Greg Fox Breaks Free from the Drum Circle
During the occupation of Zuccotti Park, few issues—not even the occasional doorstep defecation—caused more of a stir than the drum circles that often began early in the morning and extended late into the night. Meanwhile, Greg Fox, the soon-to-be-former drummer for Brooklyn black metal outfit Liturgy and perhaps the best percussionist in the city, worked in the kitchen and served food to current and would-be occupiers. "I had thought about bringing my kit down," Fox says as he and his Guardian Alien bandmates, Alex Drewchin, Bernard Gann and Turner Williams, prepare for a show at a converted Greenpoint warehouse. "And what they're doing is great, but it's not really my thing."
His thing? Joining (among others) TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and Oneida's Kid Millions, a close friend and closer rival, to record an album whose sales will help benefit the occupation, even as it moves away from the park it once called home. (Fox was out of town during this month's raids, but he has strong feelings on them nonetheless: "If Bloomberg was confident that what he was doing was the right thing, he wouldn't have done it at two o'clock in the morning, and he wouldn't have stopped the press from covering it.")
Fox's last show with Liturgy, the band that put his drumming on the map, happened October 29. Although frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix polarized the band's fan base by delivering a paper positing his "transcendental black metal" (also the name of the essay) as the future of the genre, Fox not-so-quietly went about establishing himself as the core of the band, his breathtaking drumming catching the eyes and ears of listeners more familiar with other styles of music. (The band has done particularly well with the indie-rock crowd.)
When I mention the band's name, Fox says all the right things—he's looking to invest more time into other projects like the aforementioned Guardian Alien and his solo GDFX; creative differences—but his face, even through the overgrown blond beard that both covers and extends its lower half, reveals differences more troubling and deep-seated than the proper way to play a certain fill, the stuff no one ever wants to tell a journalist, particularly when it concerns an old childhood friend. (Fox and Hunt-Hendrix first met in eighth grade.)
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The one thing he does tell me: "I think the burst beat is bullshit." For those not caught up on black metal's more theoretical side, the concept of a "burst beat" appears in Hunt-Hendrix's paper as a progression from the relentless (and in Hunt-Hendrix's opinion, nihilistic) blast bleat, the roughly 180-or-more-beats-per-minute percussive assault that evolved from (of all places) mid-century polka players and was popularized in metal by (among others) Napalm Death's Mick Harris. Whereas the blast beat remains constant and, in Hunt-Hendrix's words, signifies "death and atrophy," the burst beat "ebbs, flows, expands and contracts, breathes," expressing the vitality that the blast beat denies and thereby transcending (hence the title) the "haptic void" into which it inevitably falls.
Fox, meanwhile, insists that despite drumming in the band, he had absolutely no role in writing the paper, and repeatedly seeks to distance himself from its theoretical underpinnings. "I play a blast beat that incorporates the Moeller technique, which has been around since the Civil War," he explains. "There's nothing new about it."
Still, beneath the conceptual and rhetorical differences, you begin to find the shared sensibility and desire for, yes, transcendence that resulted in Liturgy's Aesthethica (Thrill Jockey) being one of the best records of the year, even though it was recorded as the personal relationship between frontman and drummer was beginning to deteriorate.
These commonalities first surface when Fox discusses rhetoric itself, questioning the usefulness of a musical manifesto in the first place. "Words and categories, they're limiting; they reduce things and cut them off, which seems like exactly the opposite of what we're trying to do," he says. Fox prefers his transcendence to occur as a group of people lose themselves as they play. "You feel the whole song as if it were coming out of you," he explained in a past interview.
This out-of-body transcendence, put another way, is his thing, and it's what the sessions with Malone and Kid Millions have developed into. During a jam session that Fox describes as unlike anything he'd been a part of, the group played for four hours. (If you're counting, that's double the two-hour-per-day limit that Community Board 1 set on Occupy Wall Street's drum circles.) When he plays with Kid Millons' percussion-only side project, Man Forever, they sometimes play the same snare, sitting on opposite sides of the drum and simultaneously hitting it at machine-gun speeds until neither is aware of whose part belongs to whom.
The eventual product of these sessions might be significant not only financially or symbolically but also aesthetically. In a recent New York Times article, James C. McKinley Jr. asked why "musicians living through the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression have filled the airwaves with songs about dancing, not the worries of working people." But as it spreads across the country, the Occupy movement calls not for tunes that do the latter rather than the former but ones that both transcend this dichotomy and, at the same time, reveal it as false.
At a time when billion-dollar chains use "protest songs" of the old variety for mood music and even Forbes-listed CEOs will admit capitalism's faults, a potentially effective protest (and of course, a potentially effective soundtrack) must not only offer a critique of the world but also reveal the possibility of a new one, or even of possibility itself. At its best, Fox's drumming, both in and out of Liturgy, does exactly that—just don't expect him to write you a manifesto explaining why. Describing his new recordings, he mostly defers to the music: "We knew to some degree what the end product would be, and then we just started playing."
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