolding of a “subject-object” has ever produced the dissolution of an actual subject or object into one another. The problem is not our knowledge or understanding, much less our belief. The problem lies deeper still.

Just as fundamentally as we experience the reality of dualism, we experience its disconcerting and uncomfortable nature. There is something sinister in the fact of duality. Do not the two deserve to be one? Have they not earned it by their stoic resistance to every pitiable scientific and theoretical advancement that the combined might of humanity has ever wrought? The disease is spiritual – perhaps it is even impossible to disentangle the impasse of dualism from the intuition of a fallen humanity. The longing for transcendence is perennial, and it is not difficult to see why.

Philosophy attempts to deal with these feelings by transposing the fact of dualism into propositional form, as explicit concepts or positions, which it then proceeds to expose as logically contradictory or theoretically insufficient. These theoretical problems are then taken as reason to either reject the fact of dualism completely, denying that it ever existed, or, what is almost the same thing, develop a theoretical solution that contorts the original duality and leaves it behind. This approach is just as absurd as if philosophy set out to overcome the experience of the color orange by declaring it a mere mix of red and yellow.

The problem, as Wilhelm Reich knew too well, is the issue of meaning: Can we interpret away that which is fundamentally not of the order of interpretation, that which lies beyond discourse? This was the path taken by the early Freud. Once the repressed was made conscious, by way of the analyst’s interpretation, the neurosis was supposed to dissolve. But the problem of experience can in no way be resolved by developing a new “concept” of experience. Thought thus runs up against the wall of mind, or better, of spirit. The philosophical attempt to solve the theoretical surrogates of spiritual fact has in reality left that impasse far behind. Even more importantly, it blinds us to the very fact of the impasse and therefore to one of the most fundamental elements of spirituality. The unresolved has become the repressed. “Conceptual overcoming” is the true name of a degrading philosophical materialism.

Reichian analysis had to rescue bioenergetic processes from their obscure death at the hands of Freudian discourse. Today, we must likewise rescue experience, and thereby spirit, from philosophical discourse. Philosophy has the same relation to the facts of spiritual experience as character armor has to stasis-neurosis. This does not mean, however, that a rejuvenated practice of philosophy is hopeless; a holistic, therapeutic approach remains possible. Wilhelm Reich notes: “An autonomic function can be objectivized by practice and in the end be made subject to conscious control” (The Cancer Biopathy 186). Let us return to our dear Gnostics, who miss us already, I am sure.

The Gnostics believed, among other things, that material existence was tantamount to the imprisonment of the spirit. Creation as such was folly; in Gnostic theology we attend to a distinction between the Demiurge, a sadistic creator rather akin to the evil genius conceived by Descartes, and the True God who neither creates nor was created. The former’s servants of ignorance and disinformation are the archons, the prison guards of manifestation. And yet there is a divine spark lost in matter, longing to return to its home. There is still hope for the spirit.

Gnosis is the possibility of this hope, and the key concept of the Gnostic system. Only by gnosis can the bonds of matter be destroyed. Gnosis, or “knowledge”, can be effected only by the spirit. The more one is identified with the body – where “identification” means something more than assent or proposition – the less free one becomes. If one is an animal, a body, then one is an automaton. In contrast, the more one identifies with spirit, the more one becomes what one truly is, the more free does one become. The spirit is pure freedom, unfathomable in its transcendence. All that separates the Gnostics from our most sublime mystics is the final reversion of absolute transcendence into absolute immanence; but one cannot blame them for this small mistake, upon which however everything turns.

But why is the emanation of matter such folly for spirit? The Gnostic emanations, like their counterparts in Neoplatonism, proceed from the One, through various higher spheres, and down to depths in degradation, finally to melt away into slime and chaos. With each step in this process, there is a restriction, a determination. Freedom, here equated with indeterminate singularity, decreases with each step. When matter is finally reached, with its attendant mythology of Sophia’s folly and the Demiurge’s deception, one is hard pressed to deny its evil. While the Neoplatonists treated evil as an illusion, so that not even the lowest forms of matter were truly evil, the Gnostics confronted this degradation head-on.

This Gnostic inclination to struggle with evil, to face it head on, can be contrasted with the Neoplatonic addiction to intellectual distinctions. Plotinus, and his successors after him (save perhaps a one), sought a monism in the grips of which all contradiction disappeared. Moving away from the existence of evil as a fact of spiritual experience, the Neoplatonists pioneered a fundamentally incomplete system of mysticism (in the words of Bergson). Now, this is not to say the Gnostics moved beyond them; rather, the Neoplatonists walked backwards from the starting line, and it was not for them to enter Paradise.

Philosophy has followed in the footsteps of Plotinus, and neither of them have cleared the way to even begin. The baleful seductions of conceptual overcoming have led them both astray. No, for a real overcoming we must look not to Neoplatonism, and certainly not to modern philosophical character-neuroses, but to Gnosticism, and above all, to our own inherent but repressed Gnostic experience, and therefore our Gnostic being.

Fortunately for us, the same extreme dualism found within Gnosticism is present, or so claim the philosophers of the contemporary period, in basically every thought and system whatsoever with which they disagree. Are we then modern-day Gnostics, despite our best (theoretical) efforts?

We, like the Gnostics we spurn, are believers in dualism, at least deep down. And, also like the Gnostics, we want to escape the deterministic and reductionist nature of opposition. And we too are not convinced by mere conceptual games; no, our malaise in unassailable by means of thought. But if we knew we were so close to Gnosticism, and perhaps always had been, things would be much simpler. We have taken the path of the Neoplatonists, though we think ourselves far more clever; but the problem is the same. Rigorously said: We have always been Gnostic, though we have always repressed this fact.

The Gnostics refused to reduce their experience to the One, though of reductionism they have never ceased to be accused. Rather, they confronted the contradiction and rejected the siren song of synthesis. Before us lies a similarly important task, and it is perhaps the only element of modern-day philosophy that can survive our archaic therapy. We must become Gnostic once again, not yet in practice but first in theory. The stasis we suffer, the shrinking both of life and away from life, only feeds the philosophical disease. Discourse is not the last step of our journey, but merely the first.

The means of overcoming our sick relation to overcoming can only lie in the complete avoidance of the theoretical attitude that leads to the rejection of primary contradictions; there must be, furthermore, no synthetic moment of escape. For a real overcoming of dualism, a thoroughly dualistic character is required. It cannot be fought by the philosophical weapons. Propositional projectiles pierce it not, and the swords of analysis shatter upon the real.

The entire project of philosophy as we know it is, therefore, an ill-conceived attempt to work out in theory what has been left behind in practice, like the patient who insists they are cured as soon as they connect their dream to a childhood trauma; it is indeed the patient who already knows the proper interpretations, along with the analytic theory itself, who is often the hardest to cure. Each repetition of the problematic takes on a negligibly different emphasis. The history of philosophy, its “progress”, is nothing but this repetition termed “overcoming”. The first step to waking up is admitting that one is asleep, and has always been asleep. Woe to the partisans of death, those who shut themselves up in fortresses of discourse, simultaneously isolated and colonizing, thinking they are alive! The nihilism of discourse moves in place, constantly mutating but everywhere remaining the same, its evil greatest when it insists on its own ability to act, when it dismantles the border between itself and reality.

We need not torture our bodies in the name of spirit. We need not put the cosmos to the torch. Our goal remains to pass beyond the gates of this all-too-vulgar dualism that keeps us mentally enslaved. Although the Gnostic is a far cry from the true mystic, the quest for unification requires a decisive and holistic division, which must be made in full earnestness. To be a Gnostic is to take the first step on the path of spirit, to swear an oath that one day we will not need to be a Gnostic anymore. For then the goal shall be reached.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Summer (and Beyond) Reading List

In the off chance that someone might benefit from this (and to keep track myself), I am posting my summer reading list in a few categories.

NOTE: There is no way I am going to read all of these, but this is the 'plan' nonetheless. I will read as much as I can, though obviously this will bleed over into the next academic year. It's a long-term reading program, in other words.

I will try to write as much as I can about this stuff, either as commentary/reviews, or some of my own elaborations. I hope to post on this blog more frequently in the coming months, as well as write a paper or two that I can have in my back pocket to submit to conferences when any relevant ones roll around.

Platonism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, &c.:

  • Hermetica
  • The Nag Hammadi Scriptures
  • Vlastos - Platonic Studies
  • Cornford - Plato's Cosmology
  • Pseudo-Dionysus - The Complete Works
  • Plotinus - The Enneads
  • Iamblichus - On the Mysteries & The Theology of Arithmetic
  • Veldman - Theurgy and Numbers
  • Proclus - The Elements of Theology
  • Kupperman - Living Theurgy
  • Hadot - Plotinus: The Simplicity of Vision
Phenomenology & Philosophy:
  • Leeuw - Religion in Essence and Manifestation
  • James - The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • Bergson - Creative Evolution
  • Scheler - Ressentiment
  • Gebser - The Ever-Present Origin
  • Steinbock - Phenomenology and Mysticism
  • Obeyesekere - The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience
  • Reich - Ether, God & Devil / Cosmic Superimposition; The Mass Psychology of Fascism; The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality; The Sexual Revolution
  • Husserl - Cartesian Meditations; Ideas
  • Guenon - East and West; The Crisis of the Modern World; The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times
  • Stirner - Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum (probably English and German)
Miscellaneous Occult (including some more in-depth re-reading):
  • Bruce - Astral Dynamics
  • LaBerge & Rheingold - Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming
  • Webb - Uncle Setnakt's Essential Guide to the Left Hand Path; Mysteries of the Temple of Set; Uncle Setnakt's Nightbook; The Seven Faces of Darkness
  • Flowers - Hermetic Magic
  • Crowley - Liber E; Liber O
  • Leitch - The Essential Enochian Grimoire
  • Carroll - Liber MMM
Logic & Mathematics:
  • Priest - Introduction to Non-Classical Logic
  • Goldblatt - Topoi: The Categorial Analysis of Logic
Fiction & Poetry:
  • Fowles - The Magus
  • Machen - The White People
  • Blackwood - Ancient Sorceries
  • Ashton-Smith - The Dark Eidolon
  • Blake - Complete Poems
  • Coleridge - Complete Poems
  • Rilke - Selected Poetry (Bilingual)